Paddy was a fine political editor, a sincere person, and a generous friend.
In his journalism as well as in life Padmanand Jha – Paddy to friends – was a fighter till the very end. He was also proof that a good journalist could be a sincere, honest, and sensitive human being as well.
When I was informed of his death in Goa after a prolonged illness on May 30, I knew I had lost a dear friend. As I came to terms with the unfortunate news, I could not help but wonder what Paddy would have achieved if an accident in 1997 had not forced him out of the mainstream. I believe that journalism became that much poorer because it was denied the services of one of its best political analysts and editors.
A few days before the accident in 1997 we had met for a drink and planned a dinner at his home in Noida the following Saturday. He wanted me to cook the Kerala prawns curry that he loved so much. We were in a celebratory mood because Outlook magazine had taken off remarkably well and the political bureau that Paddy had put together was shaping up well.
But all our plans came undone because the hit-and-run happened. On the fateful day, Paddy had stepped out for an after-dinner walk with his daughter when a car hit him and sped off. Precious time was wasted before he could be rushed to the hospital because passing vehicles did not heed his daughter’s cries for help.
Medical intervention did save his life, but the accident impaired his mobility, weakened his body and left deep scars on his mind that never fully healed. Gaps also surfaced in his memory — he was not quite the same Paddy we knew. But he soldiered on nevertheless with a brave smile on his lips and songs in his heart. He was a warm and happy presence even when he was fighting the pain in his limbs and body. Right through his recovery and until the end he was cared for by his wife Masooma, his other daughter Fiza, family and friends.
I first met Paddy in 1989 in Bombay (now Mumbai) at a meeting organised by journalists to protest attempts by the owners, the Raymond Group, to shut down The Indian Post, a lively paper edited by Vinod Mehta. He had recently quit in the face of the management’s attempts to bar editorial content that hurt “business interests” or went against high-ups in the union government.
Paddy and I hit it off well from the word go. I found him to be extremely well-informed and yet unassuming. More importantly, he did not have the airs that “well-connected” and all-knowing journalists from Delhi put on when they met their country brethren from Bombay. Paddy was different. He was a lot of fun although he did occasionally reveal a serious side to his personality, particularly when he discussed politics.
It did not take us long to become close friends. Whenever he was in Bombay we would meet up for a drink and share notes. Two years later we became colleagues at The Pioneer where he was the bureau chief and I the Bombay correspondent. The paper had by then been redesigned and its Delhi edition launched in 1991 with Vinod at the helm.
In those days, The Pioneer was a fighting unit in which adrenalin levels ran high with a highly motivated team and a very inspired editor. As a new entrant in the highly competitive Delhi market the accent was on breaking stories, credible reportage, incisive analysis, and well-written features. A well-rounded package, Vinod reminded his outstation correspondents, was needed to make the paper stand out in the crowd.
At the professional level I discovered a new Paddy at The Pioneer. He was always on the ball and could provide you insight and tips on how to go about a story. His interventions were never intrusive but a nudge on what can be done and not done given the limitations, both in terms of manpower and financial resources that the paper had at its disposal. He also had a way of explaining why a story that excited you in Bombay may not interest readers in Delhi without hurting your sentiments. I would often run a story past him before putting it up before Vinod.
Those were testing times for a reporter in Bombay with national stories breaking with regular frequency – the stock market scam, the post-Babri Masjid demolition violence, the Bombay riots of January 1993 and the serial blasts that followed a month later. There was no time to breathe since in addition to news, feature stories had also to be generated from Bombay. And to make matters worse, for the most part during those times I was a one-person bureau since the business correspondent was incapacitated and on long medical leave.
One incident during the height of the 1993 riots revealed how thoughtful a person Paddy was. One day a Parsi friend from Peddar Road in tony south Bombay called to say that Shiv Sainiks were approaching businessmen and residents in his area and extorting lakhs of rupees as “protection money”. He said he even had a copy of a receipt issued to a businessman and could share it with The Pioneer provided the name of the donor was blacked out.
Vinod was as excited as I was about the story. It was slotted for the frontpage. Later that evening Paddy called me. He wondered if it was wise on my part to take a byline for a story that could make me vulnerable since it would be carrying a document that confirmed extortion by Sena activists. He said he was aware that I was operating on my own in the Bombay office without any support staff. He was right. During the riots I was perhaps the sole occupant of the high rise in Nariman Point where the office was located. Paddy felt I could be targeted by angry Sainiks once the story came out. This apprehension was also shared by Vinod.
The two decided that it would be best to conceal the fact that the story was filed out of Bombay. Paddy rewrote it with a Delhi dateline and sourced the information and the receipt to unnamed sources in the union home ministry. The frontpage report was credited to a special correspondent and attracted some notice. Weeks later a very similar Sena receipt surfaced in a Bombay newspaper as an “exclusive”.
Paddy had then told me, “No story is worth risking your life for. You have a sensitive story, file it. If your paper runs it prominently consider your job done. A byline is not always everything.” This piece of advice, so simply articulated, has served me in good stead during my career.
I was to work with Paddy again. This time at Outlook. When Vinod called to offer me a job with the yet to be launched magazine in Delhi I readily accepted. I quit my job as bureau chief of India Today in Chennai and caught the first train to the national capital. I was delighted to learn that Paddy was keen to have me in the political bureau he was putting together.
I was nervous and new to Delhi, but Paddy put me at ease. He took me to meet leaders and readily shared his contacts. I know many journalists who are not as helpful and keep even telephone numbers as a state secret. But not Paddy. Before he sent me on my first assignment to Kashmir, he introduced me to journalists, officials, politicians, and intellectuals in the Valley. He even called them to ensure that I would be comfortable. It is thanks to him that I was able to pull off some good stories from the Valley.
When I look back, I must say Paddy was indeed someone very special, someone whose life needs to be celebrated. Much after his accident when we would meet at his place or mine, he would keep everyone in good cheer by singing his favourite Kishore Kumar hits. But invariably, at some point he would ask me to sing the Paddy Blues – a four-chord song that I had belted out impromptu at a party years ago. I had long forgotten the words. But he always remembered the song.
Ajith Pillai is a journalist and author in Delhi.
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