The late K M Mathew who was the editor of Malayalam daily Malayala Manorama (circulation: 2 million ) for 54 years is an iconic figure for Malayalis. His long tenure at the top of the paper helped the group’s steady growth. His tenure also coincided with the growing literacy in Kerala and the paper’s publications were a direct beneficiary.
Mathew rose above his position as an editor and built a media octopus with arms slithering everywhere. Manorama now owns the top-selling English weekly The Week, top-selling multilingual women’s monthly Vanitha, top-selling year book which has made Manorama a well-known name in the north where it is identified with this product. Mathew left his imprint on the Kerala society as a public speaker. Spectacular achievements.
Such a person should have been better known around the country and this English translation of his life story is expected to settle that score. But will it?
An autobiography from a man like Mathew is expected to educate us on the inside story of Manorama’s rise, the intricacies of Kerala’s politics of which he had a ringside view, the social turmoils, the paradox of its social growth and industrial/agricultural decline. Disappointingly, Mathew does not venture into any such arduous exercises, but skims through the difficult parts. Mathew had an envious ringside view of political happenings and some early crucial political documents and statements were drafted in the office, mostly during his father’s tenure. During Mathew’s tenure it was a ritual for various politicians to visit Manorama, soon after swearing-in for a photo-op with larger meanings. Manorama groomed various politicians, Oommen Chandy and A K Antony being direct beneficiaries.
The book primarily is a celebration of the feudal family with some dark secrets excluded. Mathew quite self-effacingly gives credit for various innovations and ideas through the years to consultants like Tarzie Vittachie, Harold Evans, Edwin Taylor and the like.
The book is on the fall and rise of the Kandathil family enterprises which will interest a Christian Malayali reader, but hardly an English reader who wants to understand how great minds are wired.
What however pulls down the autobiography is Mathew’s intense unforgiving bitterness at Travancore Dewan C P Ramaswami Iyer who closed down the paper and the family business in a well known act of autocratic strong-arming. While a chapter could have been devoted to it, Mathew’s anti-CP stands run like a black unifying thread throughout the book. He never really got over the fact that his father was sent to jail. He forgets that worse things have happened to newspapers and journalists since, but Mathew looks nowhere else, blind-sided by his bitterness.
As the paper grew, it shed its anger and is now thoroughly pro-establishment, and so political parties don’t fear it. The two million selling paper seems to have become victim of its own overweight. There is nothing wrong in being conservative, but the rigour of reportage and strenuous commentary is missing. Major events are glossed over.
Mathew’s catfights with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and their publication Deshabhimani are commented on with quotes from Manorama editorials. He often shared the dias with EMS Namboodiripad and others and shared a cosy personal relationship with them as with all politicians. Mathew had immense faith in the Manorama editorials which he revelled in writing and is quoted often here. He saw in those written words the power of the oracle.
Mathew produced some super journalists and among them he mentions and ranks five: first the brilliant Babu Chenganoor (disclaimer: my close relative whose wife my first cousin, driven out of her house, died in penury last year) who covered events far and wide and died drinking young; the honest and disarming VKB Nair, TKG Nair and the irrepressibly brilliant political writer K M Chummar, who shared many rum-soaked evenings with my father as I listened, ears-cocked from the sidelines.
All of them heaved Manorama to stratospheric heights. Such orbits are not permanent and the group needs to professionalise and make rigour, not loyalty prime qualities. The Eighth Ring is not high literature, but let’s hope Mathew’s written account has some lessons for future generations.