Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Tribute to a mentor; a father-figure | RIP Jehangir Pocha

I first encountered Jehangir Pocha as I suspect many of his friends have. I saw a group of people laughing and he was right in the middle. I was told I should meet him and so hesitantly stepped forward, conscious that I might interrupt the merriment. He motioned for me to join the group and effortlessly continued entertaining us.

Jehangir, JP, was then the Beijing correspondent for the Boston Globe and Businessworld Magazine. I was a 21-year-old working for the China HQ of an international NGO called AIESEC; an organisation he had been a part of in his youth. It was 2005. We were both at the AIESEC International Congress in Agra. 

I don't recall too many details from that first meeting. He may have been narrating some of his ruthlessly entertaining stories or his many bawdy jokes. At any rate, I do remember it ended with him discussing what may or may not be legal for him to take back to Beijing. He always had a twinkle in his eye. 

We met properly a month later at Cafe Paris on Beijing's Sanlitun street. It was a work meeting; and our relationship remained formal until I left AIESEC a year-and-half later. I was headed back to India and wanted to be a journalist. He offered to connect me to the team at Businessworld. As luck would have it, I had already interviewed with them and was offered a contract. I mailed him telling him about the offer and ended with "Will you be coming back to India any time soon?". His reply gave nothing away: "That's great. I'm sure I'll see you there soon!" 

Two weeks later, Aveek Sarkar, ABP's proprietor, introduced him to the newsroom as Businessworld's new editor. His eyes were twinkling. Or maybe it was a knowing wink. He was now my boss. Over the two years I worked at Businessworld, he became so much more - a mentor, friend, guide...

Late one evening, he stopped by my desk as I hacked out a story. "Have you had dinner?" he asked. "Nope." "OK, let's grab something to eat." He had his chauffeur get in the back seat, popped in a classical music CD ("because it's relaxing") and took the wheel. We stopped at a five-star hotel. "Thank god you're dressed properly," he said as we got out. "The Finance minister hosts just one of these every year. Apparently, it'll help us understand his budget better."  

Jehangir was like that. He'd take a 23-year-old novice to the Finance Minister's post-budget dinner, allow him to write a cover story (twice) and let him edit two sections of the magazine. He once sent a 27-year-old colleague to interview a future Prime Minister. A young cub-reporter was allowed to pick her beat. A 22-year-old was taken off the 'Guest Desk' and sent off to report because he "saw potential" in him. JP bet on people and he almost always beat the odds. 

A year later, he offered me my second job. He was moving to NewsX and had a few roles open for reporters. I had never dreamed of being a television reporter, but he thought I could handle it. It was a steep learning curve. 

I still remember my first day anchoring. It was 6 am on the 17th of April, 2009. Delhi was about to begin voting in the General election. I was a nervous wreck and it showed. In fact, I reckon I was a disaster. JP offered me a coach... one of our senior anchors would work with me to iron out my many, many rough edges. Within six months I won an award for environmental reporting on TV. A month later, a fellowship to report on the 2009 Copehagen Climate Summit followed. The environment was never a hot beat, but I loved it. JP didn't hesitate on sending me out on assignment even once. He cared about good stories. Beats did not matter. 

There are many examples about JP's personal generosity. Like the time he offered an ex-colleague his chauffeur and car for as long as she needed, when a close relative passed away. Or the time he personally marched down to India Gate when one of his young reporters was injured during the Delhi Gangrape protests. Or the time he offered another ex-colleague a job because her previous employer would not take her back after she'd taken a break following the death of a parent.

But the one thing he was most generous with was his time. He'd work with young reporters for hours to improve their stories & story-telling... adding a fact here, or turning a brilliant little phrase there. He exhorted us to "elevate" our stories. He was an aesthete. Style mattered as much as substance. 

He'd counsel us about love, friendship, career choices, lifestyle choices. He'd talk movies, books, religion, philosophy, music (he loved his music, as most Parsis do!). He was a keen photographer and would spend time with the camera team, discussing their fine art. 

None of this was work for him. This was about building his people. And it never mattered whether we excelled under his employment or our next. He took pleasure in seeing us grow.

He cared deeply about injustices. He made us care too; not about the ratings but about the subjects of our reportage. "To be a good journalist, you must first be a good person," he told me once. 

When I left NewsX to join the India Today Group, the discussion with him was the hardest. I choked back tears. He allowed me to finish my piece and after an hour-long heart-to-heart he wished me luck. We drifted apart after that; conversing once every six months or so. It was always easy chatter, though. Our last conversation was only a week ago. Ironically, much like our first, it was about work. He promised to 'catch up another time'. I will regret not having that conversation. 

The last time we communicated was two days ago. I had congratulated him on the ratings for NewsX - they'd caught up with Times Now at No. 1, after consistently posting great ratings over the past month. He brushed it off. I reminded him that he'd worked hard for this day, that he'd earned it. He replied with a smiley. 

Jehangir died this morning of a heart attack at the age of 46; far too young. He had just started on life: marrying Ranjana only last year, he was the cool dad to her young son Aditya, and fathered two beautiful twins of his own, Darius and Naira. 

His Facebook timeline over the past year is testament to his deep love for his new family. His facebook timeline over the past 18 hours is testament to how deeply he was loved by us, his friends. He left this world as I found him... surrounded by the people he so loved to entertain. 

We will all miss you, Jehangir. This place is brighter, smarter, more elegant, more generous and better-off from your time here. Thank you for everything.