Not many amongst the younger lot of journalists would have heard of V.N. Narayanan, former Editor of the Hindustan Times and the Tribune, who passed away in Singapore in October this year, but whose death was announced by his family two months later. The 75-year-old journalist, who had an exceptionally successful career with various publications during his 38 years in the profession, quit his coveted job in the Hindustan Times in 1999 after being accused of plagiarism, thus ending his glorious career with a blot on his otherwise distinguished slate.
His grave mistake was that he had virtually reproduced a column written by a British journalist, Bryan Appleyard under his byline in his weekly column, I Muse, Therefore I am in the HT, under the caption “For ever in Transit”. It was not only a costly error which Narayanan who was my Editor at that point of time told me while admitting his unpardonable act but something which ended his envious journey to the top and left him with very little courage to face his colleagues.
The plagiarism episode is also cited in meetings of various editorial boards to drive home the point that replicating someone else’s ideas and speech in the printed form under one’s own byline would be always viewed as a zero tolerance action. Plagiarism charges have also been faced by several journalists, but it was Narayanan alone who perhaps paid the heaviest price. It is a matter of conjecture that had he written the said column in his own words with his remarkable command over the language, he may have produced a piece which could have perhaps made a better reading then the one written by Appleyard, who is an exceptional journalist as well.
However, if one goes by Narayanan’s explanation at that time, it would be hard to believe that he was in some sort of a trance and the words flowed out inadvertently due to his photographic memory and he ended up using the same ideas and expressions as the original writer had done in his paper under the caption, “No time like present”, published several months earlier.
The controversy over his plagiarism erupted soon after B.N. Uniyal, also a distinguished journalist writing for the rival Pioneer newspaper, exposed how Bryan Appleyard had been copied by the famous editor. Narayanan responded some days later by telling some colleagues that he had been massacred by the expose. Subsequently, when he walked out of the HT House, there were few to shed tears for his immense talent, uncanny sense of humour and his self depreciating style.
Narayanan was an immensely well read person, who loved citing lines from Alice In Wonderland to illustrate his opinion on various happenings around him. His sarcasm and humour often left many of his colleagues wondering on how effectively he used these tools to drive home a point. In HT, he essentially looked after the Editorial page on a day to day basis, with most other pages being supervised by the executive editor.
However, due to his envious record of serving as a successful editor of the Tribune during the most turbulent times in Punjab, his stature was overbearing. In 1994, when he was on the verge of putting in his papers at the Tribune, he had job offers from both the Times of India, which had no editor after Dileep Padgaonkar had thrown in the towel, and the Hindustan Times, where H.K. Dua’s term had ended. When HT brought him on board, essentially due to the efforts of its former executive president, Naresh Mohan, his appointment was seen as a coup of sorts in journalistic circles as the TOI (where I was the metropolitan editor at that time) had been outmanoeuvred and had to bring back Gautam Adhikari from Washington to take up the job as the executive editor.
Narayanan was an unassuming person, as described in the tribute accorded by the Tribune. He was a prolific reader and enjoyed listening to music. He often recited lines from Hindi songs during his conversations. He, like myself, was an ardent admirer of Mohammad Rafi, though he would also express his intense fondness for M.S. Subbulakshmi at times.
Narayanan was profoundly proud of his father, who had become the editor of the Hindu in the early 1960s. He would recall his days in the Statesman on the desk and his stint with the Indian Express where he shared a good rapport with well known Hindi editor Prabhash Joshi.
By and large, Narayanan kept to himself and had his subtle way of communicating his displeasure to his colleagues whenever something which should not have happened appeared in the paper. He was not one who would shout down his colleagues, though he did have a temper, which intermittently could be seen. It was his quiet but pointedly effective way to drive home his point that was enough to make those responsible for the faux pas realise their mistake.
Narayanan had a lot to offer to journalism but one mistake, just one mistake, undid all that he stood for. Plagiarism is a very serious offence and he paid a very heavy price for it. But in the entirety of the picture, he should not solely be judged by this sole mistake. Between us.