Readers' reactions are precious to writers. Most are just brief opinions; exceptionally, Kamla Kumar made a serious critique of my writings. She made me think about what I was doing; this is the result, published in Business Standard of 31 October 2000. Ivor Jehu was editor of Times of India in the 1940s; my brother Mahendra worked with him then. Lindsay Anderson was The Statesman's last British editor; apart from being a first-class writer, he was great company over lunch; I used to drop in on him whenever I was in Calcutta.
ARE WE EGOMANIACS?
Kamla Kumar writes from Lucknow:
“….I feel, from Ashok Desai to Bibek Debroy and now Subir Gokarn (not excluding Kishore Singh and Giranjali Krishna), the Business Standard edit pages now look more like a vehicle for personal experiences and grievances.
I wonder if there is anything new in such experiences. They are of daily occurrence to all members of the public, though not while buying some MNC car or parking near a five star hotel or about some good experiences at Stanford.
“If a common man is allowed to write about his grievances against the traffic police, telephone office, electricity department, PSU banks and the non-official local dada, the list will be too long and several special issues of the Business Standard will be required to accommodate them.
“What good are such articles for the common reader? Does one expect them on the editorial page? Is there such an urgency to include such articles, aren’t there many other pages?
“I also think it would do a great good if the writers are more forthcoming in naming the parties involved – not referring to ‘a dealer’ or ‘a known international brand’. Please keep edit pages only for hard core business, finance, economics and related issues and keep such personal experiences for other pages, or start a page where readers can also send pieces on their experiences. That may be more productive and satisfying, both for the Business Standard and its humble – not so influential – readers.”
I was quite taken aback to find myself the target of this criticism. If 10,000 readers felt like Kamla Kumar, the BS would be right to sack me. If 1,000 readers felt like her, it should be seriously worried. If she feels like that, then I should take her concern very seriously.
So I took out all the Saturday and Tuesday columns I had written in the BS while I was in Stanford; there were 62. I counted the number of times I had used the word ‘I’, without which I think Ms Kumar would agree it would be difficult for me to write about my experiences (though, now that I have become self-conscious, I am sure I can do so). I had used the word 179 times, or just slightly less than 3 times per article. That shocked me; it sounded unduly egocentric. But then I discovered that it was generally used in ways that were not egocentric – for instance in phrases like “I doubt” or “I propose”. I trust Ms Kumar will agree to forgive these.
Of these 179 references to myself, 43 occurred in three articles. One was the last article I wrote from Stanford, in which I summed up my impressions of America. Another was about the Afro-Americans and the Muslims. The third one was about education.
Apart from these, I had referred to my personal experiences in the government three times; they were of more general significance. And I had referred to my experiences in America three times. I think that for a journalist writing about American media, it is legitimate to refer to his reading or watching of them.
My colleagues can speak for themselves. But we do have writers who never refer to themselves: for instance, Ajay Shah, who serves an undiluted fare of financial wisdom without ever stooping to the art of making money, S S Tarapore, who has turned central banking into abstract art, and Deepak Lal, who surveys a very broad range of scholarship.
Should these be our models? While I would like to serve Kamla Kumar’s tastes week after week, there are some considerations against. Our job – and that includes me – is to help sell the Business Standard. Writing on its editorial page may seem a prestigious thing to do; but editorial pages are the least read in any newspaper. An editorial writer has to be aware of this, and must do his best to remedy it. But he cannot write fiction or poetry; he has to write about what can broadly be called public affairs. And for most people, public affairs – which means things like telecom policy, Indo-US diplomacy, anti-dumping duties, the definition of manufacture, etc – are a deadly bore. The average reader is a Sachin Tendulkar; whatever the columnist bowls, he will hit it for a six.
Yet one has to get him out somehow – one has to make him read one’s dry-as-dust column – and feel elated at the end of it. He should say at the end of it: um, that was interesting; I had always thought this subject was deadly dull. Or, this is dangerous nonsense; let me shoot off a letter to the editor. Or, well, I had never quite understood that; this fellow has made it quite easy.
And remember, one has to get this sort of a reaction from a reader who will have read more newspapers than one can buy, who has been reading columns since the time of Ivor Jehu and Lindsay Anderson, who has seen it all.
And look at the competition. Gitanjali Krishna lives on nether Mars and meets all kinds of colourful aliens. Or that decadent ex-royal, Kishore Singh, with his incredible wife. Not everyone can be that lucky. I am lucky enough to read them, before anything else, on Saturdays; far be it from me to think of emulating them. I do not think they can be emulated if one’s raw material is the slack season credit policy, or the import-export handbook.
But even without doing so, as Kamla Kumar will see, the work of a columnist does present some difficulty. It is in this context that I sometimes refer to personal experiences. The idea is to introduce human interest; I think that as long as it is used to support a general point, it may sometimes be defensible.
I can think of other reasons why my colleagues write about personal experiences, although they are not mine. One may want to show the difficulties faced by ordinary people in this country; and in some respects even my colleagues are ordinary people. And if one wants to write something libellous about someone, it is safest if it is based on one’s personal experience. Libel suits are an occupational hazard of a journalist; and I can personally testify that although they may finally come to nothing, they are a worry, a nuisance and a waste of time in the meanwhile. Our law does not distinguish between private and public persons; not does it place the burden of proof upon the plaintiff. So a journalist has to step carefully even when he is sure of the criminality of a politician, bureaucrat or industrialist.
Kamla Kumar has a point. This column must be about issues, not persons. But although I would find it hard to accept that I am an egomaniac, I cannot entirely repress a certain narcissistic instinct. That is why I have used “I” 35 times in this article; that should keep me on the straight and narrow for a while.