The year was 2002.
Writing for my college newsletter on the evolution of arms in Mumbai’s underworld, I’d hit a roadblock. With no ‘contacts or sources’ to bail me out, I had little hope of moving ahead.
All the while, a short byline appearing in the Sunday Express newspaper kept me mystified. Titled ‘Notes from the Underworld’, it was a column where Mr. J Dey would unleash one fascinating anecdote after another from his weekly altar.
Yet seeking his help seemed so far off that it did not even strike me.
But it did strike my editor. And I landed up at Mumbai’s Lalbaug area where the Indian Express then had its office.
Frankly, I had little hope of getting anything out of the meeting. A man like him would have more important things to do than to assist a college student. Or so I thought.
When I finally came across ‘Dey Sir’, as I would later call him, he offered a cup of tea and ran me through the corridors of Mumbai’s ugly underbelly. My diary was full with notes, yes, notes from the underworld. My list of questions had not a thing left unanswered.
When the article was printed, I came back to him with a copy.
Happy with what I had managed, he offered yet another tea session.
The next thing I had decided was to intern there and watch him from close quarters.
Shy of interaction and dedicated to work, Mr Dey would inhabit that section of the office where there was hardly anyone else. Over several cups of tea, he would file and submit his stories (on time) after arriving in the office at around 7pm.
On occasions he would hand over some documents and say, “Isko padhlo aur dekho. Story ban sakta hai”. (Read this and see, there may be a story in it)
Years later, when I was a correspondent with the MID DAY newspaper in Mumbai and was working on a report about some senior police officers, he called me.
He said he wanted to check if this ‘Jugal Purohit’ that he had heard about from his contacts was the same one he knew. His network amazed me.
We met from time to time.
Once, during a day-at-sea function of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), we both found ourselves talking to a senior Coast Guard sailor. Few moments later, I drifted away and saw Mr Dey still hanging around with him. I wondered what he was discussing with him for so long. A few days thereafter I realised that I was not paying enough attention when the sailor was speaking. So the answer to curiosity came in the form of a news report by Mr Dey which highlighted some serious shortcomings about the very ship we were sailing in. Officers of the ICG were aghast. They never knew where it came from. I did.
Such was his humility and the ability to win people’s trust in a very short time.
The last time I met him was in the office of the MiD DAY newspaper, where he had joined.
This was a few weeks before the bullets got him.
Back then, he was amidst a series on the operations of the oil mafia off the Mumbai coastline.
A regret I had, and shared with him too, was that I could never work under him after my internship at the Indian Express. He smiled and hoped we’d get a chance.
Minutes after he was shot dead on that rainy Saturday afternoon, his editor was on television. Mr Dey, by then, had been declared dead. “One of the greatest contributions of Mr Dey was that he trained an entire generation of reporters”, the editor said.
Upon his death, ‘police sources’ and reporters who otherwise were his competitors wrote with impunity about him, his personal life and alleged wrongdoings. Somehow he was responsible for what happened, they suggested.
In their greed for a by-line, they tore down a man who was not there to defend himself.
For months after his death, I kept in touch with his ailing mother and sister who lived in a modest Mumbai flat. Initially angry and vocal, they had gradually turned inwards.
Something, may be the vitiated atmosphere, convinced them that they must keep their heads down and lips sealed. So as to not cause them discomfort, I decided to keep a distance.
What made Mr Dey who he was?
One evening, while interning at the Indian Express, holds the answer.
As he walked into the office, I actually gathered the courage to ask how he managed to source out the stories, the documents.
His response remains with me.
“Humari salary itni nahee ki hum khabar khareed sake. Toh ek achcha aur bharosemand reporter ban ke apna kaam karte raho.” (Our salaries do not allow us to buy the stories we want to report. The only way to get them is by being a good, trust-worthy journalist and trying your best)
THIS PIECE WAS ALSO PUBLISHED BY:
- BBC MARATHI: https://www.bbc.com/marathi/india-43973069?ocid=socialflow_twitter
- BBC HINDI: https://www.bbc.com/hindi/india-43971808