I met Anil Dharker at the very beginning of my career in 1987. He was the editor of the Mumbai paper Mid-day and had a team of the most startling journalists around him: Jeet Thayil, Amy Fernandes, Hutokshi Doctor and Meenakshi Shedde were among them. In the newsroom sat Sharda Ugra. It was a great place to cut your journalistic teeth and that’s where I began to wonder whether this might not be a way to make a living. (I was teaching mathematics then.)

I next encountered Mr Dharker, as I always called him for he never said “call me Anil”, when he was at the Illustrated Weekly of India where I became the resident freelance journalist in the early 1990s. I was even invited into edit meetings and discovered the secret of Dharker’s success as an editor. First, he built a great team. It was another great team that had to be put together after the departure of Pritish Nandy.

The legendary Raju Bharatan was there and so was the poet CP Surendran. Bharatan had spent some time in silence under the earlier regime but he came back with a bang, writing about Hindi film music and cricket. And then he gave the team freedom to write what they wanted.

These days, editors ask you to send in an abstract of the story you plan to write. I can’t do this. If I can write an abstract, I think, why bother with the story? And if I am really a journalist, I will find out what the real story is when I start doing it. If I know what the story is, I’m going to forcefit reality into my matrix and that’s another word for propaganda.

Freewheeling discussions

I remember once, a male member of the team saying, “I want to do a story on boobs in Hindi films. We can call it ‘Down Mammary Lane’.”

(You will remember of course that this was the magazine that was made into a national institution by Khushwant Singh who would come out of his cabin to look at the proofs and say, ‘What’s the Tit Quotient?’)

Dharker didn’t miss a beat.

“Yes, I think we can ask [psychotherapist] Udayan Patel to write about the breast fixation,” he said. “As an accompanying piece.”

I volunteered the information that Nadira said she had been padded for her famous sequence in Shri 420. There was a snort from Bharatan. “They were all padded. Only Nadiraji would have the courage to say it.”

“Dutch courage,” said someone. And the conversation veered away to other matters such as nationalism and the naming of vice and disease, the passing of old stars and body consciousness.

Author Shobhaa De and Anil Dharker. Credit: Tata Literature Live via Facebook

A bonus

At some point during the years that I spent there, he asked me whether I would teach his daughter, Ayesha mathematics. My freelance journalism career was then what we called a “side-business”; my real money came from getting young people to crack the quadratic and work the number line so I began to teach the future star of Bombay Dreams mathematics. He was open-minded about this too. One day, he wandered into the room where I was teaching Ayesha and found us talking about Vincent Van Gogh.

“Why Vincent?” he asked. “I thought the Renaissance painters would be better if you were talking about ratio and proportion.”

“I wasn’t,” I said.

He was silent. Then he shrugged. “She has to get through her exams,” he said. I nodded and he left it at that. As a bonus, I got to know the poet and painter Imtiaz Dharker better and all three of them became friends.

When the Weekly finally closed down in 1993, I felt like I had lost a home but Dharker took over the Sunday Review, the colour section of the Sunday Times of India. I worked with him there as well and since space was at a premium – it was often called The Ad Review – I began to write for other magazines and newspapers as well and found that most other editors knew exactly what they wanted. Dharker was one of the few editors who wanted to know what you wanted to say. (The others were Hutokshi Doctor, Amy Fernandes and Radhakrishnan Nair, and two out of three had trained under Anil Dharker.)

I remember being driven to Doordarshan where Dharker was chairing a television programme. He was always interested in other media. He had been with National Film Development Corporation when Richard Attenborough showed up with his script for Gandhi.

Dharker read it and told Dickie the good news. The NFDC would go all the way to support this project. He would get the largest grant possible. I think this was something like Rs 5 lakhs.

Richard Attenborough laughed and went away.

But the next day, he called up and said he would take the money anyway. Because the NFDC meant something.

You know the rest of the story. The script landed on the table of a certain Indira Gandhi. She read it through the night and the next morning, she was sure that it was a film that had to be made. She could not find any way to pay for it but she ordered the entire infrastructure to be put at the command of the filmmakers.

Anil Dharker and Amitabh Bachchan. Credit: anildharker.com

One day, someone will do a biography of Dharker and will sort out the timelines but it was around the time that he had left the Bennett Coleman Group that he set up AHA Media. (The A-ha moment was big in the media world then and there was Anil-Hutokshi-Amy as the three partners.) With CP Surendran roped in, we shot a pilot for a television show called Heart Attack. I was one of the anchors. The other two? The poet Arundhathi Subramaniam and the commentator Girish Shahane. We did one episode in which Subramaniam did a piece on an Indian version of Steel Magnolias and I interviewed Raju Bharatan on his book on Lata Mangeshkar. No takers.

I remember Dharker’s departure to DSJ-TV, part of the television boom that threw up Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai among others, one of the first big challenges to hit the print industry. I worked with Mr Dharker as a script consultant there and with Rani Dharker, his sister and author of fine novels like The Virgin Syndrome, I wrote an Indianisation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It never got made.

Now that I look back, Dharker runs like a thread through my career, constantly challenging me to do new things. I was for a short while, Fiction Director, for the first literary festival to be organised in the city; Bachi Karkaria was the non-fiction editor. Sheilu Srinivasan was involved and Dignity Dialogue too; so it was to be a literary festival for the age of silver. But then Srinivasan thought better of it and withdrew. Undaunted, Dharker forged on and what was born was the first of the literary festivals, the Tata Literature Live Festival. Bachi Karkaria left and went off to set up the Times Literary Festival, which ran out of steam a year or so ago. The Tata Literature Live continues.

Not everything Dharker did was successful but what I admired and respected was his spirit. He was the voice of the liberal middle class. His was the voice of the quiet cosmopolitan. He would take on the Shiv Sena at the time when to do so was to court violence. But he was never shrill. His was the most deadly weapon of all that one can turn against the fascist, a quiet sense of humour. If comedians are now among the targets of the state, you should know that the “Oh yeah! Ha ha” laugh is one of the most potent tools in the arsenal of the Fool.

The last time we met was when he asked me to interview Neil Gaiman for the last edition of the Tata Literature Live. He had had a bypass, I had heard, but he was looking himself, ironic, elegant and understated. (Remember this was the man who had modelled for Editors’ Choice tea and who had his own line of kurtas at the boutique Melange.)

I am discovering, as I write this piece, how much I will miss him and how much he gave to the city he loved.

Jerry Pinto is a novelist, translator and poet. His most recent book is I Want a Poem and Other Poems.