By Sudeep Sonawane
November 14, 2002
Mumbai Mail’s editorial office was quiet except for the staccato of journalists typing on computer keyboards. Vasant Dev entered the sports department with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Ricky Burman ignored him and continued rewriting the headline for an agency report. Barcelona Football Club’s 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League match elated him. He made a special effort to design the broadsheet news page well on the computer.
As the newspaper’s freelance journalist, Dev fetched scoresheets of cricket tournaments conducted by the Bombay Cricket Association at different grounds in the city. Journalists called such freelancers ‘Runners’. Runners rushed from one ground to another and fetched scores of schools, university, corporate and division cricket tournaments.
The Runner’s salt and pepper moustache on a pockmarked face gave him a stern ‘don’t mess-with-me’ disposition. His medium built, rotund paunch and a baldhead diluted this edge, giving an overall average look. Further, his natural grumpy expression confirmed a foul temper. A carnal man without scruples and no university education, the Runner knew how to survive in a competitive city. His contacts and access to cricket officials helped him hold on to his job at the newspaper.
Dev chased expensive habits for a man with limited known sources of income. He smoked and drank the best brands of cigarettes and spirits. His accessories included French and Italian designer satchels, shoes, and wallet. Some sports journalists envied him.
Burman detested Dev. The Runner epitomised a decadent character. His values and approach to life conflicted with Burman’s conscientious character. They hated each other. The Assistant Editor of Mumbai Mail sports often ignored Dev. He dealt with him tritely.
Burman saved the page on the computer. He removed his spectacles and gently rubbed his tired eyes. He was tired. He logged off his computer from the Local Area Network and headed to the refreshments’ lounge of the office.
Shernaz Mistry, working five cubicles away, saw Burman walking towards the tea-vending machine. Burman enamoured her. She sprang from her chair and rushed to the refreshments’ corner.
Burman smiled warmly as Shernaz joined him.
“How is your page progressing?” he asked.
“Well the usual routine… the G8 Summit… the GCC Foreign Minister’s conclave … the United Nations Panel on Climate Change is mulling the Kyoto Protocol….”
“Wow! You have a busy night! Planning a blitz on the world news pages?”
“Yes, providing the News Editor agrees with me.”
A Chief Copy Editor on the World News Desk, Shernaz worked fast on the computer. An attractive young woman she had the rare traits of humility, simplicity and intelligence. Bachelors of Mumbai Mail wooed her. They faced stiff competition from unhappily married senior journalists who flirted with her. She would often tease and ignore them. She liked Ricky’s quiet and reserved nature. Though amiable, he was a loner. He kept a discreet distance from colleagues and remained committed to work. These traits drew Shernaz towards him.
Burman watched Dev while Shernaz chattered. The Runner pompously bossed over office assistants and pretended to be busy. The cigarette continued to dangle from the corner of his mouth with half an inch-long ash. He did not worry about ash dropping on the keyboard as he painstakingly typed local league cricket results using his index fingers.
“The bald bandicoot will ruin yet another keyboard.”
“That twerp over there,” Ricky gestured.
Shernaz followed Ricky’s gaze and spotted Dev.
“Oooh, that guy! Sure, he is an oddball. Why do you hate him so much?”
“That fraudster should have no place in any newspaper. He gets salary to fetch scores and results for our newspaper, but he shamelessly makes copies of his reports and peddles them to our rivals.”
“I have heard this before, Ricky. If you cannot prevent such dubious colleagues from churning out rubbish, why do you fret over it? If the Sports Editor allows a swindler to thrive in a national daily like ours why should you bother? Just ignore him.”
“That’s what I have been doing all these years,” Ricky replied indignantly and tossed the disposable teacup into the garbage bin. “Okay, I’m going back to work.” He parted with Shernaz who lovingly squeezed his hand while walking away to her cubicle.
“I’ll see you later,” she cooed.
“Yes sure, bye,” replied Ricky.
Late in the evening, Mumbai Mail’s editorial floor bustled with activity. It was peak hour in office. City, political, business and sports reporters had returned from their respective assignments. The click-clack of keyboards dominated the general din. A cocktail of cigarette smoke engulfed the editorial room. Dev contributed substantially to the pollution. He had smoked four cigarettes since entering the office. It was his way of fighting stress. He found typing reports tedious because of his poor English language skills.
After struggling to complete the cricket report, Dev took out half a dozen prints and walked towards Ricky’s colleague who often helped him rewrite his poorly written reports. However, his friend too was busy editing a report. He waved away Dev and directed him to Ricky. Dev reluctantly approached the Assistant Editor.
“Emm… Ricky… err… here’s today’s Corporate Cricket Tournament report,” Dev mumbled, standing next to Burman’s desk. Dev hated standing next to a superior comfortably seated in a swivel chair. For a proud man, this act was below his dignity.
“Keep it in the tray,” Burman ordered without taking his eyes off the computer screen.
“Well… err… hmmm… I have given the headline…,” Dev said rather softly. Burman did not reply and continued working.
“Please see the report,” the Runner said, puffing his cigarette. He stood for a few moments and then slowly slinked away.
Burman hated Dev’s habit of moving around in office with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wondered why Mumbai Mail’s management did not ban smoking when most companies strictly enforced the rule and set up separate smoking rooms.
Half an hour later Burman turned his attention to Dev’s report. He had written poorly. The scores mentioned in his report did not tally with the scoreboard. He cursed the Runner and started rewriting the report.
Ten minutes later the report was complete. He pondered for a few seconds and noticed something amiss. He compared his version with Dev’s printout. The Runner’s report read strange. He had brazenly buried the best match of the day and highlighted a pharmaceutical company in the first few paragraphs although its first innings performance was ordinary. Dev had daringly named the company in the headline.
The Runner had violated an unwritten code of ethics followed by sports journalists. Most editors followed the norm of featuring the best match or news of the day in the first two paragraphs of the report and giving an attention-arresting headline.
This man is surely up to something, Burman thought. What is his motive? Featuring the pharmaceutical company in the headline is obviously not in order. Burman thought for a while, trying to recall where he had read the company’s name.
He picked an edition of Mumbai Mail and turned to the business pages. In the company briefs section he noticed the bold font the headline ‘Sanders Pharma stocks rally’. He read the report and noted the firm’s annual general meeting of shareholders was due in three weeks. Somebody was on an image building drive ahead of the AGM, he thought. He chuckled as the picture became clearer in his mind.
Suddenly, Burman seemed upbeat. He knew he had some material evidence to nail the Runner. The Runner’s ability to set up networks within the paper’s business section surprised him. He quickly edited the report he had re-written and named the batsman who had scored a double century in the headline, replacing Dev’s headline. After working for some more time, he switched off his computer for the day. He packed and waved out to Shernaz. She gestured ‘I’ve finished my page’.
Shernaz and Ricky left the office and headed to the metro station. It was humid. They collected two juice cans from the vending machine at the concourse and walked towards the empty platforms. They boarded a north suburbs bound train and occupied seats next to the window. Burman washed his dry throat with three monstrous gulps of the juice while Shernaz sipped it leisurely. She watched him from the corner of her eye. She was shy and conscious whenever alone with him. She liked him a lot. She loved him, but she had never given him a hint. She would blush at the prospect of revealing her heart to him.
“Why are you quiet,” she asked softly.
There was no reply. Burman had slouched in his seat and dozed off with thoughts of bowling a bouncer to his quarry.
Dev looked horrified when he turned to the sports page of Mumbai Mail next morning. He turned pale when he read the headline ‘Shridhankar slams double century’ above his report. He was livid. He cursed Burman and gave vent to his ire on his wife. She ignored his ranting and went about her morning chores. Her silent defiance irritated him more. She served him breakfast comprising rice flakes fried with onions, potato, fresh coriander, green chilies sauce with tea and left him to grumble alone.
The Runner was upset. His head throbbed in pain. He took a paracetamol after breakfast and sank into the sofa. The phone rang while he mulled how to wriggle out from the mess. He answered the phone, but did not speak much except ‘hello’, ‘yes I know and ‘I don’t know how this has happened…’ ‘this has not happened earlier.’ After a couple of minutes, he hung up and cursed.
The caller was Sanders Pharma’s Public Relations Officer. Dev had struck a deal with him to highlight the company’s name and cricketers’ photographs in various newspapers, specially Mumbai Mail that had daily print-order above 800,000 copies. The PRO scolded Dev for bungling when his company keenly looked for publicity in the media. He hated people ticking him off. His headache worsened. He was a worried man. He closed his eyes and pressed his temples. He fell asleep on the sofa after a few minutes.
The editorial office of Mumbai Mail was quiet in the afternoon. The PRO of Sanders Pharma walked towards the sports department where Burman sat. The visitor cleared his throat to draw the Assistant Editor’s attention.
“Hello Sir, I’m from Sanders Pharma,” said the middle-aged executive introducing himself.
“Yes? How can I help you?” replied Burman.
“Err… hmmm… well… I don’t know how to begin. Err… Could we go out and talk Mister…?”
“Burman… I’m Ricky Burman, Assistant Editor, Sports, Mumbai Mail.”
“Yes, could we go out somewhere?” he repeated and hesitated for a moment, “… to some restaurant where we can talk freely.”
Burman was curious. “There is no problem talking here. You can talk freely. Please sit.”
“Thank you, but there’s no privacy in these open cubicles.”
Burman dispelled his visitor’s fears and said, “Please go ahead and ask whatever you want to.” He then discreetly switched on the digital recorder placed in his shirt pocket.
“Well Mr Burman, I think it is unfair when somebody promises to do some work and does not keep his word.”
“I agree, but I do not see your reference to the context.” The PRO’s prevarication intrigued him.
‘The truth, Mr Burman, is I have been honouring my part of the deal, but your department is not co-operating, I’m sorry to point this to you.”
“I still don’t understand you,” said Burman, irritated by his visitor’s hedging. “Please come to the point.”
“Well, one of your colleagues, Mr Dev, had assured me that our company’s name would prominently figure in the headlines of your newspaper. You see, our cricketers need support and publicity in the Press.”
“You mean corporate image building exercise for your company?”
Burman grasped what the PRO was trying to tell to him for the last five minutes. He had a hunch, when the PRO introduced himself.
“How much did you pay Mr Dev?”
The blunt question unsettled the PRO. He shifted in his chair. Sweat beads appeared on his brow. He was in a quandary.
“Do we have to go into the finer details? I think you would know the amount involved.”
“No, I don’t know and neither do my colleagues.”
The PRO looked surprised. He squirmed further in the chair.
“I have given gift vouchers worth Rs 50,000 and six complimentary tickets for one week’s stay at Taj Goa to him. I regularly pick up Mr Dev’s cheque for his binges at the Press Club for the last two years. Press Club bills are high. You know this. Mr Dev splurges when he entertains journalists at our expense.”
“Yes I’m aware of it.”
“Mr Dev often mentioned he had the responsibility of looking after the needs of the sports department.”
Burman was furious. He always doubted Dev’s integrity, but a chicanery where one pockets the money and names others as beneficiaries shocked him.
“Dev has fooled you, but it does not exonerate you. You encouraged a corrupt practice and promoted unethical journalism. How could you assume all journalists are open to corruption? Your actions could jeopardise the careers and sully reputations of upright journalists. Dev has made all of us suckers, do you realise this?” Burman said, raising the pitch of his voice.
“I’m sorry,” the PRO said wiping the sweat off his brow.”
“You better be.”
“But Mr Burman… entertainment of clients is an accepted practice in the corporate world.”
“I agree with entertainment, NOT bribery. I hope you understand the difference between the two. Now please leave my office and don’t ever do any dubious deals with Dev. He could cause you much trouble.
The embarrassed PRO left quickly. Burman switched off the recorder, rewound it, and punched the Editor-in-Chief’s extension number on his desk telephone.
Later that evening, Dev entered Mumbai Mail with a plan of action. He had decided to type his report and then confront Burman. He settled in his chair, switched on the computer, lighted a cigarette and took out his notebook and score sheets. He had typed the dateline when the office boy walked up to him and said, “Saab, the Chief Editor’s secretary wants to see you now.”
The Runner forgot his problems for a moment. Eager to collect his pay cheque, he rushed to meet the secretary. She handed him an envelope with a somber look. The envelope seemed thicker this time, Dev felt.
He opened it on way the back to his table. He smiled after reading the amount. It was substantial. Then he saw the pink slip and a letter. His countenance fell as he read it. He sat staring at the computer screen. After a few moments, he put his notebook and accessories in the satchel and quietly left the office. The screen saver on his computer showed a visual of a batsman’s middle stump uprooted by the ball.
Burman watched Dev leave the office for the last time. He got up from his chair and waved to Shernaz. He made a T sign with his hands. Her face sparkled and she rushed to join her heartthrob at the refreshment’s corner.
“I have breaking-news for you, dear,” said Burman, handing Shernaz a cup of tea.