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R Jagannathan: POT, Hori and that seventies' show

Business Standard emerged from the ashes of a failed English daily and its early days demanded as much expertise in horse-racing and negotiating the intricacies of the hot metal press as in editing

R Jagannathan 

Being a business journalist in the Calcutta of the 1970s - it was indeed Calcutta then - was like a voyage of rediscovery. Not because economic journalism was new even at that time, but because Calcutta was relatively new to it. The idea of launching a business newspaper came on the rebound to the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group, I understand. The group's venerable English newspaper, Hindusthan Standard (HS), now deceased, was supposed to be the answer to the even more venerable Amrita Bazar Patrika. But it was doing badly despite carrying more and offering readers a free weekend magazine. So the business shrinks were called in and they decided that there were really three publications waiting to burst forth from the womb of the old Hindusthan Standard: Business Standard (BS) emerged from a page or two in the old HS to become a standalone eight-pager; the weekly Sunday mag was another. HS itself shrank to the size of a tabloid, and kept shrinking in page counts before finally handing in the pail and exiting from the stands - and public memory - in the early 1980s.

However, parts of the of HS lived on in the early Business Standard as one purpose was to find gainful employment for some of the old HS contingent. Not surprisingly, the new BS avatar grew up in its initial months largely innocent of the language and syntax of business. There were days when the most exciting story was the number of coal wagons loaded in Eastern Railway's yards; on others, tender notices inviting the supply of gunny bags to Food Corporation of India were the piece de resistance. If something happened at tea auctions, it was the news equivalent of "Man Landing on the Moon" for the BS of those days.

At some point, the owners of ABP must have thought that, maybe, just maybe, the BS boys were having too much fun at the expense of the reader and decided that hiring a few business-literate souls could not do any further damage. They chanced upon a liquid-diet-only gentleman going by the name of (CPK). Others were roped in to raise the business literacy quotient, including veterans like and P G Albert in Mumbai, and Kewal Varma and S C Anantharaman in Delhi. Anantharaman earned his fame when he published the Railway Budget one day ahead of its presentation. Bringing up the average IQ of the organisation was the assistant editor and sharp office wit, When not writing edits, he was chewing paan and betting on horses that showed an occasional burst of speed. He even won a jackpot or two - but did not make enough to build a stud farm or two.

A key part of any recruit's CV had to be an interest in horses and racing - since Kuruvilla believed in keeping the and its bookies in good financial shape by backing only three-legged horses or those that invariably failed to turn up at the winner's post. So I am not sure why CPK thought I might fit the bill - a teetotaler and non-racing enthusiast to boot. He was even more horrified when I said money was not a consideration for making a shift to BS in Calcutta. "Always ask for a good hike," he warned me sternly, but gave me the job nevertheless.

The BS I joined had strong desk heads like Shekhar Bhatia, R Vijayaraghavan and K T J Mohan, and so there was a lot to learn and benefit from. However, as a bachelor weaving in and out of paying-guest accommodation, I had a lot of time to kill - and I spent most of my time at the office. We had three shifts, but the first one was a picnic (starting around 11 a m), with subsidised lunch and fights over the quantum of jhol in the macher jhol being the only highlight; the second shift, starting around 2 p m, was a snooze fest in the first half, when no copy arrived, and a workathon for the other half, for all copies arrived after six and these had to be edited and sent down the chute to the composers below before the shift changed by nine. The night shift was meant for battle with the press and coaxing it to make the necessary changes so that the resultant copies could be understood by normal English readers.

This is because in the seventies, we still had what was called the "hot metal press". Every line of type had to be cast in a linotype machine, then proofed, corrected, and then cast again in metal, and proofed again. Blocks of this metal had then to be split into equal columns and placed as single, double or three-column stories in iron mangles, before being locked and sent for the final page proof and so on. Since unions ran the press, getting any line changed or corrected involved long tussles with the operators, and their shift bosses. In fact, at 9 every night, it was routine to have the press head coming up to the news room and throwing all the copies in front of the chief sub complaining that he did not have enough staff to compose it all. If, after haggling over copies, we still ran short, we simply cannibalised political copy from the HS, which had become an eveninger after it went tabloid. BS carried whatever BS they carried, including pictures pasted upside down on occasions.

This rigmarole usually ended at 1.30-2.30 a m, and on returning to the newsroom from the press night chief subs would pour their hearts out in logbooks to explain to the news editor why a page went late or how the evening shift goofed up on copy, etc. The mid- and night shifts were always at daggers drawn, since the night shift always presumed the mid-shift was goofing off, while the mid-shift felt the night had nothing left to do. Since nothing ever changed despite these complaints, the logbook literature started thinning out after one chief sub came back one night and wrote just three letters in caps:

There was much consternation over this ambiguous report, and the bosses wondered whether this was some kind of slur on them. The night chief put them out of their misery the next night by saying merely stood for Pages on Time.

After POT, in those early days, it was time for sleep on the tables, since there were no cars to take us home at that hour. Everyone would call for "Hori" - a cantankerous, Banquo's Ghost kind of guy, who ruled the newsroom once it turned into a bedroom. It was his job to get the bedding out of the woodwork and lay it out on the news editor's or chief sub's tables. Sleep was seldom possible, for there were always characters roaming the corridors or putting on lights to look for something. One such occasional nocturnal visitor was Shakti Chattopadhyay, a Bengali poetic genius with a love for the fluids. A terror at nights, he would come and hug sleepy subs, and at one time, when I was the beneficiary of his affections, I made a hasty exit to the loo till blew the all-clear the next morning.

Wake-up time, when you did get to sleep, was decided by Hori, depending on when he wanted his tea. Since the general idea was to pay him to get you tea, he would put the lights on and soon weary-eyed subs would get up cursing him and asking him to get their tea and biscuits.

All the night-shift fun and games ended some time in the early 1980s, when the management decided that it would dump the hot metal press and opt for photo-typesetting. Since unions were still around - till an illegal strike ended their run of the land - reporters typed their copies, which were then recomposed by the old hot-metal junkies in computers. Around the same time, the bosses also decided that it was time to end the free bed service and shipped us home in office transport.

All this sounds like a world that could never have been, but for most of us in those early BS days, it is indelibly etched in memory.

The writer is editor-in-chief of Firstpost and Forbes India

First Published: Mon, October 27 2014. 21:35 IST