Harvardians Too Can Err!
By N.A.Bhatti


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 kindly expedite.
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 processed?")
"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 and..."
"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 freely.
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 'masterpiece'.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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