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Not Much Change Here

The author reminisces about what the media had to say decades ago when India won her independence…

What were things like on the first Independence Day 60-odd years ago? A Mumbai newspaper (Times of India) brought out a taesimile edition of its August 15, 1947 issue, complete with grainy photographs and advertisements, which would not look out of place even after 64 years. And there are, of course, the famous speeches from the constituent assembly, along with a full page devoted to films, which then as now, seems to have overshadowed everything, and another full page to business news, though the word business, which had a slightly down market ring at the time, is not mentioned.

Things have apparently not changed all that much since then, at least where politics is concerned. Mahatma Gandhi was in Calcutta, not Delhi, preparing to go on yet another fast, just like our own Anna Hazare 64 years later. After Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” address came a speech by Dr Radhakrishnan, who, says the reporter, “pointed out the sores in body politic” and urged every Indian to pledge himself to purge the society of, guess what, corruption! Incidentally, The Mahatma did not fast alone; along with him were two Muslim League leaders, one of whom, Surhawardy, had been chief minister of Bengal. What fun it would it be if Dr Manmohan Singh also fasted along with Anna Hazare, but Singh is not the fasting type!

The film page refers to half a dozen new film released that week, one starring Dilip Kumar and another, Raj Kapoor, both of whom feature in the ads in second or third positions, and dismissed in the reviews as also-rans. “Raj Kapoor is stagey and unimpressive”, says the critics, “in a role that doesn’t give him much scope”. Dilip Kumar is not mentioned in the review at all. Raj Kapoor’s film was Neel Kamal, and Dilip Kumar’s Milan.

The stock market page lists lots of companies, most of which have disappeared from sight. There are about 25 cotton mills, but only one of them, Bombay Dyeing, survives. There are still five Tata companies, all of which are surprisingly still very active. There are, of course, several banks, but they have all been taken over by government. There are some airline companies, but they too have vanished. Incidentally, there is no Sensex, and, of course, no mutual funds.

Gold is quoted at Rs 109, presumably per tola, since there were no grams then. Dollar is quoted at Rs 4.04, but when I had left India a couple of years earlier, it was closer to Rs 5.

The advertisements are a delight, though nothing much seems to have changed. Colgate, always on the uptake where marketing is concerned, seems to have booked a strip at the bottom of almost every page, with a big ad on the front page, “Are you still living with the pain of sensitive tooth?” it asks. But this is also what it asks in its latest ad on TV. “Colgate is a brand recommended by dentists,” says another ad, exactly what the current crop of dentists saying! Other prominent ads are, you probably would have guessed, Glaxo and Bata, which have been in India, going by the ads, long before the British came here. There is also a biggish, and slightly pompous ad by a company called Standard-Vacuum Oil Company, which later put up a refinery in Bombay. It advertises something called Mobilgas, and also some lubricants. Incidentally, the company was taken over a few years later when the oil companies were nationalized.

Where was I when all this was happening in India? I was far away in London, and on the eve of independence, was being shown round India office, the headquarters of the British empire in India, none other than the secretary of state for India Lord Pethick-Lawrence. There were about a dozen of us and we were being entertained to tea and biscuits, apparently the only things left with them after losing the empire! When most of my colleagues left, I stayed behind, and, for a minute or two, put my feet on the solid teak chair once occupied by the likes of Minto and Morley and other grandees. How else could I have celebrated my Independence Day!