It’s hard to imagine that an innocuous red ink pen can inspire so much dread. But in the hands of journalism teacher Kollemvarieth Thomas Oommen, the red ink pen is a deadly weapon.
On a pleasant winter morning in sleepy Kottayam, where a journalism class is in progress at the Malayala Manorama Group-run Mascom Institute, the full force of this pen can be seen. A pile of corrected assignments in hand, KTO, as Oommen is better known, is reading his red-inked comments out loud. Informally seated on the table, the grandfatherly figure with the mild tone doesn’t resemble the dragon he has been painted to be by some of his former students.
In a soft voice, he asks one student who covered recent municipal elections how 47% can constitute a majority. He continues to pick holes in the copy in a manner so caustic and witty that the whole class, except the unfortunate student reporter, begins tittering. He moves quickly through the pile, asking one young man who took particular linguistic licence with grammar, “did you learn your English in Kazakhstan?"
Meet “Prof. Oommen”, as the nearly 600 Indian journalists who have suffered, hated and loved the man, tend to call him. One of India’s best-kept secrets, this journalism educator has spent 26 years taking in young, impressionable—and often terrible writers and editors—and instilling in them a love for journalism and a sense of right and wrong, at least when it comes to the English language. Today, there are hardly any Indian newspapers where former Oommen students are not playing key roles (including at this paper).
For a country with one of the most vibrant and free media in the world, India has surprisingly few quality journalism teachers or schools. And amid a widely acknowledged shift toward entertainment and blending of news and paid content, it is even more remarkable that Oommen has maintained his commitment to teaching the kind of journalistic rigour that is fast disappearing from newsrooms.
Chuck Jackson, a copy editor at the International Herald Tribune, who taught at Mascom a year ago, says that an Oommen-trained journalist stands out from the crowd: “Thomas pushes his students so hard that it turns into a habit for them when they become professionals. They know how to get the job done and do it. And they are tough-minded, too.”
Oommen was a reluctant teacher despite hailing from a family of school teachers. He first worked for the now defunct Free Press Journal soon after his MA from St Stephen’s College for a monthly salary of Rs120. “When I was going home after writing a humorous story on an insurance sector strike, I sat next to a guy who was reading the paper,” he recalls. “Suddenly, he started chuckling and I noticed he was reading my piece. I knew then that I was right in choosing journalism as a profession.”
Three years later, he heard about an interesting job in Ethiopia. Soon he was winging his way to Addis Ababa as an advisor at the ministry of information and broadcasting, where, among other duties, he also had to help produce the Ethiopian Herald. The only caveat about this job was to make sure the first page carried reports of the Emperor and his family with prominent photographs. “No name could go above the Emperor’s name,” grins Oommen.
That experience and many others from his journalism career, including a second stint in Africa in Swaziland during the 1990s, now form part of an ethics course he has introduced at Mascom—one of the many innovations that Oommen brings to his job as teacher. “Of course, it’s hard to teach values and ethics, but I would like my students to be equipped for all eventualities and situations at the workplace—be it sexual harassment or discrimination or prejudices,” he says.
Like most young men of a certain era, Oommen pursued studies in the United States. He enrolled in the Master’s programme in journalism at the University of Iowa in 1963. It proved to be an exciting time for him and the world press as a whole: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated three weeks after he arrived in the US.
A couple of jobs at small papers led to the night city editor job at Associated Press in Los Angeles. Apart from reporting and handling copy at breakneck speed, Oommen also picked up useful computer skills as the wire service was transitioning to a computerized service. Along the way he met his wife, Sandra—a meeting engineered by the local public librarian, who knew both of them had worked in Africa.
Despite a promising career in the US, India was still beckoning Oommen. “My motive in coming back to India was that our children should grow up here,” he explains. The children were six, four and two-and-a-half years old and the Oommens felt that if they had to straddle both cultures comfortably, they needed to be brought up in India.
Once back, however, none of the journalism offers excited him—most of the papers wanted him to handle the international pages. “I would have been relegated to writing edits on foreign affairs,” says the man who thrives on the excitement of daily news. On balance, the offer by H.Y. Sharda Prasad, who was setting up a news agency journalism course at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in Delhi, looked more exciting. Although, he says, at a salary of Rs1,800 a month, it was equivalent to what he earned in three days at AP.
The IIMC job was challenging, but in ways that Oommen could not have imagined. The students—all from non-aligned countries—could barely speak English. There was no hostel facility and, often, both Oommens would be frantically trying to find accommodation for the students in a Delhi that appeared reluctant to house black-skinned Africans.
As a teacher, Oommen believes his golden years were undoubtedly the five years when he headed the Times Centre for Media Studies. Says Indiavarta.com head Sunil Saxena, who taught along with him at Times: “As an administrator, he was very meticulous, and looked at the smallest points. As a teacher, he was beyond comparison. I saw him take classes for two to three hours at a stretch, and the students would sit spellbound.”
Certainly the classes were interesting, if not combative. Armed with a devastating sense of humour and gift of repartee, Oommen used a combination of wit, sarcasm, anger and passion to goad his students. Several students found his methods objectionable and some staged walk-outs, others fought bitter battles with him but, today, those very students are united in his praise.
Prosenjit Datta, executive editor of Businessworld magazine, was hauled over the coals many a time at the Times school and even failed several assignments. But he acknowledges Oommen’s training for his rise, especially in rewriting and sub-editing, and is forever quoting Oommenisms to his desk hands.
Says former student Nidhi Raj Kapoor: “He was very good at reducing students to size and breaking their confidence.” But Kapoor, who is no longer a journalist, says that for all the humiliation Oommen used to subject his students to, he was always fair. Once he pulled her up over the way she had spelled a popular brand name. But the next morning he found out he was wrong and apologized in front of the class. “For all of his tough exterior, he was soft inside,” she says.
To an extent, Oommen’s toughness was tempered by wife Sandra—a motherly influence for many of the students, who were away from home for the first time. Oommen’s relationship with his students was never a cut-and-dried professional one—rather the students just became part of his family. Many visited his home and former students still dash down to Kottayam to meet him. Watch him during the lunch hour at Mascom, where he eats at the same canteen as the students and you realize that the gruff manner is reserved for the classroom.
Ask KTO himself why he drives his students so hard and he is unapologetic: “I explain to my students on the very first day of their class that it is the first day of their professional life and not the last year of college life.”
Indeed, Oommen has not shared the same relationship with the newspaper barons who run the institutes. His no-nonsense attitude and blunt talk often does not go down well. He quit the Times school after falling out with the management. Similarly, at science and environment magazine Down To Earth, he walked out when he could not see eye-to-eye with the promoters.
But Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment, which brings out the magazine, acknowledges his contribution: “Anybody in publishing will tell you how hard it is to find good desk hands. Oommen’s contribution was in the way he trained the desk in handling science copy and the rewriting skills he brought.”
Oommen then took off for a five-year stint at the department of journalism at the University of Swaziland. When he returned in 1999, he slipped into the role of dean at The Hindu Group’s Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Says Sashi Kumar, chairman, Media Development Foundation , which has promoted ACJ: “In the field of journalism teaching in India, it’s hard to find such a thorough professional, with hands-on experience especially in copy editing, who in addition is a disciplinarian, and meticulous to boot.”
Although ACJ was loath to let him go, Oommen’s dream of settling down in his native Kottayam was too strong and when to his hometown the Malayala Manorama Group came calling, he moved, helping launch Mascom.
Today, life has come full circle for Oommen. He is teaching at an institute that is just a few minutes away from the CNS school where his grandfather taught. He and his wife are ensconced in his mother’s ancestral home, 12km away.
Even at 70, Oommen remains as much of a workaholic as ever, heavily prone to moments of angst about where journalism is heading or the calibre of the students who enrol every year, and the falling standards of spoken and written English in the country.
“Print journalism in English is going to be a hodgepodge of words put together indelicately, with no thought to grammar and less to meaning, and whose sole purpose is to fill up space on the page between advertisements,” he concedes. “Vernacular journalism has more promise for the future.”
What about journalism education? “This shortage will be remedied only when good journalists acknowledge they owe a debt to their profession and become good journalism teachers,” he says.
Is a second retirement around the corner? “There’s just too much work,” Oommen may grumble, but he’s the first to admit that he will only give up teaching the day he finds his students are bored. “When that happens, I shall go for long walks, catch the fish that have been swimming fearlessly in the Kodoor river and read all the books that I deliberately put off reading till later ... and later,” he says.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series of profiles that we plan to run throughout 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to Sixty Indians—both here and aboard--who are not rich or famous or important. These will be people who are making quiet but important contributions, without seeking headlines, to help make India and in some cases, the world, a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people that you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org