A pre-degree drop-out boy from the Araya community of Alappuzha who rubbed shoulders with Communist veterans like TV Thomas during the first assembly elections of Kerala, P Viswa Nathan (PVN) left for Delhi soon after the CPI formed the first government in the state. There he was associated with a couple of publications before moving out of India. PVN then moved on to become the editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Standard, the first journalist from Kerala to become the editor of a foreign English newspaper - a position which was held only by Caucasians till then. His journey is exciting for any Malayali to follow as his readings and experiences led him to various paths. This former acquaintance of VS Achuthanandan is however no longer a Communist sympathiser.
Here is the story of PVN.
Viswa Nathan was born on October 19, 1937, in the coastal village of Vattayal in Alappuzha to a middle-class landed family belonging to the Araya fishing community (now Dheevara). The village was a mixed community of Arayas, Ezhavas, Roman Catholics, and a few Muslims. His mother, Karthyayani, passed away when he was just about one-and-a-half years old. Since then, he and his older sister Vijayamma have been in the care of their maternal grandparents Vava and Chakkiyamma. During his birth, as the story goes, a man with occult powers predicted that the mother and the child would not live more than two years together.
Vava, known as 'Parampan' in the locality because of the landed properties he owned, was well-read in Malayalam, respected, and regarded as an elder in the neighbourhood. He compelled and motivated PVN to read vividly, which opened the young mind to the world events from an early stage. 'In my primary school days, I was an avid reader. My grandfather subscribed to a daily newspaper called 'Prabhatham,' published from Kollam, and later 'Kerala Kaumudi' published from Thiruvananthapuram, and the weekly magazine called 'Kaumudi Varika', to be delivered home. He would compel me to read them aloud after our evening meal, mainly for me to gain reading proficiency,' he said.
Along with reading newspapers, his interest in current affairs also grew. The struggle for independence, the Diwan rule of Travancore and the changes in copra and coconut oil prices which his grandfather kept track of became his favourite subjects. During school holidays, Vava made him read the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita and explained them to him. He also attended Kathakali performances and classical music performances with his grandfather. They often walked miles to attend such events.
After completing primary school, PVN was enrolled at Leo XIII English High School, which comprised Form 1 to Form 6, and was for boys. The Latin Catholic school held a half-hour catechism (religious education) class for Catholic students before regular classes began. Although not a Christian, PVN often attended this, sitting on a back bench, to understand Christianity and the Bible. For the annual celebration of the school chapel, non-Catholic students were given the day off, but he would join his Catholic classmates to decorate the chapel and the ground for the religious procession.
Despite all this, PVN gained displeasure of the school management. They were unhappy with his interest in political affairs and attending political rallies. He used to attend political rallies of all parties, be it Congress, Communists, Socialists, out of curiosity. When he was completing his fourth year at Leo XIII, the headmaster, a priest, asked him to stop this or find another school for his further studies. As he was not ready to compromise on it, he shifted to Thiruvambady English High School, a co-ed school owned by the Nair Service Society (NSS). He was just about 14 years old then. Interest in current affairs or art did not make PVN a lazy student. He cleared all classes and completed SSLC two years later from Thiruvanbady school with flying colours. He then applied to SD College in Alappuzha.
The love of Malayali parents for 'science subjects' dates back to the 1950s 1940s at least, it seems. PVN wanted to learn history and economics, but his father insisted on joining the science stream for pre-degree. His father, Padmanabhan, had little interaction with the children until he resigned from the British Indian Army at the end of the Second World War and returned to his parental home in Ambalapuzha. PVN was in his teens by then.
Two. The Communist.
In 1947, when India gained independence, PVN was ten years old and in Class 5 at Vattayal Primary School. By then, the Communist Party had developed a foothold in Travancore, then ruled by Sri Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma with Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer acting as his Diwan (chief administrator). Alappuzha and nearby Cherthala were communist hotbeds. The communists wanted the Diwan to be replaced by a directly elected ministry. They raised the slogan 'Divanupakaram Janakeeya Mantri' (A people's representative instead of a Diwan). Iyer was not ready to join the Indian state and wanted to create a separate country like Pakistan while the Communists organised an armed struggle against it. The young PVN used to shout the slogans of the Communists, running around his home, without knowing its political significance.
The historical Punnapra-Vayalar revolt that took the lives of at least 1,000 communists took place in 1946. As a nine-year-old primary school student, he had seen communist cadres and sympathisers, mostly fishermen and toddy-tappers, sharpen bamboo and coconut timber into spears and sharpen large chopping knives near the beach, just a short walk from his home. PVN also witnessed police arresting suspected communists and beating them up in front of their family members, before taking them away to prison. The torture they suffered did not make him a communist sympathiser as he was still observing and learning, and reading fiction and poetry, PVN says.
Sabarimala temple witnessed the largest contingent of pilgrims that year as many men-members of the Communist Party or sympathisers-afraid of police arresting them, entered the ritual of observance, including growing their beards, for the Sabarimala pilgrimage, he recalls. "When my homeland, Travancore, which resisted joining the independent Indian union for two years, finally gave in and became a part of India in 1949 and later amalgamated with neighbouring Cochin and became the Travancore-Cochin state of India, I, then 12 years old, went to see a Congress Party political rally. Someone then gave me a small flag of the Congress, the tri-color with a charka as the emblem. I brought it and fixed it above the entrance to our home, at the brim of the thatched roof. It stayed there for a long time," PVN says.
However, he was soon to shift ideology. He used to read fiction from the nearby public library where he would spend the lunch hour during school days. His father, who had returned after the Second World War, began taking an interest in him. One day, he saw PVN reading Malayalam fiction. He, a man with a college education, then asked him, rather angrily, why he was wasting time his reading such 'garbage'. The following weekend, he gave PVN a book written by K Damodaran, a communist ideologue. Titled 'Manushyan' (human), it was about the Marxist view of the origin of mankind and its development up to Marxism. However, PVN's father was not a communist.The book aroused the curiosity of young PVN who had until then believed until then that God had created the universe. He used to go to a temple every morning because the man who predicted the death of his mother had told his grandma to make sure he prayed at a Siva temple every morning. After reading 'Manushyan', he began reading more Marxist literature like 'What's Marxism'.
Upon joining college, he got involved with the Student Federation (SF), the earlier form of SFI. However, it was not because of ideological affinity, but because some of his friends were SF members. Later, PVN would accompany his friends one day to a special meeting for new SF members in which he met VS Achuthanandan, the then-secretary of the undivided CPI's Alappuzha Taluk Committee. VS would later become the chief minister of Kerala in 2006. PVN formed a special acquaintance with VS, who would come every week to talk to the new comrades of SF. "These 'study classes' reminded me of the catechism class in my early days at Leo XIII - both were for indoctrination," says PVN.
As PVN was forced to take up science, he failed the intermediate exam at SD College and dropped out of college. He was 17 years old then. The following year, he applied to join their community society, Araya Jana Sangham. The day he was admitted, PVN was also elected president of the Sangham, a position his grandfather also held. PVN also took part in activities the local committee of the Communist Party organised. During that period, whenever he went to the town, he would drop by the Communist Party's Taluk Committee office and meet VS. He was friendly and always ready to engage in talk, on the whole, a person one would like to be with, PVN recalls. Their friendship continued until he left Kerala. VS had become the district secretary of CPI by then.
Meanwhile, as president of the Sangham, PVN began addressing various community gatherings in the locality and nearby places and became noted for his eloquence. The Congress Party, which ruled Travancore-Cochin state, continued to rule Kerala when it was formed in 1956. "Over the years, the Congress had become deeply corrupt. Panampilly Govinda Menon, as chief minister of Travancore-Cochin, was accused of looting five-and-a-half lakh rupees from some sugar deal," says PVN. In 1957, the CPI decided to form a united front with left-leaning people to contest the assembly election. PVN, who was a local celebrity as the Sangham president and known for his speech skills, became a popular face during the election rallies of the CPI. He addressed several campaign rallies, some of them with top party leaders like TV Thomas, and PT Punnoose.
The party scored an astounding victory in the elections, paving the way for the first elected communist government in Asia, in the same year the first such government fell, in San Marino. After the Communist Party won the majority in the Kerala State Assembly with the support of five independent MLAs, including VR Krishna Iyer, PVN thought it was time for him to move on and pursue his dream. "Journalism, rather than politics, was my goal. I wanted to widen my horizons beyond Kerala and find an opportunity to learn and pursue journalism in a larger arena. New Delhi, I thought, was the best place for it," he says. The 20-year-old left Kerala for Jabalpur to live with his father for a year-and-a-half year period, before moving to New Delhi.
Three. The Career.
Arriving in New Delhi, Viswa Nathan met several Malayalis, including Achuthan, the office secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). However, it was a Bengali who gave PVN the first job. On the recommendation of Achuthan, Nikhil Chakravartty, who owned India Press Agency (IPA), recruited him. IPA, then just a few years old, issued daily a cyclostyled news bulletin, which a messenger riding on a bicycle will deliver to clients in New Delhi, mainly foreign embassies, foreign correspondents, and some institutions. Clients outside New Delhi will receive it by mail. Time-sensitive urgent news was sent to clients outside New Delhi by telegram. IPA was working from the IENS building which was located not far from the Parliament House.
The daily bulletin has to be typed on the stencil and then printed using hand-rolled duplicating equipment called Roneo. Fast and accurate typing was needed for this. PVN had learned touch typing while attending Thiruvampady High School and it came in handy as he could type English fast without mistakes. Soon that became his job as he replaced another Malayali, Polly Parackal from Angamali, who went back to his reporting role. PVN soon became a favourite of Nikhil as he did "anything needs to be done in the office." His knowledge in book-keeping made Nikhil to let him handle finances. PVN had learned bookkeeping from his father while he spent time with him in Jabalpur. PVN recalls Nikhil as caring and kind. Not long after he joined IPA, PVN's grandmother died. Nikhil gave him money to go home and spend some time with the grieving family. At that time, Nikhil had published a report on MO Mathai, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's private secretary, and his 'misdeeds'. It sent shockwaves in Delhi and forced Mathai to resign. Nikhil suspected there would be retaliation and that police would raid the IPA office. He telegraphed PVN to return to Delhi immediately. When he arrived in Delhi, Nikhil briefed him on the situation and assigned him to deal with any potential raid.
"Sure enough, the following morning four officers from the Special Branch knocked on IPA's door. Parliament was in session, and Nikhil and others were out either covering the Parliament session or chasing other stories. And I was alone in the office. I answered the door, and four men outside said they were from the government and had come to search the office. I asked them for the search warrant. One of them looked at me and asked if I was from Kerala. He too apparently was from Kerala. When I confirmed, he said he thought so, adding that 'you know the law?' I said that IPA is a news organisation, and we are expected to know our rights. They did not carry a court order to search.
"I told them to come back with a court order. They never returned," recalls PVN. Sometime later, Nikhil appointed PVN as the general manager. There was no journalism school then. Those who aspired to be a journalist would, often, start at the bottom, as a copy boy (taking copy from the reporter to the editor and from the editor to typesetters, etc.) to learn the ropes of journalism. Compared with that, PVN had an easier break. Even as general manager, he continued to type the daily bulletin on the stencil; and he learned a lot about news writing, by typing copies that Nikhil and others would write by hand. Occasionally PVN would attend press conferences to observe reporters asking questions. He once attended a press conference that Chief Minister EMS Namboodiripad held in early 1959 at Kerala House in New Delhi. He had just returned from meeting Nehru who was holidaying near Shimla while a Congress-backed 'liberation movement' (Vimochana Samaram) was going on in Kerala to topple the EMS government.
PVN recalls the moment:
"The first question at that press conference was from the correspondent of the Pakistan Times. He asked:
What did the Kashmiri Brahmin give the Kerala Brahmin?
EMS replied: The Kashmiri Brahmin gave the Kerala Brahmin a few things that Kerala Brahmins would not relish.
Sensing the political nuance in the question and the answer, an American reporter followed up.
'Could you please describe them?'
EMS continued: At our luncheon meeting, he gave me fish, mutton keema, Tandoori Chicken, and such dishes Kerala Brahmins do not relish, but I relished them all well."
Thunderous laughter erupted among the assembled reporters. And the conference moved on to political issues.'
Nikhil had given PVN many opportunities to meet national and political leaders. He would ask PVN to accompany him while meeting some foreign diplomats or such eminent people. They will talk and PVN will sit listening.
Sometimes, he would ask PVN to deliver a letter directly to a particular high-level person. Thus, he met then CPI secretary Ajoy Ghosh and several Communist MPs - each of them asked PVN into their home/office and talked for a while. Once Nikhil asked PVN to deliver a book to Vice-President Dr S Radhakrishnan, at his residence, with the instruction to hand over the book in person. Radhakrishnan was Nikhil's teacher at Oxford. When PVN arrived at the VP's house, security asked him to wait on the verandah. The VP came out, put his hand on PVN's shoulder, and led him to the living room asking him if he could speak in Tamil.
"He asked me to sit by his side on the same sofa. He talked with me for some fifteen minutes, asking about my background, and my plans in life. When I told him I did not have a college degree, he said that was not important. 'You will gain knowledge and improve your command of English by reading," and asked me to read books, magazines, newspapers, etc," says PVN.
When the Parliament was in session, Communist leader AK Gopalan would telephone the IPA. As all others are out covering news, PVN will answer the call, and AKG will dictate the question he asked in the Parliament and the answer received and would ask him to send a report to Kerala newspapers. PVN would write it into a news item and telegraph it to 'Deshabhimani', 'Janayugam', and 'Navalokam'. In 1962, PVN played a key role in setting up the distribution network for Nikhil's 'Mainstream' weekly. He travelled to many cities to appoint distribution agents.
Nikhil's close ties with PVN continued even after he went abroad. In 1966, when he began working with the Bangkok Post, Thailand's leading English-language daily newspaper then, KR Narayanan who would later become the president of India was appointed the Indian ambassador to Thailand. Soon after KR started his new assignment, PVN received a call from KR's office, inviting him to a meeting. When they met, KR said Nikhil had asked him to call PVN. That friendship remained long. When KR was ambassador in China and PVN was editor in chief of the Hong Kong Standard they would talk occasionally on the phone.
When 'Mainstream' started going and its circulation began growing, Prof KP Karunakaran (KPK) of Delhi University asked PVN to join VK Madhavankutty ((of Mathrubhumi) whom PVN had known for long, and others to help Krishna Menon launch a magazine. Besides being a university professor, KPK, who hailed from Ottapalam, was a left-leaning intellectual and a short-story writer. They were good friends. PVN was then feeling uncomfortable with an investor in 'Mainstream' which made him take the call. Certainly, Nikhil was unhappy about it. PVN told Nikhil that it was best for both of them if he kept the financial partner and let PVN go. Krishna Menon's venture, 'The Century' weekly, was patterned after the British weekly New Statesman. PVN was appointed Century's publisher. As such, he focused on building the distribution network. The magazine had a strong literary section focused on books and book reviews. PVN occasionally wrote for this section, particularly book reviews under a pseudonym.
Krishna Menon who wrote all the political commentary never visited the office. Throughout his journey in the Century, PVN never got a chance to meet Krishna Menon. They met in Hong Kong in the late 1960s when PVN was working as a sub-editor with the Hong Kong Standard. PVN was also close to journalist and writer MP Narayana Pillai, fondly called Nanappan by his friends, since the time Pillai arrived in Delhi. Nanappan's relative, MP Gopalan (brother of Marxist thinker P Govinda Pillai and brother-in-law of former chief minister PK Vasudevan Nair), was also with IPA as a researcher and librarian. When Pillai arrived in Delhi, Gopalan was preparing to leave for Hong Kong. He introduced Pillai to PVN and they became close friends, a relation they maintained till Pillai passed away in Bombay.
They also shared the MP quarters of PKV with a bunch of others for a couple of years. Writer Kakkanadan was also part of their group then, though he lived separately in a nearby apartment allocated to his brother-in-law, P Solomon, MP.
Five. The Journalist.
After spending seven years in Delhi in managerial and marketing roles in media organisations, PVN knew it was time to move on and realise his dream of becoming a full-time journalist. He had already acquired good experience in all fields of the industry. MP Gopalan who was the researcher and librarian at IPA had gone to Hong Kong where he had a relative at the time. Gopalan eventually joined the Far Eastern Economic Review as its production editor and later became one of its assistant editors. So, PVN began pressing Gopalan to find an opportunity for him in Hong Kong.
Gopalan moved from the Review to Asia Magazine, a weekly publication that went with the Sunday edition of various newspapers in Asia. Gopalan introduced PVN to the Review team. It was a life changing moment for him. PVN's life as a journalist began developing only after he arrived in Hong Kong in January 1965 and joined the Far Eastern Economic Review as a production editor and also in charge of special supplements besides keeping an eye on developments in India; occasionally, writing an article.
In the same year, at a social meeting, he met Flavia, a Chinese girl. She was working as a secretary in a trading firm. They became friends, began dating, and eventually, married. She was born in China, in the Guangdong Province bordering Hong Kong. Her family left China in the late 1940s, during the civil war when she was two years old. Thus, she grew up in Hong Kong as a refugee. Their marriage broke up some 12 years later. Flavia then moved to Canada while their two children, Soma, and Leela, stayed with PVN in Hong Kong until adulthood. They have since emigrated to Canada. Soma, now 54, is an airline pilot and Leela (52) is a wealth management consultant.
In mid-1966, Syed Mohammad Ali, who was the Pakistan Times correspondent in China and Hong Kong, joined the Bangkok Post as editor. This was soon after one of the companies of the world's largest newspaper baron at the time, Lord Thomson, who also owned the Sunday Times in London, acquired the Bangkok Post. After assuming the new position, Ali realised he needed some additional editorial support to develop the paper. He offered PVN the position of Trade and Commerce Editor which he accepted. They already knew each other from Hong Kong.
Sometime later, as their colleague editing the Sunday magazine wanted to go on leave, PVN was asked to handle the Sunday Magazine also for two weeks. Just about that time, Bangkok Post had purchased the serialisation rights of William Manchester's famous book, The Death of a President, about the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy. With that as the lead item, PVN redesigned the magazine in an entirely different style than it has ever been. The company management and editorial team were impressed with the way he turned the Sunday Magazine around into an attractive product. So, PVN was promoted as an assistant editor in charge of the Sunday Magazine. He also started to write editorials occasionally. PVN focused on page design and opinion writing as his special assignment.
However, getting a long-term work visa, which foreigners need to work in Thailand, proved difficult. So, after a year with the Bangkok Post, PVN resigned and returned to Hong Kong, where he did not need a visa as Hong Kong was a British colony and India was a member of the British Commonwealth. He joined the Hong Kong Standard as a sub-editor and editorial writer. He then moved around from one editorial section to another, except sports, and also did reporting during the 1967 riots in Hong Kong. All this time, he continued to write editorials also.
Two years later, in 1970, when the business editor decided to quit and join a leading American stock brokerage firm, PVN took over as the Business Editor. He revised the presentation of daily trading on the stock market in an easy-to-follow format winning the hearts of the stockbrokers and investors. He also explained to the reporters they should do more than report breaking news and what happened in the stock market every day. They must also do investigative reporting; read the annual reports of companies and shed light on what companies are not telling their shareholders and the investing public. Also, he got the reporters to monitor the activities of chambers of commerce and be alert about the socio-political significance of what they might present as pure business decisions.
Thus, they reported exclusively, on the first sign of US overtures toward China through the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. The chamber set up a China Trade Committee while the People's Republic of China remained unrecognised by the US and Washington maintained a trade ban against China. The business community, political circles, and high-level government officials began taking note of PVN. They started inviting him to lunches and off-the-record conversations. Top-ranking editors at Xinhua news agency, China's unofficial diplomatic mission in Hong Kong then, would invite him to lunch and political discussions.
In 1972, in his second year as the business editor of the Hong Kong Standard, the editor in chief of the paper was sacked for reckless reporting. It was the fourth time in about five years they had to change the editor. Then, PVN was offered the post. As he was just 35 years old then, he felt too young to assume the heavy responsibility. He declined the offer but agreed to be the acting editor until the management found a suitable candidate for the job. A couple of years later, the offer came his way again after another editorial change. He accepted it this time as by then he had got enough experience with the paper.
PVN thus became the youngest person and the first Indian national to be appointed as the editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper in Hong Kong, a British colony where only Britons or Australians held top editorial positions in English-language media till then. He held that position for six years and resigned in 1980 over a policy disagreement with the management. During his editorship, the Hong Kong Standard became highly critical of some of the policies of the Hong Kong government.
PVN was also critical of Indira Gandhi's regime in India. After Indira declared an emergency, a member of the Indian diplomatic mission in Hong Kong called for a meeting with him. He said that the 'lady' wanted to know why the Hong Kong Standard with an Indian as its editor-in-chief was critical of India. By this time, many journalists in India had been arrested and jailed. Nikhil had suspended publication of the 'Mainstream' as it was better than submitting it to government scrutiny.
PVN recalls the meeting with the envoy: "I told the envoy that Hong Kong Standard was not critical of India; it is only critical of Gandhi's regime. So, she should not accuse me of being critical of India; unless, of course, she believes she is India. 'Is that all you have to say,' the diplomat asked. I said, yes. Then he said he would convey his explanation to her. Then, after Indira Gandhi was voted out and Morarji Desai became prime minister, I stopped by New Delhi while on a trip to Europe. An Indian diplomat I had known for a long time invited me for drinks at his home. When I arrived at his home several other ambassador-level people (some of whom I knew, others I did not) were present there. During drinks, one of them told me that I was lucky that Mrs. Gandhi fell from power. I asked why and he said Mrs. Gandhi had signed an order to cancel my passport and declare me persona non grata. 'All of us present here discussed it and decided to sit on it,' he said, adding that 'we know you can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but you are always honest and correct'.''
PVN was always a headache for governments. The Hong Kong government, miffed by his incessant criticism of its policies, once took him to court on a charge of contempt of court. But the court rejected it and cleared him of the charges. PVN spent most of his life in Hong Kong-more than half a century. In that period, in his own words, he has "seen Hong Kong's rise from being a trading port to a global financial centre and the new generation of Hongkongers developing a sense of civil rights and finally standing up to Communist China that has become their sovereign." He has written a book about it, titled Hong Kong: The Turbulent Times.
After leaving the Hong Kong Standard, he worked on a three-month assignment with the United Nations Children's Fund, then joined a Hong Kong publishing group to launch a monthly magazine (Hong Kong Business) and worked as its editor-in-chief for two years, then moved on to an online database company as the head of its publishing division, and eventually became the managing director of the company. Later on, he set up a desktop publishing company in Hong Kong, eventually sold his shares to a partner, and moved to the Philippines.
In the Philippines, he was hired by Teodoro L Locsin Jr., (currently, the Foreign Minister of the Philippines) to launch a daily newspaper called 'TODAY'. He created the paper- by selecting typography, and defining design and editing standards. His early experience in organising the distribution of the 'Mainstream' and 'The Century' in New Delhi and learning book-keeping from his father became handy as he started organising other divisions of the paper also. Satisfied with what he did, Locsin asked PVN to stay on with the company as general manager. Ten years later when he retired from that job-based on age bar-he was hired as a short-term consultant by the country's oldest newspaper, the 'Manila Times'. Subsequently, he also worked as the roving editor of the 'Manila Times'.
PVN remained single until both his children moved to Canada. While with 'TODAY', the company's personnel manager invited him to dinner one evening, where he met Dr Maria Lourdes Burgos, their family dentist. She was a divorcee with two school-going children-a son, and a daughter. Dr. Burgos is now his wife.
Though PVN was a communist in his youth, he started questioning the ideology after he left Kerala. He felt the CPI had become corrupted after assuming power in the state.
"That's not what I campaigned for in my idealistic youth in 1957. I wanted the corrupt Congress party to be replaced by a party that would care for the people, and would not be corrupt. When I arrived in Hong Kong, the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong's utopian dream to industrialise a peasant nation in a few short years, was winding down after a string of failures and many human tragedies. As many as 80 million people are estimated to have perished due to starvation, torture, or suicide during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of Mao. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of these have transformed my view of communism. The laudable slogans like 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,' were the means to gain power and stay in power by any means," PVN says.