City Resident – Santosh Puri, Central News Agency
Her kingdom, her stories.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Her talk is hardly different than that of most grandmothers – all about ‘our days, your days’. “Call me narrow-minded, but today’s newspapers carry such vulgar ads,” says Santosh Puri, the director of Central News Agency, one of Delhi’s biggest and oldest companies that distribute Indian as well as foreign newspapers in the Capital. Her family owns it.
Mrs Puri sits at the company’s office at P-block, Connaught Place, just behind Shivaji Stadium. From outside, the place seems dreary. Inside – books, desktops, employees, newspapers, and further ahead – Mrs Puri, with dailies on her desk.
The Delhi Walla flashed a smile and she invited him to tea.
“Once we also had to distribute shameful magazines like Fantasy and Debonair,” Mrs Puri says. “But we would turn back their covers.” Both Fantasy and Debonair were popular soft-porn journals.
While Central News Agency was founded in 1936 by a government official called Balak Ram Puri in 1936, Mrs Puri joined the company 30 years later – following her marriage with the founder’s younger son. “I was a Brahmin in Jammu, he was a Khatri by caste,” says Mrs Puri, “but he was my brother’s friend and so the marriage happened.”
When Mrs Puri started living at her new home in Safdarjang Enclave, Delhi was different. “In the bus, the city’s men offered their seats to women,” she says. “I can’t imagine it now.” The cultural shift has also affected Mrs Puri’s office, which, also doubles up as a bookstore. “People now watch TV and so the reading has gone down,” she says. As child, her parents had forced her to go through the works of authors like Rabindranath Tagore and Sharatchandra Chatterjee.
Times have changed. The new generation of the powerful Nehru-Gandhis stay away from her shop. In the 80s, Rajiv Gandhi would hop in to get the foreign photography magazines he subscribed through Mrs Puri’s distribution company. “He was very gentle and well-mannered,” says Mrs Puri. Teji Bachchan, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s late mother, used to come daily in an auto to pick newspapers. Her granddaughter, married to a Delhi businessman, patronises Khan Market’s Bahrisons instead.
Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was a regular visitor here. Once he rang Mrs Puri to confirm if his copy of The Guardian Weekly had arrived. Later that day, Mrs Puri left, Dr Singh arrived, and was told by a confused shop assistant that the journal hadn’t yet come. The morning after Mrs Puri called Dr Singh to apologise who requested a word with the assistant. “Son, always make a thorough check before giving the customer your reply,” he said gently.
Due to busy schedule and security reasons, Dr Singh have not stepped in since he became the Prime Minister in 2004.
“We once had IAS officers and intellectuals crowding the place here,” Mrs Puri says. “Now we’re usually empty.”
Does it get boring during the day?
“But I enjoy being here, enjoy the newspapers and magazines,” she says. “Femina used to be a great magazine, Week is still good, India Today just makes for a cursory read, but Outlook is still nice. I also read Society.”
With the daughter settled in Bangalore, the son in the family business, and she in her 74th year, any plans to retire?
“No, I don’t want to be at home and gossip,” says Mrs Puri. “Here is a homely atmosphere, the staff is nice, and I like reading.”
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Mrs Puri at work