Edited By Ayesha Kagal
It was the last night of the twentieth century and the first of the twenty-first. Exactly at midnight, NDTV’s drop-back car stopped at that semi-urban village of south Delhi called Munirka. In the car, as soon as it was twelve, our former colleague Pallavi Aiyar uttered a loud ‘Yeah’. There were others present in the car who also repeated after her, ‘Yeah, welcome to the new millennium.’ In the middle of the night in Munirka, the pleasure of welcoming the new millennium became so private that I was unable to share this feeling with members of my family who were then in Patna. No one in my family in Patna even knew that the twenty-first century was arriving. All they knew was that the old year was gone and the new year was here.
A tendency to measure the distance between Delhi and Patna had started to take shape within me. It was the same difference that I had begun to experience inside Delhi, between Munirka and other places. The difference between the Delhi outside the limits of Lutyens’s and south Delhi, those lakhs of people who, like the colonies they inhabited, were called legal or illegal. I had started out in Delhi in one such colony. I, who had now completed ten years in Delhi.
The first week of the new millennium. Where is North Block? Outside the offices of NDTV, cameraperson Narendra Godavali didn’t appear even a little surprised by my question. Come, I’ll tell you. ‘Tension mat lo.’ North Block means you need to go to the home ministry. Narendra Godavali is among those camerapersons who know the licence-plate numbers of the government cars of several ministers. This glorious ability of Narendra Godavali’s produced an acute complex in me when I reported from parliament. ‘Look, that is Somnath Chatterjee’s car,’ he would say. ‘What are you doing at gate number three? This car of Somnath’s comes only at gate number two.’
I had been sent to report from parliament with great expectations. Reporting from the Indian parliament — the chance to earn a name at the Oxford of political journalism. Everyone said, ‘Now your career is made. Bas, from now on, the chance to meet and interview powerful politicians and ministers, news about the government, and the label of having become a big-shot journalist.’ A habit grew. The habit of standing in the portico of the parliament, close to the announcement microphone, and listening carefully. ‘Car number this belonging to the honourable member of parliament, please bring it to the portico.’ Right after the announcement, a shining car would pull up and the honourable MP would turn towards the photographers with a see-you-later wave of the hand and leave. A second car would pull up, and after that a third. With the MPs getting seated in their cars, several journalists would rush up to them and they would murmur in each other’s ears. After the cars had left, the journalists would turn around and walk with the air of being the only ones privy to news. I began to take a lot of mazaa in noting their body language. I too started trailing behind these journalists. Whichever car they pushed their heads into, I too would park my ear there. I would hear a bit, I would understand a bit, but I was unable to break any news.
It became clear that the body language of journalists who report from parliament is rather unique. To receive the news, they came with their eyes lowered, and after they had been given it, they would go away erect. It seemed that this was a special way in which these people expressed themselves. A whiff of being superior. Perhaps the trick was to strike the right balance in the body language between being acquainted with those in power and being co-opted by power. Often, on seeing a print journalist with a diary in hand, these TV journalists would encircle him. They would address him as Dada. These were print journalists who had come to report on the changing politics of the 1980s and ’90s; they had come perhaps at my age but had been unable to ever emerge from that cave. I began to look at this area like a geologist and not like a journalist.
In this cave the conduct of the journalists struck me as peculiar. Suddenly all the journalists appeared to get towed behind an MP. At other times each journalist would break away from everyone else. My theory of attraction and repulsion began to look like a copy-paste of Newton’s. If a reporter put a mic in front of a politician, all the camerapeople would rush in. Even when their own reporter happened to be somewhere else. Even when they didn’t know what the story was about, everyone would be busy recording. One must capture each and every exclusive. Everyone joined together to kill the possibility of an exclusive. The message was clear. No bite should go un-captured. The bite happened or the bite was missed — without these two bits of jargon there could be no reporting from parliament.
It isn’t that I did not meet expert reporters during the course of parliamentary reporting, but it had all started looking like a bit of drama to me. I would joke and call that kind of reporting ‘red stone journalism’, after the red sandstone used by Lutyens to build the parliament building as well as the edifices around it. I also discerned a trend in the process of news bite collection. When parliament was not in session, a journalist would collect a bite from the Akbar Road office of the Congress party, and then from only a little distance away, another journalist would collect a bite from the Ashoka Road office of the BJP. Both would gather at Vijay Chowk in front of Parliament House and share a byline. For this entire process, they would have to cover a journey of 3—4 kilometres. All of a sudden, my life had a Eureka moment. I said, ‘Arre, this is Lutyens’s journalism.’
Over time, I grew to understand the hierarchy in this political reporting: New and junior reporter at the Rajya Sabha; senior reporter with a permanent pass at the Lok Sabha. I thought I should make peace with my circumstances. If I said anything to Rajdeep or Sonia, I’d get scolded. Hence, I tried to adjust. I told myself that if I took the tape with the bite and started running from parliament to Vijay Chowk, I might lose some weight. I did a lot of running. On the other hand, the cheap food in the canteen at the parliament kept up its effort to stop me from losing too much weight.
Journalists from different channels would say that there was pressure from the office and that was why we needed to run with the tape that had the bite. Midway, they would phone the OB van and ask them to switch it on, the tape needed to be uplinked. During this daily practice of the relay race, why didn’t the thought of becoming the next P.T. Usha occur to me? It must have been because of the fear of the editors. I made excuses, and instead of Parliament House, began to expand my range further and further afield in Delhi’s far-flung areas. These days the pressure of sending a bite from parliament is no longer there. Instead of reporters, the news agency ANI (Asian News International) collects everyone’s bites and sends it as the news reported by all channels. Even after this, the standard of reporting from parliament has remained the same.
Lutyens’s Delhi — the heart of Delhi with all the ruling edifices of India. The home of ministers, MPs and secretaries. And to report on Lutyens’s Delhi, an area within a radius of 5 or 6 kilometres, we have hundreds of newspaper and TV reporters. Too many journalists for such a small place. Often, it is as if the excavation of Mohenjo-Daro—Harappa is going on, and all these journalists have been engaged in this toil. After all, to have so many journalists working in such a small geographical area, there must be some event. It is another story that by the time evening falls, all the political leaders living in the Lutyens’s Zone hurry out towards the television studios; but the journalists still follow the old habits of their work. Nothing has changed. Journalists rushing around in Lutyens’s Delhi are still rushing around there. Only a few are ever able to escape or are only able to escape intermittently. I made my escape.
As I said, I had begun to look at the reporters in this area not as a journalist but as a geologist. Without the aid of any data I arrived at the conclusion that this zone had the ability to render most reporters ‘geographically challenged’. Both print and TV journalists would feel a degree of trepidation when leaving this area. They would despair at the thought of their link with power breaking. I have heard journalists on that beat complaining that the editor has lost his mind, he is telling me to go to Hapur to write a story on hunger. Arre, have a feature or a city reporter do the story! Whenever I returned after several days, having covered just such a story, the senior journalists, who had by then acquired the status of permanent residents of the Lutyens’s Zone, would look at me dubiously. Some journalists would advise me to get serious about my work. Large numbers of these journalists had become afflicted with Lutyens’s Comfort Syndrome. They were disturbed by the thought that, like me, they too might be sent away. ‘Away’ meaning outside Delhi. Whereas the truth was that most journalists, just like me, had come from outside Delhi.
These practitioners of Lutyens’s journalism might well be geographically challenged about India, but when it comes to Lutyens’s Delhi’s roads they are the best guides. Even when half-asleep, they will be able to tell you that this is Motilal Nehru Marg, you take a left and you will come to Janpath, a right from there to Pant Marg and then North Avenue. Bungalow number 66 is on the corner. In their presence I would feel geographically challenged and wonder how these people remembered all the names of the streets and where the streets met. It is clear that the Lutyens’s journalist passes his whole life traversing the same twenty-five or thirty streets. They don’t even realize at which point in their lives, while travelling on these streets, they become a part of the power structure. Unaware when co-option turns into comfort, and the minister and the journalist become friends. Each an extension of the other. Perhaps this is necessary for our daily news. Without these personal relations, how can news emerge? But moving around in only one geographical area must shape the mentality in some way. The name of that mentality is Lutyens’s journalism.
Further, even the adda of the INS bureau chief, responsible for sending daily national news to the regional press, is right behind Parliament House. The Press Club is also close by. And only a little distance away is the office of the Press Information Bureau in Shastri Bhawan. Which is to say, even regional journalists have fallen into the habits of Lutyens’s Delhi. You might find them roaming around with memories of their home towns but their apprehension is worth seeing at the prospect of having to go outside Delhi. These are all people who have become habituated to a spatial complex.
On 24 August 2013, when I was writing this essay, I saw a full-page ad printed in the newspapers announcing that the prime minister was going to inaugurate the National Media Centre. A new hangout for Lutyens’s journalism.
I don’t mean to say that journalists who roam in this area haven’t filed excellent stories. Indeed they have, but not in a way that reflects the proportion of journalists in this area. A study of the extent to which this zone has geographically challenged a large section of journalists from bottom to top should be conducted by an anthropologist. Whenever an editor or a TV star from this zone goes on an India tour during the elections, their essays should be examined for the ways in which they represent the viewpoint of Lutyens’s Delhi. They look at India from the ‘top angle’ view. They have invariably acquired a ready-made binary. The binary of small town and big town. Then, there is a smaller category in the small town called ‘sleepy and dusty village’. It does not matter that there is more dust in Delhi than in my village.
So it is all quite bewildering to adopt the reverse view and look at my own village. In any case, these reporters adopt the ‘Lutyens vs sleepy village’ binary and start looking at the whole world through that lens. They see the billboards for IIT tuition or beauty parlours as well as the hoardings for youth leaders, and sleepy India begins to appear aspirational to them. In the final comments of their reports, they pose the question whether in Delhi, in our studios, we have politicians available for discussion who reflect this aspiration. This is the real ‘changing India’. Once the elections are over, all these pigeons return home to Lutyens’s Delhi. They remember and recount this tour in great detail so that you don’t accuse them of not having seen India. And afterwards, they slip into a ‘geographically in denial’ mode, where they stay till the next elections roll around.
Lutyens’s journalism represents a special viewpoint. I found this zone interesting. Thank you, NDTV. For sending me into this zone and then for allowing me to get out of it.
Translated by Amitava Kumar