Uttam Sengupta: A personal tribute to Neelabh Mishra
National Herald’s Consulting Editor Uttam Sengupta’s remembrance of a friendship with Neelabh Mishra that spanned nearly three decades, beginning in the early nineties in Patna
In the early nineties, the Patna edition of the Navbharat Times was a far more interesting , readable and innovative newspaper with its ears to the ground than The Times of India edition, to which I was sent as the Resident Editor in 1991. Both the editions, however, had some of the finest journalists working in the newsroom. If NBT had Rajendra Mathur and Surendra Pratap Singh (SP to everyone) to helm the affairs from Delhi and Alok Mehta, Arun Ranjan, Urmilesh, Neelabh Mishra, Ved Prakash Vajpayee (uncle of TV anchor Punya Prasun Vajpayee), Mahesh Khare and others in Patna, TOI had Dileep Padgaonkar and Arvind Narayan Das taking a keen interest in Bihar from Delhi and illustrious colleagues like Uday Shankar, who now heads the Asian operations of Star TV and veterans like Durga Nath Jha in the newsroom in Patna.
Within months of my joining, however, there was an exodus from TOI, with 10 or so of the best and the most experienced colleagues quitting TOI and joining the launch team of Sunday Mail. Fire-fighters had to be flown in from Delhi to keep the edition afloat. For me it was a baptism by fire, and that was the time when I was introduced to Neelabh by activist friends. He was a man of few words but even then a great listener. He spoke in measured tones and came up with sensible advice, of which I was practically starved at the time.
WATCH: Neelabh Mishra and Uttam Sengupta in conversation on the political turmoil in Bihar after Nitish Kumar resigned as Chief Minister, in July 2017
We met mostly outside the office, always in the company of common friends like Dr Vinayan. It helped that both of us came from ‘political’ families. My parents were communists before independence but gave up politics altogether soon after they moved as refugees to India some time in 1947. But Neelabh’s grandparents, parents and uncles were more grounded in politics and we related easily on political issues. It also helped because neither of us was driven by any particular ideology, but like most people of our generation, we fancied ourselves as ‘left of the centre’, liberal and had friends in all political parties and groups including Naxalites.
But while NBT was a very well-produced newspaper, the rival newspaper Hindustan from the stable of Hindustan Times claimed to sell four times as many copies as NBT. And the management of TOI made no attempt to hide its plan to shut down the Patna edition sooner or later. Three Resident Editors in quick succession (Dinanath Mishra, Alok Mehta, Arun Ranjan and his successor whose name I am unable to recall) was one indication. Discussions in Delhi were another indication and there was a strong suspicion that the management wanted to shut down NBT in order to cripple the union, which was spearheaded by journalists from NBT. The predictable fallout was an exodus from NBT with many of the best and the brightest colleagues quietly leaving, most of them for Delhi. Neelabh was one of them.
While I stubbornly refused to move to Delhi, where I was convinced that political godfathers were needed for survival and I had none, I did finally land in Delhi in 2012 and joined Outlook as a Deputy Editor, while Neelabh had taken over as the Editor of Outlook Hindi. But we took to each other like long, lost friends. Just as my designation in TOI, Patna did not come in the way of our interactions, in Outlook also, our respective designations did not matter. I was soon spending more time in Neelabh’s office, having chats, exchanging notes, information and gossip and bitching about the world in general.
It helped that both of us came from ‘political’ families. My parents were communists before independence but gave up politics altogether soon after they moved as refugees to India some time in 1947. But Neelabh’s grandparents, parents and uncles were more grounded in politics and we related easily on political issues. It also helped because neither of us was driven by any particular ideology, but like most people of our generation, we fancied ourselves as ‘left of the centre’, liberal and had friends in all political parties and groups including Naxalites
I found him to be the same person as he was in Patna. A good human being with his heart in the right place (I have always believed that you need to be a good human being first before becoming a good professional). He was soft-spoken and discreet and never bad mouthed people or politicians. That was perhaps the quality that drew people from different ends of the spectrum to spend time with him, sharing information. He would sometimes call to inquire if I was free so that he could introduce me to some interesting people. At one time it would be a scientist, at another a bureaucrat, a third time a group of hardcore RSS activists while once it was the media advisor of a chief minister. I lapped up these opportunities of meeting people and Neelabh, who obviously knew that I was a greenhorn in Delhi, was generous in introducing me to many such people. Sometimes he would insist that I accompany him to meet someone at the India International Centre.
As many friends have already said, he was indulgent and patient with colleagues. I sometimes remonstrated at something particularly glaring but he would laugh it off, recalling even more glaring gaffes made by colleagues earlier. He would actually be patient like a schoolteacher with colleagues, gently steering them to do “deep search” (a term he loved to use) or acknowledge a mistake. An editor, I remember thinking, was not very different from a schoolteacher.
This convivial period, like all good things, had to end and one day he invited me to have a cup of tea with him and nonchalantly declared that he had been asked by the management to leave. He was already ill, had suddenly lost a lot of weight and I felt both angry and helpless. I remembered how at Outlook English we had published a cover story on Akhilesh Yadav as the ‘worst chief minister’. Quite predictably, the Uttar Pradesh Government declared war on Outlook and banned all advertisement to the Group and not just Outlook English. I was witness to the marketing guys and the management pleading with Neelabh to bail them out by calling on the UP CM and turn on his charm.
Even after he stopped coming to the Outlook office, we continued to meet. And it was at one such meeting that he informed that he had been asked to revive National Herald. I had no idea at the time that my own days in Outlook were numbered. After nearly five years at Outlook, I felt settled and when he asked if I would join him, I declined. But I was enthusiastic about the idea of launching something from scratch and eagerly began discussing the possibilities.
At several meetings in Dilli Haat, which I discovered he knew like the back of his hand, we continued to discuss the pros and cons of reviving NH. We agreed that it would be pointless to bring out one more daily newspaper. The digital edition is what he had in mind, but I had never worked with websites and CMS, Beta version etc were Greek to me, while Neelabh was in a better position, having launched the digital edition of Outlook Hindi.
Months later when I put in my papers at Outlook, he renewed the offer to join him. It seemed like a good idea to continue what we were doing at Outlook, showing a mirror to the Government. We had grown up believing in the adversarial relationship between the media and the Government. Elected governments were expected to work for the welfare of people. It was no favour they did. But the media must show the warts. There were no sacred cows.
Even after he stopped coming to the Outlook office, we continued to meet. And it was at one such meeting that he informed that he had been asked to revive National Herald. I had no idea at the time that my own days in Outlook were numbered. After nearly five years at Outlook, I felt settled and when he asked if I would join him, I declined. But I was enthusiastic about the idea of launching something from scratch and eagerly began discussing the possibilities
Neelabh and Lesley Esteves launched the Beta version of the NH website on November 14, 2016, seven days after I joined. I helped generate and collate the content and wrote a book review for the launch. Within weeks, however, we noticed Neelabh’s swollen feet and evident exhaustion after a long day. Things unfortunately for all of us at NH went downhill from there onwards.
As Editor-in-Chief, he drew the line at swear words and aggressive language. He frowned on rants and made it clear that he wanted a responsible, sober and analytical news portal. During the first few weeks after NH was revived, bricks were used by unknown miscreants to break the rear glass on his personal car. He brushed aside suggestions that we lodge an FIR. He also laughed off apprehension voiced by colleagues over CBI and ED raids, gently reminding them that he was responsible for the content and he alone would go to jail for ‘offensive’ journalism.
As his health worsened, we stopped bothering him with minor issues. He complained of disorientation in the morning hours, sleeplessness at night, exhaustion after long meetings. But he put up a brave face, was alert about what was happening in the office and whenever we met, in the hospital or at his home, he would relate office gossip of which I would often be blissfully unaware.
That is why it is so difficult to come to terms with the news that he is no more. I wish the good lord above had allowed him more time to complete the work in progress. I know how keenly he was looking forward to the general election of 2019. It is a pity that he will not be there to steer our conversation with unusual insights, fresh information and his trademark humour.
- National Herald
- Dileep Padgaonkar
- The Times of India
- Hindustan Times
- Neelabh Mishra
- Outlook Hindi
- Navbharat Times
- Uttam Sengupta
- Resident Editor
- Rajendra Mathur
- Surendra Pratap Singh
- Alok Mehta
- Arun Ranjan
- Ved Prakash Vajpayee
- Mahesh Khare
- Arvind Narayan Das
- Uday Shankar
- Star TV
- Durga Nath Jha
- Sunday Mail
- Dr Vinayan
- Dinanath Mishra