January 27, 2007

B2B with K: Mr Chandra of The Tribune, Chandigarh.

My friend wrote about the plight of a London-based Indian journalist in the sixties. Mr P T Chandra, then London Correspondent of The Tribune, Chandigarh, had seen better days when he maintained a large office off Fleet Street. But we, Kini and I, came to meet him at a much later time when he was down on his luck, life-style and his bank balance.

He still filed stories for his newspaper, working from a desk, set up for him at India House. The deputy high commissioner, Mr P N Haksar, was Mr Chandra’s friend.. I used to meet him occasionally when he dropped in at Dr Basu’s office, at Hindustan Standard/India weekly, Carmelite St..As Kini wrote, Mr Chandra, in a dark three-piece suit, looked more a company executive than a journalist in distress. Unlike Kini, with whom he opened out over half a 'bitter' at a pub on Tottanham Court Rd., Mr Chandra was rather formal with me, though friendly. And I, a junior reporter setting out to make a career in journalism, was suitably respectful.

Mr Chandra seemed, what I would call, in a state of constant battle to maintain self-respect in the face of adversity. His peers were understanding and helpful. But with rest of us Mr Chandra was constrained to maintain appearance of well-being. So the man inside that three-piece suit put between us a glass screen of small talk and polite enquiry, presumably, because he had no reason to know that I knew about his plight.

I learned from Dr Basu’s assistant, Mr Asoke Gupte that The Tribune didn’t send Mr Chandra a pay cheque. Instead, they banked a certain amount to his account in India. Of what use was a bank balance in rupees to someone having to pay his bills in London, in pounds sterling? If there was any system of ‘hawala’ in reverse, I didn’t think Mr Chandra resorted to such means, so low and illegal.

The sixties were the days of forex regulations. Indian newspapers had to seek foreign exchange clearance from the government to pay salary and maintain offices overseas. It was the Reserve Bank of India that decided whether or not a newspaper could have a fully-paid correspondent, and,if so, what would be the salary payable in foreign exchange.

Incidentally, those of us who came to Britain on immigration were entitled to a princely travel allowance of 3 pounds sterling (at the then rate of Rs.13 to a pound). It took me 10 days on the boat (from Bombay to Genoa) and another day on train to make it to London. I don’t remember how I stretched out my 3 pounds for so many days, and still managed to have 12 shillings to spare when I reached London. I would be interested to learn how Kini and Subash hitch-hiked from New Delhi to London on a total forex allowance of six pounds.

I have a confession to make here: Before boarding my boat – Lloyd Triestino’s m v Asia , a fully air-conditioned cruise ship – I had thoughtfully slipped in a 100-rupee note inside my sox. But then I found it couldn’t get me anything on the boat or in Europe. Small shopkeepers at Karachi,where the ship halted for a day, readily exchanged my money for eats and things we had on Mahatma Gandhi Rd., Karachi. A shop-keeper told me Indian money came in handy to smuggle in consumer delicacies such as Banarasi or Calcutta paan.

A note on The Tribune: In the mid-eighties, when I was posted TOI correspondent in Chandigarh, I had occasion to visit friends at The Tribune township. I know of no other Indian newspaper that has built a residential colony for its staff. The Tribune, Ambala (and later Chandigarh) is run by a trust. I wondered how a newspaper that is so employer-friendly could have treated Mr Chandra so shabbily. Perhaps, it was not the newspaper’s doing. Maybe Mr Chandra was a victim of our forex policy.
B2B archives:
A blog-to-blog chat
Confusing chronology
Our Fleet St. Days
Dr.Basu of India Weekly
Shroff Saab of Carmelite St.
Mr Chandra in Fleet St.

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