CP Kuruvilla: A towering business newsman you may never have heard about

On Valentine’s Day, CP Kuruvilla, 74, former Executive Editor of Business Standard, “crossed the bar” for the last time in his life. He breathed his last after an extended illness. With him died an era of fearless journalism that we will probably never see again.

Few people outside a charmed circle of journalists and protégés would have heard of him, but he represented all that was exciting about business journalism, starting from the mid-1970s onward.

CP Kuruvilla. Image courtesy:  Business Standard

CP Kuruvilla. Image courtesy: Business Standard

Kuruvilla was the man who reinvented Business Standard from the dull and unappetising state he found it in when he was recruited by Aveek Sarkar of the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group in 1976 as News Editor. For 20 years after that, this newspaper made waves in the world of business even though it had no presence outside Kolkata (then Calcutta). I am told readers in Mumbai would wait for the afternoon to bring in the paper, to find out what “inside” gossip it had for the day. BS hit its peak under TN Ninan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it was substantially on the base laid by Kuruvilla.

Just two columns carried by Business Standard at various stages in its life-cycle will tell you what Kuruvilla’s journalism was all about: one was FTF (From the Files), a gossipy column of short stories filed largely by the Delhi bureau, dealing with the neta-babu world, its games, its petty politicking; the other was NOUB (None of Our Business), a devil-may-care whispers column done largely out of Mumbai, dealing with behind-the-scenes chatter from the corporate world. Both were guaranteed to piss off someone or the other, while readers lapped them up eagerly.

The Kuruvilla approach to business news was simple: go for the real news, and never worry about the consequences. Never mind if you occasionally get it wrong, but go for the cracker of a story. Advertisers can like it or lump it. Aveek Sarkar may have seen some revenues sources fleeing in the process, but he had faith in Kuruvilla’s news sense. It would be difficult to imagine his kind of editor in today’s world of paid news and kowtowing to advertising interests. Or even a proprietor like Aveek Sarkar, who was closer to his journos than his sales sepoys.

But Kuruvilla was more than just a great news editor. His real strength was not writing or editing, which he had left behind when he took over as News Editor in 1976, but spotting talent.

It is very rarely that you find a man who selflessly promotes talent and yet makes no effort to take credit for his behind-the-scenes efforts to put them on the road to success. I owe a lot of my own success to Kuruvilla, who encouraged, mentored and fought for journos like me.

Kuruvilla was not the kind of journalist who hobnobbed with the high and mighty, or promoted himself ever. He was never going to rise to the No 1 position of any newspaper — though he could well have done so. He seldom wrote anything, though he must have done a lot of editing in the early stages of his career. By the time I got to work under him in Kolkata in 1978, his writing was reduced to making small notes to his subs and signing cheques with a shaky hand - the result of an acute fondness for fluids with alcoholic content.

But that did not matter. Like Mike Brearley, one of the most successful English cricket captains ever but who almost never distinguished himself with bat or ball, Kuruvilla excelled as non-playing captain. As I have noted earlier, his great strengths were an uncanny ability to spot talent and getting the best out of them. His judgment of what constituted news was unequalled. He also had the ability to extract nuggets of gossip from his bar buddies. He never tried to write his own scoops; instead he would hand them over to one of his reporters and subs to finish the job.

My first acquaintance with Kuruvilla was in 1978, when he began recruiting people for Business Standard in Kolkata. After hiring the big reporting guns, he needed guys who could put the verb in the right place in each sentence. That meant people like me. After a brief interview, when he decided I was worth recruiting, he asked me about expected salary. I quoted a modest figure that was barely above my then salary at Financial Express. His opinion of me fell temporarily as he snorted: "Always quote a high salary. Don't be a fool."

I demurred and said I don't like the idea of asking for more money. By this time he had gathered that I was a bit of an oddball, and from then on he decided that he would have to bat for me with the bosses. His poor opinion of my ability to "lean in" stayed with him all through, and when the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group decided to try me out as executive editor at Business World in 1987, it was largely because Kuruvilla did the lobbying for me. I was blissfully unaware of his exertions on my behalf till well after the whole thing had been decided between him and Aveek Sarkar. But he never ever told me what he did for me. He was not that kind of guy.

Being a teetotaller, I can't claim any personal closeness to Kuruvilla. But that did not stop him from keeping a keen eye out for my interests. In retrospect, I find this very surprising for I was always an outspoken and precocious individual who never hid his disdain for his drinking. I have even made caustic comments about his habit to others, and this must have surely pained him when he heard about then. But he never held it against me. This is the hallmark of a truly generous spirit who never bears grudges.

Kuruvilla launched not only my career, but that of several others too. I can count at least 10-12 people who became editors, or at least resident editors. All his proteges went on to No 1 or No 2 positions in several newspapers and magazines. That was the kind of thoroughbred stable Kuruvilla ran.

But while Kuruvilla could pick winning horses in journalism, the same talent was conspicuously missing when it came to his other passion: racing. He had a knack for picking losers on the turf. From three-legged types to horses that seemed to have missed the starter's gun, his bets went largely to benefit bookies. But he never lost his enthusiasm for racing. He never had a sense of regret about losing money, and was happy to let others hit the jackpot. N Rajagopalan, Assistant Editor in Business Standard, was one such crony whose luck was a fraction better than Kuruvilla’s. But, like Kuruvilla, he did not see any need to bank his occasional spoils. He reinvested his minor jackpots back into equine philanthropy. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club owes a lot to both CPK and NR.

And, of course, Kuruvilla's other passion was the bar — a daily preoccupation with him for most of his working life. He did attempt to board the wagon once in a while, even going through a formal detox programme, but it didn't last.

He lived to drink, race and help journos succeed. Whatever his flaws — I detected a slight misogynism mark his approach to women - his extraordinary selflessness in promoting those he liked overweighed them. He was a rare gem of the kind one will not find easily in today's dog-eat-dog world of shallow journalism.

Updated Date: Feb 16, 2015 18:12 PM

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