After a few successive budgets in the early 1990s that witnessed real-term cuts in defence spend, I wrote a cover story in THE WEEK headlined “no tanks, bombers, submarines in a few years”. For the sake of effect, I added a nasty line in the article that at this rate, the DRDO would have to sell its missiles to sustain further research. Friends in the DRDO told me that their chief, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was upset with it.
A few days later, my bureau chief Sachidananda Murthy told me, “I met Dr Kalam at a Rashtrapati Bhavan function yesterday. He will see you tomorrow at 11 in his office.”
I walked into Kalam’s office expecting a dressing down, but the great scientist received me warmly. He didn’t say a word about the article or my comment, but gave me a one-hour tutorial on the several projects that the DRDO was pursuing, with an afterword—“All this is for your understanding, not for reporting. Call me whenever you want to know anything about what we do.”
Back in the office, I asked Sachi how he had worked the miracle on Kalam. With a smile he said, “He complained to me about the article and your comment. I admitted that the comment was uncalled for, but told him that the article had been taken seriously by the opposition parties in Parliament who quoted from it to demand hikes in the budget. He understood.”
Sachi had a way with people. Scientists or sentries, bureaucrats or businessman, politicians or professors, actors or authors, dancers or dramatists, sportsmen or spiritual men, clerks or clergymen—he could charm them all. Listen to him talking on the phone and you would think there is a president, a prime minister, an ambassador, or, at least a governor, at the other end. For all you know, it may be only an ex-MLA or a middle-level bureaucrat.
I once asked him why he was so polite on the phone even to ‘small people’. His answer: “The person doesn’t know whether I am smiling or grinding my teeth. I want him to know that I am approachable.” When a young colleague, who got his first interview with a cabinet minister, came back and told us how friendly Sharad Yadav had been, Sachi asked him, “Did you also chat with his PS?” When the reporter said, no, Sachi told him: “It is important to know not only Sharad Yadav, but also his PS. It is the PS who decides whether to transfer your call to the minister, or to give you an appointment.” Indeed, after meeting cabinet ministers and ambassadors in their plush offices, you would see Sachi worming his way into file-stacked cubbyholes of their personal aides, plonking himself into a chair and chatting them up, even asking about their kids and homes. Not as a formality; he had genuine interest in human affairs.
The sweet-talker could also be tough, especially when it came to protecting the dignity of journalists. Once, a very senior politician who had been close to him for several years, complained to Sachi about a story that a younger colleague had done. Sachi listened to his MP-friend for 15 minutes, but when the MP started telling Sachi that the reporter had been ‘influenced’, he put his foot down. “Sir, I know my colleague; I also know that he knows more about the subject than you. Tell me if he did something wrong, but don’t tell me that my reporter writes without understanding things.”
Sachi was in the original team of editorial hands who joined THE WEEK when it was launched in 1982. He joined as the Bengaluru correspondent after about six years service with The Indian Express, and I as a fresh-faced trainee at the desk. Within days of his joining he met with an accident. He offered to leave, knowing that the newly launched weekly would need an active reporter in the state that was going for elections, but chief editor K.M. Mathew and others asked him to do his news-gathering on his bedside phone and file stories on a portable typewriter. As soon as he was up and about, he joined the hectic campaign trail, and even predicted that the moribund Janata Party was making a surprise comeback under Ramakrishna Hegde.
At the desk I remember handling his stories ranging from serious political reports on following the ousted Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao’s motorcade through Karnataka, to climbing up the slippery slopes of Talacauvery in search of the ‘vanished’ Kanchi Shankaracharya, reporting on a hilarious dispute in a temple about whether the priests or archakas had the claim over broken coconut shards, and a controversy whether Bengaluru policemen should wear the London bobby’s helmet or the American cowboy’s slouch-hat.
Sachi wore many hats. Posted to Delhi in 1990 as bureau chief (I joined him a few weeks later) and later resident editor, he ran the twin bureaus of India’s largest-circulated regional newspaper and what is today India’s largest-circulated English news weekly. For the next 32 years, I worked with him in the same office and under him, watching him closely as he carried the flag of Malayala Manorama and THE WEEK in Delhi.
He never let the flag down. Even when lucrative offers came his way, he spurned them all, and always fondly recalled how Manorama had looked after him after his accident. When his old friend, prime minister Deve Gowda, asked him to be his media adviser, Sachi told him that he would remain his friend, but would like to remain an independent journalist. Despite all his closeness, the only favour he sought or got from Gowda was an exhaustive interview for Malayala Manorama and THE WEEK.
Getting interviews with prime ministers and presidents was a habit with Sachi. The joke in the office is that the laconic P.V. Narasimha Rao gave him his longest interview and then turned into a mauni baba. When the whole world was worrying about how India would survive the political instability of minority governments, president Shankar Dayal Sharma gave him an interview that nearly reassured the nation. The genial old man told Sachi: “We will muddle through”. That became a catchphrase in Indian politics during the uncertainties of the mid-1990s.
Sachi had an interest in everything. If political writing was his passion, his incisive mind was in diplomacy and constitutional law. (“Read the Constitution,” he used to tell young political reporters.) People and cultures fascinated him. After every overseas trip with presidents or prime ministers, he would not only report on the diplomatic developments but also write a few laid-back features on the life of people in those countries. T.S. Eliot and Robert Ludlum captured his imagination in equal share, as did pop music, art cinema, Kannada theatre and Bollywood gossip.
A quintessential renaissance man!