Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ajith Pillai's Book "Off the Record"


Right from the time I knew him when we worked together in Malayala Manorama, I knew Ajith Pillai would write a book and it would be something to look forward to. Ever since I purchased the book on Amazon I couldn’t put it down, his sparse – Hemingway-ian – narrative kept me going impatiently from page to page. He is witty, ironic, and cynical and often would make me laugh with the stories he had written and the experience he had had. He was friend and fellow conspirator who helped me when I was in a dark period in my life. If I was dark and moody he would crack a joke and my spirits would lift. When we were short of money he would say, “Let’s rob a bank.” Of course, he didn’t mean it. He was correspondent of The Week and I was Manorama’s marketing supervisor. Though we were in conflicting departments our friendship was devoid of any rivalry. Being a foodie, he led me on a discovery of the restaurants in the Fort area: City Kitchen, Gokul, Martin’s, Mahesh and many more. He loved his food as he did his drink. But most of all he loved his job, wherever he worked.

The book I am referring to is Off the Record by Ajith Pillai a collection of his stories – on record – most of which I have heard from him in person. A good raconteur, a good writer, a good human being is how I would describe him. He was incorruptible and told me of the blank cheque handed to him by a tycoon to write a story favourable to him. Of course, he didn’t accept it. These are stories which are not part of the present collection. Likewise, he had submitted a two-word resignation letter at Observer which consisted of only “I resign.” That points to the humour of the man.

He and the late Vinod Mehta had a good personal chemistry. Under Mehta his writing and career took off, first at Sunday Observer and then at Pioneer and Outlook. Mehta trusted him and knew of his inherent sincerity and dedication. The legendary editor passed away without handing his baton to someone worthy of the mantle of the leader of the fourth estate and I feel the worthy inheritor would have been Ajith Pillai. Well, it’s cruel fate that Ajith didn’t get what he was due. He should have been an editor now, motivating a younger crop of journalists cutting their teeth on the burning problems of the day.

Ajith Pillai's Off the Record
Particularly gripping is his account of the Kargil war which he covered for Outlook. His dad was a high-ranking army officer and, I guess, that gave him the insight to report on the war in depth. Speaking of which it reminds me that he studied at one of the premier institutions – La Martinere – in Lucknow where, I presume, Vinod Mehta also studied. Yes, he did. (This I find after a Wikipedia search.) What’s about that institution that inspires creativity and good moral standards in a morally corrupt world, I don’t know?

Off the Record is a must read for all journalism students. Not only read it, but keep it on your desk to refer to it, re-read it and digest what he has to say. Treat it as your Bible and Bhagwad Gita. Particularly because mostly Ajith worked in an era when laptop computers, cell phones, and social media didn’t exist. I have seen him sitting in his cabin writing his dispatches in long hand and having them sent by teleprinter to our head office. When I told him my work in marketing was not working out and that actually I wanted to be a journalist he arranged an appointment with an editor, but the job didn’t materialise. No worry. At least, he helped, that’s the kindness of man I am writing about. Now, on hindsight, I think I would have made a miserable reporter.

Here’s what I think journalism schools should do. They should buy the book in bulk and distribute it to their students. The indefatigability of the man who took his reporting seriously will come shining through. We will hopefully have a new crop of journalists as dedicated to their jobs as he was.

Do read Off the Record even if it deprives you of your last vada-pao in McDonald’s. You will hunger for more, which is actually the purpose of this book.

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