Delhi's Akhbaar Road

Norris Pritam | Updated on: Aug 11, 2011

LF05DELHI | Photo Credit: Ramesh Sharma

A stroll down the years in the Capital's Fleet Street, in our continuing series on Delhi@100.

The Express Building on Delhi's Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg always had a special meaning for me. As a young boy, the road for me was a vital link between New Delhi district, where I lived, and Old Delhi where I often went for delicious food, kulfi or to buy kites and string. My transport was always a rickety Delhi Transport Corporation bus and the conductor's bell and announcement, ‘ Express Building', was a signal for me to look right.

I was fascinated by the Spot News displayed on blackboards at Indian Express and adjacent Times of India buildings. Quite often I would save the 20 paise meant for bus ticket and walk back from Old Delhi, munching chana or some such thing. Walking down the service lane where the newspaper offices were located, my favourite pastime was to crouch and peep through the ventilator panes into the basement of the Times building. The sight of newspaper printing on those old rotary machines was a big attraction — otherwise seen only in Hindi movies. I would not budge until shooed away by a guard.

Some years later, in 1981, I joined the Indian Express as a sports reporter and saw a rotary machine from close. It was my baptism to Delhi's Fleet Street, as the service lane from Express Building to Link House was fondly called. But in the last three decades or so, the character and culture of Fleet Street have transformed. The heavy traffic and parking blues in front of the newspaper houses are a sore point with many, while others regret the “decline” in the nightlife , inter-personal behaviour and ambience of the place.

Humble cycles to fancy cars

Usha Rai, a noted development journalist, spent over four decades in Times of India and Indian Express but now avoids going back to Fleet Street. “Where will I park and who will let me in without a security pass,” she says.

“In the good old days, just three cars were parked in front of Indian Express ,” recalls R. Ramachandran, who worked as editorial assistant with seven editors. “It was an Italian Fiat of S. Mulgaokar, a Premier Padmini of Ramnath Goenka and a Dodge of Saroj Goenka.” They stood out among the hordes of bicycles chained along the Express wall. Occasionally, Arati Jairath, then a young reporter with the Indian Express , came in a light-greenish Fiat. Today, luxury cars have replaced bicycles, leaving no space to walk. The scene is no different outside Times building, and further down the road to Link House, which now has the Pioneer office.

Satya Dev Prasad, popularly known as Panditji, has been running a paan shop outside Express since 1977. “Why just traffic, even journalists have changed,” he says. “Now you don't have people like Verghese saheb (B.G. Verghese).” His views are endorsed by Ramachandran. “When his son was getting married he (B.G. Verghese) asked me to Photostat some wedding ceremony papers on office machine, but paid for it.”

Stars in the making

A walk down Fleet Street was a great pastime for many of us, as we exchanged notes with fellow journalists and even shared stories. Today, SMS and Facebook have replaced the walks, and story sharing in the present cut-throat competition is almost nonexistent.

The standard Navy blue trousers and white shirt of W.D. Mathur (Bobby) of Indian Express , and the brown sandals and trademark Charminar cigarette of Arindam Sen Gupta ( Patriot ) are still fresh in my mind. The two would often meet midway. Bobby has retired since and I doubt if Arindam (Currently Editor, Times of India ) ever walks or smokes a Charminar!

For some of the young and more enterprising, the walks also afforded a brief ogling session. I won't reveal more, but let me confess we were quite intrigued by a young girl in black tights who used to come out of the Times Building. Very quiet and serious looking, she always carried some fancy files and books. I never got a chance to ask her about those files. Now I find her anchoring CNN-IBN talk shows with aplomb! Yes, Sagarika Ghose it was.

Another rather quiet and shy young man from those days who came to Patriot straight out of college is Pankaj Pachauri, Managing Editor, NDTV .

Also then with Patriot , Rakesh Bhatnagar (now with DNA) recalls: “I think I was getting about Rs 400 or Rs 500 as monthly salary then, and even the Press Club was kind of out of bounds for us. We used to have our daily quota standing near a huge cooler to hide the glasses.” Well, today, with the kind of pay packages young journalists enjoy, the Press Club is considered low-end, and five-star bars are often the watering holes of choice.

Newsgathering, networking and other sport

Apart from a drinking adda , Patriot was also known for a badminton tournament for mediapersons. As a young trainee, I had no choice but to say ‘yes' when Coomi Kapoor (Special Correspondent then) asked me to be her mixed-doubles partner in the Indian Express team. We won and, to my utter surprise, seasoned reporters such as Seema Mustafa, Raminder Singh, Sudeep Mazumdar and even news editor S.K. Verma came to watch the matches. Sadly, that camaraderie is missing today.

Inspired by the Patriot tournament, I cleaned and painted the Express courtyard to convert it into a badminton court. Pradeep Ganeriwal, who was the managing director of Indian Express , was a keen player and often played with us. In fact, he even recruited a young badminton player as a trainee sub-editor backdated, so he could play for us in the Patriot tournament. Madhusudan Srinivas, the first ‘sports case' in media, is now Senior News Editor at NDTV . All of that is unimaginable today, as lineage has taken precedence over talent and journalistic aptitude when it comes to hiring.

Fleet Street has an even stronger connection with NDTV . In the 1980s, Radhika Roy was Chief Sub-editor at the Express and Prannoy Roy, now founder and Chairman NDTV, used to pick her up after work. In white shorts and T-shirt, after a session of squash I guess, he would often come to me at the sports desk to check county cricket results. It was still the days of old-fashioned PTI ticker and I gave him the teleprinter copies. Now it's over to the teleprompter for Dr Prannoy Roy.

Others who found the way to name and fame from Fleet Street include Sanjaya Baru and H.K. Dua — both had a stint as media advisor to the Prime Minister. And, of course, there was Dilip Padgaonkar, who claimed to be the second-most important man after the Prime Minister.

Indian Express was always considered a poor cousin of the Times of India when it came to salaries and basic professional facilities. Considered an anti-establishment newspaper, it had to endure power cuts close to deadline. While we had no power backup, TOI was illuminated in full glory. Rather than wait for power to be restored, I often went to TOI's Sports Desk for duplicate bromides and passed my page with them. In the intense heat of Delhi summer, I often found refuge in the air-conditioned environment of TOI. Today, that again would be unimaginable.

Transformed by technology

Technology has further hastened the metamorphosis of Fleet Street. In the 1970s, young hawkers did brisk business with evening newspapers. Today, even before news finds its way into print, breaking news starts screaming on TV screens. Mobile-phone alerts have equally dulled Fleet Street.

Before the arrival of live TV, Budget presentation in Parliament used to be a huge event on Fleet Street. Staff from every newspaper were present at Parliament to collect the Budget papers, which used to be presented late afternoon. Then it was a race to take them to newspaper offices for publication. Thousands of people used to flock Fleet Street in those days for vital information relating to hikes, if any, in prices of petrol and diesel, as also cigarettes. Young sub-editors were designated to fly out the Budget papers to their respective offices in the financial city of Mumbai. A free flight and night stay in Mumbai at office expense was seen as a big incentive by the young journos. For working late that day, on-the-house dinner was provided. It was one night when booze was served officially. In sharp contrast today, the Budget does not stir Fleet Street one bit. It is presented earlier in the day and shown live on TV. The editors who used to rush back to office to write editorials now first go to TV channels for debates. And no more flying of papers to Mumbai. The Budget speech is available online!

Night shift fed on parantha

Equally dramatic changes have occurred to the night scene at Fleet Street. For many like me, on night shift a visit to the parantha shop outside Herald House was a must. Staying open all night, the shop attracted even young doctors from the nearby Maulana Azad Medical College for a taste of its oily parantha and achar (pickle). But now, due to security reasons, everything is shut down at 10 p.m. “Those days are over,” says Baljeet Singh, who runs one of the shops in the area that was set up by his late father in the 1970s. “Even tastes have changed. First of all, few journalists come now, and instead of tea they prefer a cold drink with the parantha ,” he says.

Amidst all the drastic changes, perhaps the only thing that remains unchanged, apart from the buildings, are the few trees that Usha Rai had planted in front of TOI and Express building. The saplings have turned into mature trees and provide much-wanted shade to the paan shops run by Panditji and his colleague Birbal. “I wish there were more Usha Rais in the profession,” sighs Panditji. Under the shadow of those trees, Fleet Street seemingly aches to return to the good old days!

Published on August 04, 2011
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