Ajith PiIlai’s Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary unveils stories from behind the scenes in a reporter’s life. It looks at how the media industry has changed over time with concepts such as paid news creeping in, writes Supriya Batra
Senior journalist Ajith Pillai’s new book Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary is a collection of real incidents that shaped the reporter’s career but could never be reported in reality. Pillai belongs to a line of veteran journalists who never did a story without actually being there.
Elements of humour and wit are combined with sheer entertainment, making it an instantly endearing read. The creatively designed cream and faded green coloured cover of the book itself looks like a news story which is about to be typed with the help of a type writer. In his book the journalist has written several stories that became game changers in India’s journalistic landscape. The readers are tempted to read the short stories linked to one another, highlighting all the important events that occurred during the 80s and 90s, ranging from the riots in Bombay, the Kargil War, serial bomb blasts that rocked Bombay and so on.
It is a testament to a journalist’s life, as well as a comment on the changing nature of the Indian media. News is meant to be objective, fair and neutral but with changing times, concepts such as paid news and breaking news seem to have muddled the puddle. Credibility of news stories is no more the priority of leading media houses which is disappointing. Such practices have eroded the image of the fourth pillar of democracy which should ide¬ally be dictated by fairness and objectivity. The author’s intention is clearly not to project himself as a heroic reporter digging up exclusives. He gives us just a simple, honest narration, mingled with chunks of humour portraying what it took and meant to be a journalist in the 1980s. Factual reporting meant building human networks with every level of society and the author seems to have done that extremely well in his journalistic career.
Vinod Mehta (Ajith Pillai’s editor at The Pioneer, Outlook and other places), in his introduction to the book, describes it as a walk through the memory lane, describing a journalist’s adventures in the field. Experiences that never found their way to print are presented in a subtle yet interesting manner.
The narrative is action packed right from the beginning which features a face-off with Dawood Ibrahim, a guided tour for V.S. Naipaul and a research visit that takes the writer to certain members of the Mumbai mafia. Then there’s Silk Smitha performing for a crowd of people on New Year’s Eve at Azad Maidan and the reporter’s candid conversation with the late actor Sunil Dutt among others.
It is generally said that the best stories in a journalist’s life can seldom be published. A journalist, or a reporter to be specific, it is said, should have eyes and ears for not only what is going on in front of him or her but also for what lies beneath the layers and must manage to separate the grain from the husk. Pillai seems to have that innate talent to do so with a tinge of dry humour.
British columnist Jeremy Seabrook writes about the book, “This ought to be a handbook for all aspiring journalists, since Pillai is an enemy of sycophantic corporate ideology and craven submissiveness to wealth and power which characterise most of today’s celebrity-writers.”
The book is a must read for all old-fashioned journalists who have refused to sell their soul. To a layman, Off the Record is an exciting unputdownable read about all the aspects of India we prefer not to discuss.
For readers who love to read between the lines and to journalists, especially younger aspiring ones, the book is a looking glass to see how things were done in a pre-Twitter, pre-mobile phone and pre-Google era.