Thursday, April 12, 2012
The Jobs That I Did- To My Children Series 29
“This is All India Radio, the news read by JohnyML,” (aakashavaani, vaarthakal vaayikkunnathu JohnyML). For almost three years I was one of the Malayalam news readers in All India Radio, New Delhi. I never thought one day I would read news in All India Radio. In one of the earlier chapters I had narrated how I had my first stint with Radio when I was a graduate student in Trivandrum. Also I was one of the first few emerging poets who had got the opportunity to appear in the Doordarshan Malayalam. Though once I had toyed with the idea of becoming an actor in the television serials, I never thought of becoming a full time television or radio personality. My mind was elsewhere. But destiny had something in store for me. Once I reached Delhi, despite my initial break through as an art critic, I soon realized that I would not survive in this big city if I did not pick up a job. And my mind was elsewhere and I did not want to do any job.
Call it laziness, call it lethargy, call it arrogance or call it any derogatory name that you would like to give, I was absolutely against doing a regular job. Even today, though I am the Managing Editor of the Art and Deal Magazine, I do not prefer to go to the office regularly. If you ask me whether I want to go to an office or a work place at all, my answer would be in negative. But I systematically come to my studio; currently it is in Chattarpur, near the historical Qutub Minar. K.S.Radhakrishnan, internationally known sculptor and my mentor has given me this space. It is the first floor of his very huge and spacious studio and he developed this floor for me with a lot of shelves and racks running along the walls. The whole floor is at my disposal. The main hall of the first floor is now converted into a projection room cum reading room. The private room next to it is used by Radhakrishnan as his office during his recess from the sculpture studio downstairs.
I know I am digressing but I have to, so please come along. I have a very special attachment to this space and this studio. I like it too much not because that it is my private space where I could do anything that I want except making sculptures because Radhakrishnan definitely would not like me doing total injustice to a medium that he holds as dear as his life. It was from this space almost fourteen years back I had tried my hands in publication. Radhakrishnan was planning to compile a volume on his works and the main text was written by R.Sivakumar. Radhakrishnan asked me to join in the project as a writer and he gave me total freedom to write small pieces on each work represented in the book. For almost a year we worked together. Often Radhakrishnan would explain his works to me; the ideas that had inspired him while making it, the books that he was reading at that point of time, the implications of a symbol or imagery. It was quite a learning experience for me. Though I did not call it a job that I had done, it was one justification for me to live in Delhi. Otherwise what was I supposed to do?
I was supposed to live my life the way I wanted. That meant this much: Come out of home in the morning, head towards the Lalit Kala Akademy in Mandi House, read books till you drop dead, have tea with friends, discuss, agitate, visit shows and finally go back home believing that you had spent your day the way you really wanted. It was when I got this offer to work with Radhakrishnan. I liked the space and I thought I belonged to this space. The computer was bought exclusively for making the book. And it was the first time Radhakrishnan thought that he needed an office. The office needed a computer and a computer needed a person to work on it. And I was the right choice because he knew that I knew how to type. In the beginning Radhakrishnan did not know much about computer and internet. I had some idea because I had bought my first computer in 1997 and got the internet connection by the end of the same year. When Abul Kalam Azad, for the first time mentioned his email id (I remember it was a yahoo one) I thought, as usual he was throwing some unearthly stuff around. But soon I also got my id and it was a hotmail account.
Those were pre-Google days. First of all internet connections were very slow. You could make a cup of tea or make love after switching on the modem; once you are through with your act all the lights of the modem would be blinking. And looking at the cursor showing an hourglass or a dog wagging its tail was something exciting and irritating at the same time. There was a search engine called ‘Ask Jeeves’. The picture of a plump butler invited you to this search engine. Unlike these days, we had to formulate a question if we wanted to search something. For example, today in google, to know anything you just need to type the key word and you get thousands of links related to it. During the days of Ask Jeeves, you had to ask a question and the question led to auto search. We had a tough time asking questions that satisfied the butler. And even if the question was satisfactory, it was not necessary that we got all data because most of the things were not online during those days.
Radhakrishnan and I would sit at the computer and occasionally we would do some kind of gallivanting along the corridors of the internet space. Soon Radhakrishnan became an expert in computer activities and to my surprise he became a complete gadget freak. If there is a new computer and communication gadget in the market, he would get it on the next day. He experimented with these and learnt things in his own fashion. Spending time with him however did not teach me any special skills in computer other than searching net or typing stuff out. I was good at both but I was a complete alien to programs that made things easy; for example there was this page maker and quark express, two programs that helped the journalists to compose a page. Though at that point of time, learning these programs were a necessity I was reluctant. Perhaps, I have always been averse to technology though I enjoy the fruits of it without any guilt. When I started www.mattersofart.com and later www.artconcerns.com many thought that I was an absolute computer freak. In fact, even then I knew only typing things out and net surfing. My techies did the job for me. When people asked me questions regarding technical matters, I shrunk away from them citing some reasons.
Now it is time to go back to my tryst with All India Radio. I don’t exactly remember how I got into news reading. I used to be a regular visitor at the INS Building located in Rafi Marg, which was next to the Parliament Street where you could see the Reserve Bank of India with Ramkinkar Baij’ s Yaksha-Yakshi flanking the main entrance and the All India Radio building right opposite to it. Sometime in 1997, I met sushma, the famous news reader in Malayalam. I think it was at Narendran Sir’s room at the INS Building. Sushma is a benevolent soul. She writes a column in one of the magazines published in Malayalam. As a good reader and a regular columnist, Sushma takes special interest in feminist issues. When she met me for the first time, she told me that my voice was good enough to become a radio news caster and I should be applying for a contract news reader’s post. I gave it a thought and found the idea was good enough. I went to the AIR office, filled in the application form. One day they called me for a trial news reading and an interview. I got through the litmus test and then onwards I was a news reader. Gopan Sir was another prominent news reader of the time and he created his special voice, a voice that we had grown up with, by keeping some paan in his mouth while reading the news. It gave his voice enough grain to make it quite grave and impressive.
The AIR news reading, seen from a distance is a very interesting job. But in fact it is a very boring and taxing job. You do this for a pittance and when the bills are signed and given away to the account section, they paid us as if we were taking away their family money. Tuned and maintained by the complete babudom of the Nehruvian and Indira Gandhian times, AIR was a maze like place where heavily armed guards stood alert throughout the day, harassing each visitor with some kind of strange coldness and hostility. To enter the premise one had to go through a very rigorous routine. Filling in a register at the reception desk was the first step. And even if the people manning the reception desk knew that you were a causal news reader in the Malayalam department, they did not allow you entry unless you show the contract papers. This was a routine stuff and you hated it like hell. Once you received a pass from the desk you were put through another round of frisking by the pan chewing and pot bellied policeman.
Then you get lost into the maze called the AIR Building. The majestic looks give way to the dinginess of office corridors once you are in. The pan stained corners make you to walk straight and you see broken furniture everywhere waiting to be redeemed by some contractor who mended broken furniture. News items came from the News Desk, which was a pool of news gatherers who sat around a huge table and decided what the nation should listen on that particular day. They gave the news clippings in cyclostyled bunches as it went to different departments at the same time. There used to be two news readers in a session. Both were supposed to shared the clippings and translate them in legible handwriting. Finally one out them would read the news in the studio. When you are a good translator and a good reader, most of the news clippings come to you. And often I got the major chunk. During the reading sessions, the standby reader was supposed to be vigilant and standing outside the studio or sitting along with the reader himself or herself. It was to guard any unwelcomed eventuality. In case the reader collapsed or had a heart attack, the standby reader was supposed to take over and continue with the reading. Your personal problems were not supposed to be known by a large population that waited for the All India Radio News.
Getting into the studio is a different kind of ritual. You should be there at the studio five minutes before the actual time of the bulletin. And a minute before the bulletin you are allowed to enter the studio where you find another language reader wrapping up her news with a repeating of the headlines. The teller clock at the wall opposite the studio tells that time and the other reader gets up and you take over the seat, arrange your paper, clear your throat and you see the red light goes green. Now you are on air. Then you start reading the news. People had their lunch while listening to your voice. Some people made love when you read the news because I was reading news in different times. I was getting furious as the odd time schedule was coming to me quite often. As I proved to be a diligent news reader I was regularly given the duty of Gulf News which started at 11.45 at night and finished at 12.00 in the midnight. I still believe there was a night when I dozed off while I was in the middle of reading the news. Finally the spell snapped. I decided to call it a day and never renewed my contract with the All India Radio.
When I look back, I can see that I have done many different kinds of jobs, but often temporary. I wanted to have my own time. So I chose to do part time works. I did not know how the first two years were spent in Delhi. I taught art history for a while in the Delhi College of Art. In the meanwhile I was writing for various newspapers. In 1996 I was introduced to Preeti Mehra of the Hindu Business Line by noted journalist V.K.Cherian. Preeti was quite lenient and she asked me to do a column for the Business Line Newspaper. I was finding it very difficult to survive with the kind of money I was getting, still I enjoyed the kind of freedom I had. Then the New Indian Express Group started a weekly called, Malayalam Vaarika. Published from Kochi, this weekly was a super hit from the very outset itself. S.Jayachandran Nair was the editor of the weekly and he was one of the most popular editors of Kerala who before joining Malayalam Vaarika was with Kalakaumudi, almost a bible weekly for the intellectuals of our youthful days. Jayachandran Sir had weaned away the famous illustrator Namboothiri and the famous literary columnist, M.Krishanan Nair along with him. Many writers shifted loyalty from Kalakaumudi to Malayalam Vaarika. It was in 1997.
Jayachandran Nair was looking for a Delhi correspondent. John Brittas, the marketing chief of Asianet Television today and the former managing director of Kairali Channel was then working as the bureau chief of Deshabhimani Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Brittas was a good friend of mine and he too used to read news in All India Radio. He had a great voice, a deep and grainy one, which I believe is a gift to most of the young people who came from a Students Federation of India background. Or even I have a feeling that most of them do their voice training to become a great leader. Brittas was a very good journalist and also a wonderful news reader. When Malayalam Vaarika started, Brittas became the Delhi correspondent of the weekly with a strategic understanding with his parental organization. But he was getting busier and Jayachandran sir was looking for someone who could do the leg work for the weekly full time in Delhi. Cartoonist Unny knew that I was looking for a job which gave me enough time to be on my own.
When Unny suggested my name to Jayachandran Nair, he immediately spoke to me over phone. I was an absolutely a green horn in political journalism with no prior experience. So I was asked to do some cultural reporting and Jayachandran sir suggested that I could try my hand at political reporting slowly. My first article got published in the Malayalam Vaarika in September 1997 and it was on the painter A.Ramachandran. Then an article appeared on the photography artist, Abul Kalam Azad. By that time, Jayachandran sir had asked me to meet Narendran Nair sir at the INS building, who was the bureau chief of Kerala Kaumudi newspaper. So I started visiting Narendran sir in his room. He sat there with his old Remington type writer and smoked cigarettes one after another. By twelve in the noon he left for his home at the Pandara Road by his Fiat car and he dropped me at the Congress Headquarters or the BJP Headquarters as per the assignment of the day. Narendran Sir taught me how to go about political journalism. I read the life stories of famous editors like Edathatta Narayanan. I spent innumerable hours in the party offices befriending leaders and speaking to them. It was exciting in the beginning and soon became a drab.
I was always walking when I was not getting a lift from someone. I did not have money to go by autos. I was not confident enough to travel by the buses either. I took buses for the main routes and walked all the way to the places that lay away from the main road. Whenever I was given an assignment somewhere near Chanakyapuri I hated it because the buses did not ply quite often there. It was a high security zone and the road layout was very complicated. If you missed a road you had to walk a few kilometers to get back to the place from where you started. But walking taught me several things. I could know Delhi from the eye level. I looked into the eyes of the people who lived along the pavements. I walked and talked to myself. Whenever I felt like crying I cried while walking. And I told stories to myself. I acted, I smiled and I impersonated different personalities. Above all, walking made me fit. I was always sixty nine kilograms during those years. Even today I try to maintain that body weight and I still enjoy walking.
As a journalist I think I was an instant success. I tasted the success of it when I walked into the office of the Malayalam Vaarika in the Express Buildings, Kaloor, Kochi sometime in 1999, almost two years after joining the organization. I knocked at Jayachandran Nair’s office door. He asked me to come in. I walked to the huge table and I was seeing the master editor for the first time. He was a towering personality with a white beard. He wore white khaddar shirt and dhoti. He raised his head from the book that he was reading and darted a questioning look towards me. I told him that I was JohnyML. He said, “So What?” Then he started laughing. He told me that he could not connect with the name and the person and he thought that I was many year older than I looked at that time. “Your writing is quite mature,” he said. I was happy. Then I went for a function in Thrissur. I addressed a public meeting of artists and art activists. There were a lot of college students. Once I came out of the podium, they gathered around me and asked for autograph. I was shocked. They told me that they loved my writing and they never thought that I was a young person. This was a quite a satisfying moment. In some random place when somebody over heard me saying my name, he walked upto me and asked whether I was the same person who read the All India Radio news. That too was a moment of happiness.
Even if you are not a vain person when people recognize you in places those are quite new to you and also you are not recognized for the clothes that you wear but for the works you have done, it is quite a pleasurable feeling. Recently a friend of mine from Kolkata called me up and told me that when he was standing in a railway ticket reservation queue, a young man walked up to him and asked whether he was JohnyML. He told him that he was my friend and also asked how did the young man know me? He told my friend that he was a regular reader of my blog and other articles published in magazines and somehow he thought that my friend must be me. I was happy to hear that. At the same time I remembered a similar incident sometime in 1999. I was standing a railway reservation queue. When my turn came and pushed the duly filled form into the counter, the person from the counter asked me whether I was the same JohnyML who wrote in the Malayalam Weekly. I said yes, and to my surprise he told me that he met a person from Lakshadweep about whom I had written in the weekly a few weeks back.
It was an interesting story. Let us call him Ali. Those were the pre-boom days and I used to go to Kerala by train. It took two nights and three days to reach there in Trivandrum. In one of my journeys I met this person who was sitting opposite to my seat and was involving himself in anything that was going on inside the compartment. In a long journey like that during the first few hours people are generally hostile to each other. Your membership in the same country, state, community, linguistic group or even gender would not make you look at the other passengers with a minimum level of tolerance. You invariably think that they are there to capture your rightful seat. You think that they are going to put their stuff under your seat. They are going to ask your birth. Their kids are going to snatch the window seat and so on. But then slowly everything settles down. And on the third day when you reach Kerala you would have become close friends difficult to part.
Ali was very busy and he was talking to everyone. He was calming down the screaming children. He was helping the people to arrange their luggage. He went out to fetch drinking water for them. When he opened his snacks he offered to it to everyone in the coupe. He was very friendly and I am often skeptical about over friendly people. On the first day I avoided him even if he tried to become friendly. But on the second day I grew curious. I was bored of reading and seeing the barren landscape that was running back in a breakneck speed. So I got into chatting with him. He turned out to be a great person. He was working in Delhi as a police constable and was a security man to one of the ministers who hailed from Lakshadeep. He told me everything about the people in the island. He said that they were different than the mainland people and also explained that it was natural for him to help anybody because in the island everyone knew everyone else and was helping each other out at any given time. His story was fascinating and I wrote a feature about this chance meeting with him. This article became a super hit and people relished it. Many wrote to me that they were wiping their tears once they finished reading that story.
Such graceful moments do not last long and the pleasure that it gives also could be short lived. The salary from Malayalam Vaarika was peanuts and I wanted more money to live a decent life. I was getting frustrated. Here I was slogging and this was the same person who wanted to become a full time writer. Yes, I was writing but I was not happy. Money was always a problem. Hence, someone asked me to apply for a job in the Hindustan Times. Perhaps it was in Hindustan Times that I had first given my bio-data for a job. They called me for an interview. They asked me to edit a page. Finally they asked me a crucial question whether I knew quark express or page maker. I said I did not know any. They told me it was difficult for me to get a job there. I was desperate. I kept visiting one of the editors there who took my test and even once almost sobbed in front of him. I was that desperate.
Finally I decided to leave Delhi. I had been a person who helped many to stay back. Whenever friends came around and told me that they were so depressed that they wanted to quit and go back to their villages, I used to discourage them and encourage them with pep talks. But now I was at the receiving end and life was all the more difficult. I did not know what I would do once I went to wherever I wanted to at that point of time. One day I was standing behind the Lalit Kala Akademy building and was having a cup of tea with Mrinal. We were discussing how to get out of the situation. Then suddenly a Maruti omni came and stopped near us. From inside one huge guy jumped out. His name was Mathew Samuel. I had met Mathew at Narendran sir’s office and he had very fabulous ideas all the time. On the very first day he met me he had got me drunk at the Palika Bazar under the open sky.
Mathew came with a grin and a hug. We were meeting after a long time. He asked me what I was upto those days. I told him the truth that I wanted to leave Delhi. He asked me hold on and gave me his number. He asked me to meet him at the tehelka.com office in one of those days. The new millennium had just arrived. I went to Tehelka office at Soami Nagar in South Delhi. It was very posh office in a cool place. Sushma’s daughter Ajitha was one of the copy editors in Tehelka. Ashley Tellis was there. So were Shamya Dasgupta, Proteeti Banerjee, Preeti Atreya, Kajal Basu, Shoma Chaudhury, Charu Soni, Arun Bhanot, Verghese K George and many others. Tarun Tejpal was the editor and Geetan Batra was his wife. They liked me and gave me the job of a senior correspondent. In the meanwhile, thanks to Radhakrishnan, Uma Nair too had put a word for me in tehelka. I worked there for a year. It was fun working with the team but I was getting frustrated again. I was spending endless hours at some politicians home or some party offices. I did not like it. I was moving here and there hopelessly like ghost. When I quit that job without much in hand or any other option, I did it without any regrets. Years later when I met Tarun Tejpal at artist Seema Kohli’s house, he hugged me and said, “Hey Johny, you too have grown old, man.”
After two years since my quitting from Tehelka, I got the Charles Wallace Scholarship to study in London. Once I came back, I thought I would be welcomed by the art fraternity. But nobody was interested to test my abilities. Nor did they want to engage a curator with a post graduation in the same discipline for making their shows. I did some shows for no remuneration in some private galleries. Also did some experimental projects. It was time for doing some work that brought food on my table. Mrinal was teaching in the Rai University, which later on was derecognized. Simultaneously she was taking all the pains to travel every day to the far off Modi Nagar which lay almost fifty kilometers away from our home to teach in the Modi college of Art. It was quite oppressive a situation and I felt like a useless person. I contemplated committing suicide after several years of its first occurrence in me March 1991. I wanted to get out of Delhi and say good bye to art. And I did say good bye to Mrinal and went to Kerala to look for a real job so that I could settle down there and forget the business called art.
I went to several newspaper and television offices. I met all those journalists who were somebody in those organizations and who could push my name for a job. But everyone asked me why such an established journalist like me needed a job at all. Television friends told me that they were in a cost cutting spree and they were not able to accommodate me in a paltry salary. They were recruiting new people so that they could run the show with minimum salaries. I was ready to do anything for a job; even taking the lowliest salary. But they were not willing to take a ‘senior’ person like me. I did not know what to do. One day, I got a call from Delhi. It was from Malayala Manorama, the famous newspaper. They were starting an edition in Delhi. Did I want to join? Yes, I wanted to get back to Delhi and thought that the phone call was God’s contrivance. On the fourth day I reached Delhi and joined Malayala Manorama. Mrinal came back from Bhopal and we were happy.
Now we had a reason to be in Delhi and the happy hormones worked. Mrinal got pregnant. And that’s how my Son, Maitreya MJ, you came to this world on 5th May 2005. After four years, on 19th August 2009, my daughter, Kartyayani MJ, you too came.
But your papa was not sticking to jobs as usual as he did not want to do anything that ate up his time. I left Malayala Manorama after a year or so. Then for a few months I worked from a hotel and I was given a job of a senior editor of a non-starter television channel, headed by Mathew Samuel. I sat in the hotel room and pretended that I was working. I wrote scripts for short films which I knew, would never get filmed. I visited politicians’ and bureaucrats’ offices just to make friends and be in touch. But one day I thought it was too much and I told good bye to Mathew Samuel and the non-starter company. Soon I launched www.mattersofart.com with my friend Anoop Kamath, which turned out to be a huge hit. I left it and started www.artconcerns.com with Dilip Narayanan, which I left in March 2009.