The last time I saw Siddharth Mishra was in April, as soon as I landed in Chennai. He was to have his sixth or seventh round of chemotherapy. He looked startling without any hair or eyebrows, but that was no doubt the least of his concerns. He was cheerily optimistic about eking out a few more years of life from the cancer that had spread from his stomach — it was diagnosed a November ago and the doctors hadn’t given him much time. He had overcome a phase of depression and decided that with chemotherapy and medication, he would stretch that promised year or so into at least five, so that he could help his children — daughter, class four; son, kindergarten — grow up just a bit more. His wife joined us, and it was evident his spirit was sustained by this strong and smart woman. I did not know what to say, for what is there to say?
Siddharth was the Sport Editor of The New Indian Express, based in Chennai, having joined me there in 2007 to fix a newspaper which had clearly seen better days. We had both been in New Delhi though the first time we met was when I interviewed him for the job at the Express guesthouse. Several acquaintances spoke of him including my wife, whom he sat behind at the Times of India Delhi office. She was fond of him though disapproving of his tobacco-chewing, for he was forever spitting into the bin at their bay. Because she mentioned the chew-and-spit, I expected someone who resembled a bald and portly middle-aged relative. Instead, I met a suave, slim fellow with intense eyes, combed-back hair and a dark tan leather jacket.
Perhaps he had gained a fashion sense during his time at Delhi Times, where he was mentored by Sabina Sehgal Saikia, another of the abruptly departed (killed at the Taj on 26/11), before he switched to sport. In any case I was happy someone else was willing to leave Delhi for the South; he was happy returning to print as an Editor. It was on.
We had a whale of a time in Chennai. We launched a broadsheet Sport supplement on Sundays (most of my Express experiments were jettisoned when I left for DNA) and it was the best Sport pull-out in any Indian newspaper. Siddharth knew how to use the modern and attractive template given by our genius Design Editor to provide eight intense, happening, sexy pages. Of course, talent counts for nothing if you’re don’t put in the hours, and Siddharth was a workaholic. He spent long hours in office planning his coverage and producing his pages. He was so hands-on that he was never ever in his cubicle, but always in the newsroom with the rest of his team. He was such a solid professional that I wanted him more than most other former colleagues to join me at DNA (the hitch was that DNA already had a Sport Editor). So I seriously thought of him heading an edition — that’s how good he was — but then came the disease.
I remember vividly two occasions we socialised: both were office parties where we both reached that state of intoxication in which music stretches and contracts of its own volition, and the world fragments into unconnected slideshows. Siddharth, who I otherwise found reserved — actually, everyone is circumspect with the Editor — came up with some great experiments for our newspaper. The common thread in his ideas was his genuinely youthful outlook and his constant search to break the mould. Had he lived longer, he would have left a lasting mark on Indian journalism.
At those parties, however, he did not take the opportunity to reveal much of his personal life — a visiting colleague informed me that Siddharth’s dad was a legendary English professor back in Bhubaneshwar — and I now realise that he was a private person, perhaps even with himself. He only got to know of his cancer when it was at the irremediably Stage IV. Were there any warnings before terrible stomach agony a year ago? Did he ignore those warnings?
These were not questions that you ask a man who is dying. So when I met him, for the last time, in April, I felt remorse for all the talking that we hadn’t done and that there was now no time left for. I didn’t know what to say or where to start. But he did. He assured me he was going to fight the disease and that he would hang around another few years. His words cheered me; I believed him.
But then, over the summer the chemotherapy ended without the cancer having been stopped. We spoke and Siddharth continued to be optimistic though it was obvious that the countdown had begun. On October 17, our former executive editor telephoned to say that Siddharth had been taken off medication and that it was a matter of days; and that I ought to visit. I feel lousy for not immediately doing so, for 12 days later, this past Monday, Siddharth left.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai