`Victoria No 203’

They used to call the two of us `Victoria No 203’. It took me some time to work that out but soon the penny dropped.

Remember the song from the Ashok Kumar-Pran starrer?  – doh bechare, bina sahare, pooch pooch kar haare! That was because we used to team up to hop from room to room at Mantralaya (the State secretariat), or even party offices, to extract information from bureaucrats and politicians, many of whom would not come forth no matter how hard we tried!

Rahi Bhide

Rahi Bhide

Of course, I was not flattered but I could still see the funny side of it. We were two women in the thick of the rough-and-tumble of political journalism and the two of us, as unlike each other as chalk and cheese, had simply gravitated towards each other out of expediency. Political reporting requires you to be out on the streets at all hours of the day or night, wait for late-night happenings (like when a Chief Minister was decided at 2am in the mid-Eighties), brave police bullets and flying soda water bottles during riots and still hope to get home in the dark of the night in one piece.

Both of us started out in right earnest in the Eighties which was a turbulent decade for the country. Both of us worked late hours and hated to cook after we got home. So, almost unknowingly, we first teamed up for midnight snacks at coffee shops or roadside stalls if, and when, we were broke (which was quite often). Then as we discovered we shared similar ideologies we got to going to political events together and then took to travelling the entire state on various stories – there is not a single district we did not visit together. Our partnership worked brilliantly for there was no clash of interests – Rahi Bhide works for the Marathi press and I for the English language media; story angles and readers were always different. I discovered Rahi’s glamour as a columnist was high in the villages and smoothed the path for me on many occasions. But then my English language background came in handy when we needed to break down those we called the `stonewallers’.

I remember on one occasion when, on a rather difficult day, we decided to split up – she first sweet-talked an obstinate source in Marathi. When that did not work, she urged me to lay on my `Queen Elizabeth act’  — oh, yes, many of my venerable colleagues in the Marathi press took to taunting me with that epithet as I was one of the few non-native Marathi speakers reporting in English on Maharashtra’s politics. Rather than cry about it, Rahi advised me to turn that to my advantage as we had done a la the `Victoria No 203’ tag. So now she said, “Its your turn  — go and suitably impress him with your convent English. Don’t let on that you understand any word he says in Marathi. I think that will do the trick.’’ As simple as that was, it really did!

But it helped more to be `Victoria No 203’ when it came to late night interviews of politicians – there was one occasion when an MLA asked my friend to come to his room at the MLAs hostel at nearly midnight. She asked if I would accompany her. “Most certainly not!’’ I replied. “And I will advice you not to go there either. I do not see any urgency in the story and I do not know what he will tell you at midnight that he cannot the next day in broad daylight. In any case I do not think you will meet your deadline tonight. So save it for tomorrow.’’

“I have learnt something from you today,’’ she told me. “You are right. The eagerness for stories should not lead to personal risks.’’

As we ceased to be reporters and became more desk-bound by-and-by, we stopped meeting as often but I notice that my friend has retained her innocence and is still clueless about the ways of the world. She had once complained to me about a politician who had made a pass at her and I had enjoyed putting that slime ball in his place. He still does not talk to me to this day – though he is back on good terms with her once again, that momentary transgression forgotten by both.

But, early last month, Rahi trusted someone blindly again – in the first torrential downpour in Bombay she decided to share a cab with a 20-year-old who, halfway through the fare, drew a knife on her and robbed her of her mobile phone.

“What made you act so stupid?’’ I asked.

“Well, he was young enough to be my son. In any case he was younger than my nephew. I did not think he would be dangerous — thought it would be harmless travelling with a teenager!’’

“There is no right age for thieves and thugs,’’ I said. “What if he had killed you?”

Of course, I scolded her all weekend for her stupidity. But I admire how Rahi has kept her innocence despite being exposed to the cynical world of journalism and politics for so long. The police have caught that thug and returned her mobile phone. Rahi has fully recovered from her fright.

But while she is still a little sheepish about how she got herself into that particular situation, I rue the fact that I cannot trust as blindly as Rahi does.I have realised it is both good and bad to be so innocent; it is also both good and bad to be generally a sceptic, as I have got to be. You need a little bit of both.

That’s why we really do/did make a very good `Victoria No 203’ !

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