The year was 2002. While writing for my college newsletter on the evolution of 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 small byline appearing in the Sunday edition of the Indian Express newspaper kept me mystified. Titled ‘Notes from the Underworld’, it was a weekly column where Mr. J Dey used to let out fascinating anecdote after anecdote from his Sunday altar. Yet seeking his help seemed so far off that it did not even strike me.
But it did strike my newsletter editor. And his prodding led me to the Chivda galli in Lalbaug where the Indian Express then had its office.
I frankly had little hope of getting anything out of the meeting. Simply because a man like him would have more important things to do than to assist a college kid with his article. Yet when Dey Sir met me and offered a cup of tea in the canteen, it was as if I had got all that I wanted. Once in the canteen, he actually gave me all that I wanted!
Over those 20 minutes, he virtually ran me through the corridors of Mumbai’s ugly underbelly. And my diary pages were full with notes, yes, notes from the underworld. Thanking him profusely, I left. Tall, well-built, humble and gentle, his personality, to me, was an inspiring combination.
When the article got printed, I came back to him with a copy. Perhaps happy with what I had managed, he offered yet another tea session. The next thing I had decided was to intern under him. Thus made my application and Express allowed me in. From March till June of 2003, I had made it a mission to see him from close quarters and learn. So I tried.
Shy of interaction and dedicated to work, Dey Sir would often inhabit a section of the office where there was hardly anyone around. Over several cups of tea, he would quietly file and submit his stories (on time) after arriving in office at around 7pm.
On a few occasions when I was in the lobby area when he reached office, he would call me in and hand over documents and say, “Isko padhlo aur dekho. Story ban sakta hai.” And I would be overjoyed.
But my curiosity got the better of me once and I actually gathered the guts to ask how did he get so many stories, documents, day in and day out? His jovial response to me that day remains, and always will, with me. “Humari salary itni nahee ki hum khabar khareed sake. To ek achcha aur bharosemand insaan ban ke apna kaam karte raho.” (Our salaries do not allow us to buy information. Then the only way to get it is to be a good and trust-worthy human being and carry on with your job.)
He gave me several documents and helped me earn experience and by-lines, which was very difficult in those days for an intern to achieve.
Years later, when I was a correspondent with the MID DAY newspaper (and Dey Sir was in Hindustan Times), I was in the process of filing a report which exposed some senior police officers, I got a call from him. He said nothing except that he wanted to check if this ‘Jugal Purohit’ that he had heard about from his contacts was the same he knew. His network amazed me.
We met on several occasions 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 sailor. Few moments later, I drifted away and saw Dey Sir still hanging around with him, chatting up. I wondered was he discussing with him for so long. But I later realised that I was not attentive enough when the sailor was speaking. Thus, my punishment and Dey Sir’s response came a few days later when he reported some uncomfortable facts about the very ship we were travelling in. Officers of the ICG were aghast but they never knew where it came from. I knew. Such was his humility and thus the ability to win people’s trust, and protect it at all costs.
The last time I met him was in the office of the MiD DAY newspaper where he was humbly leading an effort to get justice for one of their journalists nabbed (under the Official Secrets Act!!) for exposing some monumental drawbacks. (http://www.mid-day.com/news/2011/may/190511-Railway-lapses-CST-GRP-weapons-26-11-Mumbai-terror-attack.htm). At that point, he was consistently hitting out at the reach of the oil mafia off the Mumbai coastline, something that is being touted as a probable reason for him losing his life.
Owing to the increasing threats that scribes have come under, for more than two years, journalists in Maharashtra have been demanding that attacking journalists be made a non-bailable offence(http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xfwf6t_maha-jornos-demand-protection-laws_news). The government has till now turned a deaf ear. Will Dey Sir’s sacrifice make any difference? I do not know.
A regret I always had, and I shared with him too, was that I could never work under his guidance after my brief internship at the Indian Express. Sadly, that regret I will have to carry for my lifetime.
To conclude, while hearing the MiD DAY editor speak on the phone-interview he gave to my channel, minutes after Dey Sir was declared dead, he said that one of the greatest contributions of Dey Sir was that he trained an entire generation of reporters. I think he did more than that.
When those cowards fired at Dey Sir, in the back, they managed to snatch a lot away from journalism and thus public life. It is for the government now to prove where it stands and exhibit what its real intentions are.
Dey Sir, we are watching.