By Subhra Priyadarshini*
On a newly-acquired bike, wind in my hair and brash confidence of youth in my head, I had managed to get past the gates of Eastern Media Private Limited in Bhubaneswar without producing an identity card. That had given me a high. Once inside, I found myself standing in front of a portly man banging away on a typewriter – he was to interview me for my first job. It wasn’t exactly my dream office – it didn’t have a sleek corporate look or the best brand of computers that I had just seen in New Delhi during my internship at a big media house. But you can’t complain on your first job interview, can you?.
Being quizzed by a man with paan-stained lips for a ‘local’ English-language daily was not the best thing to happen to a Delhi-returned wannabe journalist, a topper fresh out of the country’s premier journalism school. Most of my batch mates had already found jobs in big media houses and were nursing dreams of becoming Nalini Singhs and Prannoy Roys. And, here I was – settling for a night shift at the Sun Times! Why? Because my mother had insisted that without a post graduate degree, education meant nothing (the journalism course had given me only a post graduate ‘diploma’). “And if you must work, suit yourself with a part-time job while you study”, she had said sternly. Why do mothers always get in the way of the budding Christiane Amanpours of this country?
But then, that was it. I was escorted by the paan-chewing old man into the chamber of the Editor of the newspaper Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, who was to give the final nod. Good lord! I had been warned by well-meaning friends that Patnaik was a disciplinarian, a no-nonsense hard task master. And they weren’t wrong. “Don’t think with a journalism degree, you know it all. It’s on the job that you learn. So, be open to working hard and learning,” he said, again sternly. I nodded. And after being tested a little on general awareness, I got the job. That was easy.
What followed wasn’t. A massive exercise in unlearning and learning had just begun. Words, expressions, sourcing, field reporting, manning the desk, deciphering and translating copy from Odia to English, newsroom quirks (and Odia expletives I had missed out on during my English medium schooling), page making, meeting deadlines and night shift pressures – all within the limited resources of a small newspaper. That was enough to strip me of my sense of superiority – I actually knew nothing! I was floundering , getting reprimanded, running around aimlessly and yet wasn’t able to beat the clock, making a fool of myself, spelling words in unimaginable ways – I spelt ‘hijack’ as ‘highjack’ in a very sensitive copy and got a public dressing down from a senior. I haven’t misspelt that word ever after.
So what was it they hadn’t taught us in journalism school?
“Life skills, dear child, and the art of multi-tasking when resources are not exactly BBC standard,” the paan chewing bureau chief told me a couple of years later. He still banged on the old typewriter despite desktops sitting on every desk around him. Over the years, he had become my lifeline at Sun Times. My mentor, my guru, the encyclopaedia of Odia politics, my personal dictionary and thesaurus when I needed word power super-quick. RK Behera, may God bless his soul, remained my Godfather till the last day of his life, long after we had both moved ahead into life beyond Sun Times.
Working at Sun Times was heavy duty learning. It gave me the professional skills I need to fit into any media organisation across the world. From day one, it hammered me into becoming a night-shift-ready multi-tasker, a rugged reporter-cum-desk person-cum-columnist-cum page maker. It taught me that the rigours of a tough night at work effortlessly melt away into a hot cup of canteen tea shared at dawn with colleagues, who eventually become family. It gave me friends for life and an inherent Odia pride I wear on my sleeves, wherever I go.