Thursday, August 30, 2012

N J Nanporia

N J Nanporia, the legendary former editor of the Times of India and the Statesman, passed away recently. I did not see any mention of his passing in any  paper and got to know about it after seeing a tribute in BS by Sunanda K Datta-Ray, himself a former editor of the Statesman. Datta-Ray says he got to know from friends who had seen an insertion for the sale of Nanporia's art collection.

If I am not mistaken, Nanporia, better known to TOI readers as NJN (his column was titled, ''One point of view"), succeeded Frank Moraes and preceded Sham Lal, both legends in their own right. He was half-Japanese (Datta-Ray says he was born in Kobe). How he came to India one does not know but he brought to journalism an excellent grasp of foreign affairs and a command over the language and a style that would have flattered the Times of London.

NJN's finest hour was the Chinese attack on India in 1962. The Chinese army overran Indian positions in the North-East as well as in Ladakh and came within shooting distance of Assam. Nehru made a pathetic broadcast to the people of Assam about his inability to defend them. There was a huge evacuation at Tezpur along with the destruction of official papers and currency notes. NJN, who had forecast China's troop movements with uncanny accuracy until that moment, made bold to say that China would not enter Assam. He argued that China's intention in attacking India was not acquisition or expansion but the humiliation of India in the eyes of the world and especially of the non-aligned movement. It wanted to send out a message that it was numero uno in Asia. That objective had been achieved with the rout of the Indian army and, therefore, the Chinese would now withdraw.

Lo and behold! China announced a unilateral withdrawal in the eastern front to positions it had held before the war. Assam remained safe. Nehru and the rest of India heaved a sigh of relief. The TOI was so proud of its editor's analyses that it brought out the entire lot in a collection after the war. I have heard that the government was so perplexed by NJN's accurate analysis of the course of the war that it had kept him under surveillance for a while, thinking he must be a Chinese agent!

The immediate outcome was that Nehru developed great regard and affection for the TOI editor and NJN became a confidante and advisor of sorts. This close relationship had an unfortunate fall-out. Nehru had always been wary of what he called the "jute press" and its influence on public opinion ( TOI was owned by Dalmia and Jain and Indian Express by Goenka) and he kept tabs on TOI through NJN.

Now, for some reason, a certain friction developed in the relationship between Shanti Prasad Jain and NJN. In a fit of pique, NJN dashed off a letter to Nehru expressing concern over the state of affairs in Bennett, Coleman and Co, which published TOI and other publications. This gave Nehru just the opportunity he was looking for to oust the Jains from management control of the company and appoint government directors to run it. (This was done under the aegis of the Company Law Board).

Later, NJN was to express contrition for his action and he admitted that his apprehensions about SP Jain and suggestion of interference in editorial matters had been without foundation. (He did so in articles he wrote for the now defunct Indian Post,  published by the Singhanias from Mumbai).  He even wrote that Jain had great affection for his stable of publications - it was a different world from the one he had inhabited- and he rather enjoyed the company of his journalists and editors.

This could, of course, not compensate the Jain for the loss of control over the Times group. A few years later, it became known that control would shortly be restored to the Jains.  NJN's position was clearly untenable and he chose to leave the TOI and join the Statesman. (The Economic Times' first editor, PS Hariharan, was also seen to be aligned with the government; he too left to become PRO at the Asian Development Bank). 

Much later, when NJN was out of a job, the proprietors of Bennett, Coleman and Co chose to be magnanimous. He was allowed to write a weekly column for the TOI's Sunday supplement, then edited by Fatma Zakaria (mother of Fareed Zakaria). The column was a great hit. Later, NJN wrote for Outlook magazine.

As editor, NJN had the reputation of being something of a snob and somebody who confined his interactions largely to the assistant editors who wrote for the edit page. One famous story is that at a party in Mumbai, he was accosted by somebody who complimented him on a piece he had written recently. NJN thanked him and said, "And what do you do?" Said the other, "I am your Chief Reporter!"

It doesn't surprise me to learn from Datta-Ray that there was not much of a market for NJN's column in recent years. NJN's sophisticated prose and turns of phrase would be beyond the current crop of readers. I did not think much of NJN's political analysis-at times he gave the impression of having mastered the art of writing 2000 words without saying anything in particular- but as a prose writer, he had few peers in journalism in his time


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May N J Nanporiahis soul rest in peace !

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NK said...

Nice blog. Though I am reading it one year too late. Was looking for a book and essays by NJN on Nehru and the Indo China war and I chanced upon this blog. Would anyone have this book?

T T Ram Mohan said...

NK, The Times of India brought out NJN's articles on the war in the form of a booklet. You may check with TOI.