A JOURNALISM TEACHER’S NIGHTMARE
Many friends ask me why I stopped taking classes for journalism students. The fact is that I am thoroughly confused and dejected.
When Late K.P. Nair, the former bureau chief of the Hindu invited me to deliver a guest lecture in the Press Club for journalism students, I gladly accepted. I was armed with a first class diploma in Journalism from a prestigious University and was a special correspondent for a newspaper which was older than the Indian Express. A local business magazine from Kochi also made me their Trivandrum correspondent and I had many cover stories to my credit.
My special subject was writing and occasionally I took classes for reporting. I was sure that my brilliant lectures must have inspired the young ‘would be journalists’. Two things happened which gave me a jolt. A leading malayalam newspaper’s research wing, did an informal study about the teachers of journalism in Kerala and ranked them. When I heard the news I discretely asked one of the editors of the newspaper, whether I was one of the top ranked guys in the list. The editor was pretty rude. In between chewing pan masala and smoking a cigarette, he rummaged through a sheaf of papers and finally announced the result. “No, I can’t find your name in this list. Are you sure that you are teaching journalism somewhere.”
“Of course! Otherwise why should I ask you whether I am one of the top rated teachers of jounalism, ahead of stalwarts like K.P.Nair, P.C. Sukumaran Nair, K.C.John and N.R.S. Babu.?” This editor said,”There are some notes by the research team. We had asked them to give their reasons for ranking a person or rejecting him outright.”
“What did they say about me?”
“Well they have said that you lecture, to impress the students. You do not teach them anything. You do not express yourself very well.”
I was jolted. It is said that lightning never strikes the same place twice. But I was foolish enough to go and ask the clerk in the journalism institute what the children thought about my lectures.
His answer was in chaste Tamil which I cannot reproduce, as it is. Anyhow the gist of it was that my lectures were just great.
I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. Then came the lightning bolt. “Your lectures are marvellous sir. But the children do not understand anything.”
My murderous instincts were awakened but I desisted from killing my clerk because he was a brahmin and my parents had told me that killing a brahmin was one of the worst forms of sins a person could commit. These terrible brahmins, even when they are killed, do not accept defeat and scoot. They roam about creating more havoc in the form of ‘brahma rakshas’.
I went to my club and ordered the strongest liquid nourishments that I could possibly get. The waiter asked me whether something was wrong. I shooed him away and wanted to wallow in my misery, alone. I thought for quite some time to get an answer to the problem. The truth dawned on me, after a bit of the nourishment started coursing through my veins and arteries, like liquid fire. I knew how dear old Buddha must have felt when wisdom dawned on him after sitting for a long time under the Bodhi tree.
The truth was that, I was lecturing to my students in classical English which Shakespeare, Milton, Vikram Seth, Arundati Roy and Aravind Adiga would stand up and applaud. I was also enjoying the mesmerising effect it had on the students who sat there as if they were stunned. It was only later that I realised that the vacant expression on their face was due to non comprehension of the cascade of words that flowed from my mouth.
I had prepared my notes, after referring to many of the best lectures and books of great teachers from Columbia, Yale, Washington and Lee University, University of Richmond, Allegheny College , Hillsdale College and Cardiff and Sheffield Universities in the U.K. I had also picked up some useful points from the lecture notes of teachers from Mascom, Asian College of Journalism, Mudra Institute and others. I handed over these excellent notes to my beloved students hoping that they will appreciate the herculean efforts I had taken. The sad fact was that 90 percent of the students did not understand what was written in my notes and the entire class was unable to reproduce any or part of it in answering examination questions. Their standard of English was dismal. But there were exceptions. The fact was that the majority of the students were unable to express themselves well in English.
There were a few students who joined the course after passing the M.A examination in English literature. One of them was Dr Lalitha who later settled down in Australia. She was a petite girl, with high cheek bones. Her Ph.D thesis was on Harold Pinter who later went on to win the Nobel prize for literature. I learnt the meaning of the word ‘onomatopoeia’ from her! G.Mahadevan who joined the Hindu is now a senior reporter there specialising in news about education and academic affairs. He had a post graduate degree in English. After constantly following up stories about self financing colleges and hearing the brilliant arguments of the minister for education, I heard that he had to take rest for some time to avoid a nervous breakdown. I am very proud of him. Dr.B. Mohanan joined the course after taking his Ph.D in political science. He is a professor in Gandhigram University.
One of my students, Sasishekhar, came to me asking for an introduction letter to the News Editor of Indian Express, who promised to take him as an intern. I refused. I told him that his command of the English language was poor and I cannot recommend him. Later the News Editor from Indian Express called me and told me that there were many people in IE who were proficient in English language but did not know how to gather news. He had a gut feeling that Sasi will be a good news gatherer. I gave the introduction letter. Sasi’s story about the notorious ‘Ward No.9’ in the Trivandrum General hospital, were destitutes and beggars are dumped, won him awards and great recognition. Later on he joined Mathrubhumi as a reporter. It was Govindan Kutty who once scolded me in front of my students in the class for reporting. He asked me what the hell was I trying to teach the students for one whole year. He said, “The best way to learn reporting is to go out and start reporting.” The best way to learn swimming is to jump into the swimming pool and thrash about, of course, after getting a few tips from the instructor.
K.P.Nair asked me once to evaluate the answers and give marks in the final examination for the paper on ‘reporting’. Since I was not very familiar with academic matters, my evaluation was pretty tough. Half the students failed. an exasperated Nair called me to his office and said that I should be a bit more liberal. He asked me,” Let us for a moment imagine that you are a professor in Kerala University. There is a question – how many legs have a cow got? If the answer is 3, what is the mark you will give.”
I laughed,”Sir, the answer is absurd. I will give him a big zero.”
Nair also had the bad habit of chewing pan. He looked at me for a moment. Before replying he spat out the red fluid from his mouth. A bit of it spattered on the window sill. He said,” A professor in Kerala University will have no hesitation in giving 75 marks for the answer. If the answer was 4 legs then the boy gets 100 marks, if the answer is 3 he gets 75 marks because he is 75% correct. So now go back and take a second look at the answer sheets.” One of the beneficiaries of this revaluation was a person who now holds a high office in Manorama.
I had always told my students that the two best journalists in Trivandrum were K.P.Nair of the Hindu and K.Govindan Kutty of the Indian Express. Both of them were bureau chiefs then. Nair was a staunch devotee of K.Karunakaran. We all hoped that one day K.Karunakaran will get for him a Rajya Sabha seat. But it was not to be . Nair died while still serving the Hindu as its bureau chief. In his reports, there was no bias. It was objective reporting and balanced perfectly. His language was simple, straightforward and easily understandable.
Govindan Kutty was a maverick. He was from Kunnamkulam. He had a photographic memory. He used to attend major politcal rallies and meetings without a writing pad, pen, paper or pencil. He listened very attentively. I remember an important political rally of Rajiv Gandhi in the Shankumughom beach. There was a massive turnout. Govindan Kutty who was a former assistant news editor of All India Radio decided not to go to the Beach. A few other senior journalist and Govindankutty went to AIR and we could hear the talk live there. All of us were frantically jotting down the points. GK stood there like a statue not taking down any notes. At the end of the talk there was a general discussion what the lead should be.
Next day I made it a point to read the reports that appeared in all the important Malayalam and English newspapers. The best report was that of Govindan Kutty. I asked him how he did it. “Are you not afraid that if you do not jot down the points you will miss some important statements? “
The answer was typical of GK. He said,” My mind is like a sieve. Some things remain on the sieve but a lot passes through the sieve. Whatever passes through the sieve is not worth reporting.”
Another eccentric habit of his was that he used to type pretty fast. Typewriters were still in vogue and the computer age had not set in. Messages were transmitted to Kochi by telex. If in the last para of his report he commits a spelling mistake he would tear off the paper from the typewriter, throw it into the waste paper basket and start afresh.
He was a miniature version of Arun Shourie whom he admired a lot. Once they latched on to an issue they wouldn’t let go. Both of them used to keep writing about it ‘ad nauseum’, whether it is Bofors, Reliance, Mandal commission report, Keltron or scandal in the Kerala forest department. Even if the reader is bored stiff the articles will keep coming. Mr Veerendra Kumar, who was an MLA at that time told me sadly, sipping a cup of coffee in the MLA canteen in the old secretariat annexe, that it was Govindan Kutty’s article that led to his resignation as a minister after holding office for a day or two. GK had written an exclusive scoop mentioning that Veerendra Kumar did not have a majority within his own party. He has now retired and spends his time shuttling between Virginia,USA and Bangalore where his son Karthikeyan and daughter Karthyani are staying. His book ‘Vararuchi’s children’ is a collection of articles he wrote in the Indian Express under the caption ‘Overview’. I suggested that he edit it and publish it in book form. It is a classic. You will enjoy reading it if you don’t mind his use of archaic, pedantic and bombastic language. I heard about the word ‘adumbrate’ from one of his articles. But he had a razor sharp intellect.
Another journalist whom I admired and invited to be a guest lecturer in the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Trivandrum was P.Rajan. He was an Asst. Editor in Mathrubhumi, Trivandrum. Due to some difference of opinion with the management he had to leave. In the market place, news paper barons will fight with one another for circulation, advertisements and getting scoops. But they do have some understanding between them. After Rajan left Mathrubhumi, he has not been employed by any leading newspaper in Kerala. Now I see his handsome face, with silvery hair, on the TV as an expert commentator. God created man from a bit of clay. He breathed life into it and it became a man. Probably God now repents his foolish act. It was Rajan who picked a handful of clay called A.K.Antony and transformed him into a great leader. The image building was done so perfectly that we all believed that Antony was a man of great integrity, a born leader and destined to be one day, President of India. I first heard about Antony after the famous One Anna agitation in Kochi. He is a poor speaker and mimicry artists are fond of imitating his style of speaking with his teeth gritted together. Rajan removed the warts and wrinkles and painted him in glorious colours, as a great leader.
We have a talented breed of young reporters now. But the tsunami of elctronic revolution that is sweepinga across all countries will have its impact in the style of reporting and news coverage. We will talk about blogs, the internet revolution, You Tube and Word Press in another article.
( Kalisharan is the ‘nom de plume’ of the writer. He was formerly the correspondent of Nagpur Times and Dhanam, Kochi. He was a faculty member for 11 years in the journalism department of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Trivandrum and also had a short stint at Press club, Trivandrum where he was a guest lecturer and course coordinator.)