Friday, October 31, 2008

Bidding farewell to the Times

Yesterday, an ex-colleague and friend asked me whether I would write something on my association with The Times of India in Mumbai. I turned him down saying there's just too much to write on. But then I thought of giving it a shot:
Today, is my last day at Mumbai Mirror. Four years ago, I had stepped into this building as a gawky little intern. All I had with me was the faith that I could write publicly. That's it. I was just a student of journalism. My friend and I wanted to take up media internships. This was before DNA and Hindustan Times came into Mumbai. We'd called everywhere - from Afternoon to BBC, but were turned down. Some said, "We have too many interns already. We don't need any more." Others just clamped the phone down, without having us utter a word.

Bombay Times
Then one afternoon, my friend got a call from Bombay Times for an interview. And since I had nothing better to do, I accompanied him. That was July 2004. Sitting in the reception area of the monumental Times of India Building opposite CST, I pledged to myself that one day - I didn't know when that would happen or how long that would take - I would have my byline in every publication of that was produced by this publishing house.
My friend was called to the fifth floor office of Bombay Times. I went with him for 'moral support'. We met the city editor. My friend responded to her questions and I simply nodded to those queries. Suddenly, my friend whispered into my ear: "Shit, I haven't carried my resume." I was aghast. He then asked me if I had carried mine. I removed an envelope from my bag. He plucked it out of my hand and gave it to the city editor. "This is Eisha's resume. I'll send mine via email. Is that alright?" She agreed. That's how Himanshu and I got our opportunity to work at Bombay Times.
Having cleared a three-tier interview, we were finally allowed in as interns. We wouldn't be paid. But that didn't matter. We knew we'd meet some of the most influential and glamourous people in Mumbai and so we did. We also realised that celebs were, after all, human. They were as shy as ordinary people are when they meet new people at parties. But the two things BT helped me get over and I shall be ever-grateful for that, are my shyness and phone-phobia.

I remember how the city editor trashed my story because I couldn't get decent quotes out of a bimbette VJ over the phone. Two days later, she sent me to do an interview, which till date, has remained my most amazing interview experience. I had to interview a woman who could hardly speak. But she refused to communicate through her parents. Vipasha Mehta is my source of inspiration. She suffers from cerebral palsy but that didn't stop her from pursuing her PhD thesis. She literally banged her head against the laptop to type her thesis over a period of eight years. If she could face the odds, so could I, I thought. I wrote 750 words on her. The city editor was impressed. The sub editor wasn't - he had to cut it down to 400.

That was the start. I learnt how to interview people. I learnt how to reproduce quotes. A senior sub had told me, "They needn't be verbatim because not everyone can express in words what they really want to say." People may trash Bombay Times and Page 3...but that is where I learnt some of the best journalism tips. It's difficult to get gossip, but if you do and if it's good, it really sells well.
Downtown Plus
I flourished as a writer with Downtown Plus, the south Mumbai supplement of The Times of India. Most people may look at the four-pager as just a 'rag', but those four pages gave me a chance to explore every inch of south Mumbai - from graveyards to dingy theatres, from temples and synagogues to burkha sellers and quaint chai joints in the forgotten bylanes of Bhendi Bazaar and Bhuleshwar, from sailing clubs to fishing villages. It helped me know people from various communities - religious, social, political, artist, expat etc. DTP gave me a chance to do something very different from the celebrity journalism in Bombay Times. If there were a term as explorative journalism, I would have described my stint at DTP as that. And believe it or not, it also gave me international recognition. Not many people know that even the smallest of newspapers can attract wide readership. Besides, at DTP I got a chance to interact with readers - a feat not many journalists can boast of. I got a chance to work with many seniors and even teach a few 'tricks of the trade' to young interns.
My two years in DTP turned me into a very confident journalist. I also realised that though features were my forte, I had a nose for investigative news too. I must thank my mentor Ashish, colleagues Swati an Sanaya and editor Sridhar for honing my skills and giving me the opportunity to write on what I really wanted to write.

Mumbai Mirror
When I got the offer from Mirror for a senior copy editor at the Newsdesk, I wasn't too sure. For one, I had never been a deskie. Secondly, I didn't know how to make pages on Quark Xpress. I must say I was handicapped as my astigmatism made it very difficult for me to gauge two-dimensional space and area. Still, I tried and tried and tried...till a point I realised that there was a very mathematical formula for pages. Once, I cracked it...pagemaking was as easy as rocket science (most would beg to differ...but I find it easier to calculate the escape velocity of a rocket than make a Quark page at deadline time). I started with the Mumbai Talking and Views Pages and graduated to doing the international and city pages. I did the stylish Hollywood pages and even the detailed listings pages (which most consider a waste of time). Sometimes I would make up to eight pages a day and sometimes, two.
Adhering to deadlines became daily challenges which were both stressful and emotionally overwhelming. I would get yelled at for making small mistakes and for not coming up with fresh ideas. Still, the adrenalin rush was something not many could do away with. Mirror has been an experience. It has helped me grow as a journalist and writer. Though people regretfully say that I should have got more opportunities to write at Mirror, I am glad I managed to pack in a few stories (mainly on classical music and dance events) even with the hectic schedule. They also helped me accomplish my dream of seeing my byline in all TOI publications.
What the Times has given me is an awesome support system of colleagues, bosses, acquaintances and friends. It has also introduced me to some great friends - Ashish, Waleed, Shraddha and Vishwas.

It's been just four years but it looks like a lifetime. Then again, I look back and say..."It all happened yesterday." With those thoughts I bid everyone adieu.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rose Tea

Strange as it may sound, I have never tasted tea. By that admission I may qualify as un-Indian for we all love chai, don't we? Well, I don't. My collagues have literally traumatised me by putting cups of chai in front of me, goading me to drink, but I have stood my ground. Never did like the look of it. Never got down to actually drinking it. I tasted tea for the first time last year. Shocked? But it's true.

It wasn't planned of course. I happened to visit a Persian chai joint at Imambada in the heart of Bhendi Bazaar. I discovered the bright blue Mughal Masjid (the only Iranian mosque in Mumbai), the Irananian hamam (bath) next to it and I found this really tiny joint called Cafe Khushali (meaning happiness in Persian) next to it. That's where I had had Iranian tea. Not to be confused with the Irani chai, which is a Mumbai staple, the Iranian tea is black tea. You put a piece of sugar in your mouth and sip the tea through your tea. It tastes awesome. I liked it because it didn't look like our ordinary chai - masala or not. After that, I did try out a couple of Arabian and Moroccon spice teas at Oxford Cha Bar at Churchgate (which my chai-loving pal dismissed off as mint-and-clove water). As for me, I couldn't figure why I should have mint or clove water. It was aweful.

It took me a whole year to actually try out tea again. The occasion presented itself yesterday. My friend had had a nasty lunch (I had made the mistake of recommending pasta to him while I comfortably tucked into my risotto) and was hungry. I took him to Tea Centre (Churchgate) for salads and sandwiches. I love the place. Unlike a coffee shop, this one allows for a more comfortable setting for mindless, idle conversations. It took my friend one and a half hours to tuck into his sandwich. The waiters were very patient. They didn't throw us out. They just suggested that we try some tea. After all, it is Tea Centre.

My friend asked me to select. I thought it was for him. I suggested rose tea. My friend asked me whether I would like to try it out. I was hesitant. Even when the bearer poured it into my glass cup, I wondered whether I should try it at all. I picked up the cup. Thankfully it smelt of rose. I loved the smell. I would have used the concoction as an inhaler if I didn't have to pay Rs 70 for a couple of cups. My friend asked me to try it. I held the cup to my lips, but couldn't sip. It was tea after all. I put the cup down. Second try. More rose steam. This time, I sipped it. And in a few minutes it was all down. I don't know whether I relished it. But it felt really good after it all went down. The honey, the rose and maybe the tea. I wouldn't mind doing it again. Who knows, I may actually become a rose tea connoiseur.

But chai...I don't think I have the stomach for it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

MNS overdose

On Tuesday and there were no queues outside Siddhivinayak Temple. Mumbai's favourite deity was forgotten as demons wrecked havoc on the city streets - smashing car windscreens and torching rickshaws. People don't want to venture out of their homes. Those who do were not sure if they will be able to come home. Schools, shops and establishments were all closed. Sadly, media offices weren't. Bad news is always good for newspaper sales. I had to go to office. Through the day, I sifted to photographs of MNS activists battering taxis, torching autos, pelting stones in the city. As Mumbai came to a standstill, the wires kept buzzing with figures. My mind became numb as I edited story after story on Raj and his so-called supporters. Overdose happened. I even dreamt of an MNS guy hurling a burning tyre at me that night. I wasn't anywhere close to the place of the riots. But strangely they affected me, probably as much as it did those who were caught amidst them. This is my city. I could have done something - probably. But all I could muster after viewing images of destruction was, "Mumbai's gone to the dogs."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Beauty and the geek

Yesterday, I happened to catch the last episode of Beauty And The Geek on Star World. A thing of beauty is joy forever, but what about the geek? I loved the show. It showcased the fears and insecurities that two competely different sets of people face. It paired cocktail waitresses and other pretty-young-things (PYTs for short) with academically brilliant men who believe quantum physics is easier than asking a woman out on a date.

Too bad I didn't catch up with the show from the start. It would have given me a better idea of how much transformation each contestant underwent till the end of the show. Still, from the few episodes I watched, I had a favourite. It came in the form of Josh. Josh is a museum critic. With his cute hairdo (he changed it from the 1960s Dylan style to a more contemporary boyish cut in the show), geeky glasses and nervousness, I took to him almost instantly. I just loved the way he fumbled with words while asking people out. I loved the way he would clutch onto his shoulder bag while walking. If I had known Josh, he would have been my best friend.

That's the point of the show. People like Josh are ideal best friend material. Girls seldom look at them as lovers. I am no nimble-brained beauty. I am a geek too. And speaking from experience, I've had loads of male pals who would count me as their best gal pal but never fall for me. Why? Maybe because I was too intelligent to handle. Yes, intelligence is a casualty in many ways.

Most ordinary people perceive geeks very differently. They don't really believe that scientists or researchers are a part of their world. Worse, they don't believe they could there too. I was chatting with a friend recently and something he said made me remark, "I have never heard someone reason like that. You should have been a scientist." My friend thought I was joking. He laughed nervously. I repeated it. He said coldly, "I was a pathetic student. I don't think no one would have ever thought of me becoming a scientist." Like many others, my friend also believed that science was a field very different from his own. He wasn't fit enough to be a scientist. Blame it on our education system. I've come across many high-scorers who claim to be scientists but lack any of the analytical skills required for science. They drop out as soon as they acknowledge that. There are others who are fantastic with practicals. But again, just a good pair of hands make for great laboratory technicians - not scientists.

People perceive geeks to be more than just ordinary. Many even get laughed at and ridiculed. Why? Because they can't chat up women in a library, of course! A few years back, my boyfriend, a software engineer, actually asked me whether it was okay with me that he had glasses. I responded, "I have glasses too. So what?" He simply said, "I just wanted you to know. I look like a geek in them." Thankfully, I wasn't myopic. And I was a geek, so it didn't really stop me from going out with another one.

Coming back to the show. It shattered many myths about beauties and geeks. Yes, geeks are insecure, but beautiful people are more insecure. The reason, unlike the geeks, they need to hide their insecurities. One of the beauties on the show had remarked, "I finally know what the guys go through when they go out. They should do away with the word geek. Let's just treat them as people for a change." I agree.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Shakespeare again

Not all of us have had the chance to read the great bard's plays but I have been forturnate to have read some of them. Yesterday, my friend and I had a lengthy discussion on the choices of caskets made by Portia's three suitors in The Merchant of Venice. While one chose the gold and another, the lead, the 'hero' Bassanio chose the lead. He didn't go for the appearance nce, he went for the 'strength of character'. Most people rarely move beyond appearances and first impressions.I recently, watched an episode of Indian Idol on television. A shy, 5ft 2 in boy came in for the audition. He was so shy that he simply whispered his name and that he had come down from Varanasi. His appearance did nothing for him, he said in front of an international television audience. Then her sang. The judges were stunned. So was I. He had a powerful voice. The judges asked him to sing something else. In the middle of this song, the boy coughed. Damn! He lost his rythm. He was confused and scared. He just did not know what to do. Anu Malik graciously sang the first two lines of the song. The boy picked up and breezed through the song. Wow! The judges gave him the nod. The boy couldn't believe it. He had crossed the first hurdle. I was glad. The judges had chosen the right casket.