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There are Stories and then there are Stories

By Nina Koshy and Ayona Dasgupta[1] 

I
News Alert

Another day at work. Nina Koshy checks the time. 9 pm. News flow has slowed. She calls out to Jairaj Dikshit sitting five chairs away, “Do you want to go get food?” He says, “Sure. Let me just finish this copy.” The online desk is empty. Quiet. Just three people tapping away on their keyboards, eyes glued to the screen, looking up at the TVs every so often.

Five minutes later, Jairaj walks up to Nina’s chair and gives it a wriggle. They walk to the elevators, chatting about work, laughing about that typo in the ticker on a news channel. This is routine. One quick break to grab some food. Slow days mean a few extra minutes to step away from the desk. Nina is new. The first few weeks she only left the desk to go to the coffee machine.

As they walk back with bags of food, she asks, “Hey, next week I need Friday off. Shaili said we can swap. Is that ok?”

“No problem.”

“Do I need to put it on mail?”

“Don’t worry about it. Rajeev will ask for too much explanation. We’ll adjust it among us.”

“Thanks.”

Jairaj has great camaraderie with Rajeev Joshi, the editor. Jairaj is not senior but being in his good books makes working around leaves and shifts easier.

Few weeks later. Another day at work. Nina’s mind wanders as she reads a copy. She looks away to the TV. From the corner of her eye, she sees Jairaj looking in her direction. Is he going to say something? He doesn’t. Nina pretends she’s not noticed. Sometime later, he comes by and wriggles the back of her chair. “Food?” he asks. “Yup, give me a sec.”

Every evening, Rajeev walks into the bay to talk to Jairaj. They chat for an hour. After he leaves today, Nina catches Jairaj looking at her. She’s caught it a few times now. It puts her on edge. She doesn’t like being watched. At her last workplace, it ended in stalking.

She takes her break alone this time, slipping away quietly. When she comes back, he asks, “Hey, you didn’t call me.” She smiles and shrugs it off. She needs a strategy.

The next few days she asks the friendly girl from the print desk to take breaks with her.

One day Jairaj says, “Hey you’re going now?” He tries wrap up work quickly, so he can come along. She hurries away. The next day, he says, “Hey, wait 10 minutes!” She says she’s going somewhere else. The third day, he follows and catches up. She smiles tightly as he makes conversation and shortens her break.

The staring continues. Her every move is watched. When she looks up, when she talks to the guy sitting across her desk, when she laughs with someone who’s stopped by to chat. She doesn’t talk to Jairaj anymore. Only when it’s necessary, only when it’s about work.

Every time he walks by, he wriggles her chair. She used to let it slide as friendly teasing. Now she asks him to stop, each time, curtly. He says, “Ha ha I just like irritating you.”

How can she stop the familiarity?

They happen to be on break together one day. Off hand, she mentions her boyfriend. He says, “All the women I have a crush on are taken.” She doesn’t say anything. “You really have a boyfriend?” “Yes.”

Another week goes by. She’s back home from work. It’s 2 am. He messages, “Hey, I want to know why you are angry with me, what I am supposed to have done?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I feel you’re in a very cold mood these days. Maybe the work is taking a toll.”

“No, my mood is fine. Why are you asking at this time of the night?”

“Only time us on the night shift have, no?” Smiley face emoticon “You stay up late?”

She doesn’t respond.

A few more weeks, a few ignored conversations, a few rebuffs. The attention winds down. There’s a new girl on the team. He hangs out with her.

Another day at work. There’s a seat shuffle and Jairaj’s moved right next to Nina. Flustered, she goes to Rajeev and tells him she’s uncomfortable being this close to Jairaj. She wants her seat changed.

“Oh, what does he do? Stare at your screen?”

“Yes, and he bothers me. I’m not comfortable sitting so close to him. “

“Okay, I’ll work something out.”

A day goes by. Nothing happens. The next day, she goes to Rajeev again. He is not concerned. “Oh, we’ll put you on different shifts. You won’t have to interact with him. Give it a week.”

How does one explain the stares?

She goes back to her seat, panicking. Jairaj keeps glancing at her screen. She tilts it away from him. She writes an email requesting immediate change of seat to feel safe and comfortable in her workplace. Rajeev replies quickly, “Give me a day.”

Nina sits three seats away from Jairaj now. Far enough. The mood’s turned hostile. Jairaj doesn’t like the people she’s friendly with. He scrutinises her work, complains about her breaks. Every day Rajeev comes by for his chat with Jairaj, sometimes they go for coffee.

Another day at work. Jairaj has taken to wandering off for breaks whenever he likes. When Nina picks up an important story before him, he’s angry. He doesn’t want to look incompetent, so he doesn’t bring it up with the boss. But he admonishes her for letting personal problems cloud her judgement.

“What personal problem?”

“Just tell me before you take something, so I am aware of whether it is priority.”

“You were not at your desk. It’s on top of the home page.”

“I couldn’t find it.”

“Look at the system, you’ll see I’ve done it.”

“You should have told me.”

“I told Rajeev.”

“I didn’t know. This has happened too often. Let’s keep work above everything else.”

“What’s the problem? I am happy to smoothen things out.”

“Thanks. I would urge more communication. I’m in charge of the shift.”

“Sure. I’ll check with you about work.”

Jairaj writes about religious freedom, LGBT rights, feminism. Nina edits, but his articles always bypass her.

It’s now descended to intense dislike on both sides. More and more, Jairaj throws his weight around. There are new people on the shift. They think he’s nice and friendly. It’s a relief when Nina gets to move to another shift. The men indulge in a game of one-upmanship. The women have their earphones on, pinging frustrations to each other on chat. Can’t talk aloud and be seen as frivolous.

Another day at work. Sitting one seat away, Brishti messages Nina.

“BTW, Anita told me Tanuja gives it back to Jairaj these days.”

“Oh, good for her! I thought they got along. Was he being creepy?”

“The usual.”

II
Ground Zero of News Reporting

“He always wants to meet me because he wants to know who is sleeping with who in the power circles, or he is always peddling a soft story, say something on online trolls. He never talks to me about security affairs that he is supposed to be an expert on,” when Rupa said this about Kumar, my colleague, I believed her. Every word of what she said. Kumar is a journalist. The way people like Kumar function is simple – talk to women about music, love and life, suggest them ‘colour’ stories and with men, discuss border management, new Pak strategy, and complex caste equations.

In Delhi, being a political journalist means meeting hundreds of powerful men – bureaucrats, security advisors, politicians, ministers every week. My journey as a journalist in the last three years has been of primarily figuring out a way of negotiating prejudices that come my way almost every day – in order to get stories out, and in the meantime also forge a relationship of trust with some of them. Appearance was the easiest thing to figure out. It has been experience that on days I dress up well – say a nice, long skirt with a flowy top and good makeup, I get the stories I want – a mix of verified gossip and a flow of news reports. On days I sport a dreary look with my glasses on, I only get delayed appointments, stories on food security and labour savings that are not seen as ‘attractive’ by my organisation.

There is a source of mine, a senior officer, who often calls me and asks me to come over to his office. All that he does is make me sit in front of him watching TV. Often I catch him looking at me but I tell myself it is not creepy. There is nothing else in his behaviour which makes me feel uncomfortable. When I talk about this to my male friends, they tell me, “Professional raho, Kaam se kaam rakho. Story mil rahi hai, le lo.” My women friends understand. All of them who know about this offered me an expression of disgust or a nod admitting that it happens far more than we all know. I still meet him often. He gives me stories.

These men in power want to know personal details of a person who they clearly know is not as powerful as they are. Once a politician that I share a good equation with asked me questions on my middleclass background. He also convinced me that my father married late in life because my grandparents were still struggling to make a living in a new city and rich kids tend to marry early because there are no such responsibilities. I felt quite exposed and vulnerable discussing my grandparents’ literacy levels and the chipped tiles of my house with a man who was just slotting me in his head. There are times when I know some of these affluent, upper class men try to air kiss me not because they want to but because they want to see how I struggle to decide left or right first. Precisely the reason I don’t drink with most of these big men. It is easier to say I am quitting alcohol rather than go through the painful process of going through menu cards with expensive cocktails that I am interested in, but don’t really know about.

III
The Invisible Women of the Newsrooms

It was in October 2014 that I first realised this. I had just arrived in Mumbai to cover the assembly elections. I was asked to meet our senior editor who was stationed there. My office had sent two other reporters – both men for covering the elections. Both were mainly data reporters who wanted to crunch some numbers and bring out stories based on studies and affidavits. I was the reporter, the prized one who was supposed to do the ground reporting job. But when we met the senior editor together, I realised that I wasn’t that special. For two hours that he spoke, not once did he look at me. He kept looking at the two male journalists who weren’t even supposed to report and asking them if they have any doubts. I was later told that the “chap was shy and awkward with women but has a heart of gold.” I was reminded of an incident that happened once when our reporting team had gone to a restaurant for a farewell party. A former bureaucrat who  was dining at the  next table came up to us and said hello to my chief of bureau, who promptly introduced the men sitting at the table. The women were merely introduced as “colleagues.”

I have always been among those women who believe it is better to work under male bosses. My reasons were simple: newsrooms are full of female reporters, deskies, mostly foot soldiers, who bring out the paper. But there aren’t many women editors. It is easy and safe to assume that one should get attached to a male boss who will push your stories, give you required promotions. Women in decision making roles in media organisations are not often viewed as anchors, who can push their juniors. They are only seen as people struggling to guard their own careers.

For me, the most enduring image of our edit meetings every day is that of a room with glass doors with seven-eight men deciding what should go on what page. I often wonder may be this is why a story of malnourishment is often rejected for a story on prison break. A male editor once told me, “Give me crime and kuppai (garbage) and I can print your city pages. These are the only things people are interested in.” I remembered the reports on that day which got junked – an ancient library getting renovated and a class XII married girl taking the boards. He was the same guy who begged our bosses to get him more reporters, and they should be male, he insisted. “There are certain things that women will never get. You can never stand and drink tea with party workers.” That was highly demoralising for our team of twelve reporters – eight of which were women, who have arguably come up with rounded, solid reports on everything from crime and politics. We have dined with party workers, spent hours listening to them to get our stories. But of course, “women don’t get you hard stories that a paper runs on.” They are however “important to network with ministers, bureaucrats.” Women are the key people media organisations work to fire fight during trouble, get important people to their events. This, like domestic work, will never get rewarded.

Photo-credit: Here

[1] Both the authors have been anonymised in order to protect their identity.

Bio:
Nina Koshy has been working in online media in Mumbai for the last 4 years. Ayona Dasgupta works in print media in Delhi since 2013.

***

For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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