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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Subrata N Chakravarty

The man who broke the story about the Mahatma's assassination

November 19, 2007


James W Michaels
James W Michaels, 86, the long-time editor of Forbes magazine, was laid to rest on October 8 in Rhinebeck, New York. He died on October 2 of pneumonia.

To most South Asians, Michaels' is best-known for breaking the news of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi [Images] to the rest of the world. The article, and the follow up piece on the funeral are in Simon & Schuster's A Treasury of Great Reporting. So it is, perhaps, fitting that he died on Gandhi Jayanti, the anniversary of Gandhi's birth.

Jim was far more to me than my editor. He was also my mentor and friend. He brought me into journalism, taught me, supported me when others were sceptical of my analysis, and helped me succeed. Still, our principal connection, through the 35 years I was privileged to know him, was his fondness for India.

Jim's involvement with South Asia began in 1943 when joined the American Field Service as a volunteer ambulance driver in Burma (now Myanmar) and India, supporting the British 14th Army.

After the war Michaels became the bureau chief of the United Press in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and then Delhi. He told me how appalled he had been by the 1946 Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta, recalling that one could barely cross a street without stepping over a dead body. He also said he was impressed by the personal risk Gandhi had taken to go on a hunger strike to stop the killing in 'a city gone mad'.

Michaels was the first reporter to write about the war in Kashmir, traveling on horseback to get behind Pakistani lines. He described Pakistani military units marching up to the border in regimental regalia and changing into civilian clothes before crossing the border. Nevertheless, he felt Kashmir wasn't worth the fight.

Jim never wrote a book about India or an article about his coverage of the Gandhi assassination. But in 2004, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the South Asian Journalists Association in its inaugural group, he sent me an e-mail message with the inside tale of the scoop since he couldn't be at the induction himself.

"I was not at the fateful prayer meeting but our stringer, the late P D Sharma, was. He filed a one-sentence flash at the cable office and rushed to get me at the Imperial Hotel. I was shaving and had done half my face when he burst in. I remained half shaven for three days."

As Jim was speeding up Rajpath towards Birla House, where the evening prayers were held, he passed the bureau chief of Agence France [Images] Presse running in the same direction. Jim had told me before that the AFP man was heavy-set, making it hard for him to run in the late January sun. It gave Michaels a critical edge, as he explained in the 2004 e-mail:

"It's hard to visualise, but in those long-ago days there was little automotive traffic in New Delhi. It took me minutes to get to Birla House. I got there before the police had cordoned the property. There was immense confusion, of course, but I scribbled notes and rushed to file what, I believe, was the first detailed report to reach the outside world.

"In those days of long ago, pre-Internet, pre-mobile satellite phones, one had to file overseas from Delhi by cable from the CTO (Central Telegraph Office) at Eastern Court near Connaught Place. By the time I got there to file my first dispatch and returned to the scene, Birla House was cordoned off: no entry to anyone. I knew the place fairly well so I climbed a low stone wall in the back only to confront an astonished constable, who let me pass after I flashed a credential he could not read because he was illiterate. My agile trespass gave me a leg up on most other foreign journalists because they couldn't get inside for some time.

"Once back on the Birla property I was a minor player in unforgettable scenes. I will single out Pandit (Jawaharlal) Nehru, standing, as I recall, on a low stone wall, tears unashamedly streaming down his face, addressing the crowds that had assembled almost by magic. I do not have his exact words handy but as I remember them, he said, "The father of our country is dead." (Nehru's words, Jim wrote at the time, were: 'Bapu is finished,' the headline of his story. � SNC]

"I was only 26, too young and inexperienced to have become cynical yet. I, too, was close to tears. My emotional response stoked my energy and enabled me to stay ahead of my more seasoned rivals on what turned out to be the global news story of the year."

Jim's bond with India was a lasting affair. Over the years he visited India many times, interviewed five prime ministers (including current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] when he was finance minister.) He encouraged us to write about India at a time when no other business publication cared about the Indian economy or its potential.

I had been badgering him for more than six months to let me go to India to write about India's economic liberalisation, and he kept teasing me that all I wanted was to have a vacation. But he'd clearly been thinking about it. He, Steve Forbes and I had lunch in April 1992 with Jack Welch, the chief executive of General Electric Co. I asked Welch what he thought about GE's prospects in India. His eyes lit up and he said India was "a mega-market of the 21st century."

As we walked back to our offices after lunch, Jim said: "Okay. Go." No discussion; just a decision.

My story was the first major story about India's reforms. Michaels gave it an unusually large amount of space, and it won an award from the Overseas Press Club. Later, Jim told me his hesitation was not from lack of interest. He had been waiting only to see signs of real results. The fact is, at that time, Jim Michaels was the only editor who was willing to devote the space to a story on India.

Throughout his career at Forbes Jim Michaels' belief was that if a story wasn't fresh, it should not be written. He had a contrarian point of view -- that if the herd was running one way, the story was quite often in the other direction. Readers, he believed, should never look at an issue of Forbes and say, "I read that story in Fortune last week." And he encouraged writers to express their opinions -- to be, as he often said, "the drama critic of business," bluntly judging the performance of top management.

When I got to Forbes in 1972, it was a fourth- or fifth-place magazine in a two-magazine market. When he stepped down at the end of 1998 he had built Forbes into what was unarguably the best business magazine in the country. Jim's interest in India -� and my brashness -- very nearly made my first story my last. We hadn't spent a lot of time talking about the job, just about India.

At the end of a lunch meeting I asked him to describe the process of putting out a Forbes story. His reply: "You come up with an idea, I approve it, you research and write it, I edit it, it gets fact-checked and goes to press."

A kid with a business degree from a top school, I cockily asked: "What if I don't like how you edited it?" He blinked. Rookie reporters just don't ask such questions of editors for whom they hope to work � then said, "Well, you fix it and we talk about it."

I wrote a negative story on a major company with a spectacular growth rate and a high-flying stock. I said the growth rate was a sham and that the company had been built by exploiting women. Michaels circulated the draft to Forbes' senior editors, who unanimously scoffed at it. Jim toned down the story dramatically.

I hated the edit. Weeks of research had been left on the cutting-room floor and replaced with gentle scepticism. So I re-edited the story. An hour later, the phone rang and a gravelly voice said: "Subrata, who is the editor of this magazine?"

No identification. None required. "You are, sir," I said.

"That's right, and I'll thank you to remember that when I edit a story it stays edited." The phone slammed down.

I hurried to Michaels' office and found him slumped in his chair, glowering. He looked at me and said: "Don't come in here now. I'm too mad to talk to you."

"Mr Michaels, I did exactly what you told me," I said. Jim shot up in his chair, glaring at me.

"I never told you to rewrite me."

"Yes, you did," I said. As I recalled our months-earlier conversation, he relaxed and even got a tiny smile.

"Well, I misspoke," he said. "I meant we would talk about what you could change. Now, you've added 150 lines to the cover story, and it's already laid out. So get out of here so I can fit it again." I left, thanking my stars to be still having a job, but assuming his edit would stand. To his credit, when the next version came out, Jim had removed mostly his caveats.

Fortunately for me, I was correct. The company's stock fell from almost $130 a share to $17 as its results bore out my analysis. Michaels continued to mention that story in every reference to my work ever after. But it was his willingness to support a young reporter in the face of unanimous opposition that I remember most. Of course, it is a rookie mistake one can only make once.

In a decidedly Indian act, Jim wrote to my father to tell him I was doing well in my chosen profession. I can't imagine another executive doing such a thing, but my father -- who had worried about the debt I had taken on getting an MBA -- treasured the letter the rest of his life.

The India connection remained throughout Jim Michaels' life. His younger son Robert studied at St Stephens College in Delhi. When Rob and his wife Ann decided to adopt, it was to Pune they went. I met their three lovely girls -- Sudha, Anita and Smita -- for the first time at the funeral service, although I had heard about them for years. They addressed Jim as Ajoba -- grandfather in Marathi.

The funeral had touches of India and Mahatma Gandhi, both intended and not. The poems came from a book of poetry Jim had bought more than 60 years ago in Pune. The programme noted that the hymn Lead, Kindly Light was one Jim first heard at Gandhi's prayer meetings.

The second hymn, Abide with Me was chosen by Jean Briggs, Jim's wife of 22 years and a colleague and friend at Forbes, because she likes it. As it happens, it was Gandhi's favorite hymn.

Every year, on January 29, military bands join together in one massed group for the Beating of the Retreat. They march up Raisina Hill from Vijay Chowk to Rashtrapati Bhavan [Images].

When I was quite young I went to the Beating of the Retreat each year. The children sat on the ground in front of the grandstand. By Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's order, the last piece played was always Abide with Me.

Just before dusk, camels from the army's Camel Corps appeared on the ramparts of the secretariat buildings and Abide with Me began. Nehru would gather his grandsons, Rajiv and Sanjay, in his arms as they listened. Midway through, a lone bugler would play a chord from the ramparts. The bells of the nearby Anglican Cathedral would reply. Invariably, I saw Nehru had tears running down his cheeks.

Earlier this week I had a small sense of what Nehru was feeling. I couldn't sing. I wouldn't cry. I just felt a profound sense of loss for a man whose faults I knew and whose virtues and contributions I respected enormously. I will miss him more than I can say.

Subrata N Chakravarty, a former assistant managing editor of Forbes, joined the magazine in 1972.


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