Indrani Ganguly is the Managing Editor at Readomania

On International Women’s Day I start a series of interviews of women who are fortunate and motivated to be doing what they like doing and what they have always wanted to do. I start the series with the interview of Indrani Ganguly, who was a journalist but editing books gives her the greatest happiness. She is the Managing Editor of the publishing house Readomania. She is a stickler for perfection but not one whose opinion would override others. She believes in her own independence and individuality and respects others’ individuality too. She is one gutsy lady with a great sense of humour, a devoted mother and someone who has the conviction to achieve her goals if she sets her sight on it.

In this interview Indrani talks about the hard work that goes into making a book and her positivity is something to learn from.

How was your experience of editing Onaatah, the National-award winning film converted into a book, which is being launched today?

Onaatah–daughter of the Earth‘ written by Paulami Dutta Gupta is one of the most relevant and sensitive stories that I have edited. Though the peg of the story is dark, the treatment is not. What starts on a poignant note turns into a story of hope. There is no feminist statement or activism in the book. It is a story about simple people and how they help rehabilitate a rape victim by treating her with love and compassion. We see that while the urban educated people treat a sexually assaulted woman as an untouchable and a pariah, the simple rural and uneducated people have better senses. There is a lot of class-based hypocrisy in our country when it comes to a sensitive topic like rape. This book addresses that.

The movie has won the National Award and been showcased in most important film festivals across the country. Rape is a life-altering event, but it is not the end of life. I sincerely hope ‘Onaatah‘ manages to sensitize people and make them treat a raped woman not as a victim but as a survivor.

From being a journalist to a books editor, how has your journey been?

Having done my post-graduation in Journalism specialising in Print media, I started my career in the newsroom. It is one of the most exciting places to be in. The energy is high octane and edition-time atmosphere is insane. Initially I was baffled but soon got sucked into the world of deadlines, minute-to-minute agency wire checking, staying around for run editions and working the graveyard shift. The transition from media to publishing was brought about by a location shift in 2005. Though the pace wasn’t as hysterical, I was doing one non-fiction book every five days. So I wouldn’t call it slow either. I had a very supportive senior editor who taught me the technical nuances and I took to manuscript editing like a fish takes to water. I started fiction editing from 2012 and realised how creative and fulfilling it is. A good editor can turn around a mediocre manuscript to a brilliant one by developing it. There has been no stopping since then. I continue doing academic and non-fiction editing but fiction is what I do every day.

What it is like to be the Managing Editor at Readomania?

Overwhelming actually! Readomania’s Director Dipankar Mukherjee has placed immense faith in me and I cannot let him down. The responsibilities have definitely increased as expected. We have some very interesting titles lined up this year. We also plan to build the children’s literature line. Dipankar wants me to be responsible for that. We are also going big on non-fiction and will also classify our fiction titles. I connect a lot with Dipankar’s vision and I want to stand by him and turn it into a reality. Also Readomania is like one big literary family with a young and dynamic team and some extremely talented authors.

MSQ is your first book as an editor of an anthology and it’s selling like hot cakes. Why do you think people are picking it up?

Technically Mock, Stalk & Quarrel is my second anthology, first as a solo editor though. I was the editorial mentor of Defiant Dreams–Tales of Everyday Divas. That was my first experience as an anthology editor. MSQ is definitely my baby. It is a collection of satirical tales, which emanated from a nationwide contest conducted by Readomania in the summer of 2016 to identify powerful voices that could wage an ideological war against issues that matter. It is an extremely relevant book especially in today’s socio-political milieu. This book takes on some serious issues that ail our country, in humorous, ironical stories. There is a lot of angst in people’s minds and we felt that could be channelled into hard-hitting satire which would not only force people to read but also discuss and debate.

What was the toughest part of editing 29 satires?

We at Readomania are very particular about the quality of our books. Each Readomania book goes through three editorial stages – development, copyediting and finally, at least three levels of proofreading. Things are easier and quicker when it comes to single-author books. Anthologies, however, take a little more time as I had to individually develop each of the 29 stories, send them back to the respective authors for rework and then copyedit the rewritten stories. The manuscript was proofread at four different levels by a team of editors and then finally me. The toughest part, I would say, was harmonising with 29 extremely sharp brains. An editor needs to be very tactful and also accommodating when dealing with so many creative people. She is after all the captain of the ship.

Heard MSQ could make it to the record books? Why is that?

Yes MSQ India’s first satire anthology. We not only created something relevant but also something unique. We will be approaching Limca Book of Records soon for the official endorsement.

You have a fantastic sense of humour and a way with punch lines; how good are you with writing satire yourself?

Ha ha, thanks. Not many appreciate my wry wit though but it is now an intrinsic part of me. If I didn’t have the essence of satire in me, I don’t think I would have been able to develop and edit this book. Satire exists as a way to ridicule and critique the follies of humanity. Through its heavy use of sarcasm and irony, contemporary satire is a sort of glass that reveals some of the silliness of modern life. However, one has to be careful that humour doesn’t become slapstick; irony doesn’t become pithy. I think I have that understanding and feel I can dish out satire too.

Coming to your personal life, you are a single mom with a lovely daughter. Have you ever thought about writing your personal journey?

My life has been quite eventful for sure. A dear friend of mine actually wrote a story on my life which garnered a lot of votes in a short story contest. I think in prose. I always pen down my feelings, although I never share those with anyone. There have been many ups and downs in my life since my preteen days, events which have shaped my personality. Maybe one day I will chronicle everything for my daughter and if she feels it is worth sharing, we can have a book out of it.

How difficult or manageable life has been as a single working mom?

Initially it was extremely tough but now I guess I have got used to it. Work for me was an escape. I used to work for very long hours and it was causing health issues. I still work long hours and most weekends too but I also keep some time for myself. Work no more is an escape; it is a source of tranquility. A child is ideally brought up by both parents, but not everyone is so lucky. I try to fill the gaps in my daughter’s life as much as possible. I don’t treat single parenthood as a handicap. It is in fact empowering. There are some challenges of course. I do wish I could travel a little more though, both for work and pleasure. It does become overwhelming when you have a deadline and also a PTM to attend. Most nights I am busy helping my daughter with her school project after 11pm. But at the end of the day I ask myself—would I have been happier if I had all the freedom in the world but not my daughter with me? Of course NOT! I have now learnt to balance everything in my life and am a happy person. And my happiness reflects in my daughter’s smile.

What would be your message on International Women’s Day?

Your life is your own story. People will come and go just like characters in a story. Do not let anyone’s presence or absence affect you so much that it alters the course of your journey. Stand up for your rights and do not let anyone take you for granted. Love your friends and stay connected with them. And ladies, education is your best friend!

 

 

Poster of the documentary Martyrs Of Marriage

Poster of the documentary Martyrs Of Marriage

Section 498A was introduced in the Indian Penal Code in the year 1983 to protect married women from the cruelty of husbands and their relatives. This was mainly done after a spate of protests by women’s organizations talking about the inability of Indian law to deal with cases where women were being tortured or killed for dowry.

Section 498A states:

Husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty–Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.

This is the only Indian law under which the perpetrator is assumed guilty unless proved innocent.

But in the last 23 years since 498A was introduced in the IPC the law has been used more often to harass husbands and their families than it has actually given justice to wronged women.

Martyrs of Marriage

The ground-breaking documentary Martyrs of Marriage, that has been made over four years by journalist and documentary film-maker Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, explores the other facet of this section.

  • Between 1998 and 2015 more than 2.7 million people have been arrested under 498A alone, higher than any other crime under IPC except theft, hurt and riots.
  • 650,000 women who were arrested were sisters, mothers and relatives of the man many of whom had never stayed with the couple sharing a domestic relationship.
  • Most of these people were arrested on mere allegations without investigations.
  • 7,700 minors were also arrested in 498A cases.
  • Convictions rate under 498A dropped down to 13.7% in 2014, making it one amongst few sections under IPC that have a poor conviction record.
  • Several families have been destroyed because of incarceration due to a false case or running around courts for years and years.
  • Most people choose to quietly give in to legal extortion under these cases to escape decades of trial and harassment for no fault of theirs.

The documentary starts with the spine-chilling story of Syed Ahmad Maqdhoom, who left a video minutes before he committed suicide, talking about his plight after his wife took away his child and made a case of 498A against him. He said he could not deal with the harassment and misery anymore and hence was ending his life.

Maqdhoom’s sister talks about how he met his wife on the internet and was in shock when post-marriage she told him she had been married a couple of times before. He got over it though and when he had a son he was the most involved and happy father. Till his wife and her family started extorting money from him and when he refused to give, they slapped a case of 498A against him.
The film is a revelation on how legal terrorism is thriving in India and destroying lives.If dowry is a common allegation brought forward by the wife another trend that has caught on is false cases of rape against the father-in-law. The documentary has phone conversations showing how lawyers guide their clients to frame the husbands and their families and get the maximum money out of them and how even a two-month old child or an 89-year-old woman is not spared from arrest by the cops because they have been named in the FIR.

Talking about her experiences when she approached the victims to talk on camera and tell their story Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj said: “People had hesitations predominantly with my intentions behind making this film and my credibility as a filmmaker to handle this subject. That part was more difficult to handle because some people had very bitter experiences of talking to media before. Their stories were misrepresented or their experiences belittled. Once they realized I was very serious about this, they opened up and spoke candidly on the camera. Some people hesitated to come on the camera because they feared that an appearance in the film may invite more litigations on them by their partners. I did miss out on some crucial evidences and sharings because of this reason.”

deepika-narayan-bhardwaj

Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj

Why this documentary

Talk to any Indian and ask them if they know anyone who has been a victim of Section 498A and the answer would be in the affirmative. For instance I have known at least two people very closely who have had to fight long-drawn battles in the court because they were arrested under Section 498A. One person I know was even given an extra beating during incarceration because his wife had bribed the police officers and he stayed in jail for a month and fought a court battle for 8 years travelling from Delhi to Kolkata often for court hearings. Finally he was penny less when his innocence was proved but he had the guts to pick up the pieces and start life all over again.
“I accompanied my cousin to meet a retired Judge. There had been no dowry demand and the girl was lying. As a husband you can do nothing to save you and your family if she wants to file a dowry case he told us. What she says is always right. We told him we had evidence against her. He laughed saying a woman isn’t punished for adultery in this country. However she can file endless false cases against you, get you arrested and make you run around courts for years unless you agree to pay,” said Deepika.In Deepika’s case also the desire to work on a documentary and delve into the issues came when she saw a cousin suffering after his wife filed an FIR under Section 498A when actually the truth was she was having an affair.

According to Section 498A arrests can be made without any investigation and based on the FIR lodged in the police station. In 2014 the Supreme Court came up with the guideline that police officers could not go ahead and arrest the accused automatically and some parameters had to be followed.

“Despite that 1,87,000 arrests were made in 2015,” Deepika said.

The idea behind the documentary was to make people think about an issue that they never thought about or were not aware that it existed. “It is initiating a much needed debate on gender neutral laws in the country. Now that Judges, Magistrates, Police officers are seeing the film, I am sure they will be more sensitive and justice-oriented in their approach rather than gender oriented. I am trying to do the best I can to change mindsets where we believe it is only a woman who can be wronged.”

The response

In a country where men’s issues are rarely talked about Martyrs of Marriage has stirred the hornet’s nest and brought an issue to the fore in the most hard-hitting exposition of one and a half hours screen time.

“People who are absolutely unrelated to the issue have come to me after the screenings and cried hugging me, saying they never knew that something like this is happening and it is just so painful. The film has received a standing ovation at each and every screening across cities. In Mumbai, we had about 700 people giving a standing ovation to the film. Hashtag #MartyrsofMarriage trended on twitter on the night the film was screened in Mumbai. Experienced filmmakers, writers, directors hailed the film and its powerful presentation. People have called the film an eye opener, a revolution, one that is voice of millions across the country, one that raises very strong questions. People from cities where the film has already been screened are tagging their friends on social media in other cities where screenings are being planned, urging them to watch the film. The film has got very positive response from judiciary also. Retired and serving judges have been a part of the screenings and appreciated the film immensely. We have screened the film at Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy and Maharashtra State Judicial Academy too. People who are a part of the film have also appreciated the documentary. It has been a very satisfying experience,” said Deepika.

The Kolkata premiere of the documentary had an involved audience throughout. And the question-answer session at the end of the screening was indeed interesting and enlightening.

This article was published in Asia Times on January 17, 2017.

surrogacy

Surrogacy in India has two sides to it. While thousands of couples (even gay couples) both from India and abroad have found immense happiness through surrogacy, the industry which stands at a value of Rs 400 million, has come under the scanner for its exploitative nature because the surrogate mother in most cases gets into the process because of her financial needs and ends up with very less even though the couple seeking surrogacy pay through their nose.

Without any proper rules and laws in place the surrogacy industry has grown by leaps and bounds, most often by flouting all possible norms.

This is why in August this year the Union Cabinet approved the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, which is aimed at curbing unethical and commercial practices and preventing the exploitation of poor women as substitute mothers.

Malini (Aparajita Addhy) and Sudipa (Rituparna Sengupta) in Praktan

Malini (Aparajita Addhy) and Sudipa (Rituparna Sengupta) in Praktan

As I emerged from the movie hall with my mother after watching Praktan, I heard her muttering, “What was Rituparna Sengupta (Sudipa in the film) thinking?

I was annoyed, more so because it came from my mom, who has always believed women should fly.

“Who do you think I am like?” I asked. “The independent, non-conformist career-minded Sudipa or the home-maker Malini (played by Aparajita Addhy)?”

“Of course, you are like Sudipa,” my mom said without batting an eyelid.

“Then why did you make the comment?” I persisted.

“It’s just that she is such a nag. And Ujaan (Prosenjit in the film) is such a chauvinist. The relationship was a recipe for disaster.”

My mother had just summed up the crux of the film in the most simple way possible. Praktan is a film based on the relationship between two flawed, egotistical people, both of whom believe they are always right.

It’s just by chance that Rituparna is shown to be a woman with a mind of her own who smokes, wears modern attire, is an architect and has financial independence.

Wouldn’t we have hated Ujaan as much had the roles been reversed?

Had his first wife been Malini, a homemaker and he had checked her messages, told her to take his permission before travelling to her parents’ home, had been frugal with his time with her and had told her to leave on a holiday without him and had not turned up as promised, would we have hated him any less?

Sudipa could have been the second wife, the independent, career woman who could have been equally diplomatic, keeping the mom-in-law happy by letting her take the decisions, making the customary phone calls to keep the family in the loop about her whereabouts and at the same time not demanding any time from her husband, but remaining immersed in her own career, then would that have been more acceptable?

Praktan is a film that mirrors reality to a great extent and sometimes reality is regressive. Ujaan tells Sudipa that if his mother never had a problem with the rules in the house, why was she making a hue and cry about it?

In this one liner the filmmakers very clearly show how most Indian men react to independence and women.

Most Indian men grow up seeing their mothers do something and believing that is right. Indian men, who have moms with a career, are often used to seeing them coming home cooking and cleaning and doing the double shift.  So for them, independence comes with the superhuman qualities of doing the balancing act and at the same time conforming to the social norms set aside for women.

There is a scene where after her miscarriage, Sudipa stays up and cries while Ujaan is blissfully asleep. That scene reminded me so much of my friend who had a very difficult pregnancy followed by an operation after the delivery. While she grappled with the pain from her stitches and a constantly crying newborn at night, her husband would simply keep sleeping, not stirring for once. She told me she felt so angry then, that she sometimes thought of walking out of the marriage.

Relationships transform as couples move from courtship to marriage, yet another reality that was shown in Praktan. Sudipa actually had no clue that the suave, smiling, knowledgeable heritage tour guide Ujaan could actually become such a perpetually angry and dominating man as soon his ego was bruised, his belief in his capabilities challenged.

The skirmishes over her paying for their holiday to Kashmir to the misunderstanding over the tags left in the clothes that she gifts him (he thinks it’s to show him the price, while she thinks it would help if there is any need to exchange) or her dream of having a home of her own, very realistically portray the unseen battles that often crop up in a marriage.

In order for a marriage to work there has to be an effort from both sides. While spending time together is a prerogative for a good marriage, but if you don’t understand each other nothing actually comes out of trips to Kashmir or coffee shops.

For instance Sudipa has little understanding of Ujaan’s pride in his work. The scene where she walks in with the news of her own promotion and fails to see the clippings from the newspapers that have featured him, very subtly shows Sudipa’s obsession with herself.

Throughout the film Sudipa keeps blaming Ujaan for prioritizing his career but she also, to some extent, fails to understand his attachment to his family, profession, friends (he does not turn up at a holiday with Sudipa because his friend lost his mother.)

For me Praktan is less about how a career woman is being portrayed. It’s more about two people not making any effort to understand each other, something Malini probably tried to do and Ujaan probably made the extra effort the second time. The reason, most often, second marriages are successful.

Sudipa (Rituparna Sengupta) and Ujaan (Prosenjit) in a scene from Praktan.

Sudipa (Rituparna Sengupta) and Ujaan (Prosenjit) in a scene from Praktan.

No matter how hard Malini tries to prove to Sudipa that she has found bliss with Ujaan and doesn’t mind if he is there for her only a single day in the year, that their marriage is not flawless is clear from a single dialogue from their daughter Uditaa who says: “When mom gets angry at dad saying I can’t take this anymore, he gives her a chocolate and a kiss to make up with her.”

So the fights that were an integral part of his first marriage continue in his second, but this time he makes an effort to bring peace, something he had not done before.

It will also be wrong to look at Malini’s character as a regressive one because she gave up her career post-childbirth, adjusted in an extended family and most importantly, “supposedly” adjusted with Ujaan. If we are doing that we are once again categorizing women with our perceptions.

She is a woman who has pushed Ujaan to start his own business and appreciates him for not asking any details about her past relationship as she has not dug into his.

In fact, as shown in the film, the daughter has played a vital role in transforming Ujaan into a more mellowed and loving man. And why am I not surprised? I have seen the most self-obsessed men becoming doting fathers. And I have also seen men refusing to go home after work because they hated their house stinking of soiled nappies and hated the baby getting all the attention from the wife. I have also seen men choosing not to have children and being perfectly happy with the choice.

It depends on a filmmaker what reality he wants to show. In Praktan they chose to show the first one.

One might wonder why Sudipa was so bothered about Ujaan when she had herself found a worthy life partner and especially after all the pain Ujaan had inflicted her with.

People in failed relationships usually look for closure, a re-inforcement that jumping off the sinking ship was the only way out. Sudipa probably looked for closure too. She started off hating Malini, but as the journey progressed, she couldn’t help but like her over-boisterous persona. She looked at life more simply, a quality that Sudipa appreciated.

In my interpretation, meeting Ujaan was not closure for Sudipa, meeting Malini was.

Praktan is not a film with the most flawless script, but it is a film that holds its own with the most flawed characters.

Ayoti Patra, who is a PhD student in the US just couldn't believe the NASA scholarship news

Ayoti Patra, who is a PhD student in the US just couldn’t believe the NASA scholarship news

Since Ayoti Patra wrote on her Facebook note that Sataparna Mukherjee, the girl from Kamduni in West Bengal, has possibly not got a NASA scholarship, she has been bombarded with abusive messages but at the same time she has shown the right path to the Indian media (here is the original story) who quickly took up her lead. But who is Ayoti Patra and what made her take this step?

Here she is in her own words:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a PhD student of Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. I did my M.Sc from IIT Kanpur and B.Sc. (Honours) from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. I have spent my entire childhood and did all my schooling from Hyderabad. Although I am a Bengali, I have been to West Bengal only to visit my relatives. I mainly spend my time on theoretical research on ‘Optimal Control of Quantum Systems’. Apart from that, I also listen to Hindustani Classical Music being trained in it.

Where did you first read about Sataparna Mukherjee and the NASA scholarship?

I subscribe to a couple of news channels on Facebook. I came across it in the Times of India, The Logical Indian, etc.

What made you doubt the credibility of the news?

The news article had not one but multiple flaws.

-Getting a single offer valid for graduation, post-graduation and PhD without even clearing the 12th boards is something that can NEVER happen in real life.

-One cannot get an offer for studying Aeronautical Engineering for a theory in black hole! To do research in black hole, you need to study Astrophysics which is unrelated to Aeronautical Engineering.

-She will simultaneously study English at Oxford University! This is impossible again.

-NASA, a federal agency of the US making an offer to an Indian for studying in UK! It has to be a big joke.*

* For the sake of completeness, I would like to mention that it is possible for an Indian citizen to work at NASA as a postdoctoral research fellow, as a contract worker or as a PhD student affiliated to a US university. My university is less than 10 miles away from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, where my husband works. He is a PhD student of Astronomy at my university and works on a project at NASA. This is the official page of the project he is working on (http://asd.gsfc.nasa.gov/bettii/index.html). If you click on the ‘People’ tab, you will find my husband Arnab Dhabal listed there.

 What did you do after that?

At first, I just commented on the news articles that this cannot be true. I did not use any foul language but I was abused by quite a few people. Without doing a basic search about NASA or about my background, they said things like “You are a fool”, “People like you who always find faults and cannot appreciate true achievements are a shame to the country”, “It is because you are so stupid that you are nothing today, and she will go to NASA in a few months”, etc. It frustrated me a little and I became curious to find out some more about the girl. I searched for her Facebook profile (https://www.facebook.com/sataparna.mukherjee.5), through which I got the links of the two videos. Once I watched them, I thought enough is enough. Being a physicist, I took the nonsense about black hole quite personally. I decided that I have enough evidence against this news and I must do something about it.

 Were you aware that you were actually taking on the entire Indian media when you wrote your facebook post? Did you think that your post might go viral?

Definitely not. I am very inactive on Facebook and have a dormant profile. I was not even sure if all my friends could see this post on their wall. I had no idea it would get noticed and have an impact.

Do you think Sataparna has been duped or is she lying?

When I posted the note, I believed it could be either of the two options. But since then, I am gradually inclined to believe that she is probably lying. Since the post went online, I got a few messages from people claiming that they know her and that she plans to file an FIR against me. Some also claimed that she was a poor student who does not have maths as a subject. I have no means to verify if these claims are true. But this morning I received a message (image attached in the email) from her friend (https://www.facebook.com/sangeeta.bauli?fref=ts) which was written in a very bad tone challenging me to meet them face to face if I have guts. If she was duped, she should have clarified that she made a mistake or in the least looked into it herself. Instead, I have seen news reports like this where she still maintains that she did indeed win some NASA fellowship: http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-nasa-denies-selecting-18-year-old-west-bengal-girl-for-top-scholarship-2185132

 Does it make you happy that many people and a section of the media followed up your post?

Yes, certainly. I am glad I was able to make a difference.

 Does it bother you that many news agencies are not giving any credit to you but are going ahead with their own stories about the hoax?

My only intention while writing the post was to expose the hoax, not to gain fame. Since that has been achieved, my job is done. However, I did not expect to see my surname changed from Patra to Mitra as in this article: (http://www.deccanchronicle.com/science/science/030316/shocking-nasa-shrugs-off-west-bengal-teenager-s-gip-scholarship-claims.html)

 Have you done something like this before too? (getting to the bottom of a hoax that is)

I always do to the extent I can. The only thing I have done differently this time is to publish my findings, the response to which has been overwhelming. I would like to thank everyone who has appreciated my work. This has certainly motivated me to be more vocal and spread awareness. In fact, let me grab this opportunity to promote Bigyan – a Bengali science magazine for the general audience (https://www.facebook.com/bigyan.org.in/?fref=ts), which was started by some of my friends.

 Your message to the Indian media and young people…

The media is very powerful and should act responsibly. They should not indulge in the race of being the first to get a sensational news out. Proper verification of the authenticity of a piece of news should be done before publishing it. Readers should not blindly trust whatever they see on social media either. A simple internet search can go a long way.

Another matter that I would like to draw attention to is that in India, too much importance is given to personal achievements like getting admission into a top international college, getting a high rank in IIT etc. Even the highest salary package becomes news these days. These are definitely important for the person concerned, but should not be grounds of hero worship. I believe that instead of focusing on these type of achievements, young people should focus more on the actual impact that someone brings about, be it in art, science or industry. Invention of a new technology should be bigger news than someone getting a NASA internship. The reason we have Sataparnas and P.V. Aruns today is because of the glorification of the wrong kind of accomplishments by the Indian society.

 

 

Sharmila Bhowmick got to the bottom of the mobile phone scam

Sharmila Bhowmick got to the bottom of the mobile phone scam

A refrain that we often get to hear is investigative journalism is dead. But Sharmila Bhowmick is clearly not one to believe in that. That is why she went all the extra miles to get to the bottom of one of the biggest scams happening in India in recent times.

To know about it read her article here 

Sharmila tells us how she did it:

It just sounded too good to be true”

One of the most interesting stories ever; basically where a few simple questions thwarted a major botch up. After the gala launch of ‪#‎Freedom251, I only just decided to land up at their factory to follow up on what had caught the imagination of the country: an unbelievably cheap phone at Rs 251.

The look and feel of the place spoke for its self. In a rushed interview, the company owners said that they had not got factories yet, they didn’t yet have a phone; but they had procured 25 lakh bookings online. It pretty much seemed like a product being sold on the basis of an idea. It is the age of selling ideas anyway, and Goel seemed to have caught that nerve.

Next day, I found something new, vouchers of Freedom251 being sold in the village markets of interior Noida to really poor people. No mention was made by Goel & Co about on ground sales before.

On the first day after the mega launch when I went to the corporate office he said , “I have completed my target of 25 lakh bookings.” Then someone from his office later in the evening said we have registered 7 crore bookings online.
Next day, I discovered they were selling vouchers to really poor people which was not even mentioned by them when we spoke.
Then I spoke to these people who were buying the vouchers and they said, “We were told its a Government of India scheme, under the Make in India scheme so we have booked 4-5 phones for gifting during festivals.”
The numbers said almost 1 lakh people had booked more than one phone each since it was just Rs251 and they had already paid for it.
I wrote an article on what I found out about the voucher.
Next day the company started saying, “We will sell 25 lakh phones, offline too.”
So basically it came to 50 lakh phones they would make and sell between April 10-June 30 without a factory or even a phone model to show.
However the booking on ground stopped immediately after the story. The promises and plans from the company kept changing and evolving.

With all doors closing and an FIR lodged by one of its vendors; yesterday Goel confirmed that he is refunding all the money. But added that as and when the phone does get made, it will be delivered on a cash-on-delivery basis.

They still don’t have a factory, they still don’t have a phone to show.

The whole point in doggedly following the story to this end is only to show, how easy it is to sell anything to the mass. It also shows how reporters really increasingly need to go to the closest point of the origin of news to get the truth out. You get nothing at media events, go to the ground and while on the ground, go closest to the spot.

Had I not gone as far as the Ringing Bells office gates, I would have possibly never been able to bring out what it was all about; and possibly a lot of water would have passed under the bridge before someone shouted SCAM!

“For journalists there is never any substitute for leg work”

There is always a good story to be told. So find it, and say it well. That is simply the inner guide I look for while hunting for a story. Only this, has led me to break and bust quite a few virulent scams – sand mafia, real estatae scams, a Muslim’s-only apartment scam where poor Muslim’s were conned – over the last few years. Use technology well, but don’t become its slave. A good reporter has sharp eyes, a sharp nose and is never credulous. A good story today is still a harvest of great foot work and real interaction with human beings. Go to the ground; while on the ground, go closest to the spot. There is no substitute for leg work. Reporting is and will be, the soul of journalism.

“I was so thrilled to report stories I worked without money in my first job”

It was one day, while waiting for a professor to arrive in class and then being told that she was not turning up, that I decided that I would rather use my time productively, while doing some real work and not waste time. I dropped out of my MA course, after a full year’s labour; much to the chagrin of the professors for wasting a precious JU- Comparative Literature MA seat. I started working for free with MJ Akbar’s Asian Age. I did somehow complete a journalism diploma from the University in an evening course, after work. By the way, since high school and since I was 17, I have been financially independent and even funded my own education.

The Asian Age was the most thrilling experience ever. I used to submit my stories written in long hand, when someone introduced me to computer typing. Soon, I got hired by Newstime, a Hyderabad-based paper’s Kolkata bureau to cover the Calcutta political scene. After this, I joined The Hindustan Times, Kolkata. I became the only girl, in an all-male bureau, covering hard news. But the scenario changed after a few years, when women joined.

I left Kolkata for Delhi in 2004 and joined HT digital, New Delhi. I arrived in Delhi without an appointment letter, just on the basis of a word of my would-be boss, Sanjay Trehan. However, I was given the letter within minutes of reaching office.

I was producing the world pages for the portal and then Sanjay quite unbelievably gave me permission to write a preposterous single-woman column: Girl Talk. The column, though outrageous at times, became very popular.

After a while, I decided to quit mainstream media for a bit, and got hired by Sankarshan Thakur, the then Executive Editor of Tehelka to write for and produce its feature pages. I did that for close to a year. After a year, CNBC hired me to research and write a documentary series of shows called Business Legends, the pillars of India’s corporate history.

I got to work closely with Victor Banerjee and direct him as well. I also produced a series called the Lessons-In-Excellence, a sort of master-class series on business strategy. This was my longest stint at any place ever. In eight years, I produced hundreds of documentary films and shows.

But as they say, once a reporter, always a reporter. When I heard Times of India was launching an edition in unchartered journalistic greenfield like Noida and Gurgaon, I had to put my foot in.

The real human stories, seldom lie in the centre of buffed and polished metropolis they are always in the subaltern, the hinterland. NCR is like that. It has the issues where the rural meets the urban, how lives are changing; how cultures are clashing; how the glitz of the urban is inducing aspirations and the fall out of that. You actually live within a few kilometers of a real village and a kilometre away from the country’s biggest mall. It is an interesting landscape, with numerous untold stories, waiting to be told. I’m enjoying every bit of it.

Sharmila Bhowmick 39, is an Assistant Editor with The Times of India. When she is not on a story trail, she is either painting or sculpting. She lives with her six-year-old daughter.

On the evening of Feb. 14 my mother and I spotted a young girl from our balcony on the sidewalk opposite our house, barely able to walk. A guy quickly came up behind her and gave her support so that she would not fall. Then two more men in their early 20s stood with her. They put two glasses of yellow-looking fluid on the top of a random car and started taking selfies with the girl, crushing her in their midst. She kept leaning on one guy or the other and they took turns in picking her up, groping her, touched her wherever possible and all this we kept watching from the balcony with rising fear.love

My 75-year-old mother, who reads the newspaper every morning from the first to the last line, and who couldn’t be more clued in on violence against women in India, was alarmed that the intention of the young men was just not right and we should take the initiative to save the girl. “What if they are making an MMS? What if they have given her a date rape drug? What if they plan to rape her?” my mom’s mind went on an overdrive.

I first told her, “For all you know the girl is consenting in this.” But as the minutes ticked by the groping and touching and picking up and photographing continued without a break. I also started getting alarmed.

My parents have been living in the same locality for the past 34 years, and it’s a locality where almost everyone knows everyone. Although a number of new restaurants and stores are coming up in the locality in recent times because of the convenience of the location, the essence of the place continues to be the same.

I noticed from the balcony that all the security guards, of the neighboring buildings and restaurants had also noticed. Some people in the locality stood a distance away and watched but they didn’t know if it was okay to intervene.

At my mother’s behest I finally went down and intervened. I asked the girl her age and she promptly said she was 17 and pointed at the tallest in the group of three men and said, “He is my Bha-lentine and I am in a relationship with him for three years. We are celebrating Valentine’s Day.”

I said, “That’s fine but which Valentine would allow his friends to grope his drunk girlfriend openly? Don’t you think something is wrong here?”

I added, “Are you aware that drinking below 18 is illegal?” pointing at the half finished bottle of whisky that was standing on the footpath next to them.

The girl, who was unable to stand straight for a moment, was suddenly all erect and spoke clearly, without slurring. She said sorry promptly.

I asked for her parents’ phone number and wanted to call them so that they could take her home and told her if she did not hand me the number I would call the police.

The word police had two kinds of effect. While the girl recoiled and said she was immediately going home the boyfriend said, “I am calling the police because you are harassing us.”

I said, “Yes please go ahead we are all waiting for the police. We will all tell them what has been happening here.”

By then a crowd had gathered and the boyfriend realized that they all knew me well and we were together. He decided to step back. “He will drop me home,” the girl said and started walking while the boys followed her.

As I had predicted, the girl knew what she was doing and maybe this was her idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day. I am not being judgmental. At 17 it is only expected that a young girl will be adventurous, will be eager to break the rules but what irked me was she was probably compromising her dignity, her safety by doing what she was doing. And no, she was not on a date rape drug, she was perfectly fine.

As the crowd dispersed it pained me to hear someone say, “This is why girls are violated in India.” Words I absolutely loathe because it shifts the blame on the girl but in this case I did not know how to react, what to say.

For the full article go to Asia Times