Sharp pen, sharper mind t.v.r. shenoy

T.V.R. Shenoy came to Malayala Manorama, at that time published only from Kottayam, with a reference letter from his teacher K.C. Abraham, who would later become the governor of Andhra Pradesh. Shenoy had already worked in a couple of newspapers in Mumbai by then, but was now keen to work in Kerala.

My father, K.M. Mathew, interviewed him and sent him to his elder brother K.M. Cherian. Cherian just could not help his puckish humour when he noted that the young man, Thaliyadiparambil Vittappa Ramachandra Shenoy, was a Gowda Saraswat Brahmin, who are called Konkanis in folk tongue. The interview went somewhat like this.

From Kottayam, Shenoy went to cover the 1965 war (he had volunteered; perhaps a first among regional language journalists those days to report from the war front).

Then he moved to Delhi. I joined him there in 1968, and my first assignment was to cover the AICC session in Hyderabad.

That was the last session of the undivided Congress. Those days defections used to be very frequent, and defectors were called Ayarams and Gayarams, after one Gaya Lal of the Haryana Assembly defected more than thrice in a fortnight. Shenoy asked me to write a piece on all the Ayaram-Gayarams. He liked my piece, but he also reeled out the names I had missed.

Shenoy had his right-wing political convictions even then. But, he had more friends in the leftist and centrist parties. I would particularly name A.K. Antony, who had also been his pal in Maharaja’s College, Kochi. On the campus he also had a charming political rival, a girl by name Sarojam. She had lost to him in campus polls, but Shenoy made up for that by proposing to her. And, she accepted. Till today, Sarojam has been her husband’s greatest admirer.

On the everyday reporting rounds in Delhi, Shenoy introduced me to people of all hues—leftists, rightists and centrists—men who were already, or were on the way to become doyens of Kerala and national politics. He knew them all. And, most were his first-name friends.

Not just politicians, his circle of friends included academicians, diplomats, businessmen, civil servants, soldiers, bankers, artists… you name them. He used to entertain them all with free flow of drinks, food (he was a connoisseur of both) and anecdote-laden stories, either in the Press Club or at his home.

He could tolerate anyone, except fools. It was an experience to be around when he was with his two close friends, Mohan Ram, who was a leftist, and Nihal Singh, who was a centrist. I used to think of them—a leftist, a rightist and a centrist.

Always smiling, cordial and gentle, Shenoy also had a short temper. Once a senior politician from Kerala wanted a particular news item to be carried. When he realised that Shenoy was not very keen, he simply dropped the name of K.M. Cherian, who was then chief editor.

Our relationship extended to our families. Even when I had to take an early morning train, Shenoy would personally drive me to the station in the biting cold. We got closer when he had to be away in England on a Thomson Foundation scholarship. He asked me to look after his son Ajith, whom I grew very fond of, and who called me uncle.

As the Delhi bureau chief of THE WEEK, and later its editor, Shenoy carved a niche for the magazine in the national mediascape. He managed interviews with the high and the mighty, and led the political reporting team with élan. Even after he left us to join Sunday Mail for a brief while, and then to pursue his political interests, he contributed a column to THE WEEK. His Last Word, always composed in the typical crisp Shenoy style of short sentences, still remains one of the most popular columns ever.

I remember well his daughter Sujata’s wedding, which also witnessed a surprise political marriage. At the wedding day breakfast, he placed me between L.K. Advani and Kanshi Ram. Advani had always been his close friend and they had been ideological comrades. But few knew till then that Shenoy had also been a close friend of Kanshi Ram, long before Delhi’s politicians and journalists had known of his existence. It was at that wedding in 1995 that Shenoy brokered a political alliance between the BJP and the BSP, which would lead to the formation of Mayawati’s first government in Uttar Pradesh.

I always knew that Shenoy, despite being a very rational person, also had an emotional side. But the first time I saw him break down was when he came to see us on the day we lost our father—August 1, 2010. He went round the coffin, paid obeisance, and broke down.

Later Shenoy told me that my father had not only given him a job, but also saved his job. Sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s, Indira Gandhi’s PMO had been quite upset about Shenoy’s critical writings. One day, Mrs Gandhi’s all-powerful principal secretary P.C. Alexander, who was a very close family friend of ours, asked my father to sack Shenoy. “Over my dead body,” was my father’s retort. Interestingly, my father never told Shenoy about it. Shenoy learnt of it from his sources in the PMO.