In Conversation with Arindam Roy, Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths
Arindam Roy and Different Truths have become synonymous with publishing anything that does not fit into genres of various literary journals. The site carries opinions, humour, semi-news stories, academic papers, poetry, stories, and you name it. Roy, who completes forty years as a journalist this month, has wide experience in his profession, including in newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. He has mapped the history of media and journalism in India with his candid responses to questions about his latest and much appreciated venture, Different Truths, which this year has been given a registered trademark. In this exclusive, he tells us about his life experiences, including starting as a writer of love letters for his friends who were less proficient in English, much in the tradition of the French character, Cyrano de Bergerac, and ending as the bureau chief of the Allahbad branch of the Times of India, the managing editor of the Citizen Journalist portal, and a founder of an unusual online webzine.
We all know you as the founding editor of Different Truths, a platform for social journalism. Can you tell us what you mean by social journalism?
When we conceived Different Truths, in September 2015, we created its vision too. We had defined Social Journalism in our page, ‘About Us’. I quote from there, Different Truths is a Social Journalism (a form of collaborative journalism) platform. Based on the tenets of Participatory Journalism, Social Journalism creates a synergy between Citizen Journalists (any lay person, who is not trained as a journalist to voice their opinions) and Professional Journalists. I feel Citizen Journalism/Journalist is a misnomer. Journalism is as much a profession as doctor, engineer, advocate, architect, or a CA, to name a few. If we cannot have Citizen Doctor/Engineer, et al., how can we have a Citizen Journalist?
Social Journalism is a media model consisting of a hybrid of professional journalism, contributor, and reader content. It is similar to open publishing platforms, like Twitter and WordPress.com, except that some or most content is also created and/or screened by professional journalists. Examples include Forbes.com, Medium, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. The model, which in some instances has generated monthly audiences in the tens of millions, has been discussed as one way for professional journalism to thrive despite a marked decline in the audience for traditional journalism.
“Social Journalism helps to strengthen and deepen Democratic Values. It upholds the best traditions of secular, non-violent, non-racist and casteless society. Different Truths upholds non-discriminatory traditions, where Special Needs people have equal opportunities. It aims at unifying the peoples from various parts of the globe to create the world without boundaries – a Global Village where Peace and Prosperity rules.
“The visionary John Lennon’s Imagine (UNICEF: World Version) is our Guiding Light, our shared Anthem at Different Truths” (we shared the video link too).
We are happy to inform you that we have had a good mix of trained journalists and non-journalists (erudite scholars, poets, teachers from universities, colleges and schools, research scholars, doctors, psychiatrists, people from the bank and insurance sectors, traders, quite a few social activists, artists, musicians, students…the list is exceedingly long. Almost anyone who wishes to write).
How old is Different Truths? What made you come up with it?
We are still young, in our sixth year. Different Truths was conceptualised in September 2015. From December 2015-January 2016, we started picking up. Initially, there were a handful of people who shared our vision. Then there was no looking back. We always have had amazing writers and poets. This trend continues.
Interestingly, our Social Journalists (SJs) were, and are, from various countries. Editorially, we are an Indo-US venture. My Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, is based at Columbus, Ohio, the USA.
There were several factors that led to the start of Different Truths. Firstly, my wife passed away in April 2014, after a prolonged illness. Her kidneys had failed. I was her caregiver. Suddenly, I had nothing to do. No one to look after. My two children had left the nest. When I lost my wife, I found one of my Facebook friends, my kin, Anumita, stepped forward and talked to me, even if it was for a few minutes, every day. I would not be able to do so with such regularity – rain or shine.
Life sent a very dependable, trustworthy friend. She would admonish and chide me too. Reason was that I had lost my sleep and remained awake all night. I needed something to keep me busy. Turn another of my failures, sleeplessness, into success.
I knew that she and I together could launch a digital publication. Though Anumita was a little uncertain, she took a leap of faith for herself and all of us. Different Truths was born.
Secondly, as journalists, writers, and poets, most of us dream of launching a newspaper, magazine, or a TV channel. Like actors dreaming of taking on the role of directors. Before I reveal the deep personal reasons, let me tell you that after my father’s demise, I had to relocate to Allahabad. I had just married. My little sister was still in school, and my mother was shattered. My wife and I decided to return home. It was an emotional decision – perhaps this generation would not do so – and it meant that my career, which had just about taken off, would nosedive. As I look back, I realise that I was more than compensated in a different way. The Allahabad chapter of my career saw me launch several publications and supplements in newspapers. As a launcher, I had a complete overview of the publication, much like a project head.
I saw promising, quality publications gasp for survival and shut down, while not-so-good publications (including a salacious one) become a runaway success. It’s quite similar to a meritorious good child not succeeding in later life, while the street smart, neta-type (political leader-type) succeeds and shines. Interestingly, all newspapers, magazines, books, digital platforms, and films, have no magic formula of success. Each is born with its own fortune.
My experience and understanding as a launcher of publications were invaluable. Like my editor, Krishna Raj, in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Mumbai, used to say, “We should know what not to select before we know what to choose.” This became a lifelong mantra for me. With limited funds, digital media was the obvious choice.
Thus, we decided that Different Truths would be an online magazine (Webzine). Now, we have two registered trademarks, Different Truths (DT) and Kavya Kumbh (KK). These trademark registrations were received last year, amidst the gloom and doom of the pandemic. Our extended DT family – we call them DTians – and we were thrilled. Our brands, DT and KK, have global recognition because of these trademarks.
What is it you look for from your contributors?
Like all editors, a clean copy. But that’s quite difficult considering the divergent backgrounds, cultural, educational, etc. Also, these writers have not been through the grind.
I remember you and I chatting the other day, between our works, on WhatsApp. After a thorough training, we found that we as cub journalists (writers and editors, much later) were green. A true journalist is forged in fire. Newsrooms are humbling experiences. Those – we have seen a few – who are full of themselves, have had a huge fall too. In frustration, quite a few indulged in substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc). Many of them were very promising. We lost so many talents. It saddens me.
All contributors need to trust us. We are hard-nosed professionals. They must give up their egos – though painful, we had to do it too. All writers, me included, should not be airheaded.
Young and not-so-young poets and writers judge themselves by Facebook likes and comments. Instant gratification is like drug abuse. It gives us an instant high. Virtual reality isn’t real. It certainly alters our perception of reality pushing us toward multiple personality disorder, if not schizophrenia.
It’s worth remembering that writing is a vulnerable process. All writers face emotional and intellectual erosion over time. Also, it’s not fair to say that grammar does not matter in a poem. It does. Free verse is exceedingly difficult. We need long practise to be able to perfect it. It’s not just a jumble of words, heaped on each other for then it becomes a glorious heap of garbage. Such poems (and prose) are instantly rejected. I recall what one of my schoolteachers used to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Humility and eagerness to learn is most important for all contributors, no matter where they are writing.
I recall a well-known quote of APJ Abdul Kalam, “If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun.”
You have a fairly popular programme called Kavya Kumbh. When did you start and why? What have been the responses to it?
It all began last year. We had decided to organise a mega poetry meet on the World Poetry Day, March 21, 2020. We had confirmed participation of around 185 poets (some with spouses and children, 223 guests) from the length and breadth of the country, from Gujarat to Sikkim, and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. Other than that, we had poets from five other countries. If you recall, the nationwide lockdown had begun around that time. I thanked my stars that I postponed the dates by six months around March 15 or 16.
The event was named Kavya Kumbh (KK). We decided to get a Trademark registration for KK. Thereafter, from September beginning to mid-December we had an online poetry meet in various languages. We also discussed cinema and art during the KK meet. This event strengthened our brand DT too.
All our future events, online or in person, will be held under the KK brand.
What were you doing before Different Truths?
Immediately before I started DT, I had been invited by the Banerjees, who own AH Wheeler Co. that has bookstalls in nearly 250 railway stations. AHW has been into selling books from 1877. An iconic brand, this company was started by a Frenchman, Émile Moreau. There’s an interesting story. Moreau was a bibliophile. He had books all over the house. His wife warned him that either the books or she would stay at home. He took it lightly at first. Her admonitions grew. One day, he took a table, a bedsheet, and his books to the Allahabad railway station, which had been set up in 1859, two years after the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s First War of Independence. He kept the books for travellers to pick up free. They paid instead. A business model was born. The rest is history. Later, Moreau inducted Tinkouri (TK) Banerjee and made him a co-founder of the company. After independence, he handed over AHW to Tinkouri Babu. Now, his fourth generation is running the company.
I knew all about publication launches. I had no idea about the nitty-gritties of publications’ distribution and marketing. I joined as the Head, Business Strategy and Corporate Communications of AHW, on March 1, 2014. Two years later, in 2016, I left AHW. During this time, its swanky bookshop was under my wings. I got to read all the books months before these hit the stands. It was a lovely experience. Meanwhile, DT was growing by then. It needed my attention. My stint at AHW gave me first-hand experience in distribution and marketing of publications.
Before that I was engaged in journalism, working with various publishing houses. I was asked to lead an online magazine at Gurgaon as its Managing Editor (2007 to 2009). Under my wings, it grew phenomenally. I was heading the entire editorial functions of the fifth largest Citizen Journalist portal and was responsible for bureau operations in various cities of the country with return on investment accountability. I boosted content volume by 967%, over the previous year with significant improvement in quality of that portal. I led and inspired a team of reporters and editorial desk. Enriched, I returned home, once again, now to look after my ailing wife.
Around this time, I took a sabbatical and co-authored a novel, Rivers Run Back, with my American co-writer, Joyce Yarrow (more of it later).
Meanwhile, from 2001 onwards, I was involved with several Coffee Table Books (CTBs). The first was for an Italian publisher, Jaca Books, based at Milan. Other than journalism, it opened a new channel of co-authoring and planning CTBs.
Oft and on, I was called as a guest faculty at several Mass Comm colleges, some of these were Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communications, Pune, GB Pant Institute of Social Sciences, Allahabad, Photojournalism department of Allahabad University, Jaipuria Institute of Mass Communication, Lucknow, Amity, Lucknow, Bhavan’s Journalism Department, Allahabad, etc. (though not in this order).
I was penning poems in between too. This was more for me. I have not been careful with my poems and have lost most that were written during school days till now. I remember that after my intermediate boards, I began participating in Yuvavani, reading poems, and earning my pocket money.
My father was against poetry writing and reading. He saw it as a waste of time. But I saw a glint of joy in his eyes and that of my Jetha (father’s elder brother), when they heard me recite on the radio. He melted when I bought fish for home with my first earning of Rs 140/- (Rs 35/- per week). I also gave my mother Rs 40/- in the year 1977. My father was happy that poetry could help me buy fish. It gained acceptance at home. He was also against my becoming a journalist. But after I joined EPW, things changed. During one of his visits to Mumbai, he hugged me and said, “Forgive me, I was wrong. Remember, it’s not just a job. It’s a mission.” I touched his feet. Our eyes had pools of tears.
I am happy that I followed his advice, even if it meant suffering for my wife and children. Thankfully, they understood and stood with me, through thick and thin.
You have been a journalist for a number of years. How many? Where all have you worked?
This month, on June 4, 1981, I began my career. Today, I completed 40 years as a scribe. It’s an incredibly special day for me, Mitali. It has been a long journey. Full of highs and lows. As I look back, I find that two small magazines, immensely respected, laid the foundation stone of my career. These were Himmat (Courage in English, headed by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari) and Economic and Political Weekly or EPW (headed by the illustrious editor, Krishna Raj). At both these places, I did everything from proofreading to subediting to writing. It taught me that no work was small. I lived value journalism here. It went amiss later in life, with many other publishing houses, big and small. I also had a stint with Associated Press before I was asked to join The Times of India at Allahabad once again. I led the East UP edition, as the bureau chief.
How is mainstream journalism different from running a webzine?
It’s as different as chalk and cheese. Mainstream journalism needs a huge setup. It’s capital intensive. Also, it depends on advertisement revenue. When the advertisers pay the salaries of all journalists, they call the shots. Before I talk about webzine, I must add that I was at the transition of journalistic values. There was a time when the owners/managers thought twice before talking to an editor. They sought appointments from his personal assistant and would ask if he/she was in a good mood to talk. The chairman of a big media house, I was told, would ask the editor of that newspaper if he could join him for a cup of coffee. And if he weren’t free, he could check later.
In the mid-80s, four or five years after I began my career, there was a tug-o-war. The advertisement director/manager (depending on the size of the media house) was the kamau putra or the successful son, who earned the most. The circulation department made some money that perhaps paid for the newsprint and ink. He was to emerge as the mejda (the second eldest brother), but the editors and their teams were the ones that created costs by spending money. Though they might have given the house/brand a strong image, they were marginalised. A major media house said that they were there to fill the news-holes in the dummy – the space left in the page after the advertisement department sent the page-dummy showing advertisement placements. By the 1990s, editorial departments around the country had lost much ground. It was grabbed by the two earning sons of the family. Since they earned most, they got the creamy layer of the milk.
Sadly, most editors compromised. Those who did not toe the line had to leave, nursing their wounds. This meant that more and more editors agreed to play the second or the third fiddle.
In editorial meetings, one could hear that we are a newspaper, not an advertisement paper. Soon, free yellow pages emerged. These had just advertisements and perhaps a couple of rehashed stories that were written by the content writers. Somewhere in the 1990s, Advertorials began appearing. If the advertiser was ready to pay, an editorial write-up with high sales pitch was allowed. This shattered the editors and the editorial department of media houses. They had to sit and lick their wounds. The advertisement department(s) grabbed the last mile – writing – from them too.
Meanwhile, the corporate egos of media houses were to take a huge beating in the next decade, at the turn of the millennium. New media or the webzines were emerging. The advertisers were no longer sure how much of their money resulted in actual footfalls. Now, the new mantra in the various webzines were pay per click (PPC). The circulation department was soon to be replaced by the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) teams. Now, they too had to work in tandem with the editorial department. The webzine editors soon learnt what were keywords, which news was trending. The medium and big webzines metamorphosed soon. Meanwhile, the webzine editor had learnt a few invaluable lessons. He was more like a commando. He was emerging as the news guerrilla. He was the product manager, and once again the blue-eyed boy of the team. He was responsible for the company’s return on investment. It was more like the return of the Prodigal Son for the webzine editors.
Several media houses were in the doldrums. Medium and small media houses who were blind to the new media or the webzines were pushed into penury or extinction. Big media houses were forced to incorporate the new media and integrate. They not only survived, but they also thrived.
An emerging trend that needs study is what will happen after the pandemic. Ad revenues have totally dried up. There’s no business. No buying-spending. Big media houses are seeking donations or subscriptions, something that webzines like Guardians and few others were doing, earlier.
Once again, content is the king.
Other than the TV channel, new media is the fastest, with their huge armies of citizen and social journalists. Webzines are here to stay. It’s now a 21st century reality. There is space for big, medium, and small players (like us) in the world wide web. Newer social media tools are being integrated too.
It’s exciting and exhilarating to witness so many changes, from hot metal (lino or mono typesetting) to offset printing and then to become paperless in the new media. Our lives had epic ramifications – at least for some of us, who began our careers in the 1980s or 90s.
Do you write? Tell us about your writing — especially the experience you had with bringing out books with the Times group.
Writing is my oxygen. I have been writing since my college days. First, it was nesha (addiction), then it became pesha (career). It helped me earn my pocket money. My father didn’t have to provide me with a monthly dole.
There were weird demands. Two of my friends, in the railway colony, where I spent my formative years, decided to woo two girls. Now, they were Hindi medium students, while these two girls were ‘convent educated’. Love letters had to be written in English. I became their letter writer. When these girls agreed to date these guys, they found to their dismay they couldn’t even speak proper English. One of them had seen me with her friend. She made him confess the truth. Later, all of us had a huge laugh.
There were others who wanted me to word the invitation cards for their sister, bhabi’s (sister-in-law’s) sister and so forth. There were demands for shraddha (funeral peace prayers) and sacred thread ceremony functions too. These grew. Then I decided to stop writing invitation card content. Kins and friends in business wanted me to word letters for them too. The list is endless.
I helped launch several small publishing houses. I became their free ghost writers too. This too had to stop.
Meanwhile, in 1987, I decided to do copywriting for an upcoming advertisement agency. They paid well. I attended client meetings and led sales pitches too. I still do it. But I ensure that I am paid in advance.
As I said earlier, I was contacted by an Italian publishing house in 2001. The Internet was new then. I was an early bird. I got a good deal. This book was read by my bosses and friends. When TOI was doing a Coffee Table Book (CTB project for the Information Directorate, on Kumbh) my bosses and friends remembered my Italian book and felt that I could do it. That’s how I got involved in the projects. My stories were interview-based, involved legwork, and contacting people. My friends in the Information Directorate insisted that I write the sarkari (government) version too. Of the 10 articles in the CTB for Kumbh, I wrote five stories (later two were merged into one) and I had four stories in it. Again, when the TOI was bringing out a CTB on Uttar Pradesh, I was given the lion’s share. Out of the nine chapters, I wrote three (one-third of the book). These were: Art & Craft: Art makes us human; Folk Traditions and Festivals: Songs and dances as life discourse, and Classical Music and Gharanas: Melodious tunes from the land of harmony.
There were many other projects, where CTBs and other books needed my inputs. I wrote and wrote.
You co- authored a novel. Tell us about that. What was your experience in co- authoring because writing is an individual experience? How do you coordinate?
I became a novelist rather accidentally. I have many writers and poets on my Facebook. Often, we writers talk and share what’s the work in progress. Joyce Yarrow, an American mystery writer, is a good friend. She was telling me on Skype chat (WhatsApp, Telegram, etc were not there then) that she had planned her next book’s location in Cuba. I mildly suggested that after this book, why don’t you come to India. She could weave rich materials and history into her book. Suddenly, she was all ears. Over the next month, I kept on telling her about India. I spoke of Tagore, Nazrul, Vivekananda, Premchand and many others.
One evening, Joyce suggested that I co-author a novel with her. I developed cold feet. I had written on facts mostly, except for a few short stories. But a novel, no way! Somewhere along the line, I agreed, though unsure. Over the next three years, we talked on Skype, phone, video chats on weekends, from about 8pm to 10pm, my time. Both of us were amazed that the entire story plot was bottled in me. I did the scaffolding of the novel, while she created its brick-and-mortar structure. We shared notes. Since there was a huge gap in our writing styles, she wrote the texts mostly, with agreements, disagreements, fights, and laughter.
It was a great learning experience. Our novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, in January 2015. My Delhi-based school buddies had come to cheer me, other than my classmate Dr Sunjoy Joshi, who is heading the Observer Research Foundation. My son and nephew had attended the launch programme, other than my cousin and his wife. One person who would have been incredibly happy was my wife, Ruma. She left us nine months before the event.
Between editing and writing, which is a more preferred task?
Writing is far more fulfilling than editing. I often laugh and say that editors are like safai karmacharis (cleaning crews). We are here to dust, mop and shine works that are not upto the mark. It’s a thankless job. However, on a more serious note, editors create writers – like directors create actors – and that is a huge joy. My editors made me. It’s payback time for me, I think.
What is the future of Different Truths? What do you see as your own future?
As a Founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths, with my Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, we can shape the present of the webzine. We can look back in glee at the past too. But it’s impossible to say what the future holds. This uncertainty helps us put in our best. It makes us challenge ourselves too.
As I am writing today (June 4), we have 5,418 posts in Different Truths. It has taken us almost six years to achieve this. We published 17 online anthologies so far. We have published several thematic issues and are still counting.
We are the only webzine that creates its own visuals. Anumita does a wonderful job. I remember you and most writers, columnists and poets appreciate her creative work.
We two at the core form the nucleus, while the rest of the Editorial Team may be likened to the electrons of the smallest unit, the atom of the webzine.
In March 2019, we were awarded the prestigious Double Cross Gold Medal. In fact, Different Truths was chosen by an illustrious person, Knt. Sir Silvano Bortolazzi, whose name was proposed eight times for the Nobel Prize, “proposed in six occasions as candidate to the Nobel Prize in Literature and proposed in two occasions as candidate to the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Prominent writers wish to publish with us. This is a good sign for the future. As long we are honest and committed and we continue to allow all kinds of political opinions, leftist, rightist, or centrist to find space in our webzine, we shall continue to be non-partisan and democratic. We do not allow bigotry and jingoism.
No subject is taboo in Different Truths. To quote from ‘About Us’ again, we had stated, “At Different Truths (differenttruths.com), we intend to speak about issues that are kept in wraps. We wish to unravel the truth, no matter how unsavoury or bitter. We wish to challenge the taboos. We wish to be heard over the din and noise of the traditional media, most of which, we all know, has collapsed under ugly money-power. When journalists are fair, the houses are not. All media houses have their ‘Holy Cows’, areas that cannot be ever touched.”
As I look back on my 40th work anniversary today (I walked into Himmat’s office at Arun Chambers, Tardeo, Mumbai, on June 4, 1981), I am happy that we have been able to keep the promise we made to ourselves and the world, in September 2015.
Last but not the least, we two as captains are as good as our team (writers and poets). At the end of the day, they make or mar us. If we learn from our past and focus on our present, the future shall take care of itself.
I enjoyed responding to your perceptive questions. Thanks a lot.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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