Believes life is one long learning...

Vinay Kamath

A tribute to a journalist

| Updated on October 11, 2014

MVK never used the computer or e-mail; an assistant would help him with e-mails sent to him.

In the late ’70s, I was moving into senior school and though it was early days, my imagination was fired up with thoughts of becoming a journalist. Reading The Illustrated Weekly of India, which I used to regularly, starting with the comics, I was chuffed to see the byline of MV Kamath. I asked my father who this namesake of my grandad’s was (he was Dr MV Kamath). I was quite surprised then to learn from my dad that Madhav Kamath was my grandmum’s cousin and that they had grown up together in the small coastal town of Udupi, where my dad spent his early days of school too.

News of his passing away this morning brings back many memories of spending time with him in his small book-lined apartment in Khar, Mumbai, where I would have long conversations with him on journalism and my career while he would also recount anecdotes from his glittering career as a journalist. He would himself make tea for us if his help was not around. I always made it a point to visit him whenever I was in Mumbai and he warmly made the time for me; he was retired, no doubt, but kept up a punishing schedule of reading and writing columns for many newspapers. It kept him alert, he had said. And, of course, not to mention his prodigious output of books.

I recall my father writing to him when he was with the Weekly, asking him about a career in journalism for me. I must have his neatly typed out letter somewhere, but do recall him saying that journalism is a hard grind and that I should venture into it only if I was fully convinced about it. I guess I was, since 28 years on, I am still a journalist!

I last visited him in his elegant home in Manipal, an hour’s drive from Mangalore, a few years ago. It was a small bungalow given to him in his capacity as the honorary director of the Manipal School of Communication. I had a 1 pm train to catch from Mangalore, so took a cab early that morning to visit him. He was almost 90 years old then, but very alert and spry as usual. His memory at that age surprised me as he remembered everyone in our family, enquired about my career, and all the while mindful too of the fact that I had a train to catch. He lived alone but had a maid who offered my brother and me a tasty breakfast of idlis and sambar.

MVK never used the computer or e-mail; an assistant would help him with e-mails sent to him. He pointed to his trusted Olivetti typewriter on a table in his workroom which he had used for years. At that time, he still kept up his column in the local Kannada daily Udayavani.

MVK’s output as a journalist, even much after he retired from The Weekly as its Editor was formidable. He has written over 40 books on diverse subjects, including many biographies, ranging from Kissinger to Verghese Kurien. But, to me his autobiography A Reporter at Large is not only a compelling read, but also a commentary on the epoch-making times he lived in and the redoubtable personalities he interviewed. On many occasions he was literally writing the first draft of history as it was being made.

His book has many anecdotes of encounters with the well-known personalities of his time. One of those is a fascinating account of his interaction with Indira Gandhi who had visited Paris as Information Minister when MVK was posted there as a correspondent for The Times of India. It was at a party for M.C. Chagla. To quote: “I met her a couple of days later at the farewell party she gave to Mr Chagla. My wife and I had been invited to the party and Mrs Gandhi was most charming. My wife and she got along very well. I suppose in part because Elinor was an American and knew a great deal about UN organisations. That evening, the American community in Paris had arranged for a film show on President Kennedy’s last three days before he was assassinated. Elinor wondered whether we should invite Mrs Gandhi to join us. She seemed only too pleased to accept our invitation, considering that she knew the Kennedys well. It was a poignant evening.

"The show was over by 8.30 pm. At this point, Elinor whispered to me whether she can ask Mrs Gandhi to come over to our apartment for dinner. “What have you got?” I asked and Elinor replied, “Darling, only left-overs!” Mrs Gandhi, who must have overheard our conversation seemed amused and said she could most happily come with us despite my protestations that we could only serve her pot-luck!

"We had a wonderful evening. Elinor managed to whip up a dinner of sorts but Mrs Gandhi turned out to be the ideal guest. The food did not bother her. She said she enjoyed it. What amazed me was the chatter she kept up, about herself, her family, her daily routine and a host of other things like how her husband proposed to her on the steps of the Sacre Couer (the famous cathedral in Paris); how much she liked French bread, how she saved money during her foreign trips to send it to her two sons studying in England and so on. She enjoyed being teased and ever since then I had always had the feeling that what she needed most was not a husband or sons, but a younger brother who could tease her and love her, but never be a competitor in her power game.

"We must have talked endlessly from around 9 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. when she caught me looking surreptitiously at my watch; whereupon she asked: “Do you want to throw me out?” She was enjoying the evening and would have happily sat throughout the night chatting merrily and we had finally to tell her that in her own interest she should have a good night’s rest. She had told me that she loved Paris a great deal and I promised her that the next time she was back in the city, I would personally show her around.”

"MVK goes on to write that she did come to Paris soon enough, this time as Prime Minister! And, the meeting had an unexpected denouement. At an interview organised for him and the PTI correspondent, Mrs Gandhi refused to recognise him! “Right away it became clear to me that Mrs Gandhi had decided that she did not know me. She was as cold as a refrigerated fish and just as stiff. Having anticipated such a likelihood, I was not taken by surprise and behaved as if that was the first time I had set eyes on her,” he wrote.

MVK’s book is a fascinating story of the life and times of someone who became a journalist through sheer serendipity (he had set out in life to be a chemist!). Having become one, he went on to live life to the fullest in a career spanning Europe, the US and then back home to a prolific career as a political and social commentator. His passing away at a grand old age brings to a close an era of old school journalists.

Published on October 10, 2014

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