Why do we make the decisions we do? I often feel we make them purely on the basis of gut-feel or instinct and then look for justifications in retrospect.
On the face of it, there was no compelling argument for choosing ABP over the Times. Having got the measure of Samir Jain, I was convinced that he would revolutionise the newspaper business and turn the Times of India into one of the world’s great media power houses. He was offering me an opportunity to be part of that journey.
Plus, he was offering me a solid, concrete job with more money than ABP could offer and access to millions of readers all over India. I would stay on in Bombay and even if the job at the Times did not work out, I would still be within my comfort zone and in a position to find a new job.
Aveek was offering me editor of Sunday, a magazine which was in trouble without actually offering me the real designation, at least for a few months. As smart as ABP was, I know it would never be in the Times’ league because nobody there had Samir’s vision or commercial brilliance. I was uprooting my life, going to a strange city and doing it all for less money.
I think Aveek sensed my hesitation. The following week when he was in Bombay again, he took me out to dinner at the Rotisserie, then billed as India’s most expensive restaurant and advanced various claims on behalf of Calcutta. I could have a large house rather than a flat as I had in Bombay. It would be my own place as distinct from my Bombay flat which belonged to my mother. (He made it sound like I would own this accommodation which, in reality, ABP would rent in its own name.) Calcutta was the only city with club life. (When I said loathed Raj clubs and would never dream of joining one, he looked at me as though I was a bumpkin or a yokel.)
Eventually though, for reasons I still can’t fully explain, I took the ABP job.
This was a breach of faith. I had verbally accepted the Times job, I told Pritish Nandy who was my friend and who, I thought, would be able to break the news more easily to Samir.
Pritish could not believe that I would pick ABP, a “second-rate organisation”, over the Times. He had left Calcutta, a city he loved, and come to Bombay because he wanted to work for the best. Why would I make the reverse journey?
Besides, had I lived in Calcutta? Nobody who was from Bombay could ever live there. Our mutual friend Anupam Kher had gone briefly to Calcutta and had been so horrified that he kissed the tarmac at Bombay airport once he returned. I would be in the same position. (I never double-checked the story with Anupam so it is possible that Pritish may have rearranged the facts to dissuade me from going to Calcutta!)
Eventually Samir called. He was speaking as a friend, he said. He thought I was making a big mistake. He knew I would be back. So, here was his suggestion. The Jains had a large house in Calcutta. Why didn’t I just move in there? The house was empty most of the time. I would not last long with ABP, so why bother to even rent a house?
Within six months to a year when I had accepted that the ABP job was a mistake, he explained, I could move back to Bombay without ever having shifted my residence or disrupted my life. There would still be room for me at the Times.
In the circumstances, it was an extraordinarily gracious and generous response. I thanked him and said, with more conviction than I really felt, that I was sure I would be okay with ABP. We kept in touch for the next few years (the Times made one more serious stab at hiring me in 1990) and he was always warm and friendly, never holding it against me that I had broken my word to him in 1986.
I hadn’t argued too much with Aveek Sarkar about money because I had always had the sense that in the long run, I would have a much better standard of living at ABP than I would at other newspaper organisations. This was part instinct and partly observation. MJ Akbar, the group’s star editor, had a lifestyle that all other editors envied.
So I was not thrilled to discover on my first day at work in Calcutta that a) they had forgotten that I needed a residence in Calcutta and b) had booked me into a seedy hotel where cockroaches shared the room with me. In those days, Calcutta had only one good hotel: The Grand. The rest were all dumps. (The Taj Bengal opened years later.)
I asked Aveek about my house. He summoned a man from the Estate Department who said he would look for something. I complained about the seedy hotel which, of course, Aveek had never been inside. So, as if to make up he invited me home for dinner that night.
Aveek lived (still lives) in a beautiful bungalow decorated in a comfortable but distinctly Raj style. Presumably this was deliberate because, like the rest of us, he had bought his own furniture. On the walls were paintings by such contemporary masters as Bikash Bhattacharya and Ganesh Pyne as well as great works from the classical Bengali school.
I asked him about the house. “I told the architect,” he said, “that imagine if a Raj official in the nineteenth century had wanted to build a house in Calcutta. That is what I want, along with all mod- cons, of course.” He must have seen the look on my face because he added, by way of explanation, “I am basically a man trapped in the wrong century.”
This was too much, even though it was my first day at work.
“Aveek,” I said, “if you lived in this area during the Raj, you would have been a waiter. Life was not easy for Indians.”
He thought about this, shrugged his shoulders and we waited for the guest of honour to arrive.
It was Amartya Sen, whom I knew slightly from attending his seminars at Oxford. I discovered another Aveek Sarkar trait. He would invite the best economists, lawyers, historians and politicians home. But instead of trying to pump them for information as us ordinary journalists would do, Aveek would lecture them on their speciality.
So Amartya Sen was taught economics for two hours by Aveek Sarkar.
Over the years I would see Aveek do this to nearly everyone. (This extended to interviews. A few years later, we were interviewing Rajiv Gandhi and Aveek raised arcane points about the economy. Rajiv tried to explain what the government’s position was when Aveek interrupted. “I think I know what you are trying to say Prime Minister, but let me tell you why you are wrong.”)
Because he had no malice and was personally likeable (even when he was wrong – and he often was) Aveek got away with it.
Even Sen treated him with indulgence and appeared to have a good time. The evening was powered along by the sound of Aveek’s lecturebaazi and his elegant wife Rakhi’s world-class cooking.
The next day, I woke up to a cockroach, packed my bag and checked into The Grand. In office, later in the day, I told Aveek what I had done. The Grand was double the price of the hotel they had booked me into but Aveek didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘If that’s what you prefer,’ he said.
Nobody had any clue what the house situation was so I asked Aveek if it was okay for me to go back to Bombay each weekend. In my mind, I had prepared a case for saying that the air ticket would cost as much as it would for ABP to feed and house me at the Grand.
I didn’t need it. Aveek agreed at once, called his secretary in and told him to book me a business class return ticket to Bombay. Suddenly it didn’t seem to matter that ABP was paying me a few thousand less than I could have earned elsewhere.
I was using beat-up Ambassador cars from the ABP car pool and each day a different little man in a dhoti would drive me around town, making sharp turns, forcing pedestrians to thank God they were still alive and cheerfully flouting every traffic regulation. On my second day, the driver deliberately drove into a street where it said “No Entry”. A cop attempted to stop him. “Ehh Ananda Bazar,” the driver shouted at him, pointing to the PRESS sticker on the car and kept driving.
It was a very different world from the one that I had left behind at Imprint and in the evenings, I would retire to the serenity of the Grand and find some peace.
Strangely enough, I never had a second thought about having taken the job, largely I think because, at some basic level, I liked and trusted Aveek, his Raj pretensions notwithstanding.
And then there was the challenge of the work. I had stopped reading Sunday after Akbar gave up on it so I hadn’t realised how far it had sunk. I met the Calcutta staff. They seemed nice enough. But having spoken to them it was clear why they produced a magazine that was quite so terrible.
I had my work cut out for me.
Excerpted with permission from A Rude Life: The Memoir, Vir Sanghvi, Penguin India.