‘Don’t call me bai, call me tai’



In the heat and dust of this election season, one day last week I found myself within the cool confines of the home of the campaign manager of Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel. Among some rosogollas and several glasses of Cola, we got into some idle chit-chat and I asked him how Sharad Pawar’s plane could have developed a technical snag minutes before he was scheduled to embark for Orissa the week before.

“The whole world is saying the snag was deliberate. That Praful Patel could easily have arranged another aircraft for him.”

Neela Upadhye was the third woman journalist in Bombay and first to take political reporting seriously.

Neela Upadhye was the third woman journalist in Bombay and first to take political reporting seriously.

Patel grinned broadly and said, “A technical snag, darlings, is a technical snag. Even the union civil aviation minister can do little about such things!”

We all laughed and moved on to other subjects. There were a lot of party workers around and the setting was very rural. And there were four women reporters, including moi. Amid Patel’s flippancy and oft-used term of endearment for us — which went almost unnoticed in the middle of all that easy camaraderie — I realised how far we had come from the days when women were just breaking ground in political journalism and had to take themselves very earnestly – because the politicians would not. As a result we were all almost always very tightly wound up and could never have let our hair down as we did that hot afternoon in Bhandara-Gondia.

I think I was among the first half-dozen women in Bombay who were assigned the political beat – and it was a trial to get through every day, simply because politicians found it difficult to accept that women moving around party offices and the government secretariat meant serious business – or even that they were to be taken seriously.

I recall what one veteran colleague, Neela Upadhye, working then for a Marathi daily and among the finest journalists I have known (she was the third woman journalist in Bombay and the first to take her political reporting seriously), told me then. Taking me under her wing, she gave me examples and warned me about what I must watch out for and what I must never tolerate.

Her no-nonsnse approach has made life easier for women reporters on the beat today

Her no-nonsnse approach has made life easier for women reporters on the beat today

Since all of us had late evening deadlines and many women had to take trains back home from Victoria Terminus (now known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus), Neela, then a mother of two, decided to complain to then Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil about the menace of sex workers hanging around the station all evening. And how, because of that, even decent women waiting for trains were propositioned by indecent men out for a good time. “We have complained so many times, but the police seem unable to do anything,”she told the CM.

I was shocked when she related to me the Chief Minister’s reply – far from assuring action in the matter, he seemed almost callous as he said, “No decent woman should be out at that hour of the night. All good girls should be back home by seven in the evening.”

There could have been nothing more antidiluvian than that and Neela told me, “You don’t know how I have lived through these years without too many women on the beat. You are lucky that we have paved the way for you. And never let your guard down before these men or else they will pounce upon you like dogs upon a bone.”

Neela Upadhye was among the first half-dozen women in Bombay who were assigned the political beat.

Neela Upadhye was among the first half-dozen women in Bombay who were assigned the political beat.

But the greatest lesson she taught me was not to let the politicians address you as anything but “tai” (didi in Hindi). “Not Madam. Not bai (lady in Marathi). Strictly tai. Doesn’t matter if you are older or younger than them. They used to approach me and say, ‘Kai Neelabai kai challa ahe (What’s up, Neela Madam)?’ And I would snap back, “Bai naahi, tai manha (call me not bai but tai)!”

“But why not bai?” I asked – because in Maharashtra, which was my area of work, the term was one of respect for women – like Ahilyabai Holkar, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Lady Amritbai Daga, etc.

“They don’t have respect for any women on the beat,” said Neela. “Better they look upon you as a sister, than a lady,” she retorted. “And even then you will have to guard against much nonsense.”

Took me a while to understand the lesson she was imparting but it was an enduring one and her advice never failed me through the years of my own novitiate.

Now Neela Upadhye teaches journalism at Bombay University to a whole new generation of girls (and boys).

She now teaches journalism at Bombay University to a whole new generation of girls (and boys).

Two decades later, times have changed and all that now seems like so much water under the bridge. But had it not been for our predecessors like Neela Upadhye — now a grandmother and teaching journalism at Bombay University to a whole new generation of girls (and boys) — who set the terms and laid down the law for the politicos my part of the country, women reporters on their own, from ordinary families and no influential background, might not have had such smooth sailing through the years.

For whether the Ministers and MLAs address you as bai or tai or even by name today, there are very few of them who dare to cross the line. There is still Neela Upadhye to contend with.

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  • http://blogs.hindustantimes.com/expletive-deleted Kushal

    All women everywhere owe much to people like Neela Tai.

    All men too, because it’s something for them to learn.

    Really, REALLY love your blog, Sujata.

    [Reply]

    Sujata Anandan Reply:

    Thanks, Bunny.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.hindustantimes.com pankaj vohra

    Again a very good blog. Sujata all your blogs are both informative and also very good to read. Neela Tai of course was a path breaker. In Delhi too, there have been some outstanding women journalists. Neena Vyas, Deputy Editor of the Hindu for instance has been around from the time very few women ventured into this male dominated arena. In HT, Promilla Kalhan, Leela Manilal, Prabha Dutt, Nandini Chandra Chauhan and Kum Kum Chadha are amongst those who made their mark The good work is being carried on by you and some others. Keep it up. Best regards.

    [Reply]

    Mrs. Vivian Das Reply:

    What Neela Tai said still holds good today. (sola aane sach)
    I work in a govt. place. Officers on the face may address the women by name or as madam, etc. But whenever they have a chance they use Bai in a derogatory manner. Though a silent stern look force them to look sheepish.
    Neela Tai,s advise is even correct to this day.
    One day during our annual Officers Association (Union) elections were to be held and one of the candidates was trying convincing his candidature.
    His boss passed the remark if you are busy chatting around with these women (mahila) of the office you will never become the President.
    With a stern voice I said not mahila but his colleague. If the candidate could not stand up for the mahila then he did not deserve my vote. He lost.

    [Reply]

    Sujata Anandan Reply:

    Well, we are one half of the populatio, after all!

    [Reply]

    Sujata Anandan Reply:

    Thank you so much, Pankaj.

    Of the names you have mentioned, I have heard of most but have the privilege to know only Kumkum in person — first saw her in Bombay during the Congress centenary celebrations. She might not even remember it but she helped some of us women reporters to get access to Delhi leaders by properly scolding some Seva Dal workers who were blocking us. Later it was good to get to know Kumkum when I joined HT.

    With your good wishes hope I am able to keep up the interest in the blog.

    [Reply]

  • http://satiricalcitizen.blogspot.com Rupa Gulab

    In the good old days when I’d bus it to college in Cal (now Kol!), chivalrous bus conductors would order the drivers to brake at undesignated spots to pick us up, hollering ‘Aastey ladiesh!’ It always got results. Now you’ve got me wondering if an ‘Aastey shishters’ would perhaps have made them touch our feet too!

    [Reply]

    Sujata Anandan Reply:

    With some Bengali connections myself, I noticed life on Calcutta’s trams and buses could take a “lady” through her entire growth — the conductors would pat you on the head when you were a child addressing you as `khokhi’, u soon became didi, then boudi. My friends still there, a little rounded over the years, dread the time when these chivalrous chaps will call them Kaakimaa and then worse, Thamaa. But, at least, wherever you are at from khokhi to thamaa, they do find you a seat all the time!

    [Reply]

  • aparichit

    Its always difficult for the first ones — the ones who follow almost never realise how easy life has been made for them by those who were there before!

    [Reply]

  • yogesh M.

    Hi,

    It was really nice to read about Upadhyebai. Being her student in Journalism class I have a privilege to address her as upadhyebai bcoz ‘bai’ also means teacher in Marathi. Ur experience reminded me one thing. In our class she always used to give tips to female students about do’s and don’ts. But more interesting part what I found was that she is balanced. Instead of blaming only men all the time as many feminist do I think Upadhyebai see pros and cons.

    [Reply]

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