Sunday, August 13, 2006

Women in my life

(Published in Aug.2002, this piece relates to the late Sixties, when women in print media were a rare species.)

I am not pretentious enough to believe that intimate aspects of my life would interest anyone other than my wife. The mischief in the heading is calculated to get the attention of friends and family to my Zine5 ramblings My adorable platoon of nieces - Uma, Ranjini, Savitha, Kavitha, Swetha and Babli - wouldn't be drawn to reading this feature had I headlined it, blandly, Women in My Life in Journalism.

With no further ado I'll introduce Usha Rao ( later, Rai) and Prabha Behl - the only women I knew of among local reporters when I joined the profession in New Delhi in the sixties. That female journalists were a rare species those days had much to do with the perception of newspaper management. They could not, then, bring themselves to ask women to work long hours or do night shifts; nor count on women makeing a career in journalism. And the few who did, became prone to absenteeism after marriage. What was worse, some of them got married to someone within the profession.

Usha Rao of The Times of India became a 'Rai' after her marriage to Raghu Rai, famed photographer who was then with The Statesman. She used to do the Delhi University beat. I was then on the staff of The National Herald. Though a senior reporter, I was assigned the campus beat as a 'punishment' for having fallen out with my editorial boss. After having covered the Delhi administration and done political reporting at the local level I was unceremoniously assigned to reporting college functions, student union elections, convocation ceremonies, ragging incidents and the like. Usha, my senior on the campus beat, realised the situation and helped me out with news contacts and, occasionally, with carbon copy of her stories, at a time when my performance was being closely monitored by my tormentor. My missing even a minor story attracted a sternly worded memo from the editor.

Female Viewpoint
High-powered political reporting was then generally a male prerogative. Women reporters, even after years in the profession, were rarely assigned anything other than health, education or social welfare departments. But then some women have a way of carving out a niche for themselves. Usha Rai in her later years as journalist developed an expertise in ecology and does extensive writing on wildlife and environmental issues.

Even in general assignments such as a plane crash or political campaigns, news editors usually managed to find a woman's angle for female journalists. My former TOI colleague Kalpana Sharma is now doing very well at The Hindu, with her expertise in taking a "female viewpoint" on virtually any issue - the 9/11 attack, Afghanistan under Taliban, or the Gujarat riots.
Prabha Behl, the other female reporter from my early newspaper days was a go-getter; rose up to be chief reporter of The Hindustan Times. She had the potential to break out of fluff reporting. She died young. Her daughter Barkha Dutt is making waves as a livewire in TV reporting.
Among the few women journalists of my Delhi days, Neena Vyas has risen to the level of a political correspondent of The Hindu. During my dog days at The National Herald Neena was doing the campus beat for The Statesman. I had first met Neena in London, where, in the sixties, her husband and my college friend Ravi Vyas worked for Longman's Green, the publishers. I recall Neena having done a stint as apprentice with the Associated Press, London Bureau.

My editor at The National Herald, M Chalapati Rau, had been credited with the view that a woman on the staff would be a needless distraction on the editorial desk and at the reporters' room. Perhaps, he had a point. For when our news editor Kripalani eventually managed to persuade 'M C' to approve the recruitment of a female art critic, Priya Karunakaran, it was a matter of celebration for some of us on the staff. 'Pikky' showed up on Friday evenings to submit her review for publication and hung around for coffee and a chat with some of us in the reporters' room. This was, perhaps, what 'M C' had in mind when he referred to "a needless distraction."

Gender Bias
The Indian Express
of those days was a "progressive" employer. If I remember right, Tavleen Singh got a break in journalism with IE Delhi. Another Express staffer in those days, Razia Ismail, gave up journalism to join the UNICEF.

The Times of India, where I spent two decades, proved to be a stamping ground for women journalists. Some of us who belong to the old school suspected a reversal in the management's gender bias. The pendulum swung in favour of women, not just in the matter of recruitment. Much to our envy, some of our women colleagues were even favoured with plum assignments. It was during my stint as the TOI Bhopal correspondent (in the eighties) "bandit queen" Phoolan Devi surrendered before the then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, and was lodged in the Gwalior jail. And my editor sent Ayesha Kagal, an editorial colleague from Mumbai, to interview Phoolan in jail. As the TOI man in Madhya Pradesh, I ought to have handled the assignment. Instead, I was asked to meet Ayesha on her arrival from Mumbai and tag along with her to Gwalior to facilitate the interview. I was familiar with the town and had contacts with local officials.

I doubted whether Ayesha was even familiar with the language spoken in the Hindi heartland. As it turned out, Phoolan Devi wasn't familiar with it either. She spoke a Chattisgarhi dialect and we could communicate with her only through an interpreter. Which was just as well. For I gathered later that the "bandit queen" was given to foul-mouthing males and that in response to my questions had used the kind of language that would have embarrassed us. But then the bandit queen developed a liking for Ayesha and invited her back the next day without me. I realised then that my woman colleague from Mumbai would get a better story. But I beat her to it by telexing a story based on our first meeting. My interview with Phoolan Devi appeared the next day. And Ayesha, being the good sport that she was, appreciated it. But then Ms Kagal had the last word. Her story on Phoolan Devi appeared as a full-page spread on the TOI Sunday Review!

It was Nancy Reagan who likened a woman to a teabag - only in hot water do you realise how strong she is. Pushpa Iyengar, my TOI colleague, proved the point with her coverage of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Rajiv was blown to smithereens in a bomb attack at an election meeting in Sriperumpudur, Tamil Nadu. It was an assignment no journalist would have missed. If only they had anticipated the bomb blast, TOI would have flown in a senior correspondent from Bombay or Delhi. In journalistic parlance we call it "parachute reporting" - cornering of plum assignments by seniors from the headquarters, ignoring the claim of the TOI Chennai news bureau.

Suicide Bomber
Pushpa had set out from Chennai to do a routine election meeting coverage at Sriperumpudur. Rajiv Gandhi drove down there on arrival at the Chennai airport from some place in Andhra Pradesh. Shortly after he reached the venue of the public meeting, Rajiv Gandhi worked his way to the dais accepting garlands from the local notables who had lined up to greet him. In the receiving line was a female suicide bomber who had activated a trigger for the RDX explosives strapped to her body as Rajiv approached her to accept her greetings.

Pushpa, recovering from the initial shock of the deafening blast, waded through the shattered remains amid the rush of those fleeing the scene in panic. She was joined by two other women journalists - Nina Gopal of The Gulf News and another woman representing The New York Times. The two of them had travelled with Rajiv and Nina had interviewed him on their way from the airport to Sriperumpudur.

Meanwhile hell broke loose at TOI. At my Chennai residence, I was woken up from sleep by a call from Bombay. They wanted a story within the next 30 minutes. I had no idea when Pushpa would be able to make it back to office and how. Soon after the blast the police had cordoned off the exit points from Sriperumpudur. A sketchy report phoned in from there would not do for TOI.

The police and the state information department officials were no wiser on the blast. Anyway they were not generally known to have been of much help with information on such crisis assignments. As I twiddled my thumb and wondered what to do, Pushpa called from our Nungambakkam Road office. She had made it back from the blast scene well ahead of most others - "I got a lift in Rajiv Gandhi's car," she told me.

"As I got talking to this girl from Gulf News a driver came up and asked us to leave the place quickly and get into his car," Pushpa said. "He said, 'Rajiv sir has instructed me to make sure the madams reach their hotels safely'." And the loyal driver was there to follow Rajiv's directive, even though his boss was no more. Pushpa joined the other two on their trip back to Chennai. And filed the story of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination for The Times of India. Pushpa Iyengar later became deputy editor with The Deccan Chronicle, Hyderabad.

Women have come a long way, from my early days in journalism.

1 comment:

Anita said...

Women journalists have indeed come along way - but what happened to TOI on the way. It seems to be lamenting on the way-side devoid of any journalism to write home about!