M V Kamath was a close family friend. He and my father went back a long time – right back to the days when they both began their writing careers with Bharat Jyoti, now called the Free Press Journal. That was also the time when veteran cartoonist R K Laxman and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray shared office space drawing cartoons for the same paper. I think it was the late 1940s.
MVK, as he was known among friends (or Madhav maam, as I called him), and my father began writing for the Times of India around the same time, during Frank Moraes’ (celebrated writer Dom Moraes’ father) news editorship. Interestingly, MVK trained as a chemist and worked as one in a pharmaceutical company before he came to work for Bharat Jyoti. My father often recounted their old times – cups of tea, sandwiches and lunches at the Wayside Inn on Rampart Row and the Parisian in Mumbai’s Fort area.
My earliest memories of MVK were his visits to our home during his periodic trips to India when he was the Times of India’s Washington correspondent for about a decade. On finishing that stint, he became the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and promptly got my father to write a column on Hindustani music and other cultural subjects for the prestigious weekly. His visits to our home grew more regular. I remember he lived in an airy Times of India flat on Napean Sea Road then.
On the first day of my Public Relations course at the Xavier Institute of Mass Communications, MVK had been invited to address us students. He spotted me and asked in Konkani “Haanga Kassa Karta Re?” (What are you doing here?). I said I had enrolled. In his address I clearly remember him asking, “How many of you have read Palgrave’s Treasury?” No hands went up from the crowd of about 100. “How many of you have heardof Palgrave’s Treasury?” No hands again. He roundly scolded us for not reading what mattered and wasting too much time on television.
That weekend he was at our home for dinner again. Browsing through our bookshelf he pulled out a copy of Palgrave’s Treasury and said to me, “You have a copy. Why didn’t you put up your hand?” I blamed it on my shyness (besides, he had already spoken to me in Konkani, making me the cynosure of so many eyes, even if briefly – very awkward when you’re a nervous twenty year old!). He gave me a wee lecture on why I needed to shed my shyness and just be myself and get out there, do things.
A few weeks later I did just that. I typed out a piece (can’t remember what it was about) and shot it off to him at his Illustrated Weekly office. A week later I got it back in the mail with a rejection slip and a note from MVK, saying not to ever stop writing and trying again. That was my first ever rejection slip. And to my memory, the only one I’ve ever received. A year or so later, having graduated, I was working with another genius from South Kanara – Anant Pai, better known as Uncle Pai, who was also a close friend of MVK’s.
Many years later, when Pritish Nandy became the editor of the Weekly, his deputy Nikhil Lakshman offered me a weekly, back-of-the-book style column that ran for close to two years. During one of his visits, MVK made a mention of it and remembered having rejected my first attempt. He said he was glad I had taken his advice and hadn’t given up. I must say he introduced me to Dina Vakil, then the editor of The Indian Express Magazine, which is where I began my cartooning career with a weekly strip.
One of the more memorable evenings with MVK was when my father celebrated 30 years of writing in the Times of India with the who’s who of the paper’s editorial staff our house for dinner. We have several pictures of that night. MVK was in his spirits cracking joke after joke in English and Konkani – much to the puzzlement of the others, though Filmfare’s Rauf Ahmed, does understand Konkani (pics at the end of the piece).
MVK was always around for the big family functions. He declared published two of my father’s books, felicitated him at the public function on his sixtieth birthday – and attended my wedding. After he had finished with the Weekly, he was desperately looking for a home. That’s when my father introduced him to Anand Kalyanpur who had just redeveloped his building, Kalyanpur House, near Khar railway station and had a spare flat on the first floor. Anand was delighted to have such an illustrious neighbour.
We hadn’t been in touch with MVK over the past decade or so, particularly after my parents moved to live with us here in New Zealand. He and my father were born almost exactly a year apart and passed away less than three months apart. They were friends for life. Though I knew very little of his personal life, I suspect he confided a lot in my father.
He was a terrific person to have around. Always smiling, joking, full of wit and wisdom – and like many men of his time, a repository of knowledge.We will miss you greatly, Madhav maam.