An onlooker’s view of erudite MJ Akbar, his sexploits & journalism

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MJ Akbar

To be Akbarly erudite does not automatically translate into being morally-ethically upright

Shamsher Chandel, OPinionmakers@TheHushPost: Twenty-one years back I started my journey from Shimla to Delhi with a charming innocence and royal ignorance. I wanted to become a journalist.

After travelling hundreds of kms on Blueline buses in Delhi and several rejections not by editors but even their PAs, I finally managed to intellectually con the Delhi Mid-Day Editor John Dayal. He gave me my first job. I had begun to shed some of my innocence and ignorance, I thought.MJ Akbar

Back home, I even narrated how I was able to con the editor by small bits of lying about my hobbies by reading intensively in advance about them so as not to falter and impress him, which I think, I did. That was the summer of 1997.

But soon I got a glimpse of the dog-eat-dog atmosphere when the editor rejected a scoop, I think, would have been the biggest of my life—a story about a henchman of Dawood Ibrahim, who was also at that time a Rajya Sabha MP, one Mr Romesh Sharma. Subsequently, it appeared in the Indian Express seven months later. A woman colleague told me: “You must be feeling like kicking your butt.”

This is how the editors treat the young aspiring beautiful girls and then evaluate their response

I remember a disgruntled senior reporter offering me a sour candy almost every day. And I often asked him, “Sir, why do you give me this sour candy?” And he would instantly respond the sweet ones are for butterflies, meaning thereby, the beautiful girls in the office. Not that he had any bad intentions. He said, this is how the editors treat the young aspiring beautiful girls and then evaluate their response. If they accept the candy, next time they get a chocolate and then maybe a half-bitten chocolate. If it works, it then graduates to an odd stare or a gaze, a meaningful smile, then maybe an odd touch which could seem casual and then casual holding of hands, though meaningfully.

After working for Delhi Mid-Day for close to a year, I joined the man who is in the news for all the wrong reasons: MJ Akbar.

During my about two-year stint at The Asian Age, I didn’t have the courage to speak to MJ Akbar. I once wished him a good morning and in return got scolded for an ‘‘appalling mistake’’ I hadn’t committed on a sports page. Of course, I communicated it to the Sports Editor.

Just sitting by my side was a young beautiful girl on the news desk, who too was scolded a bit differently – he pulled her cheek for a bit longer. And, I thought, couldn’t he have been just as kind to me. During the course of the evening, I suddenly remembered my former colleague who used to give me a sour candy. I was fast shedding both, my innocence and ignorance.

Those were different times, when cell phones were few and far between and flirtexting of the kind Chetan Bhagat was involved in wasn’t possible to catch. And editors, not one but several of them took advantage of it and indulged with women against their wishes. There was gossip about it. In the absence of proofs like the ones we have nowadays like video recordings, call recordings, etc one had to either believe or not believe. And thus even a fact became a gossip or vice versa.

At about the same time, my wife, who was my favourite subject back then, was also a working journalist but aspiring for a better job. We would often differ in our opinion on which editor was approachable and who wasn’t. The newspaper editors whom she would easily be able to meet, I wouldn’t even get to speak to their PAs.

And then one day, there was this woman editor my wife couldn’t make it to. I thought, if she couldn’t, I would have no luck. However, I went the following day and was pleasantly shocked. It was the time of the sacrosanct evening meeting when no editor is available. And while introducing myself somehow I fumbled and dropped my resume and newspaper clippings. While I tried to pick them up nervously, she too joined in, and said: “Relax, don’t be nervous.”

One day my mother received a call on a landline number in Shimla from the woman editor’s PA 

She gave me a full one-hour of her time. I had a first-ever cup of coffee with an editor and for the first time, spoke about the entire length of my 21-year-stint on earth. I didn’t get a job, though immediately.

However, one day my mother received a call on a landline number in Shimla from the woman editor’s PA. But by then, I had moved to Indian Express, Chandigarh and was trying to readjust from chaotic Delhi to relatively clean Chandigarh in every sense of the word.

But I would make it a point to speak to former colleagues and friends at The Asian Age. One day, I took an intercom call at the Features desk at Indian Express, Chandigarh. The voice seemed so familiar. Even, as I chose not to think about why the voice was familiar, the woman at the other end asked me, “That sounds like Shamsher?”

And then we started talking about the bygone days at The Asian Age, and suddenly she made a couple of mentions – about the women colleagues who had quit The Asian Age.  While I thought it was due to the same reason as mine which was a better salary, my friend at the other end apprised me that the reason was the erudite, scholarly MJ Akbar.

At Chandigarh too, I was often reminded of my former senior colleague from Delhi who used to offer me a sour candy. But things were far better. Then one fine day, I had a chance to meet Tarun Tejpal at Press Club. I was in awe of him so I met and interviewed him. He seemed passionate about journalism and I still was in my late 20s who still had a bit of Shimla in him and thus ignorance.

A few years later, Tarun Tejpal was accused of rape by his daughter’s best friend. And he famously said “it was consensual.” Since then, many such stories of sleaze at work have come up. And my umbilical cord with ignorance has come off.

Egged on by the MeToo disclosures, a short while back, to get the facts right on the MJ Akbar episode, I called a couple of former colleagues to confirm some facts. And, it led to more gossips which could possibly qualify as facts as more and more women come forward and many more Akbars tumble out of the closet. As a parting shot, this senior of mine from The Asian Age corrected me that to be Akbarly erudite does not automatically translate into being morally-ethically upright. I hope the younger lot reads this last bit seriously.

BY THE WAY

But the #metoo movement of the media won’t go far. After all, just as we are accusing the Amitabh Bachchans, Aamir Khans and Shah Rukh Khans for not taking a stand on Tanushree Datta’s accusations against Nana Patekar – the superstars of the media the likes of Vir Sanghvis, Shekhar Guptas, Rajdeep Sardesais and Prannoy Roys can be accused of the same for not standing up for the Priya Ramanis and Prerna Singh Bindras of the media.

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