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.