I assumed I fell into a reverie only to realize that I was about to meet this audacious person who became a demigod for many budding journalists (including me) in the last few years. I was worried over my predicament because I was completely unprepared for this moment. I was meeting this man, Palagummi Sainath, who likes to be called a ‘rural reporter’. He has covered issues on social problems, rural affairs, poverty and other issues. He is the Rural Affairs Editor for the Hindu and also works for India together.
Having read his, book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, every word, every page and every chapter of the book kept resonating in my ears. I was anxious, nervous about this journey with him. It seemed like an invincible difficulty. While I was waiting for him, somehow, my attention was diverted to youngsters queuing up outside the palatial hotel. Assuming that they learnt of this rural reporter’s arrival, I jumped out of the car immediately to see if the man of the hour was signing autographs. However, to my disappointment, the chaos turned out to be for job interviews.
I took a deep breath. As I walked into the bijou hotel waiting to receive him at the lobby, he walked out of the elevator. I was speechless. “Did you have your breakfast, Tejaswini?” he asked and continued “This hotel serves the best breakfast in Bangalore,” he beamed. I was coy and quietly said “no.” As he walked to the car, I had forgotten the questions I wanted to ask. Those deep, penetrating eyes and his speech made an impact.
During our journey, he began the conversation by asking me where I was working. Probably, he sensed the nervousness in me and hence, thought the questions would help me warm up to him. He then asked what he was expected to speak at the convocation (of the 2012 batch) and added: “I do not want to speak to these enthusiastic budding journalists about the sad, bad world.”
I then asked where he was coming from and he instantly said Chennai. “I wanted a break. I was there because I was asked to deliver a key note at the meeting of Magasaysay award winners. Ela Bhatt, Swaminathan and many others were present,” he said.
Talking about IIJNM, he said he had met IIJNM’s dean in 2006 at a seminar. Having understood that the dean could never say anything against the US, Mr. Sainath said: “Ohhh! That man was all about ‘India Shining’ then. What an interesting man I say!” he said with a tinge of sarcasm. I nodded my head, trying to be diplomatic to nobble the Emperor of the hour.
While I was wondering whether to ask what he was currently working on, he said: “Do you have Bangalore Times with you? I want to show you something interesting,” and smirked. After stopping by a shop and buying the newspaper, he pointed out at the line below the mast head of The Bangalore Times (supplement of the Times of India) and said: “Look. After there’s been a hue and cry about paid news, TIMES has made this correction ‘ advertorial, entertainment promotional feature’, agreeing that their news is paid for.”
Immediately, I recollected an article I read on the hoot about this exact topic and asked him whether he read it. The answer was a “no”. But, he seemed impressed. Then, I mustered the courage to ask him what he was currently working on. “Hmm…I’m working on a story on the advertising of Bt Crops in newspapers (specially the Times and Monsanto),” he explained, adding that Monsanto company staff was delaying the response to his questions. “See, how they postpone things. They are scared. I just asked them the media angle. The bosses don’t have to be there to give that answer. An email reply would do,” he said. When he said “scared”, I was thinking “who wouldn’t be scared of you Mr.Sainath. You have all the facts, evidences and the courage to strip a company of its laurels with one article of yours.” But I chose to keep my mouth shut.
Then… I told him that the first chapter from his book was etched in my head like an indelible scar. Giving the context of how he wrote stories, he said: “You cannot be somewhere else and write a rural story. Travel with people, know them, do what they do, eat what they eat, live how they live and that is when you’ll know what to write and how to do it.” I fell for those lines. “Damn! He is impressive. What a man!” I thought. Further, he said: “See, Tejaswini. I never planned to write a book or some such thing. It is just a collection of all my stories on deprivation. Currently, 35th edition of the book is running,” he said, raising his thick eyebrows.
“You know, I had the opportunity to meet you and I couldn’t when you came for the screeining of Nero’s Guests (a film on farmer suicides in India)” I said. He replied: “I never watched Nero’s Guests until today. It was only some 15 minutes of the film during editing of the film when I was called to correct it, that I watched it,” he said, adding “May be this was your opportunity, Tejaswini. And that’s why you are here and you missed the earlier one.”
As I was itching to ask questions about the future of “development journalism”, he corrected me every single time I said development journalism. “You know, the term is absurd. It might sound like a fad, but say rural story or rural reporting. That makes sense and is specific,” Mr Sainath said. His words transported me to the day where I argued with the Deputy Resident Editor (DRE) of my previous company who expressed that “development journalism was boring and was for sisters in the kitchen.” I remember him asking me rudely why I wanted to do it and etc. I told him I was passionate and he said “bullshit!” Though I would like to still believe that he did not mean it, he actually did. Why? Because I put it to him in the lamest way ever and he came across many girls telling him the same thing.
“When you tell your editor you have a development story. He’ll not listen to it. He will give you an I-don’t-want-it look. Sell it as a story. Tell him what’s interesting about it, what you have in it and how it could benefit the newspaper. Now… that will click,” Sainath said. It was at this moment that I realized that I have been foolish and unable to sell my stories. I learnt my lesson.
Because he is the grandson of the former President V.V. Giri, I was excited to ask him what had inspired him to opt for such a profession where there are leaders/politicians. “To put it simply, during our time, freedom fighters were journalists. Here, I’m fighting for the freedom of expression. That’s the difference,” he told, adding “It happened to me very naturally. I love doing what I do. Every day is fun.” “If you don’t enjoy something, Tejaswini… Don’t do it,” he suggested.
“Isn’t poverty immeasurable?,” I asked. Well, I wouldn’t say that. If we give the specifics and define them properly, it can be. The factors have to be well-defined, you see, he said. “So is it the implementation that fails to happen?” I asked again. “Implementation can happen only when you take people into consideration. In our country, that doesn’t happen,” he said.
But, you know what? I always tell people not to call it poverty or hunger. Call it “deprivation”. It makes more sense, Tejaswini. “Deprivation can be of many forms,” he said.
That was when these lines from his book struck me. “Too often, poverty and hunger get covered as events. That is, when some disaster strikes, when people die. Yet, poverty is about much more than starvation deaths or near famine conditions,” an excerpt from Everybody Loves a Good Drought.
Later, I was expecting him to speak to me in Telugu after he understood that it was my mother tongue (it is his mother tongue too), I diverted the topic to something remotely close. Politics in Andhra Pradesh. As soon as I took Chandrababu Naidu’s name, he said: “The media portrayed him in a very wrong way during his tenure as the CM. It was publicity not reporting,” he fretted.
Look what he has done to farmers in the state. Look how they’re dying and see the current state of politics in the state. It is in a state of quandary, he said. Naidu has lost it. He will not come to power again, he said, adding that Jagan Mohan Reddy has become the game-changer in AP politics and how he is ripping apart Congress votes by gaining TRS’ support. “That’s what he did in the recent bypolls. And, as a tactic, YSR Congress won the Kovvur seat which was but obvious,” he said. As I was also aware of the background of this analysis, I contributed my part to the discussion which lasted a few minutes.
It then dawned to him that he was supposed to prepare a speech and began frantically penning down something which I couldn’t see.
Not knowing whether I could interrupt, I did it purposely. He did not react and in fact,replied. “I love this Mysore highway. I take this road to reach Wayanad. I come across two forests (the Bandipur forest and the Kerala one) on my way. What a pleasure it is to travel!” he said.
As the journey was nearing an end, I knew I had to tell him I quote him in all my opinion pieces on rural issues. He said “thank you” and smiled. And, then I was wondering whether I deserve to ask him his contact number. Somehow I decided that I don’t deserve to ask him that and hence, shifted to a safer option. His email Id.
The journey ended. It was a memorable one. I loathed missing the opportunity of meeting him earlier. But, I guess, this was in store for me and I couldn’t let go of it. The post might’ve looked exaggerated. But, for someone who wants to make a career in “rural reporting”, this was a golden opportunity which most envy and appreciate.
Well, I had a conversation with him and learnt my lessons. And, special thanks to my professor who thought I deserved this chance and chose me.
Here’s something for all journalists:
“Sell your labour, not soul” – P. Sainath