Remembering George Verghese

IN Opinion | 01/01/2015
B. G. Verghese's life and work mirrored the best aspirations of Indian democracy. He was also a warm and concerned human being.

KAMALA MANKEKAR: Delhi is not the same without him

I came to know George Verghese in the early 1950s as the chief  of the Delhi bureau of the Times of India where he headed a team of special correspondents. I was a junior sub-editor in the paper while he was a senior correspondent. He was always courteous and I learned to respect him for his friendly attitude. In the late fifties I was trying to get a position in the bureau and asked George if,  provided the editor-in-chief Frank Moraes agreed, he (George) would take me in the bureau. His instant response was "Of course; so far as I am concerned you can join tomorrow; most welcome." George was ever willing to extend a helping hand to his colleagues, with grace and  warmth of friendship, and not any hint of patronage.

His references in his memoirs to Jamila amply show his affection for his wife; I remember my husband remarking that George, blushing like a teenager, had confided, "Mankekar I am in love, quite hopelessly so," when he was courting Jamila.
George was always there in times of your need.  During the Emergency I  suspected plain clothesmen lurking around my house and following my daughter as she left for school. My husband was abroad then. I  talked to George about my concern. Don't worry, he had said, just go about  your routine as usual; don't show any anxiety. We will keep a watch.
That restored my confidence.

I discovered George the patriot, in love and adoration of his motherland , in his last book Post Haste: Quintessential India. He writes of quintessential India with the tenderness of a wondrous child gazing at his mother with admiration. Perhaps not many of us saw this side of a truly secular and many-splendoured personality of BGV.
I met George and Jamila in August last at the launch of my memoirs. He sent Jamila home as she was not too well and joined me and my family and some friends for dinner. He looked rather frail, but otherwise in good spirits. His passing away is a personal loss to me. Delhi is not the same without him.

BARKHA DUTT    The classic liberal who eschewed  binaries

Well before I was a journalist, or even old enough to be one, I had heard much about the legendary B.G Verghese. My mother, Prabha Dutt worked at the Hindustan Times when he was the Editor of the paper. Around our constantly animated and argumentative dining table, I'd grown up listening to newsroom chatter about him- his immovable integrity, his compassion and his refusal to go down without a fight. When he found himself on a collision course with his employers ( for his critique of the Sikkim annexation and later Indira's Emergency), my mother was among the many journalists who rallied behind him, leading a campaign to support him. There was also the funny story of how my mother used her reporting skills to scoop the information on his son Vijay topping the All India Board Examinations, storming into an edit meeting to give him the good news.  The results were not yet officially out. Always a stickler for correctness and protocol B.G Verghese forbade the news from being passed around till the results were out. It took a call from the irate principal of Modern School who demanded to know why his star pupil was being blacked out for Verghese to relent.

When my mother died in 1984, typical of the faithful friend and colleague that he was, B. G Verghese helped set up the Prabha Dutt Memorial Foundation. For many years he helped us administer the awards we started in her name. Long after her death, he and his ever-smiling wife Jamila (never without flowers in her hair)  made it a point to keep in touch with my father, Speedy. 

As I grew older and became a TV journalist myself my respect for B.G Verghese grew by leaps and bounds. To me, st refreshing was the unpredictability of his views and the refusal to be boxed in by rigid labels of ideology. This did not mean that he did not have firm positions; in fact the opposite. But for the polarised times we live in when we are under pressure to identify ourselves in simplistic categories of Left &  Right, B.G Verghese would often surprise both friends and foes. In many ways he was a classic liberal; he went to court against fake encounters, for instance. But he often found himself at odds with the conventional liberal discourse on other issues, such as the debate around big dams. When he took on Arundhati Roy for what he saw as her romanticisation of Maoists ( and earlier for Sardar Sarovar) to me it was an instructive illustration of a man always brave enough to be true to himself, unbothered by whether he would get the thumbs-up from this intellectual camp or that.  His willingness to judge each issue on its own merits - a nationalist perspective on the Naxal threat but a human rights approach to deaths without due process- was evidence of a complex, intelligent, but always fair mind. At a time when binaries seem to define all our debates, I think there was a lot to learn from B.G Verghese about Nuance.

Over the last few years, he was often a commentator on my shows. As other panelists outshouted each other, his expression remained calm; almost benign. But when he spoke, the studio would fall silent to listen. A gentleman journalist who combined the strength of firmness with the gentleness of fairness, he was a mentor to so many of us across two generation. We shall miss him immensely. 

INDER MALHOTRA: Incomparable George

THOUGH he was a few years older than me, George Verghese and I joined journalism roughly at the same time, he with the Times of India in Bombay, and I with a news-agency, the United Press of India, on whose ashes was later built the United News of India, in Delhi. This was so because after completing his education at St. Stephen’s College he had gone to Cambridge. I desperately needed a job after graduating from the Punjab University. Shortly after the Times transferred George to Delhi, I had moved to the Statesman, a highly prestigious paper at that time. Coincidently, he and I were allotted adjacent seats in the Lok Sabha’s press gallery. Thus, for seven years we spent a lot of our working time together. This resulted in warm friendship that lasted until death laid its icy hand on him.  More importantly, from day one I was deeply impressed by his professional excellence, prodigious had work (we had agreed that both of us will not be absent from the gallery at the same time) and his superfine human qualities. He also had a sense of humour completely devoid of malice. On one occasion when there was a shouting match between the two sides on the floor, he whispered to me: “Today we are not at the Indian version of Westminster but at the Hyde Park corner.”

Numerous were the occasions when he and I were included in the press parties invited to various places to cover some event or the other. One of these, a tour of Punjab ’s countryside at the invitation of chief minister Partap Singh Kairon, became memorable for two reasons. First, while showing us the improvements in the state’s rural areas, our hosts unveiled the newly-designed “smokeless chulah.” Only George understood its immense significance and explained to us that the absence of smoke while cooking for the family would be bliss for women. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that George was one of the pioneers of rural reporting and development journalism.  Secondly, on the return train-journey that began in the evening a massive row erupted between two journalists, both of them friends of mine. But they ignored my plea to calm down. Mediation by some others was equally futile. However, when George spoke to them gently the dispute ended at once.
On becoming prime minister in January 1966, Indira Gandhi appointed George her Information Adviser. Two months later she was to visit the United States . George was told to get there a few days earlier to help Ambassador B. K. Nehru brief both the Indian and American press. With my employers’ agreement I had got to Washington even earlier than George’s arrival. At the first of a series of briefings BK welcomed George as a “good man who has joined us in the den of thieves.” Amidst laughter several of us pointed out that George’s name and theft could not be uttered in the same breath.
After three years George left the prime minister’s secretariat and became editor of the Hindustan Times where he followed highly independent policy which was often critical of the government he had served briefly. At the time Sikkim – a separate entity as a British protectorate but never a sovereign one – became part of India in two stages, he was the only editor to denounce it, under the heading “Kanchenjunga, here we come.” Soon thereafter the Emergency was imposed and George lost his job. But he did not care, and worked with the Gandhi Peace Foundation as a research Fellow.
On returning to power in January 1980, Indira Gandhi set up the Takru Commission to hold a comprehensive inquiry into the wrongdoings of the Janata’s regime, which was obviously her revenge for the Janata government’s Shah Commission against her. Strangely, one of the matters Justice Takru was asked to investigate was George’s role in the Gandhi Peace Foundation. I wrote a sharp article against “Politics of Vengeance”. Early in the morning I received two phone calls, one from RomeshThapar, asking me to send him a longer version of my article for publication in his journal, Seminar. The other call was from George. “Now I can also say that I have been mentioned in despatches,” he said.
George had contested the 1977 general election that had “overthrown the Empress” as a Janata party candidate from a constituency in Kerala but had lost. He had little money of his own and had fought the election with donations from the party and a huge number of his friends and admirers. What is not generally known is that all the money he had collected wasn’t spent. George returned it proportionately to all the donors. As far as I know this is the first and, so far, only such case in India ’s electoral history since Independence.
RENUKA CHATTERJEE: Why George was also Boobli

I had the privilege of working with B G Verghese on two books: his political memoir, First Draft: Witness to the Making of a Modern India (Tranquebar Press/Westland Ltd., 2010), and Post Haste: Quintessential India (Tranquebar Press/Westland Ltd., 2014), his rather quirky and original history of modern India told through her postage stamps.

It was with some trepidation that I started editing First Draft: ‘George’, as he always referred to himself, brushing aside my polite ‘Mr Verghese’, was a veteran journalist of more than 30 years’ experience; had been at the helm of at least two of the leading newspapers in the country, and the patron and guiding light for many ‘young’ editors and journalists like myself. How would he take to track changes – today’s equivalent of the red pencil – coming from someone who had yet to get a college degree when he was already editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times?

I needn’t have worried. BG responded to all my suggestions and queries with unfailing courtesy, never making feel like the ignoramous I undoubtedly was in the sphere of post-Independence politics. That he equally unfailingly reinstated most of my ‘cuts’ and changes, is another matter altogether. First Draft was intended to be his magnum opus, and so indeed it was, all 573 pages of it!

Behind that old-world courtesy also lurked, as I discovered, an endearing sense of humour. This came to the fore when he got down to ‘unravel the mystery of “Verghese alias Boobli”’, in First Draft, Boobli being his pet name. His family were Syrian Christians from Kerala, and the tradition was for the eldest son to take his paternal grandfather’s name. By this yardstick, BG should have been named Verghese Verghese, but instead was christened ‘George’, after his father. Be that as it may, the profusion of ‘Geevarghese Geevarghese’ or ‘Verghese Verghese’ in the community made it necessary for a child to have a more ‘homely’ everyday name, and every grandmother had a stock of such ‘pet names’ ready. BG’s paternal grandfather had named his youngest son Boobli. The origins of the name are unknown, but Uncle Boobli died young of tetanus  and so his pet name was passed on to the infant  BG. An amusing postscript to the story being that his official name remained ‘George’, confounding many an  immigration officer presented with a passport that identified the eminently respectable journalist as ‘George Verghese,   son of George Verghese’.
Whether as BG, George, Mr Verghese, or for those who dare, Boobli – he is one man who will be as respected, admired and loved in death as he was in life.
(Continued on page two...)

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