Title: Off the record: Untold stories from a reporter’s diary
Author: Ajith Pillai
Publisher: Hachette India
Published: July 2014
There are news stories that we read in the papers and the magazines everyday — and then there are those stories that are off-the-record testaments, stories that fall through the gaps of daily reporting, or are too incendiary to be printed. Told with intensity, brevity and candour, these are the stories that form the subject of veteran journalist Ajith Pillai’s new book, Off the Record. He presents first-hand accounts of his adventures as a journalist for over twenty years in an India that saw dramatic changes and transformed completely into the 21st century new India.
Written with eloquent simplicity and filled with allusions to the country’s socio-political and cultural fabric, this memoir traces Pillai’s sojourn from a young copywriter in an ad agency to a journalist who learnt how to call a spade a spade. Flipping through the pages, we are taken on a memorable journey with Pillai; as each chapter segues into the next, his writing evokes compelling instances. From a standoff with Dawood Ibrahim’s henchman in Dubai, Chota Shakeel to a tense encounter between V S Naipaul and the underworld; from a face-to-face interview with Mumbai mafia don Varadarajan Mudaliar to a concert by Silk Smitha (or her lookalike) on New Year’s Eve; from being witness to the auctioning of Pooja Bedi’s bikini to a Rs. 10,000 imaginary dinner at the uber La Rotisserie, these stories capture the behind-the-scenes action, at times measured, often cynical and humorous, giving the reader a ringside view of a journalist’s life. Pillai also digs into his bag of tales from Kashmir demonstrating all that formed the political underpinnings of the state and the issues that continue to eat away at its base fabric.
Pillai also throws the spotlight on the role of the media as the fourth estate, with the spectre of the nexus of news and corruption looming large. In the first chapter of the book, he informs the reader that the utopian concept of a perfect newspaper, editor or reporter doesn’t exist, except in the mind of an aspiring journalist who has not yet seen the machinations that govern the industry. He goes on to highlight the malady plaguing most newspaper organisations. “Commercial considerations can often weigh on editorial decisions and a good story can be rejected or cut to size,” he writes.
At the same time, he also notes that despite all its flaws, the Indian media is still largely vibrant and free. A journalist in today’s world has to be far more vigilant. Journalism, like any other profession, requires persistence, disciplined practice and above all, an open mind. Off the record teaches a good deal about this.
Jeremy Seabrook, the British author and columnist, says of 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.” We agree. This book is a true reporter’s diary.
A version of this has appeared in The New Indian Express on September 16, 2014