At a time when Marshal MacLuhan was talking about the global village, when. Rolling Stone began publishing in America, Melody Maker started coming out in England and Time-Out happened in London, in Calcutta there was JS
This was the coming of age of Indian youth, a joining of hands across many oceans, an anthem of the young all over the world wanting to be heard. Dubby Bhagat recounts here the rise and fall of JS.
JS,or Junior Statesman, as it was first called, was the brainchild of Evan J Charlton, the last British editor of The Statesman. Charlton’s idea was to catch the readers early by inculcating brand loyalty towards The Statesman at a young age. For this he needed a youth magazine and to start it, he got hold of another Britisher—Desmond Doig.
At that time, Desmond was doing a number of things. He was a roving reporter. He was on a freewheeling assignment through India doing what he wanted. He used to head towards Nepal quite often. He was with Sir Edmund Hillary on the famous yeti-hunting expedition of 1960-61. And around the time JS was being thought of, he was doing a book of sketches on Calcutta
Desmond was the perfect choice for JS. He was the ultimate renaissance man. He could paint as well as he could write as well as he could design. He did a number of things with equal fluency. He was a charming raconteur and a wit. He had a degree of humanity and compassion about him that drew people to him and with which he bound the magazine and all who worked in it with hoops of loyalty.
I was the first to join JS, in the sense that I was the first to join the team that brought out JS. I met Desmond for the first time in the corridors of the Statesman building. I was then a management trainee and ‘in circulation’, wandering around from floor to floor when I saw this florid Englishman who stopped me and said, “I say, do you know anyone who would like to help me to start a youth magazine?
“Do you know anyone else who would be interested?”
And I thought of Papa Menon who had started a magazine in college—St Xavier’s, Calcutta. So, Papa was second in. I also wanted my best friend who I thought was a brilliant writer because we had written a book of poems together. This was Jug Suraiya.
Jug used to drink late into the night and get up equally late, which obviously was not good enough for us. So I conspired with his mother to get him to work with us. Jug thus became first a reluctant, then a very enthusiastic, member of the JS. That was the original JS team: Desmond, Papa, Jug and myself.
We used to operate out of Desmond’s room. In fact the first issue was brought out of this office. Even afterwards, we would still meet in that office but it so happened that we ended up eating all of Desmond’s lunch and he began getting thinner. So he asked for a larger space and we got a mezzanine floor in the Statesman building, an area soon to be filled with the most remarkable talent that Calcutta and India had to offer, bringing out a magazine the like of which has not been seen since.
When we first started out, Desmond was in his mid-40s and the rest of us just out of college in our 20s. The initial issues after we began publishing in February 1967 were aimed at a much younger audience—10 to 12-year-olds. This was in keeping with the dictates of Evan Charlton but Desmond soon changed its course and in about six months, we were bringing out the magazine people remember as JS. Desmond wanted a magazine for the young, about the young, by the young and that is what it turned out to be.
In a sense, JS was a coming of age of Indian youth, a joining of hands across many oceans, an anthem of the young all over the world wanting to be heard. It was the time when Marshal Macluhan was talking about the global village. It is no coincidence that JS came out at the same time the Rolling Stone began publishing in the US, the same time Melody Maker started coming out in England, the time when Time-Out happened in London. There was a renaissance of youthful ideas the world over and JS was there at the right time.
The late 60s urban Indian society was made up of children and adults. There was nothing in between. We, at JS, invented the Indian teenager, and it’s an invention that has lasted all these years. This is the ‘khadi curtain’ age we’re talking about, a time when India was completely insulated from the outside world. We were the first vehicle to go global and were constantly accused of being pro-Western or bringing in ‘disgusting’ Western influences.
Those were very restrictive days. Partition was still a fresh memory. We’d just got rid of the British and here was a Britisher who was leading a magazine that was immensely popular and immensely outspoken. A magazine that said that jeans were all right, that the teenager had a place in society outside the family; a magazine that preached fun and preached identity, and everyone we were aiming at accepted that, but like I said, there was also rearguard action against us. It was a difficult time in that respect but it was also a joyous time.
We were addressing ourselves to those who had aspirations beyond their milieu, not necessarily a Western milieu but something beyond their immediate background. We began by appealing to the intellectual young person and then eventually to the intellectual in the young person to whom we said: “Look! There is more to life than mere studies. Studies do have a purpose but only to help you achieve many facets of what we’re writing about.” And we certainly covered a lot of ground. We wrote about science, we wrote about Mother Teresa, we wrote about Sir Edmund Hillary, adventure in Africa, the great outdoors, everything under the sun. That is where the magazine’s intellectual and physical sustenance came from: variety and a constant search for newness.
For example, in my field, which was music, we would review the very latest from the West. We were the first in India to put the then ground-breaking Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s on the cover and review it extensively. We got opinions from authorities in America and England and India. Among other things, we looked at the whole big band thing that had come in. And when flower power arrived, we were there writing about it.
But JS was anything but escapist. We represented the mass, not a subsection of the youth. Take the example of drugs. Those were times when doing drugs was really hep, but apart from the occasional pot smoked, no one at JS was really into drugs. It was firmly grounded in reality. But there was a difference—it was projecting into the future. Look at the last JS cover (shown on the cover of this magazine). That is what the Indian teenager looks like today, but we put him on the cover back in the 70s.
We were fortune-telling in a way. And it affected a lot of people, not only our original target audience of the middle classes. There was a trickle-down effect, or trickle-up effect, depending on how you looked at it. We discovered that each magazine was read by seven people at least. Desmond used to say that JS was a magazine for the young of all ages, and so it was. We had letters to the editor even from grandmothers and grandfathers.
We were breaking new territory, and our only influence was in fact, what people
accused us of, the West. To keep in touch with what was happening in the rest of the world, we had every possible magazine coming to us and we saw all kinds of films, both Western and Indian. But we adapted the ideas to Indian tastes. Even then we were far ahead of time.
Take the kind of stories we did. C.Y. Gopinath was the man on the street. He did incredible things. He used to dress up in different guises and write about his experiences. Once he dressed up as a sheikh, went to Bombay and bribed a hospital into emptying itself on the promise that he would fill it up with his relatives. He actually wrote about it.
Papa Menon was also a trenchant street reporter. He started a very good series called “We Took 10” and he’d take 10 filmmakers or 10 Naxalites or 10 whatever and do short interviews with them. Nondon Bagchi did something similar. We had contributors from all over. Anurag Mathur and Sunil Sethi covered Delhi. Ivan Costa, who now writes in Canada, did Bombay as the chief there before I took over. I, of course, did a rock column and other articles.
We did not stick to the same thing only, however. I did music but that did not stop me from interviewing Mother Teresa. Desmond saw to it. That was his way of grooming us into being writers as against subject-oriented specialists. We were writers. We were that rare breed.
Desmond’s compassion was incredible. Jug wanted to go to London and when he did get there, Desmond kept him writing from there even while he was doing his own thing. Amongst other things, Jug worked at Harrod’s but he was writing for JS all the time.
When it was my turn in London, I worked for the advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, but I also did articles for JS from there. This was the way we travelled and saw the places we wanted to see. It was all through Desmond we got to these places and once there, he opened doors for us.
Our editorial meetings were full of laughter, full of fun. These were held in Desmond’s office. Ideas were thrown around and knocked down by each other. Of course, Desmond had the right of veto, but he seldom used it. What he did in fact do was elaborate the idea. Say, one said, ‘Let’s do London very soon’. He’d say, ‘Sure but remember we have to cover Carnaby Street in London’. Or, ‘Let’s do fashion’. Then someone else would say, ‘In that case we must do San Francisco, and a flower power issue.’ Stories evolved in that way.
That was how Desmond worked. He encouraged you. He made you sound terrific and moulded you until in the end he didn’t have to read anyone’s article.
I remember my first article. I was fresh out of English honours in college, and I thought I was wonderful. I thought there was nothing for me to learn and it was just this magazine that I was just going to write for. My first assignment was to interview Satyajit Ray, a calm and helpful genius he turned out to be. I came back, wrote the article and flounced into Desmond’s office and said, “Here it is!” I thought it was a masterpiece, Pulitzer Prize material. Desmond read it and said, “This is very good, la”—Desmond called everyone ‘la’, the Tibetan honorific—”Change the first paragraph a bit.” So I changed the first paragraph. “Now change the second paragraph.” I had to re-write that article 32 times.
Jug used to do a very popular column called “Rear Window”. It was a think piece for young people with discussions on Sartre, Nietzsche and others, but told in Jug’s inimitable way. Desmond once asked me, “La, why does he use such big words?” I said because that’s what Jug does. And that was that.
One can say he did not teach, and if he did it was by example, because he himself was writing for papers like the National Geographic and Time-Life, and we’d read him and we’d learn.
JS was Camelot. It was Shangrila. Nothing like it has ever happened since. When it was forced to close down, we all regretted the passing of that bright and shining moment—the crumbling of a dream.
The original idea of creating brand loyalty towards The Statesman, then still going strong, obviously was not working. The people who grew up with JS wanted something bright and wonderful and by no means would the JS crowd ever be drawn to The Statesman, which is a fuddy-duddy paper. I think the closest that’s come to what the JS grown-up would read is The Times of India as it has become now, or The Asian Age.
But that was not the reason JS closed, and neither did it have anything to do with economics although that was the story given out. The magazine was doing very well and it was growing. Its circulation of 60,000 at that time was a huge figure. The amount of time it took to print the magazine was so long that from a weekly, we made it a fortnightly in 1976.
What actually happened, and I can place it on record now since Desmond is no more, was that Cushroo Irani had taken over as managing editor of The Statesman (he still owns it) and he couldn’t stand Desmond’s growing fame. Desmond, in the meantime while with the JS, had written the book specially commissioned by Collins Books, Mother Teresa: Her Work and Her People, which helped Mother Teresa get the Nobel Peace Prize. It was rushed out into Swedish first, but she missed that year and got it the next. The book became a bestseller (although Desmond did not make a single paisa from it because he donated it all to The Statesman).
Cushroo became more and more envious of Desmond, thinking he was a one-man personality cult. This was far from true. Desmond wouldn’t ever take credit for anything. It was always “we chaps” who did that. To justify the closure, JS had to be shown losing money and this was achieved by the phenomenal inter-departmental rates The Statesman press charged for printing the magazine.
It happened all at once, the shutdown. Most of us wrote rude letters to Cushroo Irani before leaving. Some time ago he was after Gopinath to try and start something like JS, and Gopinath’s reply was expectedly to the effect “F… off”.
After JS closed down, it did not occur to us to start something similar elsewhere. Desmond thought we were the world’s oldest teenagers and we didn’t want to do that anymore. It was time to move on. So we went into designing and things like that. We designed books. Some from the JS team moved to Kathmandu. Desmond had always loved Kathmandu and the Gurkhas, he was an ex-British Gurkha officer. Utpal was our business manager, Desmond’s business manager, and he found us lots of work and we lived happily ever after in Kathmandu.
Desmond believed that reincarnation was people talking about those who had departed. If that is true, JS lives on.
The Family JS
JS people had Calcutta ties but there were also people from all over India writing for us. India was represented right across the board, but it was a different kind of India—a younger, brighter, international India.
There were people like C.Y. Gopinath, and there was Deb Mahnalobis, who used to bunk his school, La Martiniere, to come and paint for us. There was Ratan Pradhan, and there was Louis Godhino who did psychedelic painting. Deb is now settled and very famous in the US. Louis is in Dubai with his own design studio. There was Shadon Banerjee, nicknamed Charlie. He was Desmond’s deputy—a short, round, tubby fellow who always looked very happy. There was a girl called Julie de Santos who used to come in and hand him articles for a column called “Just Fings”. They fell in love and got married and she is now Julie Banerjee and they are both in Australia, and Charlie is working in a very senior position in a newspaper there.
There was Nondon Bagchi, who was a drummer for a band as well as a brilliant writer. He is now with yet another band and teaches mathematics. There was Anurag Mathur who was a regular contributor. He has since written books and articles. His first book was a very wry look at America, The Inscrutable Americans. Sunil Sethi was our Delhi bureau chief. Sunil now has his own television programme.
There was young M.J. Akbar who used to contribute a lot and many years later, returned the favour by asking Desmond, when he was living in Kathmandu, to contribute to The Telegraph and Sunday, which Akbar was editing. And now he has asked me too to contribute to his present paper The Asian Age.
Kofi Annan’s right hand, Shashi Tharoor, was another regular. Shashi’s father was the advertising manager for The Statesman. Shashi was still very young when he started a series with a character called Reginald Bellows who was a spy, and Jug used to edit him. I was in New York last year and I rang Shashi’s office up and his secretary told me he was on a long-distance line and asked who was speaking. I said, “Reginald Bellows.” Shashi dropped the other line at once and spoke to me. There was a bonding that still exists among JS people.
There were people like Taiyab Badshah who is now a famous photographer in Bombay. Patranobis, who is now the chief photographer of The Statesman. Another photographer, Raghu Rai, is, of course, more well-known.
Utpal Sengupta joined as writer-cum-head of the then fledgling JS design studio. Utpal was a go-getter and he got us various accounts. We got movie publicity advertising and poster designing. The “Heera Panna” and the “Ishk, Ishk, Ishk” posters were done by us. We designed shirts. The JS design studio even designed and executed the coronation of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan. We did the collateral for the coronation of the present king of Nepal and devoted an issue of JS to the festivities.
Today Utpal is vice-president of the Shangrila Group of Companies in Kathmandu, and just recently designed the Shangrila Village in Pokhara. One would like to think there is a little of Desmond in him.
JS was revolutionary in many other ways. Besides the JS studio, we used to have what were called JS happenings all over India where film stars for example would come and perform for us. People such as Rajesh Khanna and the young Amitabh Bachchan would fly over and do skits, dance, songs. Or we’d have a vintage car rally or stage an original play. They were all, all, JS happenings.
In the magazine itself, we had Zeenat Aman writing a column for us, a sort of agony-aunt column. Simi did a beauty column and Rekha did something else. It was a very full paper. The masthead said it was a magazine that thinks young and that is what we strove for. Our layout artist was Ratan Pradhan and between he and Desmond, they made sure that the layout contained as much movement as possible, to reflect the content.
There was Bimal and Nikhil. Nikhil used to work with Desmond in The Statesman drawing advertisements. Bimal was a brilliant artist who came to Kathmandu after JS folded up. Desmond, Utpal, Kalyan and I designed Malla Hotel and Hotel Shangrila. The whole renaissance man thing cannot be removed from Desmond.
Then there was the larger JS family which had in it people like Indira Gandhi, Edmund Hillary, Mother Teresa and singer Ajit Singh and a host of others who all supported us morally even after JS closed down. They kept an eye on us, looked after us, mentored us.
Working with Desmond we all became mentor-oriented in two senses of the word. We searched for mentors and in our own strange ways, we became mentors. Jug, for example, mentors (which is a new management term) the editorial page people of The Times of India. In a way, his mentor is Sameer Jain, owner of The Times of India, who he thinks is a genius. I myself have found unconditional acceptance and love which I reciprocate to the Laris who own the Everest Hotel in Kathmandu where I work and where I have a small department of sales people to whom I am devoted to and try and mentor. And so it moves through all of us. Shashi Tharoor mentoring the whole of the UN….
Some years ago was published My Kind of Kath-mandu, Desmond’s tribute to the city where he lived the last years of his life. There are still 150 Desmond watercolours waiting to be made into a book on Delhi, the working title of which is These Moving Stones, named so because one city of Delhi gave way to build another city. There are still Desmond’s sketches of Goa, and there is still Desmond’s biography to be told. There is still the possibility of someone bringing out another JS for another millennium. In that sense, JS will live on, as it does in the minds of the generation that moves and shakes India today.
Legends like the JS don’t die, they rest, only to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of our memory.