Category Archives: Journalism

My experiences and the funny side of journalism

The everyday trial

Today, the topic I wish to write about, it truly a nation-al one. In my house, there were two ‘camps’ – the pro-Arnab Goswami and anti-Arnab camp. My dad, like so many others, loves him and waits for the Newshour and follows the ‘30 minutes to Newshour’ strapline on the ticker. I loathed him with an intensity reserved for few people – like those who think the world loves their face so much that they upload a selfie every alternate day on facebook – and trust me, I would walk off the moment I heard that irritating newshour music. Notice how I was using the past tense? No, no its not that I love the show now but yes, I do sit through some of his debates and do not walk off as soon as dad puts on channel no 366.

MUMBAI, INDIA ? APRIL 03: Arnab Goswami, Indian Journalist, Editor in Chief and News anchor of the news channel Times Now at his office in Mumbai.(Photo by Bhaskar Paul/India Today Group/Getty Images)

MUMBAI, INDIA ? APRIL 03: Arnab Goswami, Indian Journalist, Editor in Chief and News anchor of the news channel Times Now at his office in Mumbai.(Photo by Bhaskar Paul/India Today Group/Getty Images)

The other day I happened to read his interview on scroll and Arnab’s answer to the question of ‘all the shouting and finger-pointing on times now’ kind of got me thinking:

 He said ‘After eight years of news leadership, if the only charge that sticks against Times Now is that we make our point too directly then it’s a good thing. I would be more worried if people would accuse us of corruption or impropriety, (as some channels have been). Being clear and unambiguous is a charge that I am comfortable with.’

Yes, formally or even otherwise, I have not heard anything about him being corrupt or of the channel having any clear political leanings, as some other channels have been accused of. He has always been as aggressive, be it any government in power; he is as much a boogeyman to Nalin Kohli of the BJP, as he was to Sanjay Jha of the Congress. And it is the time of low standards set by some media outlets, where the proximity between them and those in power crossed levels of fariplay, that being non-partisan can be seen as the biggest virtue. What would be the point of a nuanced debate if there is an obvious bias, right?

Ofcourse, there are a lot of things to not like about Arnab’s show. He invites half the country as guests on the news debate and then pigeonholes them in boxes, where some of them are conveniently forgotten till the end of the show. And as an ad by a rival channel would show, there is an unhealthy amount of jingoism when it comes to shows relating to Pakistan. Then there is the then oversimplification of issues, the tendency to search for a daily villain, there is so much that one could dislike about the show and the man. My main complain with watching Arnab’s show was that by the end of the debate, I would not end up learning more about the issue from various perspectives, inspite of his overcrowded guesthouse.

But the other day after watching the entire debate of Gajendra ‘ junge love’ Chauhan – the person appointed as chairman of the FTII and the controversy around it – I was all the more convinced about what worked for Arnab, apart from being seen as non-partisan. I think, we as a people are tired of the entire ‘corrupt system’ ‘corrupt politicians’ cycle that keeps playing ad nauseam. The trial in courts – if indeed it goes to trial – we know will take ages, and it is here that ‘Justice Arnab’ appeals to our baser instincts: the hope to see these scamsters, these politicians punished for what they are doing in any way possible. A ‘media trial’ is an unhealthy trend ofcourse but when I saw a clown like Chauhan being absolutely stripped to smithereens – his own stupidity here playing a major part – on the show, I felt this sense of vindication. Oh yes, eventually because of blatant political reasons, you may end up being the FTII chief, but ‘in the court of Arnab’ you were shown who you are. In the 45-minute long debate – it was after a long while that I could sit through the debate – a baser part of me felt good.

And that is what I realized works for Arnab, for the better or worse. The news and developments of the day sometimes become a byproduct to the main show in which is Arnab going after these people whom we hope to see punished but are not sure they will not be, at least in our lifetimes. It is for that hour long vindication, when Arnab shouts at Fadnavis saying how dare you stop a plane for an hour and see his spokesperson struggle for words, that for sometime, people feel that politicians are not high flying netas, but public servants, and thereby accountable to the people, a class that Arnab claims to represent every night at 9.

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The ‘lowly’ crime

If all crimes that survive and thrive in Mumbai were categorized into some sort of hierarchy, ‘chain snatching’ would be right below the bottom of the pile. Pick pocketing is now somehow associated with nostalgia, something that happened in Bombay. Chain snatching however is flung about like an example of all that is wrong with crime reporting, like it brings disrepute to the fraternity; like some gangrene infested finger that should someday be relieved if crime reporting is to be taken seriously.

There have been innumerable instances when I have heard this: ‘yeh chain snatching cover karne ki liye main journalism me nahi aaya/aayi thi’ while ranting about reporting. At times, the voice that I heard was also one emanating from my head. It is however one of the best things that can happen to you if you have to make up your mind to quit crime reporting, it’s the lowest denominator.

In fact apart from reporters, much to my surprise I have heard a ‘deskie’ who after quitting said ‘I did not go abroad to edit chain snatching stories’. So apparently chain snatching was all that was wrong with the world. Maybe one of the recent press club election nominees could have promised, ‘If I am elected, I will pass a resolution to ban reporting on chain snatching to get the votes of the crime reporters lobby.’ Maybe?

chain snatching

A cop once gave me a solution that he believed would help everyone: the cops, the journalists and the chain snatchers themselves. While over casual conversation when I asked him about the rising instances of chain snatching he smiled, move forward as if telling a secret that would be lost if said loudly, and whispered with an air of Confucian wisdom, ‘aap log report karna band kar do, chain snatching apne aap band ho jayegi’.

I momentarily thought that apart from dry days (story wise), I would not mind it and the cops would ofcourse be more than happy. But his notion of chain snatchers not snatching chains because we don’t report on it, like somehow they will forget about the ‘art’ reminded me of Gabrial Garcia Marquez and the stuff of magic realism. Later thankfully the cop guffawed like a buffoon indicating ‘he thought’ it as a joke.

Personally while reporting on the crime beat, I had my own struggles with chain snatching. Apart from the very many occasions when I have ‘gone with the crowd’, I also felt that it was one of the biggest crimes plaguing the city then. Chain snatching was so prevalent the police commissioners were talking about it publicly as their biggest headache.

I remember this phase when this movement ‘report chain snatching’ carried out a coup in my head and I recollect feeling good after I had reported a package – two-three stories- on the same. I remember telling friends and colleagues with missionary zeal how it was so important to report on it.

Then however after I had switched from the crime to the court beat, and I heard a press release was issued for the arrest of two chain snatchers, it tickled me. ‘Press release for chain snatchers arrest? Seriously?,’ I questioned myself slightly amused. The law of averages I realized had worked on me over time; the coup had failed, the zeal had gone.

Ways of seeing

There are at least five different ways in which tragedy can strike me at any given place at any given point. I think. May be, and most likely I am more paranoid than others in my clan, but reporting on the dark side of human nature comes along with its own baggage I would say. Scarred is too big a term but crime reporting will ensure that you know of many more ways in which things can go wrong, than you did before which is not exactly a good thing.

I remember having gone to this hill station with friends and found this beautiful isolated spot. I sat there for a few minutes taking  in the view, till my sub conscious mind, that by now has become a receptacle of all things bad, played spoilsport. I thought of how someone could come on a bike, snatch my mobile wallet etc and flee. Or they could push me so that I do not reveal to the cops how they looked. While I sat for some more time, the possibility being thrown up at that almost picture perfect moment was irritating.

Every time I pass the road connecting Marine Drive to Churchgate station, and cross a three star hotel located there, I remember how someone had jumped from the terrace and committed suicide. When I pass Hindu colony in Dadar, I do not fail to mention to someone, if anyone is along, or make a mental note about it myself for the umpteenth time how a woman who stayed all alone at an empty bungalow and was murdered. I am sure most of my clan have such ‘landmarks’, unwillingly.

In the backdrop of these things, the fact that my reference point, while taking directions for a place, is the local police station, more or less does not even deserve a mention. Like at most times, it was while answering a friend who asked me if reporting on crime affects me, that I realized a few things myself.

On most days crime reporters report on the dark side of human nature, which in comparison to the overall population is an aberration. But reporting on these aberrations everyday, over a period of time, kind of blurs that line and one, at a certain level, begins to think of it as a rule. That such things happen everywhere all the time. It would help the cops a great deal if we all thought this way !!

How many times have I, while entering my building or relatives building, tried to make a mental image of the building watchman, local help following the number of cases I reported in which a domestic help or the watchman turned out to be involved in a crime. In one way it makes one overcautious and can come in handy. But that is one way of looking at things. You get to see the others side, when you look at a serene view and it reminds you of a crime story.

The debate behind the debate

Sometimes when I see people watching political debates, the BJP vs Cong vs SP types, and getting all animated over it, a part of me sympathizes with them. That is unless they are watching it for some fun, like if Arnab is threatening someone or talking to a chair. But otherwise, the futility of the entire exercise just stares out at me.

There are news debates and there are news debates. Some will have an issue, the usual spokespersons from political parties who will then play passing the parcel wimain-qimg-44733b352e665d972da656384505905bth who is the guilty party. In such debates, the only saving grace would be that one panelist of the six (or maybe two) who would appear as non partisan. And it is only when they speak, do you really hear because apart from that it is all white noise or for better or worse entertainment.

Do you ever think the BJP or Congress candidate will say: Oh yes you are right, my party fucked up? Ok maybe in a more civil language but do you think it would happen? They will look lame, they will say words that may make it difficult for them to look at themselves in the eye at night, but they are paid to defend the parties. That is exactly what they are going to do.

Several news channels, especially the ones that apparently started using the debate format in India for want of capital to invest on reporters, will try giving it the dramatic and theatrical feel with shouting matches and a heavy dose of jingoism thrown in. I really think it has lowered the quality of debates on our news channels. It all gets so repetitive and the justifications are so formatted that you and I could argue on the side of either parties. What about 1984? What about 2002? It just depends on which political party one belongs to. The arguments are mostly the same.

I sometimes think that since we do not see the guilty being brought to book in our lifetimes, watching maybe a news show when the anchor goes after the politicians is cathartic every night at 9. It reduced the collective anger of the nation by a few points. I say it because I have felt it at times.

However, like I said there definitely are nuanced debates as well and it would be unfair to make a sweeping generalization. On several occasions, the news per se is nothing or even misleading without the proper perspective, or like new channels like to say: the news behind the news. For example rise in diesel prices is can be such a vague news story to flog a hail the establishment without it being told that the global crude oil prices have fallen etc. And it is here that the host and the panelists who are invited make such a huge difference.

If on such debates, you have firstly fewer people (so many windows intimidate me) and have them not talked over, it really helps. Secondly, I wish, especially in terms of complex or technical issues, more air time was given to former non partisan expert and neutral commentators than the politicians. Oh yes news channels do need their version and also need to get them to book, and ‘expose’ them before the nation which is fair. But please do not give them the liberty of too much air time: we would have been watching a Sajid Khan movie if we wanted to see bad television.

Konta gaav (which village?)

bombayTumhi kuthoon/ aap kahan se hain/ Where are you from?’ the question that often gets my goat while also acting as a yardstick to gauge my mood. If I am in a no-nonsense mood the answer is Gujrat, if I am feeling a bit religious, it could be Iran or if I am reining in an adventurous streak, I may go for Africa. My friends and I have often joked about how my native place varies with my mood. And no, it is not that I am lying. The word that comes closest to define me at such moments could be ignorance. To be honest, the answer to this question for the better part of my teenage years was ‘Bombay’. Till one day as a cub reporter, I went to meet a cop and he asked me – something I would realize grown-ups loved asking each other – ‘Tumhi kuthun?’ (where are you from?) I thought Bombay, I said Mumbai. He laughed in a way indicating that neither did I know anything about journalism (which was fine since I was new to the profession), nor did I know basic things about myself (which was not fine as I had been with myself for over twenty years). ‘Arey Mumbai ke sirf koli log hain. Baaki sabh bahar se aaye hain. Main bhi,” (Only the kolis hail from Mumbai. Rest all including me have come here from other parts) he teased me. I felt stupid and decided to figure that out first thing after reaching home. While my parents were born and raised in Bombay like me, my grandparents hail from Gujrat. Then there are gaps in the lineage and then my great grandfather, by some accounts, was been settled in, wait-for-it — Zanzibar. And lastly as a Shia, Iran is supposed to be the motherland. So well I found myself returning to the moot question, where I am from? To make things worse, in a case of sadhu bana shaitaan (sorry no English equivalent can match this) over the years, I started reprimanded others who told me they were from Bombay. I would rather cockily tell them, ‘Dude only kolis are from Bombay’. I think I am responsible for the identity crisis of at least few of my friends. But then I was halted in my hallowed path of native zeal during a conversation, when I used the identity effacing ‘only kolis are from Bombay’ to a friend. She told me something to the effect of, “Arey, but I have been born and brought up in Bombay and that is how I am.” I was simultaneously irritated that she was not getting the logic of the original inhabitants but a part of me saw it as a gateway to get out of the konta gaav (which village) conundrum. I thought about it. I have been born and brought up in a Mumbai suburb with a catholic majority. My attitude, my vocabulary and several other facets of my personality are informed by this sub culture. And again, no matter where I go, I think I will never be as comfortable as I was in this demographic, this ‘attitude’ to life. So well, I am thinking, I may not be so wrong if the next time someone asks me where I hail from, I answer Bombay. But then again, in order to avoid the long explanation and have some fun, I could simply use one word. A word like Lebanon maybe

Murders and beyond

It was 9pm on a Sunday. Its not that I like murders – or any form for crime for that matter – just to set the record straight, but when you come to know about a crime just when you are about to leave for the day; your wrath for the criminal grows many times over.

I was just about to leave office when news started floating that a man had been murdered at Dharavi. I was agitated for a moment, but then my industrious self got the better of me and I quickly called up the Dharavi police station to confirm the news. It has been more than a month, but the call bemuses me till now.

I did not want to directly call up the senior inspector or other senior officers as it was 9pm on a Sunday, and apparently people who are supposed to ‘have a life’ are assumed to be doing something out-of-this- world at that time of that day, and by extension are not be disturbed unless its something urgent. I was not sure a murder classified as something urgent for police officers after a few years in service or for us journalists after a few years into the profession.

So I tried the police station landline number which on most occasions turns out to be worthless. That bored guy- always the one who will answer your call at a police station landline will make one of the few excuses: I have just come for shift now and don’t know what crap you’re talking about or murder here: you must be kidding me or yes there is a murder but I cannot give you information, please call the senior (if I had to call him, I would not have ‘bothered’ you duh)or yes a murder has taken place and I have the information, but please come to the police station personally and get it.

Reporter: Sir my office is at (name the farthest place from the police station, if it is Colaba police station you say your office is at Borivali and vice versa). Bored Cop: So send someone from your office. By now pissed reporter: wants to say yes I am sending this pigeon from my office that has the paper logo embedded on its right wing, to help you identify which paper it is. Just fold the FIR copy to bits and tie it around its neck but says: OK Fine. Since it is late and by the time I would reach there the police station, edition would go to bed, so I thought what the hell lets give the landline a chance.

To my surprise the guy who picked up; I don’t remember the name now; but you can call him PSI Waghmare, More, Patil whatever makes him look like a gentle and helpful cop, because he turned out to be one. Errr.. for the innumerable Waghmare’s who have been helpful to be lets call him PSI Waghmare.

So PSI Waghmare has some excitement stored for me on a late idle Sunday night. This is how the conversation goes

Waghmare: Yes, a murder has been reported here. Take down the details.

Me: When where how what …etc (and get most of the information. One youngster has stabbed another one). Things go fine till I ask him WHY?

Waghmare: laughs….you asked Why?blog

Me: (surprised at the amusement)..yes. Why did he stab him?

Waghmare: (husky voice tone matching Al Pacino is a Son-I’ll-tell-you-it’s-a-tough-world-out-there) what is your name you said. (Mohamed). Aadnav (surname) ? (Mohamed Thaver), Thaver saab I have been working at Dharavi police station for the past three years. During the first year, whenever a murder took place, I would be keen to find out the motive. Why was he murdered? But now experience has taught me, (and then came pure gold) that here in Dharavi saab people don’t need a motive to kill other people. It has been a while now, and I have stopped asking for motives in murders. Some guy who is high on drugs is nudged by someone else, gets into an argument, someone fishes out a chopper and before you know it there is blood on the ground.

Me: Still I mean err…what led to the fight?

Waghmare: Don’t know son. It will be clear sometime later. And like I said it is not something that interests me. (Just when I am about to judge him) Poverty makes people do all sorts of things saab. I sometimes feel bad for people here but then this is how it is. Chalo saab I have to complete the panchnama (making a list of the things found on the murder spot in presence of five witnesses).

After he hangs up I am dazed for a minute for two. I write the copy. A part of it reads: The Dharavi police are now investigating what led to the fight, as currently the provocation is not clear. Not sure Waghmare would approve.

The ‘criminal’ lexicon

“Mohamed, will you do the bank robbery, as he is busy ?”, our immediate head asked me the other day. I nodded, “No problem, give me half an hour, I’ll do it”crime

Then I turned around to my computer. Turned around and wondered. Wondered that if the conversation was heard by around 99 per cent of the population, they would either think I was part of some weird social experiment a la clockwork orange or that I – and my boss- needed some serious counseling, quick.  

Crime reporter’s lingo is stuff that would make them seem more insensitive than the hardened criminals they usually write about, and on most occasions bordering on the loony.

My mail inbox screams of suffering, to put it dramatically. The subject line would normally read Kurla murder, Ghatkopar theft and so on and so forth. And then the messages exchanged between crime reporters are not things you want to read first thing in the morning.

“Buddy, I have been told to make this Matunga robbery big, will you do the Kurla theft for me,” is a routine example. “Of course I will, and take half of the stolen booty from both sides,” one could ideally say if you are a criminal. But you are not. So then of course there is no stolen booty, as a reporter, there are stories and there are follow ups and if the police are in a good mood, they will solve the case and a press conference will be called for.

Scandalizing further is the desperation that gets into my breed when criminals decide to take it easy once in a while and there is nothing to report. A routine conversation with a cop would go something like
Hassled reporter, “Sir kuch hain kya?”
Bored cop: “Sab thanda hain”
Hassled reporter: “Aisa kaise chalega Sir” (although said with a mock joking demeanor, the reporter knows how serious he/she is)
Bored cop: “Arey accha hain na, shanti rehne do”
Hassled reporter: ‘Come and tell my boss that’ (internal dialogue ofcourse)

While on most occasions we are reprimanded by our colleagues – and on some occasions rightly so – to not behave like vultures and ‘have some sensitivity’, at times it becomes hard to explain that when crime becomes a daily acquaintance, things shock you less over a period of time, which is not necessarily  a good thing. But then every once in a while, it is not a ’crime’ to look at the lighter side of your profession.