x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Janardan Thakur: a perfectionist with an uncompromising work ethic

As one of India's best-known political correspondents, it seemed strange that at 61, he would want to move to Bombay to resurrect a dying newspaper on a shoestring budget.

The first time I met Janardan Thakur, I could hardly see him for all the paper whirling around him. He had recently taken over as the editor of The Free Press Journal in Bombay, and was sitting with the windows wide open while the monsoon trashed his new sea-facing office. Outside, visibility was zero. "Don't you just love Bombay in the rains?" he said, before I could say hello. "Well, let's find out what you are made of. Your assignment is at the other end of town. I hope you're not afraid of a little water?"

I produced my new, multicoloured double-fold umbrella. "What are you, a sissy?" he shouted. "Here, take this raincoat. Chillar hai? [Do you have loose change?] Here's some, just in case you get stuck somewhere and need to give me the story over the phone." He absentmindedly plunged his hand into a bowl of odds and ends on his desk and surfaced with a few coins, a boiled sweet and two thumb tacks. "The pins," he said, "are for luck."

As one of India's best-known political correspondents, who had spent most of his life following the dubious dealings of bigwigs in Delhi, it seemed strange that Mr Thakur, at 61, would want to move to Bombay to resurrect a dying newspaper on a shoestring budget. That he would succeed seemed unlikely. But he did. In the two years he was there, he made it his business to be involved in every aspect of the enterprise - he proofed pages, drew layouts and was the only person in the building who could persuade the lugubrious septuagenarian librarian to lend from his treasure of vintage photographs. 

As a trainee, I was expected to do everything: I lined up film sheets for a final check before sending the pages to print; every night, I marched downstairs to the press to watch the colour plates being fitted on the machines, just in case the pressmen, a mutinous bunch, went on strike; and as a rookie reporter, I went on endless, exhausting forays into an unpredictable city with an erratic transport network. 

Much to my mother's horror, Mr Thakur also taught me to scoff at the Indian monsoon, so that within weeks of joining The Free Press Journal, I went from stepping gingerly around puddles to jumping into waist-deep water in pursuit of a story. One evening I arrived at the office, bedraggled and showing signs of pneumonia, to find him beset by regret. "Drink this tea, beti [daughter]," he said and handed me a large mug. "Then go straight home. But this time, I have a feeling your parents won't let you return, and I have only myself to blame." 

Despite his dire prediction, I fought off my hysterical mum and came back, proud to be part of his untiring efforts to turn the paper around. Those two years passed quickly. Mr Thakur went full steam ahead, pushing his meagre staff, arguing with the owners for more funds and remaining unmindful of niggling health worries. He even managed to write three books in that time (the third went to press on July 12, 1999, the day he died).

All these years later, I have yet to meet anyone like him. Mercurial, driven, brilliant, he was an unforgiving perfectionist with an uncompromising work ethic (if you miss a deadline, someone had better be dead). But more than anything, it was his aura of indestructibility that I envied and wanted for myself, something I came to realise on that June afternoon in 1997 when he turned me out into the flooded streets with his raincoat, six rupees and a couple of rusty thumb tacks. I haven't used an umbrella since.

Janardan Thakur was born on March 1, 1936, and died on July 12, 1999. * Christine Iyer