On The Caravan’s new profile of The Hindu

On December 1, The Caravan published a 50-page report entitled ‘Paper Priests: The battle for the soul of The Hindu’. The report – actually, as a friend put it, a big profile – has many good parts and many others, not so much, especially from the point of view of an insider: I worked there from June 2012 to May 2014, coinciding roughly with Siddharth Varadarajan’s tenure as editor-in-chief.

It is hard for me to comment openly on the subpar parts because they’re rooted in my position as once-insider, with information that anyone else will have a hard time getting their hands on, at least not without considerable effort. In that sense, those parts of the profile may not be subpar per se. My second concern is that my comments at this point can only appear in a non-journalistic context and at the same time lack the liberty to be as detailed as they may need to be, and both these limitations are bad for the spirit of being fair. Nonetheless, I think I will attempt an overview with these caveats – of the subpar followed by the better bits.

The principal contention is that the profile is titled ‘The battle for the soul of The Hindu’ when in fact the ‘soul’ bit remains unclear to the end and ‘The Hindu’ refers to just the newspaper’s political and related journalism and not, as one might assume, its entire breadth of coverage. I was particularly disappointed that the profile didn’t bother with the sports and internet departments, for example, which have had many issues in the past under multiple editors and which merit inclusion.

Second (and also in my friend’s view), the profile’s authors could have spoken to more employees of The Hindu, both current and former, to get a fuller sense of what it means or meant to work there. It is interspersed with quotes but the bulk of it is narrative, with a lot of material collated from what is already in the public domain. There is value in curating things in the right context, and that to me is a big strength of the profile. At the same time, as an insider, reading it was both a big trip down memory lane and a sharp reminder at many points about which decisions, which people and which assets were left out, why, and how their absence diminished the narrative at that point. It serves to give non-insiders a good sense of The Hindu’s workings, but beyond that, the profile, while exhaustive, is not comprehensive.

Third, the profile overlooks some issues adjacent to running the newspaper smoothly and which provide insights that the more ‘mainstream’ issues in the organisation may not. One prominent example was The Hindu’s design. N. Ram and other members of the board overseeing the newspaper took a keen interest in its pages’ layouts, colours, fonts, etc., and made a big deal of getting designer Mario García to change the way it looked from its 125th anniversary. That The Hindu’s chiefs paid so much attention to the design was heartening. At the same time, when Varadarajan quit as editor, design changes made in his tenure became one source of contempt for Malini Parthasarathy’s new dispensation, with derisive comments directed that way to ensure there were no doubts about how much she was prepared to change things and little thought for the designers caught in the crossfire.

Other examples: the primacy of publishing in print versus online, how much different people should be paid, and the circumstances in which a person could be sacked.

The goodest part of the profile is that it places The Hindu’s Brahmanism front and centre. (I’m also glad it takes a sterner look at Malini Parthasarathy’s closeness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a friendship discomfitingly proximate to its decision to part ways with Varadarajan because he was anti-Modi and its tendency to ‘balance’ criticism of Modi with favourable reports.) At the time I worked there, a friend and I received a considerable salary hike at one point and wanted to celebrate with a good dinner in the office canteen. We got there, got our plates, got some rice and dal, and sat down at a table along with a box of some egg-based dishes we’d ordered from outside. When we opened the box, the people on the tables around us suddenly lost their shit and had us leave, and we had to finish our dinners in my friend’s car parked in the office garage.

The Caravan profile discusses a similar incident involving overt expressions of Brahmin privileges, as well as quotes Sudipto Mondal extensively, and some others less so, on the newspaper’s upper-caste character at the newsroom level. My egg-eating colleague and I are both Brahmins, so we may not be able to fully articulate how the office’s few non-Brahmin, rather non-upper-caste, staff members felt in circumstances when others around them engaged in distinctly upper-caste rituals and conversations, excluded them in intra-newsroom social settings, and sidelined them in decisions about which stories could feature on the front or national pages, or what stories they could work on, even to the detriment of the stories’ implicit merit. The profile fixes this gap in awareness to an appreciable extent.

In fact, overall, The Caravan’s profile is well worth your time for its efforts to locate The Hindu and its coverage of political issues in the broader context of its preference – conscious or otherwise – for upper-caste ideals through its history and many parts of its inner workings.

Featured image credit: ashni_ahlawat/Unsplash.