Wednesday, January 05, 2005

14th Nov, 2004.

And so, there's the first brush with political journalism. Though, what isn't political, now I think about it?

Of course, I'd been to Mantralaya and called up health ministers and local MLAs, in Bombay. That was different. This was about watching major politicos giving bytes to news channels. This was about being where it happens. This was like being at a film shoot - the sense of watching it happen, knowing you will see it on the screen later. (Weird, but after 5 years in Bombay, I'd never seen a film shoot happening up-close. I don't count the one at Madh Island, watching Sonu Nigam's debut prantics (nice word, na? Prantics = prancing + antics. Did I just invent it?).

So there I was, very very wet behind the ears (and in the armpits - since I walked down Akbar Road, with the police cordoning off the entry with a good old-fashioned jute rope) ambling across to the Comgress' HQ in Delhi.

And it was the wrong there for day to go the first time. Some rally/function had happened and there were men there by the thousands. Crisp, detergent-advertisement-white kurtas, for the congress workers and party functionaries; limp, bleached-by-the-sun-but-yellowed-by-wear-white for the aam junta. There were hundreds of them, pouring out onto Janpath and
Shah Jehan Road and heaven alone knows where else.

There were a few women - a dozen or so - in fancy banjara costumes. Just goes to show how hard it is to get women taking an active interest in politics. Or maybe it isnt. Maybe they weren't invited. Maybe the party workers didnt see the need to mobilize them. Who knows?

The men decided to relieve themselves the moment they left the grounds of the congress party office. There was a whole line of them, lining up facing the red wall outside, which was getting very wet at the bottom. Wonder what Sonia Gandhi would think if she saw this spectacle. Row upon row of men, pissing on the walls of the Congress' office.

I kept my embarassment in check, and went about asking everyone, starting from the guards, to the functionaries, to the receptionists - how I can get a quote from one of the Congress functionaries. I finally walked into the media office and got conversing with a certain Mr Durrani. He asked for my visiting card and when I began to explain why I didn't have one (because they havent yet been printed; because I only just arrived; because I'm a newbie;
because....) he asked me my whole history.

Then he told me to go speak to Girija Vyas. He kept referring obliquely to some 'list', with reference to my story (which was about a generic update on the petrol pump scam of 2002, since the Supreme Court-appointed probe panel had come to the comclusion that 297 of the 409 cases being investigated were indeed 'improper' allotments).

I entered the office, where Girija Vyas, in her crisp cotton sari, held court. One of the men immediately made place for me and I plonked down, staring round-eyed at the journalists laughing so easily and sipping chai. I waited and waited and waited for these other journalists to leave so I could ask my questions. But they had this strange habit of asking one question at
a time and generally gossipping about other partymen for ten minutes. The general buzz was discussed. Rumours about Pranab Mukhjerjee's being sidelined were discussed. Anupam Kher was discussed. Individual newspaper policies were muttered about. One fat man kept laughing about how no other paper had the guts to write the way he did.

I tied and re-tied my shoelaces and waited for them to leave. The women were all in crisp cotton suits and saris. They must've been senior journalists. I was so terribly out of place in my jeans
and sneakers. For all that, the men outside had known I was a journalist the moment they looked at me. Maybe they thought I was a firang journo. Maybe my cloth jhola gave me away.

A few women left, a camera crew entered. It seemed like I would never get a chance. Then finally, Girija Vyas herself asked me if I needed to ask some questions. I asked my first question, the moment I brought up the petrol pump scam, she told me she would deal with me later and asked the camera crew to finish taking their interview. She seemed to be losing her good mood too.

Then, she suddenly said she had to run away to another meeting and that I should call her tomorrow. She gave me a landline number and I walked out, worrried that some servant would pick up the phone and she wouldn't come on the line. I had a deadline at noon and this was my first deadline at Frontline. Wouldn't want to push that one.

On my way out, Mr Durrani outside the office spoke of the list again. And I asked him 'what list?' He handed me a copy of the Indian Express. There, on the front page, was a list of those benefitting from the government's largesse with petrol pumps. And the first name on the list was that of Ms Girija Vyas.

I thanked Mr Durrani and left, but I was perplexed. If I had been a Congress functionary, esp one working under girija vyas, the last thing I'd do was to show a journalist the means to ask damaging questions. I was ignorant and should have read the article myself. But this was strange - that a partymember should tell me to read the article and ask questions

The next morning, I did call girija vyas and she did pick up the phone herself. And she actually dillied and dallied but answered my question. Obliquely, of course. And then, she asked that her name not be mentioned in the article at all. She said I was like her little sister (sister?
daughter's more like it, I'd think), that I ought to help and understand. And that she was so sorry I had to wait so long yesterday.

And I wished I didn't have to speak nicely. But there didn't seem to be any reason to be rude either. I did put in at least one quote, attributing it to her though. I had to. Can't be nice to those who benefit from government largesse and want to hide it, can I?

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