Monday, December 16, 2013

The Dogs that We are

"I have been standing here for two hours; don't try to be smart. I will get inside first," the video journalist told me. I was in no hurry. The door was locked from outside, after all. I remember I stepped back a little. 

Soon, more people began to come up. The whole stairway was full of people, carrying cameras, cables, tripods, mikes and note pads. Everybody was waiting for the family. 

The mother appeared first. Before she could greet us, she was jostled by many rushing for the door. "Are we allowed to show her face," asked a young woman. "Let's shoot now. Baad me dekhenge kya karna hai," said her male colleague, struggling to hold his video camera high. 

The mother managed to reach the door but couldn't  open it. Held up downstairs, her husband appeared after some time. He didn't have the keys either. Neighbours shut their doors. After a while, it turned out that their younger son had got the door locked from outside to keep the media at bay. He failed. 

He threw the keys from inside. In two minutes, journalists swarmed into the house. "Let us have a glass of water. We have been travelling the whole day. Please go outside. I will give interviews to all of you," the father pleaded. 

Nobody listened. Let's do the set up for now. We have been waiting for hours --- was the common refrain.  One of the bedrooms turned into a makeshift studio. Women  reporters invaded the washroom --- for make-up. They cracked jokes. 

Now the mother pleaded: "Don't we have any work to do? We cannot deal with so many people. We have not invited so many of you. Please come later." 

Again nobody listened. They check audio, plugged in cables, set up lights as if it was their own studio. Interviews began. All exclusives. "Did you ever ask your daughter what exactly happened to her on that bus?" "Do you remember her?" 

People grabbed the couple by their arms and took them to different directions for better angles. They were made to sit in particular postures. 

[Can you please look a bit sad?] 

"Us kaali raat to nirbhaya jab ghar se nikli thi to kya aapko ek baar bhi laga ki darinde usko apna shikaar bana lenge?" 

[Can we get a doll in the backdrop, just for effect?] 

The mother went into the kitchen to get water, but the light there was suddenly switched off, again without consent, because it was 'disturbing' the shoot happening in the next room. 

As crews began to pack and return, the mother said, "Look, they ransacked the entire house. I am paying Rs 2,000 as monthly power bills. They come and plug in all kinds of equipment. I will go mad. 

She turned to me, "Bhaiya, you didn't ask anything?" Her husband replied for me: "He never does." Having tracked the family for a year, I realised for the first time that I actually hardly ask anything when I meet them. I never have to. Just be with them and they have so much to share. 

The father broke my chain of thoughts. "Tea," he said. He makes tea for me every time I visit him. Not because I am a better journalist [he doesn't know which paper I work for] or I am more sensitive than others. In fact, I also have my share of guilt. It's just that I am, perhaps, working with a medium less evil. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

It all helped us pull on

My grandfather was an avid follower of the game. So were my father's peers. Since ours was one of the rare households with a television set, they would gather to watch matches. Those were the initiation ceremonies.

Shashtri's Audi is one of the earliest memories I have. Maybe the famous victory lap shown for several years to come is what actually I saw because in '85 I must have been too young to seriously appreciate such celebrations and rewards for individual cricketing brilliance. 

In 1992, I was aware that Pakistan had won the world cup, but the first tournament I actually watched was Hero Cup in 1993. The last over going from Kapil to Sachin was a brave decision but also symbolised what lay ahead for all of us.

By the 1996 world cup, I was mad about the game, playing for hours, worshipping Sachin like millions others. I skipped my intermediate exam, failed in the next attempt but couldn't shake the madness off. The arrival of Rahul, Saurav and VVS and later Sehwag provided more glue.

People talk of cricket and they talk of joy. Some say when Sachin scored, India slept well. Some found it a source of national integration when India won.

But for those torn between warring parents, suffering family feuds, fighting unemployment, the good results, though very few then, helped them pull on. Cricket also gave me a career.

I never covered cricket as a journalist, barring for a brief period in Ahmedabad. It helped me earn a living in a different way. I listened to AIR's running commentary that came alternatively in Hindi and English. Trying to make sense of the English bit was, perhaps, the toughest thing I then did. But I had to know the scores at all costs.

Later, developed a liking for Radio Pakistan, ABC and more classically produced BBC commentary. For better pictures and graphics, I slowly switched from Cricket Samrat to Sport Star. With some heartbreak, I dumped my favourite writer Charanpal Singh Sobti for the likes of Peter Roebuck. 

But all this needed a helping hand. Sahni Shabdkosh [from English to Hindi] made room for [English to English] Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

I was surrounded by people who didn't know English. Even I passed class 10 exams without English --- it didn't feature as a subject, thanks to Lalu Yadav's magnanimity. Since I picked it up to some extent, I stood out when HT was looking for a reporter for our area in 2001. But that's a different story. 

We had our mini battles in the neighbourhood. Initially, fights happened to prove Sachin was better than Kambli. When this became ridiculously irrelevant, we kept fighting for years to prove there's no connect between Sachin's centuries and India's defeats.

I began having to ignore cricket as I got busy with work, which I got to do because of cricket, and kept changing cities, my interest going up and down. But, Sachin Kitnya Banaya -- remained  a constant query. And praises for Rahul's solidity, VVS' selfless service and Saurav's captaincy were never hard to come by.

Slowly, they started leaving the scene one by one. The void being felt is not only because Sachin is retiring, it's because all the greats we grew up watching are not around. It's more because the game that meant so much is suddenly not that important to me.

I can't be in Kolkata or Mumbai. But I want to be in Lahli. It won't be possible, I guess. I can't claim I won't watch cricket now, I will follow Kolkata and Mumbai. 

But for me and many of my generation who saw the blitz and the poise from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s,  the fun is surely gone.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

My heart doesn't bleed...

                                                                                   (This is the lecture I delivered at Miranda House)
Hello everyone!

It’s a great opportunity to be here. 

But before I speak, first a disclaimer: I’m no expert. I’m a journalist. So, I’m a jack of all trades. I will basically deal with media’s role in environment protection. I will also try and offer some tips on how to collaborate with media for the green cause. And, yes, I will spare you the environmental jargons.  

Media has a great role to play in generating awareness on environmental issues. I’m sure reporters across publications are doing their job well. But I think we can do much more and less. What worries me particularly is the fact that the line between being a journalist and being an activist often gets blurred. That should not happen. Knowledge of the subject you’re dealing with always helps. But an environment reporter does not necessarily have to be an environmentalist.

In my career, I never did the environment beat. In my last assignment, I in fact covered the opposite – infrastructure development. But that didn't keep me from taking to environment reporting a year ago, when I came to Delhi.

I will share some of my recent experiences not to brag but to let you have a sense of how things work. I exposed luxury hotels, mighty clubs and hospitals for wastage of resources and causing massive pollution. 

My articles helped in saving a number of trees from being axed in the execution of poorly planned infrastructure projects. I also took the forest department and pollution control authorities to task whenever they indulged in blatant wrongdoing.

Mention my name and you will find officials of the Public Works Department particularly cursing me. That’s because so many of their idiotic projects have got stuck, contractors are losing crores, thanks to my articles. Taking note of my writing, courts have also scolded them time and again. I assure you none of it is personal for me.

Having said all of that, I firmly believe there’s only so much you can do as a reporter. Many here may not agree, but I believe it’s not my fight; I’m not party to it. And now a line which I often repeat and which will not make me any popular here --- my heart doesn't bleed when I see a tree being felled. But I know what to do about it.

I am dispassionate, because I don’t want to lose my sense of objectivity. Being dispassionate doesn't mean having no passion for you work. It simply means you do your job without bias. It means you don’t pre-judge people.

I am not on a mission to change the world, make it a better place to live in. My job is to make people aware of what is happening around them and, in the process, if I happen to help mitigate some of the problems, I feel good about it and move on.

But that’s for us, the reporters. You could be as passionate as you want. You have your convictions to drive you. Make interventions whenever required. There’s a tree helpline. Make use of that. Take to RTI; that’s a great tool when information is hard to come by otherwise.

What does awareness do? It creates interests. It sets people thinking. And without being full-time activist, they can do a lot. Our job is to report and let people take informed decisions. Our job is also to suggest alternatives to people and policy makers. And you have to take our suggestions up for debate and discussions.

With so much infrastructure development happening around and people taking to modern lifestyle, there's always a danger of natural resources being compromised. This is where you can come in.

But climate change is a very catchy term. We need to figure this, breaking it down to more relatable, more doable and more tangible activities. You can start with saving water at home, asking your neighbour not to hack that tree and use public transport.

There are 75 lakhs vehicles in Delhi. The daily addition is 1400. Every year, Delhi gets 6 lakh news cars. This means we need an additional 310 football fields every year to park these cars. 11% of Delhi has gone into parking. Only as much of this city is forest area. These vehicles also mean massive pollution.

You need to promote public transport. You need to ensure car usage goes down. But even public transport eats into greenery. For every phase of Metro expansion, 10 to 15,000 trees are sacrificed. You need to keep a watch on compensatory plantation.

Despite crores spent and various court orders, Yamuna remains choked with all kinds of pollutants. The river is dead, almost.  A total of 22 Delhi drains empty themselves into the river. 5.5 tonnes of arsenic is dumped into it by Rajghat power plant alone every year. DDA and DMRC have alone dumped 25000 truckloads of debris along the river.

Three of the four landfills are long overdue for closure and there are no fresh landfills available to take in the current daily discards of 9,000 tonnes. By 2020, the Capital needs an additional area of 28 sqkm, more than the entire spread of Lutyen's Bungalow Zone, to dump 15,000 tonnes of garbage per day.

Winter will soon be here. Delhi will soon face the smog problem. You need to check if Delhi has learnt its lessons. How are you going to do all this and more? That’s the question.  

I’m not citing these examples to scare you. This is just to let you have a sense of the task ahead. Environment is no more a fashionable word. It’s a daily reality, reminding us of the fact that survival will only get more and more difficult.

Build good rapport with reporters. But that takes some doing. We are so intelligent; we don’t mingle with rookies easily. You need to challenge us intellectually!

Kidding, but only partly. You actually need to convince us that not only you care for environment but you can also be a good source for the kind of reports we are looking for. After all, everything doesn’t get published. But that shouldn’t keep you from doing what is needed.

Every reporter has his own timings for newsgathering. If the subject you want him to pursue is not on his agenda, chances are he will avoid you forever.

Don’t lose heart. Don’t try and contact a reporter for not-so-important stuff, post-sundown. Because that’s when most of the stories are written.

What we expect is tough to tell. You will get to know as you go along. Often even we’re not sure what we want!

One piece of advice --- read, research and do real work. Never go for your moment of glory. Quotes and interviews appear only when you have done enough and your words carry weight. So, don’t try and reverse the process. 

The objective shouldn’t be lost sight of.

Together, we can make a difference.

Most of all, enjoy what you do

Thank you very much.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Looking back

Sometimes a glimpse from the past makes you pause and assess the present. A decade-old NDTV video, put out on the web more recently, in which senior journalist Tavleen Singh interviews me for doing a story on homosexuality was one such opportunity. The video reminds me of the kind of stories I, and my contemporaries, then managed to do. I was in my early 20s. I had neither been to a media school nor worked outside my small hometown. The way those stories would be written made them stand out. The anecdotes now linger in memories. They set the right tone.
We once discovered a village from where most families “contributed” at least one member to the business of stealing. The introduction featured a newly-married couple. The young man enthusiastically brought a cake of Pears, among other things, but his wife didn’t look impressed. She said her family used “this soap” for washing clothes. The man later discovered that her family members - who belonged to that village of thieves - had stolen cartons of Pears in the past but couldn’t sell all of those, and had to use the cakes for purposes other than bathing. Then the story, featuring interviews of policemen and locals, followed.
Sanjay Singh, who has been a mentor to me, did many such stories. He was not alone. There were many who were masters in telling such tales — away from the urban gaze.
Another story was about a village, which was not on the Railways map, but most families had members serving India’s biggest transporter. The story began with a quirky, tiny tale from the British period. A bunch of people from the village were travelling on a train, ticketless. Upon seeing TTEs, they changed their coaches and landed in one crammed with those selected to work for the Railways. A goof-up started a long tradition.
Only such tales were stories. The rest was news. We were groomed the same way. Photographs for these stories were shot by those who also shot photographs at wedding ceremonies. It’s a sheer misfortune that these stories didn’t go online then.
Not for a moment am I trying to ignore “anti-establishment” and “investigative” journalism. I’m only focusing on “tales”, which are rare now. Tales that people then told in most challenging circumstances.
We then didn’t have cell phones or computers. We wrote in the light of a lantern, and faxed them to journalism demigods in Patna. Overhead stone slabs resting on termite-infested wooden beams seemed to act like deadlines as I worked on a really old typewriter. Walls had plenty of seepages. Bed sheets and ragged saris — used as curtains — hanged limp. My reaction to the musty smell in the room — doubling up as my office — depended on the amount of time I took to type out the right introduction.
On days when your stories were not carried, you would tend to stare at flaking speckles of whitewash that often peeled off and, mixed with dust, lined the damaged floors.
There were threats. I received a mild threat for highlighting — with Tavleen — how homosexual relationships in India did not come out of Western influence; how many elite men in my town traditionally had male partners despite being married traditionally. 
I was also kidnapped and thrashed. I don’t know for which story. Around the same time I had done a story on how the backwardness in telecommunication was taking its toll on the law and order situation. Buxar was then one of the only two districts in Bihar where cell phones did not work.
A number of criminals who extorted money from behind the bars had been shifted to the Buxar jail, making the place and the prison sensitive with cavalcades of gangsters with sophisticated firearms frequently coming to meet their jailed bosses, opening a whole new vista of extortion and gang war.
In her subsequent writing, Tavleen describes my hometown, Dumraon - filthy, decrepit and felt the road every moment of the journey because “we rattled and shook rather than drove”. She wrote: “I have driven down some seriously bad roads in my time but have to say that the road from Buxur to Dumraon is in its own [of] special category. There is not the tiniest stretch that is a flat surface anymore.” In her article, she described me “a clever, ambitious young man who seemed oblivious to the decay that lay all around”.
What she meant was that when she pointed out roadside tea shops and vegetable sellers selling their wares on the edge of open drains clogged with solidified slime and plastic bags, I seemed to notice that for the first time.
With due respect to the point she made, civic problems were not the biggest stories for us. We had grown amidst those problems, but never complained because nothing was going to change. Can you make every Dumraon a Delhi? We had not seen the outside world. People sometimes don’t fathom the contrast, a reality of small towns and rural India.
My first story, for the paper I worked till six months ago, appeared in March, 2001. “Looted police rifle recovered.” A few days later, I got my first byline: “A cut in the fine will be fine for the cops.” It was about the police chief in the district asking for a share from the money realised as fine from examinees caught cheating.
For the first couple of years, I didn’t get any money. Later, things changed but the monthly pay was still in three digits. A clip on “one killed, two hurt in road mishap” fetched one Rs 10. So did a Page 1 lead. You got Rs 10 per appearance.
But passion drove us. Filing a report and waiting for the paper to arrive gave me goosebumps. In the morning, I straightaway looked for hawkers. I kept walking, covering long stretches on foot, hoping to bump into a hawker.
People always tried to avoid me in such times. 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 the report appeared, it felt great. The effort was worth it. I spread the word. I often bought two copies. One was for keeps. I kept the paper handy. I looked at the article. Several times.