Journalism is about the here and the now and fiction is about the universal and the timeless. The skills demanded of both the crafts ultimately help one to be a good writer and a committed journalist. Woman of the written word Indrani Raimedhi on stories, life, media and more to Teresa Rehman
Born in the picturesque Scotland of the East, Shillong, she calls herself one of God’s chosen ones. An acclaimed journalist, columnist and writer, Indrani Raimedhi is one of the best known journalists in Northeast India. She recalls her childhood days with an endearing fondness. “I was born in a story book land where church bells pealed and in front of every Khasi home and a youth strummed his guitar. Great vistas of hill, meadow and forest embraced us, it was as if we were peaceful, happy and attuned to some deep symphony. Surrounded by such beauty, such beauty, it would have been unnatural not to want to captive in words what I felt in my childish heart,” she remininces.
What started as jottings in her diary gradually developed into fables and fairy tales, comic capers of lovable animals, sad, confessional plagiarising of writer from Enid Blyton to Jane Austen. But in many of her columns and stories, the dominant theme is Shillong of yesteryears that remains an enduring character, endlessly interpreted by her changing imagination and moods.
She is best known for her column Third Eye in The Assam Tribune. She said she had plunged into the risk of writing the column without a safety jacket, a parachute or a plan B. “One fine morning, in the middle of a work week, I cobbled together a few very personal thoughts and observations added a bit of irony, humour, a dash of sadness, a sprinkling of reminiscences and there it was, a quarter page fortnightly column,” she says. She writes exactly what comes to her mind, without at all worrying what her readers would think of her.
“I make sure I have something to say about everything but have left out religion, politics and sex because others are speaking too much about the trinity,” she adds.
She had started out in 1995, when her sons were little boys. It was natural to write about the joys and frustrations of being a mother. Alongwith that is an explanation of what it means to be a woman in today’s world and inevitably, the battle of the sexes. Her column straddles diverse concerns – it goes into the possibility of life in outer space, remembering a beloved grandmother or expressing the schizoid parallel realities of Indians. But rather than grand issues and famous movers and shakers, Third Eye is about the evanescent moment, and the dreams and disappointments of every man and every woman.
She says, “Instead of pontificating, I seen to share my own limited experiences and feel truly gratified when someone meets me on the streets and says, “I was thinking exactly of the same thing! How did you guess?” Well, the guessing game goes on.
As a journalist, she had met many big names including Pulitzer prize winner like Arthur Flowers, travel writer Paul Theroux and Vijay Tendulkar to name a few who left a deep imprint on her in many ways. She fondly recalls her interaction with journalist Khushwant Singh. She had travelled with him to see the Poa Mecca at Hajo.
“I marvelled at his curiosity, his attention to detail, his enormous reserves of vitality and his wicked sense of humour,” she says. “Ali Sardar Jaffri quizzed me on Urdu literature and only then did we begin the interview,” she recalls.
These famous men and women she had met were completely committed to their line of endeavour. At the same time, they also drank deep from the cup of life. “They have taught me that the truly valuable things are not houses, cars and bank balance but the attainments of one’s mind and the strength to believe in one’s dream,” she says.
But it would be wrong to say only these people had inspired her. Through these decades she have interviewed many unknown people — widows, orphans, drug addicts, surrendered insurgents, the disabled, families haunted by tragedy — these people have also taught how life is to be lived with hope and dignity, without bitterness.
And perhaps the single person who has been her rock, her solace, at all times is her literary godmother Jnanpith-award winning writer Mamoni Raisom Goswami. Her heart was big enough to contain multitudes. Her rage against injustice and oppression rang out like thunder. And yet, she also had within her the tranquil benevolence of the moon. “I am what I am due to her and there is not a day which passes when I do not think of her,” she says. Oriya writer Jayanta Mohapatra has also encouraged her writing. “I treasure a letter he sent to me after reading one of my stories. I am truly enriched by these magical encounters,” she says.
Like everything else in her life, television too happened quite by chance. She had an opportunity, in the early nineties, take part in a couple of quiz shows as a participant. “We were all young professionals, married, with children. It felt like getting back into college. Then I did an investigative documentary on shortage of paper for textbooks in Assam’s schools,” she says. As the anchor she had to do a lot of work and it was quite exhilarating. She had developed a great respect for the people behind the camera whose hard work led to the final product. Slowly, she began participating in a number of panel discussions, for Doordarshan and for private channels.
She wrote some scripts for television and two television serials have been made based on her own fiction. She was also IGNOU’s phone-in counsellor for the Creative Writing programme on All India Radio, Guwahati. She was also anchor of a six-part Doordarshan series on some eminent poets and writers of the Northeast India.
She would not call the electronic media superficial. “It operates under conditions which differ from that of the print media. In television there is a moment to moment update in news. Sometimes there is no time or opportunity to examine the implications in the quiet, rational, dispassionate manner. The television, unlike the newspapers, has to play to the gallery. The hype is it lifeblood, its oxygen.”
She feels that sometimes anchors do not do enough homework. “They approach issues with the most obvious and superficial questions. There is also the TRP ruled trend of including more glamour segments into news programmes. This caters to the lowest common denominator.”
She agrees that today the media is obsessed with trivia because it is under pressure to gain the attention of the reader or viewer. The attention span of the target reader/ viewer is decreasing. She says, “Many news channels are becoming like the gossipy neighbourhood aunt who hits at salacious scandals but cannot come up with anything concrete.”
However, she feels it is a good sign that the national media is slowly but steadily doing stories on the Northeast. The sad thing is, it is mostly about insurgency activity, law and order situation, repression by the army, flood and influx of illegal migrants. Newspapers and television channels of the region must strive to give a balanced picture of the region.
Inspiring profiles of local people who have achieved success inspite of hurdles, innovative steps taken in area of activity, developmental stories need to be focussed on. The information that we send out from the region must be accurate, fast and comprehensively presented.
Northeast India has a vibrant media. Until 1979 newspapers and magazines considered media as an instrument of social change. But the student agitation of the 1980s brought in an aggressive, investigative kind of journalism. There was a huge proliferation of media that thrived due to the turmoil of the succeeding years. Journalists in this region work under dangerous conditions and a lot of hurdles but they continue to be an exploited lot.
She wears another hat – an acclaimed short story writer. At one level writing fiction and working as a journalist at a daily newspaper seem to be diametrically opposite states of being. Fiction is all about mood, atmosphere, the abstract dilemmas of existence, man’s search for happiness and fulfilment. “Writing fiction engages me, the deep, initiative part of me, the woman, who seeks truth, who rejoices in peopling an entire universe with all kinds of characters noble, means, generous, wilful. But as a journalist I am bound by deadlines, by facts, not conjectures,” she says.
If writing is a solitary occupation, then journalism is just the opposite — you interact with people all the time whether it is the person you are interviewing or the compositor or the photographer. Journalism is about the here and the now and fiction is about the universal and the timeless. The skills demanded of both the crafts ultimately help one to be a good writer and a committed journalist.
Many of her short stories are also about journalists. In the story “The Carnage”, a lady journalist Ananya Guha travels to the remote Assamese countryside and discovers the horrors of ethnic strife. In another story a forgotten freedom fighter turns up at a newspaper office with his own obituary — hours before his tragic suicide. The urgency, the buzz of a newspaper office with its trilling telephones and whirring fax machines is what excites Raimedhi.
Writers have brilliantly explored these daunted years and the tragedy that has befallen our people. Their uncompromising gaze at what went so wrong for all these years will help us understand contemporary history. She is happy that Northeast India now has a group of brilliant writers who are totally at ease writing in English.
“I am very excited by the writing of Jahnavi Barua, Aruni Kashyap, Anurag Rudra, Siddhartha Sarma and Kenny Basumatary. Each have developed a distinct voice and have a great sense of identity. But then, we also need to break out of the mould of being Northeast Writers. And Jahnavi has proved that possible,” she adds.
She laments, “The best years of our lives were spent under the shadow of violence. Many of us lost an entire academic year due to the student’s agitation against foreigners. As a woman, bomb blasts, kidnappings, extortion has led to a high level of attrition as I would worry continually about the safety of my loves ones. The quest for peace and reconciliation needs the participation of all classes of society. Journalists must be free, frank and fearless when presenting the facts. They must not be partisan or operate with a hidden agenda,” she adds.
When one thinks of home, she always think of that magical cottage in Dhankheti, Shillong where she had spent the first ten years of her life. Home is also in Delhi and Hyderabad, where her sons are. Her parental home at Guwahati is the warm cocoon that makes her feel safe and loved. Her own house is at Gandhi Basti, Guwahati. “I felt blessed to be at the foot of the Sarania Hill, beneath Bapu’s ashram. It adds a spiritual element to daily existence,” she adds.
“Mine is a home that is host to hundreds of books, each calling for my attention, lifting me into a higher realisation of life and the family of man. I am not much of a socialite and enjoy hours of solitude drinking green tea, reading, writing, surfing the net, watching documentaries. My husband and I are passionate about movies, we are also hooked to crime investigation series. We lead a quiet life till our children come home,” says Indrani.
Then there are exciting days of dining out, shopping, going for movies, or quick getaways from the city. This is also the time when she re-enters the kitchen and rustle up her children’s favourite dishes, be it pork manchurian, fried chicken balls or keema dal special. As a family they are very, very close and the lines of communication are open 24×7.
“I am happiest when I am on the phone with my sons and we narrate what is happening in our lives, the book, the movie, the friend of the moment. We also have this family yen for black humour and know how to laugh even when sweating it out on a soup,” she says. Her one-time musician son Sidharth maintains a close communion with her and she has inherited all his Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain and John Lennon posters, lyrics books and copies of RSJ.
Her police officer son Shankar enjoys updating her on the exciting world of the law enforces. “Like all mothers, I live lie vicariously through my sons,” she says. Her husband Ambika is an entrepreneur and was the Best Artist at Cotton College for three consecutive years. “I treasure a sketch he made to accompany my prize winning short story in the college magazine. That was the beginning of the life we continue to share,” she says.
Raimedhi has been to Brussels, London and Berlin as part of an All India Newspaper Employees Federation and European Union initiative, called the Gender Project. This was in 2006, and they were the first batch of women journalist delegates, drawn from all over India. They visited several newspapers and television broadcasting stations to see how stories were reported and programmes created. The state of the art technology, the integrity and commitment of journalists, the great team-work they were witness to continues to be a source of inspiration. “We were taken on a conducted tour of the historic German parliament, the Reichstag which was like a journey back in time as we saw the bullet marks fired by Soviet soldiers on the walls,” she adds.
She gets lyrical and says, “Given a chance I would like to be born a sparrow in my next life something small, with a musical tweet and quick movements. A brown sparrow melts into its background and I kind of like that.”
Being a small, brown, non-descript little bird will free her of the burden every woman faces … that of pleasing the eye. And living on crumbs would be the ideal, stress-free existence!
She would like to be remembered as a woman who laughed often and seldom bore malice against anyone. She adds, “I would love to be remembered through my stories and columns. I hope I am recalled as a journalist with commitment and ethics. It would be wonderful if my children tell their grandchildren what fun I was to be with. That’s all.”