MEHRU JAFFER | 17 OCTOBER, 2018
Fear is our greatest enemy
As efforts like MeToo succeed, the collective anger of the patriarch is expected to retaliate with violence even more vicious than in the past. The anger of the patriarch boils over perhaps from having to lose privileges enjoyed over centuries, and having to helplessly watch women carve out a life, career and laughter without help from self styled sir galahads.
I have not experienced a MeToo moment in the same way as some other women, but I still have a few interesting stories to share, having been a media person since 1973.
Let me begin with the first job at the age of 22 years, as a city reporter in Lucknow. The tormentor was a colleague, the crime reporter. The news editor was sympathetic to complaints against him but was also addicted to booze. The joy he derived from receiving a bottle every evening from the crime reporter forced him to be unfair about reports filed by me. The crime reporter was confronted and given a verbal thrashing in office. The satisfaction came from having done whatever was in one’s power, to try and keep the creep in his place.
While in the same office, I asked for leave to travel abroad for a year, and the editorial office approved it. When I returned, the signed agreement was not honoured. The daily newspaper had a new news editor and he said that he did not want troublemaking female reporters in his office any more. Very unfair. But within days I had found another job, and then another.
One assignment was to profile one of the youngest members of the legislative assembly, who had won elections from a rural constituency. The meeting was in a VIP guesthouse in Lucknow. Once the guy had settled down on the sofa he arranged his dhoti in such a way that his family jewels remained on display for the world to appreciate. I kept my gaze glued to the young politician’s equally unattractive face and filed my story without allowing the crude experience to disturb me. These fools are not worth worrying about, was the attitude in 1979.
Hired by Chotu Karadia, managing editor of India Today in Delhi, his brief to me was never to forget to flutter my lids when I requested important people for an interview… My reply was always the same, that I would get the story without fluttering my eyelids.
How could I hang out with a slime like Prabhu Chawla, was something I was told all the time. Chawla was one of the editors at India Today as was Venkat Narayan, who did not enjoy the same reputation as Chawla! However to this day I consider both Chawla and Venkat as buddies.
Akbar too was a buddy till two years ago, when I requested him to help my sons, both Canadian citizens, be accepted as people of Indian origin, which we find so impossible to do online. Not only did he not do me that favour, he also stopped forwarding me his columns and blocked me on email and telephone.
Between 1980 and 1982 I freelanced in Delhi. I wrote a lot for MJ Akbar when he edited Sunday magazine. Akbar was based in Kolkata and called me to the Delhi office when he was in town. Of course he stared, trying to match his smile with that of Emperor Akbar, the Great, but probably I just stared back. For nothing unpleasant ever happened, and I continued to write extensively for both Akbar and Chawla from Europe for years.
Khushwant Singh always said, tell my secretary there is a pretty girl come to see the editor, and all doors to my office will open.
There are numerous other incidents also not worth traumatising over. There is one about a fellow journalist and friend who lost his senses to alcohol one evening and came knocking in the middle of the night on the door of an apartment I shared with a female journalist.
‘Open the door, please… open the door,’ the alcoholic whined.
We switched on all the lights inside the apartment and made such a noise without opening the door that the night guard came and took him away. Of course, the following morning we faced remarks by many residents of the same housing complex, like it serves us right for leaving home and living alone in Delhi.
When in Lahore, I was introduced to a family overflowing with actors, writers and filmmakers. I talked to Venkat Narayan and he felt it would be a good story to profile this well-known family as the Raj Kapoors of Pakistan. I met them all in Lahore and one of the brothers gave me a phone number in Karachi as well.
‘Call me when you are there for more information,’ he said. I did, and was given an address. This was in 1981, and I was told that in Karachi women do not use public transport. So a cousin dropped me to the actor’s home and left, saying to call him when I needed a ride back.
I climbed up the stairs. The front door was wide open but no one was in sight. I walked in saying hello, hello… The doors to other rooms were also wide open and I kept walking till I saw the actor standing in an inner room in front of a mirror, wearing no clothes and with his back to me. I made an immediate U-turn and without looking back traced my steps back out of the house. Outside I found a taxi and returned home safe.
Traumatised by a silly, vain man? No Way!
Vijay Dutt, then editor of Probe monthly magazine, once conceived of a cover story on the relationship of cabinet ministers to the voter. A list of all the ministers was drawn and one by one I called them. One of the ministers who is now no more asked me to meet him at 4 am. No big deal.
I arrived on time at one of the Lutyens' bungalows occupied by the minister. The sun was yet to rise but the minister’s home was abuzz with activity. The lights were on, and there was much hustle-bustle in the office situated in one part of the bungalow.
The minister closed a file, got up from the chair, picked up his baton and said I could talk to him as he took his morning walk in the sprawling garden.
I followed. Once the crowd was left behind, Mr Minister with balding pate and pot belly suggested he would give the interview only after a kiss from me. With folded hands I thanked the minister and said that I already had the interview, and returned to office to write exactly what had happened.
There were many field trips into the countryside too, when often I was the only woman in a group of male colleagues. There was the long and dusty trip to the dreaded dacoit Chabiram’s village, 30 km from Mainpuri district in the bowels of the Uttar Pradesh countryside. Chabiram was finally gunned down early in 1982, after a seven-and-a-half-hour battle with the police. The urban population was celebrating. Politicians and policemen were walking across the television screen as if their chest measured 56 inches.
The editor wanted to know the mood in Chabiram’s village. I was sent to report. Once there, the villagers pounced upon us, a group of reporters and photographers also from Ravivar, the Hindi edition of Sunday magazine. They were angry that Chabiram was no more. After all he had been a dacoit for the establishment, but Robin Hood for the villagers. He was loved for taking from the rich and sharing it with the poor. The villagers did not trust the police.
I escaped the crowd of angry men that day and appealed to the women from Chabiram’s family for calm, and to tell us about the sorrow they had experienced. The women in the village pacified the men and we were able to talk to each other, returning to Delhi with perhaps one of the most humane stories I have ever filed as a reporter.
This last one happened only about three years ago, when confidently armed with a salt and pepper hairdo I thought I could overpower any superman. I had accompanied my mother to the office of Phantom Films in Mumbai. My mother was being considered for a role in a film to be directed by Vikas Bahl. While there I asked if I could also meet Anurag Kashyap to talk about cinema for a local newsmagazine I was editing then. It was arranged that a car would pick me up at 9 pm and take me to wherever Anurag was.
I was grateful and asked if the same car could please drop me back after the conversation with Anurag was over.
Everyone present in the room looked at each other, and someone said Drop you back?
Needless to say that rendezvous never happened.
The moral of these stories is simple, to never forget that fear is our greatest enemy. Today fear is the flavour of the times. Fear stalks us as women and as members of a minority community. In this climate of fear fanned even by those in power, I reach out, especially to those young women still determined to seek a career in mass communication, to say that fear has to be conquered. Whenever under threat from the high and mighty, the only thing to do is to make a lot of noise, so no asshole is ever able to take refuge behind our painful silence.