A tribute to Padmanand Jha, the journalist of the time when journalists and politicians were natural adversaries

Padmanand Jha, affectionately known as Paddy by all who knew him in journalistic circles, passed away recently. Paddy was from a time when journalists and politicians were natural adversaries. Vinod Mehta, the flamboyant editor at the time, chose Paddy to be Outlook’s political editor when it launched in 1995.

I met Paddy in 1995, and he had already made a name for himself. Paddy worked in journals that VM had started and edited earlier. The mid-1990s was the era when senior print journalists moved to television with the advent of private electronic media. When the Pioneer cookie collapsed, VM’s last job before Outlook launched, he and many of his boys, including Paddy, were out in the cold for some time. This is around the time Paddy joined NDTV before Outlook.

In Outlook’s founding team, Paddy was one of VM’s Big Boys, along with Tarun Tejpal, Sandipan Deb, Prashant Panjiar and Ajit Ninan. Except for Paddy, the others were all former India Today editors, Outlook magazine publisher Deepak Shourie wanted to dislodge himself from his unassailable number one position in both quality and circulation.

The launch and early years of Outlook sounded like a fairy tale. There were about 40 of us at the Delhi newsroom, all in our late twenties to early thirties. We had so much fun together, complaining about bosses, having lunch, gorging, shopping, playing and partying. Many of us hung around the office for as long as possible because it was the most fun place. This was all possible because VM himself and his big boys liked to have fun themselves. Don’t get me wrong here, we worked too.

Each of the Big Boys was a difficult leader and an impossible boss. The best you got out of it was a whisper under the breath, “not bad” on your good day. One consolation of a meager annual raise on your paycheck was VM’s recognition of the cause. But we didn’t care, the whole town was talking about how cool we were after every issue that hit newsstands on the weekend.

The Big Boys were already dudes of their persuasion, but VM was still the Big Cat everyone looked up to, except during editorial meetings when VM turned to Paddy to list stories for the current affairs section. By then, VM’s severe folds had completely eased, his body sagged a bit more, and his voice changed from an inquisitive tone to a request when he spoke to Paddy.

Paddy was slim in build, almost skinny. But his gaze was sharp. There was an aura around him. He was a quarter generation older than me. His affection for me was that which an elderly man has for a junior colleague who finds his ground. We have become very close. We often chatted late into the office, waiting for the editorial pages to be ready for press. I have gone with Paddy to the Press Club of India countless times.

On one occasion, Paddy invited me to accompany him to a minister’s house for dinner. I don’t remember what the conversation was about, but when we were about to leave, Paddy asked one of the khidmatgars hanging around to call us an auto-rickshaw. (The Maruti 800 provided by Paddy’s office had just been stolen.) A few minutes later, the minister got up to escort us. When we reached the portico of the Lutyens bungalow, a gleaming white Maruti car was standing there. The minister took the car keys from the driver and passed them to Paddy and said, “Here Jha ji is your car”.

Paddy replied, “But I don’t have the money to pay you that.” The minister replied, “Arre don’t worry Jha ji, payable when you can”. Paddy politely declined the offer and we walked through the door. The Meridian Hotel was right next door so we easily found an auto-rickshaw there.

In June 1997, after putting the problem to bed on a Saturday, Paddy and I headed to the Press Club in the evening in his car. We spent a few hours there. It was normal for other journalists from the club to come to Paddy’s table to exchange notes, read gossip. Later, Paddy dropped me off at home and we parted ways, planning to meet the next day, Sunday, at Paddy’s for lunch. I would bring beer with me. On Sunday afternoon when I reached Paddy’s apartment in Noida, Sector 29, I found the door locked. This was unlikely behavior on Paddy’s part, I thought and left a note. On Monday, when I arrived at the office, I heard that Paddy had had an accident on Saturday evening.

After dropping me off, he arrived home to find there was a power outage. He decided to go for a walk. During his walk, Paddy was hit by a speeding car. He was left unattended for a few hours until a car, by the way of Pratibha Advani, LK Advani’s daughter, stopped to take him to nearby Kailash Hospital. Paddy suffered severe brain damage and took months to recover. Paddy’s wife, Masuma, stood like a rock beside him. Paddy was unable to fully recover. He had lost all his recent memories.

Dr. Pranoy Roy, in an act of immense kindness and generosity, offered Paddy a job that his diminished brain faculties could handle. Paddy worked and was loved by all of his NDTV colleagues for many years to come.

After the accident, Paddy couldn’t have been the same man I knew. I only met him occasionally and always left with a lump in my throat. I wanted to meet him more but I couldn’t bring myself to act as if nothing had changed.

The gods are wrong all the time, Paddy was one of his victims.