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Sam Rajappa: A life to celebrate

Sam’s life must be celebrated for all that he achieved. But his death at the age of 85 on the weekend must be mourned, for he had so much more to give. Rest in peace, dear friend.

RAVINDRA KUMAR | Kolkata |

I n 1984, Samuel Rajappa, based in Madras (as it then was), covered the four Southern states for The Statesman and did a commendable job of it. But when the eighth General Election was announced following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, he realised that he could not possibly be in four places at the same time and asked the Delhi office for help.

Of the four states, as they then were, the election in Andhra Pradesh possibly posed the greatest challenge for a reporter. For, while there was anticipation of a sympathy wave generated by the killing of a Prime Minister, there was, equally, widespread support for N T Rama Rao, who had been unfairly ejected from the office of the Chief Minister a few weeks earlier.

The reporting resources of the paper were stretched, and the News Editor, the late S Prakasa Rao, was forced to tell Sam that while he had no spinner available to help exploit the viciously turning track that Andhra offered, he could rustle up a slow bowler of untested quality, a Delhi-born reporter with little knowledge of Andhra politics who could speak Telugu but had not learnt to read or write the language.

Sam agreed but with a rider – that the paper send the reporter to him at Madras for a few days, for a crash course in Andhra Pradesh politics, before deploying him to Hyderabad. Wet behind the ears, and unaware then of the discussion that had led to my assignment, it was thus that I boarded a morning flight to Madras, for the most intensive tutelage in reportage that I could have imagined.

By 1984, Sam was already a towering figure in The Statesman; his reportage during the emergency of the killing of a student in Kerala having cemented his reputation as one of the greats. His dispatches were handled with reverence by the desk, and his inputs were sought by every leader writer who wanted to comment on southern India. In an era when a journalist who had left The Statesman was seldom taken back, Sam had got a red-carpet welcome when he chose to return after a brief fling with India Today a little earlier.

Shortly after noon on a late November day, I entered The Statesman office in Commander-in-Chief Road (now Ethiraj Salai) with trepidation, unsure of how a legend forced to babysit a relative rookie would receive me. Sam was cordial and surmising from the presence of my bags that I had come directly from the airport, insisted that the first order of business must be lunch at the Connemara next door.

Having thus eased my nerves, he proceeded, over the next few days, to give me a crash course on the politics of Andhra Pradesh and those who shaped the state’s narrative. Generously, he opened his telephone book to give me numbers of his many contacts and spent an afternoon guiding me on the trends I should keep an eye on.

He then asked me where I planned to stay in Hyderabad. When I named the hotel the office had suggested, he asked me instead to stay at a far more modest hostelry which offered two distinct advantages – first, it was centrally located and close to all the party offices, and second, its proprietor, his friend, would allow me to use the hotel telex for filing dispatches at Post and Telegraph rates, thus saving a trudge to the Central Telegraph Office, a facility whose virtue I learnt to appreciate after long days in the field.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I travelled extensively around the state. As the campaign wound down, I was asked to analyse the election as I saw it. Most people I spoke to, including some Telugu Desam leaders, felt the assassination of Indira Gandhi gave the Congress an edge in a state where it had historically done well. But I had some reservations. I called Sam up to ask what he thought. His advice was simple but blunt – don’t be scared to stick your neck out; if you are wrong, you won’t be the first reporter to have misread an election, but if you are right, you will make your reputation.

Certain qualities – of gentility, of deep knowledge of his subject, of the ability to retain the trust of contacts, of respect for a language which was our primary tool, of the nuts and bolts of the craft, and of a studied indifference to external pressures – remained with Sam until the end and shaped him into the exceptional journalist that he was.

But it was his generosity of spirit that made him share his learnings with younger colleagues in the newspaper, and later with hundreds of students who were blessed to learn at his feet, both at The Statesman Print Journalism School which he headed from its inception, and at the Asian College of Journalism conceived by his friend, T J S George, where he taught.

Sam’s life must be celebrated for all that he achieved. But his death at the age of 85 on the weekend must be mourned, for he had so much more to give. Rest in peace, dear friend.

(The writer is Editor of The Statesman)