65 years of Reader's Digest, India: Notes From the Editors' Desk

To commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Indian edition of Reader’s Digest, editors of this legacy publication, from 1954 till today, share their stories of what it was like at the helm of one of the world’s most widely read magazines 

Team RD Updated: Mar 15, 2024 15:32:18 IST
2024-03-14T18:15:19+05:30
2024-03-15T15:32:18+05:30
65 years of Reader's Digest, India: Notes From the Editors' Desk

Rahul Singh, Editor, RD India, 1969 to 1982

In 1969, when I was 29 years old and had spent five years as an Assistant Editor of the Times of India, I applied to become the first Editor of the Indian Reader’s Digest (IRD)—and was selected from many candidates. After my selection, I had to spend a year in London with the British Reader’s Digest (BRD), getting to know how the Digest was brought out. My job was to ‘Indianize’ the IRD, just as many editions all over the world were already localizing their contents to an extent, with articles and jokes originating from that country itself.

During that training period with BRD, what struck me most was how RD ensured that everything they published was absolutely accurate. Even the jokes sent by readers were carefully checked for their originality. For that, there was a separate research department, which spared no effort or expense to ensure accuracy. Which is why a common refrain to end an argument in those days was, “But I saw it in the Reader’s Digest.” RD had great credibility, and was trusted by its readers—essential for a successful publication. The other unique nature of RD was the supremacy of the Editor. He or she did not report to the management, only to the International Editor (a Frenchman, Alain de Lyrot, at my time). That was how the Digest founder, Dewitt Wallace, an Editor himself, wanted it.

My first major challenge as the IRD editor came when censorship was imposed in 1975 during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency rule. Every month, I had to appear before the Chief Censor, and show him what we were going to publish that month, for him to check that there was nothing that the government could object to. It was a humiliating experience for anybody who believed in freedom of speech and expression.

The US edition carried an article by Claire Sterling, extremely critical of Indira Gandhi’s suppression of democratic rights under the Emergency. This was brought to the Indian Government’s attention by the Indian Ambassador in Washington. I had to assure the censor that IRD would not be carrying it, otherwise we would have surely had to close down!

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As Editor, I always had the discretion not to carry in IRD any articles from the parent US edition which I felt would not go down well with our readers. Hence, during the Vietnam war I kept out anti-communist pieces. However, a bigger challenge loomed with Janata Party rule, following the Emergency, and the defeat of the Congress Party. Industries Minister, George Fernandes, a socialist known for his anti-US stance, decreed that all American companies were required to have a majority Indian shareholding. Rather than comply, IBM and Coca Cola, among the prominent American companies, decided to exit India.

IRD was similarly placed at the time, with 100 per cent American share-holding. Pleasantville (where US RD was located) reached out to me. “What should we do?” it asked. Either we have to agree on at least 51 per cent Indian share-holding, or we must shut down IRD, I replied. Eventually, it was mutually agreed by the Indian government and Pleasantville that IRD would have 100 per cent Indian share-holding, but Pleasantville would retain complete editorial control. I also listed five leading Indian companies which would be interested in buying IRD’s share-holding.

Which is the best? asked Pleasantville.

"The Tatas," I replied.

Negotiate with them, came the directive.

I knew Nani Palkhivala, famed lawyer and a Director of Tata Sons, personally, and went to see him in his Marine Drive apartment. Startled by the offer, he said he needed to talk to “Jeh” (JRD Tata, the head of Tatas) first. Come and see me in two days time, he said. When I went to see him, he simply said, yes, we would like to be associated with IRD. That is how Tatas got to own IRD. (Later, Ratan Tata decided to exit from all non-core areas and the India Today Group bought over IRD). 

During my editorship, we also launched a Hindi edition, Sarvottam, to add to the many languages in which the Digest was published. In fact, no other magazine in the world had so many translated editions, or such a large circulation, as RD. Sadly, Sarvottam lasted only a few years, being financially unviable.

When I decided in 1980 to leave IRD to join a major daily paper, The Indian Express, my International and US Editors tried to dissuade me, but when they realized I was set upon returning to mainstream journalism, they made an extraordinary, touching gesture by inviting me to Pleasantville. The farewell parties left me with fond memories of my 11 years with the Digest—my longest stint with a publication in my journalistic career. I had been privileged to work for a great and uniquely professional magazine, the likes of which the world will never see again.

 

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Ashok Mahadevan, Editor, RD India, 1982 to 2006

When I joined Readers Digest as a deputy editor in December 1974, the magazine was very tightly controlled by the British edition. They needed to oversee everything. After a few years, the US team took over supervising our content. It took several more years for them to relax and we began producing more and more stories about India that Indians cared about. We proved we knew what we were doing. Even so, I found that there were still some lessons I had yet to learn.

For example, I once saw an article on Amitabh Bachchan that appeared in Bombay Magazine, now defunct, and wanted to condense and run it because Bachchan at that time was a top star in India. After we carried it, I found, to my great surprise, a lot of people criticizing the piece. All kinds of readers sent letters and I got a lot of negative feedback. I was puzzled as to why. So I asked around.

The general consensus? “We don’t dislike the article,” people I asked said. “We love Amitabh Bachchan, but we don’t want Amitabh Bachchan in Reader’s Digest! RD is a place where people who do worthwhile things should be featured. Bachchan is just a very handsome film star. Who cares?” It was quite a lesson in understanding what Reader’s Digest stood for among Indians.

Another interesting lesson was in how RD approached a story about a problem. Most publications, at least at that time, used to write in great detail about an issue, how difficult it was to solve, and so on. At RD though, we looked at it differently: “Hey, of course it’s a big problem. It’s a monumental problem. But let’s see if someone has done something to ameliorate it, even a little bit.” That’s how approached our story of mass cheating at Meerut University (MU). The papers wrote really colourful stories about the kind of cheating occurring there. It caused an uproar in Delhi, in the education ministry, the UGC and even the UP government. That year, the exams were cancelled.

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But no one, not a single publication, except for RD, talked about Professor K. C. Gupta, who had devised the plan to visit Delhi and bring up the issue to newspaper editors. He formed citizen’s committees and created a buzz around what was happening in Meerut. The attention he brought to the issue escalated the entire affair and forced authorities to take it seriously. This was an ordinary professor of political science at MU who showed such daring—in fact, some students tried to kill him! So RD was unique in that it chose to explore the human element that lies behind sensational events, the positive spin amidst intractable problems—because people need information, yes, but they also need hope.

The Digest formula is a very old but solid one that still works: a magazine that inspires, educates and entertains people, full of stories that celebrate the best in us and remind us that we are all in it together. These are universal values that are not going to change very much. And readers seem to agree.

One reader in particular stands out in my mind: For the magazine’s 50th anniversary, we brought out a compilation of the best articles and went to President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam to release the book. At the launch he told us that RD was, by and large, his favourite. Not only did he say it was his favourite magazine, but he talked about the articles he’d read and been influenced by at length. That was really lovely.

(As told to Ishani Nandi)

 

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Mohan Sivanand, Editor, RD India, 2006 to 2015

 Don’t worry,” said Ashok. “You’ll be a hot-shot Digest writer one day!”

Editor Ashok Mahadevan had sensed it. It was 1983, months into my joining Reader’s Digest. Unlike at the giant publishing house where I’d spent six years, my story drafts were regularly changed or rewritten. “That’s how the Digest refines everything,” Ashok explained, “Producing local content isn’t easy.” Among my earliest non-writing assignments was updating RD’s Style Book, with periodic changes as English evolved in India—many US usages, for instance, were adopted. ‘Doughnut’ became donut; ‘mom’ remained so, as Indians increasingly forgot ‘mum’. This task continued till I retired.

In the enormous Digest world, we were a ‘small edition’ although our 1980s circulation averaged a tidy 2,25,000. So, all our articles had to be approved by editors in Pleasantville, then RD’s legendary US headquarters. Large editions—like the British or German—approved their own articles. Even so, in dealing with us, Pleasantville editors were encouraging. If they telexed us back with queries, they also praised our story ideas or anecdotes. “Highlight the positive” remains our editorial policy set in the 1920s. Pleasantville filtered to RD editorials across the world.

My first stories were ‘adaptations’—a Digest practice that redid foreign stories using Indian anecdotes and expert opinions. An early, tough adaptation from me was Wanted: Better Fire Protection for Our Skyscrapers. In 1986, RD ran my first original. A young woman was robbed at gunpoint on a Bombay train but she bravely helped the police nab the culprit. That year, I also spent a week in Ahmednagar district to write about Anna Hazare, who had transformed his impoverished village.

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Such stories are the heart of the Digest, Pleasantville said. They reveal the power of the individual winning against the odds. By my fifth original story—a profile of ornithologist Sálim Ali in 1988—Ashok came my room smiling: “Mohan, you’ve grown with every article.” When I joined RD, I was just married. By then, I was a father. Ashok’s line sounded almost as thrilling as the news of our baby girl. I stayed with RD till 2015, after I was 64 and a granddad.

Soon after our May 2000 article on seatbelts, Indian authorities decreed that motorists buckle up. Our local content had grown. By now, we’d also passed the long trial and no longer needed Pleasantville approval. In fact, I had to regulate the number of Indian stories because RD’s uniqueness was about presenting articles of lasting interest from across the world.

By the time I was named editor in late-2005, our circulation had crossed 5,50,000 copies—beating some large editions abroad. I, who’d once frowned when RD India was called a small edition, witnessed the change. Our numbers kept growing, reaching over 6,00,000 by 2009. Back in Pleasantville, on one of my visits there, editors and managers were talking proudly about India and the big, growing Indian edition.

 

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Sanghamitra Chakraborty, Editor, RD India, 2015 to 2020

The whole world has grown up on Reader’s Digest, but not me. When I became editor of RD, I never had a teary moment thinking how proud it would make my parents if they had been around. Tenacious leftists, they considered the magazine a capitalist rag. I would sometimes read RD jokes at a neighbour’s home and one day, when at the dinner table, I mentioned that I liked the Digest, my parents looked at me sternly and moved on.

So what was I doing in Reader’s Digest? I wasn’t being a rebel. I had been the editor of Prevention, a digest-size health magazine published by the India Today Group for almost a decade. When the hunt for a new RD editor was launched, a top executive in our office decided that I was most suited to edit the bigger small magazine. My own small frame may also have been a powerful influence.

I was put through a series of interviews and a grammar and vocabulary test, which I found mildly shocking, but managed not to fail. As a reward I was sent to Mumbai for six months to move the editorial team to our Noida headquarters. Mohan, the outgoing editor and veteran with the magazine, proceeded to show me the RD way of life.

Managing the talent situation was painful though. We were compelled to let old RD hands go, as they were not prepared to move to Delhi. I had to find a new team, while bringing the magazine out of Mumbai and eventually moved it to Noida in January 2016. This transition was anything but smooth—it was like being caught in mid-air turbulence—bumpy as hell. And while my seniors were supportive, I drew strength from an unlikely source—the magazine with a heart that I had started editing. The near-death experiences, Medical Miracles, Dramas-in-Real-Life were oddly comforting. Then there was Kindness of Strangers, Everyday Heroes and amazing stories of transformation. RD turned out to be an unlikely, but trusted, friend. I was no longer guilty about taking on this job and betraying my parents.

At first readers were ambivalent about the changes in RD. But as we went along, they started warming up to the new ideas. It Happens Only in India became instantly popular, with reader submissions flooding our inboxes. In My Opinion was made more regular, bringing in a current flavour. Columns like If I Ruled the World, My First Job, The Future Of … lent our RD a more contemporary voice.

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Alongside we gave a fresh design identity to the magazine too. Two annual specials—Extraordinary Indians and the Classic Issue grew out of our lively editorial meetings. We introduced the Trusted Hospitals following the format of Trusted Brands. In 2020, the last of my five years as editor, the issue on the Best Foods from India’s States turned into an event showcasing them.

With my young team, RD was ready for a new generation of readers and we made sure we revamped our digital play. Everyone had to work extremely hard, but we were excited to serve the readers of one of the world’s most admired media brands.Almost a year or so from when I came in, we started to earn reader approval, although occasionally there would be angry letters accusing us of being “too liberal”.

One day when a reader turned up at the office asking for me, I was positive I would be rebuked for a similar offence. The marketing chaps were immediately dispatched to handle the situation, but turned out that the gentleman had come to offer his congratulations in person. I went into my job as RD’s first woman editor walking on eggshells, but by the time I was ready to move on I was truly grateful that I could become part of Reader’s Digest’s glorious journey.

A very happy 65th, RD

 

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Kai Jabir Friese, Editor, RD India, 2020 till present

I came to RD in the uncanny homebound uncertainty of the pandemic lockdown in 2020. So you can understand why it’s not among my most cherished memories. But RD does have a place in my memory and our family’s lore, that goes back well beyond this. My father was German, but his English was very good—fluent enough to romance my mother. And the legend is, he learned it from Reader’s Digest.

He went on to be a newspaperman—a foreign correspondent for various German zeitungen (newspapers) in India. This makes me wonder, sometimes, why I ended up  (or started, for that matter) in magazines. I’ve never had a job at a paper but I have worked for 10 magazines. And RD may well be the last of them.   

Growing up, I knew that newspapers were perishable, the stuff of the unkempt rush of mornings, and then destined for kabaadiwalas or even to be chopped up for my father’s clipping files. But magazines were consumed in the leisure of afternoons or the more glamorous evening. And they were kept much longer. Sometimes forever.

Perhaps I’m a kabaadiwala myself, but my bookshelves and filing cabinets still hold a menagerie of inherited periodicals including the Khilafat-ist Genuine Islam from 1930s Singapore, the German film magazine Illustrierter Film Kurier also from the ’30s, several American National Geographics and one number of the Hitler Youth’s Wille und Macht from the 1940s … and a bound volume of four issues of the Indian Reader’s Digest from 1954—RD’s inaugural year in India. I don’t need to check the year because I know they include a Brylcreem ad featuring ‘Tensing’ Norgay whose fame had recently ‘peaked’. (Had I been Brylcreem’s copywriter I would have used ‘Because it’s hair!’)  

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It’s only from the ’70s that I can first remember reading magazines though. And flipping through the filing cabinet of my mind I’m a little startled at what my unconscious has chosen to retain from RD: There’s My Family is Dying (1970), cruelly bylined ‘Good Housekeeping’, about a poorly glazed Mexican souvenir that poisons a Californian doctor’s orange juice, (this also sparked a ceramic pogrom in our house); the tragic melodrama of Richie (1975), a cautionary tale of a family destroyed by a son’s drug addiction.

On a somewhat lighter note I can remember finding unintended subversive delight in the story of American missionaries preaching the gospel to cannibals in New Guinea, and realizing, to their horror, that the giggling congregation thought Judas was the hero. That story, Peace Child, (1974) had a more conventionally redemptive ending, I have subsequently learned.  And finally, watching the recent, The Society of Snow on Netflix, I soon realized that I knew this Drama in Real Life from the condensed version of Piers Paul Read’s Alive (1974), the story of a plane crash, survival and yes, more cannibalism.

I know, I know, it’s a sensational, somewhat gruesome, (also inadvertently ‘digestive’) selection. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for some future editor.

 

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