editor with an unrivalled instinct for what would make news, Karanjia
also gave some of the greatest names in Indian journalism their first
Karanjia…“chronicler of revolutions.”
don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.” So read the
sign outside Russy Karanjia’s office in Blitz. He passed away
on February 1, exactly 67 years after he founded one of India’s most
powerful publications. He was 95. The tabloid died a few years before
him. Karanjia the man would have been touched by the obituaries in the
press. Karanjia the editor would have rejected most of them as unfit
for publication. “Too reverential,” he would have grumbled. “Where’s
the last of the buccaneer editors. “Free, Frank & Fearless,”
roared our masthead. We were not always fearless. We were sometimes
too free for our own good. And we were often obnoxiously frank. But
Blitz was always readable, thanks to an editor with an unrivalled
instinct for what would make news to an incredibly diverse readership,
from a jawan on the Chinese border to striking textile workers in Mumbai.
A genius who gave some of Indian journalism’s greatest names their
first break, or a platform to build from. That includes R.K. Laxman.
Blitz was also the paper where K.A. Abbas ran his legendary Last
Page column unbroken for more than 40 years. Though the English tabloid
was the oldest, Blitz also appeared in Hindi, Urdu, and Marathi.
Karanjia also founded and ran a morning tabloid called The Daily
for some years. His daughter Rita ran the high-circulation Cine Blitz.
was an anarchist’s parliament. And we had two of everything. What
we did not have on staff, we had in equally eccentric contributors.
We had the world’s least successful astrologer, for instance. Karanjia,
who pioneered the political astrology beat, would bully him into making
predictions (which Karanjia favoured) on who would sweep the elections.
When these bombed, he would chew him out: “What sort of astrologer
are you? Can’t you get anything right?” The shaken oracle would
totter off seeking what we at Blitz called Spirit-ual solace.
had its own style. Embedded journalism, never. Embellished journalism,
ah well, every now and then. Karanjia was above all a great storyteller.
He spoke even better than he wrote — and he was an excellent writer.
He had a wicked sense of humour, too. He once sent me — underlined
and with exclamation marks — an aphorism from Richard Ingrams, editor
of Private Eye: “Never let the truth stand in the way of
a good story.”
Blitz carried more racket-busting reports and giant political scoops
than anyone else. Chief Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, and Governors
were laid low by a paper that had amazing access to everything. Investigations,
stings, exposes, almost anything the press now celebrates, first happened
with Karanjia. He was also the first editor who took photographs and
visuals seriously. Look at their quality in Blitz at a time when
most papers ran blotched images where it was impossible to tell Khrushchev
from his wife.
stood by us when the powerful complained, though sometimes in outrageous
fashion. Once a politician, now big at the Centre, called to complain
about a damaging — and true — story on his land fraud, run as a
“Blitz Exclusive.” I walked into Karanjia’s cabin in time
to hear him tell the man on the phone: “I was away, you know, that
story was run by my hot-headed deputy, I must discipline him.” I raged
at him: “How could you do that? It was your story, not mine. The man
will now hate me forever.” He was unruffled. “He hates you, anyway,
dear fellow, and you don’t love him either. I’ve known him since
he was a lad and must maintain some equation with him. I don’t see
what you’re complaining about.”
an instinctive gambler on big issues: Which way to go on technology?
Who would win the elections? What was the Big Idea to back? What could
we get Parliament fighting about? Some of his gambles succeeded beyond
belief. Some left us gasping in a quagmire. He never sought scapegoats
for failures, though (except with the astrologer), always taking personal
responsibility for things going wrong. I should know. It never happened
during the 10 years I was his deputy chief.
brought the April Fool hoax to the Indian press. His biggest April 1
coup came when The Daily’s front page announced the sale of
The Indian Express to A.R. Antulay. At a time when the Express
was, in fact, running a campaign against him. Amidst a chaos of jangling
phone lines, furious denials and total bewilderment in the city, an
incensed Ramnath Goenka warned he would sue us. Karanjia loved that
threat. And he did not mind taking on both powerful and dangerous people.
As he told me of one, “Oh I say, if you call him a crook, do put a
question mark to it. That helps with the libel stuff, you know.”
were periods when I fought with him every morning, but he always made
me laugh by the end of the day. Like when I stopped the practice of
the pin-up girl on the Last Page. A handwritten note from Karanjia to
me ran: “Dear Sainath, now that we are emulating the Vatican Gazette,
do you have any further ideas to perk up the paper?”
editor, Blitz was internationalist. Countless Indians followed
the wars of liberation in Vietnam, Africa and Latin America, through
Blitz. His great hero was Fidel Castro (whose photo remained on
his desk till the last day he went to office.) The Americans hated him
and denounced him as a Soviet stooge.
height of the Sino-Soviet hostility, Karanjia managed exclusive interviews
with the leaders of both the USSR and China (including a rare meeting
with Zhou en Lai.) He also had one with the Pope in the same period.
His early interview with Mr. Castro, though, was very Blitz.
Landing in the confusion of revolutionary Cuba, Karanjia was mistaken
for the Indian envoy, an error he did little to correct. Mr. Castro
held up his hand and waved to the crowds at meetings. “Oh, I was in
the doghouse a bit when it came apart,” he told me. But Mr. Castro’s
own sense of humour triumphed and Karanjia returned with one of the
most important interviews of his life.
had some superb small town correspondents who, unlike the astrologer,
were pretty good at calling elections. For years, it had lakhs of readers,
and more of them writing to the editor than in any other paper. Readers
who would raise lakhs of rupees for causes ranging from poor children
needing costly surgery to funds for Vietnamese freedom fighters. Karanjia,
who knew giants and was once called a “chronicler of revolutions,
a biographer of revolutionaries,” never lost sight of little people.
It was he who taught a generation how to make a big story of little
was more accessible. Anyone could walk into Blitz — and they
often did. From levitating ascetics to poor municipal cleaners complaining
about working in the sewers — all could meet the editor directly.
No vast security apparatus. Even policemen turning up to serve him with
summons would have tea with him and return pretending he was untraceable.
unfailing look at the funny side of everything rubbed off on the rest
of us. Blitz never lost its sense of fun even when threatened
or attacked physically. This was an office where crank callers were
welcome entertainment and those hurling death threats were baffled by
the response they got. As my late colleague Habib Joosab told one caller:
“No, you cannot kill us Mondays or Tuesdays. Those are our press days,
don’t you know we’re busy?”
were his extended family. As patriarch, he could yell at us. Those yelling
back were generously tolerated. No one was victimised. To know this
man was to love him.
mid-1990s, long after I had left the job, he had an accident that damaged
his memory. At the hospital I was told he was not recognising anyone.
In his room he greeted me with: “Good evening, Sainath. Have you put
the paper to bed? You know I hate going late.” I hadn’t the heart
to remind him I had left Blitz ages ago. I assured him all had
been done. Here was a man who, when he had forgotten almost everything,
remembered he was a journalist and an editor. Nothing could erase that
The Hindu 8.2.2008
to the obituary “R.K. Karanjia: Living through the Blitz”
(Feb. 6). The statement that K.A. Abbas ran his legendary Last Page
column unbroken for more than 40 years deserves a correction. When KAA,
as Abbas was affectionately known, in 1959 blasted Boris Pasternak for
Doctor Zivago, I sent a piece to RKK accusing Khruschev, Abbas and the
Kremlin of intolerance, and a jaundiced view of literature. Russy yielded
the Last Page to me, with KAA’s compliments, and the weekly carried
the full-page article without any change whatsoever.
was a great newspaperman, a humanist and a fine editor. And a humble
man to boot. Economic reforms of the early 1990s confused him; there
was the legacy of Nehru and Blitz. I suggested a meeting and
an interview with Manmohan Singh, the Finance Minister. The transformation
was rapid, and powerful.
paid the highest tribute saying “to know this man was to love him.”
I was a regular reader of Blitz for decades. The supplements
on specific topics on special occasions were a treat to the eye and
the mind. The Last Page by Abbas was a great attraction, week after
week for decades. India lost a visionary in Karanjia’s demise.
early 1960s, we were crazy about Blitz. True to its name, Karanjia
led a fierce campaign through his lead essays against maladministration
and corruption. Beneath the blithe surface of his writings ran his revolutionary
thoughts tinged with a sense of social reform.
on the doyen of Indian journalism was one of the best I have seen in
the recent past. It showed a mirror on the genius.
has progressed mainly because of unconventional, unorthodox and daring
persons like Karanjia.
reminded of my days in King George’s School, Belgaum, in the 1960s
when we used to read Blitz regularly. It was juicy, spicy, and
different. Blitz and Karanjia were synonymous. Some people might
not have agreed with him but no one could ignore him. Such was the power
of his writing.
Colonel R.D. Singh,