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02 January, 2013

Life and Times of a Journalist

The Scribe Remembered: N. Gopinathan Nair, His Life and Times (Janayugom Gopiye Orkumbol) edited and published by K. Saradamoni; 2012; pp. 482; b&w plates 14, colour plates 10; Rs 450, US $ 25; ISBN: 978-93-5087-055-6

A few years ago the editor of an English language newspaper claimed he was the second most powerful man in India. Such exaggerated claims define the character of celebrity journalists today. When a media superstar writes the story of his life, it turns out to be a contemporary history of India. But journalists of the old school, like old soldiers, simply faded away without telling their story even when there was much to say. The Scribe Remembered, put together by the immediate family, provides an account of the life and times of one such journalist.

N. Gopinathan Nair was active in English and Malayalam journalism and the book, appropriately, is bilingual. It has three parts: one outlines the story of his life, another presents recollections of his friends and colleagues, and the third features his selected writings.

Gopinathan Nair belonged to a generation that grew up in the closing stages of the freedom struggle and set its sights on the task of economic liberation that lay ahead of political liberation which was at hand.  He saw communism as the end and journalism as the means to achieve it. After a short spell in the Indian Express at Madras, he returned to Kerala and joined the staff of a Malayalam newspaper. Motivated by the Communist Party of India leader M.N. Govindan Nair, who was underground at the time as the party was banned, he, along with a few like-minded youths, launched Janayugom, a political weekly, from Kollam to propagate the ideals of the movement, with himself as the Editor. It was later made into a daily and became the official organ of the CPI.

Departing from the tradition set by Deshabhi-mani, the party’s newspaper in the Malabar region, Janayugom, under his leadership, eschewed political jargon and used simple and direct language. This made it possible for the paper to gain wide acceptance beyond the party ranks and make a substantial contribution to the party’s growth in the Travancore region and its coming to power through the ballot box in Kerala in 1957, a year after it came into being under the scheme of linguistic reorganisation of States.

In 1962 Gopinathan Nair moved from Kerala to New Delhi and from Malayalam journalism to English journalism.  It was a critical period in the country’s history with the China border coming alive and Right-wing elements challenging the Nehru Government. When Aruna Asaf Ali and Edatata Narayanan, who were already publishing a Left-wing weekly, Link, started Patriot, an explicitly pro-Left daily, he joined its founding team. The newspaper, priced low to be within the reach of the lower middle class, quickly became the third most widely circulated daily in the national Capital. However, aberra-tions in the newspaper’s labour policy prompted Gopinathan Nair and some others to quit. He later worked with the United News of India.

He was a frequent contributor to Mainstream, the Left-wing weekly founded by Nikhil Chakravartty.  Even when he was away from Kerala, he closely followed developments in the State, which was making the transition from being one of the poorest in the country to one of the richest. A few articles reproduced in this volume bear witness to his deep understanding of the economic and political complexities of the State, which has always presented paradoxes. As the land reform measures, initiated by the first Communist Government in 1957, became a reality more than a decade later, he wrote enthusiastically about the transfer of ownership of land from feudal and religious elements to the tillers, paving the way for fundamental changes in the social structure.  Writing in the Mainstream Annual of 1975 he drew attention to the “cancerous growth of religious revivalism, superstition and intense communalism that is eating into the vitals of this so-called enlightened and Left-oriented State”.

Gopinathan Nair was one of the earliest to point out that Kerala’s land reforms were not succeeding. A 1987 article he co-authored with his wife, Dr K. Saradamoni, who, incidentally, has edited this commemorative volume, contains this critical observation: “According to Marxist understanding land reforms can only be the first and basic step towards restructuring of society. Increase in agricultural production should be an essential follow-up of successful land reform measures. But in spite of their good record of implementation of land reforms, the Communists in Kerala are now confronted with a paradox: declining agricultural production, particularly food.”

He was an affable person, and a valuable feature of the book is the section where friends and colleagues recall his qualities. As one of the contributors puts it, he was quiet but not timid; his mild exterior concealed a steely mind. A news agency colleague notes that he never allowed his personal likes and dislikes to colour his reports. Not surprisingly, some of them dwell on the striking contrast between the kind of journalism to which he was committed and its present-day variation. Truly, the book evokes pleasant memories of an era of journalism which, alas, is no more. (Mainstream, VOL L, No 51, December 8, 2012)

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