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Thursday, November 1, 2012

I am the Media

I got my first paycheque today. It is weird being the newest little lamb in a big, busy newsroom. My first month of work has been manic but so, utterly, spectacularly, worth it.

About two weeks into the job, I found myself commuting without thinking. I guess when you can go from your front door to your desk without thinking of anything other than the music between your ears, you have begun work?

My commute is painless. It is enjoyable – a far cry from what I thought it would be. The comical images of Bombay trains you have in your mind are very different from what I experience. I get the 9:46am Bandra local, which starts at Bandra, meaning I always get a nice, breezy seat in a relatively empty compartment. The gentle clip-clip the train makes as it trundles over tracks is the same sound the Regional made in Germany or the District Line made in London; the familiarity is soothing. A monthly first class ticket is just Rs. 270 or so. Only Dadar station brings the crazy crowds the Bombay trains are famous for. There are so many people at Dadar. It doesn't matter what time of day or night it is, there will always be fighting their way on at Dadar.

I am merely the intermediary between an expert and our readers and I have to become humble enough to understand that I cannot preach and my only influence should be how I articulate a smarter person's opinion. 

I can wake up at 8:30 and be at work at 10:30, which, given my previous 7am-9am internship mornings, is fantastic. I don’t know why but a good commute, where I can listen to my Gypsy Kings, sets the tone for a much better day.

Even though I get to work at 10:30, I am usually the first one there. My colleagues tell me this will change. I love the quiet of an empty office. I can catch up on football highlights and my favourite blogs. I will begin having morning meetings every day and start getting to work at noon. Even when they don’t have morning meetings, they get to work by 11:30 or so. After my stints with European style companies, it always comes as a shock. Shouldn’t there be an HR lady somewhere, disapproving of this?

Guess not. Journalists, like other ‘creatives’, have this sacred license. My first few days, I stayed till 6:30pm but as the month wore on, I had more and more work and usually left by 8 in the evening. During the last production week I was at work till midnight for almost a whole week. It was tiring but seeing my name on the by-line is a thrill I am just beginning to understand.

Working for Forbes is a blessing that I am getting used to. When I first walked in I was horrified because everyone – and I mean everyone – was older, smarter and wiser than me. I was so used to being one of the brighter ones my whole life that being a timid little lamb in a world of fast talking, name dropping, voice recorder wielding wolves was terrifying. I couldn’t talk about anything without realising that everyone knew more about the subject than I did. That is how it felt anyway. Seeing all these clever, witty, well spoken Indians all buzzing around in the same room was a new and awe-inspiring experience. Everyone was clever and I couldn’t bullshit. I’m a good bullshitter but in an industry where everyone is paid to read, listen and learn – you cannot bullshit. You will get called on it and there is no cave to back into it. For example, I thought I was some mega foodie – but at Forbes everyone is a foodie and everyone knows what to order at which place at what price. Better shut up unless you have some real insight. And that same cafeteria mantra translates into you work.

Shut up unless you have some real insight.

So I have learned what to talk about. It took me a month to find out the few things I could chat about with a little authority. The list currently stands at rather pathetic: Sports and Europe. If I stray into any other topic, the sharks will devour me with their knowledge. This job is about devouring knowledge and I love it.

The culture is also interesting. Forbes might just be the most male, masculine, macho magazine out there and this is reflected in the team we have. (Oh God, I’ve started using “we” and “our”.) The gender balance, both in terms of the actual people at the magazine and the culture of the place is skewed firmly towards the masculine. The kind of discussion at the “water cooler” is about women, cars, sports and food. People crack jokes at each other’s expense. It reminded me of the banter I had with friends at university with two crucial differences: these were my co-workers, not my friends and some of these guys were twice my age. It was cheeky, chappy lad banter and I guess it will take some getting used to. Working in very feminine environments in Beiersdorf and Naked Comms meant that co-workers’ personal/love/home lives we strictly private and strictly off-limits. Not so here. It’s much more of a college hostel environment with older guys tacking the mick and looking out for the younger guys in equal measure. But my older colleagues have made me feel welcome and I cannot express enough gratitude.

One person who is off limits to banter is the main man. The boss. The editor. He is respected and revered by everyone and whether he is at his office or buying you a drink at a bar, his measured, stately demeanour does not change. When you see how hard he works and how much he cares for his magazine, you understand why people interact differently with him. He is the one who hired me. He saw something in this stammering kid, took me under his wing and gave me a shot. And it feels great. I imagine his relationship is that way with most writers at the bureau. The fabric of the relationships within the office has begun to fall into place.

The challenge I face at Forbes is the one I started facing as soon as I moved back to India this summer. People don’t know how to place me. As one of the mythical expat kids of the 90s, I don’t fit into a ‘box’ so well. The “where are you from?” or even worse “so what are you?” questions don’t have short, easy answers and – make no mistake – no one really cares about the long, rambling ones. Abroad, I am Indian. In India I am foreign. I don’t help myself though, so I can’t complain. I don’t watch Hindi movies, I don’t speak Hindi very well and the stories I share constantly refer to a life in another city, be that Bangalore or somewhere overseas. The other day I confessed I had never had Lassi. I suspect my co-workers are trying to suss me out just as much as I am them. It will take a couple of months but I’ve already formed reasonably good relationships with my immediate bureau team and it’s reassuring. They introduce me as “the guy who has lived abroad” or “the guy who speaks French” and that always fills me with confidence.

I realise now that I’ve joined a club. We are journalists. We get calls from companies who want themselves promoted and calls from companies that quite firmly don’t. We go to press conferences at 5-star hotels and dabble in some free food even if the actual event isn’t worth writing about. We work late, we work on Sunday if need be. Everyone is always on the lookout for the next big story. Even when you go, wide-eyed and full of energy, to a senior editor with your next Pulitzer prize winning article you have to be ready to be shot down by the age old question: but what’s the story? I’m just starting to understand the intertwining sinews and layers that go into a Forbes Magazine article. My co-workers have told me that breaking the duck is tough but once you have your first full story out there, the rest will flow. I’m waiting to get off the mark.

I'm excited about my first real story. I'm excited about having even tiniest degree of influence of the successful business people in my country. I am excited about being validated: it was a truly shitty summer of job rejections and I am ready to put all the self doubt behind me

A month ago today I started my first real job. I am already different. I am still a kid, but a different kid. I am part of a curious fraternity. I am part of a group I've nonchalantly passed comments about.

“Ahh it’s nothing. It’s all in the media.”

I am the media. I have the best job in the world. I go to sleep smarter than when I woke up. I am the luckiest kid alive. 

Babies on the Pavement

I only stepped over 3 homeless children on the way to work today. 

The homeless family that live on the corner of Tulsi Pipe Road were absent today for some reason. Usually you see the 6 of them sprawled out on the hot granite tiles of the sidewalk. The father, mother and oldest daughter are usually putting flowers through thread to be made into garlands or picking the feathers off dead birds they have caught. Their skin is burnt from a life in the sun. The two toddlers are off on the side fighting each other playfully or looking for empty plastic bottles. And their baby, who must not be more than a year old, is kept on her back on a thin dusty mat. She is just out there, in the middle of the city. No cot beneath her, just the hard road and the beating sun; breathing the fumes I breathe. Sometimes she swings from side to side in a make-shift hammock: it is a discarded shawl hung from two lampposts. They don’t live in the shadows under the flyover like the other homeless. They are out there. Their lives look you in the eye every morning. Day after day this past month I have walked past them and done nothing to help.

Bombay has desensitized me to humans. There are human beings everywhere. Never have I seen human life spread so thick and worth so little. In every crevice, every shady spot, every abscess of this dystopian city there is a human being try to grind out an existence. India cannot look itself in the mirror and neither can I. I am not sad because of their plight – I am sad because I cannot weep and I feel that I should. There is no love lost in a city divided among so many. Not for itself or anyone. It is every man, woman and child for himself.

Every morning from the window of the train I see young men shitting by the train tracks. They squat, meet your gaze and shit. 

The solidarity that passengers of the first class train carriage feel towards one another is nice. When some unruly character decides to create a scene, we commuters stick together and for a split second you dare reach out to another human being. You feel the alien tendrils of a human connection for a fleeting second. And how warm it makes you feel! When someone plays Kishore Kumar songs on their phone in the evening and everyone starts to sing along - how warm that smile makes you feel! Yet that solidarity is not extended to those squatting down by the rusty rail road.

I was told from a young age not to give beggars money because it would not help. Every time I don’t help someone I make an excuse in my head.
“I can smell alcohol on his breath; he would use the money to buy more”
“These children would give the money to their boss”
“If I help him, how many more can I help? I cannot feel satisfied helping just one”
“No one else is helping them: why should I?”
“I am on a starting salary; I can’t be handing out money”
“They don’t want my help”
“The government should look after them. They are not my problem”
And the worst one of all, “They deserve it”. Yes, I have thought that too. Not for a long time, but for a passing moment when a eunuch spat at me for not giving him money. It flashed across my eyes in thunderous red. Every man for himself.

But I have run out of excuses. A thousand yard stare is all that remains. No tears have stained my cheeks and that in itself is reason to weep. The baby on the pavement will soon become the elephant in the room and I will concern myself with more “worthy” matters.

What am I doing with my life? I am doing nothing to help anyone because it’s easier that way. I’m sitting here writing it out as if that’s going to change anything. I’m sitting here writing about helping poor people. When I started this job I said to myself that being a critic for the business world would, at some level, bring out some positive impact upon India. The magazine I'm working for is organising philanthropy awards to encourage corporate India to go beyond CSR. By critiquing business cheats and championing success we are helping oil the cogs of industry and.... see: I’m great at making up excuses. Braver people than I work in NGOs and government schools. I can’t look them in the eye – not in my dreams or in real life. I feel shame. I don’t know if I will ever have a Buddha moment, where I leave the palace and become a saint. I doubt it.

I’ve also realised that bringing it up in conversation with my friends and co-workers in India is an absolute no-go. I am called an NRI and ridiculed. How sad for me, right? Poor Shravan gets shit when he tries to talk about the poor like a noble, principled young person. Poor him. The problem is, when there’s an elephant in the room size of this one and you get used to ignoring it, it is very hard to have a discussion about it. You begin to hate the poor for making you think about them. I cannot talk about what I see with my colleagues, my parents or my friends. It’s the biggest of all the taboos in India.

I don’t know what to do. I try not to think about the plight of that baby because it is a sinkhole for any hope I have – and I have hope. I am a happy person. I have not become my cynical uncle who complains about the world without doing anything to change it. India is full of cynics who preach from the sofa. They scream and shout and rant and rave because for all the great history, the enduring philosophy and the myriad of Gods this old country has, there is no good answer to the baby on the pavement. None that I have heard.

No one can tell me why I have it so good. What have I done to deserve any of it? Karma is convenient nonsense and while I am generally a happy person, when someone tries to justify poverty and suffering with the inane vapid ramblings of religion my blood boils much faster than it should. I see red. But being angry will not change anything – especially being angry with invisible men in the sky. Being angry though, is easier than being sad. Being angry is easier than thinking about their faces. When you and I turn off our computers and turn off the light, we can say goodnight. We think of those we love or those we long for. We can dream. We retire to comfort. We can switch off. They cannot. The baby may not see her next morning, let alone her next breakfast.  

My empathy is blunted. My shame is unending. I am desensitized. I cannot be the only one who lives in this great city that feels this way. She will suffer and I will have done nothing. Tell me what to do. Please.

I ask you because every time I see them, they are smiling. They look happy. Does despair descend on them when my back is turned? What do they think of me as I walk past them, listening to Creedance Clearwater Revival, everyday? 

I'm sure someone has written about poverty far more eloquently and succinctly than I have here so if this is coming across as the lesser writings of a lesser writer, then I am sorry. I am largely alone with the other 20 million people in the city and I couldn't tell any of them so I'm telling you. Thank you for listening.