Tuesday, April 30, 2013

From Telegram to Twitter: 3 decades and more of fun

My first big purchase: the Brother portable
Two years ago, as I completed three decades in journalism, our children asked me how it all began and how I feel looking back? Here's what I had written then. Reproducing the piece here for many freinds and students of journalism who ask now how does it feel to be a 'semi-retired' journalist, as I call myself these days, after giving up active, day-to-day journalism last December! 

Two persons--MV Kamath and Vinod Mehta--who played a big part in my career have moved on to another world since I wrote the piece below. 

Can only say one thing: life has been extra-ordinarily kind to me. Can't be grateful enough. Here's the journey so far.


(From the archives: April 30, 2013)

In the mind's eye, I remember it as if it happened yesterday!


The 30 year long journey in journalism actually began with an accident! 

In the summer of 1983, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned. I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30th and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold. I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of Combined Defense Services Exam that December. That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.
The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games—from kabaddi to squash and from kho kho to cricket—as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held. Five days later, they called me for an interview.
My first interview as a journalist--with Asha Parekh(Aug 1983); At my desk in 1984; with colleagues at The Sentinel in 1985;
And finally a historic picture:
With rebel-turned- Chief Minister of Mizoram--Laldenga (partially hidden), Aizawl 1986. 
Don't miss Vipin Pubby (Currently Resident Editor, Indian Express, Chandigarh, on extreme right in specs) and Nirmalya Banerjee, currently with TOI in Kolkatta, listening intently. Behind me is Seema Guha
With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 736 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday.
At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me: “When can you join?”
My answer was, “Whenever you want.”
Editor: “Can you join, tonight?”
Me: “Why not!” and I joined the newspaper that very evening!
And just like that I became a journalist. 
Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am.
Three decades into that journey, the first thought that comes to mind is how extra ordinarily lucky one has been. 
Blessed in fact.

To have a family that never ever questioned my decision to take up what was in those pre-liberalisation days, a suicidal career choice.

And fortunate to have met so many gifted, talented and brilliant peers, colleagues, seniors, sources and contacts. And benefited from their friendship, advice and support. Some have left this world, others have drifted away as it inevitably happens in life.

The exciting 1990s that took me and fellow photographers to mountains, rivers and jungles of the north-east. Clockwise from top left:
With then Outlook colleague Swapan Nayak at an NSCN camp; in the jungles of Manipur; On a ferry on the River Brahmaputra; at Walong with Swapan and at the Sela Pass with another Outlook photographer Jitendra Gupta

Some personalities however have left an indelible mark.

The first name that comes to mind is that of Ananda Dasgupta, my first Chief Sub-editor.

A quick-tempered but fair boss, an old desk hand from The Statesman and the then newly-launched The Telegraph, Ananda was the lynchpin for the newly launched paper. He took me, like all other newcomers, under his wings.

He would drive us hard. Night shift was mandatory. There was no rotation. So one went to office at 5 in the evening and never returned home before 4 am. Some times even 6 am when Ananda, who used to stay alone, away from family in Calcutta, wanted a morning cup of tea at the railway station. So we would go to Platform No 1 of Gauhati Railway station, grab a cup of tea, sometimes Ananda would eat fresh plain dosa and then we would go our respective homes!
A month after I joined The Sentinel, the local showpiece Gopinath Bordoloi Football tournament began its annual competition. I was told to go the Nehru stadium every afternoon by 2pm cover the two matches, come to office, write out the match report and then help out Ananda and others in putting the rest of the pages together. 

The big three from Calcutta--Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohammedan Sporting--were the big attractions. The biggest draw used to be Port Authority Bangkok team. The crowd favourites were of course local teams of Assam Police and Oil India.

I was not yet 21.

The thrill of being part of a small team that produced a newspaper was a big high for one so young.

The adrenaline was always high.

Then on June 25th, Kapil Dev's unheralded team won the Prudential Cricket World Cup. We didn't have a TV at home but being on the sports desk, I had the privilege of watching the match in the office.The whole nation erupted in joy. As the triumphant team returned home, the euphoria showed no signs of abating even a month later. The paper were full of articles, analysis and photographs of Kapil's Devils.

My first article
 Every day, industrialists and state governments were announcing rewards to the winning team members. As a former university cricketer, I was happy for the players but I was also alarmed at the way everyone was going overboard with praise. The thought remained with me though.

One evening in late June, Ananda was struggling to put together the paper and so was I in getting any sports news for the back page since the wires (PTI and UNI) were completely down. Despite enlarging photographs and using some feature articles, the page was short of enough material. Worried, I went to Ananda with my problem. Hassled as he was, he exploded: “Don't bother me, find anything to fill the pages.” Perplexed, I stood there, baffled. Then Ananda added: “You are such a vocal critic of the way Indian cricket team is being feted. Why don’t you put your thoughts on paper,” and walked away.

Furious with myself and angry with Ananda, I went to my table and wrote out in long hand and all capital letters whatever I felt. The result: My first article entitled: Are we overreacting? Around midnight, I walked up to Ananda and gave him the piece. He made a couple of corrections and said “send it for composing.” The paper used to be typeset on the newly acquired Apple Macintosh machines. Next morning the article was published. I was naturally elated to see my name in the paper for the first time.

Next evening, when I walked into the Newsroom, Ananda smiled but didn’t say anything. I got down to work. Then an hour later, he said “let’s grab a cup of tea.” Obediently, I walked out with him. As we sipped our tea, Ananda, put a hand on my shoulder and said: “You know buddy. I don’t see you joining the Air Force.” I was startled. But before I could say anything, he added: “You are destined to become a journalist. You know the speed and clarity with which you wrote that piece last night indicates the flair you have for writing and analysis. Don’t think of any other career, if my advice means anything to you.” We came back into the newsroom and I got busy with the day’s work again. Ananda’s words were still echoing in mind though.

Best Defence Reporter 2010
That night and the next day, my mind was a pot-pourri of emotions. Flattered by Ananda’s praise, one part of me said, “Boy you are one bright spark,” the other, more cautious part was sending a warning signalling: “Parents will be livid for throwing away the chance of a steady government job, have you thought of that?” A natural procrastinator that I am, I remember saying to myself: We will see what happens. For now enjoy the moment." 
With that in mind, I plunged
Outlook Days
wholeheartedly into any work that was assigned to me.

So over the next couple of months I just went with the flow. But work was slowly turning into passion. Then suddenly in October 1983, Ananda’s father suffered a stroke in Calcutta. So he rushed there never to come back. As he left the office, he took me aside and just said one sentence: Remember what I said to you kid.” And went away. Because of his father’s health Ananda never came back to Gauhati.

Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot. My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a Junior Commissioned Officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time: “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam and never regretted it.

In November 1983, I was confirmed as a permanent employee of The Sentinel on a monthly salary of Rs 736.20! I was 21 years and two months old! And I never went back to giving any competitive exam.

Gradually, I was assigned additional tasks apart from sports pages. I started reporting too. In December 1983, Clive Lloyd’s West Indian team beat Kapil Dev’s Indians 5-0 in a One-Day series. The last match was in Guwahati. And I had the privilege of covering that match! And interact with the legendary Clive Lloyd. What more could a 21-year old ask?

1984 was a tumultuous year for India.
With Neha in Kargil 2009

Operation Blue Star, mutiny among Sikh troops, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Delhi riots, Bhopal gas tragedy. There was never a dull moment on the desk.

When I look back, I realise that my long journey in journalism is marked by several lucky breaks. If Ananda was responsible to push me into the unknown and uncertain arena of journalism, it was MV Kamath, yes the doyen of journalists, who swept away any doubts I had of continuing in journalism. In late 1984, he was visiting Guwahati and during an interaction with him in his hotel, I asked him: “Sir how have you survived in journalism so long?” (He had already done nearly 35 years in the profession then).

In his typical avuncular way, Mr Kamath shared the secret. “Son, my guru had told me decades ago: follow three principles in journalism, and you will never go wrong. I have tried to follow them. I can only share those three points.” They are:

  • ·         Do serious work, never take yourself seriously
  • ·         It is more important what you don’t write than what you write
  • ·         You are as good as your last by-line


Sub-consciously or otherwise, having followed that advice, I realise now they were golden words.

By 1985, I had started reporting beyond Guwahati. On one occasion, I remember having rushed to a area called Merapani on the Assam-Nagaland border where a clash between Assam and Nagaland Police had left 30-odd policemen dead. It was like war.

The only means to send the news was through a Press Telegram. There used to be a credit card issued by the Posts and Telegraph Department to individual news organisations and correspondents/reporters could go to the near Telegraph office, give in their copy which used to be then transmitted through Morse code from place A to B. A Postal Department courier then used to deliver those telegrams to the respective offices, all sticky with the gum. The Telegram then used to be rewritten, sent for composing. It was a tedious and tiresome process. Sometimes telegrams used to take up to 12 hours to reach their destination!

Slowly we graduated to point-to-point telex machines, then to fax, followed by emails and finally in the second decade of the 21st century to twitter! After Sentinel, it was The North-East Times, The Telegraph, Outlook, Tehelka and now NDTV that have sustained the pursuit of journalism.
Lecturing at At Southern Naval Command

In this long journey from telegram to twitter, only one thing has been constant: Family support. First my parents and from 1988 onward  my life, Neha, who happens to be my wife. And the two boys Harsh and Utkarsh, who are now young men aged 24 and 19 respectively. They never complain about my sudden travel plans, long absence, uncertain hours, and many a holiday plans remaining just plans because some assignment came up suddenly. The assignments have ranged from the jungles in the north-east to the battlefields of Kargil and Sri Lanka and from Tsunami and earthquake hit areas to cricket stadiums and a train to Tibet! Absolutely a fun ride!

And how can one forget companions, friends and peers?

At a South Asia conference in Dubia
Samudra Gupta Kashyap, my closest friend in media; Ajith Pillai and Vinod Mehta of Outlook who gave me the biggest break in my career by sending me to Kargil from North-east in 1999;  Barkha who invited me to join NDTV in 2005; Prannoy and Radhika Roy, Sonia Singh and many camerapersons, editors, reporter colleagues like Sudhi Ranjan Sen of NDTV who facilitated my transition from print to television with great patience and understanding.

This is not a thank you speech but it certainly is a look back on a journey that continues. I still get excited to get the story right and ahead of others; I still feel nice to see my name in print; But age and experience has also brought in the realisation that you win some, you lose some! And that content, not packaging is important no matter where you work: in print, web or TV.

The boys and their mother
I am often asked many questions about the current state of journalism at different forums. Let me say only this: These are not the best of times for media for various reasons. The deterioration in many aspects is a topic for another article but at the moment I just want to say how grateful one feels for having found the strength, stamina and support to stay the course, no matter what the situation.

Rest as they say is secondary.




6 comments:

  1. Restores my faith in journalism. Power to you! May your tribe grow and prosper.

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  2. Wish more power to your mature, competent and earnest pen.

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  3. Dear Nitin,

    We need more people like you in the tribe. I am an opposite of you. Wanted to be a journalist, but ended up being an Army Officer. But thoroughly enjoyed my career(left prematurely). Wishing you all the best for the future.

    Col(Retd) K R Sivaraman

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  4. Sanarjeet, Shael, Kuraikose, Sivaraman,

    Many thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It was lovely going through those three decades. There is a book in this, Nitin. Write it soon.

    ReplyDelete