MJ Akbar, Editor-in-Chief, The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle, has just brought to an end another glorious chapter in an illustrious career. It had been known for a while that he may be parting ways with Chairman T Venkattram Reddy. Finally, MJ, as he is fondly known among his friends and colleagues, demitted office on March 2, 2008, with a crisp and touching farewell note to his colleagues. His name was missing that morning from the paper’s printline, perhaps prompting him to say that he may have “overstayed his welcome”.
March 2 was a Sunday, and the masthead of the magazine, whose stewardship he took up more than three decades ago in Kolkata, also bore the same nomenclature, ‘SUNDAY’. That marked the beginning of a brilliant career, during which he established investigative journalism as a media weapon to expose the murky side of our society and politics.
I could not resist the temptation of reproducing his farewell note, which a friend passed on to me. It speaks volumes of the spirit he has espoused in his three and a half decades as a journalist.
To quote: “For reasons that need not detain us, I must say farewell. I was under the impression that I might have been able to do so with more grace; I did want to travel to all the offices and spend a convivial evening with everyone; and in Delhi I did want to call everyone over. But, judging from this morning’s edition (March 2, 2008) of our paper, it seems I might have already overstayed my welcome. You have all been family. Many of you were young men and women when we began this long, difficult journey together, a journey during which we gave so much blood and sweat, during which we often faced hopelessness and never surrendered to despair. Now you are 10 and 15 years older....
“Take care, God bless and remember that what we achieved together made media history. I began working in the South when our circulation was perhaps 60,000 copies; and then we created a new template with the Asian Age. Today, we have a combined circulation of over a million copies, according to ABC. This is a triumph for our family of journalists. We may not have been the biggest, but we held our head high because there was one non-negotiable asset in our family: we could not be bought. We were independent. We were free. We held our head high. Never let your head stoop, not as long as you are a journalist. As ever, MJ”
MJ, arguably, is the finest editor of our era – an opinion shared by most of those who have worked with him at some point or the other, including yours truly.
MJ began his career at the beginning of the 70s in Mumbai as a “trainee journalist” with The Times of India, and quickly moved to The Illustrated Weekly of India as sub-editor and feature writer. In 1973, he joined Onlooker magazine as the youngest editor of a frontline publication.
He returned to his hometown, Kolkata, in 1976 to join the ABP Group to start the weekly political magazine ‘SUNDAY’. Those were the heady days of fierce competition with ‘India Today’ – both were born around the same time. Indian media saw the birth of fearless, investigative journalism. Along the way, MJ built a team of brilliant journalists, all in their mid-20s then, who rode the wave with him. They didn’t mind his fiery temper – he was a leader who always stood up for his team – but did nickname his cabin as “Jhaargram” – after a small West Bengal town – as that was where MJ let loose when he came across a poor piece of journalism! Wonder if he ever came to know that.
Six years down the line, in 1982, MJ launched The Telegraph, the daily from the ABP stable. It set new benchmarks in the daily newspaper segment, and is still considered the best designed newspaper in this country.
MJ became close to Rajiv Gandhi during those years and took the plunge into politics. He was elected to the Lok Sabha as MP from the Kishanganj constituency in Bihar in 1989 on a Congress (I) ticket. Post-Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, MJ returned to what he has always done best – journalism. He set up his own media company, and in 1994, launched The Asian Age in Delhi followed by an edition in London. He took a bold route for expansion of The Asian Age – using the franchising route to launch multiple editions. In May 2005, The Deccan Chronicle acquired 67 per cent stake in The Asian Age. Till Sunday last, MJ was the Editor-in-Chief of both The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle.
It is amazing how much MJ could stuff into a 24-hour day. While for long stretches in his career he simultaneously held the Editor’s post of two publications (SUNDAY and The Telegraph, and then The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle), still he found enough time and energy to write a number of books. His stint as author began with ‘India: The Siege Within’. His most recent book is ‘Blood Brothers’. In between he has authored a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru titled ‘Nehru: The Making of India’; ‘Kashmir: Behind the Vale’; Riot After Riot’; and ‘The Shade of Swords’.
Where is he headed next? I do not know, and I haven’t called him yet. But knowing MJ, it could be one of two things: he just might take one more tilt in starting another exciting media venture, or he may take one more plunge into politics. If one were to believe the grapevine, the second option seems more likely. We will know soon.