T.V.R. Shenoy: the Editor and walking encyclopaedia who was also a ‘Shatranj ki Khiladi’

The dictionary defines an “autodidact” as a self-taught person. An easier definition would have been T.V.R. Shenoy, the former Editor of The Week and Sunday Mail, who passed away yesterday.

Auto-didact = Shenoy-saab

Mr Shenoy was a magnetic presence at the Press Club in Delhi, back when real journalists sat around with real journalists and drank real drinks, not some sissy cocktail made from Harpic, Pril and Digene.

Back when the Internet had already happened in Maha-Bharat but the Mughals had come and ripped off the modem.

Shenoy-saab knew something about nearly everything and could hold tables hurriedly joined together to rapt attention till the high priests of went around clanging the bell for “last orders” for cheap spirits.

The reason Mr Shenoy knew so much was because every three months, he picked up a new topic to learn and read up whatever he could find on it. So, at the end of each year, he was a subject-expert on four topics.

He was 77 when the end came. Assuming he started arming himself thus at 25, it meant he was a walking encyclopaedia on at least a couple of hundred issues.

(Much later, Esquire magazine’s A.J. Jacobs read all 26 volumes of the real encyclopaedia, the Britannica.)

Would it surprise you that Mr Shenoy’s son, Ajit, was a top quizzer and quiz-setter?

Father Shenoy’s phenomenal memory was probably factory-fitted, but in Delhi it also came from practice. When he first came to the city, he walked daily from Green Park Extension to Central Secretariat with a friend who had joined the IAS.

And the two played chess along the 6-km way.

In their minds.

e4 e5

Nf3 NC6

Bc4 Nf6

d4 exd4

Ng5 d5

exd5 Nxd5….

And a revenge match on the way back.

Brilliant Mr Shenoy would be aghast at the uncouth and uncultured idiots, illiterates and philistines, who now populate the party he backed, and which honoured him with the Padma Bhushan in 2003.

Was he apologetic for his Himalayan error of judgement?

Maybe, maybe not.

But he was a master raconteur, with a superb economy of words. And he wrote, in my opinion, the finest apology any Editor in India has had to compose.

In the late-1980s, Mr Shenoy had left The Week and joined Sunday Mail. The latter had been started by Pramod Kapoor in Delhi, inspired by the success of Vinod Mehta’s Sunday Observer in Bombay.

Kapoor sold the paper to Sanjay Dalmia, who roped in T.V.R. Shenoy as Editor. The weekly broadsheet newspaper now came with an A-4 features magazine tucked in.

Disaster.

The first issue of the relaunched Sunday Mail had the wrong dateline on all its pages. Wrong not by a week, but by a full year. If the issue date should have read, let us say, 12 March 1989, it read 12 March 1988.

Not an earth-shattering mistake warranting cancellation of accreditation by Smriti Irani, but embarrassing nonetheless.

Mr Shenoy offered a classic ‘mea culpa’ in the next issue.

When Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru died on May 27, 1964, Mr Shenoy said he was a young sub-editor at the Indian Express in Bombay.

He was 23 going on 24.

It was decided by Ramnath Goenka’s managers to bring out a special edition, to come out the same day, to catch the commuter crowd.

The paper was hurriedly put together and it came out by late afternoon.

Disaster.

The dateline of the Express special edition read 28 May 1964, a full day ahead. This is because morning newspapers work with tomorrow’s template.

A special issue was not what they were used to; it had caught them on the wrong foot.

“When I was 23,” wrote Mr Shenoy, “I wanted to race into the future. Now, as I grow old, I want to stay in the past.”

That is wordplay.

It is also wisdom.

Little wonder, his passing is front-page news in the two biggest Malayalam newspapers today: his alma mater

Malayala Manorama, and its arch-rival, Mathrubhumi.