‘A creative, courageous, committed editor’

SUDHEENDRA KULKARNI writes from Bombay: When someone who is very close to you, or occupied an important place at some time in your life, passes away, do you somehow remember the person just before the tragic news reaches you?

It happened to me yesterday afternoon. On a cold but sunny day in Delhi, I was sitting with a senior journalist and discussing, among other things, Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s strongly critical views on Islamist fanaticism and separatism.

I said, “One of my most satisfying works in journalism was a series of six articles on Dr Ambedkar’s harsh critique of Pakistan, which I wrote for Blitz.” As I said it, I remembered Russy Karanjia, the legendary editor of Blitz, where I worked as his deputy, and a profound feeling of gratitude crossed my mind. “What a wonderful editor he was,” I exclaimed to myself, “and how much freedom he gave me to express my views.”

Within a few minutes, I received an SMS from a good friend and former colleague: “Mr Karanjia has passed away.”

The news made me numb.

Karanjia. One of the greatest names in Indian journalism. Owner-editor of what was once the most popular weekly in India. A tabloid that did what its name suggested—a journalistic blitzkrieg, week after week, with its sensational news reports. Free, Frank and Fearless. That’s how Blitz described itself, and lived up to its self-description.

Neither Karanjia nor Blitz are names that ring a bell among readers belonging to the younger generation, because the weekly folded up in the mid-1990s and Karanjia, who always liked to be in the limelight, disappeared from public view nearly a decade ago, confined to his ocean-front apartment on Marine Drive in Bombay. But there was a time—and it stretched for nearly four decades beginning with the 1940s—when young and old alike, even in the remotest parts of India, used to queue up before newspaper stalls to buy their copy of Blitz.

This was partly because there weren’t so many newspapers and magazines those days, nor TV news channels. But a far bigger reason for the popularity of Blitz (which was published in English, Hindi and Urdu, each edition selling in lakhs) was Karanjia’s unique brand of tabloid journalism—irreverent and investigative in news (readers used to wonder how Karanjia routinely attacked the Congress party and its governments, and yet managed to be on extremely friendly terms with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi), radical and idealistic in views (with an unmistakable leftist and pro-Soviet orientation, which was the intellectual flavour of the time) and never lacking in a little bit of titillation.

It is because of the last ingredient that Karanjia was often accused, wrongly and unfairly, of indulging in “yellow journalism” by those in the profession who were jealous of his success.

Blitz courageously and creatively espoused many worthy causes. Apart from Karanjia himself, this contribution to socially committed journalism came, first, from Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, the celebrated writer and film-maker (his Saat Hindustani marked Amitabh Bachchan’s entry into Hindi cinema) who wrote the immensely popular ‘Last Page’ column, and later from P. Sainath, who worked as deputy editor for over a decade. Sainath later became one of India’s best-known writers on rural poverty, doing Karanjia proud by recently winning the Magsaysay award.

In the last phase of his journalistic career, he became increasingly disillusioned with communism and the Communist’s anti-Hindu secularism. Simultaneously, he became a strong sympathiser of the BJP and the Ayodhya movement. It was then that he insisted I replace Sainath as deputy editor and give a new, pro-Hindu orientation to Blitz.

I did this with commitment and conviction as expected from my editor. This, of course, shocked his Communist friends who accused him of saffronising Blitz. But Karanjia stood his ground. He was never dogmatic in his support of the Left and as early as 1976, he became an ardent devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. He later wrote a book on yoga.

It was around this time that I accompanied him to a meeting with L.K. Advani, along with R.V. Pandit, a common friend and another fearless publisher. Karanjia was so enthused after that meeting with Advani that he agreed to come as a special guest at the national council meeting of the BJP in Bangalore where he declared his support to the Ayodhya movement.

Karanjia was born in 1912 in Quetta, now in Pakistan, which has produced another great Parsi name in journalism —Ardeshir Cowasjee, the celebrated columnist of Dawn. A journalist who started his career as a war correspondent for a British paper during World War II (hence the name Blitz), he founded Blitz in 1941. Its first issue came out on February 1, exactly the day he breathed his last 67 years later, at age 95.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Blitz was Karanjia’s life, his passion, his mission. He made history with it. Interestingly, Wayside Inn, the famous (and now-extinct) restaurant near Kala Ghoda, where the decision to launch Blitz was taken over a cup of tea by a group of three young and fiercely patriotic journalists—B.V. Nadkarni and Benjamin Horniman—was also the place where history was made for another, grander, reason: Dr. Ambedkar wrote the first draft of the Indian Constitution here.

Like all Parsis, Karanjia was kind-hearted and gentle to the core. He served India with devotion and passion. About Parsis, Mahatma Gandhi had said, “In their number, they are beneath contempt. In their contribution to the nation, they are beyond compare.” Russy K. Karanjia, you were, indeed, beyond compare. You touched my life, just as you touched the lives of millions of Indians.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni is former media advisor to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani)

Photograph: courtesy Mid-Day

Also read: The Russy Karanjia obituaries