What a deft portrait that my friend GVK has drawn of Shroff Saab who could be a great character in a Naipaul or even better a Prawer Jhabawala story, a person beached and stranded like a whale which lost its way. I must confess that I have the vaguest memories of this phantasmagorical character and it could not have been me who told GVK in Chennai in 1996 of Shroff Saab’s passing away.
We met another sad character, Mr. Chandra who was –if my recall is right – London correspondent of the Punjab daily The Tribune.. Also dressed in a 3 piece suit, fair skinned with a shining dome of a head, Chandra could have been an actor playing a kindly chairman of a conglomerate. Chandra loved reminiscing about his heydays when he had a large office just off Fleet street with a large staff and assignments to match. Chandra was in dire straits financially and hung around Indian Weekly offices in the hope of a crumb, - a messenger job, a coin or two, or just cup of coffee from Asoke. I grew up in a family with a passion for wisdom which only elders seem capable of giving and Chandra personified every characteristic I wished to see in a wise elder. Chandra told me how he was part of the press corpus as an accredited embedded reporter in the British army in Abyssinia in North Africa marching on Mussolini’s front; how he knew Nehru and Krishna Menon personally as friends, how he ran a well staffed bureau in London. His employers had now disbanded the Bureau and cut loose its chief. I insisted on visiting Chandra and discovered that he lived in a six by ten bed sitter above a smelly Indian grocery shop in Grafton street off Tottenham Court Road. Here the first Bangladeshi and Indian immigrants started opening little businesses and restaurants, including some fabled names like the self service Punjabi cafe whose name I have forgotten; the Agra, the Nataraj, Kwality restaurant. I almost always bought Chandra half a bitter in the local dimly lit pub which was all I could afford and listened to stories of his hey days with rapt attention. I discovered much later that his family back home in India were unaware of his parlous state; and when alerted by Dr. Basu, came and took him back to India, hopefully cared for him till the end. I have no doubt that GVK’s memories of Chandra are more detailed and accurate and would be a pleasure to read.
I did not work for India Weekly for as long as GVK or Subhash Chopra since my own fate intervened and found me working for the Indian High Commission as a photo librarian. I became the butt of jealousy and bullying by my fellow workers –mostly Punjabi. Unlike the rest, I had a room to myself and thousands of shiny black & white unsorted breathtakingly historical archive of photos under my care. Imagine photos of Mahatma Gandhi in London in his loin cloth attire; Churchill and Nehru with a beautifully suited Krishna Menon hovering in the background, various Indian diplomatic elite like B.K.Nehru in dapper double-breasted suits. These were mostly sent to schools all over the UK for children to do projects on India .I quickly learned to associate names of towns with appropriate counties which has stayed with me till today.
My immediate boss was the Salman Haider (a Cambridge educated career diplomat who became India’s Foreign Secretary for a short while) who was impressed with my CV and the fact that I had not taken the lazy route to England . I knew his own friends like the Oxford-educated poet Adil Jussawalla, and well known painter Lancelot Ribeiro, younger brother of Francis Souza. The person who unwittingly introduced me to Salman Haider and his boss was Iqbal Singh who was then the London correspondent of the newly found English Language daily, the Patriot where I had worked for over a year.
I have little to say about Iqbal, except that I had held him in such high esteem, since in my mind he had lived in Europe all his adult life and come to know some mighty legendary writers like Raja Rao, Andre Malreaux, Margueritte Duras and epitomised a Anglo-Indian literary culture that I aspired to join. It seemed however he was embarrassed by my presence, and tried to avoid having to give me kindly advice and help which I expected. It was just a coincidence that the First Secretary of the Ministry of Information ran into Iqbal and me in the corridors of India House and took an instant interest in my adventurous hitch-hiking trip from New Delhi to London and offered me a job on the spot. I understand that Iqbal, unable to sustain himself in the UK returned to India in the 1980s.
GVK would no doubt correct me on a number of statements I have extracted from my foggy memory. More to follow>>>
Cross-posted, June 9, 2009, by GVK, from Kini's blog - Gateway to India
My Take on Mr Chandra by GVK
My friend wrote about the plight of a London-based Indian journalist in the sixties. Mr P T Chandra, then London Correspondent of The Tribune, Chandigarh, had seen better days when he maintained a large office off Fleet Street. But we, Kini and I, came to meet him at a much later time when he was down on his luck, life-style and his bank balance.
He still filed stories for his newspaper, working from a desk, set up for him at India House. The deputy high commissioner, Mr P N Haksar, was Mr Chandra’s friend.. I used to meet him occasionally when he dropped in at Dr Basu’s office, at Hindustan Standard/India weekly, Carmelite St..As Kini wrote, Mr Chandra, in a dark three-piece suit, looked more a company executive than a journalist in distress. Unlike Kini, with whom he opened out over half a 'bitter' at a pub on Tottanham Court Rd., Mr Chandra was rather formal with me, though friendly. And I, a junior reporter setting out to make a career in journalism, was suitably respectful.
Mr Chandra seemed, what I would call, in a state of constant battle to maintain self-respect in the face of adversity. His peers were understanding and helpful. But with rest of us Mr Chandra was constrained to maintain appearance of well-being. So the man inside that three-piece suit put between us a glass screen of small talk and polite enquiry, presumably, because he had no reason to know that I knew about his plight.
I learned from Dr Basu’s assistant, Mr Asoke Gupte that The Tribune didn’t send Mr Chandra a pay cheque. Instead, they banked a certain amount to his account in India. Of what use was a bank balance in rupees to someone having to pay his bills in London, in pounds sterling? If there was any system of ‘hawala’ in reverse, I didn’t think Mr Chandra resorted to such means, so low and illegal.
The sixties were the days of stringent forex regulations. Indian newspapers had to seek foreign exchange clearance from the government to pay salary and maintain offices overseas. It was the Reserve Bank of India that decided whether or not a newspaper could have a fully-paid correspondent, and, if so, what would be the salary payable in foreign exchange.
Incidentally, those of us who came to Britain on immigration were entitled to a princely travel allowance of 3 pounds sterling (at the then rate of Rs.13 to a pound). I have a confession to make : Before boarding Europe-bound Lloyd Triestino’s m v Asia , a cruise ship, I had thoughtfully slipped in a 100-rupee note inside my sox. But then I found it couldn’t get me anything on the boat or in Europe. Small shopkeepers at Karachi, where the ship halted for a day, readily exchanged my money for eats and things we had on Mahatma Gandhi Rd., Karachi. A shop-keeper told me Indian money came in handy to smuggle in consumer delicacies such as Banarasi or Calcutta paan.
A note on The Tribune: In the mid-eighties, when I was posted TOI correspondent in Chandigarh, I had occasion to visit friends at The Tribune township. I know of no other Indian newspaper that has built a residential colony for its staff. The Tribune, Ambala (and later Chandigarh) is run by a trust. I wondered how a newspaper that is so employer-friendly could have treated Mr Chandra so shabbily. Perhaps, it was not the newspaper’s doing. Maybe Mr Chandra was a victim of our forex policy.
Cross-posted from My take , June 9, 2009
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