Not many journalists are literally bequeathed a newspaper column. Fewer still are given one in a last will and testament from one of India’s great cultural icons.

In 1935, the filmmaker, storyteller and journalist KA Abbas began to write his "The Last Page" in the Bombay Chronicle. He moved the column to Blitz, where it ran till he died in 1987. In his will, Abbas requested the editor of Blitz – Russy Karanjia – to give his column to "some progressive journalists like P Sainath, who will carry on the KA Abbas tradition".

Sainath inherited the column, but this was not the essence of the gesture. Sainath had Abbas’ stance, his commitment, and his fierce determination to tell stories about ordinary people who have been able to live against extraordinary odds. That was the Abbas tradition. It is there in Abbas’ films, from Naya Sansar (1941) to Do Boond Pani (1971). It has been fundamental to Sainath’s journalism.

"If this silly fellow keeps writing the things he does and saying the things he says," warned Abbas of Sainath, "then he has no future at all. Certainly no one in power or positions of authority can ever forgive him." This was not said in condemnation. It was said with pride. Neither Abbas nor Sainath would want to be forgiven by the powerful. They did not want such absolution.

'Free, frank and fearless'

The masthead of Blitz proudly said – "Free, Frank and Fearless". Not one word was in vain. The spirit had been infused in the paper by its founders – Karanjia, who came to it with an internationalist ethos, Dinkar Nadkarni, who wrote sensational crime stories in the Bombay Sentinel and BG Horniman, an Irishman who broke the Jallianwala Bagh story for the Daily Herald. These were fearless reporters and editors. Sainath fell in amongst them.

Over two decades ago, Sainath quit the Blitz and took a Times of India fellowship. It allowed him to report from the 10 poorest districts in India. Those reports – now classics – form the main stories in Everybody Loves a Good Drought Sainath’s epic account of the Indian rural condition. The idea of the book, Sainath wrote, "is to focus on people and not on numbers."

Individuals appear from the very beginning – Mangal Sunani of Nuapada (Odisha) – to the very end – Fatimah in Pudukkottai (Tamil Nadu). Stories of men and women caught between the callousness of public policy and the yearning for better lives. This is fearless journalism built from the sensibilities of unknown people.

"Let’s go back to the Blitz office," I said to him recently in Mumbai. It didn’t take long to convince Sainath. He had not been back in 22 years, he said. Our LeftWord Books team (Suvendu Mallick, Sudhanva Deshpande and myself) met Sainath at Kitab Khana near Flora Fountain. We were late. He was in the stacks, peering through statistical handbooks.

Sainath loves to write about people, but he is impishly interested in data. His writings bristle with uncomfortable comparisons. In Aurangabad, he once wrote, banks loaned money at 15.9% to buy a tractor, but at 7% to buy a Mercedes Benz. Those figures said as much as a wry turn of phrase.

Castro and yoga

Turning down towards Horniman Circle – named for the editor – we went to Dwarka Restaurant. This was one of the haunts of Blitz reporters. The owner – who had been a young boy then – and the waiters immediately recognised Sainath. "It has been a long time," said the owner from behind his perch near the front door. Sainath breezed by. He was almost at home. "Good coffee would come from here," he said. It would be delivered to the office, which was open to visitors of all kinds – from emissaries of the Shah of Iran to the local heavies of the Shiv Sena.

Karanjia, the editor, admired Fidel Castro – whose portrait sat on his desk. He travelled to Havana to interview him in 1959. It was a scoop for the paper (and would form the basis of his 1961 book, Castro: Storm Over Latin America). But Karanjia also had a soft spot for astrologers and yogis. The former tried to forecast elections. It did not often go well. Yogis would gather in the halls of the Blitz. They came to show Karanjia their contortions. He did two hours of yoga each morning. Few yogis impressed him.

The combination of Castro and yoga was not unusual in those days. Dhirendra Brahmachari, admired by Nehru, went to the Soviet Union in the 1960s to teach Hatha Yoga to the cosmonauts. He would later become Indira Gandhi’s sage. Some considered him her Rasputin.

Sainath approached the Blitz office as if he had a story to file. From a tailor’s shop on the ground floor – Kanji Narayan & Co – emerged the owner. He came to greet Sainath. Gathering us up into his small shop, he brought out a photo album from 1991. There were pictures of him with Karanjia, a little celebration on the street in front of the building. "This is the best day of my life," Kanji Narayan told me, beaming towards Sainath. Sainath asked him to confirm where the paper’s vans had been burnt to a crisp. "Over here" and "over here," he pointed.

Blitz had spoken plainly about the Shiv Sena in its humour column. The old cartoonist – Bal Thackerey – was not in a laughing mood. The Sena troops marched in from Thane to burn the vans. It was to punish Blitz. Karanjia was flummoxed. Blitz did not own the vans. "Who is the owner?" he asked. Not long after, Sainath remembered, the owner appeared. He was the local Shiv Sena boss. The boys from Thane had not consulted the locals. It was their method to allow their friends in the police to plead ignorance. Kanji Narayan nods along. He is happy to be part of the excitement of Blitz for an hour. Sainath will return. He needs a new pair of trousers.

On edge

Threats formed the basis of life in the paper. It took its masthead seriously. Sainath’s colleague Habib Joosab would admonish the callers: "We don’t get killed on Mondays and Tuesdays. These are our press days. We’re too busy for all that. No one’s available for dying."

This was not idle talk. In 1970, the Communist leader Krishna Desai was stabbed to death by men who had affiliations with the Shiv Sena. Journalists such as Sajid Rashid of Sahafat and Nikhil Wagle of Mahanagar faced the sharp edge of the Sena’s sword. Complaints by the Bombay Union of Journalists made little headway. Confluence of interest between the Shiv Sena and the real estate mafia had strangled the institutions of state. Complaints from powerful people came regularly to the office – sugar mafias, real estate mafias, and communal mafias. It is the price of being a reporter.

The building is now a hive of shops. There is no evidence of the Blitz. Around the corner, the People’s Publishing House remains in business. It stocks books of dissent. Amongst them are the words of those who have died for rationalism and humanism – Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar – as well as the next generation of fighters – Kanhaiya Kumar.

The previous evening, Kumar had been part of a massive Dalit and Left parties protest in Mumbai against the demolition of the Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar. In the dark of night, the old building where Ambedkar once worked was torn down to be replaced, it is said, by the glass and steel of the new Mumbai. Memory is being erased in the service of money. So far, the Blitz building remains. But the sniff of redevelopment is never absent in a city like Mumbai. It is insatiable.

Pursuit of passion

Sainath left Blitz for the Indian countryside. He did not go there for peace and calm. The neo-liberal policy framework dampened the conditions for Indian agriculturalists. Sainath’s reports on their fragile lives for The Hindu inspired a generation of reporters – such as the Prem Bhatia award-winner Priyanka Kakodkar and Jaideep Hardikar – to tell stories about the majority of the Indian people. Their work slips into the newspapers and televisions.

Editors are under pressure to report urban issues to please urban audiences who encourage the flow of money from urban advertisers. With 70% of the Indian population in rural areas, it is no wonder that the media landscape seems so unable to explain clearly the dynamics of contemporary India. Sainath’s army wants to change that – not only to provide a rich description of rural India, but also to archive the rapid transformation of life and culture in the countryside. It is building on this network that Sainath created the People’s Archive of Rural India, known as PARI.

We are sitting in the PARI office, eating biryani with the PARI team (PARIvar, or family, they say, laughing), and listening to Sainath recount stories of Blitz. Enthusiasm is the main emotion here. Everyone is a volunteer. They have jobs to cover their expenses, but PARI is their passion.

A group of students from West Bengal have made two short films – one about a man from Siliguri who runs a motorcycle ambulance unit and another of a man from Bolpur who rides his bicycle up and down the streets, singing devotional songs.

There are new stories of dancers from Tamil Nadu and a justice committee set up by women in Junagadh in Gujarat. In that story of the justice committee, Hiraben Parmer tells the journalist Gurpreet Singh: "Isn’t this a form of empowerment – to speak up against what is wrong?" It is the ethos of PARI, that keeps it going.

Even if the Blitz building is knocked down – if it is run over like the Mills of Bombay by Kohinoor Square and Trump Tower – the spirit of this Bombay institution will remain in these journalists, carrying on "the KA Abbas tradition".