The chapters in this book are told in the same voice as his regular columns. The characters they describe, some well-known to us, some not-will remain immortal in our minds. Suraiya is the first Asian to have won the Grand Prize for Travel Writing awarded by the Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA).
For a journalist, it is always a pleasure to read about a follow professional and how he/she turned out to be one. Poor Jug Suraiya never wanted to be a journalist; actually, as he admits, he didn’t even know what he really wanted to be. But Fate drew him first to work for Junior Statesman and, following its untimely demise for the parent body The Statesman itself.
For some time he free-lanced promiscuously, writing for Femina, Eve’s Weekly, Shobha De’s Celebrity, Vinod Mehta’s Debonair and Cathay Pacific’s in-flight magazine Discovery, not to speak of a newly-opened magazine called New Delhi, until, one day, a friend managed to persuade him to join The Times of India where he hit it of brilliantly. As he put it: “They wanted me as the funny guy, who’d bring some humour to the Edit Page.”
He succumbed to the order, and that made history. In between, of course, he did the usual trans-oceanic rounds spending sometime in London, New York and Hong Kong, meanwhile falling in love with a Punjabi girl,
Bunny, and marrying her. Obviously, unlike some of his colleagues he neither had the time nor the inclination to flirt with many girls, have affairs and get into trouble.
A businessman friend owned a small factory making something called something called Mimics and Controls and suggested to Suraiya that he set up a mini advertising agency to popularise its products. He had absolutely no qualification to get into this field but he took a risk, became its visualiser, copywriter and general bottle-washer and occasionally stood in as a model for ads. The company did not last long – some 18 months. Suraiya says it did not make money but he got to be a Nirodh man for a day. Some achievement, that.
As one flicks through the pages, one comes across literally dozens of names of journalistic celebrities with whom Jug Suraiya worked or of whom he has something to say, not always complimentary.
Once he and his wife were having a chat with a “somewhat hard-up Maharaja” who, in the middle of conversation, wanted to know to what caste Jug Suraiya and his wife belonged. It turned out that the ‘hard-up Maharaja’, according to princely protocol, was not expected to have social interaction with non-brahmins. What followed when Jug Suraiya
confessed he was not a brahmin is hilarious.
On another occasion Jug Suraiya was asked to do a book review for the highly respected The New York Review of Books, which he did to the utter surprise of his Times of India boss, Girilal Jain. Jain obviously was highly impressed and later began to regard him with unusual courtesy.
There is so much to enjoy in this book of sharp reminiscences, but one thing takes away the joy: the sheer vulgarity of the language Jug Suraiya uses, obviously to capture the hearts of the GenNext. Words and phrases like “fuck bugger”, “sala ki bolcho, bugger”, “take the fucking thing down”, “pissed off”, “some shit like that”, “there’s no fucking water”, disfigure the pages. Did one have to use such words in a serious autobiography? What is Jug Suraiya trying to convey?
Jug Suraiya writes that “as a kid in school I pissed off all my teachers” and as he grew older he “pissed off a lot of other people, including Shobha De”. Is that something to be proud of? Of course Jug Suraiya lived in another time and age when he claims “for a journalist to be called a lefty by another journalist was a compliment”. Some compliment, that. Again, is it fashionable to use a word like “criss-sake” meaning thereby “Christ’s sake”? Or, say, words like ‘lafda’, ‘hangoma’, and even “filmee’? Jug admits he had his problem in using the word ‘apropos’.
Should he use it singly or should he add ‘of’ as in “apropos of”? What was right? What was acceptable in the institutions like La Martinere or Xavier’s from where he graduated? The rich have their own passion for a show of vulgarity. What, incidentally was correct and proper? According to Jug Suraiya, Old Journalism was “politician-centred and state-oriented” while the New Journalism was “citizen-centred and civil-society oriented”. Could one say, judging by the number of pictures of semi-nude females in indecent poses appearing in some of our leading newspapers, that the New Journalism is also sex-oriented?
Incidentally, Jug Suraiya speaks of Junior Statesman as, in its time, speaking the language of the young English-educated Indians, considering that it did not speak “at them” but “‘with them”? No wonder it did not last long.
The magazine did not address itself to the struggling middle class youth, but to the emerging new upper class, wanting – in those uncertain times – to wear jeans and wishing to learn pop music.
To a large section, Junior Statesman was “frothy, frivolous and un-Indian”. It was aping the West, which, concedes Jug Suraiya, “was an unforgivable sin” and was “like a sexually transmitted disease”. May be, admits Jug Suraiya “it was like a sexually transmitter disease”. Jug Suraiya had spent a fascinating life in the world of journalism, not only interviewing the newsy but also writing ‘third editorials’, is itself a major accomplishment. And unquestionably he has a splendid command over the English language.
He has seen changes in style as in content, remembering Vidya Subramaniam “who could re-write an edit written in pure Gobbledygook on The Kashmir Question or Caste Politics in Rural India and make it read like a John Grisham thriller” as he remembered The Times of India which “began consciously to remodel itself to cater to the high-earning, high-spending age group” and one had hoped he would address himself to these issues in a seriousness which the subject merited.
But this is where Jug Suraiya disappoints. He must have been poorly advised. Or perhaps, just perhaps, he is writing for the GenNext and not for fuddy duddies like yours truly, even when he admits that ho can’t use computers, doesn’t know what an iPhone is, much less have one and doesn’t even know how to operate the remote control of the TV he has at home.
Anyway, thank you, Jug Suraiya for all that, you have produced some extremely readable stuff, even if you insist you “didn’t want to be a journalist” and “never was one”. We can’t fight Fate, can we?
M V KAMATH