20 years : The story still unfolds

It’s a special day for me. Today I celebrate 20 years of being in the world’s second oldest profession i.e journalism. I came into this exciting, ever-evolving world by my sheer love for news, a desire to tell a story. And after 20 years, I am still madly in love with the art of telling a story. Today, I look back and ruminate about the lessons I have picked up from this journey :

Life is uncertain and that is why it’s so seductive, so intoxicating. Everyday, we journalists come to work without having an idea about how the day will evolve in the end. What will be the big story at the end of the day? I remember one mild November evening in 1996. Our editor-in-chief was telling about it being a very dull day (news wise) and we were all discussing what would be the next day newspaper’s headline. And exactly after 30 minutes, we got a panic call in the news room. And then came the horrible news of the mid-air collision at Chakhri Dadri which killed 351 people on board. We all stayed at the office till the wee hours. And for quite some weeks, the editor-in-chief did not even utter the word ‘boring day.’

Life lies in details. A wonderfully written story will lose its charm even if there’s a ‘small’ spelling mistake. Some years back, I did an interview with a leading theatre personality and director. My editor praised me for a ‘well-written interview’ and I went home happy that night. The next day, I woke up to horror. The reason: the desk person did not pay attention while doing a spell-check in the copy I had written. And the theatre personality’s name Rita Mafei was published as Rita MAFIA. And to top it all, she was an Italian (So ‘Mafia’ became more deadly in this case)  I wanted to go underground that day. However, Rita was gracious enough to say ‘Even prominent international newspapers have done similar mistakes.’ And she had a hearty laugh too.

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There’s no greater virtue than compassion.  You can’t be a good journalist if you are not compassionate. If somebody will ask me about that one quality of mine which I am proud of as a journalist, I would say: I can talk about anything to anybody with dignity and compassion. So, whether it’s a riot victim, a cancer survivor or somebody who lost her entire family to the killer Gujarat earthquake of 2001, people have opened their hearts and shared their story with me. They did so because I was just listening to their story with compassion. Not judging them.

What you have is yours. Having less is fine but hold on to your ethics. When I started my career in 1995, it was a meager salary. Money wise, it has never been a luxurious journey. But the thrill of chasing a story, meeting deadlines, coming up with new ideas, conversations with new people almost everyday is so fulfilling that the lure of making big money doesn’t really look appealing. Living in big cities, working for premier publications bring in lot of temptations but to stand there with your head held high and not falling prey to temptations gives you a high. I have never ever had a free meal in a restaurant in the last 20 years and I am happy that way.

Cut the excess.  I am passionate about editing. My friends tease me by telling that I can even edit dry cleaning bills. Editing has taught me the art of ‘saying more using less.’ It has also taught me to look beyond a life of excess. Less can be more. There’s an elegance in telling a story in a concise way. Most importantly, it has taught me to be dispassionate. Whether it’s my story, my favourite colleague’s story or my husband’s travel article, the craft of editing rules over love, affection. Emotions are relegated to the background. The ‘scissor’ is the ultimate winner.

Be in sync with change: When I first started my career, we had no idea that one day the internet will be so overwhelming in its presence. It has changed the way we read, write or gather news. The times have changed. Today, we look at both print and web stories as part of our profession. So, as life unfolds, always be open to embrace change.

Look beyond the tag: I often remember that ‘nameless’ person (from a small place in Haryana) who made a phone call to PTI office in New Delhi  to tell us about the mid-air collision. He kept on saying, “saab maine dekha…maine dekha (I saw it, I saw it).” For a journalist, every source is sacred. Don’t dismiss a person just because he/she can’t speak English or wear branded clothes. Be open to embrace stories from anybody and everybody. The same goes for in life. Don’t live in your cocooned world. Take a step forward and ‘feel’ people.

Knowledge is power: The world might say anything but knowledge is powerful. Senior colleagues of mine read five to seven newspapers in a day. Everyday they add something to their knowledge. There is no limit to knowledge. I talk a lot to my younger colleagues about music, tech trends, college campuses, cafes and dating. That keeps me clued in. So, when somebody plays ‘It’s yellow’, I know it’s Coldplay.  Well, on a lighter vein,  that makes me ‘thanda thanda cool cool’.

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I have the worst job

So says a study. Journalists have the worst jobs because of the low pay, long working hours and high stress, says a new study. A newspaper journalist’s job is worse than that of a garbage collector, waiter/waitress, butcher, dishwasher and the list goes on. I don’t want to add further because that might inspire me to do something fatal about myself.

I have been a journalist for the last 18 years. I never joined the profession for the lure of money. Anyway, eighteen years ago, money was not ‘on your face’ object. India had then just started flirting with economic liberalisation. Even in a city like Delhi, one could manage with  little money (little even by the mid 1990s standard) and still occasionally shop at Dastkar and enjoy a Chinese meal at Golden Dragon or Osaka. The newsroom was a great place for learning, assimilation and having fun. It was simply addictive. One could never have enough of news.

I remember on December 31, 1999 when the whole world was partying to welcome the new millennium, I was in the newsroom happily making pages. The Kandahar hijackers had just released the passengers and I remember working all excitedly on the front page with a senior colleague. We were so absorbed in our ‘lowly paid’ work that not once we felt miserable about working on a night that smelt of cocktail. Even as the streets of Bangalore were full of revelers screaming with joy and happiness, we were raking our brains over the lead headline.  I am still very much addicted to news. I still feel like a child in the candy store when a news story is developing.

But in post-liberalised India, the newsroom has changed. Now a journalist is just a journalist sans any passion. Very few are compassionate. Very few have a perspective on anything whether it’s cricket, relationship or cinema. I am not even talking about politics. Recently I asked a young reporter ‘Who’s India’s home minister?” He just gave me a blank stare as if I was asking about nuclear physics.

And even before young journalists can file an interview with a B Town celebrity or a cricketer, they post their pictures with the celebrity on Facebook to grab some likes and “you are so lucky…” kind of comments.

To be a good journalist, one has to be compassionate, non-judgemental.  But then in today’s globalised world, compassion is a rare commodity. Today newsrooms are full of men and women having no substance, intensity or passion. There’s nobody to look up to. There are no towering personalities to inspire you, to push you to excel beyond your capability.

I don’t think my job is the worst job just because it has low pay, long working hours and stress. It was a job which was never associated with a great pay packet. It was a job which was never meant to be easy. It was always meant to be tough, stressful. But it was a job which had dignity. Now the changing newsroom does tell a different tale. .

A tired journo

I have an existential crisis. I am really tired of being a journalist. Not because my life revolves around deadlines and deadlines and working on days when the rest of the world is relaxing or holidaying. I am tired because every Tom, Dick, Harry has an opinion so far as my profession is concerned. I am supposedly everybody’s good friend even though I have hardly any friend (in the true sense of the term) in a city where I am living for quite some years. I am tired of going to parties where people jump at me the moment  they come to know that I am a journalist working for a leading daily. Suddenly, everybody becomes an expert in things related to media.

People don’t think twice before terming everything that appears in the newspapers as ‘shit’ and how they loathe these ‘toilet papers.’ I would have been happy if the buck stops there. But they all eventually take my mobile numbers and email id even though I hardly ask for all these details in return. I am on a minimalist drive in my life, so I am not really into forging new friendships. I know if I am doing a story, I will always manage to get the information I want.  And after being agitated about the ‘shit’ called newspapers, they all want their slice of shit. So, after 2/3 days, I eventually get phone-calls/emails asking for some coverage for them or their family-members. And they all tell me with great confidence that their story has got great potential too. Well, I don’t give my ‘expert’ comments about a cardiac surgery or building a flyover to my doctor or engineer friends. Just because one buys a newspaper that doesn’t make him/her a journalist.

And then there are issues relating ‘passes’ (read free) for attending events. In October, I was at my mom’s place in Bhubaneswar for a short break. Suddenly, my phone started ringing constantly as people wanted passes for a 10 day festival. Repeated attempts to tell people that as I am not there in Ahmedabad, I could do little to help them fell on deaf ears. People just don’t understand it. The standard answer is, “Kuch kar lo (do something). But we want the passes.”

Needless to say, I am amazed at people’s overactive imaginative power of networking. In the last 24 hours, I have got four phone-calls from Amdavadis holidaying in Goa asking me to arrange passes for the much-talked about Sunburn Festival. They all presume that as the publication ( I work for) has a Goa edition, I can easily arrange passes for them through the Goa office. I wish I were that efficient ‘jugaadu’ (networker).  I would have been much better placed in life.

There are times I just feel like surrendering my mobile phone, deactivating my mail id and just be with my old friends from school/university for whom it just doesn’t matter where I work. They love me because they love me. They call me up because they want to talk to me.