Nair, Thackeray and the Free Press Journal

And of course the fearless doyen of Journalism - S Sadanand

Recently I came across an address which mentioned an A B Nair Road in Juhu, and I was a bit mystified. I did know about the Nair hospital in Bombay, but that was related to one A L Nair. Then I discovered that there was a place in the same Juhu area called Nairwadi.  I was even more intrigued by then and set about finding the story of the person behind the name.  The road from that discovery took me through so many stops, and connected me to the Free Press Journal, a pioneering newspaper, the legendary Sadanand, journalists like TJS George and HV Kamath, MKB Nair and even more well-known people like the cartoonists Bal Thackeray and RK Laxman. I read articles purportedly detailing the causes of Bal Thackeray’s hatred of Madrasis and in between all these famous characters I found A B Nair too, to conclude that he was certainly a person of interest. Let me try and take you through that journey in words.

The story actually starts way back, well before the first word war. Nair I understand was born in 1906
AB Nair
or so, hailing from Nallepally and as a youngster we find him in Bombay and working for the Norwegian Thorleif Ahlsand’s trading firm, around 1925. Thorleif dabbled in dyestuffs, textiles and most importantly newsprint. He was also the Norwegian Consul general in Bombay and was as it appears, was illogically called George by those who knew him. British India in those days depended upon Germany and Norway for the bulk of its newsprint requirements. As newsprint was heavily controlled, it was a sellers’ market for that item and but naturally the supplier was quite powerful and doing good business between the two wars. As Nair was the main liaison between the firm and the Indian newspaper owners, he built up powerful connections and worked mostly around the periphery of the Newspaper scene.

This was the time when a bright young man named S Sadanand with his ideas of a Free press journal arrived in Bombay. Most who lived through those days will remember Bombay only in black and white,  it was the time when the 7 o'clock double edged blades cost 12 annas for a packet of 10, when a rain coat cost Rs 4 and when a paperback was priced at Rs2.

A keen student of public affairs, habitually clad in spotless Khadi, Sadanand was in the thick of politics right from the start of his career, was a signatory to the pledge against the Rowlett Act, and joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. Leaving Swarajya he worked initially as a journalist for government supported API, some years at the Rangoon times and later became Assistant Editor of The Independent, Allahabad. The nationalist movement had sowed the seeds of freedom in the minds of Indians and Gandhiji was in the lead. As Publicity Officer for the Indian National Congress for a while, he looked after Khadi and Village Industries. The prejudiced API associated press would not cover such nationalist events and it was this which prompted the young Sadanand in starting the Free press of India news agency between 1924-1927, providing news coverage of the Indian struggle. But then, he managed to get a good infusion of funds from the Bombay businessmen, got Birla and Thakurdas to join his board, and started the agency, though not fully focused owing to fervent INC party support and work. The board of directors were very unhappy with the management of the operations and issued an ultimatum for a changed modus.

Sadanand resisted and with that the entire board walked away, leaving the company with Sadanand who had by this time taken to radical editorializing which upset many of his patrons. Newspapers could not carry factual reports of what Shrivastava calls "official excesses" even though FPI supplied them. By 1926 he was facing certain ruin but managed some infusions from industrialists such as GD Birla to continue on a shoe string budget and by 1929, the situation was so dire that he could not even pay a Rs50 bill. To confound matters, the government was in full support of API Reuters and denied British wireless access to FPI.

The problem with Sadanad was a lack of professionalism, though he was always known never to deviate from his motto ‘free and fearless’.Sahni describes the man aptly – dark, robust and dynamic, he had the patience of a beggar, the persuasiveness of a woman and the abandon of a gambler. He persuaded businessmen, did not squeeze them, and was often in prison. I hope you can now see an image of Sadanand.

Prompt retaliation by the British with the 1930 press ordinance act resulted in all newspapers shunning the output of the FPI and this was what forced Sadanad to start an English newspaper, The Free press journal and the companion evening paper The Free press bulletin. The FPJ only reported FP dispatches and was considered untarnished reporting. All in all, this herculean effort caught the minds of many a young journalist and made them join his team. Sahni details a day at the FPJ at 21 Dalal St– Clad in a khadi lungi (let’s forgive the Northie for this error and read as dhoti) and a khadi shirt, feet and legs swollen with elephantiasis, living on a simple fare of rice and rasam, unmindful of heat and cold, Sadanand slogged day and night, editing, copying, managing the press, writing editorials, searching for scoops, chasing patrons for money or escaping pressing creditors, moving between cash and crisis, and yet keeping the flag flying!!! That was the legendary ‘Free press Sadanand’.

It was by no means the only nationalist newspaper of the day, but Sadanand was one of a kind and he gave it a stamp no other paper had. It aimed at the common man as its pricing policy and writing style proclaimed in every issue. It spoke from the heart and did not hesitate to chastise the nation’s idolized leaders if the occasion so demanded. The paper supported the practice of Jewish doctors who had taken refuge in Mumbai fleeing persecution in Germany in the 1930s. Among the paper’s founders was Stalin Srinivsan who founded Manikaddi in 1932. Well known politician, the late Bal Thackeray worked as a cartoonist for the newspaper. Notable cartoonist R.K.Laxman too worked with The Free Press Journal. T.J.S. George, the founder-editor of Asiaweek magazine worked under the legendary S. Sadanand.  The veritable who’s who of Indian journalism have worked with the paper. They include M.V.Kamath, Rajat Sharma, M.J.Akbar, S.A.Sabavala, Shankar, Dom Moraes, Edathatta Narayanan, EP Menon, M.V.Mathew (mccullough). The list is indeed very long.

Sometimes he splurged, only to pledge or hawk everything soon after to buy newsprint or to pay rent.  The restless young man aged quickly in his pursuit for an increased scale, the purchase of the Indian express, the starting of Tamil and Marathi newspapers and what not. As another writer Kamath wrote in the mainstream weekly about the journalists working there - They had, for example, tables and chairs that had a habit of vanishing overnight, for nonpayment of instalments, as they would learn in due course. They had salaries embarrassingly lower than those in other newspapers and these salaries arrived once in two months or so. But Sadanand was famous as a trainer of journalists, though his methods were somewhat unorthodox.

Bombay 1930's

During many of these crises, Sadanand turned to one person for emergency support, and that was AB Nair. A keen businessman, Nair was certainly tough and practical in his pursuit for a profit. Sadanand as I understand, did get both business advice and monetary support from Nair during these tough times.

I will not get into the great details of the travails of Sadanand and his efforts in the interest of brevity, but in 1933, the FPI and FPJ faced its severest test and his patron Vissanji Khimji finally launched a series of suits against the paper for return of their loans. The paper faced imminent closure by 1935. Sadanand barely managed to get out of this and continued on for close to two more decades.

During WW II or somewhat before, it seems, Thorleif retired to Olso leaving the reins of his company in Nair’s hands, by which time, much of the equation changed with the invasion of Norway in April 1940, and the closing of the Skagerrack to shipping. Newsprint supplies now came from Canada and the United States and it was time for Nair to move on, even though he had the Norwegian consul general’s position.

This was around the time that the by now invalid Sadanand decided to throw in the towel and sell out according to journalist MV Kamath. And he wanted someone whom he could trust on the company's Board of Directors. He was in deep debt and owed money, among others, to Jaikumar Karnani from Calcutta, the famous leftist surgeon Dr A. V. Baliga (interestingly the personal doctor of Nehru, V K Krishna Menon and Sadanand), and the aforementioned AB Nair. Karnani bought a major share while Nair and Baliga were left with 7% each. AB Nair assumed the chairmanship of the various newspapers and the role of managing editor and from this point worked directly within the newspaper industry for the next decade.

NK Murthy mentions otherwise – he narrates that Sadanand remained editor till he died. After his death, former news editor Hariharan was editor for some years. And only later did AB Nair take over the responsibilities. Anyway, Nair then became a member of the executive committee of the All India newspaper editors conference and by 1961 was the President of the Indian and eastern newspaper society. According to Murthy, Nair restored the FPJ to proper shape after its decline, in short time.

But his peers do not agree and state that Nair was too money minded and very particular about newspaper revenues, advertising, its patrons, the profits and less so for content, infuriating the committed journalists of the paper. Baliga’s role was also not appreciated due to his leftist leaning and Moscow connections. Nevertheless the paper was by now on even keel though some of its brilliant journalists and cartoonists were getting disillusioned. But then again, it was a new scene, now that India had become independent and the original aims of the newspaper had changed direction and nationalism had taken a back seat. His subordinates mention that like Sadanand, he too was an autocrat but that Nair lacked Sadanand's qualities of the head and the heart and remained a pure businessman.

It is time to meet another strong willed person, who worked in those offices and who tells us how the paper functioned and how Nair and he crossed swords. The person is none other than Bal Keshav Thackeray. Regrettably a lot of misinformation circulates about their relationship and there are loose mentions of Balasaheb not being paid regularly, of Nair’s actions being the reasons for Thackeray’s hatred for Madrasis and all that. Let’s set that right. Bal Thackeray began his career as a cartoonist in the Free Press Journal, as early as 1928. At the Free Press, Thackeray wielded the caricature as a political weapon fearlessly but was forced to temper his biting commentary. And Thackarey found himself in an office full of South Indians, headed by the fearless Sadanand.

The first time Thackaray resigned in 1952 was entirely due to his ego. He himself narrated so in an interview -There was this unpleasant person Mitra. You find such people everywhere. He made me sit next to the telephone operator. The phones would ring and there used be constant noise… ‘hold on, yes please, arrey’. How was I supposed to finish my work in that ruckus? I need silence even while reading a newspaper. How could I work in such an environment? That why I resigned. Anyway Sadanand himself went to Thackeray's house and requested him to rejoin and Thackeray acquiesced in the name of affection for Sadanand. Alo interesting is the fact that he and RK Laxman worked together in FPJ for two years, RKL left in 1949 to join Times of India. RK Laxman mentions in passing – He was a competent and efficient cartoonist, but was preoccupied with the idea of saving Maharashtra, its pristine glory , people, language and culture. Gradually he relegated the business of cartooning to the background and became an active politician heading a party of his own as its supremo.

Thackeray’s tiff with Nair came later in 1952. While many attribute Thackeray’s ire to the Churchill
Bal Thackrey at FPJ
cartoon issue, it was far from reality. The oft narrated story goes thus - Nair, by then the managing editor had sent over three of Thackeray’s cartoons for the Churchill issue and they had been accepted. The payment of some 70 GBP was not handed over to Thackeray and he was dismayed with Nair. But Thackeray scoffs at this and says that he never did the cartons for a payment and never even knew about any such cheque, so there was no point in his getting angry over it, but he does agree that he had a bone of contention with Nair over the subjects of his cartoons.

According to Thackeray, Nair did not like his depicting certain politicians in a bad light (perhaps they were patrons of the paper?) Two names mentioned were MR Masani and SK Patil whose caricatures and cartoons Nair specifically objected to. Anyway Thackeray was incensed about being asked to stay away from these holy cows and submitted his resignation after telling Hariharan, his editor that AB Nair did not know the A & B of journalism.

He lays the blame of the cartoon submission on Hariharan stating that Hariharan had refused permission for his submission of cartoons on Churchill when Cassel and Co requested it. It was later submitted through Thackeray’s friend Nadkarni and the whole story in reality had no connection to Nair. Thackeray also mentions that the paper was more interested in printing about the causes of diabetes and the ill effects of polio (interestingly MV Kamath brings out his involvement in that heart wrenching polio story as a highlight of his career in FPJ!)etc., as well as launching a washing powder such as Surf and that he was not happy about it. Anyway he left and went on to start the Marmik and lampoon and list the foreigners to Bombay such as the various Nair’s, Menon’s, Shah’s, Patels and so on, in sheer spite.  

There is also another story related to AB Nair going back to the time when he started to accept advertisements in the paper, for example when Surf was launched. This was when a number of journalists resigned from FPJ to start the newsman’s newspaper, protesting against the blatant commercialization of the paper by its Managing Editor, A B Nair.

Quoting PK Revindranath writing in keralainmumbai - One morning in August 1959, the Free Press Journal came out with a screaming eight –column banner headline: WONDER WASHING PRODUCT COMES TO TOWN, heralding the advent of Surf in the Indian Market. The entire page was about Surf. The Editor, A Hariharan was surprised when he got his copy early in the morning. He called up the Chief Sub-Editor on duty the previous night. He did not know anything about it. Hari then called up A B Nair, who told him it was a management decision implemented with his knowledge and approval. “Then I am not coming to your office from today,” Hari told him. A number of other journalists resigned within the week. They included K Shivram, M K B Nair, M P Iyer, A K B Menon, Bal Thackeray and P Revindran. They set up a new company, Readers Publication Ltd to bring out a new daily. Shares of Rs. 10 were sold to raise the capital. The promoters said they planned to bring about “healthy cooperation between intelligent newspaper readers and conscientious working journalists.” “The Press today has passed into the hands of vested interests. It is controlled by men who have big stakes in business profits and in politicking, by small men who will trade for a license or some preference, by those who have no stakes in the profession and no conscience worth the mention,” their statement read….

But people may ask what really riled up Thackeray against the South Indians. Was it due to the majority of South Indians in places of literary interest such as the FPJ? Was it due to the issues he had with Hariharan and/or Nair or some assumed south Indian conspiracy in the FPJ (D Gupta attributes the conspiracy quote to Thackeray) against him? Anyway he took issue to various things after that such as non-release of Hindi movies in Madras, the Udupi hotels of Matunga and so on,  and derisively termed the people of the South as the dark skinned (rhinoceros skinned) oily people, yandugundu’s, lungiwalas or chataiwalas. His tirades went thus - ldli Samber Band Kara (Stop Idli Samber), "Madrashana Haklum Lava" (Drive out the Madrasis).

One clue on Thackeray's fury against South Indians comes again from the ascent of Nair. Nair according to Thackeray had no clue of the newspaper business but had brought the paper back to stability and was appointed chairman of the PTI, the head of the merchant’s chamber and a municipal commissioner. By 1963, AB Nair became the Sherriff of Bombay, a UN delegate and to top it all, an area in Juhu housing fisher folk was even known as Nairwadi (btw it is still there PIN 600049). Around that time, the pope visited India for the first time and Nair was one to welcome and garland this dignitary and hobnob with him.

Some words on the popes historic visit- Pope Paul XVI was the first pope to have left Europe in 200 years, and around 30,000 delegates from world over and some 3 lakh people had gathered in Bombay in Dec 1964 to welcome him. He said - “If it pleases the Lord, I come to India...and I come.” Both Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Vice President Zakir Hussain were on the tarmac at Santa Cruz airport as the Pope stepped out of the plane, joining his hands to say “Namaste”.  As his open Ford convertible made its way south, passing through streets decorated with archways and bunting, more than a million people of lined his route. After three happy days, he said this on his departure - “We return to Rome bearing with us an unforgettable memory of our pilgrimage…here we leave our heart. It was an achievement as far as AB Nair was concerned, the culmination of two years of preparation.

Perhaps events like this would have irritated Thackeray no end for he wrote in marmik about outsider Madrasis being appointed as people in power such as governors and sheriffs. Probably he picked on them because they as he experienced himself, were docile, were not the type to strike back (though the Udupi hotel staff did try to resist a bit). He also mentioned they were according to him, conspirational and nepotistic. He then exhorted Maharashtrians to avoid Udupi hotels, Tamilnadu lottery tickets and South Indian grocery shops. But soon (by 1967) he changed his mercurial mind and redirected his attack to Bombay’s Muslims and communist outfits while supporting Cariappa, a South Indian in the elections!

Anyway as Thackeray veered towards politics, Nair and his wife Chandrika (aka Chandra bai) ventured into spiritualism. He would be seen associated will all kinds of Swamis such as Nityananda, Muktananda Paramahamsa and it can be seen that even the Prof AT Kovoor took objection to some of his activities and writings. It would be of interest to note that Nair was the person behind bringing the Hare Krishna ISKCON movement to Juhu’s Nairwadi, but that is a long and convoluted story in itself, for his association with the movement ended in a lot of controversy over contracts, payments, various legal issues and so on. It all started with Nair gifting land (180,000 sqft) for the ISKCON temple in Nairwadi in the early 70’s. Nair also became a member of the temple committee, but by 1972 August the relationship between Prabhupada and Nair had soured and a capital gains tax case of 5 lakhs had to be argued at length to be settled off. Unfortunately in the middle of all this, Nair passed away in 1973 and the matter was eventually settled with Mrs Nair.

But it ballooned to become a bigger issue after ISKCON’s Prabhpada passed away and some issues rose up about eviction of settlers on that land. Complaints of harassment were lodged and a film dancer Dilip Malhotra ended up murdered. Some even suspected CIA involvement in all this! After long, to cut the story short, the ISKCON temple was completed.

Nair’s Bhavans journal obituary states – Nair was a great social worker and associated himself with Sri Chatrapati Sivaji Maharaj Samathi of which he was the vice president (Wonder what Thackeray had to say about that!).

That was the end of one of the players in our story, a person who played a titular role in the development of Indian press. The Bhavans Journal mention continues - A moving sight on the day of Nair’s death was the tearful tribute from the scores of fisher-folk and the common people of Juhu - Santa Cruz area whose cause he has always championed with zeal. As Sheriff of Bombay, he insisted on not being a mere figurehead, but paid regular visits to prisons and took active interest in civic affairs and urban development.

Sadanand as we saw previously, had passed away in Madras in 1953, and the full story of his short and eventful life is quite interesting, but has never been written. Thackeray reigned supreme in Bombay, had it renamed Mumbai and eventually passed away in 2012.

Each left behind his own legacy. Mumbai the teeming city has taken a back seat as the IT wave took over India and people perhaps care less about petty matters like regionalism, these days. But Bombay will always be a city with character and I will always remember my own years there.
I am told that Nair’s progeny continue in the field of Journalism….

Behind the By-Line – M V Kamath
A reporter at Large – M V Kamath
Communications and power – Milton Israel
Bal Thackeray and the rise of the Shiv Sena – Vaibhav Purandare
Truth about the Indian press – J N Sahni
Indian Journalism – N K Murthy
Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia Ed Ravinder Kaur
Romance of Indian Journalism – J N Basu
The unknown Nair – MKB Nair (autobiography)

Pics - Pope visit, Thackeray, Bombay from Google images, up-loaders acknowledged with thanks