Well, the 1980s were not the 1970s anymore. The romance of the earlier decades had withered and dried. There was of course a lot to look forward to; most youngsters of my age then were on the threshold of a whole new career, a whole new life. We had bid goodbye to school. As with most people, schooldays were some of the best days of my life as well. Now we were in college and there was the sense of freedom and independence and authority. Just what the Charms cigarette advertisement portrayed.
We puffed many of those as we did No. 10, which sold very well in those days. Wonder whether they still sell the brand in Kolkata now. In the Calcutta of old, there was also Capstan Filter Kings, a favourite among college students, Wills Flake and Regent, brands I’m sure must be no more. We puffed a lot of those as well; sometimes even Capstan Plain. The hangover of the heady Seventies had not left us. Now we were older and blossoming into young men and knew what we wanted. And there was hardly anybody to come in our way.
Like some of my close friends, I chose to do commerce in college. Classes at St Xavier’s began at 6 in the morning, which meant I had to leave home by 5.30 after a glass of hot milk. Most days the tram would take me to Park Street and I would walk the last kilometre to the college front gate. On cold wintry days I’d stop by at a roadside shop to buy a cigarette and puff on it till I reached college. On other days, Joydip Lahiri would pick me up in his light green Ambassador. Few drove to college in a car those days; Joydip was one and I was lucky he offered to pick me up many a time. I would wait at the Gurusaday Road bus stop and wait to catch a glimpse of his car as it cleared the bend afar and scorched the road at that hour. We would chat non-stop and even before we knew it we would have reached the rear gate at Xavier’s.
One of our classmates was Mudar Patherya, a budding sports writer, and he would bring with him everyday a copy of The Telegraph. The Telegraph was a newcomer in those parts (I mean eastern India) and very few of us had heard of it or read its pages. Mudar was writing for the paper and Sportsworld, both publications from the Ananda Bazar stable.
For years, or rather for more than a century, The Statesman had ruled the roost in the east and it was inconceivable that another newspaper would come along to offer something different. I still remember my father and many of his generation spending the morning hours on a holiday poring over The Statesman, digesting every word. On weekdays, when they left for work early, they would spend the evenings reading the paper. But Saturdays and Sundays were The Statesman days. The newspaper had a Personal column and several other columns you do not find in newspapers even today. Such as greetings from one reader to another; birthday and wedding wishes; invitations to private parties etc. Its editorial page was once considered the best among Indian newspapers. I remember reading William Safire’s London Dateline column, and articles by M. Krishnan on flora, fauna and wildlife. Brilliant columns both.
The Telegraph not only brought a whiff of fresh air, in terms of treatment of stories and more feature articles, under M.J. Akbar it also flourished and soon began giving The Statesman a run for its money. The fact was that the younger crowd got hooked to the newcomer, a generation The Statesman was unable to woo. It is no surprise that, today, that younger generation which grew reading The Telegraph has made it the newspaper of choice. It is another matter whether The Times of India or Hindustan Times has made an impact, but The Telegraph continues to be the No. 1 daily in Kolkata.
As far as The Statesman is concerned, it is a sad story indeed. What a fall from its high citadel! All they have now are very few stars (if you can call them that) such as Sam Rajappa, the paper’s senior special correspondent in Madras for many years who is now overseeing the group’s journalism course. There is no second rung or new-generation rung to take it forward, it seems. I haven’t seen a copy of the newspaper in months, the last time was a couple of years ago, and the number of pages had reduced considerably, the print quality was poor and it had in all reckoning given up the fight. Something my father and those of his generation, even mine to an extent, would never ever have quite imagined.
That is the reason I see The Telegraph as very special. It had begun to blossom even as we were blossoming ourselves. Memories of reading the paper or bits of it in the classroom are still vivid. We would do it with Father Jorris (it was said he had played football for Belgium in the Olympics) or Father Maliyakel noticing. Or one of us would carry it with us on our way to the chai shop outside where we’d decide plans for the day - a movie somewhere or a visit to the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club or just a walk down Park Street and Chowringhee to get to see some of the most beautiful young girls in India and to find out sometimes if fortune favoured the brave. Study hardly mattered.