Pothan Joseph (1892–1972) A Free-Thinking and Fiercely Independent Editor in Modern India

Author: 

Dr. J. V. Vil’anilam

Nearly a century and a quarter ago, Pothan Joseph was born on 13 March 1892 as the second son of C. I. Joseph of Oor’ayil House, Chengannur, in central Travancore, the southern part of today’s Kerala. In those days Kerala was “just an idea” and it consisted of Travancore (a princely state under the maharajahs of Travancore) in the south, Kochi/Cochin (another princely state) at the centre, and Malabar (a part of Madras Presidency) in the north. What united these three parts was the common language of Kerala, namely, Malayalam (pronounced Malayaal’am). The integration of these three parts into the state of Kerala occurred during the state reorganization of India on a linguistic basis on 1 November 1956.
“Pothan” was a first name for Kerala Christians who in the early days sometimes used rare biblical names for their children. For them, Yohannan was John, Philipose was Philip, Mariamma was Mary, Annamma was Ann, Saramma was Sara(h), Scaria was Zachariah, and Varughese was George. The nomenclature followed among Kerala Christians deserves special attention. Time and space do not permit me to examine the system. Suffice it to say that “Pothan,” “Matthen,” “Mulk,” etc were originally Hebrew names generously adopted by the Syrian Christians of Kerala who trace their origin to St Thomas the Apostle of Jesus Christ, who landed in Muziris (Cranganore) in 52 A. D. for evangelical work. Pothan’s father adopted a typical English name for his first son—George, instead of Geevarghese or Varghese, the Syrian Christian equivalents. George Joseph was a famous lawyer and freedom fighter who practised law in Madurai, halfway between Madras and Chengannur.
In his Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru refers to how he and five others were considered “troublemakers” in the Lucknow District Jail. Among the “troublemakers” were George Joseph, Balkrishna Sharma, Purushottam Das Tandon, Mahadev Desai, and Devadas Gandhi. Nehru and other “troublemakers” were transferred to a distant part of the jail, away from the main building!
No writing on Pothan can ignore his elder brother George Joseph because George, a barrister and later a political activist, an avid reader, and noted scholar had a great influence on Pothan from his younger days.
After completing his school education at Chengannur, Pothan went to Kottayam, about 22 miles from his native place, for his two-year intermediate course at the CMS College there. It was perhaps the oldest college in the south. (It was established in 1816.) But what is interesting is that Pothan had got married even before he became an undergraduate in college! Well, those were the days of child marriages. We know that both Mohandas and Kasturba were just 13 when they got married!
Pothan took his Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from the Madras Presidency College where he had the rare opportunity of cultivating friendship with some potentially great men—Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, our statesman–philosopher President, for example.
Pothan’s father wanted him to become an engineer or a scientist, but Pothan’s wife Anna and her father urged him to become a lawyer. Pothan took his LLB, from the University of Bombay, but a few months of legal practice at the High Court in Trivandrum put his legal ambitions to flight as he himself discovered that the law was not his cup of tea.
Then he worked in Kandy in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as a lecturer/teacher in the Trinity College there, but he did not like teaching and he left Ceylon. But surprisingly, he took up teaching again in the Wesley High School, Secunderabad. His prolific reading of the English classics, Shakespeare, the Bible, and top-rated essays and fiction of the 19th century had already made writing second nature to him.
While in Secunderabad, he got a chance to write a column in the Hyderabad Bulletin, owned by Colonel R. H. Cameron. Thus he got his first regular journalistic job—writing a column—at the handsome rate of Rs 3 per column! He immersed himself in that job and was thrilled that writing a column gave him a satisfaction which neither teaching nor law could offer him.
However, southern India was not the best area for journalism in the early years of the 20th century. Except for The Hindu, there was no English newspaper of note in the south. Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Lahore, and Lucknow were certainly better grounds for English journalism, Pothan concluded.
The Bombay Chronicle edited by the famous Britisher, B. G. Horniman, an honest sympathizer with the Indian nationalist cause, was popular in Bombay but Pothan Joseph did not get an opportunity to meet Horniman despite his earnest efforts to do so. Somehow he dragged his days in Bombay, trying to meet the great editor. Again, teaching helped him to survive in the big city during his waiting period. He even applied for the job of a warden in a ladies’ hostel. This hostel was under the overall supervision of no less a personality than the “Nightingale of India” Sarojini Naidu. She one day remarked jokingly to Pothan that “a dark, handsome young man of his calibre would make the wardenship of a girls’ hostel a little too dangerous for all parties concerned!”
At long last, a couple of senior journalists introduced him to Horniman. Joseph found this quite exciting. Horniman called Pothan Joseph “Potent Joe” and Pothan called his boss, “Gov’nor.” The two got along very well. The friendship gave him many opportunities to observe the mindset of freedom fighters at close quarters, especially because those were the days when the political movement under Gandhiji’s leadership was gaining momentum.
 In the words of Jaiboy Joseph, son of Pothan Joseph, who reminisced about his father: 
‘‘As an editor, my father had the unique distinction of working with personalities as diverse as Annie Besant, Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and C. Rajagopalachari. Eminent men like Pat Lovett (editor of Capital), Samuel Shepherd and B. G. Horniman had a fondness for him. Father also knew Lokmanya Tilak and wrote an article about a train journey with him…. For my mother, who died in 1948, life with this restless genius was not easy; but she was a devoted and patient wife who would not brook anything said against her husband. (Illustrated Weekly of India, 15 August 1976)’’
 Pothan Joseph (PJ, as he was known to his close friends) had become a legend in his lifetime. During his remarkably adventurous life, he could edit about 20 daily newspapers and journals, many of which he nursed from inception. 
Although a powerful editor whose words were respected by both enemies and friends, he never cared for money. Perhaps he was a dreamer and a philosopher who did not care much for money or material comforts. Many are the instances of his spurning big monetary offers. But he was always honest, frank, and straightforward. He knew his weaknesses. Look at what a Viceroy once mentioned in his memo to Lord Amery, Secretary of State: Pothan was “sparkling and witty” but “bibulous.” He once stayed with Gandhiji for a course in reformation and teetotalism, but he left the ashram in the third week without having the courage to tell Bapuji that he would rather be an honest sinner than a hypocrite. J. N. Sahni, author of Truth about the Indian Press, gives details about this and other anecdotes in Pothan’s life.
According to many senior journalists, Pothan Joseph was at the peak of his creative genius during 1924–1944, when he edited the Hindustan Times, the Indian Express, the Dawn of Pakistan, and other newspapers, and finally worked as the Government of India’s Principal Information Officer under Lord Wavell in 1944. Of course he rolled from job to job like a beautiful and multicoloured butterfly. But when some good friend told him with genuine concern, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” PJ asked him with a mischievous smile, “What’s the use of moss to a stone?”
One cannot forget that this great genius, according to Sahni, was a great acquisition for The Hindustan Times “at a time when it was fast losing in circulation as well as prestige.” To quote Jaiboy:
‘‘We were then staying atop the old Hindustan Times building on Burn Bastion Road, Old Delhi, and among the faces I remember as a small boy in that period in the editorial department of the paper, were those of Sham Lal, Durga Das, Edathata Narayanan, G. V. Krupanidhi, Chamanlal, and Shankar, the cartoonist.
In fact, it was Pothan Joseph who invited Shankar to join the newspaper, marking his start as the father of Indian cartooning.’’
He left the newspaper for a prolonged stay in Europe in 1936 and wrote about his meeting with Gerald Heard, H. G. Wells, George Moore, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. After his return to India, he joined the Indian Express in 1938. He also interacted with great political personalities such as Chou En-lai.
Pothan Joseph who had championed the cause of the Congress felt uncomfortable when the communal problem flared up. When he accepted Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s invitation to edit the Delhi paper Dawn, several eyebrows were raised, but according to Jaiboy Joseph, “Father had written many an article directed at saving the unity of the country. One ingenious study, a plan called the ‘Transverse Device’ was distributed to opinion-makers as a reprint on the suggestion of C. Rajagopalachari.”
 In his discussions with his father about his temporary association with Jinnah, Jaiboy could conclude that his father joined Jinnah in the hope of persuading that important leader of the Muslim League at that time to rethink about Partition. Finally he left Jinnah and the Dawn in 1944 with these words: “There is a limit to which I can stretch my logic about Partition.”
From Dawn, Pothan Joseph went to the Principal Information Officer’s job. But journalism was his first love and he had some bitter experiences with British bureaucrats. Once, this fiercely independent journalist lost his cool when George Abell, Viceroy Wavell’s chief adviser and political aide, was overheard at a dinner party referring to him as “that black man.” He simply punched Abell and walked out of the party as well as the job of the Principal Information Officer in the British Government of India.
As a free thinker and humanist, Pothan Joseph did always demand editorial freedom, and upheld that the proprietors of newspapers should take good care of those who worked in the editorial wing and should never encroach upon their freedom. Very often he would defend the freedom of the editor and also the editorial staff. Even before unionization came, he pleaded for proper payment to deserving journalists.
Was he a bohemian? To some extent, yes; but he never shirked his responsibilities or spoiled his duties as an editor. He was, as mentioned before, well-versed in English classics and contemporary world literature. Though many of his fair-weather friends never lost a chance to enjoy adverse comments about him, they always maintained that he was the embodiment of sincerity and honesty. Occasionally he indulged in sarcasm and irony, and quite often his sense of humour saved him from embarrassing situations. Jinnah once told him plainly that he (Pothan) was “elevating himself spiritually” too often and too much. Jinnah got quite a startling but scintillating reply: “Mr. Jinnah, your parents were thoughtful enough to put ‘gin’ in your name. As for me, I have to fend for myself.”1  One famous example of PJ’s brilliance as an editor with a flair for language and legal acumen was the “apology” he tendered through the Bombay Chronicle. When a resolution in the Bombay Legislative Council was rejected (it was about the selection of the Municipal Commissioner), Pothan Joseph wrote: “Men who behave like dogs should be treated like dogs.”
The paper was asked to apologise and he complied. If the odious comparison of municipal councillors to dogs offended the members and officials, Pothan gave a larger dose of “dogs” in his apology; he referred to the Home Member of the then Viceroy’s Executive Council as the faithful watchdog of the legislature’s rights. In his one-para apology, the word “dog” appeared at half a dozen places! His brilliant apology had to be accepted.
But his greatest service to journalism was that he could spot the best journalists and get them under his fold. During his editorship of the Hindustan Times (1932–1936), as mentioned, he could mould a team of excellent editors and a great cartoonist. In 1938 Ramnath Goenka bought the Indian Express, “a struggling newspaper “in Madras. Pothan who had returned from his two-year stint in Europe took up its editorship and put it on its feet with his crusading editorials and a popular column, “Over a Cup of Tea.”
This most thought-provoking and witty column in the Indian Express was started in the 1920s when he and Horniman had brought out the Voice of India. It was revived in the late 1930s when he edited the Indian Express. PJ wrote this column for 40 years. From it one could learn history, geography, physics, philosophy, and literature. It was a column full of humour, irony, worldly wisdom, and truly memorable linguistic expressions that every writer would benefit from.
PJ rejoined the Indian Express in 1946, but left to settle down in Bangalore where he edited a new daily Deccan Herald, and eventually Swarajya at the insistence of Rajaji. Bangalore became his place of permanent residence for the rest of his life and offered him new habits—morning walks, swimming, and other physical exercises.
During this period, despite all his outward exuberance and ebullience, he nursed bouts of sadness in his personal life because of some tragic experiences. The deaths of his dear and devoted wife, Anna, and their oldest daughter, Gracie, had made ineffaceable dents on his inner self, and perhaps like Charles Lamb he laughed to save himself from tears. And despite his tragic accident late in life, while crossing a street close to his house in Bangalore, and the “cabined, cribbed, and confined” life that followed, he tried to be as cheerful as he could, reading and conversing with friends. At the age of 80, PJ passed away peacefully on 2 November 1972.
PJ will always be remembered as a great journalist endowed with profound scholarship, sense of humour, deep convictions, inimitable skills in writing and editing, and above all a daring that many greedy quill-drivers in today’s media world lack. Above all, he had the straightforwardness to uphold the special role of the Editor in the media business.