Asia’s oldest newspaper turns 200
The Mumbai Samachar headquarters on SA Brelvi Road, Horniman Circle, Fort, Mumbai (Photos: Emmanual Karbhari)
BACK IN 2017, when Nilesh Dave learnt of the attacks that had been carried out on shops in Mumbai bearing Gujarati language signboards, he knew what this was about. It was a play by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) at stealing the sons-of-the-soil Marathi plank from its older cousin, the Shiv Sena.
Dave knows the city with the intimacy that comes from having covered a city newspaper’s various beats. Having spent all his working life in different Gujarati language newspapers, working its many beats, and before that, hearing stories of the city as a child from his father, another journalist, he knew the politics of language in the city well. Now, as the editor of the newspaper Mumbai Samachar, Dave wanted to do something more than simply write up a story on MNS’ latest provocation.
The following day, the Gujarati language newspaper appeared as usual. Except for the front page. Here, Dave had carried, like any other newspaper editor, the best news stories of the day. But all the stories on the front page had been written in the Marathi script. In a short editorial, he explained he had done this to show the insincere political motivations behind the city’s language discord.
The edition created a stir among the Samachar’s readers. Many loved it, Dave says. Some disliked it too. Dave smiles as he recalls this incident. In a newspaper famed for its un-sensationalism, this was a playful—even provocative—act. Which newspaper would have published its front page in a different script?
Dave is, of course, the latest in a long history of editors at the Mumbai Samachar, and this anecdote, as memorable as it is, is just one in the newspaper’s vast living memory.
All of the last few weeks, an immense pride has been building inside Dave. And late on the night of June 30th, as he sent the edition to bed, and adjacent to the newsroom, the printing press, spread across a vast warehouse-like property, thrummed with life, he knew the privilege that waited for him the following day.
He would wake up the next morning as the editor of a 200-year-old newspaper.
Mumbai Samachar, previously Bombay Samachar, is the oldest newspaper in Asia still in print. And on July 1st, it entered its 200th year. According to Hormusji Cama, the newspaper’s director and a member of the Cama family that owns it, when they began to look up the oldest newspapers in the world still in print some years ago, he learnt that the Samachar was the fourth oldest newspaper globally. “But that was some years ago. Maybe, we are still number four—we can’t have become five—or maybe three, or two, who knows,” says Hormusji.
The newspaper was started by Furdoonjee Murzban, a Parsi scholar and priest. According to the 1958 book The Printing Press in India by Anant Kakba Priolkar, Murzban had travelled from Surat to then Bombay at the age of 18 to learn Persian and Arabic languages. Having first established a bookbinding shop, and later an establishment selling postage stamps, he secured a small printing press and got the women in his household to carve out Gujarati types on wooden blocks. According to the 1939 book Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, written by HD Darukhanawala, a number of years were spent this way to have a complete set of types of the Gujarati alphabet. An attempt had been made earlier to cast these types in England but the results proved too expensive.
Murzban at first printed books, many of them being translations of works from Persian to Gujarati, before printing leaflets for sale to traders about the arrival of cargo ships from Europe and China. “As electricity or steam power was unknown at the time all the news… was brought by sailing ships which took months to complete the voyages. There was considerable speculation going on at the time in Bombay owing to the changing fortunes of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. So in the absence of speedy connections the only means of knowing what was happening in foreign countries was the news brought by ships and this had an important bearing on the prices ruling in the Bombay markets,” Darukhanawala writes in the Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil. Murzaban was quick to grasp the importance of what he was doing. And from July 1st, 1822 onwards, instead of printing leaflets for sale to traders and speculators haphazardly, he published it in the form of a weekly journal, which in a few years’ time became a daily.
The early issues comprised news of the arrival and departure of ships, the commodities being brought, government and court appointments and changes, and news taken from other existing publications, such as the Indian Gazette and the Calcutta Chronicle.
“So you see,” Cama says. “We aren’t just Asia’s oldest newspaper. We are also its oldest business paper.”
To enter the Mumbai Samachar’s distinctive red building, coloured as if it were a fire station, is akin to stepping through a time portal into a much older universe. The bright world of Starbucks cafés and Hermés outlets (both located just round the corner) plunge suddenly in darkness. The walls grow old, the ceilings rise, and it takes the unfamiliar eye some time to grow comfortable. There are things here as though forgotten, from another time. There are old rusty lockers and cupboards, chairs that have taken the shape of the bodies of its occupants, an ancient hand-operated press lying neglected in one corridor, piles and piles of files, dusty and stacked atop one another, and newspapers strewn everywhere. In some corridors, one comes across framed pictures of gods, where people stop and pray, and a little nearby, rows of hooks upon which men have hung their shirts. Further inside on a large open floor, printers who will stay awake for much of the night now sleep in vests under massive printing machines unused since the 1980s.
“Trust,” Cama says after some thought. “I can think of no other reason for a paper to survive this long.” Dave explains that people’s trust in the newspaper stems from the knowledge that no aspect of its reporting has been compromised. “We have absolute editorial freedom here,” Dave says. “Till date, I have not got a single call or message to do a story or drop something from the management. Not even to say that since we are a Gujarati language paper, we need to go soft on [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi.”
Occasionally, however, Dave will step outside of his cabin and walking up the large staircase and across the first floor housing the newspaper’s non-editorial departments, he will enter Cama’s office to consult him. Like the time, some years ago, when someone from the Reliance office asked him if he could drop a story about a threat on Mukesh Ambani’s life, because Mumbai Samachar, he was told, was one of two newspapers which Ambani’s mother Kokilaben reads.
It was a story that the newspaper editors were compelled to carry not because it was exclusive, but the reverse. Since every other paper would have it, not carrying it could suggest that the newspaper had missed it. Dave wasn’t particularly pleased with the story itself. It fell into the sensational category of news which his newspaper abhors from carrying, and now he had learnt that it would strike fear in the heart of an old lady. “When Cama asked me what my reasons were for wanting to carry it, I said because it would look like we didn’t have it. He said that was no reason for carrying it,” Dave recalls. “So I decided not to carry it and it was the right decision.” This decision was taken not because it concerned Ambani’s mother, Dave says, but because the story had little news value and if it had been carried, it would have been done merely out of a trade compulsion.
Like any newspaper, the newsroom in Mumbai Samachar is the place where all its action takes place. But the newspaper’s real heart lies in a corner office on the floor above, in a small well-lit room occupied by members of the Cama family.
Of the 200 years, the Camas have overseen nearly 90. Hormusji is only the latest, a member of the third generation in this business. He is also something of an urban legend. Clocks can be set to his arrival to the office every day, it is said, sharp at 9AM, driving one of his many beautiful vintage cars. Hormusji—who possesses one of Mumbai’s best vintage car collections—is also known to never repeat a car on consecutive days. (Dave has noticed a gap of at least 15 days before he repeats a car.)
One aspect of enjoying the walk on SA Brelvi Road that houses Mumbai Samachar is to slow your pace outside the distinctive red building, trying to spot one of Hormusji’s cars parked outside. I walk on the road on a recent day, watching firemen clip a tree’s unwieldy branches, my eyes running through motionless cars. Having not spotted one of Hormusji’s cars, I resign myself to the fact that he has broken with a habit and not turned up for work that day.
But I find him inside, a slightly built man with a cheerful demeanour, seated inside his office. Since car mechanics have become difficult to find during the pandemic, he explains, he has had to stop driving his vintage cars.
There are at least seven clocks in his small office, four mounted on one wall side-by-side, and three just below on one side of his table, several of them tuned to different times. Throughout the conversation, they ring constantly until it becomes difficult to ignore them.
“Oh, these,” he explains. “The one is for my son in the US. And that one for my other son in the UK. And these above,” he says, pointing to the clocks on the wall, “are for my daughter.” “You see, otherwise, I was picking up the phone and calling them when I pleased. Now I can see, okay this one is getting up. And this one is probably just going to bed.”
HORMUSJI BEGAN HELPING his father at the newspaper as a college student during his free time. Although he had had dreams of pursuing genetics as a subject, he joined the newspaper when his father asked him to. “It was how it was. You listened to your parents without questions asked,” he says.
The Camas took over the newspaper reluctantly in 1933. The then owners of the newspaper, the Belgaumwala family, owed a large amount of money to Hormusji’s grandfather Muncherji Nusserwanji Cama, whose company Cama Norton & Company supplied printing ink to Mumbai Samachar. The Camas had taken the Belgaumwalas to court in the hope of having the newspaper liquidated. Instead, the court bringing up the plight of the employees who would lose their livelihood, asked the Camas to take over the newspaper.
“I often asked my grandfather why he didn’t asset-strip the newspaper and even his losses. He told me, firstly, there were no assets to strip. Everything was mortgaged. Bombay Samachar owned nothing. In fact, they owed a lot of people. And secondly, what the court had said about the workers struck a chord in him. So now that he had been given the newspaper, he thought he should at least make a go of it,” Hormusji says.
The paper grew rapidly once the Camas took over. The 1930s, with the growing freedom movement, was a heady affair and people wanted to read about it.
One of the reasons why this paper survived well beyond the freedom movement, while many others did not, Dave suggests, could be because once Independence was achieved, most papers could not reinvent themselves. But Mumbai Samachar, to a large extent a business newspaper catering to a trading community, had no such trouble.
The media landscape has, of course, changed dramatically in recent years. There is intense competition, especially in the regional language space. And big media houses have emerged that take up the bulk of the advertising revenue. Not to mention the emergence of TV and digital media.
A few years ago, a new edition of the Mumbai Samachar was launched in Ahmedabad to target the Gujarat market. But it was impossible to survive there without pricing the newspaper very low. “It would have been unfair to expect my Mumbai readers to subsidise for the cost of the newspaper in Ahmedabad. So I closed it down,” Hormusji says.
Mumbai Samachar has survived two World Wars, many epidemics, terror attacks, Emergency, many global financial crises, and watched the city become one of the world’s important metropolises.
But today the newspaper finds itself in arguably its most challenging period. The media economics has been ripped apart by the pandemic. Like all other newspapers, the Samachar has also seen its circulation plummet from around 1.47 lakh to a low of about 75,000 to 80,000. Last year, Hormusji addressed the newspaper’s staff. He told them he had two options before him. Either he could lay off some of the workers, an option he declared he would never exercise. Or, he would have to enforce salary cuts. But none of the directors were going to draw any salary or emolument until full salaries had been restored.
“Nobody complained…Let me tell you, ours is an entirely non-unionised workforce. It is because they don’t feel the need to form one.”
Hormusji also raised the newspaper’s price. He increased it to Rs 10, making Mumbai Samachar one of the most expensive newspapers in the city across languages. “Everybody told me I was mad. This is the time to reduce prices. But I decided to put my trust in my readers. If the reader doesn’t want to buy, then I’m in the wrong business,” he says.
As the conversation winds down, I ask him his age. It is not a question he likes. Because it invariably leads to the issue of succession, he says, and those in the family’s next generation are disinclined to take up the job. “As far as succession is concerned, what I have in mind is to create a non-executive board and hire professionals, so that they run the company. Bombay Samachar must go on. Who sits in this chair has no relevance,” he says.
I ask him if it is true he owns over 35 vintage cars. He thinks about it for a minute, as though running his mind through the cars in his garage.
“Not so many anymore,” he says. “Like everybody, I am downsizing too.”