Happy to be on my own
Some years ago, when I did not know Suresh Kalmadi at all but was invited to a party he was throwing at a five-star hotel in Bombay, I was not too sure if I would make it – or if I would be comfortable in case I did.
But then I decided to attend, for it would have been churlish to refuse. I went on my own, however, – rather tentatively, without an ‘accompaniment’ as some would say — for I could not but help remember the two occasions when I invited someone to similar parties by politicians and shuddered at what had transpired.
The first was sometime in the Nineties, when Sunil Dutt invited me to dinner at his home and I decided to ask a single friend, out of the many in our gang, to accompany me to the do.
Dutt Sa’ab was hosting some Canadian film makers and this guy (let’s call him Sudama) was one, too. But more significant, I thought, was that he had made a film on Rajiv Gandhi and, I believed, the pain of having to put up with me through the evening would be much reduced by the pleasure of meeting some of his own kind – from both the world of politics and films that Dutt Sa’ab epitomised.
I lived to regret that evening. Sudama was – and is – a selfless individual with a golden heart, still ever willing to help out friends in distress. But quite unmindful of the manners and etiquette of tinsel town (though he might have got away with it had it been just the more boorish world of politics). So, in an argument with one of the Canadians, he spoke with a full mouth. And then he laughed. Food went flying into the faces of the people standing opposite and into their plates. I quietly turned my back on the group and pretended I was not with him.
I thought no one had noticed. But the next time I was invited to one of Dutt Sa’ab’s dos, he did me the favour of asking, “That man you came with the other time – is he your boyfriend or fiancé or what?”
I knew what was coming and was utterly mortified. “No,” I said in a small voice. “He’s just a single man in our group whom I asked out to that dinner.”
“Well, you don’t have to go through such trouble at my parties,” said Mr Dutt. “When you come to my home, you will always be driven back in my car. We’ll make sure you get back home safe.”
It took me a decade to ask another friend out again – to Murli Deora’s ball dance in aid of the Indian Red Cross society. It was at the Taj Gateway. I asked him to meet me in the lobby – and I waited for over an hour (he carried no mobile at the time) before I flounced upstairs in frustration, ready to apologise to Murlibhai that I had come alone while his invitation was for a “couple”.
Imagine my horror when I discovered my friend was already at the ball, beaming over the heads of everybody – he had decided not to wait for me after all, never mind that Murli Deora’s invitation was to me and not him. Mr Deora’s unending graciousness is what saved his bacon that day as the old ladies with the Red Cross were insistent he couldn’t get in without an invite.
“You could have come alone and it would not have mattered,” Mr Deora told me later “We are all your friends here.”
Friends. Well, over the years I did begin to count both Sunil Dutt and Murli Deora among my friends, notwithstanding the fact that they were much older and that `friend’ was not a word that I could easily use while referring to them. But it is politicians like these who have made life comfortable and risk-free for women reporters on the political trail.
There are some lesser-known ones, too – like Digvijay Khanvilkar, a descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji and a former minister. And he took chivalry to another level to ensure that women journalists in no way lagged behind the men. If he had a story, he would give a party – to which only the men were invited.
The women were, instead, treated to lunch the same day during which he would share details of the story, and we would get the chance to ask questions. “The men will be drinking all evening and dinner might be late. That would make it difficult for the girls to get back,” he would say, apologetically.
We first thought this was discrimination. Then we realised we, the ‘girls’, had the advantage – tired after a hard day’s work (and even harder drinking), the ‘boys’ would be content with press notes and no questions. But our stories would be filed and our newspapers rolling even before they had got home and crawled into bed. None of the boys noticed for a long time that they continued to be scooped out by women reporters. The reverse discrimination stopped only when they did – and we had to begin partying all over again.
But by then it was no big deal. When I first started out as a political reporter, doomsayers had predicted that as a woman I would not be able to hold my own among men because drinking and partying were absolute essentials to building rapport and nurturing sources.
But when early this week, I received a sms message inviting ‘both of you’ to a private dinner (non-alcoholic and all vegetarian — am both and so had no problem) in honor of the BJP Maharashtra president Nitin Gadkari (one of the persons tipped to replace LK Advani at the Centre), I did not turn a single hair. The host did not even look over my shoulder for a companion and, while other women at that party formed a pool in a corner of the room, I had no problem wading through all the gentlemen (mostly businessmen) and plonking myself beside Gadkari to get a fix on what was happening in his party (no pun intended!).
So, while I have known this for a while now, that latest dinner only reinforced the fact that single women journalists have arrived. And gentlemen like these have not a little to do with it!