When I first met Russi Karanjia in 1969, he was already a legend. Not of the Sir Lancelot, knight of King Arthur’s Round Table-kind, but one who made the stomachs of politicians and bureaucrats churn with anxiety for fear of what he might reveal next about the workings of the Government. For Russi was free India’s first investigative journalist. He was indeed a knight of a Round Table, but it was the Round Table of Dissent.
My first impression of him was of a dapper, youthful ‘Old man’ – old for me because he was already 57 and I had just turned 30. But Russi wasn’t an old man. In fact he was incapable of growing old, because he was the original, perennial sceptic. Along with another Parsee, Nana Chudasama, he made a specialty of telling the Emperor (i.e. the Government) that he had no clothes on. Nana did it on one of India’s earliest lighted billboards at Churchgate corner, a spot that, in the small and intimate Bombay of the fifties, was one you could not help but pass every day. Russi did it, in grand, outrageous, style in the Blitz.
Wikipedia’s thumbnail biography describes him as a “radical and idealist, left leaning and pro-Soviet… (who)… attacked the Congress party, and yet was friendly with Congress leaders Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi… became disillusioned with communism and its anti-Hindu secularism, and …became a strong sympathiser of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Ayodhya movement .”
In today’s highly polarised society this would be sufficient to make him a hero in the Hindutva movement and an ‘unperson’ in the secular elite. But had Russi been alive, I suspect he would have been highly incensed by this description.
For the single common feature of the editor and writer India knew through Blitz, and the fun-loving, flamboyant, engaging man I knew in Bombay, was that he was a congenital rebel, eternally sceptical of accepted wisdom. This never failed to surface, be it over Kerala’s first Marxist Government, which was looked upon with horror by “polite society” and became the first victim of Article 356 of the Constitution; over the justice of condemning a man, Commander Nanavati, to death for shooting his wife’s lover; or over the wisdom of politicising a struggle over land upon which a mosque had been built, instead of allowing the BJP to shift the mosque, brick by brick, to a nearby location, which was then the Sangh Parivar’s stated aim.
Russi’s contrarianism often landed him in trouble. On one occasion he published a photograph in Blitz of a crowd of Malayalis gathered in front of St. Joseph’s High School in Trivandrum, a school under the management of the city’s Archbishop.
This school had not reopened on June 15th as a protest against the Kerala Education Act which had been passed by the Namboodiripad Government. Blitz captioned the photo: “Soldiers of the Goonda War wait in the compound of Bishop’s Palace in Trivandrum for the church bells to begin tolling, the signal for attack”.
But in the ‘crowd’ was Chellappan Pillai, chief correspondent of a local newspaper, Malayalam Rajyam, who filed and won a case in the magistrate’s court suing Karanjia for defamation. Russi appealed to the Kerala High Court on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove that he was the owner of the paper, so he could not be held liable.
He lost! But it was only money! Till it closed in the nineties when it along with thousands of local newspapers, were driven into insolvency by a ruthless price undercutting war launched by the major dailies, Blitz never lost its élan, Nor Russi his elegance and, dare I say it, his attractiveness to women!