Pin drop silence: a press conference with Jayalalithaa

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J Jayalalithaa, politician from Tamilnadu, referred to as *puratchi thalaivi* or *Amma*

It was in May 2001.

I was a reporter with The New Indian Express then.

The Assembly election results had just been called overwhelmingly in favour of the AIADMK. My Chief of Bureau T.N.Gopalan shouted out in Tamil that afternoon: “Dei Karthiiii, nee Poes Garden poyaa”. (டேய் கார்த்தீ, நீ போயஸ் கார்டன் போயா translates to “Hey Karthik, head to Poes Garden.”)

I had never been a political correspondent up until that time. I would dabble with it a little later but eventually decide political reporting is not for me.

But getting back to the story, I was excited and anxious at the same time. I was to meet the enigmatic Puratchi Thalaivi in person but had little clue about how it would go.

I was also scared about how I will have to take notes. I had heard stories from other journalists about her command over the language – both English and Tamil.

So I reached Poes Garden and was in a huddle with many other jounrnalists, waiting to be called in to a small visitors’ room. My heart was pounding and my palms sweaty as I clutched on to the note book. Those who have worked for New Indian Express will immediately recall that notebook.

Then the call came. Within seconds there must have been close 50 of us stuck in that one room. In front of us a small coffee table and behind that a comfortable single seater sofa.

My heart was pounding. There was a bit of a commotion rising in the room. Let me also tell you that this was around the time when we were grudgingly accepting the fact that TV news crews will be in the same room as us. It took a bit getting used to not one but usually three people from each TV news station. Same space, more people, and these guys knew how to hustle.

And then she entered.

There was again a bit of commotion as many of my peers were quick to congratulate her. “Congratulations madam,” a senior journalist, who used to work for one of the news agencies said.

Those words still ring in my ears as I write this. His thick nasal Malayalee accent made me jump a bit as I sat confused whether or not to join the chorus congratulating the Puratchi Thalaiavi. I did not. It just felt weird.

J started reading out a statement she had prepared out of a print out. She began in Tamil: “Makkal Theerpe Magesan Theerpu”. (மக்கள் தீர்ப்பே மகேசன் தீர்ப்பு)

I was scribbling into my notepad and kept wondering how the heck would I translate that into English.

Within minutes, J read out the same statement in English. “People’s verdict is tantamount to the Almighty’s verdict.”

Just as she was reading out the statement in English, there was a bit of a ruckus between a few of the TV crew members. Apparently one cameraman deemed it fit to disrupt the flow of speech to ensure he got his camera angle just right.

In a matter of seconds, her countenance changed. She stood up and pointed her right hand, her pointer finger directly at all of us. For a moment, I thought it was pointed directly at me.

“Why are all of you making this noise? Do you want me to continue or not?”

Every one of us froze.

The most damning silence I have ever experienced in my life came to effect.

A few seconds later, she appeared to compose herself. The senior peer from my right intervened.

“Madam, they are new. Please accept my apologies on all our behalf.”

This time I did not mind his accent at all.

She then read out the remainder of her statement. Then the floor opened up for questions.

I had forgotten all questions I had written down and memorised before the press conference. It appeared like I was not alone. None of the journalists seemed to have any question.

And then she laughed. “What are you guys even doing here? How come none of your ask any questions?”

Once again the elderly gentleman came to our rescue.

“Madam, everyone in Tamilnadu calls you Amma. Why Tamilnadu alone? Everyone in India and elsewhere who knows you calls you Amma? Can you tell us how this makes you feel?”

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Hitler’s speech

I have enjoyed my stay in Germany – in 2005, 2008 and 2009 – and I long to go back to that country, especially to Berlin.

Not just because of the European comforts the city offers or the great friends I made there, but mainly because Berlin to me was my open university. And by open university, I mean a place where I learnt so much just by keeping my eyes, my ears and my mind open.

I would just wander around the city by myself just soaking in the history and the culture the place offered.

It helped that most Germans I met on the streets almost steadfastly refused to speak English. And even if they did it was with that thick German accent that after a point I stopped bothering anyone.

I would just randomly walk to a place and read whatever little English description of the place was available. And the rest of the story, I would just stand and imagine in my mind.

During my various visits and my formulaic rumination, I thought I had pretty much figured out everything I needed to understand about people and politics.

But one question intrigued me always.

In all those Goebbels produced videos I saw Hitler addressing tens of thousands of people, this question chased me. All I could see in those videos were people reacting spectacularly to Hitler’s full-bodied orations.

Hitler had an overbearing body language that marked all his speeches. Even though I never understood a word, or for that matter these were silent videos, I would always see him raising his hands and sometimes his whole body would shake as if that energy he was externalising was what was rousing the crowds.

The crowds would behave as if they were on cue. It was almost like a dance.

Hitler would extend his arm, as if he was reaching out to an invisible connection, and the crowds would be delirious as their own connection to some energy was switched on.

One day when I knew I could no longer decipher this by myself, I asked one of my close friends.

“Just what the heck was he talking that made the crowds go crazy?”

“Rubbish,” she said. “Total and utter rubbish. People have tried to translate it literally but it is complete nonsense.”

That’s when it struck me.

Grand orations that fuel hatred and seek to divide people do not have any substance that will help it pass the test of time.

Hitler is gone but his methods remain.

A few lessons from a journalism classroom

 

For a few years now, the wonderful Robin Reisig invites me to speak to the students of Asian College of Journalism, on some topics with related to narrative journalism/ story-telling.

So once a year, I spend one afternoon with a group of students, usually between 10 and 12 in numbers, and try to recall a few of my stories over the years. In the process, I try to give them tips for better writing.

This is a sort of annual ritual that I have gotten used to.

But far from an exercise in vanity, I use this day as an opportunity to reaffirm what is good in journalism and what is it that makes some of us interested in telling stories, especially people stories.

This time around, I made a slight change to the ritual. I requested Robin if I could sit in on one of her classes to observe and take notes, like a student. And she was kind enough to allow that.

Here are some of the important takeaways from the class yesterday, at least for me. This class was about news feature writing.

1. Use of “cosmic paragraphs” or “hoarding paragraphs”. These are paragraphs in a long-form feature that summarise and bring into context why the story is important.

2. 5 Ws and 1 Hs is fine, but good features have 7 Ws. Classical journalism extolled the value of the 5Ws and 1 H: what, when, where, who, why and how. But modern journalism addresses two additional Ws: What does it mean? Why Should I care?

3. Kill the adjectives, before they multiply – this is a pure writing tool.

4. Stress the value of silence

5. Ummmmm

6. If there is a suspense point in your lead, make sure you address it and finish it off during the course of the article

Footnote: This was a one-time experiment that I sat in during the class. The students need not be worried that I would turn up like this often.

The notorious housewife

Yashoda never trusted her husband.

He was wayward and never cared for her. So she pinched a 500 or a 1000 Rupee note from him every week over the past five years, and dreamt of buying beautiful clothes, purses and what not.

Her husband never bothered to check the odd Rs.1000 or Rs.500 that went missing. He secretly knew that his wife was pinching it too, but did not bother because it gave him the licence to have his secrets too.

Until one day, the Supreme Leader announced his magic bullet.

Unable to come to terms now that her ploy is out in the open, she was drinking kadak chai and contemplating what to do.

The unbearably one morning, some five days after the grand announcement, she came and handed over her secret stash to her husband.

“Darling, there is just a few lakhs in this. Please somehow convert it and get me some nice clothes.”

The husband had tears of joy. “Wow, how the supreme leader has empowered husbands.”

 

The samosa seller

I know a samosa shop near my erstwhile office. The vendor sells many samosas a day. I have wondered if he would make a few thousands of rupees every day. It is easily possible. He is a very hard-working man, who must work at least 12 hours a day, to earn what he does.

I am certain he will deal only with currency notes.

But no matter how much he earns selling samosas, unfortunately the scale of his enterprise is only that. By the lack of his own vision and the fear of the risks of scaling up, stuck forever being a samosa vendor.

He is not going to take a sabbatical, change career mid-way, he does not have Facebook or friends to guide him. He earns a lot but his quality of life is just that. He sits and stares at a big vessel with boiling oil every day.

I don’t even care if this man has stacks of 500s or 1000s lying around his home. At best, he probably could buy a house in some suburban locality.

I don’t have a problem if he evades taxes to earn a couple of lakhs on the side.

This man is actually small fry, and besides he makes great samosas.

I wanted the bigger crooks to be held to account. The power hungry politicians, the Corporate giant who feeds them money and power, the playboy millionaire who is sipping vodka in an UK mansion … bring them to account first.

Let the politicians clean their own act up first. Let BJP come ahead and announce it will stop receiving cash as party funds. Let them PayTm it. Let every one within BJP first open up their bank accounts, make all their transactions public.

Looks like Modi and Jaitley, like Trump, have started targeting the poorest first.

All deposits above Rs. 2.5 lakhs are being monitored by the Income Dept.

So are the Income Tax guys going to go to this samosa shop to go figure how many samosas he could possibly sell and how many clients could he possibly have?

Because looking at numbers won’t tell you shit about India.

Go eat a samosa, guys. Stop wondering who this scheme is going to hurt the most. I have absolutely no doubt where the pain is going to be most acute.

So stop telling me about the gains for now. Let us talk that a year later.

Addendum: *This is a story to highlight some things. I pay taxes. I am against corruption. I sometimes think about society, which I promise to stop soon.*

The murder of crows

There was once a murder of crows.
They were all black, save for the one.
This is the story of that white crow.
That it had pearl white feathers made it exotic. It was a young crow and it stood out among its peers.
Somehow the white crow imagined it to be special. A few black crows around the white crow too starting feeling the same.
Nobody knows what fed what but soon all the young crows started looking at the white crow as a potential leader. The white crow too thought so.
And so one day, the white crow, accompanied by all its supporters went to the wise old crow to stake a claim to be the leader of all crows.
The wise old crow mostly never spoke. But because the white crow was persistent, tried explaining:”Listen, we crows live in a free commune. We dont need to identify someone as a leader. Every one is free to do as they please. But when we gather, we just try to be respectful to one another. So why do we need to identify you as the leader?
Destiny,” the white crow said. “Look at my feathers. I am pearly white in a place where everyone around me is dark black. I am the purest one here and hence it is my right.
The wise old crow asked: “What is to say black is not as pure as white”.
The white crow would have none of that. “This is my divine right. I can feel it.
The wise crow knew now that the white crow could not be reasoned.
So be it. You be the leader,” the wise old crow said. “But one condition. You should do such an act of miracle to prove you are above the ordinary.
Aaah. That is simple,” the white crow said. “I will fly above all else, and go near the Sun and come right back. Then you will know that I am no ordinary crow.
The white crow’s followers were flabbergasted. “Wow. Spoken like a true leader,” they chorused. “What a bold move.
Some of the black crows decided to join the white crow in its miraculous journey.
A few days later, the wise old crow uncharacteristically shed a few tears.

Butterflies

As I am off for an assignment for a fairly established media house, my first in a while now given my prolonged break, I sense some butterflies in my stomach.

It is the same feeling I had when I wrote my first article – a profile of the NGO Banyan – for the college magazine of Madras Christian College.

It is the same feeling I had when I went for my first assignment for my first journalism job with News Today. I remember meeting neurosurgeon Dr. Krishnamurthy Srinivas at a hospital in Mambalam. His first words to me: “You look so young. Will you even understand what I talk? Or shall I ask Jawahar to send some senior journalist?”

It is the same feeling I had when I was about to be interviewed by the then executive editor of The Hindu and was waiting in front of her cabin. I had taken a written test. I was slightly offended that I had to take the test, given that the call to join The Hindu came when I was doing fairly well as a journalist covering the city water supply beat for The New Indian Express. I protested with the senior journalist saying I am no fresher and should not be asked for such a test. But the truth was also that I was nervous. He told me it was just a formality. Besides, he added: “the topic is a report on Chennai’s water problem and you can ace it.”

It is the same feeling I felt when I was waiting outside the Kanchipuram Tahsildar’s office ready to sign a legal document that identified me as a printer and publisher of a daily newspaper on behalf of a major publisher.

Last year, when I quit The Hindu, a few friends asked me if I was nervous. Some people who don’t know me well enough but sometimes hear me speak assume that I am very confident.

But like so many things the truth is in between. I am neither scared nor confident.

Most importantly, I respect the butterflies.