Goodbye Doctor Saab - A master printer, Gandhian and my first print guru

I M Doctor was president of the Bombay Master Printer's Association and a high ranking member of the All India Federation of Master Printers. Ramu Ramanathan doffs his hat to a rare gem.

02 Oct 2019 | By Ramu Ramanathan


Erudite, clear-sighted and scrupulously honest, Indubhushan Doctor was a man who spoke his mind. At times, when we had chats all through the afternoon, I suspected he wasn’t a master printer. Simply because he critiqued the print community, ruthlessly. In fact if he hadn’t controlled his restless, fiery temper I suspect the industry, the associations, the federation would have been reformed.

Few people this side of Lower Parel could see the larger picture. He was obsessed with professional management of the association; creating a survey which could validate the industry status; and creating an outreach program whereby print could become fashionable.

He reigned over Rite Print Pak. It was one of the finest (and perhaps costliest) printing firms in the city. The shopfloor was dominated by a Man Roland (later they became Manroland) and Doctor Saab swore by German engineering and his relationship with the Senior Bhandari who were the dealers for Roland in those days. Very particular about quality, the print firm was meticulous in its approach. They had a squeaky clean reputation, spartan methods and a fantastic team with super managers and supervisors like Vartak (print production) and Sopanbhai (maintenance).

Doctor Saab and BMPANEWS
I collaborated with Doctor Saab for BMPANEWS (the monthly magazine of the Bombay Master Printer’s Association). Or rather he mentored me. I was slothful. He whipped me into shape when one day he made me feed blank sheets of paper into the Parva. Nitin Parab (who shifted to Kalnirnay and later set up his own unit), was instructed to keep an eye on me. I did my chores. My fingers hurt, my legs ached, and my eyes burnt. It totally dented my bourgeoisie temperament. But more importantly it taught me to respect every single pressroom operator – and every single print job – no matter how menial.

While brain-storming over BMPANEWS, I realised Doctor Saab had a historian’s mind which rambled aimlessly about old block-makers and print shops in the gullies of Khadilkar Road. His was no narrow historicism: he scorned the idea that the past was a guide to the future. But study of it could help avoid making the same mistakes twice. He said, thumping his desk, which he did a lot, "We don’t document anything. We’ve no knowledge of the past. We fumble and stumble everywhere. Therefore there is a lack of respect for the present."

Though he was President of the BMPA (Bombay Master Printer’s Association), he wished he could do more. He questioned the role of the Association. Did it do enough? Could it do more? He tried to build BMPANEWS. In those days, I worked one-hundredth of what I do today, and perhaps I let him down. Or else we could have created an intellectual mouthpiece for the print industry.

Two solid milestones
Doctor Saab played a crucial role in hosting Pamex in Mumbai. The trade show was a success and placed Mumbai (Bombay, in those days) on the print map.

Later he collaborated with Arun Mehta (Vakil & Sons), they worked on the All India Print Survey. The aftermath of the longish discussions with the research agency was a flawed report, as Doctor Saab readily admitted. But it was a report everyone read and referred to. I suspect, even today, in spite of the Indian Printer Publisher survey and other sundry surveys, the 1989 survey is a vitally important experiment. It was an attempt to transcend the technological and demographic schisms that had cursed the subcontinent. Doctor Saab would say, thumping the desk: "Prosperity, modernisation and good data, plus a judicious dose of luck, will boost our print industry."

The Gandhian connection
But Doctor Saab was no sentimental print master. He had profound connections with the Gandhian movement. His wife was a Sarvodaya activist. More than anything this gave him a rare binocular vision. He said, "capitalism is good. But surely not at the cost of the poor getting poorer." Then he chuckled and thumped his desk, "not that the poor can get any poorer."

One day, I came across a book. It was Dharmendra Prasad’s Public life of Manilal Doctor. I asked Doctor Saab, if Manilal Doctor was a relative. He beamed and said, "Yes, he is my father."

For the uninitiated, Manilal Doctor met Mahatma Gandhi in 1906. Gandhi had become aware of the plight of the Indians in Mauritius and he sent Manilal Doctor to Mauritius.

Manilal arrived in Mauritius on 11 October 1907 and began work as a barrister. Even today, 11 October is celebrated as Manilal Doctor Day in Mauritius. This is because for the first time, the Indo-Mauritians and indentured labour found a lawyer they could rely on and he was accepted as their leader to fight their cause.

Later like a true Gandhian, he launched a weekly newspaper, The Hindustani, with the motto: "Liberty of Individuals! Fraternity of Men! Equality of races!" It was published in English and Gujarati, but Gujarati was replaced with Hindi. Manilal ensured independence for Mauritius.

Manilal Doctor worked in Fiji. Once again, he was in the eye of the storm. One reason was besides being a lawyer, he was a free thinker with staunch socialist views. He was a trenchant critic of imperial policies. A rebel with a cause.

Later I discovered that Doctor Saab’s Gandhian lineage continued.

His maternal grandfather was Dr P J Mehta, who funded Gandhiji's law studies in London. Mehta was instrumental in introducing Gandhiji to his spiritual guru Shrimad Rajchandra. Subsequently, he funded Gandhiji during the freedom movement. It is rumoured he gave Gandhiji a blank signed chequebook. Later  Mani Bhavan was gifted to Gandhiji by Manimama, who was Doctor Saab’s maternal uncle.

The final countdown
Like his father, Doctor Saab was fearless. When he found a shift in the BMPA hierarchy and policy in the late nineties, he said so. That got him sidelined.

I was around when that happened.

He suffered a lot. And yet, he remained hopeful and optimistic.

A severe self-critic, he dealt poorly with sniping from others. He tended to dismiss adversaries as fools, rather than as merely mistaken, or half-right. Like a true Gandhian he believed in grass root work instead of fund-raising and pomp and pageantry. That’s why he had great admiration for Pragati Offset’s Hanumantha Rao’s efforts of creating a training program in the villages of Andhra Pradesh.

His final ordeal – when Rite Print Pak was in trouble financially and with the labour union – might have inspired great self-pity, but he displayed no hint of it. Just under a year ago, I bumped into him. He said: "I see you’ve no time for me, and you’ve become a big man." I said, no, that’s not true.

Then he stared at me and said. "Don't be dazzled by all the big printing firms. Do your bit for the small printer in the remote corner of our country. They need your help. Please remember: the big firms can take care of themselves."

As always, solid advise, from a gentle kind soul.

Doctor Saab, as your student, and "for more than ten years your reliable alter ego" I will try to achieve what you set out to do. Meanwhile I shall miss the endless chit chats over endless cups of tea.