Rewinding to the late 1950s and early and mid 1960s, AK Nanda recalls the era when building a career in writing had its own peculiar challenges and opportunities.
It was the late 1950s. Calcutta with its imposing and famous university and educational institutions towered as the city every student would want to be in. Finishing my graduation in Banaras Hindu University (BHU), I used to look at Calcutta as the city of my dreams and without much delay I moved there to do post-graduate in journalism. My father said, you would have to live on your own. That didn’t deter me. In our ancestral home, a huge building on Chakra Beria road, most of which was occupied by tenants and folks from the native place who had come in and struck roots, I was allotted one room on the ground floor and I managed quite happily.
Calcutta was already caught in the vortex of change as a result of the inflow of refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. My years in the University were memorable. I happened to meet and talk to distinguished teachers and professionals. The pleasure and profit from these exchanges were wholly mine. There were distinguished professors and editors who took our classes including Dr DN Sen (Law), Chapalakanta Bhattacharya (Editor, Anand Bazar Patrika), Sudhangshu Kumar Bose (Editor, Hindustan Standard), Hemendra Prasad Ghosh (renowned journalist), KN Chatterjee (Editor, Modern Review), Bidhu Bhushan Sengupta (Managing Director, United Press of India or UPI) among others. Much of my learning in journalism, I owe to these luminaries.
As I started looking for a suitable job I drew blank. I took to writing articles on topical social and economic issues for both English and Bengali journals. Nothing on politics simply because I felt I had nothing to write on it. Nobody guided me, none advised me, I was wholly on my own writing on subjects that interested me. Articles in Bengali were published in Ananda Bazar Patrika, Jansevak and Arthik Prasanga. Those in English were published in Hindustan Standard and Economic Studies and also in Searchlight that was published from Patna.
I used to write not so much for money as for the readiness to think quickly and logically on topical economic and social issues. I did not ever meet any editor requesting to publish my article. My articles were always sent only by post. This was so because I thought unsolicited articles should be accepted for publication only on their own merit and not on anything else. My friends advised me to meet the editor and develop a rapport and that would help me get published quickly. I was in no hurry. Some may have thought me to be pompous but I knew it wasn’t attitude. It was just a simple self test to see if my articles were worth their space.
The ones that came back never had any note about why they were rejected. Editors don’t give reasons for rejecting. I did not throw away the rejected ones but tried in my own way, assuming the role of the editor to rewrite the piece and send it again to the same paper and in most cases these were published. I learnt my job the hard way and the process helped me immensely.
Interestingly, I sent some of my articles on women’s issues and even stories under the names of either my sister Juthika Nanda, my friend Lila Mitra or my batchmate’s elder brother’s wife Chandana Chatterjee. And they were promptly published! The payment used to come by cheque and I used to hand it over to the “writer” with thanks. 🙂
Also, some of my articles found a novel way of getting published. They were not carried in entirety or published under my byline but the substance of these were incorporated in the longish editorials of Capital, which was then the leading financial journal of Calcutta. And the Capital would send me a cheque for such pieces!
I enjoyed doing this purely as preparation for my professional career. Time ticked away until I got a call for an interview in the West Bengal Government secretariat for the post of publicity officer which had been advertised by the West Bengal Public Service Commission earlier.
A good number of my class friends were there as candidates too. I was the first one to be called in for the Interview while the others waited outside. I owe this to my name Ajit which places me first in the queue. There was another Ajit in my batch who had also come for the interview but he was Pyne and I was Nanda. So I got in first.
The Board consisted of five members including Prakash Swarup Mathur, the then Director of Publicity and renowned author Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. It was Tarashankar Babu who went on asking me a range of questions on various subjects. He asked me about the language I write and speak, about our genealogy since our surname is not strictly of native Bengalis and whether I write in Bengali and if so which papers do I write for. I was quite interested in his attempting to find out how much ingrained I was in the soil and the people of Bengal. The interview was finally over and almost as a postscript Mr Mathur asked one or two questions, about what I do not remember now.
The moment I came out of what had seemed to others to be an extra long interview, I was quizzed by my friends on what all they had asked me. Although I told them, my hunch was that the questions put to me wouldn’t be repeated.
After a lapse of quite some time I received a letter from the West Bengal Public Service Commission to appear for a test of speaking in public. I was asked to speak to a wall and I confidently did that for almost 5 minutes assuming I am speaking to an audience on government programmes. I spoke so much that they finally asked me to stop! 🙂 I laughed heartily to myself and put this experience behind me as a memory that would make a funny anecdote in addas. Little did I realise that I had qualified.
Days after this I received a letter from the Editor of the Eastern Economist in New Delhi asking me to appear for an interview. I immediately left for Delhi. The editor Mr Eric P W da Costa talked for an hour or so and asked me questions on programme evaluation and project formation which no one had ever discussed with me before. I fielded them the best way I could. My interviewer was so happy with the exercise that he wanted me to join immediately. I accepted the job and said I would join after two weeks.
As I returned to Calcutta after the interview I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Calcutta was no longer the same as before where I rushed in to do my postgraduate studies. The city was changing, the political environment was restless, the social milieu was in a state of flux. The Delhi job came as a relief. But it was also the place where I found my lady love who joyfully agreed to marry me under the Special Registration of Marriage Act when I had no job.
Well, that was another interesting and rather unique experience. On the day of the registration, rather than getting us married in his office, as was the usual practice, the Registrar asked us to come to his residence in the evening along with three witnesses. On reaching his residence we found the place so beautifully lighted and decorated with flowers that we were touched at his way of wishing the couple well in their journey ahead. He was not known to us. We were just another couple among the many he dealt with daily. But why he made this special gesture for us would forever remain a mystery to me. We didn’t ask him and he didn’t offer any reason either.
One and half months after I had joined my new job in Delhi, my father wrote to me saying that the job of publicity officer has been offered to me and the appointment letter had arrived. Without a second thought, I asked him to leave it aside. I loved my job and I wasn’t going back.
In the meantime, my life in New Delhi went on a roller-coaster ride. Da Costa who had selected me had founded the Indian Institute of Public Opinion where he wanted me to join but I declined to accept the offer as I wanted to continue with my writing career. (Da Costa came to be known as India’s first pollster and pioneered election surveys, both pre-poll and post-poll in the 1960s.)
The next editor could not stand me for reasons unknown to me. I left the Eastern Economist soon with no other job in hand. I made efforts to survive on my own doing whatever work came my way. I was appointed as Feature Editor of the United States Information Service (USIS) with a fat salary paid fortnightly and perks that can spoil anyone silly. I left it after nine months for reasons I could not make people understand. My friends were shocked. But most importantly, my wife did understand and that’s what mattered most. 🙂
It was hard going, very hard but those struggles had their own charm. If the offer of appointment from the West Bengal government had come prior to my leaving for the interview in Delhi, my future would have been wholly different. How different, I can’t even imagine. It is the time past and time present that plays so important a part in making our future and all this happens in our presence and with our help.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
– T S Eliot in ‘Burnt Norton’
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