IN 1950 as editor of one of the Free Press Group of papers, I was a member of the All India Newspaper Editors Conference (AINEC) and attended meetings of its Mumbai branch which were held in the Free Press premises at Dalal Street. Always present was the then Times of India editor, Mr Frank Moraes.
On one occasion after the regular meeting was over, Mr Moraes took me aside and asked whether I would do him a favour. He said he has a son who is a great cricket enthusiast and wants to cover the forthcoming Ranji Trophy matches and would I give him an opportunity to do so? Presuming that he had a college-going son who wanted a break, I readily consented and suggested that he send the young man to meet me. That evening my secretary said that some Moraes wants to see me and would I see him? Send him in, I said. In, walked a 14-year lad in khakhi shorts and introduced himself as Dom Moraes. ?Dom?, I said, ?where is your brother?? ?I have no brother, sir,? said Dom. ?It was my Dad who spoke to you about me.? I was a bit peeved. Did Mr Moraes think so lowly of the Free Press Bulletin that he expected it to print what a 14-year old wrote on cricket? But I had given my promise and told Dom to send me his copy anyway.
On the day of the first match it came around 9 p.m. It was well-written, indeed written so well that I thought may be Dad had lent a helping hand. To check that out I called up Dom to say that the copy had come too late to be used and I would prefer that after the day´s play was over he come straight to the Free Press office and write his story. I don´t think Dom knew what I had in mind.
Innocently he came to the Free Press office after the match was over and wrote his copy and handed it over to me. I was amazed. It was well-written, better, I thought than even what our regular correspondents could have done and I kept Dom for the entire season. In fact, if I remember right, for three more seasons. Years later he compiled all those columns he had written and published them in a book entitled Green is the Grass and gave me credit for giving him an opportunity to get into print. Many years later he told me that it was his worst work that I didn´t particularly take as a compliment. Then I lost touch with him as I had been sent to the United Nations as the PTI´s special correspondent.
To banish obits from news columns is poor journalism and still less service to the reader. But tell that to the new generation of journalists. Who cares for obits in a world where news space is sold in column inches? Dead men can´t pay, can they?
Some time in the mid-fifties, when I was still at the UN, Mr Frank Moraes happened to come to New York and came to the UN often enough to be a familiar figure at the Delegates´ Lounge. One afternoon I received an excited call from Mr Moraes, asking me to come down right away to have a drink with him, as he had something interesting to tell me. Normally a very staid figure, this time when I met him at the lounge he was in great spirits. He said: ?Dom has won the Hawthendon Prize for poetry. I have just heard from him. Let´s celebrate!? I had never heard of the prize but if Mr Moraes was happy, I was willing to join him for a drink. In fact, I guess we had more than one, but who counts when there is joy all round? I skipped my lunch.
Years later I was to meet Dom, but at the United Nations. He had, I think, written on population growth in developing countries or on some such esoteric subject for a UN agency and he wanted to present me with a copy. Months ago I had gently ticked him off for writing an unhappy piece on India´s takeover of Goa and he wasn´t sure how I would receive him. I told him that I didn´t hold that against him and he felt considerably relieved. He brought me a copy with the inscription: ?To Mr M.V. Kamath, my first publisher. Gratefully.? and presented it with a sheepish smile. We remained friends since then; he even called on me some months ago to interview me for some book he was to write.
It saddened me to hear that he died but what has been most heartening is the good press that he has received in obituaries. Writing an obituary is an art in itself. Some of the best obituaries are to be read in The Times (London), The New York Times, The Economist (London) and some leading British and American newspapers. That art has been all but lost in India.
One seldom reads obituaries in our English media and it is most heartening to know that Dom has not been forgotten. Some of the best written on Dom have appeared in The Hindu (June 13), Tehelka (June 12) and Outlook (June 14). Assessment of Dom´s work was fair enough and due credit was given to him, as a poet. Namita Gokhale had a good piece on Dom in Hindustan Times (June 4) and a soberer piece appeared in Deccan Herald (June 13) by E.V. Ramakrishnan, very cheering because Dom was not a publicity seeker and was, in some ways, almost a recluse. That so many well-written pieces were written about him is a tribute to his intellectual standing. But this seems to be an isolated instance.
Obituaries seldom appear in the English media on a regular basis. Jichkar, a distinguished scholar-even if he was a politician and a minister-recently died in a car accident and he was dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. Or take the case of Kamala Markendaya, author of Nectar in the Sieve, a book which had received rave reviews when it was first published some four decades ago. Hardly any paper has taken notice of her. Is it because for all these years she lived in London and was not known to a younger generation of editors? But is that a good reason to forget a first-class writer? The truth seems to be that editors just do not care. Writing an obit calls for a lot of homework that not many newspapers seem willing to put in. In some of the leading newspapers abroad, they have a special obit writer who has a full-time job. An obit is not just about a person. It is about the times in which he (or she) lived and worked and opens a window on the past to the reader. It is a highly specialised job. The articles on Dom that appeared in some of our newspapers and journals cannot be called obits in the real meaning of the term. An obit is not just an assessment of a person´s work; it is a chronological study of the person´s life and times highlighting, when necessary, the person´s contribution to society, and to life itself. Such obits are rare; indeed, they are non-existent in the Indian media today. It is a pity. The English media in India also seldom takes note of writers in Indian languages. If Dom has been written about, one feels that is due to the fact that he wrote in English and not in Hindi or Telugu or Bengali. To banish obits from news columns is poor journalism and still less service to the reader. But tell that to the new generation of journalists. Who cares for obits in a world where news space is sold in column inches? Dead men can´t pay, can they?