India's oldest newspaper going strong at 200
The Gujarati language newspaper Mumbai Samachar started as a weekly in 1922.
A vintage slice of old Bombay, which has since been rechristened as Mumbai, is still being kept alive by an unassuming 10-page Gujarati daily called Mumbai Samachar, which celebrated its 200th anniversary on Thursday (July 1).
The vernacular daily has survived two World Wars, two pandemics, including the raging Covid-19 outbreak and the Spanish Flu in 1918.
It has chronicled the emergence of Mumbai in western India from a textile hub to financial capital.
The newspaper is housed in a red-coloured, heritage building overlooking the Horniman Circle Garden at Fort in bustling south Mumbai.
Hormusji N. Cama, whose ancestors trace their origin to Iran, is the newspaper’s proprietor and director and has walked the untrodden path to preserve its hoary past.
The publication, undoubtedly the oldest in India and among the most ancient in the world and Asia, is priced at 50 fils when its rivals are selling at half its price.
But the vanity product has stood the test of time for 20 decades because of its impeccable credibility and integrity to journalism, which, though synonymous with public service, has succumbed to commercial interests such as several legacy publishing houses.
No wonder, Gujarat Samachar epitomises a saying in Gujarati language, which is largely spoken in western India, and a growing diaspora across the Arabian Gulf, eastern and southern Africa, the United Kingdom (UK), North America and in Australia and New Zealand, that Mumbai Samachar ma aavyu etlo saachu that loosely translates to “if it’s published in Mumbai Samachar, it’s true."
Cama, who is in his early 70s, is also known for his passion for vintage cars.
He owns over three dozen vintage beauties that he drives to his workplace.
Unique revenue model
He put the success of the daily in perspective and refused to attribute any secret recipe that has kept it going when several of its rivals have been consigned to oblivion.
"We give the readers the content they want without sensationalising news. We aren't overly dependent on advertisers. Readers have been made to pay for quality content. Advertisers don’t dictate readers’ choices and subsidise the content. This is unique as opposed to the conventional model adopted by several mainstream and legacy publications,” he said.
The cover price was increased from 35 to 50 fils during the pandemic last year.
At present, the circulation is 100,000 owing to the pandemic, but Cama hoped it would pick up after the healthcare emergency blows over.
A rich past
Cama's grandfather Muncherji Cama bought the paper from the Belgaumwala family in 1933.
The Camas used to supply ink and newsprint to Mumbai Samachar and moved the court for non-payment of dues and demanded the liquidation of the daily.
The court asked the Camas to take over the paper in a bid to ensure employees were not rendered jobless.
"It started as a weekly called Bombay Samachar in 1922 because the founder wanted news about movement of goods and commodities by ship. A Parsi priest and scholar Fardeunjee Marzban decided to come out with a newspaper to give this information. The Camas came into the picture in 1933 after moving court. Since India’s Independence movement was in full throttle, copies just flew off the press," said Cama.
The publication has 150 employees, and none has been retrenched because of the pandemic.
Earlier, the publication's office was visited by dignitaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
"A lot was discussed in the office of my grandfather on how to present Independence and what information to divulge," said Cama.
He reminisced about the paper's coverage of the post-Independence and 1992 Bombay riots. He also recalled the infamous 1959 Nanavati murder case, when Mumbai had a jury system.
"The jury had acquitted Nanavati of the murder by 9:1. The judge of the case moved the higher court to say that the jury system should be abolished, as he considered it a perverse judgement. At that time there was a huge ego tussle between the Parsi and the Sindhi communities. We got many interesting snippets on that coverage, and it was hugely appreciated by our readers."
A pioneer since its inception
Nilesh Dave, who has been the editor of the daily for the last nine years, proudly cited that the Mumbai Samachar has been the pioneer in many endeavours and were the first to bring changes in the workings of the print media.
"We’re the first to introduce colour printing. We also took the lead to give commission to advertising agencies. Publishing classifieds was our idea as well. The rates for entertainment advertisements should be lower than normal ones were first introduced by us. It has no other edition," he said.
Dave said that the circulation, which used to be 1,59,000 before the viral outbreak, has taken a hit due to the contagion and has come down by over 30 per cent.
"This is a general trend of print media and the dip in circulation has nothing to do with us,” said Dave.
However, he is confident that the paper would bounce back soon, as there is a ready acceptance of it among the youth. Matrubhasha Abhiyaan (a movement to encourage mother tongue) seeks to promote Gujarati among youth, as the publication is keen to promote the Gujarati language and does not have other business interests.
“We award Dh25,000 to a youth who is chosen for writing the best essay in Gujarati,” he said.
Dave pointed out how vernacular journalism, which was an alien concept 200 years ago, evolved through the years.
"We’d appeal to the public to provide us with information about incidents in their neighbourhood.
Most of the news was on goods and the time of flights. There would also be news on the Independence movement due to the British Raj. The news on socialism gained popularity in 1950. However, the world has moved on since then. In 2021, the focus is largely on opinion rather than news. Besides, we’re publishing a lot of news features,” he added.
A rosy outlook
Dave hailed social media and considered it as a foil and a force multiplier for the print media.
"Social media runs fake news and print media fact checks and busts them. Fake news can flourish on digital platforms but has no room in cold print. I’m optimistic that print media’s glory days will be back soon, and sceptics must take note of a discernible change that’s in the works,” he said.
However, Cama is neither sitting on his laurels nor is in a celebratory mood on the occasion of achieving a historic landmark. “We’re not into any celebrations because we believe in keeping things simple and low-key,” said the septuagenarian.
In keeping with its anniversary events in the past five years, it ran a special series called “Unsung Heroes”, where widows of martyrs of military and paramilitary forces were honoured.
In 2020, Mumbai Police’s traffic constables were felicitated for performing their duties at the top 10 most congested spots amid the height of the pandemic.
This year, the focus has shifted on safai kamgars or the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) conservancy workers from civic wards, which reported the maximum number of Covid-19 cases.
“We’ll organise a special programme for them. This year, we’ll focus on promoting social causes and Gujarati literature. We'll hold book fairs and encourage Gujarati authors. Our primary goal is to promote the language and the daily is the right vehicle to achieve our cherished dream,” Dave added.
Mumbai Samachar, the city’s chronicler, has survived the ravages of times because it’s an ardent admirer of the moral aphorism that change is the only constant and it’s prudent to embrace it with open arms.
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