If there is one thing Dileep Padgaonkar probably enjoyed even more than a finely written book or article, it was crab curry rice and tisrya (clams) at Anant Ashram, a quaint little restaurant in Mumbai’s Kotachi Wadi that served authentic Goan Saraswat cuisine, The restaurant closed a few years ago; now the man who gave me my first full time job is also no more.
It was Padgaonkar who offered me the post of an assistant editor at The Times of India in October 1988. I had just returned from Oxford and had begun practising law in the Bombay high court but was feeling a little disoriented. On a whim, I approached Mr Padgaonkar through a common journalist friend to ask if I could write for the TOI. He went a step further and made me an assistant editor in Mumbai. The Girilal Jain era was drawing to a close and the TOI was looking to effect a generation change, or so I was told. Not everything changed at the Old Lady of Boribunder, but few will deny that Padgaonkar brought a new energy to the paper when he took over.
He was, like Girilal and many TOI editors before him, a man of ideas and intellect. But he wasn’t a prisoner of the past. He could expound on French philosophy and literature, would nostalgically recall the student unrest in Paris in the late 1960s where he first earned his spurs as a foreign correspondent, and would debate Isaiah Berlin’s latest essay, but he didn’t allow the rarefied world of books to isolate himself from the whirl of news. News excited him and made him less of an ivory tower editor than many of his predecessors. He was the classic liberal, a believer in the values of free speech and individual freedoms, someone who allowed contrary views to be expressed on the editorial page without demur. Those were exciting times in the country: the Mandal and Mandir agitations were threatening to expose fault lines in the Indian polity. Padgaonkar showed the ability to navigate the Times of India through a difficult period by stressing on the values of tolerance and mutual respect for contrarian ideas. The Times of India under Padgaonkar was a sheltering umbrella where civilised dialogue was possible. Which other paper would have accepted diverse views like Swapan Dasgupta, Arvind Das, Chandan Mitra, Praful Bidwai, Achin Vanaik under one editorial roof so readily?
His period as editor of The Times of India was also one where the balance of power seemed to slowly shift away from editorial to marketing. Padgaonkar was troubled by it but didn’t allow the change to affect the core editorial independence of the newspaper. The editorial page remained sacrosanct. And when he seemed to lose the battle, he withdrew to his refined world of books, helping set up the wonderful book review magazine Biblio. He was committed to the idea of a plural, multi-faith India, a commitment that led him to lead a team of interlocutors in Kashmir. His report on Kashmir sadly gathers dust: if acted upon, it might help rebuild trust in a blood soaked valley.
At a personal level, he was a friend and mentor. He was often accused of being partial to me, perhaps a legacy of our shared Maharashtrian Goan genes and fondness for food. But what he truly provided me and many other young journalists was the space and opportunity to discover our talents. That he allowed a young man of 23 to write for the edit page, made me the city editor of the TOI’s largest edition at 26, and encouraged me to report on the big stories of our times suggested a willingness to repose confidence in the young in a hierarchical set up where it wasn’t always easy to break the glass ceilings. I shall never forget how after our coverage of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, he sent me a simple message: ‘proud of you’. And even now when he saw a television programme he liked, he would sms to convey appreciation: it was the mark of a more graceful and genteel world that Padgaonkar inhabited.
Along with my resident editor Darryl D’Monte and the legendary cartoonist RK Laxman, Padgaonkar made me fall in love with journalism and the sight and smell of a newspaper. Last year, the redoubtable Laxman passed away. Now, Dileep (he shared a name with my father, only they spelt it differently) is also gone. Both passed away in Pune, a city they had made their home in retirement. Suddenly, I feel even older than I am. Thank you Dileep for all you gave me as a person and professional. And yes, the crab curry is waiting for you in heaven!