Book review: Life and Times of a Newspaperman

The autobiography of KM Mathew, who turned Malayala Manorama from a stagnant newspaper to a formidable media house, is a local tale, the like of which we seldom come across in English.

Written by N.S. Madhavan | Published:February 6, 2016 12:44 am

book-amth-759


 

Title: The Eighth Ring: An Autobiography
Author: KM Mathew
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 416
Price: Rs 699


Jostling for Malayalis’ mind-space are 3Ms — pardon for saying so in these times of acronym excesses — the Marxist Communist Party, Muslim organisations of various persuasions, and Malayala Manorama. Severally they carve out the major share of opinion-making business in Kerala.

The presence of a private enterprise, Manorama, in the list is a bit of an oddity. It was started in the late 19th century, in a language that ranks a lowly tenth among Indian languages, by a family belonging to a numerically weak, faction-ridden Christian denomination in a small town called Kottayam, then at best a canal port of moderate commerce. From such an unlikely, yet adventurous, beginning, Manorama is now one of the top media houses of the world. Before a couple of Hindi dailies leveraged their language’s vast geographical reach through multiple editions, Malayala Manorama was the top regional language daily in India. Besides print media, they have a prominent presence in Malayalam TV and FM, and, in recent times, their signature is growing over the internet.

The person responsible for the transformation is the late KM Mathew, belonging to the third generation of the founding family, and the fourth editor-in-succession. His autobiography in Malayalam, Ettamathe Mothiram, is translated into English as The Eighth Ring, by an anonymous translator, who should have no reason to be coy — it reads well! The book is also the story of the shaping of the remarkable growth-curve of Manorama.

When the patriarch finished the book in 2007, he was 90. The book is marked with equable candour that comes naturally in the winter of one’s life. The author had not set any thematic cardinal points for his tale; it is a series of one random memory triggering another, or a gust of them, falling down like autumnal leaves.

By the time he was 25, Mathew, his family and Manorama had seen their worst days. The newspaper was closed down by a revengeful dewan of Travancore, the redoubtable Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer. This was followed by crippling financial crises. When Mathew took charge of Manorama in 1974, it had put its painful past behind. The newspaper was nearly stagnating with a circulation of around 3,00,000 copies. Gleaning through his reveries, it becomes evident that Mathew saw his task cut out — to make Manorama a leader among newspapers. In 2010, the year of his death, the figure was nudging two million.

Early in his life, Mathew clearly saw technology as a big ally. Rarely has an autobiography by a media personality gone into such depth about printing machines and cutting-edge technology. Mathew travelled around the world looking for printing presses. Pages are devoted to a semi-literate mechanic, a life-long Manorama employee, KR Raghavan, a genius at the Indian art of jugaad, who made broken-down foreign machines magically work.

Towards the end of his life, talk of the extinction of newspapers was growing loud, and Mathew seemed to be aware of that. He prepared Manorama to be available across all platforms over the internet.

He also nuanced Manorama’s politics according to changing times. Back in the 1950s, Manorama was known for its strident anti-communism. It used to run a network of youth clubs, called Balajanasakhyam, which became a nursery for many Congress leaders, including the present chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy.

Back in 1957, urban legend has it that Mathew’s father, and the then editor, KC Mammen Mappillai threatened to commit suicide if the communists come to power. (In the book, Mathew clarified that what he actually said was that in such a case, Kerala would become like Russia, where “one cannot read, think or act independently … the world will no longer be fit to live in. It would be best then to commit suicide.”)

As time passed, attitudes on both sides mellowed. This is best put in Mathew’s words, “Meanwhile the Malayala Manorama, like communism, had changed in response to a new epoch and new trains of thought.” It was Mathew’s pursuit of growth for the paper that pulled it back from stringent anti-communism and positioned it right-of-centre — a good place to be in now, when the right half of the spectrum is crowded by majoritarian ideas.

There is a little parable for family-owned newspapers, which many major papers of the world are, in the title of the book, The Eighth Ring. After Mathew’s mother died, his father got all her gold ornaments melted and made into nine rings, one each for his living children and one for a son’s widow. The book has interesting vignettes of old-world Kerala, of growing up in a large family and setting up business at a time when entrepreneurship was rarely talked about. It is also about the success of a regional language newspaper, a fascinating glocal tale, the like of which we seldom come across in English.

 

NS Madhavan is a noted Malayalam writer
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