Who wrote The Mind of Mr Nehru, a brilliant insight into the thinking of free India’s first Prime Minister, and published in 1960? Who wrote a follow-up The Philosophy of Mr Nehru, published in 1966? Both books were based on exclusive interviews.
One answer might be obvious: Jawaharlal Nehru’s favourite journalist? But who was this journalist? The answer might surprise those who imagine that the intellectual Nehru’s preferred choice would be a somber, spectacled, bald, bookladen pontiff who wrote deep analysis in convoluted phrases.
Nehru’s favourite journalist was Russi Karanjia, the feisty, formidable, charming, and handsome founder-editor of the weekly tabloid Blitz. If Dev Anand was the Gregory Peck of India then Russi Karanjia was Clark Gable. His day-job was spreading havoc within the establishment with stories that punched above their weight and headlines that flattened politicians who appeared on the Blitz radar. Russi’s evening style was legendary. He was the doyen of Mumbai’s glamorous social scene, the twinkle of whose eyes lit up any party, who lived like a cavalier with friends and fenced like an intrepid knight with foes. He did not belong to a generation so much as create a generation around himself.
Nehru admired the journalist who had created a publishing kingdom from the proverbial seed to a nationwide phenomenon. The circulation of multilingual Blitz was far above anything seen in journalism. He was a pioneer who created the modern mass market. Nehru was not alone. Russi counted Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Persia, among his friends. Each time he returned from Tehran, Bombay would be agog with stories of the Shah’s palaces, lifestyle and the mounds of caviar from the Caspian Sea.
There was also a shared bloodline between the two. Rustom Khurshedji Karanjia was a proud Parsi, who delighted in his Aryan-Persian ancestry as the Shah. But his lifetime loyalty was to Mumbai, where he lived in a marvelous seafront apartment. He adored the city, and the city adored him.
Russi was a true radical. This was not simply about publishing the leftist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s column every week on the back page, or associating with Communists at a time when they did not seem to have a political future. He was radically different across the wide framework of human experience.
Dev Anand, himself an icon, told me the story about the premiere of his film Guide, which dramatically broke every convention. Its heroine Rosy, played by Waheeda Rehman, was an independent woman who let neither a dull husband married to his profession, archaeology, nor an ebullient career-manager constrain her free spirit, and command over her own life and destiny.
When the premiere ended, there was overwhelming silence in the Maratha Mandir theatre. The dignitaries shuffled out. The only person who leapt to congratulate Dev Anand for the magnificent theme and superb picturisation was Russi Karanjia.
There is not enough space to recount the dazzling journalism during the thirty years from around 1950 which could be called the Karanjia Decades. I will mention just one episode. It was only Russi who could pick up a murder case in Mumbai and transform it into household conversations in every province of India. This was the famous Nanavati case. Normally, men and women with such power are feared. No one feared Russi Karanjia because everyone loved him.