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Enduring roots

VATSALA VEDANTHAM talks to Peter Bhatia, president elect of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.


Peter Bhatia with his family.

THE year was 1993. The venue, an Asian American journalists' conference in Los Angeles. A 40-year-old editor was presiding over a panel discussion on gender discrimination in the media. When one of the panelists pointed out that this was a common deviation in many newspapers in the U.S. — she should know having experienced it — the Chairman turned to the audience for responses. I was the sole sari clad South Asian representative in that panel. "Do you face similar problems in India?" he asked. "If I did, I would not be here," was my response. He smiled. I think he was happy to hear that. It seemed to reinforce India's paradoxes that are not easily understood in the West. "The problem with being an Indian here is that this country does not understand India," he had told South Asian journalists recently. When we chanced to meet again in the same conference venue the following day, he spoke with warmth about a country he had not seen, yet called his own. He had heard so much about it from his father, Vishnu Narain — his one and only link to a civilisation and culture that he respected although far removed from them. He had uncles and aunts "over there" whom he wanted to see, he confided. He hoped to bring his two children, Megan and JP, to India some day "to know their roots."

That was Peter Bhatia, a Stanford graduate and advisor to leading journalism schools in the U.S.; Highly respected editor of America's most influential regional newspaper; The 2003 President elect of ASNE, the 850-member American Society of Newspaper Editors; Four time Pulitzer juror and leader of six Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper projects, including three for The Oregonia, which he heads; The senior most editor of South Asian origin in the United States is proud of his Rajasthani roots.

"My people originally belonged to Jaisalmer," he reminisced at a coffee table outside a lecture hall of Columbia University in New York recently. The occasion was the 2002 convention of SAJA — South Asian Journalists' Association — which had more than 600 media persons of Indian origin from the U.S., Canada and Europe exchanging their ideas and experiences. Peter Bhatia had just finished his concluding remarks at the plenary panel called "Newsroom Decision Makers." It was a break before his next appointment at eleven.

"Tell me something about your father and his family background in India," I said. "My grandfather was a district surgeon," he began. "He was in charge of many hospitals. I believe our ancestral home in Lucknow was awarded to him by the State Government. That is the city where my father went to school with his brothers and completed his undergraduate education too." He added after a pause, "I never met or knew my grandparents. I went to India in the 1970s to meet my father's family. I have kept up the connection since then." At a time when young Indians headed mostly to England for higher studies, Peter's father, Vishnu Narain came over to the United States to complete a doctoral programme in education in 1947. His destination was the University of Iowa where he obtained his PhD. He carried back home not only his degree but a foreign bride whom he had met on a bus journey. Peter Bhatia describes this alliance "between a dark skinned Indian and a strawberry blonde from Chicago" as a difficult proposition in a country that had just freed itself from white supremacy. Vishnu Narain give up his job in Bombay and returned with his American wife to the land of her birth. He took up the first offer of a position in the Washington State University at Pullman. He worked in the same place for the next 45 years to become an institution in himself. At age 77, the educationist from India still advises the university president on academic matters, says his son with genuine pride. The native from Rajasthan has been Peter Bhatia's guide and mentor by example. Whether it was commitment to work, compassion for others or simply doing the right thing, he was the perfect role model who taught his son the values of decency and the most important lessons in life. Describing a man who lived in the land of his adoption "with an unbowed attitude". Bhatia calls his father "the epitome of class." Bhatia is married to a fellow American journalist, Elizabeth Dahl. His ethnicity does not begin and end with a love of Indian curry. "I am proud of my Indian roots," says Bhatia. "I am proud to belong to a great tradition." Born and schooled in Pullman, Washington State, Peter Bhatia went on to Stanford University "which opened up a world of possibilities I never dreamed of." He settled for a career in journalism, which surprised even his liberal minded parent. But, he sincerely believed that this was one career where you can create your own opportunities, and "where good work does not go unnoticed." In fact, that is Bhatia's advice to all aspiring journalists too. As a newspaper editor, he constantly encourages young writers through public talks, individual scholarships and donations to journalism schools. Even today, long after he has passed out of its portals, Peter Bhatia is a respected name in Stanford. I noticed his preoccupation with his father's advancing age and failing health. Vishnu Narain's son knows that he is the one who must decide whether to take his father's ashes back to the land he left behind decades ago. "He is the only tangible link with India that my children have," he said with not a little sadness. "Once he goes, that is gone!" Then he added brightly, "Do you know I have made a deal with my father that he was going to see me becoming president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors next year? And, he has promised me he would!"

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