A riot is no place for a woman reporter to be

I do not know if I can call this a vacation because no one in his or her right mind ever spends any time holidaying close to the Tropic of Cancer when it is 47 degrees or more in the shade for the better part of two months.

But it is my annual pilgrimage to Nagpur and I am here to perform an annual duty in the name of my father. So I cannot stay holed in forever in order to avoid the sun and as I go around town, as always, I turn nostalgic. Because this is where it all began for me – a career in journalism that nobody in my family wanted me to pursue. They all thought it should just be some kind of pastime, perhaps for a year or at most two — time well-spent before sitting for the IAS exams or, may be, a career in banking.

Yet here I am more than 25 years later, a thoroughbred journalist, with nothing else on my mind but, well, journalism. Nagpur makes more news now than it did in my time and the then lack of opportunities is what had compelled me to move to a bigger city — I thought staying put would confine me to reporting on just Rotary Clubs and annual school days. That is all that had made up my portfolio when I moved to Bombay, after all, and I was told by the first editor who gave me my first good break that entertainment writing would at best make me a `Sunday Writer’. I had to choose either politics or business as my specialisation to be taken seriously as a journalist.  To make the front page, as he put it (to get a byline on P-1 was very difficult in those days).

How wrong he was about entertainment not making P1 — but that’s another story. However, when he asked me to provide him with a sample of my political writing so that he could make up his mind about my suitability for the job he was offering this is where I had headed, I remember. To my professors at the Nagpur University’s Department of Political Science. And no one could have guided me better because my, should I say, `paper’ for my editor was on how Nagpur was the headquarters of both the RSS and the Dalit movement and yet it always elected a centrist (read Congress) to parliament.

My professor said, “You can afford to do a superficial paper on this now since you are just a student. But if ever you become a serious political writer of note you must delve into why this is so; why nothing influences the people here, why they are never polarised or communalised, why they consistently choose to remain left of centre.’’

I have let my professor down, I know, because I have not yet found the answer to that strange phenomenon — Nagpur voted the Congress again this election despite everything going wrong for the candidate before counting day! But at least one thing has changed – young girls passing out of journalism school in Nagpur are no longer confined to Lion’s Clubs and dance shows as I was. The one time I did find myself in the middle of some serious reporting in Nagpur was during a minor riot – Dalit groups wanting the government to rename the Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had taken to the streets and I had found myself in the middle of them almost by accident.

My assignment was to speak to people sitting in dharna outside the Assembly building during the winter session of the legislature and get their issues down for the record. My editor thought I was too young to report from inside the legislature but I knew he thought I was not capable of reporting the proceedings intelligently because I was a woman (for there were other newcomers among the boys who had been given passes to the Assembly). So when I realised that I was getting the big story of the day, perhaps the session or even the entire year, I was pretty excited and jumped into the middle of the stone-pelting crowd with gusto.

I was quite enjoying myself – by God’s grace no one had thrown any stones in my direction — and was getting all the sloganeering down as fast as it came when who should I see but a senior colleague, looking like thunder and bearing down upon me with determined purpose! He physically pulled me out of the rioting crowd and without so much as a by-your-leave told me I was to go home and stay indoors for the rest of the day.  My protests fell on deaf ears – this is not a situation for you to be in, he said. “We will take care of it. Just go home.’’ He didn’t even care that since I had been present at the start I could have some exclusive eyewitness accounts that could add value to the story. I was forced to climb pillions onto another colleague’s two-wheeler and given a free ride home.

The next day when I complained about that highhandedness, my editor just didn’t want to listen. A riot is no place for women reporters to be in, he said and I realised the instructions to get me out of the ‘danger zone’, as he put it, were his – and he (as well as the offending colleague) saw it as concern for my safety, not the denial of an equal opportunity. It was all I could do not to climb up onto his desk and do a tandav in sheer frustration! No wonder that throughout journalism college the five women students, including moi, on the course had kept asking guest lecturers what the scope for women would be in serious reporting. For, the few women before us were all working on desks (morning duty), Sunday magazines or culture reporting and the most glamourous of us had a job as an announcer on All India Radio!

I got my back on that editor by reporting other riots elsewhere in the country – he was always horrified about that and could never understand why I almost sought out such assignments. And he continued to be sceptical about my abilities when another editor dispatched me from Bombay to report from inside the legislature in Nagpur many, many years later. This, despite the fact that by then I was a veteran of Assembly coverage in Maharashtra.

So, today, I am glad to see women reporters get equal opportunities in this one-time sleepy, one-horse town that is fast becoming the greatest hub of post-liberalisation activity. Lots of business reporting, of course. But they also report on Naxal violence and farmers’ suicides — and as much from inside the legislature as from outside it.  I have a rain cheque on a talk to their Women in Media group but, unlike me in the past, I know they are quite unlikely to ask, “What is the scope for women reporters?’’

Because now only the sky is their limit!

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