Amitava Guha was an unlikely man in so many ways. Being a Bengali, which he avowedly was, he immediately fitted into the stereotype of the chai-sipping intellectual. But then, he was no jhola-carrying thinker or card-carrying Communist. ‘Goldie’, as his name would suggest – he was just a golden-hearted man retaining the cultural warmth of his Kolkata origins with the cutting-edge of ad sales.
Goldie and I were the Odd Couple chosen by The Times of India Group to visit Belgium and produce a supplement on its economy. For starters, we both had never been overseas before (in the pre-reform 1980s, everything was rare and had to be earned). To make matters worse, Europe was in a recession.
But there is little doubt that Goldie was going for it – in his style. Despite this being an advertising-oriented survey, I kept wearing my journalistic independence on my sleeves and Goldie was into “soft sell” – a disastrous combination, I may add in 20-20 hindsight.
Yet, there we were, taking in the sights and sounds of Belgium, working hard, networking efficiently. Then were off to a weekend in Luxembourg and five days in Paris.
In Paris, I learnt who Amitava was – a man who could make friends in a jiffy with perfect strangers from abroad. Thanks to him, I saw the world’s most stylish environs on a shoestring budget. The contacts were all his, the joys mine.
It kind of made up for the ad-man’s chiding I got in the weeks earlier when we had a rough initiation into international business environs.
We saw Europe and learnt about its people and about each other. What was clear was his passion for work. He had quite a few of his advertising fundas sorted out. Since it was 1987, four years before all liberalisation happened, I consider his insights into partnerships and outsourcing of space selling a bit ahead of the times. As was his passion for “soft sell” and an earnest, but non-aggressive style. It was all about relationships!
Stomach was a big issue then –and it was until the very end. We both had to get passports made in a hurry (I pulled some government strings). Amitava fell with a bad ulcer issue for days on end. And it was up to me to make it to his Defence Colony barsati to speed up matters, and during which days, I would learn of his advertising industry days.
In Brussels, we had to break the standard Indian rule of surviving on sandwiches and burgers to save money and instead go for Bangladeshi-run restaurants.
Nearly two decades after I left Economic Times and he, Bennett & Coleman, we were colleagues again – in Hindustan Times.
Here, he would walk into the newsroom and hold forth passionately on the flaws of journalism. In the intervening two decades, Indian journalism had become quite corporatised and it was a pleasant and anachronistic surprise to see Goldie hold forth like a 1970s Calcutta editor! I learnt then there could be a businessman inside a journalist and an editor inside a space marketer!
I also noticed that from a flamboyant, fun-loving single ad-industry guy I knew in the 1980s, he had become a family man, worried about the mental attitudes of his growing daughter.
And, Goldie would argue passionately on social causes and journalistic principles of integrity and hard-hitting news – not the stuff I am used to listening from marketing types. Given his background in Tara Sinha McCann and Bennett, Coleman and Co, I would have expected an opposite kind of brainwashing. The whole thing was in absurdly delightful reverse gear!
Thanks to HT Media’s ad folks shifting out of Connaught Place to Gurgaon, I lost touch with Goldie, except during his occasional visit to HT House. My last significant meeting was in the HT Newscafe (canteen) – and the stomach popped up again.
He chided me for eating the canteen thaali. His tall, wiry self, now with some hollowed cheeks and weathered skin, told stories of a man whose health was not matching up to a shining pair of eyes. That affectionate earful on my food – presumably resulting from his own unruly digestive tracts – showed his caring side more than ever before. We were no longer sparring young colleagues, but older, and hopefully, wiser men.
I had no clue that I would suddenly hear of his passing.
Wherever you are Goldie, know that we miss you.