Byte Soldier: The Life and Times of a Metro TV Reporter

Abstract:

Bio: Rahul Pandita is a Delhi-based Freelance writer and journalist. He has formerly been a correspondent with Aaj Tak and Zee News television channels. Has reported extensively from conflict zones like Iraq, Kashmir and India’s Northeast. In 2001 the National Foundation of India awarded him the Northeast Media Fellowship. His buildungsroman, Chinar In My Veins, has won an e-author award. He has recently finished making a film on female infanticide and feticide, Dariya ki Kasam (Swear by the
River). He is a member of World Comics India and has been working on using comics
as an alternate mode of communication. He is presently working on a novel, based on the 1947 tribesmen attack on Kashmir. His articles have appeared in Outlook, Deccan Herald, Daily Pioneer, Northeast Sun, Sahara Times, Strategic and Defence Magazine and Finnish magazine Ihmisoikeus and Ydin.

Blogs: Sanity Sucks and the Intent Blog.

Email: rahulpandita @ yahoo.com

1/9/06

I am pasting below my first post: My parents named me Rahul. After adding the surname, it becomes Rahul Pandita. I am a moody writer, poet, blogger, self-styled public intellectual, former bilingual Television journalist, trainee illustrator, Kashmiri, Indian, Brahmin – in that order. I have worked for television channels like Aaj tak, Zee News, Sahara Samay and reported from areas like Falluja, Batalik, Maisuma, Galar, Ukhrul, Tamoh and Kochar ki Daang. I am a former NEMEP fellow and the winner of e-author award for my Bildungsroman ‘Chinar In My Veins’. I am currently working on a novel, which I have named ‘Yimberzal’, which will be based on events ranging from the 1947 tribesmen attack in Kashmir to (hopefully) the recent earthquake. As a Sarai fellow, I will be working on a project titled – Byte Soldier: The life and times of a metro TV reporter. I intend to prepare a mini graphic novel, based on the project along with a whacky, creative essay/story. The genesis of my idea can be traced to around four thousand words, which I thought would be a part of one novel, which I claimed to be working on, but later dumped the idea; at least for the time being. Here is an excerpt: Just a fortnight ago, Som had left a successful job of a television journalist. The never ending world of deadlines had made him sick. And everyday it was the same story. Another ceasefire in the northeast, another suicide attack in Kashmir, another operation to flush out militants and yet another set of accusations against a politician. It was a murky world out there – thankless and spurious. Som just decided to call it a day, one fine afternoon. He was in the office canteen, sipping coffee and looking outside through the window frame. He had felt his shoulders with one hand, pinching the flesh. Knots of lactic acid had accumulated under the layers, which were a indication of how stressed out he was. In fifteen minutes, he had to leave for an assignment. Some bloody Pentagon official was scheduled to meet the top brass of the Indian Army. The mobile phone jumped to life, vibrating like a fish without water. He looked at the number flashing on the screen. It was his Bureau Chief. Som thought of his paan masala-stained teeth and his wet lips. He would be sitting on his throne, aiming his spit in the dustbin kept under his table, with the hands-free of his mobile fitted deep into his ear canal. Suresh Jee, everybody added that suffix after his name and he made the reporters under him feel as if they were chotus working in dhabas, destined to run for errands. At the sight of Meena, a junior reporter, he would drool and if he had his way, he would make her the editor-in-chief. For her, he was a slave, born to serve her – suggest story ideas, arrange camera units and a vehicle for her on priority, write her scripts and arrange an editor for her. For others, he was the commander of the third reich. In the morning, he would even make calls from his mobile to reporters, while sitting on the pot. At times like these, his voice echoed through the phone, as if he was calling from a well. When he called Som, he imagined him with his dirty pyjamas lying at his feet, three newspapers in his lap and he talking to Som about an assignment, and at the same time pleased about how last night’s sat isabgol had done wonders to his bowel movement. Suresh Jee was still making the phone dance. Som had made his mind not to press the green button and take the call. He was no longer willing to talk to someone who referred to pastry as cake. He switched off his mobile. He just snapped every tie with his office, leaving it behind, like a snake sheds his skin. At the gate, he felt light. His shoulders twitched as if wings were sprouting from them. There was no sinking feeling in the heart either. Siddartha must have felt the same, when he left his kingdom to become Buddha, he thought. But how did it boil down to Graphic Novel? Well, I have another story to share. Since it would make the post longer, for those want to read it, they may click on the following link to read my piece ‘My Mother’s 22 Rooms’ : http://sanitysucks.blogspot.com/2005/12/my-mothers-22-rooms.html Well, that is it for now, friends, guides and philosophers. I remain Rahul Pandita

Rahul Pandita www.sanitysucks.blogspot.com

1/22/06

The Sampaati Club Life is so difficult in Delhi. Sometimes I feel there are more vehicles on roads than human beings. Everyone is rushing everywhere. Some people live on Bread, Butter, Maggi and Pepsi. Some live on Royal Stag and Chicken Tikka Masala. And some people live on credit cards. So much so that their life becomes a loan; each day an instalment. That is why probably call centres are booming. Tele marketing is thriving. I left a conventional job three months ago. People asked why and I claimed to be working on a novel. Some are still asking but now I answer depending upon how good they look and what mood I am in. Some people thought that I was planning to live on my wife’s earnings and few even asked. But thankfully, I now have the Sarai contract to flash in front of their eyes. So, yes, I was sitting one day, in front of the computer, staring at the empty computer screen. The cursor seemed to say, Sir, come on, I am ready for any word. And I said, Shut Up. I was trying to think. Think of those words, which would fill my novel. And just as I thought a few were coming, my cell phone rang. Hello. Hello Sir, am I speaking to Mr. Rahul Pandita? Yes. Good afternoon Sir, this is Shweta from ICICI Bank limited. Do you have any requirement of a loan? No. Sir, we are really offering it a very low interest rate. I said I am not interested. Bang. Words. Where did thee go? I sought solace in Poetry, inspired by a friend Tanzan Senzaki. He has been tolerating my nonsense verses for quite some time and just a day ago, he suggested, in an exasperated tone, a book by American poet Ted Kooser. It is called The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Finally I wrote a poem about Sampaati, the vulture from Ramayana. The brother of legendary Jatayun, who while trying to save Sita from the clutches of Ravana, became a victim of his sword. It went like this (English translation provided at the end of the poem, kindly edited by Tanzan): Haan, mein hi Sampaati hun Jeevan ki andheri gufa mein rehne wala giddh Wo mera hi anuj tha Jisne Ravan ke parakram ki parvah nahi ki aur uski talvaar ki bhent chadkar taara ban gaya Samay ki sui kai nashtar chubo gayi lekin mein data raha, kyunki Ram aane wale the Muje patniyon ke mehatv ka gyaan nahi tha aur na hi mujhse kisi ne prem kiya Pur Ram ke chehre par chaaye peelepan ne Mere lahu ko aur arun kar diya Mujhe pata tha ki mein Lanka mein jaakar aag lagane se to raha Lekin maine apne shareer ke taap se Hanuman ki poonch mein jwar bhar diya Maine jeevan bhar udaan bhari Na jaane kitne parvat, saagar mere pankhon ka graas bane Aur aaj in boodhe pankhon mein koi jaan nahi hai Lekin Jatayun ke praanon ko mein vyarth nahi jaane dunga Mein jeevan ki isi andher gufa mein eik naye Ram ki prateeksha karunga Yes, I am the one Who is Sampatti, the vulture Living in the dark caves of life Jatayun was my borther, Ignoring the valor of Ravana He fell victim to his sword And turned into a star The daggers of time Piecred me many times, But I stood tall As Rama was coming I didn’t know What wives meant to men As no one ever loved me once, But the pallid face of Rama Boiled my blood to redness I knew I couldn’t set Lanka ablaze But my body’s heat set tail of Hanuman on fire I flew high all my life How many mountains and oceans My wings devoured, only God knows! Today my wings are lifeless. But I won’t let Jatayun’s life go as waste, In this dark cavern of my life I will wait till a new Rama comes. And then this thought stuck my mind. Like a thunder, I tell you. After a series of consultations with a like-minded (read mad like me) friend, we formed ‘The Sampaati Club’. And what would be the primary task of The Sampaati club? To help the humankind get rid of unwanted calls for car loans, bank loans, mobile service change etc etc. A day after, our first victim called. Hello. Good afternoon Sir. This is Anuj from ABN Amro Bank. Am I speaking to Mr. Rahul Pandita? No, I am Sampaati. Sampaati? I began shooting from the hip. I roared: Haan, mein hi Sampaati hun Jeevan ki andheri gufa mein rehne wala giddh Wo mera hi anuj tha Jisne Ravan ke parakram ki parvah nahi ki aur uski talvaar ki bhent chadkar taara ban gaya A silence of almost three seconds. And then I get to hear: Sorry Sir. And Anuj disconnects the phone. Since yesterday, I have not received any unsolicited call. I think the word has spread. Ps: Membership to Sampaati Club is open for fifteen days. Those who wish to join are required to mail me at rahulpandita@yahoo.com. Every member will be called Sampaati and shall introduce himself/herself to the telemarketing executives as Sampaati. Those who fail to join in fifteen days will nevertheless be made members, but only after they agree to listen to my fifty-one poems.

2/25/06

December Seven, Ninety ninety seven. I stopped eating moongfali on the road. Just a day before, my Piece to Camera had appeared on the Television. I was about to become popular; be recognised by people on the streets. ‘Arre, ye to wahi TV wala reporter hai’… they would shout and fathers would try to visualise in me a prospective groom for their daughters. Since I was about to become a Public face, it did not suit my image that I would be caught eating peanuts in a street. No, I just could not afford that. For the past month or so, I have been trying to work on my mini graphic novel. Through this novel, I intend to portray the state of Television news channels in India. Narrated by a young reporter, this story would be a chronicle of hope and despair, narcissism and ecstasy, intrigues and complexities, associated with pursuing a career in Television Journalism. I was looking for one perfect frame to begin my story. Weeks passed and I struggled with too many frames. Until one day. After watching band after band of ‘Breaking News’ at the Press Club and suspecting at least two waiters to be spies of the Intelligence Bureau, as they served beer, I came out and began to drive towards my home. Near South Extension, where my office previously used to be, I stopped at a traffic intersection. And then I saw him. A young, lanky boy, in his mid twenties, entertaining himself with Peanuts and holding a newspaper under his left arm. He had all the bearings of my protagonist. Lives in Jia Sarai. Has tried his hands, may be at the Civil Services. Now wants to become a Television Journalist. Instant fame. Instant recognition. And he wants to do a story on starvation deaths in Orrisa and the genesis of Naxalite revolution. Too bad for him. Let him experience that in Television. Let him fight the frustration of reporting on Mango festival in Dilli Haat. Let him ward off the blues of filing a report on an actor’s illegitimate child. Let him realise that he is a mere pawn; a byte soldier. For now, he only stops eating peanuts on the road.

3/7/06

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bus Stop is no longer there. And neither is the huge billboard behind it. The flyover has devoured them. Delhi is experiencing modernisation. Everything needs to shine. With spit and polish of ambition. There is no time to value emotions. Or to preserve monuments of despair. Of hopelessness. Like the one, you could see near the Okhla vegetable market. On the yellow signboard of that Bus Stop. Before the flyover came up. While crossing the Nehru Place Bus terminus, braving the ammonia emanating from urine on its crumbling walls, you passed that Bus Stop. You could have ignored that, but the shining Plasma Televisions advertised on the billboard, towering over it, caught your attention. And then your vision slipped on to those lines scribbled on the forehead of that bus stand. In black grease, they represented the fate lines of a person. The lines were in Hindi. They read: Sab kucch adhura reh gaya Pandey Ji. Everything has been left incomplete Pandey Ji. For six months, I read these lines almost daily, while crossing Okhla market in a bus. To me, these lines signified nothing but absolute loneliness. For these six months, I imagined this person. But he remained faceless. Till one evening.

 

A friend called me over to a pub. My friend was very fond of quoting Kafka after a couple of drinks. After he had done that, he rose all of a sudden and said:

 

Let us go. I asked: Where. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t ask further and silently accompanied him. After some time we reached Ber Sarai.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ber Sarai is a small world behind Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology. You have aeroplanes running over your head every now and then. Ber Sarai falls in the city’s air corridor. And below, young boys from the remotest areas of India prepare for the Civil Services. Narrow lanes, a lot of STD booths and Dhabas with dirty tables, which remain open the entire night. And boys, mostly skinny, wearing shabby shorts over vests, smoking a beedi, walk like ghosts in these lanes.

 

 

 

Walking through a narrow lane, while I followed him, my friend stopped in front of a small house. The gate was open and the door of the front room was half closed. My friend called from outside: Ramakant. There was no response for few seconds and then someone shouted back from inside: He is not here. He has gone to eat his food. I know where he eats, my friend said and I followed him again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the road, he stopped in front of a Dhaba. His eyes scanned the place and then he smiled. My friend had spotted Ramakant. They shook hands – my friend and Ramakant. And then I was introduced to him: This is my old friend Ramakant Pandey. Ramakant was not eating food. He was smoking a beedi. He was alone. He ordered tea for us. They spoke for some time, while I looked at the other tables. Boys talked animatedly. Some of them ate rice with their hands and some were drinking tea along with patties.

 

 

 

After tea, we rose to leave. As he was approaching the cash counter, Ramakant spoke to the owner, a middle-aged man with a pot belly. Put this in my account, he said. The owner was prepared to hit back.

 

No more on credit, you must pay. My friend intervened.

 

How much, he asked the owner. Four hundred seventy rupees. He handed over a five hundred rupee note. For the remaining thirty, give him a pack of cigarettes.

 

 

During the entire exercise, Ramakant kept on looking at the owner with his anger-filled eyes. He almost snatched the pack of cigarettes from his hands.

 

 

We shook hands again. After me, he shook hands with my friend and whispered: Thank you. My friend smiled. He kept his hand on Ramakant’s shoulder and then we turned back.

 

 

In the auto, on our way back, my friend told me Ramakant Pandey’s story. Of his Gold medal. And of his unrequited love.

Part 2:

 

 

The students of Regional Engineering College, Warangal will always remember that statement. One sentence, spoken by Ramakant Pandey, while accepting the Gold Medal for topping in the first year of the Engineering course. Electronics stream. After he had been awarded the medal, Ramakant stood in front of the mike. He did not speak for few seconds and then uttered that historical line: Life is a Diode.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apart from Electronics, Ramakant had only one passion. To twirl his moustaches and stare at them for hours in front of the mirror. Ramakant was from Allahabad, where the legendary revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad had shot himself in a Park, after being surrounded by the British Police. As a young child, Ramakant had seen a photograph of Azad. With the sacred thread running over his shoulders, Azad could be seen playing with his moustaches in that photograph. Like a tiger plays with its cubs, without looking at them. That vision stayed with Ramakant and resulted in the growth over his upper lip. He was fondly addressed as ‘Pandey Ji’ by his classmates. Pandey Ji would get up religiously early in the morning and after a bath with cold water, he would light incense sticks in front of Azad’s photograph. It had been gifted to him by an uncle, who worked with the National Archives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a gearless scooter that changed the gears of Pandey Ji’s life. The sky was clear that December morning and cold winds made people shiver. The previous night, Naxalites had blown up a railway track. Sirens of Police Vans echoed in the dry air. Pandey Ji’s hair came on his face with the wind, but he was unaware of it. Some cream from the morning glass of milk had stuck on his moustache. He held a bunch of books under his left arm. Pandey Ji walked alone towards the main entrance of the college, looking for a classmate with whom he could discuss the Maximum Power Transfer theorem. As he prepared to cross the metallic road, something hit him from behind. Pandey Ji fell down and his books escaped from his grip. He got up and was about to hurl abuses, when he turned back. A girl was lifting her scooter.

 

 

 

 

Mysterious are the ways of love. The sight of that girl who wore a white shirt over sky blue Jeans hit Pandey Ji like a Meteor. Peace became extinct like a Dinosaur. A shudder rose through his spine long after the girl was gone and Pandey Ji remained transfixed at the same spot. His roommate’s friend finally picked up Pandey Ji’s books and woke him up from his trance. By next morning, the news had spread like wild fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pandey Ji was in love. For the first time in life, he had fallen for someone. Informers sent to find the antecedents of the girl came back with information. The Girl’s name was Priya and she was from Delhi; her father a Garment Exporter. Priya, Pandey Ji was told, was a student of Computer Engineering. It was decided that a letter be sent to her. After he had forced everyone out of his room, Pandey Ji lay down on his bed. His heart was beating fast. There were butterflies in his stomach. His appetite was gone. He took out a fancy letter pad, which he had brought from the local market and began to write:

‘Dear Priya, I don’t know what has happened to me. In the night, when I reach my room, I cannot sleep. Your dreams come. Then I take my pillow and hold it. I think of it as you.’

This letter was sent to Priya, through her classmate. But she did not approve of the proposed relationship. Pandey Ji’s love went unreciprocated. After few days, he sent another letter. And this time, Priya replied.

She had scribbled few lines on a page torn from her note book: Leave me alone, you Idiot.

Pandey Ji’s friends insisted that he personally talk to the girl, but Pandey Ji would not relent. He began to lock himself in his room, staring at himself in the mirror for hours. The winter passed away. Wild flowers bloomed in the spring and then began to wither away with the onset of summer. It was the time for final examinations. The entire campus was abuzz with activity. Notes were exchanged and the night canteen did a roaring business. Boys, wearing just underwear, locked themselves in their rooms. Smoking beedi and drinking endless cups of oversweet tea, they went through their notes, solving mathematical equations.

Girls also disappeared in their rooms.

On the first day of the exams, students began to fill their answer sheets. In one corner, towards the window side, Pandey Ji sat on his seat, with a ballpoint pen in his hand. He wrote nothing. Last year, by this time, he had filled his answer sheets and had asked for continuation sheets as well. But now, no theorem flashed in his mind. After two months, the results were pinned on the notice board. Many cries filled the air. All of them came from those, who had seen Ramakant Pandey’s results. He had failed in all subjects. His friends

looked out for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. In the night there was some commotion outside the ladies hostel. Apparently a drunk Pandey Ji had tried to barge into the hostel, hurling abuses at Priya and was caught by the Guards. Later, he was summoned by the Principal and was threatened of suspension if he ever repeated the act.

After this incident, Pandey Ji became quiet. He would not talk to anybody and could be barely seen attending the classes or have his meals in the hostel mess. Dark circles appeared around his eyes and he grew fat. Chandrashekhar Azad lost one of his disciples.

Finally in 1996, Pandey Ji managed to complete his engineering course after seven years. He had failed thrice. Then he came to Delhi.

In Delhi, Pandey Ji decided that he would now prepare for the civil services. With this dream, Pandey Ji rented a room in Ber Sarai. Where aeroplanes flew over your head, every now and then. But call it his bad luck or his destiny, Pandey Ji could not pass any of these. Then he heard of the IT revolution – the way young Indian software professionals made it big in the Silicon Valley. In no time, he enrolled himself in one of the software training institutes and would often visit some of his ‘successful friends’ who had carved out a niche for themselves in the software industry.

Early in the morning, Pandey Ji would travel in a bus to the institute and spend rest of the day, brooding over Oracle and C++. Meanwhile, he applied for positions in various organisations and even attempted to walk in during various walk-in interviews. But nothing happened. He did not get a job. Frustrated after receiving answers like ‘We will get back to you’, Pandey Ji went into a bar one evening. It was evening and as the sun began to set, dust storms rose and the clouds turned grey. By the time Pandey Ji had settled in the bar, it started pouring heavily. He ordered large Rum and time slipped away. People came and went away, but Pandey Ji remained seated as empty glasses piled up on his table.

It was in the bar towards the night, when suddenly someone called ‘Priya’ and Pandey Ji turned around. A family was sitting for dinner. In a heavy Sari, Priya, the love of his life, was turning her eyes over the menu. He got up, struggling to support himself on his feet. He walked towards her. ‘A sweet corn soup…’ she was about to complete it, when Pandey Ji held her wrist. The man sitting opposite Priya, probably her husband, rose and punched him on his face. He landed on the floor with a thud. His head banged against a table. A bone china plate kept on it crashed into pieces. The Guards rushed in, caught him and threw him out. Pandey Ji was drenched in rain. He could not see anything. He boarded a bus and got down at the last bus stop. He had reached the Nehru Place Bus terminal. He lay there for some time, shivering under a tin roof.

When the rain stopped, it was already night. The traffic on the road outside the terminus had lessened to a large extent. He took the road towards the Kalka Ji temple. He was hungry and ate some morsels of food outside the temple, folding his hands again and again in uncertain reverence. Pandey Ji touched his nose and saw blood oozing from it. He thought of himself. What had happened to him? He tried to see himself in a poodle of water. Rugged hair. Bloodshot eyes. Torn lips. And a bleeding nose.

He smiled. ‘Life is a Diode’, he muttered to himself.

He looked at the bus stop. There was a box of grease there. He dipped his finger in it. He wrote on the yellow board, awash with rain: Sab kucch adhura reh gaya Pandey Ji. Everything has been left incomplete Pandey Ji.

Pandey Ji decided that Delhi was just not meant for him. He went back to Allahabad, where he started living in the Ashram of a holy man. One of the Sadhu’s more enterprising Bhakta, who ran a computer learning institute in the city in the Civil Lines area, recognised Pandey Ji’s capabilities and employed him.

Pandey Ji, it has been learnt, taught students there for six months. One of Pandey Ji’s successful batch mates tells us that he is back in Delhi now; teaching Computer engineering architecture to a bunch of students in acomputer institute. By the time, this story was written, Pandey Ji had written a mail to his friend, telling him about a job opportunity that existed in a reputed computer organisation, that he could clench if he managed to show some technical projects to them.

Below the mail, as a footnote, he had written: Life is a Diode.

3/24/06

The Editing area of the Television channel resembled a temple on Shivratri. Shoes of all shapes and sizes were piled up near the entrance, while their masters jostled with each other to get hold of an editing machine. A linear leviathan with a VT editor chawing Paan in front of it. Ideally, this man should have been in Doordarshan because he was paid for working there. But like MCD safai karmacharis, they were only required to sign on the attendance register and then earn another fat salary elsewhere. Like in this private channel.

Then there was Sandeep Ji (dare you skipped that Ji and you would have been made to sit on a cruise to hell), who came from Jagbharat Times. He wrote scripts with his antique fountain pen, filled with blue-black ink. His favourite pastime was to summon trainee journalists and quiz them about Mehjoor and Diego Garcia. And if his favourite people went to him, complaining to him about something, he would close his pen, then lean back on his chair and after he had closed his eyes, say: Hona to is desh mein Ram Rajya bhi chahiye tha. Pur hein nahi. Isliye philhaal aise hi kaam chalao. And when he got angry, he would always say: I cannot taalerate this Naansense…

In six months, he had learnt the game. He had understood the dynamics of survival. In order to be low profile, one was supposed to follow four golden rules:

1. Never wear good clothes.

2. Never speak in English.

3. Never talk to a Girl.

4. If it is absolutely necessary, then make sure you

don’t speak to her in English.

If you wore good clothes, spoke in English and were caught talking to a girl, you would inadvertently land yourself into trouble. These traits would always invoke this sentiment among your seniors (Copy editors, Bureau chiefs, Deputy Editors etc): Saala, bohot Hero banta hai.

Two years passed like this. From one bulletin in the evening, the news gear had shifted to eight in a day. To give a live feeling, phonos would be conducted with Correspondents. Political parties had also acclimatised themselves with the emerging news scenario. Neon boards, with the pictures of their top leaders were installed in the daily Presser rooms. The party spokesperson would come, sit in front of the board and brief the correspondents. Then they would be served Samosas and tea (Both sugarless and with sugar).

One day, Sandip Ji was in his quiz mood. He was checking his story, while the Correspondent who covered BJP was also sitting there. Suddenly, his eyes rose from the script and he asked the BJP Correspondent: Do you know who is that semi-bald man, whose picture you see everyday on that neon board at the BJP headquarters? The Correspondent froze. He rubbed his chin, but no name figured on his lips. And then Sandip Ji turned towards him: Do you know who he is?

He replied: Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Sandip Ji looked at that Correspondent, which almost felt like a slap. Then he turned back to the script.

The BJP Correspondent never spoke to him afterwards.

24.4.06

The world of channels was so lucrative that even Prime Ministers began to break their fast ‘live’ on TV channels. After he had taken a sip of orange juice, a TV reporter asked the Prime Minister: Sir, kaisa mehsoos ho raha hai? The Prime Minister closed his eyes and just when the reporters were about to remove their gun mikes, thinking that the PM was not willing to speak, the Prime Minister opened his eyes and recited a line from one of his poems: kaal ke kapaal pur likh likh ke mitaa ta hun, geet naya gaata hun.

It was such a dynamic sound byte, it had made the reporters’ day. Politicians had fallen prey to the habit of appearing on News channels. When gun mikes of various TV channels struck each other, it made the politician forget the jingle of his beloved’s bangles. These were strange times, when politicians turned into actors and actors vied for occupying a seat in the Parliament – donning their khadi kurta-pyjamas. He also appeared daily on the channel, holding a mike in his hands. That evening, his uncle called. He said: Son, you are becoming very popular on television. I send all my blessings to you through TV only.

In his channel, two things could be found in abundance: Interns and Editors. After Rajat Verma’s sudden exit, ‘Lala Ji’ could not trust any editor. That is why he began playing ‘musical chairs’ with editors. As it is, the Interns were doing all the work. And also, the rice mill was making profit.

In the month of March, just before the expected increments, the symbolic gesture of sacking employees would begin. One day you reached office and found that Ashok Mehta had been sacked. Next day, Seema Chaudhary. There was a lump in Tiwari Ji’s throat. What if he is given a pink slip (he was a business journalist)? His friends, corrupting a slogan of a famous political party would tease him often: Baari baari sabki baari, ab ki baari Rohit Tiwari.

The sentiment behind running a ‘sack campaign’ in March was that it instilled a fear among the employees. Leave alone the increment, they would heave a sigh of relief once they discovered that their job was safe. But silently, they would take a vow that by next spring, they would gain employment in a ‘professional’ channel.

In the midst of all this, a ‘Comrade’ reporter came back from an assignment from Naxalbari. Upon his arrival, he called up a meeting of reporters. The meeting began in an empty plot, opposite the channel office, amidst ‘Royal Stag’ and ‘ande ki burji’. Comrade’s face was red because of his anger for the ‘Bourgeoisie’ forces. In the faint light of a candle, he addressed the reporters:

Friends, I have had a meeting with Charu Majumdar’s son in Naxalbari. He has promised me that if five of us within the organisation get together, he would personally come and help us in establishing our Union. What do you say? Are you raising your hands in unison?

He raised his hands. ‘Wonderful’, the comrade said, looking at him. The mobile of a reporter rang. Another had dozed off, after four pegs. Another went to irrigate trees in one corner. Two quickly sneaked out,uttering a feeble ‘goodnight’. The ‘Worker class’ was yet not ready for the revolution. Spending yet another spring here andnext and next after that was their destiny.

24.5.06

The clouds of war loomed large as Editors and CEOs fought over the control of the TV channel. It resembled the mythological battle between the Gods and the Demons though here it was impossible to differentiate between the two. The hemlock that rose from this ‘manthan’ went down the throats of few hapless reporters.

To safeguard their interests, a reporter was forced to be a part of one camp or the other. But it was like playing the game of snake and ladder. Today one camp was powerful and the next day the leader of that camp would find himself sidelined.

Amidst all this hullabaloo, Sanjeev Tiwari joined the organization as the Channel CEO. He had been a senior Manager with the Indian Press Newspaper. Sources confided that Lala Ji had brought him in as he wanted to permanently cure the channel ailments. Tiwari had experience in handling the newspaper union. Sources added in hushed tone that he had been roped in to handle the channel affairs with an iron fist.

On the first day, Sanjeev Tiwari called up a meeting of reporters. As they sat around a round table, Tiwari began his address which almost felt like a hiss. He said that whatever has happened so far has happened. Now in future things would move as he wishes.

While he said this, he began to shrug his shoulders and something appeared on his lips which the reporters thought was a smile. Thinking that he had eased down, they returned his gesture with deep smiles. Some of them even grinned. Later on they realized that when Tiwari shrugged his shoulders, he was in his serious-most mood. But it was too late by then. They would have to pay the price. Tiwari issued a summon that from that day onwards, each reporter would compulsorily file two stories per day.

A deadening silence prevailed among reporters. Only after eroding their shoe soles would they get enough sound bytes for one story. From where would they procure a second story? It was only because of angel investors, who put in their money in dotcoms, that jobs of many reporters were saved. The poor reporters would come back to office after completing one story from the field and then sit in the canteen of Hansaram to eat his lousy food. Hansaram belonged to Lala Ji’s village only and his food contained a liberal quantity of cockroaches.

Whenever someone complained to him, he would fill air in his chest and reply: Koi baat nahi, mein Lala Ji se baat kar loonga. (No problem, I will speak to Lala Ji).

After their lunch, almost every reporter would open up a new site on the computer and shoot it with a camera. It would ultimately lead to as many as half-a-dozen stories in the Prime-time bulletin on new websites being launched. A website which contains information about all Indian spices. A new site which gives you tips on car repair. A site on which you can book hotel rooms in many tourist spots.

Then one day, there was an incident of fire in the Bharatpur ordinance factory. The explosives and other ammunition kept in the factory began raining on the neighbouring villages. Many people died and houses of many got destroyed in the process. Ashok Stinger was sent to cover the incident.

Two days later, he found Ashok Stinger in an editing bay. There were a couple of other reporters also there and all of them were laughing over some matter. He went inside and found them watching the footage from Bharatpur. Why are you laughing, he asked. Rewind the footage and let him also have fun, Ashok Stinger told the VT editor. He saw Ashok asking the name of an old man on the camera. The old man was crying as his house had been blown off by a missile. He could not say his name properly, probably because of emotional distress.

Mera naam Dodee hai. (My name is Dodee)

Kya naam hai? (What is your name?)

Dodee, Sahab (Dodee, Sir)

It became evident that the reporter was enjoying this now, the way Dodee uttered his name.

Eik baar phir se batao (Say it again)

Dodee, Sahab, Dodee (Dodee, Sir, Dodee)

Kya naam bataya (What is your name, say again?)

He said his name again, his cheeks stained with tears.

The gang laughed again. Ashok Stinger was laughing while he held his belly. He silently came out.

Outside, he lit a cigarette at Gupta Ji’s shop. Their laughter still echoed in his ears. He could not bear it. He felt a sudden nausea engulfing him. He went in a corner and vomited.



20.6.06

Dear Friends

I am looking for an original picture (photograph) of the Indian revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad. In the photo, he is seen twirling his moustache, with a Janeu (sacred thread) running over his left shoulder. A realistic painting (is that kitsch art?), based on the original photograph is available in the market, but I am looking for the original photo.

The original photo was also used in the film ‘Rang De Basanti’.

Where can i get this picture?

Rahul Pandita

23.6.06

Sometimes he wondered, damn it, how does this channel function? He asked this to his friend. Both of them, after exchanging meaningful glances, would sneak out and visit Gupta Ji’s shack to have a cigarette. After taking a deep breath inside and making rings of smoke in the air, his friend answered his query: This channel, it is a sample survey of our country. The channel functions the way our country runs. He hesitated a bit, but finally asked: And how does our country run? His friend closed his eyes and replied:

God knows.

It was a reality. Journalists no longer held the reins of the channel. The 24-hour cycle of news had changed everything. An editor ceased to be an editor, he turned into a manager. And then, gradually, managers came to be recruited directly to run the editorial affairs of the channel. Why carry on the façade when a newspaper had begun to declare ‘Made in Delhi’ instead of ‘Published in Delhi’.

A very few so-called journalists still held the top editorial positions. The problem also was that there were too many ‘heads’ like the multiple heads of Ravana. One such ‘journalist’ was employed by Lala Ji and was made the output editor. His name was Gaurav Sinha. It was said that until a couple of years ago, he handled MCD and DVB press releases at the Jagbharat Times. Later he joined Phataphat channel as a business reporter.

He met an old business journalist in Press Club, one evening. After greeting each other, the business reporter enquired about his office and he told the reporter about Gaurav Sinha. Upon hearing that Gaurav Sinha had become an output editor, the business reporter burst into laughter and said: Just six months back, Gaurav Sinha was covering the Auto Expo with him at the Pragati Maidan. Afterwards, Gaurav Sinha stood in front of the camera, to record a Piece to Camera, which went like this:

Mere peeche Auto Expo chal raha hai, jisme gaadiyan dekhne ko mil rahi hein.

When he was saying this in front of the camera, the business reporter kicked him mildly on his rear and said: abhe champak, Auto Expo mein gaadiyan nahi to kya Gulab Jamun dekhne ko milenge kya? This unnerved Gaurav Sinha so much that he left the scene without recording his PTC.

The same Gaurav Sinha was the channel’s output editor now. One day, he had just come back after completing a story on Kargil war. He had just entered the newsroom when he saw Gaurav Sinha trashing a reporter’s copy.

When Gaurav Sinha’s eyes fell on him, he asked: Batao bhai Defence Correspondent sahab, Kargil Yuddh mein marne wale Indian Army ke sabse highest ranking officer ki rank kya thi? A face flashed in front of him and he replied: Lieutenant Colonel. Gaurav Sinha made an ugly face and shot back: arre yaar, kya baat kar rahe ho? Major bhi to mara tha eik.

He didn’t say anything. He was possessed by a strange mental state. It was not anger; he ddin’t feel like laughing or crying either. His mental state was expressionless. He remembered Lieutenant Colonel Vishwanathan, who was, a few hours before he proceeded to Kargil, setting a dynamite at the base of a house in the Ganderbal area of Kashmir valley. Few militants had taken refuge in it and he put them to death.

Late in the night, he went to the Press Club and drank till memories flushed out of his mind.


24.6.06

Saturday, June 24, 2006

My Mother’s 22 Rooms

I cannot sing the old songs, or dream those dreams again – Charlotte Barnard

There it is. Huddled among other dolls and a few shreds of cloth. It is wearing a blue dress. I don’t remember what mine wore, for it has been sixteen years since I saw it. It might not be there anymore, but I would like to believe that it is there, invisible to the new occupants of my house. It is a dancing girl made of earth, decorating a corner of my friend’s drawing room. Touch it a little and it will start dancing, moving her neck gracefully. My dancing girl, mother bought it, when I was a child, from a potter selling his stuff on a pavement in Lal Chowk.

And sixteen years later, as I speak to you, there is no significant noise outside my room. No guttural voice and no sound of my mother’s U-shaped walker making its presence felt through the small corridor of my house. Mother fell down from her bed again this morning.

23 years ago, in Srinagar, a team of health officials was to arrive at our school. Their aim was to administer cholera vaccines to children. But for that we were supposed to take the written permission of our parents. Back home I told my father and as expected he wrote ‘No’ on my home task diary. I found it very insulting. Tomorrow all my classmates would take the vaccine and sing laurels of their bravery. And me, I would be hidden in some corner, red-faced with shame. It was not acceptable to me. So I erased father’s nay and wrote ‘Yes’ on the diary. Next morning as the needle of the syringe pierced my left arm, I did not even flinch once. I became an instant hero. But as it is with most acts of heroism, I had to pay a price for mine as well. By late afternoon, a lump had formed in my arm. By the time I reached home I was feverish and drenched in sweat. As I pulled off my shoes, mother saw me and in one instant she knew what had happened.

It was August and even by Kashmir valley’s standards, it was hot. I flung myself on the bed. Mother came and sat next to me. She gave me a glass of milk and kept her fair arm on my forehead. It felt very soothing and cold; like a spring. I went off to sleep. Next morning as I opened my eyes, the fever was gone.

Mother handled the affairs of the house like a seasoned ascetic would control his senses. She knew what was kept where. Rice, coal powder, woollen socks and gloves, soap – she kept a tab on everything. Her daily routine was more or less defined. She would wake up in the wee hours of the morning, wash clothes in the bathroom, sweep and mop the floor of every room and corridor, put burning coal dust in Kangris in winters and ultimately take stock of the kitchen. She did not believe much in spending time in worship. She was not an atheist but her belief was restricted to occasionally folding hands in front of the Shivalinga. Her God was her home and hearth.

But mother was in awe of nature. She feared its fury. Sometimes, when a storm blew, she would close all doors and windows and sit in one corner. When she no longer could face it, she would ask my father, “Will this storm stop?” Father would usually try to pacify her, but ultimately he also lost his patience. “What do you think? Would this storm last till the doom’s day?” he would snap at her. But the same meek heart turned into brave heart when any family member struggled with adversity.

It was in the mid of 1988 that my father had a mild heart attack. Actually father had a pain in the stomach and an injection prescribed by a gastroenterologist reacted, which led to the attack. Everyone in the family was too shocked to react. But not my mother. She single-handedly took my father to the hospital in an auto rickshaw. At the hospital, mother recalls, a doctor appeared like an angel. He had a black mark on his forehead, a result of praying five times a day. The moment the doctor started examining him, my father vomited. Mother says it was so intense that it went right into the doctor’s shoes. But not once did he raise his brow. He kept on treating my father.

By the end of 1989, men like that doctor somehow became rare in Kashmir. One day mother came back from office and she was crying. In the bus someone had tried to help an old Hindu lady in getting down from the bus. Another woman, who was a Muslim, criticised that man saying that the woman he helped was a Hindu and she should have been kicked out of the bus. Mother didn’t know whether what she heard was true or whether it was a nightmare. But what she had heard and seen with her naked eyes was what seemed like holding a mirror in front of Kashmir in a few months time. The time had come, once again, to leave our homeland. The migration began. Salvaging whatever little we could, essentially a few utensils and educational degrees of my college-going sister, we reached Jammu.

After spending a couple of nights in a hotel, father hired a room in a marriage house. It was situated in the old city, amidst a bristling market of saris and dupattas. Every now and then marriage ceremonies were solemnised in the marriage house. When the crude ovens, laced with mud and gas cylinders arrived at the house, we would understand that a marriage was taking place that evening.

In the ten by ten feet room, ants held a sway. No matter what you put outside, it would be swarmed by ants in a matter of minutes. They appeared in hordes, hundreds of them, attacking every edible item. It was similar to how people would come out on streets in Srinagar, few months before we were forced into exile. Mother obviously could not put up a fight with them, but she always managed to save a bowl of curd from the marauding ants, by keeping it in a basin of water. I always felt that whenever mother took out that bowl of curd, a secret smile would pass her lips. It was like a symbolic victory for her or so I thought.

And one night, that smile was also snatched from my mother’s lips.

I remember that evening. Somebody was getting married in the marriage house. The entire compound was filled with men, women and children, dressed in shimmering clothes. The stereo with huge speakers played popular Bollywood numbers as some of the guests danced on the tunes. And a few metres away, we had closed ourselves in the room.

When the bride was taken away and the noise had eased, there was a knock on our door. Mother opened the door and found a young man standing there. He was holding a plate in his hand. He said that he had been told that there were refugees living here and so he came to offer us some food. Before mother could say something, he handed over the plate and turned back. Mother lifted the cover and I caught a glimpse of the food inside. There was rice, dal and some vegetables. Mother kept on staring at it for some time and then she cried.

After this incident, Mother developed a strange habit. She would tell all, whether they cared to listen or not, “ Our house in Kashmir had 22 rooms”.

For the next few years, we would keep on shuttling from one place to place, becoming victim of the whims and fancies of landlords. We stayed at various places. After the marriage house, we stayed in a window-less room in a dilapidated lodge, where the number of mosquitoes was probably more than the cells constituting our bodies. Then we rented a single room where we ate, studied, slept, cooked and ate our food as well. Then there was another house. The bathroom there had no door and we had to keep on coughing for obvious reasons. Amidst these episodes of Greek tragedy, mother kept her struggle on. Everyday was a battle. From filling water from a leaking tap to bathing under the tap of an adjacent vacant plot, life threw numerous challenges at us.

It was years later that I completed my education somehow and came to Delhi. Few years ago, we bought a 2-bedroom flat in Delhi. But the struggle of Jammu has left a mark on mother. She cannot walk now. Her left leg is paralysed. Sometimes she falls down as she tries to drag her leg. As it happened this morning. She cannot even speak now. Degenerative neurosis, whatever that means. With each passing day, her condition is worsening.

I walk on the road. There is a sea of vehicles moving; endless. Sometimes I feel that there are more vehicles than humans in Delhi. And when I cannot bear the noise any longer, I feel like shouting, “Our house in Kashmir had 22 rooms.”



25/7/06

Last night he came home quite late. He arrived in the car provided to him by the company since he happened to be a Senior Special Correspondent now. On the wind shield and on the rear glass of the car, they had pasted a channel sticker. On the traffic singal, when people saw those stickers, they would inadvertently peep inside the car. Many would even recongnise him. A lot of fan mail also arrived in the office. There was this letter from a girl who said she loved him because he looked very ‘cute’ on the Television. She had further added that if he also loved her then he should wear a sky-blue shirt while appearing on Television the next day. The girl had also sent a photo of hers. He looked at the photo. She looked like Mona Verma.

When he was a Principal Correspondent in Lala Ji’s channel, Mona Verma had joined then as an intern. In two weeks time, she was anchoring a morning bulletin. Whenever output editor Gaurav Sinha saw her, he would smile which almost qualified as a grin. But whenever he saw him, Gaurav would make such an ugly face as if Dracula had bitten his neck. Whenever he had to meet Gaurav Sinha, he would force his hands into the depths of his trousers’ pockets. He feared that if his hands listened to his heart, he would pick up a chair lying nearby and break it on Gaurav Sinha’s head.

The same Mona Verma was the lead anchor of Phataphat channel now. In media circles, those days, anchors were a topic of discussion. Many were of the opinion that without reporting experience, putting someone on air as anchor was stupidity. Though nobody reached at any conclusion, the anchors became very conscious about this fact. So much so that they would try to grab a reporting assignment every now and then to prove themselves.

That evening the same bug bit Mona Verma. She went to Gaurav Sinha and after throwing her typical ‘Madhubala’ sad smile at him, she managed to get herself an assignment. The Prime Minister was scheduled to launch an album of songs. The songs, based on his poems, were sung by a famous Ghazal singer. Mona was supposed to cover the event live.

Mr. Prime Minister came, he cut open the album’s first copy and dozens of camera bulbs flashed. At seven, Mona had to give a live chat from the location. The 7 pm bulletin began. Headlines were read and the anchor in the studio, who happened to be Mona’s friend said:

Aayiye ab aapko seedhe liye chalte hein Siri Fort auditorium jahan humari sanwaadata Mona Verma maujood hai. Mona, aapse jaan na chahenge ki is album mein Pradhaanmantri ji ka sabse pasand deeda geet kaun sa hai?

Mona was in front of the camera, holding a mike in one hand and adjusting her ear-peice with the other. She nodded while the question was asked. Then she smiled and said:

Ji Vaibhavi, waise to Pradhaanmantri ji ko saare geet unke niji jaddojehad ki yaad dilate hein, pur eik geet jo unhe sabse zyaada pasand hai, uski panktiyan mein darshakon ke liye dohra rahi hun: Kaal ke kapaas pur likh-likh kar mitata hun, geet naya gaata hun…

The studio producer banged his head against the edit machine. He yelled through Mona’s ear-piece: Kapaas nahi kapaal (It is skull, not cotton) Mona stood still for few seconds and then she said – maaf kijiye, panktiyan yun hein: Kaal ke compass pur likh-likh kar mitata hun, geet naya gaata hun…

In the Yamlok, Yama, the God of death, laughed till he fell down from his buffalo. Then he remarked:

Pradhaanmantri Ji, pehle is sundari ki bhasha ko sudharo, bade aaye kapaal pur likhne waale…

The next day, he appeared on Television, wearing a deep red-coloured shirt. In the night he dreamt that the girl who had sent him a photo was writing something on his kapaal (skull) with a permanent marker. He woke up, startled, his whole body drenched in sweat.

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