The accusation of rape by US-based journalist Pallavi Gogoi against MJ Akbar, former minister of state who headed several newspapers and magazines in India, changes the dynamics completely.
From fighting a battle to clear his name in court and taking on spearhead complainant Priya Ramani, Akbar now faces possible criminal charges. Once you get written about as a rape-accused in The Washington Post you know you are in the deep end of the toxic pool.
So who is this guy that willed over 30 articulate, intelligent women into silence for decades after he allegedly misbehaved?
It is very difficult to make the jump from the almost shy, reticent and quiet guy-in-the-corner image of Akbar when he joined us in the Illustrated Weekly of India as part of Khushwant Singh's crack team in the 70s, to now being this obnoxious "predator".
MJ, as we called Akbar, was reasonably pleasant, hardly made a mark in social terms and while colleagues like Jiggs Kalra, Badshah Sen, Ramesh Chander, and even myself painted Mumbai a mild red, we saw Akbar as a 70s nerd. To a certain extent he was droll, had a sharp wit about himself and sometimes displayed a certain haughtiness as if we were all wasting our time without a sense of purpose. He hated public speaking and was not the life of the party. I recall we went to Aurangabad for an Indian Airlines event and he refused to come up on stage when his name was called. Stage fright.
I cannot vouch for their opinion but it would be a relatively safe bet to say that the female colleagues like N Lakshmi, Rina Sarkar, Bachi Karkaria, Dina Vakil, Elizabeth Rao " all of them highly accomplished writers " hardly saw Akbar as some sort of an Adonis. On the contrary, he was often deadly pedantic and dreary and though we did suspect he had a political agenda and was far too bookish for us he wouldn't have made the second round of a popularity contest.
When you are in your 20s and working on the top magazine in the country you are socially enjoying being someone. In contrast his solemnity was laughable. We all were busy living it up except Akbar who was not the name that came to mind as a trendsetter or go to guy. No one said oops, we forgot him, let's call Akbar and make a night of it. In fact, when we heard that he and Mallika were getting married we all had that 'what did she see in him?' reaction.
A silent worker may be but I cannot recall one incident where anyone complained about his conduct. We all figured out even then that he had a political savvy way beyond the rest of the crew and while we were busy rat packing and party-planning Akbar was being groomed by politician Rafiq Zakaria, Jnanpith award winner Qurratulain Hyder and also Khushwant, perhaps, for bigger things in the political firmament.
For me, it's definitely not easy to make the leap from a relatively ho-hum boring guy who married Mallika to being this grotesque figure who suddenly had this Rasputin-like ability to stun so many intelligent women into silent submission. I would go as far as to submit that it is laughable in the extreme to visualise it. Except that it isn't a laughing matter anymore or something I can wish away. But what continues to perplex me is the often-used label of being in awe of Akbar. Most of the women who are now levelling these horrific accusations share this awe and have used it as the reason for lowering their guard and being vulnerable to his blandishments.
Having spent a fair amount of time sharing a desk with him on the fourth floor of the Times of India building in Bori Bunder, Mumbai, it is this avatar of his that I find difficult to comes to terms with.
Journalists by their very nature are not in awe of anyone. Editors are held in genial contempt and so it should be. We were not in awe of even Khushwant. There was nothing so outstanding about Akbar as to be so star-struck. Editors were never supposed to be matinee idols and journalists star-dazzled teeny boppers. Journalists were supposed to question everything and everybody; cynicism our best insurance policy. I don't know when and how these newsroom norms changed so much to allow one ordinary man to wield so much power over so many intelligent people.
Without making it sound like an excuse for his behaviour, I wonder if all that adulation and awe contributed to the transformation in the man. When you are a wallflower you can con yourself into being aggressive and compensate for your sense of social inadequacy, especially if you are catapulted into a seat of power. If you misbehave and get away with it you add another brick to your invincibility. You get a sense of entitlement. Perks of the job.
After The Illustrated Weekly our careers took different turns. I met him a few times socially in the late 80s and early 90s. I would like to say that at dinner in his beautiful home in Kolkata and then again at the ILO in Geneva with Rajiv Gandhi, he had changed and become arrogant and absorbed by his own hubris. But that would be a lie. He was just ho-hum Akbar enjoying being heartily loathed by his peer group something he perversely worked at, a bit indifferent and impatient with the likes of us whom he felt he had professionally and intellectually outgrown.
Even at The Asian Age where these alleged infringements and assaults took place, it wasn't as if it had taken the newspaper world by storm. Yes, it was a challenge to The Statesman but it didn't rework the national media pyramid and even in Kolkata after a dip, The Statesman survived.
They say people change. Perhaps. But surely we should have seen shades of it at the beginning. If someone had just smacked him one hard across his face instead of being in awe maybe the monster would have deflated, more's the pity.