From helming the Indian edition of the most revered auto magazine in the world to representing one of the most prominent media outlets of the country, Girish Karkera has done it all. With over two decades of experience with some of the best-known brands in auto media, Girish is a powerhouse of Indian motoring journalism. In this interview, he talks with us about his journey, the values he holds dear and his views on what the future has in store for us...
How did you get introduced to the world of motoring, and what drew you towards taking up motoring journalism as a profession?
I don't recall when exactly my love for automobiles started. My parents tell me that I only had cars and trucks as toys from a very young age, and those were the only things I played with. So, naturally, the passion and interest just kept growing. With no Internet back then, even seeing the odd car ads or just standing on the balcony and watching them go on the road was a great way to pass the time. And then I stumbled upon car magazines in the Nineties, and that was a turning point. I always ended up saving pocket money meant for the college canteen on them, much to my mom's dismay. Even at that time, never in my wildest imagination did I think of motoring journalism as a profession to pursue. My first proper job was as a sports reporter with the Indian Express, which is when the idea first crossed my mind that, hey, I could write about cars just the way I can about sports. Luckily I got an opportunity in 1999.
What are some of the most challenging aspects associated with motoring journalism as a profession?
Just like most other professions, there are plenty of challenges, and they keep changing over time. When I started, it was a challenge to get any motoring news because the brands were still setting up, and many cars and bikes weren't that easily available. Now we have the problem of excess, and everything is portrayed as news. One needs to pick up the nuances of automobiles, what it does and how it behaves and then relate to whether the spec sheet data makes sense. Of course, all this comes with experience, and we need to be patient to learn these things. This is a form of journalism, so while understanding the machine is one aspect, the other is to describe it in words that your audience can understand. Also, typically, India isn't a very auto friendly nation, so the part where you "test" and shoot the automobile and how you capture it is not easy. Doing it on public roads is also a big challenge, and there is a fine line between pushing the limits and driving/riding in an unsafe manner. Tracks aren't easy to come by, and I don't think any motoring media house in India has the wherewithal to ensure that testing happens in a secured, closed environment. So here, experience comes in even handier where you can judge and decipher what the vehicle can do in different scenarios.
As a motoring journalist, what are the principles you hold dear?
I'd like to think I try to be as fair as possible. The first thing one needs to understand is that as a journalist, you are writing or uncovering something for a reader; you are not doing it for yourself. At the same time, I need to give the vehicle a complete overview. For example, I can't compare a hatchback to a sports car. One needs to evaluate the basis of what the automobile has been aimed to do. If you are fair and upright without biases in your approach, most manufacturers accept your honest opinions. Of course, sometimes you do create friction with a couple of people, but in the larger scheme of things, it is still worth rubbing some shoulders the wrong way as long as you are true to the readers because they will always stay with you. I know many readers who have been following my work for years and are like friends now.
Of all the places in the world you have travelled to, where did you enjoy riding / driving the most?
There’s no place like India when it comes to driving or riding. I especially like forest roads because I find them very peaceful, and being city-bred, it is a welcome break from crowds. One of my best road trips has been through the North-Eastern states of India - starting from Assam to Manipur. The journey threw up a varied mix of roads, topographies, food, people, languages and even weather. Most Indians mistake NE to be uniform but you will be amazed by its diversity. Actually, I drove further from there into Myanmar, and that was also something surreal, as it was a bit like India minus the traffic. But give me India any time - without trying to sound sadistic - I thrive on the unpredictability of Indian roads.
What is your outlook on the electrification of automobiles? How much time do you think it’ll take before electric vehicles become mainstream. What, according to you, are the biggest challenges the industry has to overcome to make that happen?
Given our current issues with global warming, I think zero-emission mobility sounds inevitable. If we can keep motoring practical and exciting while also making it non-polluting, then why not? At the moment, it looks like a far-fetched dream of having the nation move to electric mobility, but if the collective force of the world is pursuing it, then I think nothing is impossible. At the same time, I also hope we look at pollution holistically. There’s no point in having EVs if we are charging them or making batteries using non-eco-friendly methods or if we are not able to recycle them sustainably. Having used IC engines and having witnessed how emotionally it can connect you to a car or a motorcycle is something I will surely miss. But maybe future generations will have no clue about what they missed, so eventually, it will be okay for them. Honestly, I would have loved to see fossil-fueled cars and motorcycles and EVs co-exist. As the wise say, don't put all your eggs in one basket, as it’s always better to have options.
I think it’s safe to say that the 2030s is when EVs will start becoming mainstream. The biggest challenge as a consumer is accepting the new ecosystem of charging infrastructure and its limitations. We are all saying that running an EV is economical, but I think as more and more people go electric, even electricity rates will start sky-rocketing and we will be back to square one with regards to running costs.
In what ways has the behaviour of auto content consumers changed over the past couple of decades?
There are two types of auto content consumers. The first variety comprises those interested when they want to buy a car or a bike, so they want to be prepared. The others are the ones who want to know all about automobiles, as they are passionate about the subject. The latter ones are, as I joke, auto journalists or closet auto journalists, and they are a substantial population. They are also the ones who keep us on our toes by making sure we put the correct information out there. We all know digital media has taken off, and consumption is pretty high. People like to see the wow element of a car or a bike which can be brought out easily in a video, while in print, it requires a lot of skill to make it look like a million-dollar experience. So the world has switched to the easier option when it comes to creating. Well, fair enough.
A whole bunch of youngsters wish to take up motoring journalism as a career. What would your advice to them be?
Anyone can be a motoring journalist. Honestly, I don't think it takes much. But if you aspire to be a good one, first build a strong foundation. First, you should have sound knowledge about automobiles, and second, you should be able to convert that into content that others can benefit from. They can benefit from making an informed decision or just be entertained. On the personal front, it can be tricky for any wannabe auto journalist if financial stability is the priority. In journalism, you need to learn the ropes, which takes time, and then wait for the right opportunities. Also, give yourself a time limit to move beyond being just a trainee writer or an intern. If you can't crack it within that time, pursue something else on the side for a more stable future. Last but not least, learn how the media business works because then you have a better chance to move up the ladder.