A “bioscope” on the life and times of the journalist N. Gopinathan Nair. By SAMUEL ABRAHAM
THE biography or autobiography of a journalist is a window on history. It offers a view of society during the lifetime of that individual and the culture and the context in which his life and career unfolded. The bilingual book Janayugom Gopiye Orkkumbol (The Scribe Remembered: N. Gopinathan Nair—His Life and Times), a festschrift, is one such account. It sketches the life of a political journalist—from his upbringing in the coastal town of Kollam and then his career in Kerala and later in Delhi—through his own memoirs, published and unpublished articles, and the narratives of close friends, family members, colleagues and mentees. According to his wife, K. Saradamoni, who edited the book, it is “an attempt to record the life and times of a person who believed that journalism was politics and lived accordingly”.
Although his career spanned several news organisations, Gopinathan has been synonymous with Janayugom, of which he became editor at the age of 26. Founded on January 21, 1949, it was the first weekly—and later daily—of the undivided Communist Party in the Travancore region. The book is also the story of the newspaper—the dream project of seven youngsters who “barely had money in their pockets to buy seven cups of tea” at the time they mooted the idea! Janayugom has a significant role in the history of the Malayalam press, which, on the latest count, had as many as 1,140 newspapers.
Gopinathan’s journalism was predicated on his social and political convictions forged in the crucible of the World Wars and the national movement. Like his involvement in the struggle for “responsible government” in the princely state of Travancore and in trade unionism, his writing was an activity undertaken, in the Orwellian phrase, “…to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. So rather than scoops and insider views, it is his insightful and critical analysis of events and issues as an editor that is striking. Significantly, his political leanings never held him back from writing “about the contradictions in the Left and its inability to keep with the changes in society”, as one of his journalist-mentees puts it.
The book has three parts: biographical sketches; from the scribe’s pen (including those in Janayugom, Patriot, where he worked under the editorship of Edathatta Narayanan, and Mainstream, founded by Nikhil Chakravartty); and obituaries.
Gopinathan’s formative years were at Kollam (Quilon) in Travancore. What political orientation a traditional household could not give, time and circumstances did. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Letters from a Father to a Daughter, which he read on a train journey to Kollam from Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), where he did his Intermediate education after schooling, made the sandal-paste-wearing, scripture-reading boy embrace a life without religion or caste. But it was his undergraduate years at American College in Madurai that offered the perfect setting for his political education.
Like many young men and women of his time, education made him re-examine his role in society, and he took journalism as his vocation. His role model was Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai, an intrepid journalist who was exiled from Travancore.
Gopinathan cut his professional teeth at Indian Express in Madras (now Chennai) and later Eastern Express in Calcutta (Kolkata), owned by the same group. But the work did not measure up to his expectations and he left the job.
After returning to his native town, Gopinathan joined the industrialist Thangalkunju Mussaliyar’s Prabhatam daily at a time of intense political activity in the state. The ripples of the Punnapra- Vayalar agitation of 1946—a working-class struggle that had far-reaching consequences in Kerala’s political history—had given the political firmament a shade of red. The movement against the despotic Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar was getting stronger by the day and so were ironclad measures to suppress it. And Kollam, with its numerous cashew processing factories notorious for their deplorable working conditions, was a hotbed of trade union activism.
There was little doubt where the sympathies of Gopinathan and his friends, K.N. Pankajakshan Pillai, Crispy (Constantine Romanz), R. Gopinathan Nair, Ramachandran Pillai and A.R. Kutty, lay. They mulled over the possibility of bringing out a newspaper to propagate their ideas. The vanguard of change soon found the perfect complement in M.N. Govindan Nair, who would later become a Minister in Kerala.
The book chronicles Gopinathan’s 43-day stint at Yuvakeralam, which was closed down following the publication of a news item about the decapitated statue of the Dewan in Trivandrum, and the beginnings of Janayugom. Its initial days were fraught with difficulties, including the arrest of Gopinathan, but the paper carried on.
“It is unusual that this weekly was able to influence large numbers of people in Travancore with communist and left-wing ideas and attitudes,” writes Saradamoni. Its language was exciting and content diverse.
Many who in later life became prominent in the political, literary or cultural field, like the dramatist Thoppil Bhasi, were closely associated with it. “The folding sessions” at the weekly were festive occasions when friends, workers, students, teachers and others from various walks of life lent a hand. Gopinathan himself said that the songs of the team of poet and lyricist O.N.V. Kurup and music director Paravoor Devarajan, which made a niche in the cultural circles of Kerala, perhaps first resonated in those folding sessions. Cartoonist Yesudasan remembers Janayugom pioneering pocket cartoons in India with the introduction of “Kittumman”.
By the general elections of 1952, it was a publication to reckon with. Many of its articles bear witness to Gopinathan’s zeal to propagate the ideals for which the newspaper was formed.
For instance, in his article of July 19, 1952, Gopinathan saw an agreement entered into between the United States and India, in which the U.S. Ambassador, Chester Bowles, had a major hand in negotiating with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as the most significant political event that had happened between Independence and the general elections. In the hard-hitting article titled “Why the Congress ought to lose in Chavara” (in the Travancore-Cochin State), he warned how the humanitarian aid that would come by way of the agreement would have invisible strings attached and affect even regional States and their policies. Over time, it would lead to the economic and political hegemony of the U.S. over India, the article predicted.
What went down in history—from Bowles’ own account published later in books on international relations—and the strategic partnership the two “distant democracies” have entered into over the years are of interest as one reads Gopinathan’s articles.
On November 16, 1953, Janayugom became a daily. Within less than a decade, it acquired the third position in circulation among newspapers in Kerala.
In 1962, Gopi relocated to Delhi apparently to join his wife who was then working at the Indian Statistical Institute. But one gathers from the book that to Gopinathan ideological fervour was one thing, and turning the paper into a party gazette, another. His Delhi years span an exciting period in the history of modern India—from the fag end of the Second Five-Year Plan through the Sino-Indian war and “the war with Pakistan, the birth of Bangladesh, the Emergency and the beginnings of the present economic order”.
Many articles of this period sound chillingly contemporary, from the thriving business of education in Kerala, like “rubber, copra or tea”, to the “god industry” in the most literate State. A 1987 article he co-authored with his wife, a social scientist, and others on the tribal people of Kerala, land reforms in the State, and the Indo-British clash over translation rights are characterised by his concern for social justice. A couple of essays on “lack of perspective in science development” are evocative of his college days when he wanted to be a scientist.
The discerning reader can glean historical nuggets too: not many would know that freight concessions to newspapers were first introduced in Travancore, before Independence, by Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar!
The book also has the odd diary entry on Gopinathan’s travels with a VVIP to Jakarta and even an apocryphal anecdote about how the party had apparently planned to install the Janayugom press in Trivandrum, but Gopinathan stopped the boat carrying the press on its way and got it installed in Kollam.
There is much about the book that makes one feel that it could have been made better, perhaps as a leaner version avoiding repetitive biographical details. But daughter Arunima offers this caveat: “As the founding editor of Janayugom, Acchan’s [father’s] biography could have been written in many manner of ways; but more importantly, it ought also to have been a bioscope of the times, the places, the people and the ideas that shaped his life.”
[The article has been amended. In the original, M.N. Govindan Nair was mentioned as Chief Minister of Kerala rather than as Minister. This has been corrected.]