Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dead Girls like Sonam

I'm sitting here in Muscat, Oman, looking at my old small spiral notebook that I used to carry around with me as a reporting intern at NDTV in New Delhi last June. The front cover is dark blue with a broad orange stripe. It says 'Lotus' in small print next to a picture of a lotus flower. The spiral is thin but tough and black in colour. The back cover says that this notebook contains 160 pages and that it cost 11 rupees. There's an address back there, probably the manufacturer: Sohan Lal Nem Chand Jain, 90 Chawri Bazar, Delhi - 6 (INDIA). You can email the company at and call them at their 'helpline' at 65288701. Don't forget to dial 91 for India and 11 for Delhi.

The pages of this notebook are in various shades of pastel - pink, yellow, blue, green, but the first few pages are white. Ruled. If you flip through them, you can see my scribbles through half of those 160 pages. In black ink, of course, that's the only colour I write in. The first page of this notebook has neat handwriting. This is where I would write down the extension numbers of the different departments at NDTV. The Video Tape Library (VTL), Graphics (GFX), Input, PCR B (English), and PCR A (Hindi). And the cafeteria.

A few pages after this are some questions I'd scrawled down as bullet points. I remember writing them. I had been on my way with a senior cameraperson to the Ministry of State for Women and Child Development. The minister there - Krishna Tirath - was finally going to make a statement, and I had been hurriedly dispatched from the newsroom to get that bite. It was about that 14-year-old girl who had allegedly been raped and murdered in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh by some policemen. She had already been buried after an autopsy that had cleared the policemen, but the ministry in Delhi had decided to send in their own team to exhume the body and conduct a second autopsy. The girl who had died, her name was Sonam. Her parents were Tarannum and Intezam Ali. These were poor people. India is a poor country.

The NDTV car had been smelling hot and dusty. The monsoons hadn't hit yet. I'd been making notes during the ride about questions I wanted to ask the minister. I remember my scalp feeling tight, I had wanted to do a good job. I had planned on asking the minister 3 things: had they received any new information about the alleged crime, was the ministry stepping into this issue because of political pressure, and was there reason to believe that the proposed second autopsy was expected to yield different results? That's what's in my notes anyway. I was quite a serious little intern.

I remember rushing into the ministry with the cameraperson, a no-nonsense South Indian man with a strong vibe of strength about him. The ministry was dank and moldy from the inside. Sticky feeling. The elevator we took to go upstairs kept shaking and making mechanical chewing noises like a robot's digestive system. We were late, late, late, what if the minister had already begun? The cameraperson and I rushed out of the elevator as the doors opened too slowly and ran down a corridor that looked like there was a war going on outside. The lights were out, the ceiling was gone and had wires and other skeletal building material hanging down from it. We found the door to the minister's office. We opened it. A number of eyes turned to look at us. We were late, the other channels - their reporters and camerapeople - were already there. The minister was at her desk. And her room was amazing. A shiny floor (was it hardwood?), expensive couches, and large black statues of Renaissance-type children and women in various corners of the room. Air conditioning. A corporate office almost, a whole other world far away from the decaying ministry outside.

I helped the cameraperson quickly set up his tripod and the mic. With the red NDTV muff. I felt a little embarassed about being the last ones there, but the minister hadn't started giving her statement yet. "Aaiye, aap hi ka intezaar thha," a number of reporters and camerapeople there said to us, almost rolling their eyes. Please come, you were the ones we'd been waiting for. We were NDTV after all, the most famous, the most sophisticated channel of them all.

Everyone was crowded around the minister's shiny desk. There was no space to stand close to her desk because that's where all the camerapeople stood with their large cameras. I was the youngest and the shortest - and female - but in the confusion I somehow found my way up across her desk. Someone patted my shoulder to make me sit down on the chair there, and I did. No one was paying any attention, the reporters were mentally disconnected, the minister was chatting with another female reporter, and I didn't really know what to do. These were the real camerapeople and reporters, and they all knew each other. Even the politicians and other newsmakers knew them. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know what was supposed to happen next. The minister looked at me, a new face sitting across from her desk. I caught her eye, and after an awkward second, I decided to ask her a question. One of the ones I had come up with on the way to the ministry.

The minister had started to smile at me when I spoke. I think I asked her about the autopsy. Her face fell, she looked at me like I had gone off-script. Her mouth trembled, her eyes darted left and right, and her voice shook as she turned away. "Not now, not now, later, later." Later? When? Isn't that what I was supposed to do as a reporter?

I guess not. The minister immediately started making her statement, memorised and well-rehearsed, inflecting at all the right places. She first did this in English for the English channels, and then performed it all over again in Hindi for the other channels. It was like watching a play or the taping of a show. Aaaand turn to this camera for Hindi. I sat there across from her the whole time, wondering why I had even bothered to use my brain to come up with questions that I had thought needed to be asked.

We were hardly in there for more than 10 minutes before the statements were taken and the camerapeople and reporters decided to leave. I had looked around but no one was asking any questions, I didn't know why. I felt somewhat stupid and useless. Redundant. Everyone left the minister behind in her office and stepped back out into the muggy haunted corridor and packed the elevator on our way down. The reporters and camerapeople were abusing the minister the whole time. "What a waste of time," they had said. "She's an idiot. She's only doing this to suck up to her boss Chidambaram." I felt like a dancing monkey. I'm sorry, Sonam.

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