Gopal Raju: An Appreciation
By Pranay Gupte
I never believed that Herman Gopal Raju – that was indeed his full name – would ever age.
The last time we met in New York, about a year ago, we dined at an Indian restaurant near Columbus Circle. Allen E. Kaye, the well-known immigration lawyer, had joined us. I had introduced Allen to Gopal nearly four decades ago, when all of us were very much younger. Allen subsequently became a columnist for India Abroad, the newspaper that Gopal had founded to serve the South Asian community in America; his legal practice benefited significantly from his association with Gopal. Allen pioneered the concept of a column on immigration at a time when more and more South Asians sought to come to America. And Gopal, with his intuition for business opportunities, sensed a need for a particular kind of ethnic journalism, a blend of narrative, analysis and service-oriented features.
Both men grew wealthy as a result of their enterprise. As for me – well, you know what they say about those who toil in the vineyards – and, increasingly, the graveyards – of daily journalism. Both men could have retired long ago had they so wished. I neither wished to retire, nor could I have afforded to do so.
As we dined that evening, it occurred to me that Gopal had remained young – in his looks, his spirit, and his mind. There were, to be sure, a strand or two of grey hair, and there were also fewer follicles. The long years since the three of us had first gathered together had made both Allen and I world-weary; not dispirited, of course, but certainly more questioning of whether what we did professionally was truly appreciated in a world that was changing at warp speed.
Gopal had no such doubts. He was, as ever, indomitably optimistic. There would always be a need for newspapers, he said, people would always want to hold something tactile in their hands as they absorbed information. Indeed, when Allen raised the possibility of starting a new publication on immigration, Gopal’s first response was, “Let’s do it. How about starting next week?”
That was vintage Gopal. It was never to soon to get started on something new, something that would make money, something that would serve readers. And, of course, something that would burnish his own reputation.
Although Gopal was always a soft-spoken man, his reputation mattered to him. He did not let it on how much it mattered. Every now and then, he would cast throwaway lines about some award or the other that he’d been given. But they were throwaway lines: Gopal did not dwell on his success.
It could be argued that had he been more attentive to the notion of temporal success, he would have become far wealthier and far better known. It wasn’t that he’d not made enough money. Of course he had, not the least when he sold India Abroad a few years ago. It wasn’t that the very idea of success did not animate him. Of course it did: it bothered him when readers reacted unfavorably to a story or, worse, when someone refused to renew a subscription. Gopal took everything personally. In anyone else, that sort of continual reaction to events and actions precipitated by others would have triggered a cardiac infarction, or possibly even a stroke. But Gopal thrived on stress, it seemed. His face was remarkably unlined; he never raised his voice; his way of relaying his disapproval would be through a telling silence.
Some of that technique involving the use of silence was surely because the one factor that dented his self-confidence was the fact that Gopal stammered. That’s why he seldom gave speeches, at least not extemporaneous ones. That’s why he rarely appeared on television talk shows. That’s why, even at soirees that he was professionally obliged to attend, Gopal was invariably the quietest guest in the room.
He wasn’t very quiet when he called me one afternoon in late 1970; he was, in fact, quite agitated. I had just graduated from Brandeis University, and had enrolled at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. At the same time, I worked as a news clerk to A. M. Rosenthal, the legendary editor of the New York Times, where I’d also spent the previous three summers as a copy boy – a lowly position that involved carrying copy and coffee for cantankerous editors, even sweeping the floors and emptying waste baskets that always seemed to overflow with the detritus of discarded paper and remnants of half-eaten fruit. My time at the Times was well before the dawning of the age of the computer. I still remember the rhythmic clacking of Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters as reporters turned out stories under unrelenting deadlines.
And I still remember the first time that Gopal and I spoke. As news clerk to Abe Rosenthal, I occupied a modest desk just behind his swivel chair. That meant anytime Abe had a craving for an apple, I would be dispatched to buy one from the 11th floor cafeteria in the Times building, which was then at 229 West 43rd Street in Manhattan. (The Times last year moved into a steel-and-glass skyscraper on Eighth Avenue nearby.) That also meant that anytime I’d neglected to implement anything that Abe ordered, I would get an earful from him. It meant that I would be privy to Abe’s mutterings any time that he was displeased with a reporter’s output or an editor’s judgment.
On the afternoon that Gopal called me, Abe was actually shouting at me because I’d forgotten to type a memo he’d wanted. Even as he fulminated, my phone rang. It was a man who identified himself as Gopal Raju. Could we meet at once, he asked? It was less a request than a command. I remember thinking to myself, what a strange situation to be in: in one ear the fearsome words of my boss resonated; in my other ear, a man I’d never heard of was, literally, barking an order.
In the event, Gopal and I met at an erstwhile restaurant called Ashoka. It was, in fact, not very far from Columbus Circle. (So on the night that Gopal, Allen and I dined last year, I thought how ironic it was that we were at an eatery not far from one where we’d met very many years ago. Then, as now, Gopal was talking about what he loved best – newspapers.)
That meeting in 1970 at the Ashoka – an establishment that closed down not very long after our meeting because not enough patrons could accept its shabby food and sulky service – was the first of many to follow. Gopal told me that he owned a monthly newspaper titled India Abroad. Its then editor, Prof. Anand Mohan, a distinguished professor at Queens College, had quit in a dispute with Gopal. (It’s hard now to imagine anyone having a dispute with Gopal; but one never knows in newspapering.) Gopal wanted me to edit the paper. I demurred because of my double shift – as a graduate student at Columbia, and as Abe Rosenthal’s news clerk at the Times.
Nevertheless, the offer was too tempting. It appealed to my own romantic idea of running a newspaper. It appealed to my desire to observe events and convey their narrative to reading audiences. It appealed to my deep craving for becoming a story-teller in the bazaar. At the Times, I ran around the newsroom; at India Abroad, I would run around the city and, perhaps even the nation. When I asked around about Gopal, I learned that there were many good qualities about him – his generosity, his determination, his good cheer, and his good will, among others – and there were some things that are best consigned to the shadows.
At a less impressionable time in my life, I would have been more questioning of him. But during those unusual early weeks after meeting Gopal, I was swept up by the very idea of becoming, well, a real newspaperman, and not merely a copyboy in the newsroom of the greatest newspaper in the world. Perhaps I was being hasty, but Gopal did not discourage me. He had his own reasons; I had mine.
I did not quit the Times, of course. But I did help Gopal change the paper’s schedule from a monthly to a weekly because I was convinced that our readers hungered for more news and views about the Subcontinent. I also persuaded my friend and classmate from Brandeis, Jon Quint, to join me. Jon was at New York University’s law school at the time, and he decided that he would write under the nom de plume of “J. Q. Vakil” – his initials, plus the Hindi name of the profession which he would soon join after passing his New York State bar exam.
Jon and I had worked earlier at The Justice, the weekly paper at Brandeis. So we knew a thing or two about production schedules, typography, headlines and deadlines. We got Gopal to subscribe to Reuters, so that India Abroad could become more newsy. We hired a network of stringers in India and elsewhere, particularly in countries that had been the beneficiaries of the Indian Diaspora. India Abroad began getting more ads. Allen Kaye came on board as an immigration columnist. And Gopal Raju, who gave us an immeasurable amount of editorial independence, even started smiling a bit more.
He never smiled more broadly than the time that a Bombay socialite friend of mine, Veena Merchant, came to New York on a visit. At their very first meeting – again at the languishing Ashoka, if I recall correctly – I could tell that something had clicked. Veena’s marriage was disintegrating, and Gopal was a bachelor. Not long afterward, they set up house together – and they remained together until Gopal’s death this week.
Both Jon Quint and I left after about a year with Gopal at India Abroad. Veena, who’d had some journalistic experience in India, became the editor, and the newspaper flourished further. Our paths diverged. Jon became a successful lawyer on Wall Street. I was made a reporter and, later, a foreign correspondent at the Times. Gopal and Veena fashioned a journalistic empire of sorts, creating more publications.
Our common ground, of course, was India Abroad. When I look at my own life, I realize that I’ve been so very fortunate to have had mentors like Abe Rosenthal at the Times, friends like Jon Quint, and colleagues like Gopal Raju.
Both Abe and Gopal are gone now, and with them my last links to a youth of monumental dreams, boundless ambition, and the high adventure of embarking on a path – journalism – from which I have never strayed. That youth was a time when my passion for my craft was ignited; that passion is still there, even though I am sliding through middle age now, more skeptical and less trusting of the world around me, my emotional anchor less steady because of a painful divorce. There have been ups and downs in my life, as with anyone’s life. Some dreams came true; others did not. Some ambitions were fulfilled; others weren’t. It has been a long, strange journey.
It is now many years and even more miles of global adventuring later from that afternoon in the fall of 1970 when Abe Rosenthal was shouting in one ear, and Gopal was introducing himself in the other. But I hope that my passion for journalism will never diminish, just as it never lessened with Gopal Raju.
But, you see, Gopal never grew old. The rest of us did. So what was it about that man that kept him forever young?