‘You can’t play cricket in a tennis court’

My colleague Kushalrani Gulab – Bunny – asked me in response to my blog last week what had prompted me to become a journalist. As I said in my reply to her, that had not been my intention when I started out as one nearly three decades ago. But so many years later, I realise I would rather be a journalist than anything else in the world – not even a bureaucrat or diplomat as I had intended when I took a journalism degree, essentially to learn to write for the civil services exams.

I meet and speak to many students of journalism and mass communication these days and each time I do I give them the same piece of advice that I got half-way through my career from former Prime Minister V P Singh.

I started out by disliking Singh immensely – I held him responsible (and still do so) for the fragmentation of the Indian polity with his Mandal card. I had always believed that he was too small for the job he finally ended up with. But then he was a close confidante of a very good friend of mine and the endless dinners he took me to with Singh at the State Guest House, Sahyadri, whenever Singh came visiting Bombay (and he came frequently for dialysis treatments at the Bombay Hospital), helped to soften my ire against Singh over the months. And when I finally got into easy conversation with him, I picked up two valuable insights from the former Prime Minister.

I had reason to recall both last week, as the Copenhagen summit wound up and I met more students of journalism. When I heard Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh say, “I am not here to save humanity. I am here to protect India’s interests and our right to development,’’ I was not surprised that the world was blaming India (and China) for putting a spoke in the works at Copenhagen.

For, as Singh told me years ago, India was always putting a spoke in the works just about everywhere and has always been blamed for spoiling the developed world’s parties. “We are regarded as the world’s toughest negotiators,’’ Singh had said, out of experience. He said Rajiv Gandhi had trusted him with keeping up India’s interests at WTO negotiations when they first began and then India and Brazil had been the spoilers, as he said it. “We were the only two nations who refused to concede rights in matters of services and intellectual property. We were the only developing nations who were invited to their exclusive dinners in the hope they might wine-and-dine us into concessions. But despite all that we stood our ground and did not cede an inch. Because all that we have among all those developed nations, who are worried only about protecting their interests and hoping to con us under the guise of humanity or co-operation , is our instinct of self-preservation.’’

I presume the pressures this decade over issues like climate change were more than that prevailed  two decades ago over issues like intellectual property rights but  I thought India knew how to keep her ground without making an enemy of the developed world – one statement Singh said he had made to the developed nations in the decade of the Eighties has stuck in my mind. “When they asked for unreasonable concessions, I told them `You cannot play cricket in a tennis court’.’’

I use that phrase all the time in my private conversations with friends and others who make unreasonable demands and expect more of me than they are prepared to give and I always stump them as Singh said the phrase had stunned the big nations when he had first voiced it to them.

But it is the second lesson (I call it `lesson’ for want of a better word) that I impart to journalism students all the time when they ask me if they are being wise in getting into mass communication and if they will make good journalists.

I was halfway through my career when I got one of the best job offers I had had since then. But it put me into  a great dilemma because I thought I was in the best job to be had for a journalist at my level at the time in Bombay. Moreover, I had been in that job for only a short while and I was neither tired of it, nor had I lost interest nor did I have any problems at that job, either. Singh advised me to take the new job and told me I could not see it then but the offer I had would qualify me as a successful journalist in a few years from then.

“Your parents might not have wanted you to be a journalist?’’ he asked. And when I nodded my head vigorously he looked smugly satisfied as he said, “Journalism is not a great profession to get into when you are a starter. Most parents would rather their children get into medicine or engineering or even law because journalism seems like a no-go at that young age.’’

But, he said, “You will have to work at it for at least 20 or 25 years before you realise whether you are a success or failure at journalism. If you are successful, then you are better off than even a highly successful doctor or lawyer; you will always be more famous and better regarded than any body else who might be equally successful in other professions. But if you are a failure, then you would have been better off being a doctor or a lawyer, for a failed doctor or lawyer will always be far better off than a failed journalist. But the call has to be yours. And you will never know until you have spent almost half a life time trying to achieve that success; if you have failed, nothing on earth can compensate you for your lost years.’’

That is the advice I give to my students whenever they ask. And add for better measure, “It will take a long time before you realise if you have been playing cricket in a tennis court. Or, happily, not.’’

I, for myself, hope I have been playing tennis in, well,  a tennis court!

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