Out of the Box Part 13: Momhood, Reporting & Everything in Between

It was 10 years later that I met the man whom our TV crew had rescued, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

7 min read
The author with her daughter Devika.

Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan, the Living Media – in a quest to bring real pictures to people – created Newstrack, which eventually became the 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 ‘start up’ moments of that journey.

Read the first 12 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
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!
Out of the Box Journalism Part 7: The Man Who Would Be King
Out of the Box Part 8: Journalism Without a Prism or Blinkers
Out of the Box Part 9: How Fake News is Harming Journalism
OTB 10: Of ‘Zooni’ and Other Untold Stories of Dimple Kapadia
Out of the Box Part 11: The Officer on Special Duty to the CM
Out of the Box Part 12: Of Kiran Bedi’s Battle With Patriarchy

A hurriedly organised arranged marriage is like parasailing. In both adventures, one virtually jumps off the cliff with nothing except good intentions and optimism. Strong cross currents loft you around as you gently discover new terrain.

If this was not enough, I also got a taste of what news reporting could be like, while pregnant – easily a rollercoaster ride fit for an adrenaline junkie!

“She will be at least six feet tall – either a model or an athlete,” said Dr Subhash Arya with his round ‘Murphy Baby’ face beaming at me. I had just interviewed the then-upcoming model Madhu Sapre and I had visions of Sapre’s tall silhouette as I thought of the tiny one floating inside me.

As I came back to the office after my check-up and had my first sip of coffee, I was taken aback by the scale of movement – the incredible, first ‘big roll’ of the baby inside. It was almost as if the tall model was twirling on the ramp! Weirdly enough (perhaps it had something to do with that particular coffee machine), the baby only moved when I had coffee in office!

From then on, I began to keep some time aside in the morning, just to enjoy the moments that the baby would dance her tango. With an office filled with recent college graduates, there was no one I could even share this with; it was almost like a secret parallel life.

The Day It Hit Me...

Meanwhile, the VP Singh government was tottering everyday – swinging its decisions left and right according to who, in that vast coalition, pressed the PM’s jugular harder. Soon, the VPS government was forced to face a ‘No Confidence’ motion.

Hoping to catch a close-up of all the fiery exchanges below, our crew reached early and positioned itself on the edge of the press gallery of the Lok Sabha.

No sooner had we started ‘rolling’, than an avalanche of journalists and photographers poured into the gallery. In the ensuing melee, the crowd swelled to such proportions that we thought we would be pushed off the edge. It was a virtual stampede, with people pushing and clambering all around.

I panicked, knowing that this could hurt the baby in my advanced trimester. I blindly tried to move ahead, but the crowd was just heaving against us – pushing us back towards the ledge.

Jagu, the camera assistant, caught me just in time as I struggled to keep my balance. Thinking on his feet, he took out a handheld battery light and began to blow its intense heat onto the heads and necks of people on the way. Much like a Rajput warrior using his sabre, Jagu cleared a passage through the crowd. At the bottleneck towards the exit, he even put the hot tin wing of the light on people's necks to force them aside – rescuing me out of the melee.

Finally, out in the large open corridor of the Parliament, I sat down on the stone parapet, my knees trembling. I realised it was foolish to come to Parliament on a turbulent ‘No Confidence’ motion day. Life was not just about me anymore... there was someone else I needed to take care of. If fear is the first step to adventure, ‘momhood’ multiplies it by a hundred.

What Happened After Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination...

Another significant incident took place on 21 May 1991. The country was getting scorched – as much by an unusually hot summer, as by a bitterly fought election where Rajiv Gandhi was trying to wrest back his crown.

I had just showered my one-year-old and put her to bed when I got a call. It was my editor Madhu Trehan on the line –

Someone tried to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. Don’t know if he is alive. One team is going to Sriperumbudur. You rush to 10 Janpath – please keep an eye on Congress headquarters too.

My crew and I positioned ourselves in the centre of the narrow lane that lay between 10 Janpath's back entrance and the bungalow that housed the Congress office. We were the only crew in sight.

Soon, we noticed the first rushed entrant. It was Justice Sunanda Bhandare. She was the first to enter 10 Janpath to console the Gandhi family.

As I saw her walk in, dressed in a sombre white saree, remorse written all over her face, I suddenly realised that Rajiv Gandhi must not have survived the deadly attack.

Five minutes later, a group of about 15 men rushed into the narrow lane. Brandishing huge swords, they were raising angry slogans that went: “press ne hamare Rajiv ko mara – hum press ko marenge” (the press has killed our Rajiv – we will kill them”). The whole mob charged at us in a crazed frenzy!

We ran inside the Congress office in panic. Tom Vaddekkan, a Congress party official, rushed us through a long corridor into one of the offices. He told us all to hide behind the desk. Switching off the lights and bolting the door from outside, he left us there to calm the aggressive mob who had now reached the verandah of the office block.

We sat in terrified darkness as a loud verbal fight continued outside for almost half an hour. Then, there was silence. Tom Vadekkan came inside and told us to leave as soon as possible. We slipped into our Maruti Omni, even as we looked apprehensively at ‘Newstrack’ written boldly on both sides of the van, worrying about what might happen en route.

By now, it was around midnight and the streets were eerily empty. We had barely reached the Claridges chambary when we saw a horrid sight. The same group of men with swords were chasing two members of the press. This two-member foreign crew was running hard with all their equipment – even as they tried to save themselves from the chasing mob.

It was big risk to mess with those enraged attackers, but we told Rana, our office driver, to take the car as close as possible to that crew. In a brilliant manoeuvre, Rana reversed the car with precision and paused right in front of the escaping crew. We opened the van’s hatchback and pulled the foreigners in. As soon as the crew had clambered onto the backspace, Rana changed gears and our van lurched forward, trying to put distance between us and the chasing mob.

Everyone in the car was numb and silent. No one asked for names or even registered each other’s faces. We dropped the foreign crew at the lobby of the Taj Mansingh hotel and rushed back to our respective homes.

A Memory and an Answer

My heart still pounding, I picked up my daughter from her cot. As I rocked her on my chest, I slipped into exhausted, nightmare-ridden sleep. The incident, however, remained in my head and I often wondered who those two foreigners were. It was like a puzzle – a missing link.

10 years later, as Indian Bureau head for Star Television’s Focus Asia beam, I would frequently travel to the channel headquarters in Hong Kong. Dressed in our Christmas best, as the team celebrated the launch of yet another show with a party, I sat with a bunch of expat reporters. I was introduced to HK-based reporter Adrian Brown and his wife.

Adrian left for a drink and I got chatting with his wife. I asked her if she had ever been to India. She said no and that she would never like to visit India. Why? I asked her, surprised by her answer.

She said that her husband Adrian had gone to India for a story when suddenly Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated. Adrian and his cameraperson had stepped out of the hotel to shoot reactions to his death, when they were attacked by a mob with swords. They were saved only when someone pulled them into a van. “OMG!” I exclaimed. “So it was your husband that I had pulled into our van that day!”

I now had a face and a name to the puzzle...it’s always good to solve a mystery. Memories started flooding me as I stepped out of the party and the cab crossed the shimmering lights on the Kowloon Bay.

I thought how ironic it was that the Newstrack team that had gone to the assassination site had just got staid b-roll of mourners, while I had been handed a Hollywood-style thriller of a chase in the heart of Lutyens Delhi!

I realised – one can choose to do a story. Then, onwards, the story does what the story chooses. A reporter just has to submit to its flow.

Learning: All working moms are forever hanging on the cross – with emotional conflict and guilt as they juggle to find a work-life balance. Add to that the multiple dangers of news reporting. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I began to feel that in the interest of responsible parenting and effective reporting, journalist-moms could consider taking a short hiatus from high risk zones like riots and terrorism hotspots till the children are a bit older

Revised Learning: BUT, as the stories above show – any spot of field reporting can turn risky at any given time. Reporter moms just have to be better prepared to ensure safety and also a quick exit, if required.

(Nutan Manmohan held assignments as Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Honk Kong & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her film ‘The Last Flight got the ‘Wild Wing OBE award 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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