Life on the Nehru beat
As a young stringer for mainstream English newspapers in Dehradun, Raj Kanwar had a few enduring encounters with Jawaharlal Nehru. Looking ahead to India's first PM's 123rd birth anniversary, he recalls his habit of leaving the most important part of his speeches for the very end � an idiosyncrasy that helped Kanwar file a copy that other correspondents couldn't match
I was a stringer for three mainstream English newspapers in the 1950s; additionally, I also published a weekly named the Vanguard that was quite popular. One could the number of professional journalists in Dehradun then count on the fingers of one’s hand. Of that small lot, I was the only one to boast of Master’s and Law degrees; my peers then looked at me with some respect albeit mingled with a degree of envy.
It was thus my good fortune to have had the rare privilege of having several one-on-one meetings with Jawaharlal Nehru during his frequent visits to Dehradun. Nehru had nurtured a great fondness for the town and would undertake visits here on the slightest pretext. He loved the sylvan surroundings of its Circuit House, with its expansive grounds and rich foliage and felt at home there.
Even on official visits, Nehru managed to find enough time to indulge in his favourite pastime of reading and writing. He would love to sit under the shade of his favourite camphor tree, with chirping birds as his companions. In that quietude he felt at peace.
Meeting Nehru those days was like child’s play; one did not need to make a prior appointment. There was neither any security nor retinue of private assistants. Thus one winter morning in mid-1950s, I cycled my way up to the Circuit House; a couple of constables with lathis stood at the main gate, a few lolled about on the front verandah while some other sauntered inconspicuously on the big lawns under the shades of giant trees. It was as easy as that.
Ram Prasad, that all pervasive ‘bearer’ there accosted me and smiled. “Have you come to see Panditji,” was his obvious question, and my reply was just a nod. He pointed towards the lawn, and I saw Panditji strolling there. So close to the great man, I felt nervous.
Unhurriedly, I approached Panditji and introduced myself as a journalist. “But I have no news to give”. Panditji said some words to that effect. “Yes, I know. And I have not come for news; I simply came to see you.” Panditji smiled. As I walked with him, I was tongue-tied. I couldn’t find anything interesting to say to break the ice. Panditji then took the initiative to break the awkward silence and asked me what subjects I studied at the college.
Then in a rush of words, I briefly gave my academic background and further told him that I was the president of DAV College Students’ Union two years ago. That made him pause in his steps; he smiled again, looked intently at me and then told me to come again if I wished. That carte blanche lifted me to seventh heaven.
Subsequently, I met Nehru whenever he visited Dehradun, and occasionally sent news items about him. Once, I presented him a copy of the Vanguard, in which I had joined issue with Nehru on one of his controversial statements. He read my story and then smiled as if to say, “You are yet too young to question my statement.”
A few months before I met Nehru, I had had the first opportunity of covering a public meeting addressed by him. It was held on Dehradun’s Parade Grounds. I was both excited and scared. A party of senior journalists had accompanied Nehru from Delhi.
Though an impressive speaker in English, Nehru was not too eloquent at addressing public meetings in Hindi, and often changed track as he spoke. Like others of his ilk who had gotten their education through the medium of English, particularly in England, Nehru’s thought process was in English. First he composed his speech in English in his mind, and then translated into Hindi as he spoke. Likewise, those who covered his meetings would take notes in English by translating Nehru’s Hindi into English as he rambled on.
At times, Nehru would bring up the most newsworthy point at the fag end of his speech, in a cavalier fashion. National correspondents on the ‘Nehru beat’ were fully aware of this idiosyncrasy and would wait till the end. However, on that occasion most of the members left the meeting en masse even before Nehru concluded his speech. Telecommunication as known today was then nowhere on the horizon; the telegraph offices sent telegrams and even the longish press telegrams in Morse code. The Central Telegraph office near the Clock Tower had made special arrangements for the convenience of the visiting pressmen; providing typewriters, typing papers and even carbon papers.
I waited till the very end. Nehru delivered the most important point as he concluded his speech. I instantly recognised that point as the lead to my story that I wrote in my mind as I rushed to my cousin’s dry cleaning shop nearby where I kept my small Royal typewriter and where I typed all of my telegrams.
Being the local stringer, I knew everyone in the Telegraph Office and everybody there knew me. The stringers those days feared the news agencies more as their news editors would use the agency story if received early in order to catch the Dak edition. As I finished typing, I called the office in charge at the telegraph office, and he was ready to give priority to my copy.
The following morning my papers carried Nehru’s concluding announcement in big headlines, while most special correspondents were left wondering. In my long career as a stringer I would often beat the outstation special correspondents. Despite all this, most of them became my friends, and they respected and treated me as an equal.
Raj Kanwar is a senior Dehradun-based journalist and author