On this teacher’s day, as I look back on my journey as a journalist, my mind is filled with many memories and learnings from my first editor
As I walked into his compact office chamber on the first floor of a thoughtfully built and artistically decorated building with a fish pond and windows adorned with bamboo chick curtains, I noticed his room had a small open air balcony carpeted with thick green grass. I wished to take off my heels and walk on the natural carpet. But how could I? It was peak December, winter in New Delhi.
More importantly, I was there for a job interview and had other important tasks at hand, such as to appear confident and answer the questions posed to me.
I focused my attention back on the large desk in the room across which sat (late) Anil Agarwal, the then editor of Down To Earth, and Sunita Narain, the fortnightly’s publisher, who is now its editor.
I was twenty-two, had passed out of university about six months ago, and did not understand the j of journalism, or the r of reporting. But that was expected as I had never studied journalism and was more interested in being a researcher.
The job interview, to my mind, didn’t go well, as during the course of the interview, I happened to mention I had a paper on statistics in my masters. Anil ji, as I referred to him later, lapped up that opportunity and started asking me questions around calculating mean, median, mode, standard deviation, after which I gave up.
To my utter surprise, a couple of days later, I received a call from his office offering me a job. Thus, on January 5, 1999, I embarked upon a new journey, a journey as a journalist, which continues still, two decades later, with many ups and downs, and immeasurable learnings, both as a journalist and as a person.
Walking around his room without tripping over books could be a sport, I thought!
But why am I writing all this today, twenty years later? Because it is teacher’s day today, and though a bit late, more than eighteen years after his death, I must formally thank one of the most unusual teachers in my life – my first editor, my mentor, Anil Agarwal – who transformed a young I-know-nothing-about-journalism woman into a field reporter.
It would not be incorrect to say the initial one month of my new job was pure chaos, and I was almost sure I would not survive more than six months (It’s a different matter that I went on to work there for a dozen years).
The much-awaited publication, State of India’s Environment – The Citizens’ Fifth Report, commonly known as SOE, was getting finalised and everyone in the office looked like a zombie. I joined that category soon when one cold January morning, I was called to Anil ji’s chamber.
Casually, but confidently, he told me: “Here is the SOE’s draft chapter on air pollution. You have to reference it.” I had just about recovered from the volley of statistics questions thrown at me during the job interview in the same room; and now to be told to reference a chapter (which looked like some forty to fifty A-4 size pages) for a book! I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or run away. Or both.
I looked around and there were heaps of books, journals and magazines all around his room. Not to miss bunches of stapled papers lying on the table and chairs, with yellow stick-on notes. Walking around his room without tripping over books could be a sport, I thought!
Anil ji figured I was confused. He added to the confusion by saying: “Here is the heap of books on air pollution. All your references to the draft chapter lie in these books.” I felt as if an asteroid had struck me.
To make me comfortable, he cleared some books and papers from the small table behind his desk and chair, and told me to sit there and get cracking with the references. He never asked me if I knew what referencing a chapter was (which, of course, I did not know), he simply showed full confidence that I could do it and that I would do it. It was only later, after working a few months with him, that I realised that that was his way of teaching, teaching all the young people who joined his organisation.
In the next couple of days, as I sat at the table behind his chair referencing the air pollution chapter filled with (God forsaken!) data on RSPM, SPM, NOx, SOx, CO and several other pollutants, I felt I was in a classroom with my teacher sitting right behind me, helping and watching me learn.
I remember printing draft stories and carrying them to him, which he would read word by word, dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. I still have some of those marked copies saved with me like, like certificates earned in life
It is because of that learning, two decades ago, that till today, whenever I write a story, I cannot write without referencing (hyper linking, in digital world) it; without providing original sources of data in the story. These days I often come across young journalists who think I am mad to demand a referenced story. So be it. I refuse to let go off my first lesson from my first editor.
In the course of the next few years (actually barely three years, as Anil ji, suffering from cancer, died in January 2002), I was exposed to the world of environmental journalism as I started to report for Down To Earth. Every once in a while, Anil ji would pass on a story idea and working on each story helped me evolve as a journalist.
In spite of his busy schedule and his health condition, he would find time for most of us, the young breed in the organisation. I remember printing draft stories and carrying them to him, which he would read word by word, dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. I still have some of those marked copies saved with me like, like certificates earned in life.
From him I learnt that God is in the details (of a story, in the case of journalists). I also learnt never to write a sentence that I did not understand fully. I used to think good writing meant displaying one’s vocabulary and throwing around ‘big words’. From him I learnt, the best way to write as a journalist is to write simply, for laypeople to understand. Our job as a journalist is to inform earnestly.
Another incident comes to mind through which Anil ji taught me perseverance. He had sent me to a pesticides association office in Connaught Place, New Delhi to get latest data on pesticide manufacture and consumption in the country. I reached that office by noon and was informed that the concerned official was not available to share the data. “Madam, sirf saheb hi data de sakte hain,” I was told.
I waited and waited. It was 3pm and there was no sign of saheb or the data. I was famished, but couldn’t leave the office thinking what if saheb came while I was away eating a roadside snack in one of the lanes of Connaught Place!
Anil ji also taught me the importance of science journalism and data journalism
I asked the receptionist if I could make a phone call (there were no mobile phones back then, or were cripplingly expensive and out of my reach). She obliged and I called up Anil ji and almost wailed informing him how I had waited for more than three hours with no sign of the data.
“Don’t worry. Keep sitting there till they give you the data. They have no right not to share data, which people must be aware of,” he told me.
That evening, I returned to office armed with the latest data on pesticides manufacture and consumption in the country.
Anil ji also taught me the importance of science journalism and data journalism. He made us believe, and rightly so, that as journalists it is our duty to help common people understand science, be it the science behind climate change or air pollution. Because all these things impact each one of us and everyone has a right to understand them and demand a change.
On this teacher’s day, as I look back on my journey as a journalist, my mind is filled with many memories and learnings from my first editor.
Thank you, Anil ji. I will strive hard to pass on those learnings to the young journalists I work with. The cycle of learning must go on.
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