It’s always the evening before that’s hardest to remember. Events of years past often freeze in memory.
Krishna Raj died in his sleep the night of January 16, 2004. He had returned from San Francisco the day before. That afternoon, he was in his corner office at the Economic and Political Weekly, a few minutes’ walk from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Like every Friday, the weekly went to bed after its last pages, making up the edits, the contents and the cover, were finalised, proofed and set.
The editor’s face was ruddy with exhaustion, yet KR remained before his computer and on the phone till late in the evening, talking to the proofing and page-setting unit in Borivali. As the office around him emptied of much of its staff, he dashed off for a while to the nearby Strand Book Stall to get something for someone, perhaps a contributor.
Sachin Chaudhuri and the Economic Weekly (1949-1965)
The Economic and Political Weekly, this year, completes 50 years of a treasured existence, cherished by its community of supporters, readers and contributors, and admired by an even wider section. Its the editors, however, who have defined much of its legacy – editors like Krishna Raj.
KR joined Economic Weekly, the predecessor of EPW, in 1960, not long after completing his masters in economics at the Delhi School of Economics. While recommending KR to Economic Weekly founder and editor Sachin Chaudhuri, the economist KN Raj (no relation) said that KR asked especially “interesting questions”. It was a trait that served him well. KR worked as assistant editor to Sachin Chaudhuri first at Economic Weekly and then at EPW when the latter was launched in 1966. After Chaudhuri’s death that year in December, the mantle of EPW editor passed on to RK Hazari, an economist and researcher who had taught at the University of Bombay.
Hazari, as lore has it, was known for his efficiency. He initiated, it is believed, the special sections on agriculture and industry in EPW and seeded the idea of a research foundation for EPW (for objective generation of economic data), something that came to fruition in the early 1990s. Hazari left the journal in 1969 when he was appointed deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and KR assumed full editorship in 1970.
Mentored by Chaudhuri and by Hazari, KR, like them, built a sound network around EPW. Scholars would use the weekly to contribute to the debates in India, not just with longer pieces in the special papers section, but also with timely short pieces – commentaries, discussion pieces. He set a template that remains almost unchanged till today, though sections such as Postscript and Web Exclusives have lately been added. In the way it functioned, EPW built a viable research network, encouraging established and new scholars, securing them through growing concentric circles of reference and buzz.
Much has been written about Sachin Chaudhuri’s informal style of functioning – without much financial support, it is said, he forged the weekly with his “social capital of friendship and foresight”. But beyond what is written, there also exists a lore in EPW that is handed down generations.
KR was fond of telling younger colleagues at EPW’s popular new year’s parties that Sachin Chaudhuri’s older brother Hiten Chaudhuri, who was associated with the Bombay Talkies film studio, had persuaded a textile industrialist, Sekhsaria, to invest in a weekly that Sachin would edit. The older brother was worried that his sibling had dabbled in one too many things.
From such informal, even precarious, beginnings, the weekly moved to be organised in a trust – the Sameeksha Trust – with a large degree of autonomy devolving almost automatically on its editor. The very nature of the weekly, its intensity and frequency demanded that.
Krishna Raj as editor (1969-2004)
Like Chaudhuri, KR understood and valued the need for continual debate and argument, for this reflected a well-functioning democracy and all its constituents: a well-functioning economy, answerable polity, and relevant institutions such as universities. As KR stressed, pieces carried in EPW, even its edits, were not mere reportage. They were meant to offer perspectives into the past and new insights.
While economics and related debates on planning, state role, investment and control formed a large part of EPW, it also featured some of the most interesting work in the social sciences from the 1980s and 1990s: in history, as the subaltern studies specialists made their mark, in sociology, in the politics of caste and religion, and also in gender studies.
Maithreyi Krishnaraj, who taught at Mumbai’s SNDT University (she was married to KR), gave shape to the Review of Women’s Studies that appeared in EPW twice a year. It was she who brought in a range of voices and diverse opinions on contemporary gender concerns within India and outside. There were other special issues too – on labour and management, and then on health and urbanisation. The EPW also came to present a range of pieces on the environment and the campaigns that took off in the late 1990s, like the right to information.
KR wrote some of the edits, and long-time readers could tell which edit had his wry, often acerbic, style. It was hard to tell when he got time to put them to paper. There was “housekeeping” to look into, as KR called it, and then there was always the flow of visitors in the late evenings as the staff dwindled and traffic outside on the chaotic Frere Road thinned.
Looking up at the 6th floor of Hitkari House from outside, one could always see the blue lights on. That was the address that appeared in the sender’s name section of the inland letters that KR mailed in his correspondence to writers, potential and long-time. These weren’t just cursory letters. They always made the reader believe that their contribution mattered to EPW.
Until the time he took some days off to visit his son in the US, KR was always in office at mid-afternoon and stayed on till around nine. As EPW lore goes, there was the exception of that one day in the late 1970s when he had deliberately stayed away, apparently because he had gone “underground” as the Emergency imposed its clamps on any critic or opponent.
Ashok Mitra, a long-standing contributor to the weekly and trustee till 2005, once said the weekly functioned much like a cottage industry. It operated on a shoestring budget and from rudimentary premises, but everything devolved on KR. And for long, the staff and the EPW community were content to let such things remain.
In the 1990s, a debate featured in its pages, particularly in the letters section, on the direction EPW needed to take. Letters were exchanged between some who expressed dismay on the leftward turn of the articles and the journal (initiated first by late economist and long-time EPW writer Dharma Kumar) and others who contradicted this, equally stridently. Irrespective of their perspective, all letters argued for pieces that reflected a changing India.
Despite the criticism he was subjected to, KR allowed in a great variety of pieces (except those expressing extremist religious views) that expressed the debate in India and sought to understand the turns the country was taking economically, socially and politically. In the end, he stressed the commitment of the journal to human rights.
Ram Reddy as editor (2004-Present)
Following KR’s sudden death, it took nine months before C Rammanohar Reddy was brought in as editor in September 2004. In that crucial intervening period, Padma Prakash was acting editor. She had been with the journal since 1985, contributing immensely to bringing in articles on health issues, information rights and also sports.
The staff, aware of what EPW stood for, was keen on an editor who understood the ethos of the journal and hence wanted Padma Prakash to continue in some role. The standoff, discreet to all appearances and yet somewhat stressful to its staff, was resolved, as things always were at EPW. But it is on such occasions that the Trust comes into its own, functioning in some secrecy and unmindful of the staff’s wishes.
Ram Reddy, who had been with The Hindu and earlier with the Planning Commission, filled up the breach reassuringly. It is perhaps a testimonial to EPW’s resilience that it continued, without missing a beat, despite the exit of a long-time editorial member. Ram Reddy, of course, had a difficult task: stepping into KR’s shoes and keeping the weekly going in its trusted way.
After more than a decade of his editorship, EPW remains indispensable and extraordinary. Ram Reddy extended EPW’s reach to universities and ensured its ready availability in the jstor archival system. The print copy of the weekly also came to have a more spruced-up contemporary look. The website became, over the years, user friendly and easier to navigate: the old issues of EPW and Economic Weekly were indexed and archived online, becoming easily available.
Ram Reddy was also instrumental in collecting the finances that allowed EPW to move into premises of its own in Lower Parel in 2008. The move to the heart of Mumbai’s old mill district – with the office housed in a few units on the third floor of a grey rectangular industrial estate block, nestled among high-rises and clogged roads – brought together under one roof EPW’s separate sections, the editorial, circulation and the proofing/page-setting. More staff joined in, especially in the editorial, which had for long had few resources.
The New Year’s parties ended, and the flow of visitors (Ram Reddy had to commute between Mumbai and Hyderabad) was kept to a rigorous, strictly-adhered schedule. On the other hand, thanks to the initiatives above, EPW’s reach widened in some ways. Ram Reddy was always an email away. No matter the distance, he would always advise his editorial colleagues to “just call a contributor”. He insisted that the editorial reply in a timely way to all emails, considering it deliberate arrogance if emails went unanswered for more than a day.
Ending the cottage industry workings of EPW, Ram Reddy, in a sense, corporatised it and imparted it a new and necessary kind of democracy. With all units of EPW working together, there was more cohesion. Also, he gave more decision-making responsibilities to the editorial team. The response mechanism, with submitted articles becoming easy to access and refer via a computerised database, became more streamlined and also efficient.
Then and now
The EPW lore stresses the differences and the need to keep memories alive: How KR pushed himself to the limits to bring the weekly out, how he didn’t tolerate a foible in a long-time employee despite being kindly and generous to a fault. Like the proverbial sages of yore, he was compelled to ask for an errant employee’s resignation. On the other hand, Ram Reddy stood up and defended an editorial colleague after the most egregious of writerly mistakes had been committed. Editors at EPW, as the lore goes, went beyond bringing the weekly out. They were institution builders and also visionaries.
When uncertain times came upon EPW, the lore demonstrated that the weekly would survive (1966, 1969 and more recently 2004). There was always the steady editorial presence, someone from the trenches to hold it up. As much as EPW is part of the wider community, and sustained by it, the weekly also needs the continued presence of someone who is able to blend the larger picture with the inside world of EPW. Perhaps the academic community, in a recent letter expressing support to the present editor, understand this. Perhaps this time, such voices will indeed be heard.