The all familial Bachi Karkaria talks to Teresa Rehman about her life, journalistic legacy, urban issues, women centric stories, HIV/AIDS and turning The Times of India into Bangalore’s No.1 daily
While the media shrieked ceaselessly about the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, columnist Bachi Karkaria quietly sat down to write her most poignant piece. With a great sense of guilt she mourned the death of her journalist friend Sabina Sehgal Saikia. Her son was having his wedding reception on the fateful day and Sabina had come for the wedding, only to retire earlier to her room at Taj.
She gave a touching headline to her column The Terrorist at my Table. She recalls, “Suddenly I get a call that my friend Sabina is speaking and she is in the Taj. For me, those three days have no memory of the wedding or the events that unfolded. All I was doing was, worrying about Sabina being safe. Finally, when the hotel was sanitized after days, we realized we had lost Sabina.”
She wrote in the column, “…And I prayed. I wished I could turn off my cell, so that I could do so undisturbed, but it was the sole emissary of the news I so desperately wanted – and it was also the link with our common friends and their embrace of dry-lipped concern. They too needed to know. I had brought Sabina to this situation, and I alone was responsible. I owed them the answers, minute by minute.”
The incident changed her forever. “I think it changed the way that I looked at the world and life. This is what 26/11 has done for me,” says the witty columnist.
She feels that journalists in conflict zones like Northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir can offer objective reportage, analysis and empathy.
A career in journalism came naturally to one of India’s best-known columnists. In fact, she was only upholding the legacy of her forefathers. Her grandfather Eduljee Kanga had initiated a small community newspaper called Navroz (New Dawn) in Kolkata in 1917. Inspired by the freedom struggle, her grandfather had set up the weekly newspaper, brimming with idealism. He ordered all the types from Gujarat which came in flimsy crates and picked it up from the Howrah station.
“Sometimes, the types fell off the crates and he took pains to pick them up himself. He taught the workers Gujarati typesetting. He refused to succumb to any temptation,” says Bachi.
Those were the days of the World War II and black-outs. There was the army marching in the frontier. However, the paper did not miss a single week. “When the workers did not turn up, he cyclostyled the paper and distributed it,” reminices Bachi. The newspaper had a lot of standing in the community because of its integrity.
“It was important to cater to the community and capture the reader’s heart, not taking sides, however tempting it was to get more,” she says. It was more a Gujarati newspaper catering to all Gujarati-speaking population of Kolkata – Bohras, Parsis which were small communities with a lot of bonding.
Bachi smiles, “For me, there was really no choice. My career was decided even before I was born. We lived in the premises and were exposed to the life. I would run up and down with proofs and copies of reports. It was more or less an easy entry into the profession. Watching my parents who worked with passion and dedication had instilled a kind of discipline in me.”
In fact, her mother’s entry into the picture has all the trappings of an old-fashioned romance. Since, her father Navel Kanga ran a Gujarati newspaper, he chose a bride from Gujarat who could help in Gujarati and in the running of the newspaper. “My mother was a young matriculate from Gujarat. The blushing bride spent time in the library and was deeply interested in literature. Later on, she became the editor of the newspaper,” narrates Bachi. Thereafter, her mother almost became a cult figure. And she passed away, 120 Gujarati institutions organized her condolence which showed the love and respect she enjoyed in the community. “This kind of exposure in my formative years made my feet firmly rooted to the ground,” says Bachi.
Her formative years were at The Times of India where she joined as a trainee in Mumbai in 1969. Initially, her mother was reluctant to let her go. But her father thought that she had English education and needed the exposure. “I was fortunate to have been trained under Khushwant Singh who used to encourage youngsters. I had the fortune of having a readership of the Illustrated Weekly of India crossing over three lakh. It was nothing compared to my parents’ small enterprise. I am just lucky that I got a much bigger platform,” she says.
She eulogises Khushwant Singh, her mentor who was also a hard taskmaster. She was inspired by him. “My tutelage was in his hands. He was a very different kind of editor. He had always told us to take our writing seriously. In fact, he did not mind if someone corrected his writing. He made us work very hard on every story. He would send back stories with a “sabhash” (well-done) or sometimes wrote “cliched-ridden binge” with a blue pen.”
She recalls, “The kind of effort we had put in to even write a caption, I guess people don’t even put in writing a whole story. At the end of the day, it’s the discipline, readiness to pursue a story to its ultimate and ask the next question really count.”
Also a media trainer, Bachi strongly believes that certain cardinal rules and old-fashioned values of journalism will never be out of style. Today we need to train journalists to understand the environment. Journalism is not just about bylines or appearing 10 times on television. She says, “It’s easy to become a household name. But it’s important to keep your feet firmly on the ground. For a short 400 word write-up, I have enough material for an 800 word story and then we must tone it down. I spend hours researching for the background and the whole piece has to stand alone.”
This Mumbai-based journalist however has fond memories of India’s North-east as she had been to Assam and Meghalaya. “Every year I plan to go back but somehow it never happens,” she says. She recalls writing about the women of Shillong sitting in the bazaar titled “Carrots in the cloud”. “These women were well-turned out and well-dressed. It was a different culture of rock music, different from the rest of India. At that time, it was not under this marginalization,” she says.
Bachi recalls writing about a film called ‘Fried fish, chicken soup & a premiere show’ where she questions what it takes to make movies in a state possibly more disturbed than Kashmir, where surviving each day itself is a triumph. The film draws in the larger swathe of Manipuri cinema. It’s a long and vibrant oeuvre, not only because of a 30-year-long ban on the screening of Hindi films. Conflict strolls nonchalantly through filmmaker Mamta Murthy’s film. It’s most unsettling sequence has photographs of the fake encounter of former militant C Sanjit, captured on camera and then exposed by Tehelka
Bachi feels that the East has always been another country. Northeast India has become another planet. “When I was in Mumbai, the cyclone in Orissa was casually reported and Northeast India even more so because of its political and geographical position,” she says. But she feels that it is a good sign that there has been a media boom within the region. “One should forget about how the rest of the country reports this region. Globalisation has made local issues very important. The dead dog on the street outside matters more than a flood in China. Concentrate in your own backyard rather than trying to change the world. National media is obsessed with scams happening in Delhi,” she says.
“Go local” is the mantra Bachi diligently follows. She recalls how she contributed to bringing local issues to the forefront. She could revive the Bangalore edition of The Times of India through the only route she knew – the local route. “Bangalore was developing dramatically as a city. As outsiders, we very actively and aggressively promoted it as Bangalore’s own local paper,” she gleams.
However, she agrees that media today is obsessed with trivia. Entertainment and advertising has become a part of the global surface. However, pre-dominance of entertainment we should not sweep serious issues under the carpet. “Make it readable. There is no point writing about a boring piece because it is just and righteous. Journalists like P Sainath have written readable pieces on serious issues. And that is a challenge,” she says.
She wants to be remembered as one of the pioneers who wrote about urban issues. She happens to be the first woman assistant editor in The Statesman in the 1980s. “Usually editors lived in ivory towers and I was accused of dirtying my ankles. I was even called a gutter and sewer journalist. Your effectiveness should be a measure of your writing. I expanded the concept of an urban writing. Opening of a flyover, mall is as important as the opening of a parliament. Find all the issues that are involved and then report it.
In fact, she is proud of how she had handled the whole issue of urbanisation. At that time, people were reluctant to write about civic issues, HIV-AIDS. “It was like walking in a vaccum. You got your story but your editors did not want to publish your story. I felt close to the subject,” she says. She rues that the problems she spoke about some 30 years back and still the same today. “I had used my communication skills for such serious issues. I had to plunge into other issues as well but HIV-AIDS was always in the back of my agenda.”
She calls herself a good organiser and people feel happy to work with her. Among other creative works, she has written a best-selling biography of MS Oberoi, Dare to Dream (Penguin/Viking). Her adaptation of DL Coburn’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play, The Gin Game, was a critical and commercial success. She has done special projects for The Times of India, putting together pieces, tv shows and interacting with young people. I am always ready to conduct a workshop or a seminar.
Everyone can take lessons from her agony aunt column Giving Gyan in the Mumbai Mirror to “stop cribbing and start living”. “Giving Gyan, unfortunately it has been overtaken by Erratica. It is more accessible as it appears in the Mumbai Mirror. It sometimes acts as a therapy for myself. I feel relaxed,” she adds.
Known as one of India’s wittiest columnist, the affable and soft-spoken Bachi knows well enough that it is not an easy task to make people smile. She feels she owes her sense of humour and wit to P G Wodehouse who she had read during her childhood. “It is a virtuous circle and a lot of it comes naturally and a lot comes to ultimately polishing it. I don’t use puns but really associate ideas with serious stuff and take off on it. While writing humour, you can’t specialize on one subject. You have to be the jack of all trades,” she says.
Does she smile after reading her column? “I hope my readers smile more than I do. I think maybe I could have written it better. Sometimes I feel the first draft was better. I am a compulsive editor and never undermined a desk job. I was a sub-editor myself and I feel that there is no copy in the world that cannot improve by cutting and tightening,” says Bachi.
Does she consider herself successful? “Success is so relative with things I haven’t done. It all depends on what you want in life. I want to be remembered as someone who helped people smile. There are times when people tell me that I have changed their day. I may not be able to change the world but at least change somebody’s facial expression.”
When she does not write, she gets busy chasing her bai (domestic help), watching television and being with friends. Being with her grandsons is most therapeutic for her. She has two sons and two grandsons. “I am not the perfect or full-time grand-mom. I really can relax and revel at their enthusiasm, cleverness and way of looking at life,” the scribe notes.
Indeed, if there is a lesson we get from her experience, it is to value your job, and life.