Of our very own Fleet Street

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 23 Aug 2018 10:13:45


Vijay Phanshikar,

Life was truly challenging in those wonderful days almost fifty years ago for a youngster who wished to launch a career in journalism. There was a heady feeling -- that any big shot could be button-holed and quizzed, that anybody high and mighty could be stopped in the tracks and dared. And in those days, not so far away from the point of Independence to the country (less than twenty years), the society did carry forward a little British influence on body, mind and even soul. And in those climes, two words made a terrific phrase in the minds of youngsters in journalism -- Fleet Street! 

This little youngster -- bubbling with enthusiasm and boiling with energy -- had that romantic idea that he would join a newspaper in Nagpur’s Fleet Street -- the Central Bazar Road that spanned between Wardha Road in the east and the engineering college gate in the west. For, in those days, most newspapers in the city had their offices along the road. Hence Fleet Street! Hence that romantic nomenclature that lent youngsters a sense of importance.
Of course, the name derived was from the Fleet Street in London, where most British newspapers had their offices. Great episodes in journalism emanated from London’s Fleet Street -- stories of how editors fought hard to retain their freedom of expression, how they dared the monarchy and how they defied the Parliament to uphold their right to speak the truth. Hence Fleet Street, our idea of romance in journalism. We really fondly referred to the Central Bazar Road as our very own Fleet Street.

True, in those days, American journalism had not started making impact at least on the Indian journalistic fraternity as it started doing in later years. For, in just a few years subsequently, The Washington Post challenged President Richard M. Nixon and forced him to resign prematurely before he would be impeached. A little earlier, the American Press had dared the judicial system as well when it went public with Pentagon Papers.

But those days were a little afar when the youngster first entered the offices of a truly good newspaper titled Nagpur Times. The British influence on the mind was so powerful that the stories of how The Sunday Times of London busted the Thalidomide Babies scandal occupied whatever time scribes had in those days for a little conversation, a little reading, a little contemplation. The Thalidomide scandal was one of the first industrial and commercial atrocities on the civilised world. Consumption of terribly defective contraceptives -- Thalidomide -- by women and subsequent pregnancies after the dosage was stopped had led to the birth of thousands of terribly deformed babies some of whom had anus in the place of mouth.

And in those days, when the nation was pegged down by the constraints of the matter being subjudice, the whole British nation fell in a deathly silence. It was then that Harold Evens, the Editor of The Sunday Times had dared the system and pushed the Government to act tough.

In those early days of the young career, one was endued with such ideals. And that reflected itself in the behaviour, as one entered the Newsroom every evening, or morning, or night or any time of the day or the night. For, the feeling was truly heady that some day ‘I too would expose scandals’.

Such was the overall atmosphere, too, on Nagpur’s Fleet Street. There were several newspaper offices along the road. There were English Nagpur Times and Marathi Nagpur Patrika. Then there were Marathi Tarun Bharat and Hindi Yugdharm. Then there was Hindi Nav Prabhat at the street corner opposite the Gurudwara. And then came a little later the Marathi paper Lokmat (that was much later joined by Hindi Lokmat Samachar and still much later English Lokmat Times). There was also a little office of a serious tabloid Chavhata in Marathi, located near today’s Centre Point Hotel. The Hitavada, was on the Wardha Road, just an extension of the city’s Fleet Street. Hindi daily Nav Bharat was in the Cotton Market Area, and Marathi newspaper Dainik Maharashtra in Mahal area.

The field was small, in today’s comparison, but nevertheless very weighty. For, each newspaper was headed by iconic editors whose influence on the social mind was immense. They were authors, writers, novelists, philosophers, and also patriots having taken part in freedom struggle just a couple of decades earlier.

There were many wonderful sights that often dotted our very own Fleet Street. Anytime of the day, we could see press workers pushing the giant newsprint rolls from one office to other if there was any shortage of it in a place. We could also see press workers in dark blue overalls standing at street corners sipping tea and consuming samosas. An occasional minister or a people’s representative, mostly in a white Ambassador car or even on foot would make his -- or her -- way into newspaper offices to see the editors. Reporters gathered at smoke shops to discuss the days’ events and argue vociferously about if the minister was correct in his conduct at a press conference or not.

Alas, all that has been lost now. The Fleet Street of those wonderful days has now become hotels and hospitals street. No matter the glory of the street today, one’s mind wanders back to those serene days when the street communicated a real sense of silent and democratic power to the rest of the community.

Tarun Bharat offices are still very much there. So are the offices of the Lokmat group. The Hitavada also continues to be at the same place for the past one hundred-plus years. But some newspapers like Nagpur Times and Nagpur Patrika met premature deaths. Of course, the offices of Marathi daily Sakaal also are located along the street, thus retaining some of the Fleet Street flavour even now. These few names make one nostalgic about the street where one goes every day for an afternoon cup of tea, partly to relax and greatly to relive in the mind the memories of the Fleet Street of young days.

Of course, just as the whole of Nagpur has done, Ramdaspeth, too, has changed a lot in the past three decades. Naturally, Fleet Street could not retain its total identity. Yet, it cannot be missed that even in the massive tide of change, the street has maintained offices of some
newspapers still, giving career journalists like this one an
opportunity to delve back in time and recall how truly great stories were written, truly terrible scandals were unearthed, truly genuine pieces of literature were produced. It is on such occasions that one remembers what Robert Frost called the profession -- “Journalism is literature in hurry”.

Yes, newspapers are really produced in a hurry, thus inviting another definition that journalism is an art of filling space in time. In those heady, young and early days in journalism, Nagpur’s Fleet Street offered a perfect locale for all the action. But action was generally over by 12 midnight, and then would begin thought-sessions at street corner tea shops, keeping a vigil on the city until 5 in the morning, when most of us would head a weary way home to catch a few hours of sleep before the next day began around 9 a.m.

Sure, Nagpur’s Fleet Street has changed a lot. Yet, it is hosting many newspapers. At this juncture, all one has is a terrific lot of endearing and enduring memories -- of those days.