How work-travel taught me a thing or two about life
By Amrita Mukherjee
The year was 1999. M was a well-known PR person in Kolkata and she was travelling to Delhi. She ended up having a conversation with a gentleman sitting next to her on the flight and he introduced himself as a big honcho from the Department of Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir. He had picked up a newspaper at the airport and was elated to see a splendid interview of a young lady crowned Miss Calcutta that year. In the interview, she talked about a dream sojourn to Kashmir.
He spread out the newspaper on the flight tray. He said to M, “You are in PR. Can you do me a huge favour? Can you contact the person who wrote this? We would love to take the journalist to Kashmir and make this a dream-come-true for this Miss Calcutta lady too.”
Once back in Kolkata, M was beaming when she walked up the steep and creaky steps of the newspaper office and then up to the Resident Editor’s Desk in a hunched posture because the low ceiling of the mezzanine-floor office did not allow her to stand straight.
“I am looking for Amrita Mukherjee who has written this article,” she told the RE, pointing at the newspaper she had now spread out on her desk.
I was summoned to the RE’s desk. M was very happy to break the news of an impending Kashmir trip to me. I was also happy that my work had been noticed and appreciated. But the RE felt that even though I had written the article, just three months into the job I shouldn’t be flying off on a “junket”, a most coveted word in a newspaper office the dictionary meaning of which is: an extravagant trip or celebration, in particular one enjoyed by government officials at public expense. In this case, journalists.
So first, the Kashmir junket was offered to the seniors. Some had the decency to feel that when the work had been done by me the trip should be mine too, it didn’t matter if I was a rookie then. Some even stuck their necks out to rally for me but of course there was that one odd lady who was already jumping with joy and quickly confirmed to M she would be going. Although a PR for a very long time and used to the ways of the newspaper world, M looked a bit puzzled. She hadn’t fathomed the turn of events. She looked at me apologetically. I smiled at her assuring it was okay.
It’s been 20 years since then, M continues to be a wonderful PR person and we help each other out whenever we can. Although I am not a full-time journalist anymore, but some relationships that start off with true intentions often stay. My first possible junket ended up in a disappointment for M and the entire office seemed to sympathize with me when the senior journalist who had stepped into my shoes couldn’t stop talking about the shikara rides and the romanticism of staying in a houseboat. But little did I know then that in my entire career so many junkets awaited me that would open up a new world of adventure and discovery for me.
For me, travel is not only about discovering places but it is about discovering people too. Often it is on the official trips, when you are travelling with a diverse group of people, you learn about humanity and society all over again. In a distant place, in a different milieu, people often become themselves shorn of the mask revealing their selfishness or the kindness they are capable of. While travelling for my official assignments, many of which were junkets, I not only ended up learning more about people I also ended up rediscovering myself.
My first official trip was to cover the shooting of a serial at Shankarpur, a small sleepy beach resort near Digha in West Bengal. I was informed by the PR of the production company that I would be picked up from my home by the company car, along with a few other journalists from other newspapers. We would be put up in a hotel in Shankarpur for two nights. Our work would include covering the outdoor shoot of a megaserial, do some star interviews and write about it when we got back. Easy enough.
We were travelling by road and when two Tata Sumos full of journalists converged at Kolaghat for the final leg of the journey to Shankarpur, I realised I was the only woman in the group. That didn’t perturb me at all because in the team were two kind-hearted protective senior journalists I knew from before and with them around I was comfortable in anyone’s company.
Darkness had descended when we arrived at the hotel. There were three hotels on the beach. The first one was where the actors and directors were staying and we were to stay in the hotel where the production team was staying. There was no denying the fact that my room was a shocker. It ended before it began, the bathroom was something I didn’t want to look at and there were small insects all over the walls. I could hear a commotion downstairs and peeped from the top floor.
My ‘guardian angels’ had already started a protest rally.
“You can’t expect journalists to stay in a hotel like this,” they were shouting.
“Either you organize alternative accommodation or we are leaving right now. You expect us, above all a lady, to stay like this?”
Suddenly all attention was on the lady who was now standing next to them.
The producer immediately said, “She can stay with one of the actresses, I will organize that right now.”
“That doesn’t solve the entire problem though,” said another journalist.
The production people ran helter-skelter looking for accommodation in the next hotel. The entire team was quickly taken there and everyone heaved a sigh of relief seeing the larger, cleaner rooms. Now I was given a choice. I could be the special one holing up with the actress in her room or I could be with the rest in a room that would be my own but was definitely not worthy of an actress. I chose the latter. At the end of the day I was a journalist and not an actress and I preferred to be with my kind. It was another thing that at the shoot the next day, the line producer handed me the script and rebuked me for not having done my make-up on time. I was, of course, flattered to be mistaken for an actress but my stoic expression did not give away my inner feelings.
One Kashmir lost was one Shankarpur gained. Although Shankarpur probably could not light a candle to the beauty of Kashmir, it taught me a valuable lesson in survival, in sticking together and in the goodness of men. When a journalist is travelling for work, she is often travelling alone or with fellow journalists and photographers, many of whom she knows and many she doesn’t. Sometimes there are women in the group, sometimes there aren’t. The nature of the work is such that a group of known, semi-known, and unknown people work together and bond together for days. I have been often asked how comfortable or uncomfortable these experiences have been and I have always answered that these experiences have been “enriching”.
For a girl who has grown up in India in a semi-progressive family in South Kolkata, the words, “Be cautious,” “Be suspicious”, and “Be safe” have been drilled into her head from the time she was fed her first drop of formula. That is why when you are around men, especially travelling with them to unknown places, you are expected to treat them like lepers and stay away from them. My indoctrination was strong enough because these words never left me. To the extent, I took it a step further. I never forgot to check below the hotel bed before retiring for the night. And, of course, bolted the door and kept the lights on. But the words I learnt all through my life never made me nervous, wary or distrustful. And none of the men I ever came across on my travels proved me wrong.
I remember on our way back after a junket in Hyderabad, we were packed into the train only to realize not all of us had reserved return tickets. The men gave away their seats to the women and kept pestering the TT for more seats. Finally at midnight all of us had berths. But unluckily the train was around 10 hours late and all of us had run out of charge in our mobiles.
That’s when a male journalist told me, “With the charge left you can make one call. I was thinking of calling home but it’s more important for you to make the call.” Saying this, he handed me the phone. It’s been 17 years since then, but the incident remains etched in my mind and the bond this gesture created still survives.
I have realized that while travelling on work, it’s not only about rediscovering yourself but it is also about discovering how people can be – both men and women – out of their comfort zones. I remember we had landed in Bhutan to cover the shooting of Aparna Sen’s critically acclaimed film, 15 Park Avenue. The beauty of Bhutan struck us with as much veracity as the chill. Wrapped in heavy jackets and woolen caps, we finished our interviews in the morning only to realize that there was a power cut and electricity wasn’t coming back anytime soon. No one preferred to go back to the cold candlelit-rooms and everyone preferred to stay in the lobby where the heaters were running on gas. We divided ourselves into teams to play dumb charades – Aparna Sen, Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose, and Konkona Sen Sharma, within moments, were enacting, shouting, and cheering in enthusiasm. It could have been an evening that Satyajit Ray would have appreciated. The candles dancing in the chilly wind, the gasoline heaters emitting a blue light and four of the most accomplished actors of our times engrossed in a game of the mind. For me, it was a memory that no smart phone could ever capture. And a memory like this could only be created in a place like Bhutan and not in a bustling dusty metropolis like Kolkata or Mumbai.
My greatest regret is not keeping a journal of my work-travels because many of the nuances have faded from my memory now. I had met this wonderful lady, a writer and mentor, on Facebook and she had invited me to be a mentor at one of their workshops. This was only three years back; so this is still quite fresh in my mind. If I had told my parents that I was going to Delhi to be part of a workshop organized by a lady whom I have never met I am sure all hell would have broken loose. Although my mother travelled with me and we both stayed at my cousin’s place in Noida, I never told her that I had never met the lady. Neither did she ask because she could not imagine things like this could happen in the virtual world. The Bangladeshi rickshaw puller I had been interacting with during my stay in Noida was the epitome of professionalism and was there in front of my cousin’s home at 6 am honking away to glory. Off he took me to the metro station and from there in two hours I was in Gurgaon where the workshop was taking place. There I met her for the first time, as warm and friendly as she sounded over our phone conversations. Needless to say, the discussions in the workshop were enlivening.
As you keep travelling for work you develop your instincts too, knowing who to count on and to what extent. This anecdote that I am going to share now actually takes the cake. I was in London a few years back covering an international award function and I had gone there while I was working as a journalist in Dubai. We had been told we couldn’t take photographs as photographs would be supplied by the official photographer. I was leaving the next day and in the last couple of days I was staying in London and watching the work in progress of the event management company, I was in major doubt about their professionalism. I knew I had pages and pages waiting for me as soon I landed in Dubai and without the right photographs I would be crippled. So what did I do? I just caught hold of the official photographer. Accompanied by the PR person, who had travelled with me from Dubai, we told him to come to our hotel and we would meet him over dinner while he downloaded the photographs into my laptop. The mild-mannered young gentleman agreed and said he would drive down in half an hour. But I was not willing to let him out of my sight. So there we were within minutes clearing the back seat of his hatchback of all the photography accessories and junk and making enough space to squeeze in. The photographer realized he wouldn’t be let free till we had the photographs. He relented easily, drove the two of us with a smile and gave us all the photographs. If he hadn’t been as understanding I would have been in deep trouble. He didn’t even know if he was doing the right thing by giving me all the photos without the permission of the event management team. But he just helped. A stranger in a land I was visiting for the first time jumped to my rescue.
My travels have taught me a few things. I have learned to be open minded, to be adventurous, and to look beyond the inevitable. These have opened new vistas in people relations and interactions, something I would not have known if I had not travelled that extra mile – by train, by flight, by metro.
Amrita Mukherjee is the author of Exit Interview, published by Rupa Publications and Museum of Memories, a collection of 13 short stories, published by Readomania. Both the books are Starmark Bestsellers. She is currently a freelance journalist, who has held full-time posts in publications like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, and The Asian Age in India and she was Features Editor at ITP Media Group, Dubai’s largest magazine house. She blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.