In her words
In this column we will be featuring the writings by award winning women journalists in India found in the collection of the book ‘Making News Breaking News Her Way. It is a publication by Tranquebar Press in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.
Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1983, I came to Delhi, a city I had visited briefly, to work with The Statesman. I was bringing with me lime more than the chutzpah of my previous work experience from 1978 to1982 as an investigative journalist with Himmat, a small public affairs journal published from Bombay by Rajmohan Gandhi. I had spent the last few years in Bombay and had travelled through Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar, writing on subjects as varied as Gandhi’s legacy in Gujarat, the tribal agitation in Dhule, issues of education and rural development. Coming to Delhi was a trifle unnerving. In a capital city of bureaucrats and political bigwigs, where every journalist’s rolodex was six inches thick with addresses of people they and their grandfathers knew, worked with or married, I had walked in, knowing no one. And nobody knew me. All that changed within a few months.
Delhi in the 1980s had passion. Women across strata were demanding change in laws and attitudes, access to public and professional spaces. A fledgeling environmental movement was drawing together people of disparate interests. New political parties were jostling old monoliths. Bewildered by all this cacophony, without any forethought or planning, I decided to stick my nose into two areas of my interest – women’s rights and the larger body of the law. Ergo, the column ‘Woman and the Law’ for The Statesman. While my writing took me on an incredible journey through varied cultures and places, strangely I was on a road hardly travelled. Newspapers and their front pages at that time belonged to older men. Newspaper owners, all male, hired editors, all male, who in turn hired other males to cover national politics, the economy and foreign affairs –subjects coveted for bequeathing their writers with prestige and power. They hustled in and out of power structures like the North and South Block, defence and foreign affairs ministries and public sector monoliths, leaving vast areas affecting the human condition to be covered by -women.So it was that when India woke up each morning and shook out its daily newspapers, it was often women journalists who informed them of the state of their schools, hospitals, prisons and orphanages. After the initial reports of riots, droughts and floods had made the headlines, it was often women journalists who went back to the scenes of carnage or ‘ devastation and gave its victims a voice, telling their stories of quiet or repressed human suffering, bureaucratic neglect or worse. After the initial reports of bride-burnings hit the press, it was often women journalists who doggedly kept the heat on investigations by making endless trips to police stations, law courts and even the homes of the victims to report on progress or lack thereof. During state or national elections, it was women journalists who informed the readers that women too voted, you know, and they did so with both their feet.
The Supreme Court, then the exciting battleground for public interest litigation (PILs), was watched with interest. But after the big national cases received their headlines, it was often women journalists who, alerted to cases filed for the dispossessed and the marginalised, read through tomes of fine-print to keep these core issues in focus for their readers. If elite urban India saw how the ‘other half lived, it was in no small measure due to the tireless investigations and analyses of women journalists. It was my privilege to be a part of this process. And it did not end on the pages of the newspaper. Concerned citizens, sometimes acting alone, sometimes with the support of their organisations, used our detailed investigative reports to file PILs with the Supreme Court, or to demand the formation of committees to rectify flawed processes.
It was a journey that opened incredible vistas of human determination, forgiveness, courage, and raw brutality. Today I have one overriding regret. I wish we had focused more on the rights of the child -the disadvantaged child in particular. I had spent a lot of time writing about children’s homes in Delhi, Agra and Bombay -those quasi-jails and dens of abuse into which we fling the unwanted or the ‘criminal’ child. The Supreme Court had appointed an advisory board to oversee the workings of the homes around Delhi and, while I did the best I could when on the board, I regret that I did not make it my business, after I returned to Delhi some years later, to revisit the issue. No political party and very few non- government groups are bothered about such children who once they enter this ‘system’ disappear into its recesses.
In 1983, came the Chameli Devi Award. I was humbled and delighted to share it with Sakuntala Narasimhan, a fine colleague and writer. The award, the only one of its kind for women journalists, validated our commitment. It came at a time when colleagues and friends were a trifle puzzled at best, at our writing choices which seemed such a strange use of talent and energy. The Chameli Devi Award helped dispel such concerns and give the issues we wrote about a national platform of respect.
Other recognitions followed. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) -India Today’s Journalism for Human Rights Award arrived in 1984. Its citation very graciously said it was to ‘honour this devotion to a free and open society and to honour the perseverance, thoroughness and dedication of my work. I wish I could have done more.
But, in 1985, the road forked west. I went for three years to the US. No Indian newspaper had ever had a female foreign correspondent. The Statesman had its own veteran correspondent from Washington, an American journalist formerly with The Washington Post. The Times of India had a correspondent who had lived in Washington for at least a decade. The Deccan Herald had a former chief of bureau of The Times of India, an eminent journalist of long standing, writing for them. The editor of The Indian Express suggested I do an occasional story for the paper. I had never written on foreign affairs, defence or international economic issues. I had visited Washington DC briefly during a holiday, knew a handful of Indians in the city, and couldn’t drive.
But the world was changing and what better place to observe and report on these changes than from the capital of United States. The Cold War was taking on a whole new dimension with President Ronald Reagan’s thrust towards a new defence shield then known as Star Wars; the Brezhnev doctrine was unravelling in Afghanistan; the Soviet economy was grinding down and President Gorbachev was redefining the state of the Soviet Union. Within the US, President Reagan was at war with his Congress on several issues and Reaganomics was entering the international lexicon. India and the US were entering a new phase in their defence relationship after the arrival of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
So what’s a journalist to do? Stand by and watch the action unfold? Later my editor told me that he could not stop patting himself on the back for his ‘smart idea’ of asking me to write- as stories began to pour in from Washington onto the front pages of the paper.
Of course, reporting from the US was not easy. We, in India, like to believe that we are the epicentre of the world. Unfortunately, that’s not true. I still recall my frustration and rising panic as phone call after phone call went unreturned by disinterested American officials who had not heard of The Indian Express newspaper and had no time for its reporter. The rented fax in my study at home often could not connect with The Indian Express machine in Delhi where fax operators would switch the fax off in the evenings, just as I, a few time zones away, was getting ready to file. And as for salary -let’s not even go there!
But Washington is also the epicentre for information. The city streets are lined with a variety of ‘think-tanks’ where scholars publish studies on every possible subject. The Library of Congress, after I learnt how to access it, was an unbelievable storehouse of international information. So once again, chappal hit asphalt and very slowly, officialdom also opened its doors, one tiny crack at a time. A journalist values every ‘scoop’ she manages to unearth, but those from Washington meant as much to me as they did to the paper because they were so very hard to come by, particularly those that rattled the Gandhi government.
Interestingly, none of this made the newspaper change its initial hiring terms-over three years. No comment. In 1989, I went back home to Bombay, to continue with The Indian Express. I was given an interesting new assignment -covering both Maharashtra and Gujarat and, of course, continuing with my column, ‘Woman and the Law’. The Ram Janmabhoomi Movement was growing, and Gujarat was uneasy. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena was doing its bit towards communal disharmony. It was a bird’s eye view of man’s inhumanity to his own species -innumerable learning and teaching moments. A few years later, I returned to Delhi and joined India Today, then India’s leading newsmagazine. The experience of writing for a newsmagazine was dissimilar to working for a newspaper. Other personal events were working towards a change in career choices. In the mid-1990s, I left India Today and, with that, journalism. I entered a wholly new field –that of teaching children with learning disabilities. It’s impossible to document the many lessons learnt during this extraordinary journey. But this much is clear: when life hands you lemons – and believe me, they’ll never stop coming -you go make lemonade. And make yours the very best on offer!
Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar did a Masters in Political Science from Bombay University, and a Masters in Special Education from the American University. She worked for Himmat, The Statesman, where she wrote a fortnightly column, ‘Woman and the Law’, The Indian Express and India Today. Aiyar was the first woman correspondent of The Indian Express in the US in the mid-1980s. Based in the US, she has worked as a teacher for the Lab School of Washington in Washington DC, teaching bright children with learning disabilities. She received the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1983. She shared the award with Sakuntala Narasimhan.