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29 October, 2016

Recollections of a Deepavali holiday, 60 years ago

Kasturi Buildings on Anna Salai, Chennai, which houses the offices of The Hindu.  

In 1956, Deepavali fell on November 1. As usual, it was a closed holiday for The Hindu. That meant there would be no paper the next day. The previous day the management circulated the customary holiday notice. Britain and France, which were annoyed with President Gamal Abdul Nasser who nationalized the Suez Canal, had begun air raids on Egypt and the Government of India had set November 1 for inauguration of the linguistic States to be formed in the light of the States Reorganization Commission’s report.  

I thought it was a pity that the paper was taking a holiday when such developments were taking place and felt it should at least make arrangements to bring out a supplement. A lowly sub-editor with just three years’ experience, in the highly hierarchical Hindu establishment I was too small a fry to broach the idea to the management. I, therefore, conveyed my view to S. Rangarajan, the youngest and most dynamic of the three News Editors who preside over the News Room.  I suggested that the management should make arrangements to bring out a supplement and alert the news agents about it so that they would collect the bundles and distribute the paper.

S. Rangarajan

SR (in the Hindu editorial department everyone was known by initials) liked the suggestion and told me he would talk to the management about it.  A little later he informed me that the management had accepted the suggestion and arrangements were being made to produce a thin edition. I was happy that my suggestion had been accepted. But my happiness was short-lived. SR told me a little later that the management had had second thoughts and there would be no special edition.

To avoid having to handle news copy of two days the day after a holiday The Hindu had devised a system which involved a small group of sub-editors processing the copy on the holiday. They were not required to come to the office for that. An office boy would bring the copy to the house and take it back after editing, to be typeset during the night. The work may take an hour at the most but they would get a full day off as compensation for having worked on a holiday! I was put on holiday duty but I told the Head Messenger not to send copy to my house as I planned to come to the office in the evening.

On arrival at the office the next evening I went through the agency files. There was a flood of news. A sunken ship had blocked the Suez Canal. Israeli forces had crossed into Egypt. For the first time the UN General Assembly had been called on 24-hour notice to discuss the situation. Egypt’s supporters had moved the General Assembly as Britain and France could block any Security Council initiative using their veto power. Jawaharlal Nehru, who inaugurated the Andhra Pradesh State at Hyderabad, in a hard-hitting speech, condemned the aggression against Egypt, calling it a throwback to the days of barbarism.

I telephoned SR and gave him a gist of the developments. I told him the management had made a mistake in giving up the plan to bring out a supplement. He said he would talk to the management again and asked me to wait at the office. SR called back soon to say that the management had accepted the idea of a special edition. He asked me to stay on and said he would arrange with the Time Keeper to send a vehicle to fetch a Batch Leader (that was how Chief Sub-Editors were known in the paper at that time) and two more Sub-Editors.

Rangaswami Parthasarathy

As I was talking to SR I saw Rangaswami Parthasarathy (MP), a Batch Leader, walking in. (Since the initials RP had already been taken, when he moved to The Hindu from The Mail, he was assigned the initials MP, short for Mail Parthasarathy). SR spoke to MP who was only glad to stay on to produce the special edition.

In those days The Hindu used to carry classified advertisements on the front page. Even the biggest story of the day got only a single column headline, but it could have three decks of 24 pt, 14 pt and 18 pt, in that order.

Since there were no classified ads, we could carry news on the front page of the supplement. Having worked in The Mail, MP was familiar with multi-column headlines.

“How about a banner?” MP asked me. “Wouldn’t the Editor get a heart attack?” I asked him. “We will take that risk,” he said.  
MP also broached the idea of a box item. So I picked an item to be boxed.

Stories on the formation of new states came in from different capitals. MP asked me to produce a combined intro for the news agency copy on the subject. I wrote something like this: The map of India was redrawn today ….

The UN General Assembly’s special session was opening at 0130 hrs IST. A stenographer who had been summoned went to the room where there was a large, powerful radio set and tuned into a station which was relaying the UNGA proceedings, and we prepared a brief report of our own without waiting for news agency copy.

MP prepared a layout which provided for a big headline running across all eight columns of the front page.  The Suez war story ran in columns 1 to 3 and Nehru’s Hyderabad speech in columns 6 to 8. The states reorganization roundup was the bottom spread.

We produced a four-page edition. Late at night we realized that we have to mention the price at the top o the ront page. MP woke up SR to ask what price we should mention. He said he had to consult the management. Its decision was that the thin special edition should be sold at the same price as the regular edition.

I was entitled to take the next day off as I had done a night shift. But I decided to go to the oice in the evening as I was eager to know how the special edition had fared. When the bus reached the Egmore railway station I saw a hawker doing brisk business with the special edition.

At the office, SR told me that city distributors who were alerted by the Time Keeper during the night had come in the morning and picked up copies of the special edition . It sold like hot cakes all over the city and printing continued throughout the day as distributors kept coming back, asking for more copies. He had just advised the management to stop printing the special edition and start printing of the Dak editions of tomorrow's paper which had to be sent by night trains.   

An office messenger handed me a letter while I was there. It was from the Editor, Kasturi Srinivasan, expressing the management's appreciation of the work of the small team which had responded to an urgent call and helped produce a special edition at short notice.

On January 14, 1958 The Hindu started printing news on the front page. In a survey conducted the previous year, the newspaper had asked its readers whether they would like it to carry news on the front page.  Those favouring news on the front page had only a small majority. Considering that a large section of the readers was quite happy with classified ads on that page, it was decided to change gradually. The layout pattern drawn up provided initially for only three two-column headlines on the front page: one at top of columns 1 and 2, another at top of columns 7 and 8, and the third somewhere at the bottom of the middle columns.     

For more on S. Rangarajan please see this report.  
More on Rangaswami Parthasarathy here.

Here are images of special editions on the Suez War brought out by two Los Angeles newspapers.

Note the use of “Allied” in the headline. Britain, France and Israel had issued an identical
communiqué simultaneously from their capitals, announcing the launch of the attack on Egypt. It referred to their forces as Allied forces. This communiqué was the only source of information for the Indian press as the national news agency depended on Reuters of Britain and AFP of France for foreign news. World War II, in which British India had figured among the Allies, was only 11 years behind at that time, and the use of the term Allies in the reports which the Indian newspapers carried attracted criticism. The US was not involved in the attack on Egypt.  Yet the LA newspapers too used the term Allies to refer to the aggressors. 


ഭൂമിപുത്രി said...

Thanks for sharing a very interesting episode from the history of Indian Journalism Sir

Monu Surendran said...

'Sold like hot cakes'.
Only the creators of Special Print Editions would understand the 'buzz'.
Great piece of writing Babu uncle!