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B G Verghese: An editor and gentleman who was always prepared for a rainy day

In everyone’s career, there are always some benefactors. Often, they don’t even know that they had helped you along, or how. For me, George Verghese, one of the few gentlemen in a profession where they are in short supply, was one of three such persons.

When Swaminathan Aiyar – another benefactor – decided to go off to the World Bank in 1985 from The Indian Express, Mr Verghese, who was editor at the time, had me moved into his job as the economics writer from the Financial Express.

We worked together for a brief period, barely eight months, because in July 1986, he retired. But in that short time, I learnt three very important things from him.

The first was the need for good manners and professional courtesy, even under extreme provocation. I saw the self-control and politeness on a couple of occasions.

The second was the need to be always prepared for contingencies. When there was a shortage of editorials, he would reach down into the bottom drawer and pull one out that he had written for just such a rainy day.

The third was to be brief and precise, both in writing and in speech. I have never seen anyone who could speak or write with such clarity and precision. Just as well-groomed people never have hair out of place, Mr Verghese never had a word or thought out of place. It was always marvellous to listen to him and to read him. He wrote many books and research papers after 1985.

The editorial meetings, held sharp at 10 every morning for about 30-35 minutes, were where he interacted with three or four of us assistant editors. He would start off with a brief comment on the day’s news and then cock an eyebrow at each of us.

We had to make our suggestions for editorials, and since The Indian Express carries three of these each day it often meant writing five times a week on whatever economics topic he thought was worth commenting on. These could be very diverse.

That was also my first exposure to ‘soft’ economics – public health, primary education, community medicine and that sort of thing. For him, these things were more important than the plan models, budget deficits, monetary policy, the investment rate and such like. In his concerns lay his essence.

These concerns were driven by a very strong moral sense, which was always present. The strong imperative to always do the right thing was almost an obsession with him. It was little wonder that Khushwant Singh used to refer to him as St George.

My high point with him was on Budget night of 1986. He cleared my edit without any changes. For me, that was worth a million dollars.

LIFE’S WORK
  • BORN: June 21, 1927, in Maymyo, Burma (now Myanmar)
  • EDUCATION: Doon School, Dehra Dun. Studied economics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and later at Trinity College, Cambridge, UK

CAREER

  • Started his career in journalism with The Times of India. Was editor of the Hindustan Times (1969-75) and The Indian Express (1982-86). Verghese was with the Centre for Policy Research since 1986.
  • He was information advisor to prime minister Indira Gandhi (1966-69). He was also a Gandhi Peace Foundation Fellow for some years after the Emergency, and information consultant to the defence minister during 2001
  • Verghese had served on a number of official and unofficial boards and committees and was associated with a number of NGOs. He was chairman of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi, and a distinguished fellow of the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad
  • Verghese was a member of the Kargil Review Committee and co-author of the Kargil Review Committee Report tabled in Parliament

RECOGNITION

  • Recipient of the Magsaysay Award in 1975; Assam’s Sankaradeva Award for 2005, and the Upendra Nath Brahma Soldier of Humanity Award in July 2013

BOOKS

  • Design for tomorrow; Waters of Hope; Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers; Winning the Future; India’s Northeast Resurgent; Reorienting India; Rage, Reconciliation and Security; Warrior of the Fourth Estate; First Draft: Witness to Making of Modern India

After he retired from The Indian Express, I met him perhaps twice or thrice a year at seminars and talks. The last time was at the end of October at a talk given by Romila Thapar on the BJP’s view of history.

He looked very frail and we talked briefly – with the usual precision and clarity. But one could see, with mild alarm which has now turned into sadness, that all was not well.

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