Chandan Mitra’s death was indeed shocking, though it did not exactly come as a surprise. He was ailing for quite some time; he had disappeared from public platforms for more than a year — he had relinquished his job as Editor-in-Chief at the Pioneer and was not seen in the television debates where he was a regular for decades. But I had never thought that he would be gone from the midst of us so soon.
I remember Chandan with special fondness because I had the privilege of being part of the journalism world, thanks to him. It was 1988\89. I had re-joined JNU after the completion of my expulsion period of three years to complete my Ph D. I used to write an opinion piece for a monthly journal called Third Concept, founded by an ex-JNU student, Babuddin Khan. A few days before the visit of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to India, I wrote a piece reflecting on our communist parties’ palpable lack of enthusiasm about this visit of the biggest leader of the communist universe. That month the magazine could not be published as there was a breakdown in the printing press. My article would not remain relevant till the next month; Babuddin Khan suggested to me to give it to a newspaper. But I was not hopeful; which newspaper would publish an unknown student’s random jottings?
Anyway, I was going to Gwyer Hall in Delhi University to meet a friend. On the way, I got down from the bus and went into the Times of India building. I went to the reception and asked about the process of submitting an opinion piece. The gentleman there told me that if it was for the edit page, it was to be submitted to the Editor’s secretary; if it was for the Agenda page, it had to be given to Chandan Mitra or any of his team members. I was a regular reader of the Times of India and I had enjoyed reading the polemical pieces on the Agenda page. So I thought of submitting my piece for consideration on the Agenda page. Chandan Mitra was not there. A young lady took the piece from me and asked me to go.
There was an annual dinner at Gwyer Hall; it got late when we finished eating. I stayed overnight at my friend’s place. The next morning, my friend was reading his copy of the TOI and, with a great deal of excitement, told me that my piece had been published. I could no believe my ears; I submitted the piece the previous afternoon and it was there in the paper the next day! It was nothing short of a miracle for me. It was my first publication in a newspaper; I was so enthused that I got a break in the largest newspaper in the country in the very first attempt.
I wrote another piece in a couple of days and reached the TOI building. This time Chandan was there; when I met him to thank him for publishing an unknown student’s piece, he told me that he liked my polemical argument and provocative style and that my subject was immensely topical; so he changed the schedule and used the piece right away.
Chandan’s warm gesture and kind words remain etched in my memory. He published more than a dozen articles in less than a year and then one day offered me a job in the edit page. I was not sure if I wanted to be a professional journalist; I was not confident that journalists received a decent salary. In fact, I had an impression that journalists got a pittance and made money through blackmail. I told Chandan as such. He laughed and told me: “After completing Ph D, you will end up becoming a lecturer. I will give you a salary which will be more than double of what a lecturer in DU or JNU gets.”. I did not have to think twice; I immediately agreed.
Chandan then admitted that he himself was not the final decision-maker in my appointment but his recommendation did count. First, I had to be okayed by the Editor, Dileep Padgaonkar. Chandan fixed my meeting with the Editor. Padgaonkar grilled me on a range of issues for about half an hour; then he walked across to Chandan’s room and said: “I am okay with Mohanty”.
Then Chandan told me that even the Editor was not the final authority in the appointment of the edit page writers; I needed the final approval of Sameer Jain, the boss of the group. Sameer Jain was abroad; so I had to wait. After a couple of weeks, Chandan sent a message to me through someone (there was no mobile phone; I had no access to a landline) that Sameer Jain was back and he had fixed my meeting with him the next day.
Sameer Jain talked to me about caste and class, the subject of my M Phil dissertation and asked me to draw a parallel with the race question in the West. He also asked me some pointed questions on the state of India’s political economy, my Ph D topic. That continued for an hour; he then called Chandan and asked him to welcome me to the Times family with an appointment letter. I was asked to wait outside; I must say I was on cloud nine when I saw my salary package; it was much more than even what Chandan had initially offered.
Chandan asked me to join immediately, without losing time. That is how my journey in the world of journalism began; it was entirely due to Chandan’s personal initiative. How many successful men in this world show such consideration for a layperson?
Chandan went on to become a hot-shot editor of several newspapers in the next few years and I remained in touch. TOI had given me a lease accommodation in Vasant Kunj; Chandan came to stay in Vasant Kunj due to some family issues; we became, in a way, neighbours. I joined a lot of parties in Chandan’s house.
I lost touch with him when I went to Patna. The day I was interviewed in Delhi by Shobhana Bharathiya for the Resident Editor’s position, I was given a message try a journalist that Chandan Mitra wanted me to meet him at the Pioneer office. Chandan told me that Shobhana had called him to check with him about my credentials as I had given his name as one of my references. Chandan gave me a lot of tips as to how to navigate the choppy waters of HT Patna (he, as the Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, was familiar with the HT Patna establishment).
I did not see Chandan much after I returned to Delhi; he had in the meanwhile grown another wing — as a politician. He was writ large as an editor, commentator, TV spokesperson for his party and as an active member of the intellectual brigade of the Vajpayee-Advani dispensation. He, for some reason, got short shrift in the Modi era. Then, I was told, he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. Other ailments too crept in. He passed away on September 2.
It was a tragic end of an illustrious career; for me, it was an end of a warm and kind mentor, the like of whom I have not come across in my professional life.
Senior Journalist & Media Academician