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A 2006 piece on what MJ Akbar meant to a generation of journalists and consciousness

Life is not an equal opportunity employer. Literature is an even more discriminating concern, for the press of dubious claimants at its gates is frenetic. MJ Akbar is a Brahmin of that world, although he would have us believe he is a Mussulmaan descended from Kshatriyas born of the arms of Brahma. In truth, he came from the mouth of the Creator, already possessed, in the dreary deficits of an eastern jutemill slum, of a sense of preordained priority… “I was born a Capricorn, with Scorpio Ascendant along with Scorpio Navamsa and Pisces Dreskana in the fourth house of Anuradha, indicating that I would have fame, travel, wealth, worldly comforts, energy, determination, and the comforting ability to convince others of a course of action while nursing an alternative idea in the quiet depths of my heart, making me practical, self-motivated and therefore successful…” Only a Brahmin can arrive so anointed with entitlement. This, mind you, is the meritocracy of the Word, a reservation from which Mandal remains providentially banished. Rights of Admission Deserved.

As a sample of what conditions apply, this from Blood Brothers:

“Starvation is a slow fire that sucks life out in little bursts, leaving pockets of unlinked vacuum inside. Death comes when the points of emptiness suddenly coalesce; there is a silent implosion. The worst is in the beginning, when the body still has energy to rebel and the mind enough hope to fear. When hope fades, fear evolves into a dazed weariness. You turn numb and it no longer matters whether you are alive or dead…”

For those that were bled into journalism by Akbar at The Telegraph — and believe me, this man could bleed you from orifices you did not know existed — such was the daily tyranny of distinctions you lived under. He at once devastated and exhorted with what he wrote. He daily showed you up as insufficient. He also daily showed you what could be achieved between furrowed brow and fingertip for as little as ten paise worth of Quink. It was an unrelieved world of aspiration and exasperation. Not to speak of expectation, our resident Mogul’s most feared tool. I once saw a more-than-passable celebrity profile slapped back on the desk of a senior with an angered death sentence scribbled in pencil: “Too slurpy even for an ad.” You lived in dread of summary sentence; you survived by leaping to treetops because you’d been commanded to fetch the moon. Akbar would take that. The treetop was what he always intended, he pitched for the moon because he had a fair measure of the differential calculus of demand and delivery.

The one thing mediocrity has over excellence is the strength of numbers, the one aspiration that beats on in its otherwise dead pulse is to trip merit down to its mean denominator. When Akbar travelled on work — when wasn’t he? — an anticipatory murmur often rippled across the newsroom: so how many lead stories is the Editor going to miss this time? Akbar obliged unfailingly. Day after day after day, the Editor missed the lead. We took agencies. But day after day after day, Akbar got a story nobody else from that dateline did. By simply recalling the use of sensory organs and sacking that corrosive badge of the “experienced scribe”: cynicism. The opening of his despatch from the Kanishka crash site: “The black box is actually orange in colour.” The lead was what everybody had, common fare, dal-bhaat. Akbar wasn’t messing with any of that. He was consuming eight-column beefcakes on the anchor. Looking for Akbar? The surest place to find him was the spread below the fold; The Telegraph’s burgeoning readership got initiated in the pleasures of going bottoms up.

Akbar is a reporter of bleakness — what else, pray, should qualify anyone as a journalist in such an unequal world as ours? But each time he has arrived on the fringes of darkness he has illumined it with tools all his own — an eye that conjures metaphors a tongue called aphorism, a head locked on history, a heart forever employed to interpret its lessons for the future and, most of all, fingers that hold a needle for a pen. In sewing his tale, in feeling his frayed fabric and filling it out, in giving it shape and sequin, Akbar brings the ultimate justice to a story — he tells it to engage.

It was a bereft day when he got up and left, determined to change designation from Reporter to Reported, jumped the fence on which he had raised an army of detached proprieties and became party. Rajiv Gandhi’s mp from Kishanganj. Journalism’s loss would eventually become nobody’s gain; in time, Akbar returned to what his departing heels had left cracked. But that bereft day he wouldn’t listen. Regret? Reform? Mistake? Correction? Akbar won’t countenance a debate on that with anyone other than Akbar himself.

Most stories are born bastards and die anonymous orphans. It takes a storyteller to claim them, give them a name and place and context in the world. Telinipara isn’t particularly singular in its attributes, a teeming para-rural milltown on the banks of the Hooghly. A thousand Teliniparas eke and gasp in the bosom of the northern river plains, a million stories must lie buried in its unkindled memory, a million and more must daily cough its dust and be consumed by it. But not each story is blessed with a raconteur who will blow the dust away, unshackle it from obscurity and deliver it its just fate as Akbar has done with Telinipara.

There’s a trick to Blood Brothers and it’s more than just the oddity of a memoir that begins with the finality of death and ends with the arrival of life. A metaphor stalks this tale of two generations and a quarter (not three, because Akbar springs another trick and trails off into a future haze at seventeen to confront adulthood and other demons). If Blood Brothers is the journey of how the grandson of Prayaag came to be MJ Akbar, it is equally the story of how we built this nation of ours, of what we are today, or are still struggling to be. Telinipara is the stage of our extant dramas: the starving farmer, the struggling millworker, the slowburn of servitude of caste, commerce, colony and colour; the zealot forcing the fringe to centrestage, the sagely warrior of the middleground, the prudent sufi and the prescient soothsayer, the outraged Brahmin, the easily-provoked Thakur, the Yadav who would dare both for his claims on the realm of God, neighbours who’d die for you and neighbours who’d kill. The White Man and his gameplaying with the Native, personal, political. Partition and the fracture of souls. A cinemascope vignette of India in the making. Gandhi’s landscape, Nehru’s sensibilities, complete with Capstan Navy Cuts, Famous Grouse whiskey and a Kashmiri bride, mother to Akbar. And amidst all of this familiar chaos, an even more familiar Indian rite: celebration. Festivals of the Gods and festivals of Man. Akbar’s first day at school becomes occasion for carnival.

Telinipara remains a rather grim location but Akbar’s tale refuses to wear that visage. It is single-mindedly about the triumph of the human spirit, about hope and courage and endurance and enterprise and about the conviction that goodness will overcome, if for nothing else, because destiny has ordered it to. Most of all, Blood Brothers is about the idea of India and why it survives, about the victory of Belief over bigotry… “If the India of the communalist has not died as yet,” Akbar reported from the clamour of Ayodhya in 1986, “neither has the India of harmony.” This memoir is a writer’s confirmation of that young journalist’s essential faith.

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