I preceded Inder Malhotra as an assistant editor in the Mumbai edition of the Times of India by a couple of years. He joined as a senior assistant editor from the venerable Statesman – still regarded then as the best written , if not the best, broadsheet in the country – not very long before the Emergency in 1975.
He was different from the erudite or pompous members of our fraternity who thought it was their mission to educate the populace every day with their pontification on the edit page.
In case of Emergency…
Malhotra had begun, like most editors, as a junior reporter in the capital and worked his way up to become a political correspondent through the tumultuous years of our independence and the aftermath.
He had an unerring eye for detail and a prodigious memory, which served him in good stead later when he wrote, till a few months before he died, his column in the Indian Express titled Rear View.
He had an easy and affable manner, honed undoubtedly by his years as a reporter. This differed, as chalk from cheese, from the withering condescension of our editor, the bibliophile Sham Lal, who was primarily a rewrite man, his steadfast gaze never wavering from the comment page.
When Malhotra’s senior in the Times of India, the late Ajit Bhattacharjea left to edit Everyman’s Journal, Malhotra often deputed as the acting editor in Lal’s absence. Malhotra came into his own after the Emergency was declared.
I was editing the Sunday magazine of the Times of India then, and Malhotra carefully vetted the contents before it went to press on a Wednesday. On one occasion, he kept back an article by Minhaz Merchant, now a prosperous publisher of journals himself, of his visit to the Osho ashram in Pune. Malhotra didn’t have the heart to tell me himself, but left it to Lal to kill the article when he returned.
Many people paid obeisance to Rajneesh “like the Christians revere the Pope”, my editor told his agnostic junior assistant editor. Neither told me that the chairman’s wife, Indu Jain, now chair herself, was an Osho devotee, a fact of which I was blissfully unaware.
Malhotra as resident editor
When Shyam Lal retired in the later ’70s, there was a tussle between Malhotra and KC Khanna as to who would be elevated to become the Resident Editor in Delhi, widely seen as being next in line to becoming editor.
Malhotra won, and Khanna was relegated to becoming the resident editor in Mumbai. Khanna later edited the Illustrated Weekly (and was brutally murdered by his domestic worker).
In 1979, I left to become resident editor of the Indian Express in Mumbai. It was later, in 1985, that Malhotra had to run the gauntlet of Samir Jain, the newly-ascendant “rising son” of the Times of India owner Ashok Jain.
A senior Times of India editor recalled that when Samir Jain came in as the vice-chairman, he sent for Malhotra. The resident editor went to Jain's office. He found that Jain didn’t have very much to say. After some chit-chat, Malhotra asked: “Samirji, is there anything in particular? I have to write my editorial.” After two or three days, he again received a summons to go up. Malhotra said: “I am holding the editorial meeting, I can’t come just now. I’ll come later.”
The senior editor recounting the incident sent a message to the vice-chairman, that if he wished to speak to the Resident Editor, he should come down. “As far as I was concerned, that was it,” this senior said. “That was when Samir began to look for a replacement.”
Many years later, Malhotra recalled the problems. He spoke to me at length in his duplex apartment in the journalists’ colony in Saket in Delhi in 2005. “On January 3, 1985,” Malhotra recounted, with his eagle-eyed memory for dates, “Samir Jain invited me to breakfast at home. ‘I want advice on how to run the paper, how to make it better,’ he said. ‘Anyone can write, we can hire other people to write.'
“I told him: ‘Whatever shape you want to give to the paper, kindly sort it out with the editor. Whatever instructions you want to give me, convey it through the editor. If they are acceptable to me, that’s fine. If they are not, I will come to you and say: ‘Please let me go’.’ He replied: ‘No, no, I can’t let you go.’ I said: ‘The point is this: I deem it to be no good if I don’t write. I will not be a journalist.’ He said, ‘No, you have reached a certain level.’
“I thought it over for three or four days and on January 8, I wrote out my resignation and handed it in. I was 55 then. Giri [Girilal Jain] begged me to stay for two more years; he said that we would go together."
Malhotra did not press his resignation.
“The second time I gave in my resignation letter was before going to the US in 1985. Samir Jain asked for a chat. This was before he became vice-chairman. As I was getting up, he shook hands and asked if he could suggest something. He mentioned how whenever a chief factotum, an important manager in charge of the production of the paper, a trusted man, came to see him, he brought a notebook and whatever he [Jain] told him, he took it down. So I said: ‘Samir, firstly, I don’t need to do this. You can talk to me and that’s it, it’s done. If it’s not, you can talk to me. I am not carrying a notebook.'”
Malhotra finally resigned in 1986.