Post from a one-newspaper town



After deliberating a lot about whether I should spend my vacation travelling round Rajasthan or Karnataka (my friends have gone to Cambodia and Jordan, among other places), I decided I would head home to Mother and stay put with her after a busy year that did not allow me to drop anchor in Nagpur for too long, through two elections (Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly) this year.

The last time I stayed in Nagpur for more than three days at a stretch, I had felt the heat – literally. That discomfort ended up in a heart-felt piece for the Urban Gypsy section in the Saturday edition of Hindustan Times which brought me calls and e-mails from friends and strangers alike who said they felt about Nagpur as I did — I was flattered when many of them told me they could not have said it better.

Now it is two decades and more since I have been in Nagpur during the winter months at a stretch and while the summers might kill me, I have noticed the winters are not so chilly, after all – aha, that’s global warming at work, I suppose!

Like I had said in my summer piece, the heart of India is modernising, taking new shape, owing not a little to the international cargo hub that is bringing more and more business to this once-sleepy city. That is both good and bad, as I have said many times before in context of loss of cultural flavour in a uniform sort of development that is underway all across India today. But it does bring business to local residents who might have little opportunities to move out of their home town – I was happy to see this was the only city in not just India but the entire world which did not suffer from the recession last year. Shops reported increased sales, property prices rose, no one cut their budgets – not for nothing has it been billed as the fastest-growing city in India!

But there is one thing that has not changed about Nagpur and I have no doubt in my mind that that is bad, and not the least because I am a journalist and it affects my business directly. In my adolescent years, Nagpur was not just a one-horse town, it was also a one-(English)newspaper city. I remember my parents used to take the Nagpur Times but I chose to join its direct rival The Hitavada when I started out soon after graduation. At The Hitavada (a newspaper started by Balkrishna Gokhale’s Servants of India Society in keeping with Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of publishing nationalist newspapers as opposed to those started by the British), I learnt that Nagpur Times (which started after Independence) could not do much until its rival ran into trouble after the re-organisation of States. Its editors wrongly believed that its future lay with Madhya Pradesh ( they had launched editions in Raipur, Indore and Bhopal) and ignored Maharashtra almost completely. Nagpur Times then saw its opportunity and stepped into the breach. By the time The Hitavada realised its gross mistake, it was too late.

I joined The Hitavada after attempts began for its revival (after some years of a shut down) and throughout my employment it remained the struggler, with Nagpur Times being the clear No 1. It gained ground only after family disputes and an ownership struggle in Nagpur Times hastened its downfall and The Hitavada has never looked back ever since.

Today Nagpur Times is the name of a city supplement of a national newspaper and where the original Nagpur Times stood is a huge commercial complex with no printing press in sight. But in the years since I left The Hitavada and made it to the national scene, I have noticed that the city takes only one English language newspaper at a time.

I had to seek my fortunes in the metropolises (Madras, Hyderabad and finally Bombay) because Nagpur then offered very limited opportunities to budding journalists. I should have been proud of it but I knew there was something very wrong when I went from being a trainee to a probationer, to a sub-editor, to a reporter and finally an assistant editor in charge of the Sunday section of The Hitavada all in the space of 14 months. I was never more glad when my next job at The Indian Express in Hyderabad brought me flatly down to the ground as a trainee again. My growth thereafter was not at the speed of light as it had been in Nagpur. But I knew that slower growth was solid; not artificial, as it had been earlier.

Nagpur offers a lot more national opportunities to its journalists today with many well-known publishing houses (including the Hindustan Times) having launced their Vidarbha editions soemtime or the other. But somehow it is still only just The Hitavada which is popular with readers.

When I asked my mother why she said, “That’s because of the local ads – sales, exhibitions and so on. A newspaper is of no use to us if it does not give us this information. All of your national newspapers which have launched editions here have thought it beneath them to carry these small advertisements. Those big ads about national products coming to Delhi or Bombay or elsewhere does not matter to anyone here. I want to know what is happening in my backyard. The rest of the world can take care of itself.”

I wonder if she is right. Small advertisers cannot afford to advertise in more than one newspaper at a time, I guess. And national newspapers in this regard are not as competitive as the local ones. So is that why only one English language newspaper has managed to keep its head above water at one time, forcing all the national brands to close shop sooner rather than later?

Whatever it be, I am not complaining. But for this fact I might have remained a small town journalist and never seen the world. I should be grateful that this city which offered no national opportunities to anyone until recently turfed me out, willy-nilly, and helped me to widen my canvas.

As for Mom – well, while she loyally subscribed to both The Indian Express and the Hindustan Times while they lasted out of love for me and my employment at these brand names, today she is very happy to subscribe to just The Hitavada as she had done with the Nagpur Times before I became a journalist.

Talk of things changing and yet remaining the same!

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