Current is back

Prashun Bhaumik |

D.F. Karaka and Ayub Syed’s legacy of trailblazing journalism is back with a bang

By Inder Malhotra

There was an era, long gone by, when there was no media in this country, only the Press. The government-owned and controlled All India Radio seemed not to matter. Mainstream, metropolitan newspapers – generally respected, even if rather Victorian in style and substance – dominated the scene that was enlivened, however, by precisely two Mumbai-based newsmagazines in tabloid size. One was the heavily left-leaning Russy Karanjia’s Blitz and the other Current of Duso (D.F.) Karaka whose politics was the exact opposite of Karanjia’s. Their barbs at each other added to the readability of their rival publications without damaging personal relations. More important, both men had deliberately shed the constraints major national newspapers had accepted voluntarily. Their reporting was spicy and their comments hard-hitting. Even at the risk of being accused of sensationalism, they won the reader’s attention and a measure of admiration of the common man—in today’s jargon, aam aadmi. With the passage of time and in accordance with the laws of life, both the trail-blazers eventually disappeared in limbo.

Karaka was the first to call it a day. He looked forward to retired life, but had absolutely no need to shut down the journal he had nurtured so lovingly. There were many wannabe publisher-editors scrambling to buy it from him. He was, however, choosy about the potential buyer. He decided to sell Current to Ayub Syed, a professional journalist of standing, full of dynamism and initiative, and determined to make a mark. When asked why he had opted for Syed, Karaka, a Parsi, gave the startling reply: “Appearing in my dream, Hazrat Ali had so ordered me”.

All through his heyday Karaka had been a trenchant critic of Jawaharlal Nehru and, later, of Indira Gandhi, earning her wrath and brief imprisonment during the Emergency. Ayub Syed, a member of the Congress party for some years and a known Leftist, was in no mood to follow the Karaka line. He adopted his own independent policy. Soon enough, under his stewardship, Current flourished and became an influential and powerful forum for vigorous political reporting and fearless exposure of wrongdoing whenever and wherever perceived. He had close relations with political leaders of all hues, across the entire spectrum. No wonder therefore that there were attempts to influence him. There were also whispers that he was promoting one leader or the other. Ignoring these, he did exactly what he wanted and tried to be as even-handed as humanly possible. This is not to say that he and his newsmagazine made no errors. They did. For instance, in its initial stages and for quite a while later, Current and Ayub supported the Emergency but, later, he was candid enough to admit that it was a mistake. At the same time, he never tampered with, leave alone block, writings by columnists like me that were contrary to his own stand. During the historic 1977 General Election he and I traveled together extensively, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to gauge the ground reality. He was quick to perceive the sea change in public opinion. By the time we reached Lucknow, we nearly exclaimed in unison: “By God, she has had it… but if we are wrong, we have had it even worse”.

Yet, it is to Ayub’s credit that when the Janata government crossed all limits in calling Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay to account for the Emergency and its excesses, and instead of prosecuting them started persecuting them, he sternly cried halt, unmindful of reproaches from his friends on the then ruling party’s highest rung. Similarly, by the time Bofors and much else had overwhelmed Rajiv Gandhi’s government, Ayub’s sympathies were with V.P. Singh, by then the rallying point of all forces opposed to Rajiv and the Congress. But this never prevented him from lambasting his good friend Singh’s Mandalization policy.  And then something terrible happened. Ayub fell seriously ill. He struggled hard to fight for his life as well as to keep Current going. But fate willed otherwise. The iron crab got him; three years later his beloved weekly went into coma.

Now, with this inaugural issue, on the sixty-first anniversary ofIndependence, Current is back with a bang. Edited and produced by the Generation Next, the weekly in its new avatar is aimed at reviving Ayub Syed’s legacy, on the one hand, and catering to the wishes, aspirations and needs of the rising youth of rising India, on the other.

During the long interval between Current’s closure and revival, the change in India and the world has been phenomenal to the point of boggling the mind. The transformation of the Indian media scene has been even more staggering. Round-the-clock TV news channels, partly foreign-financed, are giving the print media a run for its money. But, instead of being swamped and supplanted by TV – as was predicted by Jeremiahs and is indeed happening in some Western countries – Indian newspapers and journals, in English as well as regional languages, have not  just stood their ground, they have registered expansion beyond all expectations. Burgeoning circulations have been matched by mounting profits. However, this upsurge has not been an unmixed blessing.

On the contrary, with the gargantuan expansion of quantity – it is difficult to keep count of publications: one sinks, several appear almost instantly  – quality has, most distressingly, taken a nosedive. Barring some honourable exceptions, even major and responsible papers of yore have trivialised their contents. Page 3 has overshadowed Page 1. Worse, crass commercial considerations have increasingly eclipsed journalistic ethics and the editor’s authority. Collusion between the movers and shakers of the newspaper industry and the unhidden persuaders of the advertising and PR agencies has reached a stage when editorials have been converted into ‘advertorials’. Nor is any sign of corrective action by newspaper moguls in sight.

To be sure, after its Second Coming, Current is not going to be a charitable outfit, unmindful of earnings. But there need be not the slightest doubt that it would never compromise professional values, leave alone sacrifice them, for the sake of pelf or any other consideration. Equally, the weekly would remain steadfastly committed to giving a wide berth to trivia and titillation that is becoming the USP of far too many publications. Serious but lively journalism is the objective of those infusing a new life into Current, which is why subjects like film and fashion, so hugely splashed by others, will be avoided, and the publication’s priority focus would be on the ‘business of politics and politics of business’.