John F Kennedy’s assassination on 22 Nov 1963, changed the course of LP AYER’s life
President Kennedy’s assassination propelled my migration journey to Australia. Sounds incredible?
Major tragedies often create a ripple effect, affecting people living far removed from the scene and not even remotely connected with the event, like 9/11 or the tsunami. Kennedy’s death was one such event, in my case.
I was a journalist with the Financial Express, the first financial newspaper started in India in 1960 as part of the Indian Express group. After gaining my Honours degree in Economics, I joined this paper from day one of its planning stage.
In that set-up, the News Desk was responsible for editing news items, designing page layout and producing the paper. It worked in two shifts, with a chief sub-editor in charge for each shift. The night shift Chief sub-editor was the sole arbiter of what stories would go on the front and other overflow pages, as well as their layout.
Promotion came to me reasonably quick. Just a couple of months before that fateful Friday night in 1963, I was made Chief sub-editor. And that week in November it was my turn as the night shift in-charge chief sub-editor.
Being a financial daily with a small print-run, it was printed first around midnight, before the Group’s other two papers, the Indian Express and Lok Satta in Marathi, with a quarter of a million print run each, all on the same rotary machine.
Every night after checking the front page proof, I would give the go-head to the printing room. While waiting to see the first printed copy, the sub-editors would have a card game, then sleep on our office desks as there was no public transport after midnight, and none of us could afford a vehicle. We used to be woken up by the cleaners early next morning to return home.
Friday, November 22 was like any other day. Things went smoothly with good local stories breaking early, and the pages were ready on time for printing. We sat down to our card game a couple of metres from the teleprinter (a typewriter-like device in a glass-topped cabinet) that used to send out stories from the news agency. Usually the agency would give a couple of rings on the machine to indicate it was closing for the night and no more stories were to come. If some important news was about to break, it would sound longer and louder. But that was rare.
As the cards were about to be dealt, there was a loud ring a few minutes past midnight. The line on the teleprinter read: ‘Flash …..Flash…..Flash’. It was a regulation line to warn of a major story coming.
‘PRESIDENT KENNEDY SHOT’.
I nearly froze in my seat, only for a few seconds though. I asked one of the sub-editors to type out a few paragraphs on Kennedy, another to get a grim looking picture of him from the paper’s library, and a third staff to keep watching the teleprinter. I rang the printing room foreman to stop the press and rushed down to the composing room to retrieve the front page stone (a metal frame encasing news items cast in metal). Those were the days when each line was set in molten metal on a linotype machine; even changing a few lines would mean major layout changes to the page. There were no computers or cut-and-paste magic then.
As soon as the new paragraphs were composed, I placed the story and the picture on top of the page, removing parts of another story. All this took thirty minutes. The printing foreman was getting anxious as the papers would miss the delivery vehicles. I was equally nervous. The page was ready to go.
‘KENNEDY DECLARED DEAD’, the staff watching the teleprinter rang me at the composing room.
A quick re-editing, re-setting, a new bold headline and layout change. After another 15 minutes the rotary printer was spewing thousands of copies with the grim story. I returned to my desk. As a journalist I felt a sense of ‘pride’ in handling such a challenge in only my third month as a probationary Chief sub-editor. Kennedy was then a hero to most Indians, including me. I broke down and wept – a thing journalists are not expected to do in their line of duty.
Next morning I found out that only the Express Group of papers had covered the story and other ‘rival’ groups missed it. It was a sense of victory in that moment of great sadness.
I wrote an article on how I handled the story for the Indian Press Institute’s quarterly magazine Vidura. I submitted this as my entry and was selected by the Institute for a scholarship program in journalism at Cardiff in the UK, run by the Thompson Foundation, founded by Lord Thompson owner of The Times in London before Rupert Murdoch.
On that course there were twelve journalists from nine different countries, including the editor of a major regional newspaper in South Australia, Mr. Don Winton of Whyalla News. He and I became good friends. After the fourteen-week course we returned to our respective posts. I got a promotion and later moved to Public Relations at Tata Steel, thanks to my overseas stint. It is in this steel city that I met my future wife.
Don and I corresponded regularly. I took him to a few interesting places during his first visit to India. Our friendship grew and so did my interest in Australia, and at his urging I decided to migrate here. His support added weight to my application. I arrived with my wife in1972 and Don was there at Adelaide airport to greet us. Since then, Don visited India a dozen times until his death a few years ago. He was our guest during many a Christmas at our Adelaide home. In the 40-odd years since, Australia and our family of four have treated each other with great love and affection.
I often wonder if, were I were not present at that particular time when news came through of Kennedy’s assassination, would I have got that scholarship, met Don and come to Australia? Should I cry at the tragedy or feel happy at the turning point in my life, or simply assign that to my karma?
PS: In the years gone by, I learnt that out of those dozen journalists on that Cardiff course, four had met with tragic ends – two from Uganda became the victims of dictator Idi Amin; one handsome leftist Brazilian joined a guerrilla force somewhere in Africa and was killed in action; one from Egypt, the Deputy Editor of Al Ahram, the mouthpiece of President Nasser, died in a car accident. Don Winton too, was hit by a car but lived with broken leg, and died a couple of years later.