Russi Karanjia: Frank, free and fearless
One of the most controversial journalists in India during the last 70 years of his life, Russi Karanjia was also the owner of the first tabloid weekly called Blitz in the country. His slogan for the paper was that it was free, frank and fearless.
I first met him in his office in the late 1950s in Mumbai. He met me without an appointment because he prided himself on the free access to his office. He did not care whom he pleased or displeased. He published almost anything he desired, taking advantage of the freedom of speech and press in India after independence and his support for the ruling Congress party during the time of Nehru and then his daughter Indira. He was also one of the best-dressed men in India even if he was attending a small gathering in a hotel or a house or meeting a head of state in Cairo or Tehran.
He became famous in the Arab world after his interview with President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt before Nasser’s defeat in 1967. He then met with and interviewed the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Our friendship continued and flourished, especially after his visit to Saudi Arabia where I had the chance to meet him and talk with no holds barred. He was a pleasure to talk to and his fearless comments on everyone and everything were a joy to report. He asked me to see him in Mumbai next time I was there. So as soon as I arrived at the Oberoi Hotel I called him since I had his private number.
He accepted my invitation to dinner at the Oberoi, with his wife in a splendid silk saree, while he was in one of his smart suits, silk necktie, and fine shirts and shoes.
He had spent a few years in England where he served in Fleet Street tabloids and he told me that he admired the British press and, of course, emulated it when he returned home. This showed well in the Nanavati murder case and trial in which a man called Kawas, a Parsee, killed his wife’s lover. Millions of Indians thought that he had done the right thing and Russi took the side of Kawas. The story or crime and its attendant scandal occupied the nation and its saloons for sometime since the Parsees were a prominent and wealthy community in India and had done a great deal of constructive work for the nation. The famous house of Tata belongs to them. So Blitz split the nation, good for itself as far as sensational reporting went.
True to his motto he also attacked the famous Sai Baba then patched up and apologized. When Blitz was a success he started another tabloid called Daily, which he dubbed the bulldog of a newspaper. Whether you liked it or not, you had to read it as I did during my visits to Mumbai. And before long I raided it and, with his permission, hired some of its staff for this newspaper. At least one of them is still with us.
Russi was a socialist in theory although he lived in the posh area of Marine Drive facing the fabulous Malabar Hill of Mumbai. Both are still wonderful places but they come at a price. A flat in them will cost millions of rupees. While in Malabar Hill I decided to go close to the skyscraper built by Mukesh Ambani, son of the founder and himself one of the richest men in India and the East. His brother is also equally rich. The skyscraper is for his personal residence although it goes up to 24 stories but he has not yet moved into it because, according to rumors, he has discovered that the land on which the building was erected belonged to a society for orphans although it is still just rumor. Actually buying a building, if any is available, is difficult in either locality making Mumbai one of the most expensive areas in the world. Foreign companies wishing to hire flats for their expatriate personnel pay up front half a million rupees per month for a three bedroom flat in places like Worli or Malabar Hill or Marine Drive. But there is a problem. If you decide to sell you will receive good money all right but where will you go? Only far away and at a high cost. Some Indians have to live in Pune and commute to their jobs nearly 164 kilometers each way daily and live fairly decently.
— Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.
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