In Memory of Towering Journalist MV Kamath

(Veteran journalist MV Kamath, awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2004, died today in Karnataka. He was 94. Nitin Gokhale is NDTV’s Security & Strategic Affairs Editor.)

In 1984, in Guwahati, I was still undecided about continuing in journalism after having joined The Sentinel in May 1983.

I was torn between taking another shot at the CDS (Combined Defence Services) exam after having lost a chance to join the Indian Air Force because my graduation results got delayed, and continuing with the exciting but poorly-paid profession of journalism. Then I ran into a gentle, pleasant man with impeccable manners in Guwahati’s only decent hotel, Belle Vue.

MV Kamath was already a legend among journalists, having spent more than three decades reporting from cities like Brussels, Washington, London and having edited the Illustrated Weekly, India’s most famous magazine.

One evening, then Editor of The Sentinel, DN Bezboruah, a friend of Mr Kamath, sent me on an errand – I was too junior to have interviewed him – to Mr Kamath’s hotel. As I entered his room and introduced myself, his first question was: “What is a Gokhale doing in Assam?” As I narrated my short story (father-in-the-army-posted-in-Guwahati-therefore-I am-here, etc), he ordered a coffee.

His relaxed personality encouraged me to ask him a question that I would normally hesitate to ask a towering personality in the first meeting.

I blurted out: “Sir, how do you sustain yourself in this uncertain, poorly paid and rarely understood profession?” His eyes twinkled and he had a gentle, amused smile as he contemplated a reply to my seemingly silly question.

Then Mr Kamath put me out of my misery. He said: “Son, when I started with the Free Press Journal in the 1950s, my guru and a legend in journalism, Sadanand (I hope I have got the name right because this was so long ago) had put me at ease after I had similar doubts. You know what he told me? He (Sadanand) said as long as you do serious work but don’t take yourself too seriously, as long as you realize that you are as good as your last by line and as long as you are discreet, you can be a reasonably successful journalist.”

Then Mr Kamath went on to share three major guidelines.

If you are a professional journalist, don’t ever think that your work is going to bring in revolution or that you are going to change the world. That job is best left to the revolutionaries (don’t take yourself seriously).

As a journalist you have to perform consistently. One flash in the pan, one impact-creating story is of no use to those who want to remain engaged with journalism on a long term basis; so never rest on your laurels (You are as good as your last by-line).

Discretion, moderation is the key to successful human interaction. In journalism, it is all the more important. People will trust you if you keep your word, keep their confidence. (Sometimes, what you don’t write is more important than what you write!)

“I have followed these principles to the ‘T’ and I haven’t done badly,” Mr Kamath said, smiling mischievously. Within a month or so, I decided to continue with journalism much to my parents’ dismay. If I have managed to keep my head above water for the past 31 years, it is simply because I have tried to follow the three principles that Mr Kamath so effortlessly conveyed to me when I was barely 22.

Mr Kamath’s influence on my life and profession continued thereafter as I made it a point every time I went to Pune to stop over at Khar in Bombay where he invariably cooked breakfast or made a cup of coffee and chatted about life, journalism and writing, sitting amidst his vast collection of books.

Our contact became infrequent after he shifted to Manipal but I would call occasionally and he would invariably enquire about our growing family, my growth in journalism and continue to be a calming influence.

One habit of his has had a lasting impact on me. Mr Kamath used to write at least a 1,000 words every day on his old, battered but beloved Olivetti typewriter, no matter how busy he was. He continued to do so until his last days. The love for writing and the discipline to do it every single day kept him busy even in his 80s and early 90s.

If I can bring even an iota of his discipline and stamina in my life, I would be more than happy.