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. The publication by Tranquebar Press is in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.
REPOTING FROM A MAN’S WORLD
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I had been a good secretary I might never have become a journalist. Bizarre as that sounds, it happens to be the truth. I graduated from St Bede’s College, Simla, in the late 1960s, at the age of sixteen. Too young for marriage, even in the opinion of my very conservative Sikh mother, it was suggested by her that I find ‘something or the other to do by way of furthering my education for about a year.’ It was a time when education for women was meant just to enhance their qualifications for marriage or bide their time till then. Unfortunately, I had qualified at too young an age and needed to while away another year or two.
So it was that I found myself doing a course in journalism at the New Delhi Polytechnic for Women that had just opened in the half-built, new ‘colony’ of South Extension Part 1. In those days it resembled a construction site and the smell of wet cement hung permanently in the air. The polytechnic offered courses in interior decoration and textile designing as well as journalism, but these were three years long.
It was only because it was the shortest course, that I opted for journalism. The course was basic. Our teachers were not journalists themselves, so could do no more than explain the difference between a reporter, an editor and a sub-editor. But, from time to time, they would invite real journalists to come and give us lectures, and among them was Barkha Dutt’s mother, Prabha. She was a large, feisty woman with green eyes and long brown hair. In a combative voice she told us about how she had covered wars despite the opposition of her male colleagues, and how she continued to battle gender prejudice in the world of Indian journalism. It was a small world then and consisted of a handful of badly printed newspapers and a few shabby magazines.
Prabha worked for the Hindustan Times and was, as I remember it, the only woman reporter working in Delhi newspapers other than Usha Rai who worked for The Times of India. It was when she finished regaling us with tales of war and excitement that I first thought of journalism as a career. Shortly afterwards, as a field exercise, we were sent off to cover a talk given by Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta, in Vigyan Bhavan.
This was 1968 or 1969, and memories of the assassination were fresh. Mrs King talked so movingly about what her husband had lived and died for that it was hard not to capture this in the piece I wrote. Mrs Titus, our class teacher, read it and gave me the cheering news that I might one day’ grow up to be a real journalist.’
Alas, when my course ended and I tried to find a job to escape my mother’s untiring efforts to marry me off to the first suitable boy, I failed hopelessly. My mother was more successful and had a list of ‘proposals’ from ‘boys’ I considered most unsuitable. So I made up my mind to find some kind of employment in the shortest possible time. In Welham Girls’ School, I had been given the mysterious option to drop geography for shorthand and typing at the tender age of thirteen. Typing seemed like more fun. Consequently, I did not learn that the earth moved around the sun until I was well into my twenties, but I did learn shorthand and typing. This helped me get a job in Mercury Travels as the secretary of a man called Avinash Kohli.
Unfortunately, his office was in the salubrious lobby of the newly opened Oberoi Hotel where my less industrious friends arrived daily to while away languid days in the coffee shop. Since my office was en route, they would routinely pop in and inform Mr Kohli that they were ‘stealing’ his secretary for a few moments. The end result was that I got sacked.
Luckily for me, an older secretary took pity on me and helped me get another job. It was in the Ford Foundation office where I was assigned to work for an Englishman called Kevin Mansell. He was not much older than me and of a friendly disposition. He soon noticed that although I could type well enough, I seemed not to have the makings of a secretary. He was honest enough to tell me this. ‘Don’t take this badly, Tavleen,’ he said as he spotted me hiding a novel under my desk one afternoon, ‘but you are the worst secretary I have ever had. Isn’t there anything else you would rather do?’
When I told him that what I really wanted was to be a reporter but could not find a job, he said he would see if he could help. He had a journalist friend in England who knew a training programme for junior reporters run by the Thompson group that in those days owned The Times and several small, local newspapers. Kevin’s friend, Greg, worked , The Evening Mail in Slough, an ugly little town on the edge London that in the early 1970s was slowly getting flooded with immigrants from India and Pakistan. Greg suggested that I apply to his newspaper, pointing out that as an Indian I IS more qualified to cover the immigrant influx than an English reporter. It seemed like a flimsy reason but I applied d to my amazement got accepted as a trainee reporter.
It was in The Evening Mail that I learnt to cover magistrates court for ‘accuracy’, police and fire departments for ‘speed’ local government for I-am-not-sure what. It did not take 19 for me to pick up the tricks of the trade as well as a slough accent so that the English copy takers could understand ~ better when I phoned in a story. It was all a lot of fun at first but then I started to get both bored and homesick. After two-and-a-half years of working as a reporter for The Evening Mail in grim little English towns like Slough and Hounslow, knew I wanted more than anything to come back to India.
So I returned to Delhi in early 1974 to find that, as a woman, it was as hard for me to get a job in journalism as it d been when I left. After remaining unemployed for more than a year, I finally got my first job in The Statesman as a porter, in May 1975. Six weeks later, the Emergency was dared and along with it came press censorship.
It was the worst of times for India and the best of times for lung reporters like me. The Statesman decided that it would defy press censorship and sent us scurrying about the city the day after Indira Gandhi’s midnight coup, to pick up details of the arrests of the opposition leaders. Our stories were censored and the next morning’s edition appeared with blank spaces on the front page. It was not long before the newspaper was kicked into obedience by the Ministry of Information. But, those first weeks of the Emergency were enough to instil in me a lifelong passion for political reporting.
The manner in which Indira Gandhi used the Emergency to become a dictator and promote her son as heir-apparent fascinated me. There was not much political reporting to do in those days of censorship but, when something big happened, I made it a point to go along even if my story ended up in a wastepaper basket in the Press Information Bureau. So I went to Turkman Gate when the government sent demolition squads to tear down people’s homes. And I covered the riots in the old city that were caused by Mrs Gandhi’s family- planning drive. I was not the only woman reporter who wanted to break through the glass ceiling of film reviews and flower shows. Other women reporters of my generation were as keen to do real reporting and insisted on doing late duty in the reporters’ room just like the men.
By the 1980s, things had changed so much that, when I moved to The Telegraph’s Delhi bureau in 1982, it consisted entirely of women. Among my colleagues were Seema Mustafa, Louise Fernandes, Rita Manchanda, Anita Pratap and Manini Chatterji. Between us we covered the violence in Punjab, elections, communal riots and the war in Sri Lanka.
My regular beat became Punjab and Kashmir. So much had changed in the Indian press and in India by then, that nobody was surprised to find women reporters on the frontlines of chaos and violence. Ironically, in Punjab, being a woman may have helped save my life. I got on the wrong side of Sant Bhindranwale because of my disdain for his movement and, two weeks before Operation Bluestar, he targeted me publicly as an enemy. Normally this meant that one of his violent, young followers, would have killed me at the first opportunity but, in the unforgettable words of Bhindranwale’s lieutenant, Harmindar Singh Sandhu: ‘You are very lucky to be a Sikh woman. We don’t kill women.’
Some years later when Nandini Mehta, editor of the Sunday edition of The Indian Express, gave me a chance to write a weekly political column, I came across another set of hidden, gender barriers. A respected male colleague accosted me after my first few columns had appeared and said that he needed to give me some ‘friendly advice’. His advice was that I stop trying to write a political column because I ‘simplified’ complex political issues. ‘Stick to reporting,’ he said, ‘you’re quite a good reporter.’
That was more than twenty years ago and I continue to write political columns every week, two in English and one in Hindi, and, thanks to that ‘friendly advice’, I do my best to simplify complex issues. Instead of just writing about which political leader is likely to ally with whom in an election and instead of analysing endlessly the nuances of political equations in Delhi, I try to use my columns to examine complex issues simply. Like, why there is still desperate poverty in India. Why we cannot build schools and hospitals of good quality. And why we have failed to build the roads, ports, airports and power plants without which India can never win the war against poverty. If by doing this, I have managed to explain to some Indians that politics and governance are really quite easy to understand, it is enough for me. If every time someone stops me at an airport, or in the interiors of rural India, and says that he reads my column regularly because he thinks I raise important issues and explain them very simply, it makes me happy.
Since the 1970s, there is much that has changed in Indian journalism for the better. Private television channels present India’s problems to Indians more clearly than they can ever be presented in print, but along with this have come some changes that are for the worse. In the mad race for TRPs, most young reporters have not had a chance to understand the importance of the political issues they cover, with the result, important issues often get treated with breathless, excitement for one day, only to be forgotten thereafter. But, as I wrote that last sentence, images of Doordarshan from the old days flashed before my eyes, reminding me that, whatever its flaws, Indian journalism is healthier today than it has ever been. And, it is no longer a world in which women struggle to be seen and heard over the voices of men.
Tavleen Singh is a noted political columnist, author and television presenter. As a correspondent, she has covered political events in the subcontinent, particularly Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, for various newspapers and magazines, including The Telegraph, Sunday, India Today and The Sunday Times, London. Her television programmes have been shown on Indian and foreign television channels. She is the author of three books and the recipient of the Sanskriti Award for journalism in 1985. Tavleen Singh received the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1988.