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THOUGHT & ACTION
The Baron

Ramnath Goenka
Ramnath Goenka

By Saeed Naqvi

1904: Born in a Marwari business family in Bihar.
1926:
Becomes a member of the Congress.
1932:
Starts a printing press in Chennai; launches the Free Press of India (Madras) Ltd; and The Indian Express.
1940s:
Consolidates empire with 35 newspaper editions, magazines. 1975: Press censorship with Emergency. Resists attempts to take over his newspaper. Campaign against the Congress continues till the end.
1977:
He helps the Janata Party in its election strategy.
1991:
Dies in Mumbai.
 


Ramnath 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.

Likewise, 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.

His 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.

He 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.

Power 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.

Even 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.

Mulgaokar, 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.

The 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, Kochi.

In 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.

It 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.

RNG's 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.

Many 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.

The 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.

Former editor of The Indian Express in Chennai. Saeed Naqvi is a columnist and TV personality.

 

 

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