Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Four years ago — it rained that day

July 29, 2005. It was perhaps the most incessant rain of my life. I got down at Dhenkanal from Hirakund Express at 3.30 pm. I somehow reached a grocery shop-cum-PCO and sheltered myself under its roof. After much wait and frustration in communicating with Oriya people, I finally managed to hire a vehicle which took me to the institute. As the main building is located at quite a height and one actually had to climb up to reach there, I struggled to drag my luggage and kept going up on a narrow concrete path, completely drenched and exhausted with my newly-bought raincoat proving to be of little help.

When I was about to give up and sit down, I saw something. There I was — right in front of a wall reading “Indian Institute of Mass Communication – Dhenkanal (Orissa).” I had worked hard to be admitted to supposedly the best place providing training in journalism. I must admit the place is an absolute beauty with greenery and mountains all around. The campus is so sprawling and magnificent that once there, you feel like staying on forever. It looked like heaven.
Located on the National Highway No. 42, Dhenkanal looks superb mainly because its forests and mountains. The region is the gateway to one of the most ancient forest covers of Orissa which shelters elephants, tigers and numerous species of birds and beasts. The surrounding Sal forests came ablaze with the changing seasons making this district headquarters town focal point of trips to beautiful interiors. Still, I had no idea I was to often go out for mountaineering.

I noticed the town did not problems like erratic power supply and poor roads. Though it did not have CCDs and Baristas, it had small food joints — Food Plaza and Penguin being the most popular. The town had an ancient look to it with old building housing government offices. Some amount of development had a lot to do with students coming from different parts of the country. I was surprised to see a huge number of educational institutes in Dhenkanal.
I am not sure if it was conscious attempt but I tended to reach out to people who generally kept a low profile. Maybe I was feeling a little intimidated by the enormity of the place and the opportunity I had been presented with to have a go at what I liked the most and what I always aspired for. I was taking my time.

August 1, 2005.
The moment I entered the Conference Hall, I knew I was in trouble. While I chose to be a backbencher to escape the wrath of Associate Professor Mr Mrinal Chatterjee, he gave an angry look and announced, “You are late by six minutes. Next time, you do it again, you are out of the class and any repeat of this mistake will have you thrown out of the institute.” I summoned courage and said, “Sir, I didn’t know and was not informed of class timing.” This infuriated him even more, “The exact timing is mentioned on the hostel notice boards. Better keep your eyes open to avoid such situations.” Everything he spoke after that clearly suggested that he was involved with the institute in no uncertain terms and it was he and only he who called the shots on the campus. Right behind Chatteerjee Sir, there hung a huge board. It read: IIMC. For me, it stood for: Indian Institute of Mrinal Chatterjee!

Getting it all right
The next day, we were in our first class in the academic block. Chatterjee Sir was speaking of some of the most basic things about journalism. After a while, he asked, “Now, I’d like you all to tell me what according to you the definition of journalism is.” A whole lot of students stood up and gave their take while being boringly idealist. Most seemed to be on a mission to change the world, make it a better place to live in through their journalistic skills. They sounded more like activists, social reformers. Even as they looked to impress Sir, I again began to get nervous at the prospect of Sir asking me to come up with my take. Despite being there and almost done that, I had perhaps never thought of the definition of the profession I was so very proudly associated with.

Despite trying very hard, I could not think of anything which was different from what others said and at the same time made some sense. I almost wished to be vanished, to be somewhere else. I thought I did not belong. I was perhaps better off doing what I was doing back home instead of concentrating very hard yet failing to define my profession.

There was no escape route. It was too late now. Sir had not yet responded to the students. He looked to be searching for someone in the class. He said with a mischievous smile, “I’m told we already have a “journalist” among us. Yes, there he is. Darpan, you tell us what you understand by journalism.” I didn’t have a choice. I braced and stood up but my legs were again failing me.
Even though I had some idea about the topic, I had little faith in my ability to pull it off. I sort of said something to myself before I began in a low and terribly nervous voice, “Sir, after a lot of people have said a lot of things, it may sound pretty simple but I strongly believe that journalism is all about making people aware of what is happening around them and, in the process, if you happen to help mitigate some of the problems, you should feel good about it and move on. But primarily your job is to provide correct information. That’s all I have to say.”

To my utter surprise, Sir listened to me patiently and looked impressed too. He said, “This is what I wanted to hear. Correct answer.” He continued, “We are not here to reform the society. If we write reports keeping this in mind, chances are our bosses will not publish them. We have to sell our stories too. Doing our bit for the social society may be our long-term goal but it cannot be our day-to-day job. And we have to understand the difference between the two terms — job and goal.” He asked me to sit down.

I was hugely relieved. Though he continued with the lecture in his own charismatic way, I didn’t listen to anything. Or much of what he said did not register. It seemed I had just been spared a death sentence.
In the coming years, his lectures have continued. The place has churned out more journalists. All this while, we have covered some distance too. Lets’ salute the place and welcome the new batch!

It was Summer of 2000

It’s not pretty difficult to remember how I decided to seek a career in journalism. It’s mostly because of Munna Bhaiya (henceforth to be referred to as MB), a resident of my hometown Dumraon and currently working as a senior journalist.

It was the summer of 2000 and a lot of friends had gone to a village located close to Mughalsarai to attend the wedding of a neighbour. We didn’t get a good treatment and were kept waiting for food, refreshment and the customary welcome. MB then worked for TOI as a Buxar-based stringer. He was also there with us. I was quite fanatic about cricket and had, by then, earned the reputation of someone who read English sports magazine a lot.

I was carrying a copy of Sports Star, which came in handy to beat the boredom. MB was surprised to see someone from Dumraon reading an English magazine. Someone told him that Darpan was the only boy around who could read English properly. This interested him a bit and he asked me, “We are not being treated properly here. Now frame a sentencing in English capturing the general mood here.” All I could manage was: “Why such a bad behaviour?” He was impressed. He asked me to stay in touch and visit his house once we got back. The request made me feel good.

The first day I visited his house, he showed to me a copy of ToI. I had never seen an English newspaper before! He read out to me a small news item: “Minor raped by army personnel”. He told me a lot of things about grammar, usage, translation and different styles of writing. He looked impressed by the way I picked up small things. From that day onwards, I began taking English seriously, reading newspapers and, in the process, I came quite close to him.

We would spend a lot of time together. He would also teach me History, spend money to set my room in order and keep me motivated. I used to teach a few students and he liked it. I soon began helping him with grammar when he filed reports. He would take me along while going out for reporting. I was virtually being groomed to be a journalist in the days to come. There was a vacancy in Buxar for a reporter’s job with HT. MB first tried to get his lawyer brother into HT. When he could not perform well, I was the obvious choice. He spoke to his boss in ToI who in turn talked to the HT RE about me. This was what I was told.

Some people did not like my decision to join journalism. They said I was being used. But I did not care. In March, 2001, I had my first report published: “Looted police rifle recovered”. A few days later, I got my first byline: “A cut in the fine will be fine for the cops”. I was so very happy. Suddenly, I had become someone important. MB worked with me for sometime and a year later he got a reporter’s job with ToI and moved to Patna. After three years at Patna, he went to Lucknow.


I worked with great passion as a stringer. Though I got almost no money, I certainly got a lot of bylines. It was a unique feeling to file a good report and wait for the newspaper till the next morning. I always found it difficult to sleep at night in such times. I kept thinking about the report, while tossing in my bed. I thought of a whole lot of issues — on which page would it appear, what would be the headline, how would be the display?

On getting up in the morning, I straightaway looked for hawkers. If I got out a bit earlier, I would intend to kill time by doing absurd things. I looked for someone to accompany me in the hunt. People always tried to avoid being with me in such times. And they were not to blame. I kept walking on the roads, covering long stretches on foot, hoping to bump into a hawker. If trains were late, the journey became longer. Finding out about the arrival of trains was also an important task. On several occasions, I reached the railway station only to find trains several hours late.

If my report appeared, it felt great. It was worth the effort. I started sending messages and calling people up. While returning, I stopped at several places, showing to people my report. I remained happy the whole day and all gloom, frustration and indecisiveness were suddenly gone. I felt I could live one more day while being absolutely happy. In such situations, I often bought two newspapers so that at least one copy could be kept for record.

On getting to my room, I rested in my bed with the newspaper in my hand. I looked at the article several times. I felt too good to fall asleep, though I was usually very tired from walking a lot to get hold of a hawker as soon as possible. Whenever I got out of half-sleep postures, I again looked at the article attaching a lot of importance to it as if it was a masterpiece or something; as if it would change the way reporting has so far been looked at, the course of journalism and my own career in particular. Sometimes, I took the newspaper to a few people in the evening asking them to look at the report. The day ended finally and I went to sleep feeling satisfied and confident, deciding to work harder.

This was the positive side of it. But what happened when things did not go my way? When I searched the whole newspaper and did not find my report anywhere? It was a terrible, terrible feeling. I felt embarrassed on coming across someone willing to know the fate of the report I had filed. I looked for excuses. I sought to justify the decisions of my bosses. If it was a feature kind of a thing, the agony only advanced as I started waiting for the next day.

I know people — whom I wanted to be with me while going out to get my copy of HT — always cursed me for subjecting them to the ordeal.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I knew, I had the copy

Getting hold of Azhar is, at times, still as tricky as it was when he captained Team India. The only difference in his second innings is once ‘caught’, he talks. Years of cricketing upheavals could not change Md Azharuddin — he remained the same man of a few words throughout his career. But politics has done what sporting glory — or the lack of it — could not.

I was preparing to key in a rather routine piece in office on Saturday evening when a senior came up and said, “He is in town — at the VVIP guesthouse, to be precise. Try and talk to him. You may have a lighter stuff for Sunday reading.” But there was this catch — he was about to rush to the airport. Someone should have known he was here the whole day to take part in a UPCC event, I thought to myself. The senior tried to line things up, but in vein. “Just give it a try,” he said.

I rushed. I reached the guesthouse and located the room he was putting in. I sent in a request. People surrounding him — actually getting themselves photographed with him — said all media talks were over and Bhai was about to leave. I barged in. I had to. He was talking on the phone.

I requested, “Just a few questions.”
“Not possible, I’m leaving,” he replied.
“Just two questions.”
“But I have to go.”
“Can we talk while going downstairs?”
“It doesn’t happen like that.”
“Just one question.”
He gave in.
I knew, I had the copy.

“You cannot go about burning down people’s houses like that. It’s undemocratic,” was the first thing he said. The former India cricket captain’s outburst was in context of the arson and vandalism resorted to at UPCC president Rita Joshi’s house in Lucknow on July 15. “It all happened in a high-security zone. Even now the police are biased.”

I recently got an idea that he had begun to talk when he took everyone by surprise when he delivered his first speech in Parliament as Moradabad MP. “Yeah, I spoke out against monopoly in sports federations,” he told me while going downstairs. Even though I struggled to stay close to him in the face of betel-chewing party workers jostling to get clicked alongside him, the once-reticent ‘wonder boy’ was not short of issues.

Though many may disagree, I understand the change in demeanour can, in a way, be attributed to the fact that Azhar seeks to change his image, as it was not too long ago that he was banned for life from playing cricket for his alleged role in a match fixing scandal. He last played for India in 2000 before the issue ruined his career.

When I last met and spoke to him, exactly three months ago, the stylish Hyderabadi had said he would play a long inning. And he is already showing signs of doing just that. Even as the Congress sought to play down the remarks of Joshi — which was followed by violence at her house — he courted arrest to express solidarity. It was only on Saturday that the party said the UP government was responsible for the attack.

He admits life has changed and it has changed in a big way. “It’s now different. From cricket to campaigning and now political responsibilities.” “I have identified issues in my constituency all this while and I’m now trying to find out ways to address them.” His priority: health, education and sports — in that order!

When he was about to get into an SUV, I knew the interview had to be stopped. I had spent years marveling his batting, fielding and captaincy — I have been a big cricket fanatic (people who love me will vouch for it for lesser amount of time I give them due to this ‘futile sport’). So, I thought, a handshake would not be a bad idea.

“I’m a big fan of yours.”
He reluctantly responded. He only smiled. He seemed relieved.

I last met him, when he was campaigning. I told him he did not look like a politician (wearing blue jeans, designer goggles and his all-time favourite Nike shoes). Azhar smiled, “Politics is still new to me. Cricket was my profession.” But he quickly added, “But this will not be cameo. I will play a long innings.” During a roadshow, Azhar threw flowers and garlands at girls and women and when they returned the gesture, the best fielder of his times, caught the offerings with the same old precision.

Fitness still is of paramount importance for him. He wakes up at 6.30 without fail (blame it on clock alarm!), offers namaz then does light workout. At 8 am, he reads newspapers and has tea with old film songs playing in the background.

A close aide confides, “He hates wearing kurta-pyajama but even when he has to do that, he never forgets his goggles and shoes, adding, “Due to bumpy political rides, he sometimes needs light massage to help get good sleep at night.” He prefers brown bread and omelet in breakfast but no oily food and he always carries energy drinks, fruits and packaged water.

When I returned to office (the interview was over in a few minutes), the senior asked, “Could meet him?” “Yes,” I said and proceeded to key in. but it was a different ballgame altogether!