By Amit Roy
BATUK’S FRIENDS RECALL HIS WIDE EXPERIENCE AND ‘WISE COUNSEL’
BATUK GATHANI, who died last week in London aged 82, was a veteran journalist who represented The Hindu newspaper in India for half a century, starting as its stringer at the age of 25 in Nairobi and retiring at 75 as its London correspondent.
He was also one of the longest serving members of the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA) in the UK and served as its president on three occasions – in the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s.
As IJA president, he welcomed a number of senior politicians to formal banquets, including Edward Heath as prime minister.
In 1982, during the Festival of India in the UK inaugurated by Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, Gathani was asked to act as moderator at one event attended by the Indian and British prime ministers.
Niranjan Desai, who was minister (press) at the Indian High Commission from 1981- 83, recalled a “warm, charming and caring human being”.
He told Eastern Eye: “The one thing I can say about my dear friend Batuk is that when I was posted in London with responsibility to coordinate the Festival of India in Great Britain, I always relied on Batuk’s judgement and advice about various issues”.
Speaking from his home in Delhi, Desai revealed: “There were undercurrents in the High Commission and within the Indian journalist fraternity. There was also tension between India-based journalists and local journalists of Indian papers published in London. It was a huge challenge to navigate these treacherous waters.”
Desai, who had first met Gathani in the early 1960s in Nairobi where he was posted as third secretary at the Indian High Commission, said: “Batuk, being one the most senior journalists and a fellow East African – I originally come from Tanzania – was the one person whom I could trust implicitly to get counsel and advice about how to be conciliatory to these competing and divisive undercurrents. And I can say that his judgement and advice were a great source of comfort and help.
Gathani was born in Nairobi, Kenya, on January 5, 1935, the eldest of four brothers and four sisters. His father, Bachulal Gathani, ran successful businesses called Import Export and General Merchandise and Credit Reporting.
There was also a printing plant where two newspapers were published – the Colonial Times and a Swahili newspaper, Vicho.
Gathani was involved in the business as writer and managing editor but he also began stringing for UPI (United Press of India) and soon for The Hindu.
A reporting assignment took him to Kampala in neighbouring Uganda to interview Dr Muljibhai Patel, a prominent figure in local politics. He was introduced to his daughter, Minal Patel, whom he married on March 23, 1963.
This was the time when the East African countries were struggling to shake off British colonial rule, and were greatly encouraged by the example of India which had become independent in 1947.
Pressure was also building up on the Indian population under a sustained campaign of “Africanisation”. Kenya’s Indian population, 183,000 at one point, would dwindle to under 50,000. In Uganda, Idi Amin expelled the country’s entire Indian population in 1972.
When the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash on September 18, 1961 near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Gathani was sent to investigate.
Impressed, the editor of The Hindu, Gopalan Kasturi, moved Gathani to Beirut in 1972 and to London in February 1973.
In 1995 Gathani, who was interested in European economic matters, shifted to Brussels where he remained for 10 years, rebasing in London in 2005.
Until the end he remained a journalist of the old school, going through The New York Times, The Times, the Financial Times and The Hindu on a daily basis and clipping out articles that interested him.
It was not for him to move into the digital age. He left it to Minal to file his ever-growing pile of clippings. He also continued to subscribe to a collection of magazines such as The Economist.
He would also see to it that any article which excited his interest was emailed to his friends, with lines about India frequently highlighted in yellow.
Recently, he congratulated a colleague who had written about the Padmavati movie controversy in India: “Excellent piece; congratulations; Good slap on face of Hindu Fundos!!”
Another piece, “Where India is ahead of China”, was accompanied by the comment, “Best piece on India!” – a remark that he would often make.
Gathani is survived by his wife, Minal, and their son, Viral, and daughter, Toral. His funeral is scheduled to be held at Golders Green Crematorium in Hoop Lane on Saturday (9).