The Intellectual Myth of MJ Akbar

So the government has saved M.J.Akbar. For now. One of the reasons Akbar got away with his tantrums, arrogance and campaigns was because he had an almost mythical reputation as an editor. But how justified is it?
Precious little.
Perhaps this article would earn me Akbar’s undying hostility and the ire of his employers. But the fact is that he was no great shakes as an editor. Akbar was a reporter and a very good one. He was versatile, tough and moved fast. He came in at a time when editors like Frank Moraes, Nihal Singh, Mulgaonkar et al were opinion leaders who gave intellectual stewardship to their papers. They were 9-5 bosses with generous lunch time breaks and were friendly with the powers-that-be but were never story breakers.
Readers were ready for deep throat news. ABP owner Aveek Sarkar sensed that it was time for a pushy weekly news magazine. He started Sunday and put Akbar in charge. Reporters like Akbar became editors because owners felt that they were changing the rules of the game and creating new readership. Any media product likes to catch readers in their late teens and twenties so they can stay with the paper/magazine for the next 3 decades or so. Akbar was that USP.
Then he got greedy. He always had an inflated sense of destiny. He became a Rajiv Gandhi acolyte and a Congress politician. His paper even cooked up the St Kitts story to discredit Rajiv’s enemies. When Rajiv died, Akbar went into the wilderness. None of his subsequent projects took off. He was fired from Asian Age humilatingly.
All that remained was the residue of a distant myth. Examining his writing now is perusing outdated text. Clumsy English, mixed metaphors and pompous prose made the books and columns read self indulgent and self congratulatory. Compared with modern historians like Albinia and Dalrymple, his books resembled shabby textbooks thick with hyperbole.
I was alarmed to learn that Akbar had no idea about what was news. When he was brought to edit India Today in 2010 his first cover story idea was Goa as a den of vice. It was a terrible yawn. A  20 year old story. But he had no idea that it was. He immediately put boots on the ground. One of the reporters even fabricated stuff. Others had no fresh information. And the charade went on. Akbar lacked visual sense. The IT covers were all so eighties. He had no editorial sense either; one day he argued that a person’s net worth and declared worth was the same. He wanted a hit job on his perceived enemies and got it.
Compared to other reporter editors like Prabhu Chawla and Shekhar Gupta, Akbar was at best a chief sub-cum-reporter. And an amateur author who paraded opinion in his small town English as analysis. Yes, he could structure a story and trim the flab but then that’s what all good sub editors do. Editors know what’s going on, they have vision and innovation. MJ has none of these; in big doses anyway. As he was fond of calling himself the only Muslim editor, he clearly knew clever positioning. He fancied himself as the Nehru of modern Indian thought but he was at best a Jinnah of Journalism.
Akbar was sacked from both Asian Age and India Today because he was simply not good enough and lacked modern journalistic instincts and methods; but his past reputation was good PR. He called himself the father of magazine journalism at India Today, and Aroon Purie being Aroon Purie must’ve just smiled to himself.
Only the government in its wisdom can say why MJ Akbar is an asset. For journalism he was no big loss.

Too Many Characters Spoil a Conspiracy

Plots are meant for conspirators and there is no greater conspiracy than writing. The writer of course is the main caballer, since the dice is unfairly loaded in his favor. The temptation to play God is never so stronger.

Yet writing takes as much discipline as making a pipe bomb. Once the broad plot is in place, the hard work begins. How many words? How many characters? How to find a common thread that makes every actor relevant to the big picture in every situation? It is usually a memory that sparks the desire to write a story; or it could be a stray phrase or colour. Writing is the art of planning an alternate future with the stolen riches of the past.

There are two types of writers. Those who plan meticulously and the others who go with the flow.

Last week at Odisha LitFest I was chatting with Devapriya Roy, whose The Heat and Dust project I’m currently reading and enjoying and Ira Nukhoty, whose Daughters of the Sun I’ve just read and enjoyed. Devapriya and I are on the same page; we like to see what the character does scene by scene, how he or she interacts with others and record, interpret or are simply delighted by the scenarios that follow. Ira being a historian does not have that luxury. Perhaps she will lose herself to the joy of sailing in the wind of narrative one day with a rush of words flowing through her (rather short but smart) hair when she tries her hand at fiction (which she will do soon because the ghosts of the characters she has exorcised on to her pages in such lucid detail will haunt her with the seduction of imagination). And there are writers like Vikram Seth whose genius for detail, patience to get the exact word and sentence and linkage right always leaves me gasping in admiration.

For a good story that will keep readers rapt avoid having too many prominent characters. Stick to six and give four of them varying degrees of importance. And stuff the rest of the book with the accouterments of the situations they get into. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

The reason is simple. You.

You already know what each important character is going to be like, what he or she is capable of, what they feel. Just allow them to react to the atmosphere and watch the fun.

I have found that my stories write themselves. I discover they produce characters I had never dreamt about before or dialogues and images that surprise me with their vividness.

Writing is an adventure. All conspiracies are adventures.