‘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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.