A Quiet Exemplar
A tribute by peers and protégés to an iconic editor - a fast disappearing tribe - who fashioned the character of the newspaper under his charge and watch with quiet firmness and deft assurance, himself staying scrupulously out of the limelight.
There was a brief note, neatly written, on a piece of paper kept on my table in Frontline magazine section in Chennai in January 2001. It read, "Go to Mumbai and do a story on the AHWR." It was signed "KN" and below it was the date. I was a reporter in Frontline then and had returned to Chennai the previous evening after spending a few days at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay, Mumbai, and interviewing engineers and scientists there. Not many people outside the Department of Atomic Energy - DAE/BARC would have known at that time that BARC had designed a futuristic reactor called the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which would use thorium as fuel. I had not heard about the AHWR either. I was puzzled by KN's note because I had just returned to Chennai from BARC, Mumbai and "KN" was asking me to go there again.
KN was K. Narayanan, then formidable Associate Editor of Frontline magazine, who was earlier the widely-respected News Editor of The Hindu newspaper.
With trepidation, I entered his cabin and told him that I had just returned to Chennai after visiting BARC. He was, however, clear in his mind that I should visit BARC again and do a story on the AHWR. Off I went to Mumbai again and met Ratan K. Sinha, then Associate Director, Reactor Design and Development Group, and Head, Reactor Engineering Division, BARC. He played a key role in designing the AHWR. The articulate Sinha later became Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary, DAE. I wrote a story on the AHWR and KN published it in the Frontline issue dated March 2, 2001. The story was titled, ‘Thorium Power’. The assignment was a valuable learning experience and my admiration for Narayanan grew manifold, because he was a journalist who knew the latest technological developments under way in the country.
On another occasion, I had written a story for The Hindu on India's main battle tank, Chetak (it was renamed Arjun later), and had made a mention of the the U.S.-made battle tank ‘Abrahams’. KN immediately sent for me and told me to find out the correct spelling of this battle tank. It was ‘Abrams’. On another occasion, he pointed out that it was ‘Sea King’ helicopter and that it was not hyphenated as ‘Sea-king’ helicopter.
KN was a consummate, multi-faceted journalist. He was excellent in editing stories, skillful in making pages, adept in selecting photographs, knowledgeable in several subjects including sports, science and technology, classical music and spiritual affairs. He was a shaping influence on a generation of journalists in both The Hindu and Frontline. It was a joy to work under him.
K. Narayanan, 88, died on September 29, 2020, after a long illness, in Coimbatore. He served The Hindu group of publications for nearly 50 years in different capacities - first as a sports sub-editor, the long-standing News Editor of The Hindu newspaper, then Associate Editor of Frontline, the fortnightly magazine, and finally as the newspaper's first Readers' Editor.
As The Hindu reported on September 30, 2020, "Born at Palakkad, Kerala, on August 24, 1932, Narayanan grew up in Kozhikode. An alumnus of Chennai's Loyola College, he joined The Hindu as a Kasturi Ranga scholar in 1955, after a stint at the Indian Express. He was appointed a sub-editor in 1956 and rose to become its News Editor in 1978. KN, as he was fondly known, worked closely with the then editor G. Kasturi. He oversaw the news operations of The Hindu till 1990, and of Frontline from 1984 to 1996...
"After his formal retirement on August 31, 1996, he was appointed Consultant to Frontline. Later, in 2003, he became a Consultant to The Hindu as well.
"He took office as the first Readers' Editor of The Hindu on March 1, 2006. He continued in the role till June 30, 2009. The Hindu had modelled the role of the Readers' editor on the example set by The Guardian.
"He is survived by his wife Rukmini and son Krishnakumar."
KN was a complete journalist. He was a newshound, first and foremost. He could smell news miles away. Besides politics, he was deeply interested in science and technology, and development journalism. He was knowledgeable about rocketry, nuclear power, and petroleum and natural gas. He was a connoisseur of classical music too.
Narayanan knew how to swiftly edit a copy. He knew how to give it a crisp, catchy headline. He was a good writer too. His columns as the Readers' Editor showed it. He had an amazing talent for making pages. He was an excellent layout artist. He and G. Kasturi, the widely respected Editor of The Hindu, introduced the modular layout in the newspaper, which was widely appreciated by the readers. In the 1980s, G. Kasturi, Editor, N. Ram, Associate Editor and KN, News Editor, combined to make a formidable team in publishing The Hindu newspaper with a high standard of journalism. Again, they came together to bring out the Frontine magazine, which began publishing in 1984. In those early days of Frontline, its centre spread stories on wildlife, with an array of superb photographs, was a big hit with readers.
Narayanan had an uncanny skill in choosing pictures to go with stories in The Hindu and Frontline. He would take a magnifying glass to his right eyes and study the photograph with it to find out whether the picture was out of focus or grainy. Photographs, which were out of focus or had grains in them, would be rejected. According to a senior journalist, it was the late Kasturi who trained KN in the art of judging pictures. If a photograph was out of focus, Kasturi would tell the photographer to check his eyesight. Narayanan loved publishing stories with maps, graphs, the design of a nuclear power reactor, or a rocket motor.
Mr. N. Ram, Director, The Hindu Publishing Group, said this about KN: "He [KN] was a journalists' journalist and one of the finest news editors I have ever come across. He was soft-spoken but firm in upholding the standards of journalism. His daily corrections in the newspaper were a lesson for young journalists. He was The Hindu's first Readers' Editor and he settled (repeat settled) the terms for the office. This meant that he was India's first full-time internal news ombudsman. Although considerably older than me, he was my friend and in the early years, my mentor. In today's media world, I don't find any KNs."
Sashi Kumar, who was the first West Asia correspondent of The Hindu and set up and opened the bureau in Bahrain in 1984, assessed Narayanan thus: "KN was truly one of his kind. A meticulous and consummate editor with a keen eye for nuance and detail; a helmsman at the desk, who was sure and firm about the tenor and stye of the copy he expected; an anchor and touchstone to which the greenhorn journalist could bring his anxieties, worries and concerns and have them solved with deceptive effortlessness; a connoisseur of classical music; and a warm human being with a uniquely disarming way of compelling your admiration. His hallmark, to my mind, is an alluring quietness which was, paradoxically, for a man who dealt with words, ineffably eloquent."
Sashi Kumar, now Chairman, Media Development Foundation, which administers the prestigious Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, added that KN was a "rare person committed to the best in journalism and one who had great human qualities as well”.
Eighty-five year od P.B. Thiagarajan (PBT), who was KN's contemporary and retired as Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu, called KN "a great man" and "a devoted soul, who worked so hard". It was but natural that Kasturi rated him high in journalism. KN had an eye for spotting talent. It was his idea to bring out the Industrial Survey volume every year, where top industrialists, technocrats and journalists wrote about the state of industrial development in India. "I was assisting KN in publishing the Industrial Survey before I took over from him", Thiagarajan said.
"KN had an amazing talent in making pages. Besides, he could take quick, spot decisions. He would have made a good bureaucrat or a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a company", Thiagarajan said. In fact, Narayanan passed the examinations for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and sailed through the interview as well. But destiny willed that he should become a journalist. "A nagging sickness" plagued him often but he never allowed it to hobble his professional work. Knowledge of Carnatic music brought KN many friends including his senior colleague in The Hindu, the late R. Ramachandran, who founded the Hamsadhwani Sabha in Chennai. Ramachandran, RRC as he was called, and KN, hit it off, PBT said.
What was remarkable about KN was that both Kasturi and Ram "admired" him, said 83-year old A.V. Chandrasekharan (AVC), who retired as a Deputy Editor from The Hindu in 2000 after 40 plus years of service. "KN was GK's protege. KN emulated GK in every way," AVC added. Narayanan would meticulously go through The Hindu newspaper every morning, mark the mistakes with red ink and circulate the newspaper among the sub-editors. Chandrasekharan added, "I used to reach office around 3 pm for the 4 pm shift. The first thing I would do was to look at my table for The Hindu printed pages with mistakes marked out in red ink by KN. He had a trained eye for spotting mistakes... On some days, Kasturi sir would ask for The Hindu copies with mistakes marked out by KN. GK used to appreciate this work done by KN.
Chandrasekharan called KN "a meticulous workaholic." Swift editing was his forte. "He will send me PTI [Press Trust of India] copies, with his instructions such as 'Must', 'Page 1', etc. He was a perfectionist and he expected the same perfection from his subordinates... He would never use harsh words. At the same time, he would give us a bit of his mind. That was his special talent", Chandrasekharan noted.
Narayanan introduced several new features in The Friday Review Page, a supplement in The Hindu, that carried stories on stalwarts in the Carnatic and Hindustani music, dance traditions, reviews of concerts, India's culture, temples, archaeology etc.. KN had good knowledge of Carnatic music. He helped vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy prepare the acceptance speech when the latter was conferred the title of "Sangita Kalanidhi" in 1986 by the Music Academy, Chandrasekharan said.
Eighty-year old S. Thyagarajan, a veteran sports reporter, who worked in The Hindu for 52 years, said KN would effortlessly reduce a 700-word story to 350 words. He would cut out unnecessary adjectives, telescope sentences and, hey presto, it would be a magical story. "He would embellish your copy but without killing its sum and substance", said Thyagarajan, who retired in 2015 as Associate Editor, Sports.
The following incident demonstrates how Narayanan had an eye for spotting talented people and might use novel methods to recruit them. He was popular with The Hindu's readers as its Readers Editor from 2006 to 2009 and they wrote to him pointing out the mistakes in the stories published in it. Sashikala Asirvatham, who had earned her B.Tech. in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 1986 and was an environmental engineer for 11 years after that, had written to KN, pointing out the mistakes in The Hindu. "There were a lot of basic mistakes in grammar. I made a list of them and I emailed the list to KN. There was some back and forth on email", Sashikala said. He then asked her to meet him in The Hindu office. "Mr. Ram [who was then the Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu] was present during the meeting. KN asked me whether I would like to join The Hindu. He asked me to go to various departments - The Hindu, Frontline, Sportstar and Business Line. I decided on joining Frontline", she said. But she had to take a test in copyediting. She was asked to edit an article. "I joined Frontine in 2006 because of KN", Sashikala added.
Another incident will illustrate how KN was demanding of photographers. According to D. Krishnan, who was Photo Editor, The Hindu, from December 2005 to February 2014, he learnt a lesson from Narayanan on how photographers should behave during natural calamities. It rained heavily during the North-East monsoon season in the mid-1980s in Chennai and Kotturpuram, was one of the localities which was flooded. The three storey tenements on the banks of the Adyar river at Kotturpuram were flooded and the water level had reached the second floor. Walter Devaram, a senior poice officer, was leading the rescue operations. Boats were being used to evacuate the stranded residents in these small apartments.
Narayanan rang up Krishnan and asked him what he was doing. Krishnan replied, "It is raining heavily and I am at home”. "I know it is raining heavily”, Narayanan retorted, “but what are you doing at home?" Krishnan said KN's sharp query made him realise that he should be out on the road, photographing the floods. "I went out and got memorable pictures of the situation that day at Kotturpuram - the flooded tenements, Dewaram leading the rescue efforts, boats being used to ferry people to safety", Krishnan said. They were published in The Hindu next day.
Outside journalism, Narayanan had several good friends. Arasu alias S. Kumaragurubaran from Coimbatore was one of them. Arasu (67), a progressive Leftist, got to know KN by chance and they became life-long friends. It was a day in 1981 or 1982 and the Supreme Court was to decide on granting parole to members of a family from Tamil Nadu, who were ultra-Leftists and had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were serving their term at the Central Prison, Chennai. Arasu, who was in Chennai at that time and knew that family of Leftists, wanted to know the status of the case in the Supreme Court. It struck him that he could ask somebody in The Hindu. So he rifled through the phone directory and saw that the section on The Hindu mentioned K. Narayanan as the News Editor. Around midnight, Arasu rang up KN, introduced himself and wanted to know what the order of the Supreme Court was. Around 2 a.m., KN rang up Arasu and told him that the Supreme Court had granted a month's parole to the son of the head of the family and that the son should stay for a month at Cuddalore.
After the son was let out of prison that morning, Arasu brought him along to meet KN and thank him. What astonished Arasu was that KN gave them Rs.300 to meet the initial expenses at Cuddalore. Besides, KN gave Arasu a seven-sovereign gold chain and asked him to hand the ornament over to his (KN's) relative living in Coimbatore. Arasu did so. He said, "To this day, I am not able to believe that he could trust me with that seven-sovereign gold chain when I knew him just for a day."
Thus began a 40-year friendship between Arasu and Narayanan. Arasu, who is a fighter against social injustice, has filed several public interest litigations in favour of the poor, destruction of heritage at the 1300-year old Trailokyanatha temple - a Jaina temple - at Tiruparuttikunram, near Kanchipuram, against acquisition of lands by private trusts from poor people and so on. KN stood by Arasu through all these legal battles. Arasu and his wife attended Narayanan's funeral at Coimbatore on September 29. Arasu's question is, "KN was a great man, a large-hearted human being, a cultured and dignified person. Why did such a person suffer a lot during his last days?"
Every day, Narayanan would read several newspapers in English, Malayalam and Tamil. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, there was a tiny room in The Hindu office where, every month, newspapers from many States in India and from abroad would be bound and kept in racks. KN would be seen reading English newspapers even from Sikkim and Iran! He was adept in both daily and magazine journalism. When KN was the Associate Editor of Frontline, Mr. Ram would drop in at KN's cabin. They would chitchat on a variety of topics. Sometimes, they would call a few of us inside, ask us about our families' wellbeing, what stories we were doing and so on. It was a privilege to work under Mr. Ram and Narayanan. Those were the golden days.