Four Letters in Red

PressGrowing up in idyllic Shillong I didn’t know any one who belonged to the ‘PRESS.’ Though there were a number of locally published newspapers and magazines available on the stands, there didn’t seem to be many press people around, or I didn’t recognise them. Two names I was aware of, one Manas Chaudhuri, editor of The Shillong Times (the local rag) and Patricia Mukhim, highly honoured, but not always a good read. Never met them in person, except once when Mr Editor was highly critical of my debatorial abilities (it was the only time I had participated in one, that too at the regional level). I smiled as his thoughts reflected mine. As a kid I did occasionally contribute a cartoon, a poem or a joke for the Sunday kid’s page and they got published and I still have a few clippings. The nearest press connection that I had was an uncle with a leftist tilt who published some sort of a magazine from somewhere in Tripura. The only press sign that I recall from my childhood was beneath the doorbell of a neighbour.

A classmate in school once prophesied that I would end up as a journalist and I didn’t think so, because I didn’t even have the faintest idea of where I would even begin. Then one fine August morning I find myself surrounded by journos, mostly wannabe and I too was in the queue. It was at a J-school. Didn’t go there to become a hack, wanted to be a copy writer but fate misspelt that as copy editor. Even the course I opted for was one of the in-between ones, therefore when it ended I was almost nowhere.

Almost every other two wheeler in the parking lot there had a four-lettered word. The colour red. The font bold. PRESS. WTF. Count and the letters add up to five, but in usage it’s just another four-lettered word.

Kids enrolled in the first year degree classes who didn’t know one W from the other announced membership to one obnoxious publication or the other. Any panga. “Hum press se hain (we’re from the press)”. A four-lettered deterrent. Some even got fake IDs made. It is very easy. Since I was relatively capable in handling imaging software, I was used to a lot of cajoling for the purpose. It was difficult to refuse, but somehow always managed to. Reporting assignments were more difficult in the absence of the ‘card,’ so I went to places where people were just happy to talk, it didn’t matter to them whether you were a student or a pro. They were usually the ones from the fringes of the society, who just needed an ear for their woes.

Then came Delhi and more of red. Red letters and red lights (of three types). The red lettered display on your ID can get you a free entry to Delhi Haat and at many other places with paid entrances; I prefer to pay the Rs 10. It is really shameful to whore your profession (of whatever respect is left in that) for that a meagre sum of money. Even for larger sums it shouldn’t be on sale, but then the temptation is great and most are lowly greedy mortals. You can also get away without paying the parking fee.

A friend recently got a new vehicle and before getting the number plate painted he made sure that the four-lettered word was displayed prominently enough. Presswallahs have developed a reputation of being freeloaders and shortcut seekers. Landlords are wary of letting out houses to the fraternity (first-hand experience). Abusive, impolite, brash and ignorant, that is the general picture. My doctor on knowing my profession advised me to cut down on the drink. He didn’t even ask whether I drink or not. “There’s lots of free booze at the parties,” he elaborated.

Once taking the bus to my first job, an elderly gentleman refused to pay the fare. The reason, “Patrakar hain (From the press).” I once resisted the temptation of freeloading at a festival using my credentials and knew that it was tough, but also realised that it is possible not to let small desires spoil the larger picture. Of genuine pride about oneself. But I put it on full display while confronting others from the creed, after all it takes a diamond to cut a diamond (the example doesn’t exactly fit, but I couldn’t think of anything better).

One of the lessons that our teacher in J-school taught us was that journalists do not have any special legal privileges and that makes the profession more interesting. Many in the class didn’t believe him. The reality outside was different. If journalists don’t have privileges, they demand and assert the imagined ones. Well, there are some doles for the accredited ones, who also face fewer hassles while attending press conferences of the high and mighty. There are 1,388 of them [PDF] in the Press Information Bureau’s list and the benefits have also been extended to online journalists. According the Registrar of Newspapers for India, there are 62,483 registered newspapers in India (as on March 31, 2006). That is almost that of the population of the enterprising Parsis (69,601 – 2001 census). Even if on an average there are ten people (a wild and inaccurate guess) to a publication we have 6.2 lakhs presswallahs roaming about in the country, which is approximately the size of the Pakistani Army.

Like K, whose post inspired this post, I don’t have a sticker on my car announcing my profession. Or more truthfully, I don’t have a car yet. Unless it is a parking sticker without which the security guards wouldn’t allow me to use the office parking, I too wouldn’t want put one on my windshield.

This might seem to be a ‘holier than thou’ type of post, but I’m not. I too have my frailties, I like free booze (who doesn’t?). But resistance brings out the character. And I’m looking for mine. Since I’m still what my profile says – a pseudo journalist – I might not have been tested enough. I find it difficult not to feel ashamed when I come across someone from the profession making a vulgar display of it.

The four-letter word also has another four-letter equivalent – MEDIA (same logic applicable). Caught in a corner, call the media or threaten to do so. It is empowering for the people, but only the ones with the right connections. My PC dealer wanted to use me to settle scores with a client (also a pressman) with whom a deal went sour. I pretended to be a typesetter without any contacts with the mighty reporters who could’ve helped him out. He was willing to pay and many do. There’s a mini blackmail racket going on out there (mini because I’m unaware of the size).

The parking attendant doesn’t even read a newspaper, he doesn’t know the ‘might’ of the press. He knows that if he doesn’t charge the fee he might have to feel the might of the contractor. But I feel mighty angry when a newly married television journalist, who charged a hefty dowry from his in-laws does a dowry story and in the P2C condemns the act and calls for punishment of the guilty. We are a shameless lot. It reflects in the output that we generate.

At the same time there are others who are doing a wonderful job, let us at least not make it difficult for them to take pride in t
heir profession. If I ever do put such a sticker on my car (the non-parking type), I want to experience the same feel that I would get when I put my college emblem there. Pride, not want of unwarranted privilege.