Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Preface: When there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan, Aroon Purie and Madhu Trehan – in a quest to bring real pictures to people – created Newstrack. Here, a small band of ambush journalists, led by Madhu Trehan, planted the first seeds of independent reporting. ‘Newstrack’ eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today.
Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of self trained TV journalistswho experimented with ways to do investigative journalism at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates ‘the unexpected and the unusual’ in that journey.
Read the first and second parts in her series here:
Family Folklore Shapes Us
If it is the software that runs a computer system – it is the collection of family fables and folklore that make a person. Inside the outer cardboard packaging – my inner operating manual had the following information written in fine print .
In a small dusty village called Dhikana in Uttar Pradesh, the village vaid Ram Swaroop was forever busy creating new home remedies and ointments to treat people’s injuries. He would also take care of villagers’ farm animals and stray dogs with equal interest.
He was popular because his remedies were effective and he never asked to be paid. The result was that his wife Barfi Devi, their six sons and two daughters lived a bitterly poor life with one odd meal a day. This would have gone on, but Barfi Devi and younger daughter Mohini died within a few months of each other – leaving elder daughter Shanti to become a cook, cleaner and caretaker of the entire family at a young age of 15. Tormented by this situation, Roop Chand left to join the Navy and Radhey Shyam left for Delhi in search of an alternative destiny .
Radhey Shyam rented a small room of 4X4 feet in the servant block of DCM mills and began to do odd jobs in the spice market of Khari Baori in Old Delhi. Soon, he summoned the rest of the brothers to join him and they began to buy small quantities of spice at wholesale rates and sell it to retail shops at a modest profit.
They shifted to Kishan Ganj, a crowded colony in the fringes of Delhi. It was a small 100 square feet plot but built like a stack of cards with one room for each brother and their respective families. Their rising aspirations got a jolt when one brother Om Prakash died and the most dynamic Radhey Shyam, was diagnosed with a rare strain of tuberculosis. Sir Ganga Ram Hospital offered to pay him 150 rupees per day if he agreed to be treated with a new experimental drug on trial. This was a lot of money in those days. Believing this to be a valuable addition to the struggling family, he agreed.
For 14 years the treatment went on. The three brothers would work in the spice market during the day – and at night one of them would sleep under Radhey Shyam’s hospital bed in the general ward to give him company. The brothers had seen the ugly side of poverty and worked non stop like three arms of the clock– with Bal Mukand the eldest handling sales, Sohan Lal, the middle handling finance and Ratan Lal the youngest travelling across India creating new collaborations.
My father, Ratan Lal slowly mastered the world of cloves, black pepper, cinnamon but the one spice that favoured him most was cardamom.
Inhabiting Two Worlds
Tucked between the officious Civil Lines and the forested ridge of Delhi – in a posh business colony called Banarsi Das Estate, the three brothers built for their combined joint families one of the colony’s largest white mansions that seemed to announce to the world as much to themselves that they had beaten back the dark forces of ‘Nestee’ or impoverishment.
Knowing that his wife Sushila and he had been deprived of formal education, my father put all his three children in the top English speaking schools of Delhi. The youngest – which is me – ended up in Queen Mary’s School, a 100-year-old convent run by nuns.
At school there would be moral class, carol singing and theatre with writings of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, TS Eliot and George Barnard Shaw. At home, there was Lot Pot, Chandamama, Chacha Choudhary, Motu Patlu, Dharmyug and raucous sessions of pithu, patang , langdi tang, kanchee cycle and swimming outings to the Yamuna River. Simultaneously inhabiting two worlds became a part of me.
Like a rocket in propulsion that bursts out in flames, the joint family had a combustion when after 30 successful years together – the second generation forced a partition. In that division, my father got “ek makan aur ek dukan”. With his three children he had to abandon the busy beehive at Banarsi Das Estate to start afresh in the then solitary and silent colony of Hauz Khas.
At the age of 45, he was back to the bottom of the business. From there, with his young son, he began his climb up again – inch by inch. But the struggle of rebuilding was never discussed at home. Through the week my father would travel. But every Sunday, the whole family would pile into his small Fiat to head to a modest place for a breakfast made up of puri aloo or a dosa. It would be another two decades till he regained his perch in the cardamom kingdom.
How I Landed up at a News Office, Unsolicited!
In a narrow lane ahead of Sriram Centre Auditorium, there is an old railway colony. A tiny room in one of these homes was a regular adda place for the LSR theatre group to discuss plays, music and ideas with NSD actors and directors like Piyush Misra, NK Sharma, Virender Suxena, Gajraj Rao, MK Raina and Ashish Vidyarthi.
One day at an adda, there was a great buzz about a new TV initiative at India Today. Without any referrals, I decided to go and personally present my credentials.
Anyone who has driven the Hindustan Motors’ now lapsed Contessa model will vouch for the fact that the car – with its huge dimensions, powerless steering and rough gears – is akin to driving a throbbing tractor on city roads. Trying to park the car in CP’s tight Outer Circle, I kept inching it back and forth. Unaware of my frantic efforts, an elderly gentleman claimed my parking slot and walked into the same office I had come to visit.
Five minutes later, I entered the office of the yet to be launched video magazine Newstrack.
The lady at the reception looked at me disapprovingly as I walked in, unsolicited. Trying to break the ice, I joked about the gentleman who had taken my parking slot. “That is Mr DV Purie – Madhu Trehan’s father,” she replied frostily.
Starting with a faux pas about your prospective boss’s father was surely a dream start to the job interview!
Entering Madhu Trehan’s cabin, I played on the front foot and said that I had graduated in Psychology Honours from LSR. With my varied interest in theatre and photography, I would be a prize catch for her nascent outfit. She promptly knocked me off by saying that all hiring was over and closed. “But I am only asking for work – not for a salary,” I replied earnestly.
From beneath her sharply layered hair, a pair of icy blue contact lenses stared back at me. Madhu had just landed in India from New York – the economic capital of the world. And perhaps she had never heard a more foolish commercial proposal. Half embarrassed for me, she asked if I knew how to type. No I didn’t, I said, but I could learn and come back. Relieved at this escape route she nodded and got busy with the phone.
Over the next fortnight, a battered Ramington churned out paper upon paper of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – a pangram used for typing practice.
Back at the Newstrack office in two weeks, I had to again navigate around Ashaji, Mr DV Purie’s intimidating secretary. With hair tied into two stiff ropes behind each ear – and a crisp chunni worn across the chest like a soldier’s band – she was a daunting sentry. After a brief interrogation, she allowed me to pass.
Placing the typed sheet on Madhu’s table I again asked her for work. The stray pup had followed her through the lane and was now wagging its tail at the prospect of hopping in her car. Without further mention of confirmation or designation, I was told to sit right next to the entrance (or was it the exit?).
This was the pilot stage for the proposed television experiment.
On the left was Mr DV Purie’s office and his publishing staff. On the right – Newstrack. It was a mere corridor with five open cabins arranged like a freight train. Vinod Dua – television rockstar of that time, and eminent print journalists like Rahul Bedi and Pamela Phillipose had joined full time.
A virtual open house was on. Super stars of journalism would troop in to jam over planned content: TN Ninan, Dilip Bobb, Raghav Bahl, Inderjit Badhwar, Raj Chengappa, Shekhar Gupta, Tavleen Singh and Arun Shourie. Ace cartoonist Ajit Ninan and celebrity photographer Raghu Rai gave inputs on visual presentation. The opening montage was planned by Ronnie Screwala who ran a small production house in Mumbai at that time.
With acute FOMO, as the millennials would say, I hopped from one freight container to another – assisting in research, typing, photocopy, etc., needed by senior journalists. This was a world of camaraderie and banter. Everyone was on first name basis. No hierarchy, no protocol. I felt, truly, like I had entered the ageless and the adventurous world of Peter Pan’s ‘Never Never Land’.
Learning: At the onset of your career – chase good work. Good money will follow on its own.
(Nutan Manmohan has been Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief of Focus Asia, Star World, HK, Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her 26-part children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)
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