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Big ideas, not big words, are important...

He was a good mentor who helped young writers to find the best of themselves.

It was my first day at my first job. I was beckoned into the room of the Editor. Apprehensive, I entered the slightly dim lit, but neatly furnished room. Behind the big rose wood table sat a bespectacled and bearded figure with a glint in his eyes.

“Sit down,” said Abraham Eraly with a mildly amused smile to yet another newbie that had entered his office at Aside Publications. He opened a well-thumbed issue of Time magazine. Here it comes, I thought: this is the kind of standard he is going to set. “Take a look,” he said. I looked and blinked. I was too nervous to register anything unusual. What was I supposed to comment on, at a glance… a story? A picture? A headline?

“Can’t you see?” he said, a little exasperated. “They have printed the same single column article twice!” My jaw dropped. The moral of the story, “the best publications can make mistakes.” The only other piece of advice for the day was, “big words are not important; big ideas are.”

I was just one of the droves of young women and (fewer) young men who learnt to write (and report, and sub, and do layouts and review film ‘stripping’), helped along quite a bit by Aside.  

Despite its feisty start as the Magazine of Madras for the culturally inclined intelligentsia in the late 1970s, by mid 1980s, running an independent print magazine as self-supporting business was near impossible.

 

Work is its own reward!

Ads were few; newsprint was expensive. In the pre liberalisation, pre IT era, people hardly spent on anything but basics. We didn’t have the luxury of working on MS Word. Everything was handwritten, typed and typeset and manually proof-read. That meant Aside had to support quite a large clerical staff. Eraly took on these battles gamely for over a decade.

Things were tough and gave us reasons to hate the man. As young reporter/writers, we walked or took a bus on our beats. Salaries looked the pocket money you give five year olds today. Auto rickshaws or fuel bills would not be reimbursed, we knew. He could be quite ruthless at times. The one mantra that was flung at us whether we subscribed to it or not was “Work is its own reward!”

Though the publication was small, Madras knew about it. We would be invited to every show happening in the city. Quite often we would enter a plush five star hotel for a conference, or a launch with cocktails and dinner, with sweaty faces and worn out shoes. But it was a great life experience. Eraly never cramped a writer’s style. He read every piece and left valuable comments. These not just improved writing style but our very way of looking at life.

 

The freedom to choose topics...

At Aside, Eraly didn’t make us toe any party line or pay court to any business house. We didn’t have to file three murder cases or two rape cases each week. We could pick any political or social phenomenon and do a balanced and unbiased piece as is possible for a young reporter to do. We could write about the latest Madras concern on the politics of water, the morphing of Dravidian parties, the growth of LTTE or just about the suddenly fashion conscious Madras male. Eraly has had to face his share of ruling party ire and ‘summons’ before the party whip. Perhaps this was why we couldn’t make profits, nor continue independently for more than little over a decade.

Eraly finally sold Aside to the Thanthi group and slowly moved out of media and towards writing. He gave us a brilliantly written book on the Moghuls (The Last Spring). Many of us who worked as reporters and sub–editors have moved on to big publications with a space and audience in our own right. Some of us have even written books, with middling success.

Those who knew Eraly outside the office have encountered other, darker, aspects of his personality. But to the young writers, he was a good mentor who helped us find the best of ourselves.

 

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