Saturday, July 12, 2008

Feature: My days (and nights) as a newshound in New Delhi

Where the head is held high and the mind is without fear.
—Swami Vivekanada
20 June, 2008:
"So what was it like?" What"? (The writer says). Well, you know, working in Delhi as a journalist?" The writer sighs and for the hundredth time has to repeat a tale of big media companies, the heat, the glitz, cut-throat competition, politics, death, crime, corruption and excitement.

While in summer there is the omnipresent and all consuming heat, in winter temperatures hover around –20C at night to 20C in the day. It is a 'city of extremes' demonstrated in its climate, economy, history, people, infrastructure, culture, food, complexity, power games, entertainment and sheer size.

All this and a burning ambition made this writer decide, before joining college itself, to build a career there. While the first year passed in getting used to a different world, the second and third years were more useful with job internships that landed the writer two job offers while in the third year of college.

Joining the Indian Express paper was equivalent to getting admitted into a great Indian Institution. The highpoint of this paper was in single-handedly opposing the unpopular emergency in 1973 and being a rally point of a weak opposition in bringing down the government of the then powerful prime minister Indira Gandhi. Once the opposition was in power, even they were not spared from attacks on corruption and other issues.

Being from a reputed college and with some internship experience, the writer assumed it would be a cakewalk and so it was with some *****iness that he walked into the newsroom in July 2006. Two weeks later, thoughts of quitting, self-doubt and desperation were setting in, when none of his articles were getting published.

To put it in perspective, unlike popular perception, there are no senior reporters or editors patting your back and telling you what to do because, if truth be told, everybody is too damn busy in the rat race. It is in these harsh settings that a reporter is expected to run, while he/she may be thinking of crawling and so only the fit survive while the fittest forge ahead.

Desperate times demanded drastic measures and so the next logical step was to investigate the spending of Rs 30 million building grants given to three top colleges of Delhi, including mine (St Stephen's). A unique lesson in the power of the press was when the principal and lecturers, we squirmed in front of until yesterday, were now sitting uncomfortably while trying their best to answer some questions.

Though the investigation could turn up nothing fishy, my first few stories on Delhi University started getting published. Also, the two-hour jam-packed bus rides in merciless heat, back and forth from DU to office, toughened me mentally and put me in touch with hard reality after three comfortable and secure years in college.

However, nothing could describe the initial thrill of seeing one's name in the morning on the paper and the tinge of jealousy on seeing other names. By now, working hours could be described as a daily grind of 9 am to as late as 11 pm in office, with oily and junk food one's staple diet. But who cared if they dropped dead by 60, because it was success at any cost that mattered.

The first lesson in cut-throat competition was when a slightly senior reporter dropped into 'Delhi University' during the annual news heavy election period and took away many of my stories. Swearing never to fall into such a situation, I focussed on the toughest and most ignored beat of the New Delhi municipal council.

This NDMC body was separate from the municipality of Delhi as it looked after the area in which stayed all the VVIPs of India, like the President, Prime Minister, Ministers, MPs, Secretaries, Judges, foreign embassies, etc.

My first major story here was in investigating and publishing the long overdue unpaid water and electric dues of everyone, right from the PM down to 340 MPs to ministers and other national and state leaders. One would expect all hell to break loose, but such is the strength of India's democracy and the maturity of its senior leaders that all I got was a letter from Omar Abdullah (Kashmiri leader) protesting that I had compared him to Pappu Yadav (Laloo Yadav's brother-in-law) and another from the union finance minister clarifying that he had paid the dues brought to his attention. Reporting in Delhi also had its dangers, especially during the time when all the traders went on strike over court orders to seal large markets.

There were blockades everywhere and Delhi had turned into a war zone and, for those not in the know, Delhi is a trader's city with 100 plus big markets. With a photographer and driver, we toured the city's major markets from morning to evening to get a feel. During these tours, we met all hues of people like hardened criminals, traders, surprisingly patient cops, party workers and even a sadhu. In the end, I had the strange experience of meeting the main leader of the traders in his hideout and also later in his office the police commissioner, who was looking for him. Both were good determined people but stood on either side of the fence on some issues.

There were also the very sad times when we were reminded time and again of the monstrosity of human nature. The first was when there were blasts on a Pakistan bound train from Delhi and, looking at the charred bodies and talking to the families, was not a happy experience. Another incident that created shockwaves was when a 50-year old man's mansion in Noida was found to be the site of the rape, torture, murder and cannibalism of around 40 children. On the first night they were digging out the bodies from the drains, we had to spend the whole night there and the tragedy of the incident was almost unreal at times.

A major plus point working for Express was that every Tuesday we had VVIP guests coming to our office for an interview session called idea exchange. The session was where senior national, party, industrial, entertainment, sports, intellectual, and constitutional figures of India were grilled by us for around two hours each week. In spite of that, there was never a shortage of guests. While in college, my friends were drawn from the elite and included sons and daughters of the who's who of Delhi, but it was a different experience while working.

I gradually became a workaholic, cutting short my weekends, lengthening my work hours, ignoring my friends and immersing myself in work. The strategy paid off and there was rapid progress with an out of turn promotion and offers from rival firms like India Today.

But the costs were at a deeper level because the price of success was now loneliness, emotional blindspots and stress. It had also been 15 months since I had been home, cutting me off from family too. With this and other more private personal issues, I decided to come to Bhutan for a year and try the new and exciting media scene here with elections and everything. On informing my senior editor, he got the shock of his life but agreed to let me go after generously reminding me that I could come back any time I wanted. My friends and acquaintances after 16 months working in Delhi included cops, politicians, municipal bosses, student leaders, bureaucrats, activists, intellectuals, artists, glamorous people, people in the slums, dabawallahs, rickshaw drivers, other journalists and more.

The media in India is truly a fourth estate and a powerful voice and agent of change on behalf of the wronged and weaker sections of society. One little secret about Delhi and India is that, no matter how desperate, diverse, crowded, poor, rich, weak, strong you may be, at the end of the day your rights are protected and guarded not by politicians, bureaucrats or judges, but a fierce, just and strong media that is the cornerstone of any strong democracy.

By Tenzing Lamsang

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