The first time I took a cab to Hitkari House in Mumbai’s Fort area, it was a cloudy July evening, with the promise of rain. Already the city was thinning out, as people left their workplaces, in the city’s south, for home. My first impressions weren’t very promising. A tall yellowing building loomed over me, and outside its metaled gate, one panel open, slouched thickset moustached men who looked somewhat thuggish. But this was where the Economic and Political Weekly was, one of them confirmed and then worryingly, accompanied me to the darkened lobby—if one could call it that—where the elevator, its grilled doors open, waited.
The young operator with dreamy eyes, who was always reading something, took me up to the sixth floor. Not too long later, I’d learn he was from Nepal. I noticed moments after stepping out, an elderly lady to my right, stretched out on the landing, taking up most available space. After I came to work for the EPW, I’d learn she had been living there a few months; the mother of one of the roughnecks I’d encountered on my first visit. One day she disappeared. It was only a matter of time, I was told. Krishna Raj, the Editor, and everyone there had let her live on that landing till her living arrangements were sorted out.
It was the strangest of beginnings, in that place, for the magazine I worked for eight years. I can still recollect most details, even though the EPW has long since moved its offices to Parel. The Nepali elevator boy would tell me about the struggle going on in his country. Years before it happened, he told me the king was bound to go. But he disappeared long before the king abdicated in 2008.
Disappearances, I now realise, were quite in the pattern of things there. Strangely those who managed the EPW’s website seemed most susceptible to pulling a sudden vanishing act. Appearances too were just as unexpected. Like the people who came from afar to meet the editor. They traipsed down the narrow aisle, past the cubicles, big and small that branched off, divided by the plywood half-walls coloured white and red, the EPW’s signature shades, as they headed to the Editor’s cabin at the very end. For the rest of us, these arrivals presaged wild moments of excitement. We peered over cubicle walls to look our fill at every such exotic personage, who appeared, like comets in the night sky, and we would wish so much for an introduction. It was usually Padma, the deputy editor, who could, in turns, be quirky and charming, whom we usually cajoled.
Once every year, the landlord himself made an appearance. Abrasive and with a wild mop of unruly orange hair, he would sweep down that aisle to issue his annual warning – about tenancy matters — to the editor. Krishna Raj would fob him off year after year, with his customary charm and his ability to appear attentive while not really listening—he could be this way with some people—but it was left to Ram Reddy, who fed up with this annual spectacle, ensured a more permanent place for the EPW, the Parel office where it lives on now. The landlord always left long moments of stunned silence in his wake. It was far more pleasant to run into his son, a model and stage actor. One met him in the elevator when he made occasional rare visits to his father’s office.
The Editor’s cabin—for it was bigger than the cubicles around—had always been there at the corner, even after the office saw a small renovation in 2000, when the cubicles appeared, neat and distinct, and more importantly, the typewriters gave way to desktop computers. A few typewriters remained though, and a man from the far suburbs would come by every often, to oil the keys, and change the ribbon. He wore glasses with heavy frames, and neat sandals, and always looked cheerful, and I wondered if he ever felt sad that this job he did, wandering around various offices checking on typewriters—some familiar to him like old friends—was doomed to disappear one day, too soon.
When I joined the EPW, I did think the location of the Editor’s cabin indicated his importance, but it ideally matched who Krishna Raj was. He would turn up usually around afternoon—the time the ‘local trains’ were less crowded—and make his way down that same aisle, his head turning this way, then that as he greeted everyone. First, the EPW’s “pillars” whom one met immediately on entering that sixth floor office. The “pillars”— because by their sheer longevity they held up the journal—were the ones who in shifts ran errands, managed the office, and every Monday, disappeared to Borivali to the press, where the print copies were lined up, arranged, duly ‘enveloped’, and dispatched to the post office to make their way to subscribers. A weekly routine that never varied, like some daily ones too: I remember my colleagues turning up to office every morning, the quiet efficiency as they began their day, their predictable trip to the switchboard to turn on the fan, the time before the EPW became fully airconditioned. The switchboard just where Leela, often dreaming of poetry and Garcia Marquez, had her small cubicle.
As for the office, everything about it soon became memorized like the lines on one’s hand. That main narrow aisle branching off into warren-like offices, with two smaller aisles breaking off on the left. Deepali, with the lilt in her voice, always there somewhere at the beginning, her desk cordoned off by the shelf with a bronzed bust of Sachin Choudhuri, the Economic Weekly’s (later the EPW) founder.
The circulation section was just across. First Shetty, with his clammy handshake, and then, Gauraang, whose first name was always invariably misspelled on subscription request forms, and Sharma, with the slouching gait, and forever greying hair, who had been there for ages. Vijaykumar, whose shirts always looked a pristine white despite the city he traversed every day, appeared just after; and adjacent to his office, you’d meet Nutan and Kamal, who managed advertisements and even now, I cannot picture them with a frown on their faces. Satish, the accounts man, who had an apt cricket analogy for everything. And just before you met the Editor, there was Mr. Prasad—the girls called him Mr. P—who first noticed the fleeting sadness in KR’s face long before we did.
Mid-office ran an aisle that soon branched off to the left. Passing the range of computers and Asha, almost wedded to the all-important printer to her right, it ended in a small rectangular half-room. The occasional visitor to the EPW sought respite here, in those old wood-cane chairs, with a bound volume of old issues for company. Some of my colleagues also gathered here for lunch. A moment always signaled when James turned up. He travelled from the far suburb of Vasai—closer to Gujarat, as some of us teased—but to me, James looked like someone who had stepped out of a novel. At that exact moment when, on the road below, an unknown flutist, a vendor of sorts, played an old Hindi song. I always associate that song now with gentle summer days, the clinking of cutlery, and the sound of lunchtime chatter. James would appear all a-perspiring, grinning and bespectacled, and join the ladies for lunch. Whether at lunch or any moment, he was ready with his homespun wisdom and his jokes, but I remember most the way he had of looking at the crows, and oftentimes, gulls too, that gathered every sundown on the red-tiled buildings across the road. His glasses seemed all glazed then, and I think now, he must have missed seeing the birds in the Parel office.
The birds would sit in an orderly line right where the roof sloped, and the sun often turned the tiles orange. The office was then quiet but at its busiest. Little noise appeared to reach that high sixth floor office, with its smell of old books and paper, the noise of the old fans churning wearily overhead. There was that one year, the time the ever-conscientious Lina, and tall, strapping Bernard with his knee-length ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ kurtas, came on the scene, when the heat became unbearable some afternoons. And the air conditioners were installed. I always think their arrival in that sweet, slow-changing office as the most sudden thing that ever happened.