Here’s One For The Road…

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The quiet reporter Ajith Pillai

He enters familiar and unfamiliar corridors like a sleepwalker enters a dream sequence. He walks leisurely like an animal with eyes, who knows how to hunt with precise instinctive movements. He beats the typewriter keys into the carbon like a conductor works his opera. He turns the mundane into the exalted, the primordial into bitter realism and the margins into the mainstream. Like a documentary filmmaker who breaks the shallow, repetitive, didactic medium with an invisible, measured, winged leap of imagination, he scripts his own pulp fiction from the hollow of his reporter’s soul, sometimes uncanny with unrequitted desire, precise like a news story, sardonic and spoofy, holding back yet again, sometimes like a hangover which needs another hard drink.

The book jacket in subdued off-cream and faded green with a typewriter is perhaps as subtle and soft as the lightness of the man himself. It is set in black and white ‘typewriter font’, with the title in lower case. Documenting the untold stories from a reporter’s diary, the book is at once from the archives of daily oldfashioned journalism as instant history, which stays, like an ancient clipping in faded yellow, the picture becoming blurred, sepia, surreal. If you look at this man in his tight trousers and T-shirt, his bloodshot eyes and his expansive, hardened, honest reporter’s face, and if you had looked at him hard when he was young, solid and robust, you would know at once that this is a hard rum-drinking reporter who would slog hard all day long and kick the bottle hard in the night when the world has already gone to sleep.

He would also kick a stone on the streets, sometimes in anger, or on a railway track, or outside the graveyard on Fleet Street next to Old Delhi, even as his stories with the smell of newsprint and sweat were rolling down the printing press in the basement at Link House, hitting the front page of a refreshing, nonconformist, secular, liberal, ‘top-of-themind’ (as its ad said) newspaper which gave all the establishment monopoly papers in English journalism a run for their money. That Pioneer was brilliant from the first day of the re-launch with the legendary Vinod Mehta as editor. What often marked the rainbow on a full moon night, amidst the ‘collective greatness’ of this journalists’ newspaper, were the hard-hitting stories which Ajith Pillai filed, often from the underbelly of the streets, like a shooting star refusing to die.

Ironically, to use a cliché, they were all ‘on the record’, unlike the title of this book, which rolls on the tongue, and across the screenplay of pages with that woody smell, like a trailer of a Tarantino film, not wasting one inch of an extra emotion. Ajith is as quiet and understated as he could be and don’t be fooled by the deceptions of appearance. There is no melodrama or hype in these uncanny, untold stories.

This is what his favourite editor, Vinod Mehta, (after long stints with him in The Sunday Observer, The Pioneer, Outlook — one wonders, why did Ajith Pillai miss Debonair, that fabulous, thinking, sexy mag flying on the wings of desire?) describes with his tongue-incheek simplicity and lucidity: “Ajith was a quiet reporter. Self-effacing, perhaps too self-effacing and reticent… Graham Greene wrote the prescient masterpiece The Quiet American. Ajith was the ‘quiet reporter’. And all the better for it, so unlike the garrulous ones too flamboyant and too eager to take credit for what they had not done…”

Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary
Ajith Pillai
Hachette India
300 pp; Rs 395

Hence, if historians and anthropologists document the hidden, ‘subaltern’ narratives of memories, texts, manuscripts, oral traditions, words and silences, what does an ‘instant journalist’ trapped in the sexy smell of newsprint and the heady, restless, relentless, quagmire of an addictive daily or weekly do when they are face to face with a storehouse of information which remains buried in the footnotes of the political subconscious; or, blocked by a barricade of internal and external censorship? Especially so, in the contemporary era of ‘paid news’ and cold-blooded corporate jingoism when the lines between serious current affairs, political, developmental and arts and culture stories merge so effortlessly with the vicarious fluff and shallow stuff of lifestyle, infotainment, celebrity, cricket and crime.

Thereby, like a whistle which knows its trajectory in the dark, this pulp fiction too is recorded history; the social psychology of breaking news and exclusives; the subaltern anthropology of texts and silences, pound of flesh and inner soul. It is also a scream like that famous painting, or a Van Gogh landscape of madness slowly turning towards the scorching sun in a field of lush orange, blue, mustard and vermillion flowers. It is as much a leaf storm, as a broken boat made with paper floating on a flooded street washed by apocalyptic saline waters.

However, if you know Ajith Pillai the ‘quiet reporter’ who digs, or the shy, slightly nervous, painstaking editor who sits on a correspondent’s copy with a sense of wry, unstated, dark humour, this book is not a whistle in the dark. Nor is it a landscape of madness soaked in a rainbow coalition of psychedelic vermillion. He knows his responsibilities, his thresholds, the margins of the mainstream. So this is no Jim Morrison longing; no, he is not singing that song of eternal longing, “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar.”

Instead, he holds back, and does what he knows best. He captures the tide of the full moon in the black and white text of measured word limits and fixed deadlines. He refuses to be a sleepwalker. He tells a story. One story, too many. And when you run the stories in your mind, as a compulsive reporter who knows his stuff, or a meticulous editor who is not a sado-masochist, you will finally end up with a low whistle yourself. Yes, life is like this only. This, truly, is a reporter’s diary.

Check out Ajith’s rendezvous with underworld flunkeys, as anonymous as anonymous sources, his not-so-fake encounter with the D company, his narcotic chat with Chota Shakeel from Dubai (“Forget but-shut. Tell me which sister-fucker told you that Bhai sells narcotics?”). Find out how another die-hard reporter called Rajesh Joshi takes the don for a jolly good ride.

Read his tentative interview, soaked with possibilities, with the Mumbai mafia don of the 1980s — Varadarajan Mudaliar. And this is not stuff from Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan. This is ‘Hard Talk’ and ‘Live’. “Now, tell me, what’s wrong with selling sasta daaru (cheap liquour)? At the end of a hard day’s labour, a man requires a drink and the company of a woman to keep going. He can’t afford expensive whiskey and the cheap country liquor that the government sells is dangerous. Someone has to provide him with better alternatives. What’s wrong with that?”

British columnist Jeremy Seabrook writes about the book, “This ought to be a handbook for all aspiring journalists, since Pillai is an enemy of sycophantic corporate ideology and craven submissiveness to wealth and power which characterise most of today’s celebrity-writers.”

Indeed, the book is a must for all oldfashioned journalists who have refused to sell their soul. Also, for those who have chosen to. For readers who would want to read between the lines. And, surely, compulsory reading for all aspiring journalists, students, and their professors. Here’s to Reporter Ajith Pillai, one for the road. Cheers!

letters@tehelka.com

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