Every working day, while he was the Editor of ‘Outlook Hindi’, Neelabh Mishra would walk the 100 metres from his office to mine, both located in the treacherous ramparts of ‘Rajinderda Dhaba’ in South Delhi, around 1 pm.
“Hmm, so?” would usually be his first words. And, for the next few minutes, we would drink some coffee, shoot the breeze, compare conspiracy theories, slander some reputations, and return to our respective echo chambers.
It was a custom that had started in the time of my predecessor, Vinod Mehta, and Neelabh’s predecessor, Alok Mehta. The intent was to ensure that the two magazines in different languages were on the same page, more or less.
But, over time, the one-way trudge somehow seemed more like English’s way of showing Hindi who is higher on the greasy totempole—a not unfamiliar story in Indian journalism where the supercilious always manages to show the substantive its place.
In truth, of course, Neelabh was as much proficient in English as in Hindi, on air or in print, and like a good allrounder, he could have easily made it to the playing XI in either language.
Indeed, for several years he wrote a regular column in ‘Outlook’ and we could always bank on him to produce an intelligible piece at short notice, usually no more than a few hours, and almost always well before deadline, something even English-types couldn’t manage.
In hindsight and in a counterintuitive sort of way, though, it is perhaps English that elevated Neelabh’s sensibilities above that of his Hindi peers.
For, unlike so many of them who have reduced themselves to boosters and amplifiers for the Hindutva cause, Neelabh remained proudly secular, liberal, progressive, inclusive.
That his last innings was at ‘National Herald’, a newspaper that bears Jawaharlal Nehru’s imprint, is both apt and poetic.
At the same time, unlike so many Hindi editors who see their audience as less evolved than the English one, and therefore less deserving of thoughtful journalism, Neelabh was not overly inclined to giving readers “what they want”, short hand for prurient pictures, plugs and pap. This usually doesn’t endear good editors to managers and other animals in the media menagerie, but they always find somebody more pliable to do their bidding.
None of this is to suggest that Neelabh looked down on Hindi, or felt superior because of his English.
Far from it.
Only to highlight the participatory role mainstream media has played, especially in the languages, in dumbing down the discourse and distorting our democracy, possibly beyond redemption.
When Neelabh first had trouble with his health and was advised not to climb stairs, I began making the reverse trip to his office, out of concern and respect for an older colleague.
We had both started our careers in ‘The Times of India’ group, in different years in the 1980s, when Samir Jain had just then come into the company and was beginning to rewrite the course of newspaper journalism, and there were not too many within the group to complain, question or cry halt.
So, talking about Samir was a favourite pastime.
In 1986, Neelabh was 25 going on 26. He said he arrived a few minutes late for a ‘Navbharat Times’ workshop in Patna. Everybody was introducing himself. After the introductions, the speaker asked: “Do you have any questions?”
Nobody put their hand up.
So Neelabh asked: “We all introduced ourselves. You didn’t introduce yourself.” There was an audible gasp in the room.
Then the speaker said, “Main Samir Jain hoon, vice-chairman and joint managing director.”
Samir Jain’s mammon-worshipping managers, ever so eager so say things he liked to hear, proposed a Hindi edition of ‘The Times of India’ for an “aspirational” crowd in the cow belt.
NBT’s editor Rajendra Mathur was aghast.
At the time, NBT was neck-and-neck with TOI in terms of circulation although it was only published from two centres, Bombay and Delhi. “Why not do an English edition of NBT instead,” he asked. The project was quietly shelved, but Neelabh was convinced Samir Jain had misread the Hindi market.
Which allowed ‘Dainik Bhaskar’ and ‘Dainik Jagran’ and others of their ilk to take root and grow.
Which paved the way for where we are now.
Which made Neelabh the soldier he became.
Neelabh didn’t think twice before questioning Samir Jain; he didn’t think twice before questioning his 21st century political equivalent, Narendra Modi.
Till we meet again, Neelabh, we will miss your laughter, in Hindi and English.