In 1973, even as I was enjoying my stint with ‘Screen’ from the Indian Express Group for all the opportunities it gave me to meet films stars of the day and report and write on them, a brief, temporary crisis came in the form of a sudden lockout in the organisation.
The 70s were a testing time for newspaper employees and owners. Newsprint was in shortage and the government rationed its costly imported supply. The big newspapers went to the court challenging the ration and the case at that time was being heard in the Supreme Court. The indigenously produced newsprint was poor in quality and the ‘biggies’ did not want to use it. Some of them resorted to devious ways to buy imported newsprint. They managed to procure it from owners of small and minor publications at a premium out of their quota. And these ‘biggies’ had the gall to pontificate on the ‘general fall in ethics’ in public life.
The newspaper barons paid poor salaries to journalists and other employees of the industry, citing ‘high cost of production.’ There was general unrest among journalists who periodically resorted to strikes that were put down by iron hands.
‘Indian Express’ witnessed labour unrest chronically during the period. Newspaper managements had no qualms in encouraging rival trade unions to play one against the other and deny employees their due. ‘Indian Express’ in Bombay too had two rival unions, one supporting a strike call and the other counseling talks with the management. Chitranjan Alva, a young and energetic journalist heading one union, was attacked by workers of the other union and was left with bleeding wounds. The management exploited the incident to declare a lockout.
It was late August, during the two-week -long Ganesh Chaturthi festivities. An idol was installed in the basement of the Express Towers for daily puja by workers. The idol was also ‘locked out’ and a piquant situation arose when the day of immersion came. The idol had to be immersed as per custom and tradition. The ‘Express Ganesh’ was taken out finally after agreement between the union and the management under police escort. ‘The Times of India’ and ‘The Free Press Journal’ reported the ‘Release of Ganesh’ in Box items. It was thought an auspicious development. It so happened that the lockout was lifted after a few days upon settlement between the union and the management.
During the lockout, editorial work of ‘Screen’ was done from Chennai, which had a separate edition of the film weekly. There was a move to fly some staff to Chennai to cope with the work of bringing out two editions. I was alerted to be ready to fly to Chennai anytime. I was thrilled as that would mean my first flying experience.
One of those days, I was thrilled to get a call from Ranganathan, one of the senior managerial staff of ‘Express’ to meet him at his Matunga residence in connection with my temporary transfer to Madras. Ranganathan, among other things, was in charge of Circulation and considered a confidant of Ramnath Goenka, the owner of the ‘Express’ Empire. As a probationer, I was not a member of the union, so there was no bar on me to work during the strike. He asked me to collect the air ticket the following afternoon to fly out the day after. I went home and boasted about my impending first flight.
Soon, there were sudden and swift developments at ‘Express’ office. Hours after the ‘locked out’ Ganesh was taken out and immersed, hectic negotiations began between the union and the management and a decision was taken to lift the lockout. The entire staff was advised to report for duty the day after through ads in rival newspapers! Though the news was welcome, I received it with mixed emotions. For, it meant my first flight was yet to be. No doubt, it was Lord Ganesha’s blessing and Will that I stay back in Bombay. For, within a fortnight, I received my appointment letter from PTI, asking me to join duty as soon as possible. Had I gone to Madras, things may have become difficult for me to take up the new job.