…My protection will be my responsibility, almost always. Editors, HR Heads who conducted my interviews said: “If you have to get into reporting, these are a few things you have to keep in mind:
- You will have to keep long hours and you don’t know when you will go home.
- You will cease to have a social life.
- Don’t blame your job if you break up with your boyfriend.
- If you think journalism is only about glamour, please don’t join.”
There was one thing that no one ever said though:
- You will have to throw caution to the wind and get the job done if that means jeopardizing your own safety. And if you are not careful, you don’t know what you will land up in.
That is something that I learned on the job.
Baptism by fire
On the first day of my first job, my boss told me she had news that a very famous Indian singer was staying in a five-star hotel in Kolkata and if I could give him a call and find out if he would give us an interview. I was nervous because I hadn’t spoken to a celebrity before but the singer was sweet enough to agree to the interview.
Then I said: “I will come at 6pm for the interview. Should I come up to your room?” He said, “Okay. Please do.” I hung up satisfied that my first effort at getting an interview was going well.
But my boss was in peals. “Amrita, you should have never asked him if you could go to his room. He could take it as a cue for something else…you know….something more than just the interview…you get it, right?”
I wasn’t convinced I had done a faux pas. I argued back, “But I am a journalist asking for his interview, why would he think of ‘something else?’” My boss looked at me kindly… “It’s your first day at the job. In six months you will know what I mean.”
Now I began to get scared. So I coaxed and cajoled my boss to come along with me to the interview and she was sweet enough to relent. I called the singer from the hotel house phone and he asked me to join him in his room. After opening the door, when he saw my boss and the photographer, he couldn’t hide his surprise. He blurted, “I thought you were coming alone.”
His room was in a mess with his clothes strewn all around along with his under garments – definitely not the kind of room in which you wait for a journalist about to do an interview for a newspaper. He shoved the clothes underneath the comforter and got down to doing the interview, got friendly with all of us and impressed us with his knowledge of music.
But on my first day at a newspaper job he did give me a valuable lesson – to say it right, because men out there always look for cues. One wrong sentence and you never know what you are going to land yourself in.
And in the next six months, as my boss said, I learned a lot more. That’s why when a famous Bengali singer started giving me an interview only in his pyjamas, flashing his fleshy chest at me, I could tell him politely it would be nice if he could put on a piece of clothing while we spoke. He obliged.
That’s why when a 55-year-old Bengali writer asked me how I would feel if I was asked to kiss him, I could tell him I would be feeling like I am kissing my father and when one of the top stars of Bollywood wouldn’t stop smoking on my face I could tell him I would prefer to conduct the interview from the other end of the room and ended up doing just that.
It’s always about getting the story
Journalism is a profession where you are constantly interacting with people from all walks of life and what often gets to me is the lack of respect at times women face because of this job. And back in the office, what only matters is whether you have got the story or not. If you say you didn’t because you were concerned about your personal safety chances are you would be treated as a lesser mortal. And that’s when it starts happening. Women start putting their own safety in the backburner in the pursuit of a story, to prove a point, to prove they are equally good or even better than their male counterparts.
When I read the account of the Mumbai rape victim in DNA http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/1880414/report-dna-exclusive-account-of-the-hellish-evening-when-mumbai-gang-rape-happened my first thought was what was she thinking? These men were clearly leading her on. Then I realized she is only 23, maybe just out of college, raring to go, raring to prove a point with her camera. Nothing else probably registered, nothing else mattered.
I think journalists are often conditioned like army men. Follow the orders and get the story. And if you don’t, be prepared to be court martialed in the editor’s room. On top of that if a competing publication gets the story and you couldn’t, God help you.
My safety comes first
I remember once my boss asked me to go to a Kolkata disco to interview a starlet as late as midnight. When I asked for the office car he told me, “Just hail a cab.”
I said, “It might be 2am before I finish the interview. I can’t go home so late on my own.” He retorted, “Just get the story.”
I could not imagine hailing a cab at 2am from Camac Street. I decided not to go to the assignment. Next day all hell broke loose. The allegations against me were insubordination and lack of commitment. In two seconds all my exclusives, all my late night desk work and my supposed “positive attitude” was forgotten. I didn’t care though. I was safe and that was what mattered.
A few months down the line I was sent for another assignment by the same boss, to cover a clothing exhibition at a five star hotel at a decent time – 7pm. By then, I was almost two years into the profession, had developed sharper instincts and an even sharper tongue. The first thing that struck me was that the exhibition was at a suite and not at the banquet, as it usually happens. I went to the suite and rang the bell. A gentleman opened the door and invited me in. I was about to step in, but I noticed there were at least 10 men seated there, drinking, talking boisterously and looking at me lustfully. I could not spot any woman around. When I enquired about the clothes the man at the door said it was in the bedroom. My inner voice told me not to step in. I did not. I handed the man my visiting card and told him to send me the photographs of the clothes and a write-up. The man looked very disappointed and some of the men had by then got up and joined him in his appeals to me. I left.
Next day I described the scenario to my boss and asked him what was I supposed to do? This time he agreed with my decision and didn’t haul me up for not doing an assignment. Needless to say the photographs and write-up were never delivered to me as promised by the man at the door.
Trust your instincts and get out
When I look back and think of my experiences I sometimes wonder would it have been better to be in another profession? My inner voice always says a firm NO. True. Sometimes there has been disrespect, but more often than not it has been compensated by ample respect. There have been negative experiences but also enriching experiences and most importantly experiences that have made me a stronger person, moulded me into someone who can’t be pushed around or taken for granted.
But after the Mumbai incident one thing I have realized is that women joining journalism should know personal safety is always bigger than the story. And in this profession it is but obvious you will be on a sticky wicket every other day. If your instinct says something is amiss just follow it.
Headlines come and go but your life doesn’t.
And going by the court verdict today where the juvenile involved in the Delhi rape case (the one who mutilated Nirbhaya with an iron rod) has been given three years in a juvenile home, women journalists will have to work harder towards protecting themselves now because the law is surely not coming to their rescue anytime soon.