Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
An Interview with Pranay Gupte by T. J. Hussain
Published on November 16, 2009 By PranayGupte In The Media

The Chronicles of Pranay Gupte

VETERAN JOURNALIST, editor, author and media consultant Pranay Gupte was in Mauritius last week and I was fortunate enough to snatch an hour or two with this global observer. 

Presently Mr. Gupte is writing for publications in the United Arab Emirates (The National, Khaleej Times and Gulf News) in addition to contributing his knowledge to other major international publications such as Yale Global and Post Global. 

While his journalistic passions have driven him to almost every corner of the globe, he has been most active in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. He has obtained exclusive interviews with some of the leading names of our times in the world of politics, business, art, culture, media and the sciences. 

Mr Gupte has co-authored several books with leading world figures while writing 11 books on his own. Among these is an outstanding contribution to Indian politics entitled “Mother India”, a political biography of Indira Gandhi, which he recently published in a revised edition to mark the 25th death anniversary of one of the most decisive leaders in the history of the sub-continent. 

The Penguin book was released on October 31 and will soon be available in bookstores around the world. 

I met him shortly after he had met with the Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam. “You know, while I’ve visited Mauritius several times for business and pleasure over the years, my first visit here was almost 30 years ago, when I had the great privilege to interview the then-Prime Minister and the father of the current PM, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Today, I feel blessed to have met both father and son as prime ministers,” said Mr Gupte. 

“I really admire Navin Ramgoolam for his ability to stand up to the challenges of contemporary politics. For a man who was a doctor and then turned towards law and is now the prime minister of Mauritius, there’s something very special about him. 

"Politicians are always being watched and are in that ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation, while people fail to understand the complexities of governance," he explains. 

The journalist credits his passion for writing, literature and journalism to his mother, Prof. Charusheela Gupte, who was a well-known writer and professor of Marathi (regional language) in Bombay. 

He is the only child of his illustrious mother and lawyer father. “I was born in Bombay and went through my early education in my hometown before I moved to the United States. From a very early age, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a journalist. I used to write for my school paper and contributed to The Times of India which used to have a supplement that encouraged young people to write.” 

Mr Gupte’s only son is living and working in the hotel industry in the United States and “having the time of his life” at the age of 30. 

He has also recently bought a high-tech Nikon camera to his telephoto camera wherever he goes. He remembers how he started taking pictures using his father’s camera before he got his first “box” camera as a gift. He expresses satisfaction with life and says he has enjoyed it to the fullest. 

“I got a scholarship to attend college in the USA and complete my graduation in political science from the Brandeis University in Boston. I joined the college newspaper there and since there were no cheap fares to travel to India, I needed to do something during summers. 

“One of my fellow editors at the newspaper asked me to apply to the New York Times. He meant it as a joke but I had other ideas. They asked me to come in as a copy-boy if I wanted to since I was barely 18 and still in college.” 

He describes a copy-boy’s job running around carrying papers (copy) from one desk to another, serving coffee to the hundreds of employees at the paper, sweeping the floor, etc. He worked from 8pm to 4am every day. However, the idea of working at the Times was a breakthrough and he decided to continue in his mediocre position – an illustratation of his commitment to his future goals and belief in the dignity of labour. 

'There has been an influx of investment from the Gulf into Southern and Eastern Africa but somehow Mauritius hasn’t been on the radar. I like to think that there is some common ground here and I’ve been talking to people about how Mauritius could provide good grounds for investment' 

He smiles at his childishly mature desire to be part of a journalistic team, no matter in what capacity. He narrates his experiences finding extremely friendly people around Times Square, especially women smiling and asking him if he wanted to “have a good time”. One of his seniors warned him about them and that was that. 

He relishes the experiences he had in America and says when one learns the ropes at a place like the Times things can hardly get any better. He continued learning like this till he completed his graduation. 

“I went to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for my post-graduate. A.M. Rosenthal offered me work as his clerk and I considered that offer next to being an assistant to God. 

“Although I still had to get his coffee and carry his papers, at least now I had a desk of my own desk just outside his office. He also asked me to write memos about story ideas because I had a fresh set of eyes and could probably see things that the older crowd may ignore. 

“One day he returned a memo asking me to write the story myself. That was my big break and I started writing regularly after that. I would spend my weekends at the office while all the star reporters and writers were at home, looking around for fires, murders and anything else that could make stories.” 

It took him three years in this capacity before Rosenthal promoted him to a full-time reporter. He was asked to cover Long Island and the suburbs for four to five years. 

Later, he was sent to Nairobi (Kenya) from where he was sent to cover the Middle East. He was able to cover major international events such as the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

This was in 1979, when two other major events occurred. He visited Mauritius for a story for the first time, on his way home to see his new-born son – the lack of communication meant that he only found out the birth two days after it happened. 

“In 1984, I was in India as my father was dying of cancer, at the time when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. 

“I got a call from New York to go to the Punjab and report on the ground realities there because foreign correspondents were banned from entering Punjab at the time. 

I reported extensively on the situation and my publishers in New York asked me to put together a book on the aftermath of the assassination. I wrote a book entitled ‘Vengeance’ which appeared in 1985. I followed that up with a number of other books on development, women’s issues, etc. 

“I then did a full-scale biography of Mrs. Gandhi which was published in 1992 and received front page reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post.” 

He gives a brief round-up of how he has tried to quantify her legacy in a country of 1.2 billion people, where the biggest efforts are dwarfed by the sheer size of the geography and demographics. His latest research has helped him uncover more facts and turn the 400-page first volume into a 600-page edition of critical tribute in the light of the recent globalisation. 

For 18 years, he wrote a column for Newsweek on the developing world and emerging markets. During this time, he also wrote as a contract writer for Forbes magazine compiling investigative stories and profiles and produced 50-plus documentaries for public television. 

To quench a personal thirst, he started an environmental newspaper, which was originally destined to be a conference paper for the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. When the project was shelved in 2003, he returned to his pursuit of writing and started working on compiling books. 

Today, he is living in Dubai and working for the Dubai Media Affairs Office as Director, Special Media Projects. 

Pranay Gupte loves the Middle East and, since his college days, has always been fascinated by Arab and Islamic culture and architecture. He has a special affinity with the culture of the Emirates and speaks very fondly about his very “warm and welcoming” hosts. He has gathered amazing in-depth knowledge of the history and way of life of the country in only three years. 

We speak candidly about our mutual passion for the Emirates. He says the international media has been unfair to Dubai during the current global recession. He speaks highly of the visions of the current rulers of the Emirates and the founding fathers of the country. 

He elaborates on some of the latest developments in Abu Dhabi and the state-of-theart technologies being used in projects. 

“The courage and determination it takes to build something as astonishing as the Emirates is breathtaking. They are now restoring their heritage because heritage and culture cannot be separated. 

“Dubai is a very seductive place in the sense that you don’t really want to leave it once you make it your home.” He totally disagrees with people who say Dubai does not have a soul and argues the accusation with his own perceptions of a very vibrant Arab-cosmopolitan cultural identity and a warm people. 

He is also a close friend of Mr. Dawood Rawat, Chairman of the the British American Investment Group here in Mauritius. 

“Whenever he visits Dubai, we get together for a cup of tea and share ideas. What impresses me most is that as someone who has so much to do, his range of interests is incredibly vast. His knowledge of science, history, philosophy, automobiles and everything else is not superficial. I don’t know where he finds the time, but he makes an effort to read. He is an inspiration to me because he leads such a complete life. He is the modern equivalent of the Renaissance Man. 

“I hope that the young people of Mauritius and the rest of the world are able to listen to him and learn from his rich life experiences. He has a rare intellectual curiosity that absolutely fascinates me. He is the perfect role model for young people at a time when role models are hard to find. I’m sure he has a hard, driving ego because you don’t achieve success without it, but the man’s humility is super-human.” 

Mr. Gupte is presently exploring ways to build a bridge for economic activity between the Emirates and Mauritius. “There has been an influx of investment from the Gulf into Southern and Eastern Africa but somehow Mauritius hasn’t been on the radar. I like to think that there is some common ground here and I’ve been talking to people about how Mauritius could provide good grounds for investment.” 

In his concluding remarks, he encouraged young people to take up journalism for the myriad of benefits the profession offers including discipline of organising thoughts and observations and exposure to different kinds of people. 

“You only live once, so do what you like to do most but get into journalism. It has a romance about it. You will learn about your society, about humility, about how to make people talk to you, about being a storyteller, and it’s a great entre to anything else you want to do in life later.” 

He hopes that Mauritius will soon have a school of journalism where young people can learn from veteran journalists, just as he did. 

Pranay Principles of good journalism 
 You have only one constituency in journalism: your readers. 
 Never forget who signs your paycheck: Your publisher. It is his newspaper. 
 A journalist is, above all, a story-teller. 
 Write simply and clearly. 
 Use verbs liberally. 
 Use adjectives sparingly. 
 Don't just tell: show and tell. 
 Use short sentences. 
 Make that extra phone call on your story before you write it. 
 Read your own story before sending it to your editors. 
 Journalism should be fun. If it isn't fun for you, then get a job in some other field – like coal mining. 
 All news institutions have their flaws, just like humans do. Instead of just grumbling, make specific suggestions for positive change. 
 The purpose of newspapers is to educate, inform and entertain readers. 
 Get the following right: names of individuals and institutions; ages; titles; revenues of institutions, and the number of employees. 
 Instead of gossiping, read a book. 
 Sex is OK: in the bedroom, not at the workplace. 
 Take your job and your editor seriously, not yourself. 
 In the journalism business, you've gotta be ambitious. If you don't wanna be famous, then join an ashram and meditate on your navel. 
 Newsrooms should be a no-smoking zone. 
 Always be polite to people, even if you think that you're smarter than them. 
 Smart journalists always smile – sincerely. 
 Listen to people: you will get some great stories that way. 
 Always be fair to those you write about. How would you like to see yourself maligned in print for the entire world to see? 
 Avoid anonymous quotes, especially “attack quotes.” 
 Give as many details as you can in your stories: colours, smells, sizes, shapes, flora and fauna. Stories should be word pictures; they should transport the reader to where you, the reporter, have been. 
 No matter how smart you are, it must show in your work. How else are people going to know how smart you are? 
 Being professional means never making excuses. 
 Always meet deadlines. 
 Explain, explain, and explain. 
 Always give context and background in your story. Don't assume that the reader knows. 
 Smart journalism means that you acknowledge your mistakes and quickly rectify them. 
 You gotta be sensitive to people's cultures, customs and traditions. Just because they pray differently or eat different foods doesn't make them inferior to you. 
 When in doubt, ask. An inquiring attitude never hurts a journalist. 
 A successful newspaper is the result of disciplined teamwork. 
 Working together doesn't have to mean shelving your ambitions. It means channelling them better. 
 There's little point in shouting at people. Better to sweettalk others into doing what you want them to do. 
 A well-timed joke often defuses a tense situation. 
 Make others feel good about themselves after they've talked with you. 
 Never put others down, especially in public. Believe in yourself. 
 Don't try and teach your grandmother how to suck eggs. 
 If you feel like saying something nasty on paper, don't. It will always come back to haunt you. 
 Love your employer but not too much: Never forget that once you've outlived your usefulness, you will be tossed out.

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