Readers Write In #315: Mirror Cracked From Side to Side

Posted on December 19, 2020

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(by Madan Mohan)

No, this is not about the famous Agatha Christie novel. 

This is about the imminent shutdown of Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid-sized daily that used to accompany Times of India.  Starting tomorrow, we are told, Mumbai Mirror will be a Sunday weekly affair. 

Notice I say tabloid-sized.  If you aren’t from Mumbai (or Pune/Bangalore which also had their Mirror editions), you’d wonder what the fuss is about a cheap tabloid going under.  Why are your liberal minded friends from Mumbai bemoaning, not the death but the curtailment of a desi Daily Mail/Sun?  Why indeed?

Well, for that, you’d have to have read the paper and understood what it was trying to do.  Which wasn’t to spread scandal and fake news but to carry on a particular Mumbai tradition that was previously the preserve of Afternoon Despatch and Courier.   As the name suggests, it arrived a little later in the day.  So it would carry the scorecard of cricket matches that had gone on late into the night, like Sharjah (remember that?). What also attracted readers were the columns of its editor Behram Contractor who went by the moniker of Busybee.  It was meant to be read at leisure over tea (or, more likely, on the way back on the hour long fast train journey back to the distant suburbs from your downtown office).

Once Mumbai Mirror was launched as a bundled offering ‘free’ with a higher priced Times of India, Afternoon was already embattled.  Mumbai Mirror leveraged the financial strength of its parent to offer a whole roster of columnists.  The columns covered everything from psychology (Sonali Gupta) to fashion (Namrata Zakaria) to economics (Ajit Ranade) to cinema (Trishaa Gupta/Roshmila Bhattacharya) to politics (Radhika Ramaseshan).  I have not covered all the ones who used to write columns for the paper. Some long timers had wound up their columns already before pandemic purgatory – like Bhavin Jankharia who offered a Matunga point of view.  Now unless you are from the city yourself, you cannot grasp how this Matunga point of view differs from the South Mumbai point of view offered by Shobha De in her column. 

More importantly, Mumbai Mirror had a point of view.  Times of India under the stewardship of Sameer Jain has mastered the art of survival by maintaining balance in the most literal sense of the word.  The Sunday centre spread publishes columns by writers who are both pro and anti the ruling establishment.  On weekdays, columns by Opposition leaders as well as from the Ruling party, including even Ministers, are often published.  The ethics of the same may be questionable but its business sense is not.

In sharp contrast, Mumbai Mirror veered towards the point of view of Mumbai liberalism.  It is a different variety of liberalism from the more noisy and activist brand practiced by the capital city or the strong leftist slant of Kolkata or Chennai liberals (as seen on Telegraph or Hindu).  Mumbai voted with the nation in 2014 and 2019.  But it also expressed dissatisfaction with the BJP’s machinations to curtail popular local leaders; voters in the Bandra East constituency voted for the independent Trupti Sawant when BJP would not allow Shiv Sena to give her a ticket, knowing full well that the resulting vote split would allow Zeeshan Siddique, the son of Baba Siddique, to win.  Anti-CAA protests went about smoothly and without incident in Mumbai and for months. 

Also, I never heard the same Mumbaiites who routinely blasted left leaning journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai also deride Mumbai Mirror.  No, nobody would go that far.  Mumbai Mirror was an institution.  It did not indulge politicians from either side of the aisle with precious column inches and let the work of journalism be carried out by journalists (the more leisurely columns, of course, were written by eminent citizens with a knack for writing well – Jhankaria is a reputed city doctor).  It did not waste time with monkey balancing on Sunday and instead carried ‘deep dives’ (before the term came into popular usage) into a wide variety of subjects. 

Unfortunately, it appears that Mumbai Mirror got too successful for its own good. Word is that its lower advertisement rates were more attractive to advertisers as it offered close to the same readership as Times of India in Mumbai, to date the newspaper’s largest market. Also, as Mumbai Mirror bids us goodbye, we are offered a bundle that would have either Economic Times (with Sunday Mirror) or Maharashtra Times (a Marathi newspaper) on all seven days, with Times of India. So…does this mean ET was ailing too and Times decided to rescue it (as well as Times of India) from the cannibalizing tendencies of Mumbai Mirror?

Whatever be the reasons behind the move, it’s come to pass.  And with many of the columnists saying their goodbyes this week, I have a bad feeling about just what the Sunday edition is going to look like.  Well, as long as it’s not the print edition of Sudarshan TV…

In another city, this decision, sprung up on readers and Mumbai Mirror employees alike as a nasty surprise in December, may not have gone down without incident.  Perhaps, a loud clamour from readers may have scared BCCL into postponing the decision and slowly killing the edition over a period of time.  But activism to rescue local institutions is what New York City does.  Mumbai – Mumbai just shrugs and moves on, humming the refrain of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan