Too Can Err!
From the time material is received
for publication in a newspaper to the time you get
it on your breakfast table, it has to pass through
several hands, the first being that of the sub-editor.
Normally he does not have much difficulty in processing
the raw material and takes the subbing (journalistic
jargon for sub-editing) duty in his stride.
Occasionally, however, he is confronted with matter
with no indication of its author -- except what
looks like a squashed housefly in a corner of the
first page. In such cases a red alert sounds in
the sub-editor's brain: "It's from The Boss!".
Thereafter, the sub-editor treads as carefully as
a soldier venturing through a minefield. By and
large, however, he has a free hand to edit the material
as his instincts dictate.
When I shed the harness of government employment
and took up journalism as a full-time profession
two decades ago, I gained a good deal of experience
of different types of contributors to newspapers.
When I joined an English daily as a sub-editor,
my editor, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi. placed me in charge
of the 'Letters to the Editor' section of the newspaper
and gave me some instructions. The most important
of these was to bear in mind that some writers seemed
to think that they deserved the whole page all to
themselves. I was, therefore, advised to make liberal
use of my ballpoint and slash, slash, slash. There
was this engineer who, colleagues told me, was a
Harvard graduate and a regular contributor to the
newspaper. He suffered from 'Kalabagh Dam Phobia'
and thought that the dam's construction could be
effectively prevented by a continuous bombardment
of our newspaper with letters to the editor.
One day he turned up with his briefcase full of
jars of honey from his own bee farm in the North
West Frontier Province. He went around the editorial
hall, presenting a jar each to everyone, including
Dr. M. and me, the new face among the sub-editors.
He left after reminding her that he had sent his
latest letter to her for publication and would she
Dr. Maleeha inquired from me the position and I
informed her that I had already processed it and
that it would appear in our newspaper the following
morning. She hoped that I was keeping her instructions
in mind. I assured her that I had.
The hapless Harvardian must have torn out the remaining
few hairs on his balding head the following morning
on seeing his contribution slashed to a six centimeter
column by some bloodthirsty vandal of a sub-editor.
I was happy to report to the editor later on that
after that bitter experience, the engineer appeared
to have completely lost his enthusiasm for presenting
his theses through letters to the editor. And to
think that the poor chap's home-produced honey went
down the metaphorical drain!
Then there was this contributor who used to bring
his piece personally to our editor of another newspaper,
enjoy a cup of tea with him and leave. I would read
his column the following morning but I wasn't in
a position to ascertain the quantum of editing needed
to qualify his contribution for publication. I knew
that he had a Doctorate from Harvard University,
was a retired Ambassador and was a member of the
newspaper's think-tank which we preferred to call
a stink tank.
One day he walked in and on finding the editor out,
he thrust a sheaf of papers into my hands and, we
having been former Foreign Office colleagues, said:
"Here's my usual piece. Most immediate, understand?"
"I'll process it just now, Sir."
"Aray bhai, is men kya process karnay wala
hai?" ("Hey brother, what's in it to be
"Sir, the spelling, punctuation and paragraphing
have to be checked. There might be some rough edges
to be smoothed or toned down. There could be..."
"Bhatti Sahib!" pontificated His ex-Excellency,
"I have been correcting your drafts when you
were in the Foreign Office."
"Sir, sometimes there are typographical errors
"I type my columns myself," he interrupted.
"That's all the more reason why I have to deal
with it first."
The Harvardian adrenalin in his blood coursed rapidly
and he mumbled angrily through his pipe that he
was smoking: "Idher lao!" (Bring it here!)
Snatching his papers back, he strode into the editor's
office, flung them on the desk and left in a huff.
The editor returned and, being in an unusual hurry,
he lifted the Doctor's papers conveying his profound
thoughts on world affairs and flung them on my desk
before rushing out again. He clean forgot to append
his normal initials in the corner of the first page
which furnished me with a license to wield my ballpoint
It was the first time during my stay in that newspaper
that I had an opportunity of realizing that the
output of a Harvardian ex-Ambassador does not necessarily
exempt it from 'subbing'.
Doctor Sahib, if you are still around, Sir, and
happen to read this, please realize that Harvardians
too can err. A short while before you came to our
newspaper that day several years ago, I had just
returned from the printing section after glancing
through a facsimile of your letter to Dr.A.Q.K.
that contained some glaring mistakes, to wit: the
correct expression is 'some time ago', not 'sometime
ago', the acronym is 'KANUPP' not 'KANUP' and it
is 'deciphering' not 'diciphering'. To be frank,
after making three determined attempts to infiltrate
your mind, I was convinced that only you and your
Creator were capable of understanding the pearls
of 'wisdom' you strewed throughout your literary