Deepak Puri: Godfather of shutterbugs

BEFORE I came to love Deepak Puri, the celebrated erstwhile General Manager and Photo Editor of the Time-LIFE News Service Bureau in New Delhi, my attitude towards him was one of supreme irritation.

Lunching at New Delhi's Press Club of India one day in 1985, I overheard a portly figure at a table not far away say my name and affiliation before going on to, rather pompously, announce that "we just bought his magazine".

The insouciance with which he spoke was so grating I could have walked over and nailed the slob. What he said was true, however.

Asiaweek, whose South Asia Bureau Chief I then was, had just been sold by Reader's Digest to Time Inc. Deepak, who behaved as he felt - that he owned all of TIME - was merely being himself.

Today, at age 63 and seven years after he retired from the company at the end of 31 years of 24-7 service - he would be working the phone even on holiday to the intense dismay of his wife, Veena - Deepak remains unchanged.

I have changed, though. I've come to know the man well, and adore him.

The emaciated pages of today's TIME are a pale shadow of the title's dominance in the 1970s and 1980s, the golden age of print journalism when television was not so prominent in our lives and the Internet not even thought of.

It was the heyday of the foreign correspondent, who, kitted out in Banana Republic travelling jackets and togs, journeyed to exotic locales on the Sub-continent with names such as Trincommallee, Peshawar and Helmand. From these datelines they brought back stories and photographs of destruction, war, assassinations, disease and famine.

TIME, Newsweek, and my own mast, Asiaweek, had our fair share of the quaint and the quirky as well.

Newsmakers gave us unprecedented access those days; in 1985, Bhutan's fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced the end of his Himalayan kingdom's isolation through a long interview he gave me in Thimphu. It was the centrepiece of a sell-out eight-page cover story titled Thunder Dragon King.

In tightly regulated India, with its myriad import controls, the first word processor showed up only in the 1980s and the facsimile machine, around 1990. While news stories were filed over telex - as the teleprinter exchange machine was known- photographs, contained in 35mm rolls encased in black plastic bottles with a grey cap, had to be physically transported over to the TIME&LIFE Building in Manhattan, New York, in time to be processed and selected for the weekly edition. Colour pictures needed more time than black and white images.

Without FedEx, which was not present in the country those days, it was a challenging task and only one man in South Asia could have delivered on deadline week after week, for story after story. That man was Deepak Puri.

How we went about his task - finding airline pilots and travellers to act as "pigeons" - cajoling Customs officers, airline staff and security to be helpful, has become the stuff of legend. There was not a foreign correspondent in New Delhi who had not sought his help, some time. One even swore that Deepak had an Indian Airlines flight diverted to rescue him from a tricky situation in the Kashmir Valley.

I was stuck in Bangkok once during the peak Christmas season and unable to return to my New Delhi base to cover a news break. Air India, which had a convenient flight, was not even accepting wait-listed bookings. Only one man could have put me on that flight, and he did. I did wonder who got bumped off in the process as I lowered my eyes until I was past the check-in counter at Don Muang Airport. The list of Deepak stories is long and worthy of a standalone book in itself.

In a land where corruption was rampant Deepak accomplished all this by no more than inviting a valuable figure into the bureau for Scotch and kebabs, or a copy of TIME magazine delivered to his door regularly. Others helped because they simply wanted to, perhaps seeing a sense of participation when told that the picture on Page 31 would not have been possible without that person's help.

Legends like John Stanmeyer, Raghu Rai, Jim Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado, Steve McCurry and Bob Nickelsberg owe their reputations no doubt to their immense skills and innate talent.

But, the unseen scaffolding on which some of their top work was built was, without question, the able shoulders of Deepak Puri. It was commonly said in New Delhi that the TIME Life General Manager neither had time, nor a life.

Naturally, the great shutterbugs were grateful and showed their gratitude. Deepak has the world's finest collection of autographed prints from the biggest names in photography that were deployed in South Asia.

True to his generous nature, he has made the Deepak Puri Collection available for all to see thanks to his generous donation to the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in the city of Bangalore.

The Straits Times is privileged to be allowed to use a selection from this fine collection. Like their owner, the photos prompt a warm and mellow mood as we reflect on our times, and lives.