Restraint, sincerity, and finding poetry in politics: Remembering journalist Kamal Khan

Kamal, who moved from being a Russian translator to a journalist whose career defies description, taught me how to report the news without drama.

WrittenBy:Hridayesh Joshi
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On Friday morning, hours after the news broke of Kamal Khan’s passing, a friend said it was hard to imagine Lucknow without Kamal. He said this in the context of journalism and Lucknow, but it’s also true of Uttar Pradesh itself.

Kamal, a senior journalist with NDTV, left a mark whenever he spoke about politics, culture and society. He was an experienced, studious, sincere, joyous and capable journalist. When he hosted a news programme this Thursday evening on NDTV, no one had an inkling that he would be saying goodbye to the world a few hours later.

Khan, who worked at NDTV India for 25 years, complained of a sudden chest pain on Friday morning. And then, his heart gave up. He was 61, healthy and fit, and did not look his age. Which is why not only his family but his friends too cannot believe the news of his death.

I worked at NDTV for about 16 years, during which I frequently spoke to Kamal and met him on the ground. His admirers will remember his knack of finding poetry in politics, of finishing a report with shayari. But as a fellow reporter, I saw some other qualities in him which are more valuable to me.

Very few people know that Kamal had studied Russian and earned a degree. He was also perfectly capable in English. Senior journalist Alok Joshi told me how, in the 1980s, Kamal would work as a Russian translator at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Lucknow. Alok said he and Kamal began working together for the first time in Amrit Bazar Patrika in 1987. Kamal chose an uncertain career after leaving a fixed government job.

Maybe fate had a hand in planning it.

After mastering Russian and English, Kamal studied Urdu, then Hindi. His storytelling was hypnotic, and he had a natural flair to sniff out the news. After Amrit Bazar, he worked at Navbharat Times but when its Lucknow edition closed down, he went to NDTV and would appear on Star News.

Most journalists go to Delhi for more opportunities, as Alok told me, but Kamal never left Lucknow. Lucknow was visible in his language, his writing, his voice. Lucknow was never to leave him.

At the beginning of his journalistic career, Kamal would write his name as Kamal Haider Khan, which he later changed to Kamal H Khan. His wife, journalist Ruchi Kumar, is from a Hindu family. The liberal, cosmopolitan environment of his home was clear in his work.

The pressure of live reporting on television, and getting the news to viewers on time, can be extremely stressful. Journalists try their best not to allow this stress to appear on screen, and Kamal, whether he was on screen or not, always stayed perfectly normal. He never allowed the excitement of breaking a big or important report to show on his face – something that the theatrics of TV often wear as an ornament.

I remember one time in 2003, when the news broke of skeletons being found in a pond belonging to Raja Bhaiya in Uttar Pradesh. I was on the news desk and Kamal called me, asking me to break the news. The importance of the news was in his voice, and there was no agitation in his conduct, something that generally happens with TV reporting.

I was surprised, and it was a big lesson for a young journalist. Kamal reported on the news without any drama.

The same restraint was visible in his reporting of a stampede in Lucknow, just before the general election of 2004. I write this because on TV, showing unnecessary agitation is used as a weapon to get a viewer’s attention. These days, in fact, it’s used to the point of madness – but Kamal only presented information, not agitation, in his reporting. He enriched that news with stories of politics and society.

Kamal’s inclination towards studiousness was a big plus in his reporting. He hosted many important programmes on issues like the character of Ram, and triple talaq. He used to quote from the Quran while reciting lines from the Ramayana and Gita. This studiousness was apparent to me in his personality as well. These days, many journalists like us are limited to writing on Twitter and Facebook, but the scope of Kamal’s knowledge was astonishing. A foundation like that is only built by consistent hard work over a long period of time.

Senior journalist Vijay Trivedi remembered how Kamal always kept five to seven books in his car, and he would cite from them while reporting. Trivedi said Kamal would not only never appear to favour any political party while reporting, but he was also extremely rational and liberal in regular life. During the ‘90s, NDTV was new to the world of news (it was part of Star News back then) and its office was at Kamal’s home. Politicians from every party would visit, and many journalists would often gather too. The entire time, he was extremely professional, and never showed friendship or animosity towards anyone.

I remember Kamal once did a long series on the crumbling primary education system in Uttar Pradesh. Schoolteachers were asked general questions, which they couldn’t answer, and one of his reports, while focusing on the bad state of education, had a healthy dose of sarcasm.

For instance, some teachers were asked who Sania Mirza was. Many replied that she was a descendant of Mirza Ghalib. Obviously, answers like that left viewers rolling on the floor. But at the end of the report, Kamal shook everyone when he turned to the camera and said, “Had a laugh, had fun...When you’ve laughed your heart out, then shed two tears for the lakhs of kids whom these teachers teach.”

One day or one column’s space is not enough to remember journalists like Kamal Khan. He raised the bar of journalism, and a true tribute to him would be the inculcation of his values of restraint, sincerity and depth, especially in this era of decadence.

This piece was first published in Newslaundry Hindi. It was translated to English by Shardool Katyayan.

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