Op-Ed: The Best Editor I Have Worked Under

In all these years in journalism, I have worked under so many Editors. But I have no hesitation whatsoever in declaring that he was the best Editor I have ever worked under, with mentor and first Editor Soumya Ranjan Patnaik coming a close second.

Chandrabhanu Patnaik, ‘Kabubhai’ to my generation of scribes, was the kind of Editor who was happy looking after the Big Picture while leaving the nitty gritty to people he trusted. The year and half I spent working under his able leadership for the ‘Shatabdi’, the news and features magazine he launched after quitting ‘Sambad’ at the turn of the millennium, was among my most satisfying stints in journalism. [The two others were the launch of ‘Sun Times’, first as a daily way back in 1988 and then as a news portal in 2013.] Old timers still recall it fondly as a magazine that blazed a new trail in Odia journalism. In the range of topics it covered, the quality of its write ups and its production values, I cannot recall another Odia magazine that has come close to ‘Shatabdi’.

‘Shatabdi’ was what it was because Kabubhai had assembled a terrific team. With Devi Prasanna Nayak, Sib Kumar Das, Arabinda Mishra, Sambit Mohapatra, Bighneswar Sahu, Ranjan Panigrahi (the man who looked after DTP, layout and design) and Sudhanshu Sir, Kabubhai ‘s buddy, who was the art consultant, it was a team that would be the envy of any publication. But more importantly, he gave each of them the space and freedom they needed to come up with their best.

I got into ‘Shatabdi’ without either of us planning it. Sometime after the magazine was launched, I happened to be passing by the Unit 1 area in Bhubaneswar where its office was located and dropped in to say hello to Kabubhai with whom I had worked for years in ‘Sambad’ earlier. “Kan khabar, Sandeepa (for some strange reason, he would always address me that way with an emphasis on the ‘pa’)?” he asked with a paan neatly tucked into his mouth as usual. “Nothing, Kabubhai. I am actually looking for a job,” I said with a chuckle (I had just left ‘Sahara’, the Hindi daily and English magazine I was working for). He did not respond to my oblique query but assigned me a two page story for the next issue. Once I said I would do it, he asked me when I could file the story. “In two days,” I replied. Knowing my tendency to procrastinate, he asked if I would really submit it in two days. “Yes”, I said, trying to sound as confident and convincing as I possibly could.

And sure enough, I returned with the hand written story after two days. Two days later, he invited me to his office to ask me if I would be willing to work for “Shatabdi’. “Rs. 3, 500 is all that I can pay you for now,” he made it clear in a no-nonsense, matter of fact manner. I agreed without second thoughts since money was never a consideration at the time; BBC took care of my modest requirements. I now understood why Kabubhai had commissioned a story before offering me a job. He obviously wanted to make sure that I still retained my ability to write in Odia after my stint with ‘Sambad’ ended in 1988. For well over a decade after this, it had been all Hindi and English.

I have so many fond memories of my days in ‘Shatabdi’ that it is difficult to decide what to leave out. But what stood out was the immense trust Kabubhai reposed on each one in the team, not just in deciding what to carry but how to package it. With the workaholic and resourceful Asit Mohanty, the Editor’s buddy, to bank on for any need and then team mentioned above, we explored some really out of the box ideas and did stories that were hardly covered in the mainstream Odia media.

There was one incident not long after I joined that gives a fair idea about his thinking as an Editor. Soon after coming on board, I had submitted a list of 10/12 cover story ideas that we could consider doing. While going through the list, he stumbled at No. 7 and asked me; “Do you really think this can be a cover story?” The entry at No. 7 said “The changing sexual mores in Odisha” (in English). “Why not?” I responded and then went on to explain why it was cover story material. “May be. We shall think about it later,” he said laconically, his face suggesting that he was not at all convinced with my argument.

A few weeks after this, Kabubhai returned from his lunch and afternoon siesta break at his home across the road one evening and without wasting any time whatsoever, said; “Sandeepa. Changing sexual mores would be our cover story next fortnight and you will do it.” I was pleased and amused in equal measure. He later told me what convinced him about the story. While going for lunch, he had seen a young couple lost in each other, oblivious of the world, right outside the ‘Shatabdi’ office. On his return several hours later, he found them still cuddling each other, refusing to even acknowledge Kabubhai, forget separating from each other. So, there it was. The cover story titled ‘Niraba Jhada’, with an interesting two-page accompanying story on live-in relationships by Manjushree Reddy who had just joined us, was a hit.

There was another incident that opened up a new side to Kabubhai for me: he did not allow his personal relationships to come in the way of his journalism. Sometime in August or September, 2001, 22 persons had died one after another in a cluster of villages in Kashipur block of Rayagada district after consuming fermented mango kernel in the absence of food. BBC had commissioned a three-part story on what was a clear case of starvation deaths. “Since you are going to Kashipur, you might as well do a cover story on the issue for the next issue,” Kabubhai told me before my departure. I was a little surprised because I knew such a story would not be very palatable to the government of the day headed by Naveen Patnaik, which was hell bent on proving that there had been no starvation deaths. Kabubhai had the best of relations with Naveen, who had inaugurated the magazine. In fact, he was among the few journalists who had unhindered access to Naveen Nivas. And having known me long enough, he would have certainly realised that I was not going to pull any punches while doing the story.

After the story was published, I asked him about the reaction of the Chief Minister, who had read a translated version of the story. “He was obviously not happy. He said ‘Shatabdi’ was the last place he expected a story like this to be published in,” was Kabubhai’s calm reply. There was not the slightest trace of regret in his voice.

That was Kabubhai, the Editor.

Kabubhai, the political journalist, had few rivals. His analytical pieces, written in his inimitable style, were always a delight to read. His exquisite hand writing made it a visual treat. There was an incident during our ‘Sambad’ days that showed how the mind of this political journalist worked. I had just returned from a pre-election tour of Bolangir and Kalahandi in the run up to the 1991 general elections when Kabubhai caught hold of me and asked; “What do you feel about the outcome?” “The one thing I can tell you with full confidence is that Bhakta Das (then the Union Railways minister in the caretaker Chandra Shekhar government) is not going to win in Kalahandi. “But the two people you had gone with told me Bhakta is winning hands down!” he said. “They told you what they saw and I am telling you what I saw,” I said and then went on to explain in some details the basis of my assumption.

The next day, I saw his piece in ‘Sambad’, which was essentially based on my input. The two people I had gone with on the trip were Kabubhai’s contemporaries and friends. Both of them were hard core reporters while I was still in the desk – though I did go out on reporting assignments occasionally. And yet Kabubahi chose to trust me rather than his friends.

I would like to recount another incident that laid bare the human side to this hard core journalist. He had given me some translation work in the morning with the ultimatum that he needs it in the evening the same day. Realising the urgency, I did the work during the day and was ready when he arrived to take it. Having got it, he took out two Rs 500 notes from his pocket and handed it over to me. I was a little hesitant since I never thought I would get paid for it. “Am I giving it from my pocket? Why wouldn’t you accept it?” he asked. “What’s the hurry? You can pay me later,” I said feebly, still hesitant. “Take it, man. There is nothing like getting your remuneration immediately after delivering the work. I know it because I have never been paid on time,” he said with a loud laugh, virtually thrusting the currency notes into my hand.

All through my stint in ‘Shatabdi’, I fought with him for his refusal to use the computer and insistence on writing in long hand (though I loved his hand writing). Even his mails had to be printed and given to him. He would always respond with his disarming smile without uttering a word. But the good thing was he was second to none when it came to realising the importance of technology and had ensured that we had all the tech support that we needed.

His public speaking, like his hand writing, was always a pleasure to listen to. I eagerly looked forward to hear him speak in his flawless, 100% English-free Odia with just the right dosage of humour every time there was function in ‘Sambad’.

Though he always fancied himself as the quintessential print journalist, he was a trail blazer on TV as a talk show host. Talk show hosts of this generation would do well to watch some of the episodes of ‘Sidha Katha’ he used to host on ETV to realise that the toughest of questions can be asked without losing your smile; that you need not be a all guns blazing warrior, ready to fire one salvo after another at the guest, to have an impact.

Sixty is no age to die for anyone, least of all for someone like Kabubhai, who still had so much more to offer to the world of journalism in Odisha. But he will always remain close to the hearts of those who had the good fortune of working with him or watching him work.

Alvida, Kabubhai! See you upstairs!!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)