Goenka combined in his person all the contradictions
that characterise exceptional men. Strangely, Raghupati
Sahai Firaq, one of the greatest Urdu poets of this
century, comes to mind when one considers comparable
contemporaries. They came from vastly different disciplines,
yet the contradictions in their make-up was a common
thread. Firaq could, surrounded by some of the finest
literary critics, sustain a parallel quarrel with his
young wards about missing carrots and potatoes from
the kitchen basket. He would then, quite effortlessly,
resume his discourse on metaphysics, romantic poetry,
comparisons between Wordsworth and Shelly. The life
of his mind was completely out of synch with the texture
of his own life.
Ramnath Goenka -- RNG -- could be mean and magnanimous
to a fault. He would quibble over 100 rupee increments
for his sub-editors and yet take voyeuristic delight
in enabling his editors like Frank Moraes and S. Mulgaokar
live like princes. Since Moraes did not have Mulgaokar's
guile, he fell from Goenka's favour. RNG was ruthless
in discarding friends for whom, until just the other
day, he appeared caring beyond distraction. For this
turn there was sometimes no other reasons than that
the "friend" had outlived his utility.
capriciousness was, again, in stark contrast to his
many consistencies. For instance he had a vision of
an independent India and in it, an independent press:
to these his commitment was unshakable.
was also a deeply religious man. Daily at dusk, he would
drive his Fiat (yes, he would drive himself with someone
like me, on occasion, seated with him) to the temple
opposite the Red Fort. He had contrived his own Chennai-Bangalore
route: always via Tirupati. But even in dealing with
the gods he created room for the exercise of power.
A correspondent was posted at Tirupati to facilitate
darshan for Ramnathji, his family and friends, ahead
of the queue of regular devotees.
was something he enjoyed exercising although that was
not his own assessment of his instincts and impulses.
Lord Thomson's dictum that editorial matter was the
"stuff you put between the ads" was not an article of
faith with RNG. When he embarked on a campaign supporting
Jayaprakash Narayan's Bihar movement, demolishing chief
minister Antulay, taking calculated sides in corporate
wars, cutting Indira Gandhi down to size, the advertisement
department took a back seat.
though he was very much in the Gandhian mould, extremely
proud of his khadi and generally homespun demeanor,
the pre-Independence milieu (his formative years) made
him aware that he had missed out on western social graces
which he thought were a gift of public schools and British
universities. "He is from Doons," he would repeat, "from
Doons". Which was his way of saying that the candidate
he had hired for a senior editorial slot was from a
"good" background. Doon school was "Doons". This lack
of the "Anglaise" in his make-up was made up by hiring
editors who were in that mould.
more than any other editor, understood this weakness
in the great newspaper baron. His projection of himself
as a plausible English country esquire, keeping Oxford
and Cambridge cricket scores (he had never been to college),
playing bridge with the gentry RNG considered culpable,
went a long way in ensuring Mulgaokar's longevity with
his mercurial master. Mulgaokar was possibly the most
brilliant writer in Indian journalism, but it was this,
combined with his simulated aristocracy, that went down
extraordinarily well with RNG.
genius of RNG lay in the fact that the management of
this category of people he hired or interacted with
was only a tiny strand in his incomparably rich experience
of India, district by district and, in some instances,
village by village. That is where his countless "mofussil"
correspondents and stringers came from. It was stunning
how well he knew many of them, just as he knew which
almirah in his numerous editions housed the nuts and
bolts required by one of his ageing pressess in, say,
a flash he could grasp complexities which his editors
would grapple with for days. This placed them at a great
disadvantage, particularly during the 1977-80 Janata
government which owed so much to RNG. The Janata government,
after all, was a direct reaction to Mrs Gandhi's imposition
of the Emergency during which RNG staked his whole empire.
was almost a matter of protocol that every cabinet minister,
except, of course prime minister Morarji Desai, Jagjivan
Ram and Charan Singh visited RNG at his apartment on
Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.
patronage of the Janata government gave him access to
information, his editors sometimes did not have. The
situation induced in him not so much a sense of power
as childlike amusement. RNG, the prankster, privately
laughed his head off at the discomfiture of his editors.
His razor-sharp mind, a capacity to gauge even the most
complicated characters in a jiffy, extraordinary courage,
resided quite comfortably with the child inside him,
naive and sometimes very lonely.
of his angularities could be put down to his relatively
humble background. He was born in Darbhanga district
of Bihar. One of the great ironies in the life was that
the founder of the largest English language chain --
it is another matter that each edition of The Indian
Express had an attached regional language edition --
was appointed a life trustee of the Hindi Prachar Sabha
when still in his 20s. At 22, he was nominated by the
British government to the membership of the Madras Legislative
Council. In 1932 he embarked on The Indian Express.
defining moment in RNG's life was the Emergency. That
is when he fought on an epic scale like someone whose
place in posterity was assured. It is conceivable that
during this combat a personal element crept into his
even otherwise combative attitude towards Mrs Gandhi.
Jawaharlal Nehru had asked him to employ Feroz Gandhi
and he was brought in as general manager. That Feroz
was Sonia Gandhi's father-in-law just shows the complicated,
cavernous ways in which contemporary public life in
India is still tied up with Ramnath Goenka.
editor of The Indian Express in Chennai. Saeed
Naqvi is a columnist and TV personality.