Couple of edits since first posting.
This week 15 years ago I started on a trip that has brought me here, to the life I live. I don’t know where or what or how the destination would turn out to be, but suffice it to say it’s been a rocking, fantastic time – a hike here, a train ride there, at sea, up in the air, often on cloud nine, even a roller-coaster a few times in between that took me nowhere but gave me a heady, mad high. I am just hoping that I am not even at the midway point, because I want this to go on and on and on.
June 5, 1995 I walked into the Express Estates, situated off Mount Road, on Clubhouse Road. As a student, I had visited the printing press several times as the college mag was printed there free of cost. But that Monday was different – I was going right into the heart of action. As an intern, I was to serve one month on the reporting desk and another with the subs.
On the dark, dingy first floor of the massive structure — that once housed Ramnath Goenka and his journalistic ideals, and had already begun accommodating his heir’s overall ineptitude – were the newsrooms.
The news desk was rather spacious and was right next to the Resident Editor’s cabin. The reporters’ room was sandwiched between those rooms and the Editor’s loo.
If anyone had told me even minutes earlier that I would fall in love with what I saw and felt, and be hooked to it, I would have whacked them on the head.
A single-windowed, cramped room, one corner of which was fashioned into a room of sorts for the Chief of News Bureau. Cheap plywood furniture, squeaky chairs, telephones with cords that were perpetually mangled, a handful of computers, one noisy air-conditioner, a bunch of loud, opinionated, cynical men (24 to 60 years of age — the oldest told me women shouldn’t be reporters, because they would be raped!) . The Chief was the only woman in the domain. In one corner sat P-ji, the department assistant, filing away our bylines and reports in ringbinders – building our portfolios. I didn’t have a file then. The interns’ reports were filed in the binder of the reporter guiding them on the story. P-ji was not to be crossed, at least by interns. Or you would end up covering religious discourses well into the night, days in a row.
I fell in love with all of that; all of them. I wouldn’t change anything about that scenario, that memory – annoying colleagues, random persecutions, biases et al.
Too hooked to reporting, I never interned on the desk. Nearly six months later, I was absorbed as a cub. Six months of 10-14-hour-days, rarely an off, and no pay. I embraced all that, having given up a well-paid internship at a software firm that was willing to take me on fulltime, offering me a pay that at the end of the 5 years at Express, I still wouldn’t earn.
At 21, I didn’t care about being unsalaried. I felt no shame in bumming of my parents, and getting the guys at work to pay for my lunch, coffee and butter biscuits from the tuck shop at the gate. My stomach is lined with steel – drinking gallons of coffee off glasses that were dip-washed in a bucket of water that was changed only nightly; eating biscuits and vadais handed out with ungloved hands by the vendor who used Madras’s water scarcity as a good excuse to do away with personal hygiene.
After the night shift I would sit on the wrought iron spiral staircase off the little bridge that connected the library annex to the rest of the building. From that vantage point, you could peep into the printing press, where sweaty, efficient men brought to life all that we did through the day. Hot off the press… the smell of ink on newsprint, the precision with which the printed sheets were mechanically folded. I would choose that staircase view of the press over watching a late night show of a Clooney film any day.
I entered Indian Express (later The New Indian Express) with no expectations or plans. All that I knew was that I wanted to be a part of IT. For the six years before that – despite courses in computers, languages, commerce etc – I did not even consider another vocation.
I am not ambitious, I had no great ideals, wasn’t out to change the world, I was no Tin Tin – all that I wanted was to be a reporter, and even that had no description in my head.
So work was great; tough, but great all the same.
And then, I got to meet 3 very interesting men on the first day at work – coincidentally all their names begin with S.
S1: As an intern, the goal is to learn. And if you can get the best to be your teacher, can you ask for more?
S2: And you need someone to make you laugh. To pull you out of gloom after the Chief has ripped to shreds you, your attitude, your writing and your brains. Even if that someone was biased, caste-conscious and sometimes corruptible. For a good sense of humour, you can forgive almost anything.
S3: Whatever the environment, a girl must have a crush-worthy subject around her. Even if he was older and married 🙂
For five years I literally lived in that building, that is now being converted into a fancy mall. And every day and every hour of those years brought so much into my life.
That’s where I met the man who would become my husband.
That’s where I made some of my closest friends.
That’s where I learnt that empathy is far more useful than sympathy.
That’s where I learnt that what you earn is not what defines you.
That’s where smoking almost became a habit.
That’s where I learnt that marriage, motherhood and a career do work well together (thanks Chief), though I saw several examples of it failing as well.
That’s where I learnt that the power of the press comes with immense responsibility.
That’s where I witnessed firsthand the misuse of power.
Though born to a trade unionist, that was where I understood the power of a labour union and how it can be wasted; where I experienced a lock-out; where I saw some of the worst HR practices.
That’s where I developed a thick skin, and learnt to disregard gossip.
That’s where I started enjoying Tamil as a language, after having hated all through school.
That’s the place that spoilt me rotten. I cannot, absolutely cannot, settle for just any job. Not for all the money in the Emir’s kitty.