It was when I was twelve or thirteen, I think. I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. An investigative journalist, if I was lucky.
And there were a few inspiring people behind that ambition. No, Barkha Dutt wasn’t really one of them. Maya Sharma and Jennifer Arul could have been, but seemed rather regionally restricted. Sreenivasan Jain was a major one.
But I didn’t really like journalism on a national level for some reason. And this was when Times of India was entering the Bangalore market, and was marketing itself as the newspaper that could read the pulse of Bangalore just as well as the nadi astrologers of Vaideeswaran Kovil were reputed to. And having a piece or two published in Offspring [the school section of ToI, which we were introduced to through Newspaper In Education] made sure I was a ToI loyalist back then. I read every word of every article back then.
And the city-specific reporting captured my heart. It really felt like this is what I wanted to do… I’d religiously go through each column. Some names stood out more than the others. HS Balram was too serious for my taste.
And so it was Allen J Mendonca, in his avatar as Chief Reporter of the Times of India, who proved to be a major inspiration for me.
His writing style was a tad quirky, quite informal, his bylines hard-hitting. His movie reviews were a treat. His sprinkling of Kannada words in what would otherwise be an elitist newspaper article made it all the more endearing to me.
At first, I was content just reading newspaper and watching news channels, but when we got our dial-up connection, I acquired a bit more nerve.
I first mailed Sreenivasan Jain, a long garrulous mail describing how awesome I find him on TV, how I admire his ability to ask the right questions, how insightful I thought him to be. [Back then, his email ID was available in the newspaper, or when he wrote a column for The Week… not like now, when we had to really HUNT for his email ID when we wanted to contact him for something related to Engineer, NITK’s Techfest]. And all I got was a one-line reply, in SMS lingo. End of an infatuation. I’d had it with television reporters.
I don’t know exactly why I mailed Allen Mendonca… other than maybe I imagined he was a nicer person not prone to SMS lingo and incredibly more loquacious, and… the name sounded like he’d be quite a looker. But it remains that I did, and got a nice reply to all that I’d asked him. I don’t remember the exact contents of that mail, but I’d asked him about how you go about being a journo, what do you need to study in college, and…. that ONE question. Did he think I had it in me to be a journo.Of course, the answer to that one was that I was too little and I had it in me to become anything I wanted. But oh, the inspiration that one provided back then!
The exchanges continued. I’d been on a holiday to Coorg, and going through the guestbook, I discovered he had holidayed at the same estate bungalow I was staying in, just two months before! Boy, did that put a smile on my face! And his detailed description of the estate and all that it offered, and how well he’d enjoyed the whole deal – the walking trails, the books in the library about the history of Coorg, the ponds, the coffee plantations…. I’d previously been rather sulky throughout the holiday, but just reading that made me realize I was missing out on stuff. And I instantly cheered up!
I wrote to him mentioning this, nicely omitting my sulkiness from the whole story, and right after, he began feeling like some friendly uncle. I stretched my boldness far enough to send him samples of my childish verse… and he actually went through fifty lines of my random thoughts, and said it was rather good. Was I on top of the world or was I on top of the world. And he said I should write more often, and needed to ‘develop a style of my own’, which would come by regular writing.
Not very long after that, he stopped responding. I consoled myself saying he was probably undercover on some story, or was incredibly busy, or some such thing. Besides, his stories stopped appearing in ToI.
And then he replied from a different mail ID, after almost months together, saying he’d quit ToI, over some disagreement with his bosses, about political favors and exposes or some such thing… I don’t remember the details. He said he was writing a book, and that he’d send over an invite for me and my family for the opening.
We stopped corresponding after that, given that I was grappling with increasingly challenging academics, swimming practice, emotional upheaval on shifting my house to seemingly the middle of nowhere, ego tussles, multiple crushes, and similar stuff.
When I was in the tenth, or eleventh, I saw a news article about his book coming out. “He didn’t invite me as promised”, I sulked. There was an interview of his on RadioCity, where he was just as upbeat, funny and full of life as I’d thought he would be.. and I wondered if I should mail him…. but stopped short of hitting send, wondering if he would still remember me, or reply, or anything at all.
I got over wanting to be a journo, thanks to the JEE dream, and quit mailing people I hadn’t met in person thanks to all those newspaper articles about some weirdo trapping kids…. basically, just switched tracks. And I saw less and less of news about Allen [Oh yes, he’d said I needn’t address him as Mr. Mendonca, and Allen would do, and I used to feel a thrill whenever I typed “Dear Allen”]… given that the Times wouldn’t mention him for all the world, and my not reading the Asian Age or Vijay Times.
My opinions of other journalists might have changed, my opinion of ToI has certainly changed, but of Allen, nope…. whenever I came across any reference to him, I still get the image of a lively man who peps up his radio interview with stories about his ‘three weddings’, who had a very vivid, visual way of writing, and who was one of those down-to-earth people who still bothered enough to humour an awestruck little girl, correspond regularly with her, and actually give her feedback on her writing.
So this morning, when I came across this Churumuri post about his sudden, untimely demise, I was really shocked. I was also overcome with a whole lot of memories… surprisingly clear for ten-year-old memories that aren’t regularly thought about. Thinking back, I realize the ideal I was using to model my writing style was his – show don’t tell, local flavour, seeming stream of consciousness. I’m amazed at how such small gestures had such a big impact on my thoughts, dreams and aspirations for such a long to come. Even when I wasn’t thinking of the correspondence with Allen, I used to think of how to ‘develop my own style’. Still do. That phrase has stayed with me for a long time. And will do for a long time to come.
Great Soul. May he rest in peace.