Years before, 'citizen journalist' became the buzzword, my then Editor, Tushar Bhatt had a dream.
He wanted to hear ordinary people speak on the pages of the newspaper. True, they could be heard if they wrote in to the 'Letters to the Editor' column, but those weren't the type of voices he wanted to hear. With that in mind, he launched a column aptly titled 'VOICES.'
Four newbie Sub-Editors had made their entry into the hallowed precincts of The Times of India on Ashram Road at Ahmedabad. We'd survived a harrowing written test, an interview and expectedly felt on top of the world when we finally held the official letter of appointment.
The world was truly within our reach. So when Mr Bhatt spelt out his plans for the column, it was a resounding yes on our part. After all, how difficult could it be to pick a topic, head out to the streets to get four comments with pictures to go.
Ah, the heady confidence of youth!
What I, for one, hadn't fathomed was the fact that I had arrived in a new city. I barely knew a soul. I was desperately seeking a roof over my head and a way of buttering my daily bread. I imagined cracking this assignment would take less than half a day. After all, don't people love to talk? You bet they do. The minute you tell them about a proper quote and a picture to go they go into freeze frame instead. The neighbours didn't want to do it, the shop owners of Vastrapur didn't want to do it, nor did the folks on the street.
With no luck on my side, I decided to cycle through the educational parts of Ahmedabad. Somehow, the IIM seemed too forbidding, the Architecture college too linear and that's when I came across St Xavier's College. This looked like just the place I was searching for. My kind of students, a casual ambiance, nice canteen. I felt perfectly at home, so I started my spiel. In true college style I was pointed from one name to the next to the next, till I reached a rather intense looking guy with glasses."Hi, I work for TOI and I'm looking for a voice, would you mind talking?"
With that I got my first voice and met Robin David. The year was 1993.
I had no clue who Robin was. It was only when he came to drop his picture in the newsroom that the whispers started."You know who that is?"
Someone on the desk asked"No. Why? Should I know."
"Yes, his mother is a fierce critic. His grandfather started the zoo. You've never heard of them,"
came the answer laced with a bit of shock and awe."Now, I have."
So I got my propah introduction to Robin and his mum - Esther David
. But more of that later.
Robin and I kept in touch. He told me he was interested in photography, dropped by with his impressive black and white portfolio one day, which was just as well. I'd started writing for another Bennett & Coleman publication 'Femina' and was desperately seeking a photographer who could thrive on the love for work. There would be a credit, some money and he was game.
Robin brought life to so many of the features I wrote. The most memorable of which was a picture of Kiran Sethi, wife of India's Billiards Champion Geet Sethi. Kiran was into designing restaurants at that time. She'd just lent her creative touches to the wildly popular restaurants Mirch Masala and Tomato's. Interviewing Kiran was delightful, photographing her a tad tricky. She was expecting a baby and didn't want the bump to be that obvious. Robin played around with the angles, shots and got it just right. Kiran looked radiant, the picture spoke louder than my words and certainly lit up some feature pages.
Several months later, Bala and I tied the knot or should it be signed the paper. Bala had already made his way to Singapore, I was counting my days in Ahmedabad. That's when my landlady dropped a bombshell. She wanted her house back. Not the kind of news one wanted to hear when you are straddling through worlds. Again Robin came to my rescue, boldly offering me possession of his Guptanagar home. He, in any case, was off to France to work on his photography, among other things. Having seen that treasure trove of a house, the offer was irresistible. I was happy to pack my bags and move in there. Any offer of a token rent were shunned and I was embraced by Ora, by Lilaben and everyone else who made their way in and out of that amazing home.
Pages of history were everywhere. Every book you pulled out of the packed bookshelves had a story to tell. There was the shrink's lounge chair, the dining table with the mooras, the pleasing sight of green grassy fields that you woke up to in the morning. The smell of the earth when the rain drops fell. It was in a word - perfect.
I hadn't met Esther yet but when she returned from Paris, the first thought that came to my mind was "fierce."
For a couple of days, I avoided going home, staying over at various friend's places, till she decided to call the newsroom and put me in my place:"Why haven't you been home?"
Expectedly, a lot of humming and hawwing ensued. No answer sounded convincing enough. By the end of it, I felt stupid and decided it was time to come face to face with the formidable Esther David.
They say, you shouldn't always believe what you hear about a person. It couldn't have been more true for Esther. As she fed me my first dinner, I felt her warmth, in that moment when we talked about the Aloos, the way they had to be browned, I knew we'd be friends for life, even if I never learnt to cook the aloos her way.
Over the next couple of months, we poured over the covers of her first book The Walled City
, which was to mark the beginning of her literary journey as an author.
Making another journey of his own was Robin who was steadily veering from photography to print. He did put up a photography exhibition backed by Alliance Francaise till the demands of his journalism job took over. After a stint with The Indian Express, he moved over to The Times of India.
I left India way before so many upheavals happened in Esther and Robin's life.
It all hit me when Esther emailed me last week:"Dear Deepika,
The house is gone......"
Before it could even sink in, I was already on to the next bit of news:Robin has come out with a novel. It is called 'City of Fear', by Penguin, it is all about leaving Gupta Nagar.
I quickly googled it and found a piece done by Naresh Fernandes
in Time Out:In City of Fear, David, an assistant editor at the Times of India, comes to terms with having to discard several generations' worth of memories and attempts to make sense of the altered geography of the metropolis in which he's spent his life.
On his blog
, Robin writes:I did not expect an earthquake and a bloody riot to define me. But it did. City of Fear is my first book.
Am I mad or am I surrounded by madness?
Now, if that hasn't got you rushing you to the book store, I don't know what else will.
Labels: Ahmedabad, Esther David, Robin, Writing