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

Hicky, Maria and Warren

The travails of Hicky - the ‘Papa of the Indian press’

So many events converged to destroy the life of this hapless character, a bloke named James Augustus Hicky of Calcutta. The Nuncomar case, the ill-gotten gains of Maria - the lovely wife of Warren Hastings, the machinations of Phillip Francis and his paramour Catherine, the fury of Elijah Impey - the chief justice of the Supreme Court and most of all, the ire of Warren Hastings, the Governor General. Hicky was unfortunate to get involved with all these illustrious people though he went about it craftily and with gusto, by bringing out his own newspaper and speaking often and publically about their misdeeds.

We will get into some amount of detail as we go on, and to set the scene, we go back in time to the environs around Fort Williams of Old Calcutta, where the British EIC had established themselves following the black hole incident and the Battle of Plassey. The period we will get to covers the last three decades of the 18th century. The Calcutta of those days was as they wrote, was ‘by all accounts an uncomfortable place of residence, as awkward a place as can be conceived, with mansions and hovels, warehouses and gardens jostling one another, and huddled together in inextricable confusion’. British accounts state that life for the Gorah’s was considered to be so unhealthy that people who met together at the end of the rains, congratulated one another on having survived yet another season.

A record states - In those early days, the Governor's house and gardens lay hard by the Fort, and the grounds extended from the river bank right up to the Lai Bagh with its splendid tank, which we have disguised to-day under the name of Dalhousie Square, and which was the rendezvous and recreation-ground of the Settlement. The beautiful Mrs. Imhoff, or "Baroness Imhoff," as she is usually styled, whom we will soon get to know better, who became the Governor-General's second wife, is said to have held her salon in Hastings Street.

Hastings and Maria at Alipore
A few words on Maria and Warren to start with – Maria née Anna Maria Apollonia Chapuset; or Maria von Imhoff, Baroness von Imhoff was the second wife of Warren Hastings. Their story is a story of love and well documented. During a voyage from Dover in 1769, he met the German Baroness Imhoff and her husband Baron Imhoff, a painter who had obtained a position in the Madras Army. The seasick Hastings was nursed to health (and more for sure) by the Baroness, he soon fell in love with the 22 year old lady and they began an affair, seemingly with her husband's consent in Madras, where the three of them apparently lived together in a public ‘ménage a trois’. Hastings' first wife, Mary, had died in 1759, and it appears he planned to marry the Baroness once she had obtained a divorce from her husband. Imhoff conveniently moved to Calcutta leaving behind his wife, to Hastings care and soon enough, Hastings also secured the position in Calcutta (Hastings was by then on his second tour to India, and in 1774, he was appointed the first Governor-General of Bengal and also the first governor of India) and the Imhoff’s, moved into his property, the Belvedere estate, in Alipore. Hastings’s regular visits to his estate which but naturally occurred, set the tongues of Calcutta wagging. 

Eventfully Imhoff went back to Europe richer by Rs 10,000 (purportedly the remuneration for a painting of Hastings, but in reality the price for a divorce) where he married a Von Schad and Maria as a result obtained a formal divorce from the Baron on the basis of ‘abandonment of a conjugal mate’ in 1777 after which she married Hastings; with Impey serving as the best man. It was this lovely middle aged baroness who became the subject of Hicky’s ire …But let’s get back to the printing scene at first.

William Bolts was the first to announce his plan to start publishing a manuscript detailing the scandals surrounding EIC officials of Calcutta, in 1768. The alarmed EIC bosses immediately expelled him from Calcutta and packed him off to Europe. Following Bolts’s aborted attempt at starting a newspaper, there was a lull and the only way for the upper crest to get some kind of news was to wait for European papers which came when the East Indiamen ships from Europe docked, carrying stale news and many months too late.

A strange fact to bear in mind is the point that the printing press itself had arrived in Goa as early as 1556 and following the first booklet ‘Doctrina Christina’, another was printed in Malayalam (using Tamil script) as early as 1578. However it took two more centuries before Hicky decided to bell the cat and launch his newsweekly, Hicky’s Bengal gazette. Until then the British never allowed publishing in English fearing the power of the pen and we get to know the gist of the reasoning from a 1778 blue book which stated this about native language publishing - Certain publications in Oriental languages, printed or circulated in British India, have of late contained matter likely to excite disaffection to the Government established by law in British India, or antipathy between persons of different races, castes, religions, or sects in British India, or have been used as a means of intimidation or extortion." It is added that “Such publications are read by and disseminated among large numbers of ignorant and unintelligent persons, and are thus likely to have an influence which they otherwise would not possess,” and it is declared to be “necessary for the maintenance of the public tranquility, and for the security of Her Majesty’s subjects and others, that power should be conferred on the Executive Government to control the printing and circulation of such publications. But one person, the aforementioned James Augustus Hicky, took the lead and decided to bring out a local paper, a 12”x 8” 3 column, four pager on the Saturday, January 29, 1780.

Let us get a little bit of personal background on Hicky. Busteed in his “echoes from Old Calcutta’ introduces our man thus - The proprietor of Bengal Gazette was a Mr. James Augustus Hicky, who was probably a printer by trade, and had come out from England, possibly under engagement from the India House, as in one of his early addresses to the public (a form of communication in which he was fond of indulging) he describes himself as " the first and late printer to the Honorable Company," and in another as "free of the Printers and Stationers Company in London." As Thankappan Nair described, the complex James Augustus Hicky was a printer by profession, a surgeon by choice, and a journalist at heart.

From other records we glean that James Augustus Hicky (b.1740 or earlier) the son of William, a linen- weaver of Long Acre (Ireland), was living at Colimba or more precisely at Taltalah, in Colinga Moochipara,  had sailed to Calcutta  as a surgeon’s mate in 1772, though apprenticed as a printer in London. But finding the printing scene somewhat uncongenial, and perhaps trading business more lucrative, he drifted into the shipping line. This was a disaster, for in the years 1775-76 ( as he informed his readers himself later) he met with very many heavy losses by sea, that in the latter year his vessel returned to Calcutta with her cargo damaged, while a bond of his became due for some four thousand rupees. To meet this he offered his all, two thousand rupees, but "the black Bengal banias proved inflexible." Finally he gave up his vessel, cargo, and all his household effects to his creditors, and in October, 1776, "delivered up his person at the jail of Calcutta to free his bail, and for the first time in all his life entered the walls of a prison."

His contemporary, the lawyer and writer William Hickey who met him as a client while Hicky was in this debtor’s jail describes him thus - a most eccentric creature apparently possessed of considerable natural talents, but entirely uncultivated. Never before had I beheld a mortal who so completely came up to what I had often heard described as a wild Irishman! Upon enquiring particularly into the character and conduct of my namesake, I learnt that he was extremely violent, gelding so much to sudden gusts of passion and so grossly abusing whoever acted for him that at length not a professional man could be found to act for him, and he actually remained a prisoner from there not being an attorney who would have anything to say to him.

Hickey claims that Hicky studied printing while in Debtor’s prison and alludes to some training as a doctor.  He says - At the time I first saw Hicky, he had been about seven years in India. During his confinement he met with a treatise upon printing, from which he collected sufficient information to commence printer, there never having been a press in Calcutta. By indefatigable attention and unremitting labour he succeeded in cutting a rough set of types which answered very well for hand-bills and common advertisements, and as he could afford to work cheap he met with considerable encouragement. Having scraped together by this means a few hundred rupees he sent to England for a regular and proper set of materials for printing. Resolving also to have two strings to his bow, he at the same time gave orders for a quantity of medicine, as he proposed to exercise the business of physician, surgeon, and apothecary, as well as that of printer.

Busteed continues - "With his two thousand rupees (I don’t know where he got it, probably Hickey won the case and got him some settlement from the Banias of Calcutta) he purchased a few types, set carpenters to work to make printing materials, and advertised to print for the public." At this he laboriously continued with fair encouragement from several gentlemen of the Settlement for two years, and then ventured further in the same direction, " although," he explained, ' I have no particular passion for printing of newspapers, I have no propensity; I was not bred to a slavish life of hard work, yet I take a pleasure in enslaving my body in order to purchase freedom for my mind and soul." Whilst patiently waiting the arrival of these articles, it occurred to Hicky that great benefit might arise from setting on foot a public newspaper, nothing of that kind ever having appeared. Upon his types, therefore reaching him, he issued proposals for printing a weekly paper, which, meeting with extraordinary encouragement, he speedily issued his first work. As a novelty every person read it, and was delighted.

Initially he printed bill, regulations and other stationery for the EIC from a press located in Radha Bazar.  The payments for later work was grossly delayed and this major grouse troubled him for many years. The arrears were substantial and amounted to Rs 43,514. It took close to 14 years and it was finally around 1790, that the EIC paid a reduced amount of Rs 6,711 to the hapless Hicky, claiming that the supplies were of poor quality. Anyway Hicky had decided that government business was no good and ventured out to publish his own newspaper – which he announced would be ‘a weekly political and commercial paper, open to all but influenced by NONE’. In no time, he was called by the pro establishment as ‘the most objectionable rowdy that ever landed in Calcutta’. Hicky on the other hand thought himself to be - a scourge to Tyrannical Villains, and upstart Schemers and Embezzlers of the Company’s property, Stainers of the British Flag and Disgracers of the English name.

Thus was born Hicky’s Bengal gazette which Busteed stated was - a curiosity in these days, and helps to give a glimpse at certain phases of the contemporary European social life in Calcutta, which could not, perhaps, be got elsewhere. In returning thanks for the first list of contributors, the proprietor states that “should he be so fortunate in his endeavors as to bring so useful an undertaking as a newspaper to perfection he will think himself amply rewarded, as it may in a very little time prove an antibilous specific, from which he hopes his subscribers will receive more natural benefit than from tincture of bark, castor oil, or columba root." As a newspaper it looked for its patrons, both at the Presidency, and in the Mofussil, mainly amongst the free merchants and traders and the general non-official European classes. To these and to their commercial and domestic requirements the advertising columns are devoted. Some of these patrons took to calling him the papa of the Indian press.

The paper was decidedly scurrilous, vulgar and of poor quality. But it did provide good entertainment to the readers and provided them with ample whiffs of scandals floating around the Calcutta high society. Hicky should have continued in this merry way and kept the business to himself, but then again, he was of a different type and started to write about the Nuncomar case, the wrongful acts of Impey and of Hastings in hastening the conviction and hanging of Prince Nanda Kumar (a.k.a. Nuncomar). Not only that, he did not spare many other high level officers of the EIC in Calcutta from his vicious and indirect barbs. Misfortune first hit Hicky when his house burnt down in a local fire and had to be rebuilt in stone and mortar.

The event that really rattled Hicky into making even more personal attacks on Hastings and Maria was the announcement of the launch of a new newspaper coupled with an order by Hastings banning Hickeys gazette from being sent to patrons, through the General post office. The order was issued by Gov. Hastings due to Hicky’s ‘publishing of several improper paragraphs tending to vilify private characters and to disturb the peace of the settlement’. This happened in Nov 1780, about 10 months after Hickey had started his now popular newsweekly.

The new newspaper which was launched with the tacit support of Hastings was the India gazette, with a free post concession. Hicky was incensed to see how the governor general had used his power to strike down his own fledgling newspaper. He screamed and cried bitterly through his medium that Hastings was ‘the strongest proof of arbitrary power and influence’ and his use of the post office to deprive ‘a man off his livelihood was beyond the prerogative of the British crown’. However the practical problem was that his paper could not be delivered to his patrons without the post office and the net loss was about Rs 400 p.m. Hicky would not be deterred though, and he used his friend’s network to spread his paper around and hired twenty harkaras or delivery boys to have his papers delivered to patrons outside the city. In an effort to maintain and even increase his readership, he resorted to increased reporting of juicy gossip and magnifying the misdeeds of Hastings and his friends, with more direct attacks, instead of the previous method of renaming the characters in mock plays scripted in the paper.

The next broadside delivered by Hicky was against Johann Zachariah Keirnander, a Swedish missionary, longtime resident of Calcutta, having moved there after a tenure in Malabar and Madras and who came into Hicky’s cross-hairs for having delivered better quality printing types to his competitor, the aforementioned India gazette. Hicky found fault with the pastor for delivering high quality type (which was in Kiernander’s possession for printing and the spreading of the divine gospel) to his competitor for printing local news.  He accused the pastor of selling the church to the government and the pastor in return sued him for libel, in the Supreme Court. Hicky was found guilty and sentenced to 4 months in prison and Rs 500.

Hicky also concluded in the meanwhile that the free post concession given to India gazette were garnered by Peter Reed and Bernard Messink the owners, after bribing Maria Hastings, who in return pushed Hastings to promulgate the ban on Hicky’s gazette from being posted and in providing tacit support to the new paper (more friendly to him and his cronies). Hicky promptly published his findings and mentioned bitterly that he too could gave got the very same concessions had he chosen the backdoor and enriched the coffers of Maria Hastings.

But Hicky survived through all this due to the ‘behind the scenes’ support which he received from Hastings’s rival, Sir Phillip Francis (he was rumored to be the ghost writer Junius in the Gazette), another member of the five strong supreme council of Bengal. Francis of course had his own troubles and was involved in many a personal scandal which Hicky conveniently glossed over, in his paper. What brought matters to a head was the arrival of the pretty damsel Catherine Grand of Tranquebar to Calcutta and Francis’s affairs with her as well as Francis’s disagreements with Hastings over the conduct of the Maratha war. A court case which was inconclusive was to be decided over a duel between Francis and Hastings. In August 1780, this duel which was the consequence, resulted in Francis receiving a dangerous wound (I will cover this salacious story in the forthcoming article). Though his recovery was quick and complete, Francis returned to Britain, depriving Hicky of a powerful patron, by early 1781. Catherine departed a week later, destined for France, via South Africa.
The duel - Hastings Vs Francis
Hicky was now in for trouble, with Hastings on the ascent and his patron Francis out of the scene. An armed band of 400 persons led by some Europeans raided Hicky’s press in order to arrest him, as ordered by the Chief Justice Impey, Hastings’s good friend. Hicky surrendered and a bail of Rs 80,000 was set. Seeing that he had no way out of it, Hicky appealed for a lesser bail, pleading for Rs 5,000 which was denied and Hicky was imprisoned. Hastings had assumed that the arrest would silence Hicky, but to his alarm, it simply did not. Hicky continued his tirade and publishing from within the walls of the prison and fortunately for him, Hastings had to go to the NWFP for some months, while Hicky’s case was being heard.

Finally he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in April 1782 and a Rs 2, 000 fine. Impey as chief justice also awarded Hastings, libel damages of Rs 5,000 which the Governor General grandly waived. As the incarcerated Hicky continued publishing his paper from the prison, Hastings and Impey retaliated by instituting suit after suit against Hicky, till the paper and the owner were crushed to finally pleading forma pauperis (pauper) after a hard two years stint in the Birjee jail.

Initially the court did not seize his types and press, but due to nonpayment of court fines, they were eventually seized and destroyed and with it all hopes of restarting his publishing business was lost. Time had passed by and by this time there were at least half a dozen competing journals on the street. Hicky was at last broken and it had taken all the might of the Governor general’s office and the power of the Supreme Court with Impey the chief justice. He was also forced to accept a reduced payment of Rs 6,711 instead of the Rs 43,000 arrears owed by the EIC to him, finally in 1793.

The sad middle aged (I should say old, since life in India for the Britisher was quite tough and aged people much faster) man and his family settled down to a life of relative penury treating the ill in the largely native locale of Colimba, after 1785. Records mention that he became an apothecary and a surgeon and tread a miserable path from then on. However we do note that he did contribute to another newspaper run by Almon in 1786. Towards the end, he was recorded as pleading to Hastings in writing during 1799 for mercy and begging for a small job as a clerk at the Calcutta market, if not he said, he will be forced to get a job as a surgeon on a china man, so that he could at least get his family home to Britain. We also note that towards the end he was trading of Chinese and European goods.

It was time for him to go I guess, and finally we see from a newspaper report that James Augustus Hicky died in 1802 on a ship Ajax, en route to China. As he wrote while in prison, Every hope has fled, and the future only offers horror and confinement till death brings release…Hicky, the papa of the Indian press had found release. His ‘garden house’ was auctioned off in 1803. He was survived by his (perhaps Indian Muslim) wife and 9 or so of his eleven children.  Thus passed away the Papa of the Indian Press.

Thankappan Nair, the chronicler of Calcutta rightly states – Journalism was a one man concern in those days of Hicky, for he was his own typesetter, printer, publisher, salesman, advertisement manager, correspondent and news bureau. 

The stories of Hastings and Impey does not end here. Maria amassed immense wealth herself while at Calcutta and Hicky was not entirely wrong in his insinuations. Hastings went back to England in 1784. Upon his return to England he was impeached in the House of Commons for crimes and misdemeanors conducted during his time in India, especially for the alleged judicial killing of Nandakumar, through the instigations of his rival, Phillip Francis. After seven years of court hearings and a great personal cost, Hastings was acquitted in 1795 with a small pension. Francis who was hoping for the conviction of Hastings and a post of Governor General for himself was disappointed and retired to a private life thereafter.  Maria and Hastings lived to long ages. Johann Zachariah Keirnander fell from his chair, broke his leg and passed away in 1799. Catherine Grand went up the ladder and shone as a courtesan, but well her interesting story will follow next.

Memoirs of William Hickey Vol. 2 Ed Alfred Spencer
Echoes from old Calcutta: being chiefly reminiscences of the days of Warren Hastings, Francis, and Impey" – HE Busteed
Hicky and His Gazette - P. Thankappan Nair
Tales of Old and New Madras: By S. Muthiah
Romance of Indian Journalism - Jitendra Nath Basu
Risking Official Displeasure: The Trial and Tribulations of India's First Newsweekly in 1780 - Debashis Aikat
Bengal: Past and Present, Volume 1. Bengal Past and Present Vol.30
Transoceanic Radical: William Duane: National Identity and Empire, 1760-1835 - Nigel Little
The Letters of Warren Hastings to His Wife - Sydney C Grier
Indian Ink : Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company - Ogborn, Miles
Indian Advertising: 1780 to 1950 A.D.  Arun Chaudhuri
Courtesan princess – Annette Joelson

By Victor Surridge, Illustrations by A.D. Macromick - Romance of Empire India, Public Domain
By Johann Zoffany -, Public Domain, 

The issue of the withheld payment is a classic story of government manipulation. Ogborn Miles covers it explicitly in his fine book – As the story goes, Hicky after printing a first batch of bills was asked in 1779 to print a digest of Sir Eyre Coote’s military regulations. To do so he employed several men to help with the printing, as well as a blacksmith, a carpenter, and brassmen to service the press and provide the brass rues such a publication required and borrowed Rs 4,000 from his friend Captain price. After getting the initial proof approved, he printed 2135 copies. By this time Coote had to rush off to fight Haider Ali at Ft St George and Hicky was asked to contact Hastings for the payments. Knowing that Hastings would not treat him well, he decided to wait for Coote’s return.

A major issue was that the producers of the regulations did not want their work culled and threatened Coote anonymously with murder, for trying to reduce or nullify their lifetime's efforts. So they delayed approvals of further proofs and blocked Hickys attempts to employ new printers with fickle arguments such as ‘the incumbent is fond of liquor’ or ‘was good only to make sky rockets with printing paper’. As the case dragged on, it was finally decided that Coote had no real authority to give a contract to Hicky. Anyway Hicky was eventually paid only a small amount of Rs 6,711, for his efforts, 14 years later, in 1793.

Errata - It has been pointed out to me that the previously posted image, was in reality an imaginary portrait of Hicky and not that of JA Hicky. So the image has been deleted. Regret the error.