In journalism school, we are taught that reporting is all about truth-telling and putting down to paper only what we see — facts are sacred, comment is free. But as strange as it might be, our most interesting experiences while we’re out on the street often never make it to our reports.
One such experience happened this Tuesday (March 3, 2020) morning, when I was at the Government Hospital for Women and Children, Egmore. I was doing a story on the dismal condition of the toilets at the hospital’s general waiting hall adjoining the courtyard, where close to 200 people (visitors and relatives of in-patients) set up camp at any point of time, for lack of a better option.
Having failed to learn even broken Tamil in the last eight months since I’ve been here in Chennai, I was desperately seeking people who could speak Hindi or English, in order to get some quotes. That meant staking out the toilet like a Cold War-era spy, looking for facial features that seemed a bit non-native. Some 15 minutes later, my efforts bore fruit.
We’ll call this man Mr. Red, simply because he wore a red t-shirt. The moment Mr. Red walked out of the toilet, I approached him and introduced myself. When asked about the state of the toilets, he had some uncharitable things to say (in Hindi) as he had been there for the past two days. Here we go, I thought.
When he was done, I asked him for his personal details — name, age, which part of the city he lived in and all that. That was when his expression completely changed.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot tell you that. My wife is in a critical condition in this hospital, and if they learn I’ve said anything bad about this place, they will not treat her properly,” he said. Despite my repeated assurances over the next couple of minutes, Mr. Red refused to talk to me anymore, before he walked away.
No, I didn’t use his quote, in case you were wondering.
When it was time for lunch, I was heading out to this cheap, no-frills restaurant nearby when I crossed paths with Mr. Red again near the hospital entrance. I waved my hand in acknowledgment and smiled at him when he said,
“Why are you writing bad things about them? People will get in trouble because of you. Don’t do all this.”
I told him it was alright and I only wished him well, but he repeated, “Don’t do all this. This only leads to trouble.” I felt bad, but all I could do then was go my own way.
Later that day, I wondered whether this has something to do with the times that we’re living in. In recent years, authority figures are rearing their ugly head more often than not, and we’re all told that any form of dissent or disagreement is undesirable. Bow your head and mind your own business — if you dare to speak out, there might be consequences.
Fear is a powerful thing, yes. But it is up to journalists to defuse this atmosphere of fear that permeates the country, by continuing to question those in power. Only then will we have our fellow citizens not scared outright of the authorities turning vindictive.
It reminds me of what someone once told me about my vocation. He said,
“A journalist is someone who stands between the powers that be and the people. You have the responsibility of standing up to the ones up above because others often cannot.”