Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Mekhala Deva – my friend and colleague from the Newstrack days – and I (L).
Mekhala Deva – my friend and colleague from the Newstrack days – and I (L).(Photo Courtesy: Nutan Manmohan)

Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’

Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan- in a quest to bring real pictures to people, the Living Media created Newstrack which eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today. Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of tv journalists who experimented with ways to do independent television reporting at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates that journey.

Read the first four blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press

A Girl From the ‘Gupta Khandaan’

My first story was released during the launch episode of Newstrack with my byline as a reporter. The ticketless passenger had got a foothold on the bumper of the speeding bus! With my first check of three thousand five hundred and fifty rupees in my pocket, I felt like Kate Winslet at the tip of the ship deck. This was the first salary of my life and I had earned it with effort.

Back at home, the news was met with remorse. Having admitted me into a Convent school, my father had thought that his youngest would emerge a perfect bride who would be promptly snatched up right after graduation, or even before. But fate intervened. Cruising on borrowed notes, I managed a surprise place in Delhi Board’s Merit list and an automatic entry into the History Honours course at St Stephen’s College. Without telling me, however, my father withdrew my certificates and re-admitted me to the ‘women’s only’ Lady Sri Ram College.

I expressed no conscious angst. But I certainly developed an urgency to maximise my time at LSR and would slink off for photography and theatre excursions during college festivals. My father would worry about my “poor company of jholawalas”.

No girl in the ‘Gupta khandaan’ had stepped out to work until then, so there were alarm bells when I joined a news outfit. I should have explained that Indu Arora, a bereaved mother, was on the brink of capital punishment for the murder of her own kids; I should have explained that our detailed coverage could rescue her. But I knew no better. We seemed to be on different planets.

In the days following the release of our story, Ajit Seth emerged as the prime suspect in the police investigations. His lawyer dropped into our office. “Siyappa! Case puttha kar ditta tussi” he joked, taking the reversal in his stride. Treating him to a double sweet coffee – an office special – I listened with interest to his pet theory of ‘crimes of passion’ – cases where there was no logic except heady emotion.

Little did I know that advocate Roshan Lal Tandon’s words would be prophetic.

Vikram Seth, Mekhi and I

Meanwhile, the first episode of Newstrack was lapped up by the market. There were expectations from the next. The word incubator was not known then, but Newstrack invested in a lot of freelance talent. There were also a few of us ‘ghar ki murgi’ who were interns, researchers and reporters – all rolled into one.

My twin in this category was Mekhela Deva – a Brit trapped in an Indian avatar. With her clipped English accent, a young-Queen-Victoria hairstyle and carelessly worn scarves – she was cool. She had a way of putting me in my place with just one word. Mekhi could say “really” in a hundred different ways to mean just as many things – from a bemused chuckle to a crisp rebuke. In her presence I always felt like a desi baniya-turned-Convent-upstart – which I was.

Mekhi lived with her aunt – a few houses from mine in Hauz Khas – and sometimes we would leave office together to catch a movie or a play. On one of these excursions to Sri Ram Centre we opened up over aloo tikki burgers and chai in chipped ceramic cups. If we had “A Barsati, a Boyfriend and a Beetle” in our life, we would be set, we’d tell each other wistfully. Promptly, the next week, Mekhi rented a barsati in our lane and invited me to dinner! I reached to find a pile of ladies fingers and a sharp knife waiting for me on the table. “Start chopping. You expected me to cook and wait for you? Really?”

After a meal of crisp bhindi on toast, Mekhi made a grand announcement. She said she had made progress on the second tier of the nirvana ladder too. There was a special someone who would be joining her soon so I should leave in a bit. “WHO?” I asked, my eyes popping at the news. “Vikram Seth” she announced.

Now I had never met the author Vikram Seth but I had an absolute and total crush on him since The Golden Gate. My college principal Dr Meenakshi Gopinath had given me the book as a graduation gift just before the final exams. Its rhyming verses and eclectic characters had so mesmerised me that I’d abandoned my revisions till I finished the book.

I begged Mekhi to let me just greet him. But no amount of grovelling worked. Back at home, I had visions of Mekhi being wooed by Vikram Seth's delightful sonnets while I nursed my wounds listening to Joan Baez’s most melancholic tracks.

For close to a fortnight, I would fetch Mekhi her coffee and was ready to even transcribe her tapes, but I could not wrangle an appointment with the current ‘spice of her life’. Finally, when my whining got too much she told me it was all a practical joke! I was relieved. At least now I could have a go at Vikram Seth! Or so I thought – till I read Justice Leela Seth’s autobiography and realised I had no chance anyway. Nor did Mekhi for that matter. Our ‘barsati, boyfriend and beetle’ mission remained incomplete. Really – the one Mekhi would say to mean ‘hopeless’!

Sometimes, I look back and wish my first story had been on cricket. I could have ridden the rich sports gravy train for the rest of my professional life. But I was typecast. Much as directors look to Kirron Kher every time the script demands a spunky mom, my boss would summon me if ever there was a curious thriller.

When an Affable Sports Star was Murdered...

Syed Modi, a brilliant badminton player and a seven-time national champion, had been murdered in his hometown Lucknow. On the day that the crime had taken place, Syed had a practice match at the K.D. Singh Babu Stadium and was walking towards his vehicle to go home, when armed assailants pumped bullets into him and he died on the spot.

Why would someone kill an affable, non-controversial sports person from a modest background? The press was already going to town with two primary suspects: Ameeta Modi, his wife – who was an ace shuttler too, and Sanjay Singh, the yuvraj of the Amethi Royal family and a political heavyweight from Uttar Pradesh. It was already in the papers that Ameeta Modi and Sanjay Singh were in a relationship so they had a ‘motive’.

A super calm Sanjay Singh denied motive – or any special relationship – stating that his only relation with Ameeta was that of respect and regard as his friend Syed’s wife. “We will surely continue to look after her,” he said, using the plural – as royalty often do.

I met the superstar criminal defence lawyer of Sanjay Singh. When I asked him about a rumoured diary that belonged to Ameeta Modi and that pointed to Sanjay Singh’s motive, the superstar lawyer laughed. In a gesture akin to a cat playing with a mouse he told me on camera, “Ameeta’s personal diary is evidence? Ok, let me give it you. And mark my words – I will still rescue my clients. They will be acquitted with no charge”. With that he opened his drawer and dropped the complete bulky photocopy of Ameeta Modi’s handwritten diary on the table with a thump.

I read page upon page of Ameeta’s account of Sanjay Singh’s obsessive infatuation with her and its consequent impact of conflict and acrimony in her marriage with Syed Modi. Love, that sublime sentiment that elevates even common mortals, had here become a ‘Wuthering Heights’ of jealousy and envy.

I could almost hear my psychology professor Dr Vasantha Patri’s tutorial on the ‘scapegoat’ phenomenon proposed by Rene Girard, a French psychologist.

Girard had said that humans are essentially driven by desire for that which another has. ‘Scapegoating’ in societies was tapped by leaders like Mao Zedong who whipped up passions to consolidate his psychological sway over the peasants. Zedong was said to have fanned hatred for, and elimination of, the rich. Interestingly, ‘scapegoating‘ strongly exists in intimate personal relationships too, where it heightens the passions. As Girard said, “Triangulation of desire and conflict may reach a point where one entity or person is singled out as the cause of all problems and is expelled or killed by the group”.

Watching the story evolve, I expected the defence to put up a brilliant show that would dazzle everyone. But no such showstopper performance came forth. Where was that spectacular spin that the superstar defence lawyer was renowned for? Instead, curiously, we saw that the prosecution was hardly interested in pursuing the accused! This, despite the fact that there was enough leading material to go with – Ameeta’s diary, Ameeta’s mother’s letters and Syed Modi’s threat to commit suicide.

Questioning the prosecuting lawyer’s lacklustre investigation, I told him on camera that the accused were rather happy with his meek prosecution. “Well, very good for them. Maybe you are right,” he said.

The penny dropped. Soon enough, the case was tilting towards the acquittal of the prime accused and life imprisonment for the seven dishevelled men who had been paid to pull the trigger. Paid by whom? Nobody was interested in finding out.

In this scenario, a confident Ameeta Modi agreed to meet. “Why would I or Sanjay murder Syed? If I wanted to be with Sanjay, I could have divorced Syed,” she said to me. Yes, I said, but you did not – this crime has no logic. Just emotion. She angrily retorted: “And who says so. You?” She looked at me for a long time, even as the camera continued to record the colour rising in her cheeks.

Learning: No one killed Syed Modi. Really….the one Mekhi would say to mean “Not Surprised”.

(Nutan Manmohan has held assignments as Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Honk Kong & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her film ‘The Last Flightgot the ‘Wild Wing OBEaward in UK. Her film ‘A Second Hand Life got special mention at ‘Green Wave’ Bulgaria. She is now a freelance film maker. Her 26 part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)

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