Hello, I am Patralekha.
Welcome to my blog, a new year and a new decade. This is my cyber-home. Feel free to drop by, share words, images, music and thoughts or hurl brickbats.
A bit about me — I am a journalist, author and amateur photographer following international affairs. I have a special interest in covering issues that impact India and the developing world. I also focus on public health and human development in other emerging economies.
I have been shaped by many people and places around the world and believe that ‘change’ is the only constant in life.Here are some snippets of an ordinary life in an extraordinary world . I left home at 19, braving the wrath of Bengali middle class, archetypally ‘bhadralok’ neighbours and relatives in Calcutta. My parents were supportive but nervous. I arrived in Delhi with a few thousand rupees in my bank ( savings from my first job in Bangalore as a space seller for Business Standard, then part of the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group) , no contacts and no mentors. The only thing I had going for me was a craving to be a journalist. I was glamour-struck, but not in the conventional sense. Coming from a relatively privileged background, I had been sheltered from the knocks and jabs that make up the lives of most people in the country. I was curious to know what it was like to be “out there” — the other India. I didnot have a burning desire to change the world but believed that going through life meeting people who were more or less like me would be immensely dull. I was afraid that if I didnot intervene actively in my life, I would follow the path of ‘good’ Bengali, middle class girls who do well in studies, aspire for higher education, marry/are married to eligible bachelors their parents approve , and settle down in cosy domesticity and work which doesnot rock the boat. I didnot know what I wanted in the early days but I was quite sure what I didnot want: the comfort zone. I didnot want to “settle down”. Journalism offered exciting possibilities to explore the world beyond the one I had grown up with and I plunged into it with passion. I stayed in a working womens’ hostel run by nuns while studying at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, located those days in South Extension (Part II). I must have been convincing when I said I was a “trainee” and suitably demure — the nuns let me in. The atmosphere was pious, the food was awful , the nuns were fierce ( except a Spanish nun who had been a ballet dancer in her earlier life), my room mates were a bunch of aspiring secretaries but IIMC was down the road and I saved money on transport. I was dirt-poor, supporting myself, didnot know where the money for the next meal would come from, or if it would come. Soon, the ‘glamour’ of the other India from which I had been insulated all these years began to wear off. But I liked my freedom, my newly acquired skills to navigate the wild, wicked world all on my own, and the leafy environs of South Delhi. The best part was I didnot have meddlesome relatives in the city. I stayed put.
The IIMC days were marvelous – cups of tea in the canteen with other dirt-poor aspiring journalists and the occasional night-out with another scruffily dressed classmate at the Taj Machan ( coffee for Rs 5 those days and you could sit there as long as you wanted). At IIMC, I confess I learnt less about journalism and more about Africa, thanks to exchange students. I passed out in 1984, starry-eyed about joining the ranks of the intrepid news gatherers. Remember reading Robert Fisk and notable senior colleagues in the Indian media ( some of whom are now my Facebook friends) for inspiration.
The late Nikhil Chaktravarty (Nikhilda to everyone) was kind enough to give me a job as a reporter-editor. The salary was a princely Rs 500 per month. None of the major newspapers were interested in people like me — we looked shabby, we did not know anyone that mattered in Lutyens’ Delhi and no one wanted to put in a good word for us before we knocked on the door of an editor. Surviving on Rs 500 was not exotic. I joined Patriot — the legendary newspaper of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg that served as a haven for Marxists, mavericks and nowhere people like me. The salary was meagre but the two years I spent at Patriot were among my happiest. Patriot was very good for budding journalists. Few reporters stayed there for long. The good ones were invariably snapped up by better-paying newspapers and magazines within a couple of years. That threw up immense opportunities for cub reporters like me who were just starting out.
One of my earliest assignments was the chaos that followed the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi. I happened to be inside the All India Institute of Medical Science, talking to a junior doctor for a story on medical education, when she was brought in. There was chaos outside and I was trapped inside the doctor’s room, not allowed to step out, because an ‘injured’ Mrs G was there ( so I was told, though I could not get anywhere close to where she was). The doctor told me she was ‘dead’ but the news was not going to be put out immediately. When I came back to office, I was put on the job of following up the aftermath because I was one of the local ‘crime reporters’. The horrors that my colleagues and I lived through and wrote about, toughened me forever. Those early years of struggle and rejection steeled me, taught me stuff that are at the core of my survival kit today.
More than 20 years down the line, the memories remain. I have moved on. I have explored remote corners of India, travelled the world; lived in France and the United Kingdom, thanks in great measure to scholarships, awards and assignments, worked for the best in the international and national media, penned a few books, directed a documentary — in brief, done some of the things I wanted to do. And mostly on my own terms. Much more remains. I still believe “only sediment settles down”. The journey never ends.
There are new goals, interests, people and places. The allure of “out there”, beyond the world I know is as strong as ever.
I see myself primarily as a story teller, and enjoy communicating the reality of one world to another. I believe there will always be a reader/listener for a good story, though journalism, my trade, has changed so much since I started out. I speak English, Bengali, Hindi and French and am happy to interact in any of these languages.
Hope to keep the conversation flowing. Enjoy the Beatles classic. Apart from its melody and lyrics, what makes Norwegian Wood so special is the introduction of the Indian sitar. This was in fact the first time that a sitar was used on a Western pop record.