Priyanka Dubey is an intrepid investigative journalist who has turned a spotlight on issues such as human trafficking and gender violence in India. She has been recognized with several top journalism awards like Ramnath Goenka award and ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award. She also featured in Elle India magazine in 2013 as one of the most promising young female investigative reporters in the country. She is currently working as a staff writer at Caravan Magazine. She has also written a book on “Rapes in India” which is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster India. You can follow her on Twitter at @writetopd
इस इंटरव्यू को हिंदी में पढने के लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें
Please tell us about your school education and your aspirations then. How was the environment at that time and Why did you opt for journalism?
I did my schooling partly from Bhopal and partly from Jhansi. My father worked in BHEL so, I studied mostly in BHEL society schools. I don’t think I was clear about my goal. Everybody used to say that I should join IAS and all that. My parents wanted me to memorize everything like a parrot. But I was not sure. While completing 12th, I was sure that it was more of a process of rejection rather than selection. I was a decent student. I took Maths and Biology after boards. After 12th I appeared for many engineering entrance exams. However After two-three papers, I realized that it would be a problem if I get selected, so I deliberately started filling wrong answers in the OMR sheet. But I got selected for a State Government College and there was a lot of pressure to take engineering as a career; if I may elucidate, we squabbled over it a lot. It was a tough call to make because I wasn’t even sure about what I wanted to do with my life. There was no atmosphere of studies at my home. There were no books, except some mythological books. There were no newspapers. There was no culture of reading. I had a very close and protected upbringing. BHEL society is a kind of closed society with no substantial interaction with the outside world; kids born there, go to the same BHEL sponsored schools and do every other thing there itself. So it’s very monotonous. Parents have nothing do to except comparing their children’s grades. I had no exposure. Just go to school, come home, and go for tuition. It was a very mechanical kind of life.
For my parents, it was a pretty big thing in itself that they were giving me an opportunity to study. When I said that I don’t want to pursue sciences, there was a big fight and I was threatened that I would be married off. They just tried their best to dilute me. They thought they would convince me and make me go for the engineering college counseling. They didn’t want me to go for journalism. They used to remark-‘ what is this journalism thing?’. I had seen a newspaper advertisement of a journalism college, situated in Bhopal. I was very attracted to language. I was good in English. I loved reading stories. There was this strange attraction towards all this. If you do not like to do some work you won’t be able to do it for much longer. You will not go in your work and you will not enjoy what you do. You will get depressed. But things are different when you do what you like. I was the eldest daughter, so there was no one to guide me in my family. I am the first girl in my family who completed the graduation. There was no access to outside information also. I had not seen the outside world beyond my house or school. I had no exposure. My relatives tried to brainwash my parents against my decision to go for journalism. They complained ad-absurdum against journalism. It was very discouraging. Eventually, but very reluctantly, my parents relented. They were not happy. But they agreed in the end. They finally gave admission fees in my hand and said do whatever you want. Today when I recall those events, I feel that if I had not fought with my parents I would have been a completely different person.
Tell us about your experiences of graduation and your internships during that period.
I completed my bachelor’s of journalism from an affiliated college of Makhanlal Chaturvedi Institute. I had a deal with my father that after graduation I will prepare for civil services. But it was just an excuse for me. I saw civil services classes as an opportunity to learn. I took history and sociology. People suggested taking public administration. But my whole intention was to learn history and read sociology. I was very clear that I am not ever going to sit for civil services. These classes that went on for six months really helped me to learn.
In the second semester, I joined the British Library which is now converted into Vivekanand Library. I think it was the turning point in my life. Joining the library changed my life forever. It gave me internet access and good environment. I used to just go there and browse books. There was a section of journalism also. I used to read them a lot. There was a book by the name The Great Reporter by David Randoll. It was my favorite and inspired me a lot. It contained a profile of twelve to fifteen journalists out of which three-four were female. It also includes the first woman journalist. Reading about her was a thrilling experience. The library had a great resource of magazines like Economist, Nat Geo, Wall Street Journal, etc. I used to read those magazines and that library became my second home. I strongly recommend students to read magazines because it gives us a sea of knowledge about everything going on in the world. Reading is the most crucial thing. If you won’t read you won’t be able to achieve anything.
I left coaching after first year and started going for movies in Bharat Bhawan. I learnt a lot there. It was a very exciting place. They used to show the best movies of different nations at only INR 20 per movie.
From there I used to go to the library and this was my routine throughout my graduation and masters in Bhopal. Bhopal being a small city is culturally very rich. I feel very lucky to have lived in that city. I also started involving my family in my activities. I used to call my father to pick me up after the library session. Although my father was full of those patriarchal elements, he used to come to pick me up. Eventually, I made my way out of that mayhem.
Just like Bharat Bhawan, I used to go to Ravindra Bhawan during my five year stay in Bhopal. I used to regularly attend theater and was very religious about it. I used to carry a diary in which I used to write which theater is going to be played where.
Internships While Graduating
I joined All India Radio for Internship in my final year of graduation. I learned a lot from there. College was very bad. So internship was very pivotal in learning. The college didn’t help students in either securing jobs or internships. I just took a recommendation letter from a professor of mine and went myself to the news department of All India Radio. At that time very few people knew English in Bhopal. So they hired me quickly. They used to give me recorders and I started writing radio features. I also used to translate the daily news in English. There was a talk show, named Aaj Kal. I used to write the content of that show. I had to do field visits and on that basis, I wrote talks. I used to get INR 750 for each talk.
Just after leaving AIR, I joined a small English Daily, Pioneer. Before going there I went to Hindustan Times and the bureau chief told me -” you are a kid, come later”. In Pioneer they said, we will teach you how to write a copy, how to clean it and you will have to do reporting as well.So, initially I used to get back home at around 9:30. So on the first day when you returned home from internship, this late, it seems like you have disgraced the family-What would people think? what kind of work is done this late? I had to fight a lot for every ounce of my freedom.
Now I get a lot of sympathy for my parents because they have changed. They have also evolved with me. They are completely different now and I feel compassion for them. I was a very difficult daughter for them. I used to do things in my own way and my parents were not comfortable with this idea. Although they were really unreasonable, no doubt about it. In the beginning, I had to explain a lot that I will come by 09:30 pm. But it was very discouraging.
When you love your parents and when you feel that because of you, they and their self-esteem has been hurt…It was discouraging but I made my point. So I had a very stressful relation with my parents throughout my education.
Where did you go for Masters in Journalism? Please tell us about your internship experience as well.
I applied for Masters in Makhan Lal Chaturvedi University. At that time the print department of the college was very well-known. It had only twenty-five seats, so it was very tough to get there for a general category student. At the same time I joined Hindustan Times, intending to work there for a month but I continued working there for a longer period. Everyone liked my work there. My three bylines were published and it is a big thing for an intern. I used to sit from 05:00 pm to 10:00 pm in the office and I went out every day for reporting. My bureau chief was mentoring me, and gradually they started paying me. I picked the ideas myself and did their regular work as well. In my second year, I did three internships in Delhi but those were not fruitful. But I realized that I like Print and I’m compatible with it. By the time I was about to complete my masters I got an offer letter from HT. It was not like I was placed there but I got a call from the editor’s secretary. He said considering my previous work, my resume has been shortlisted. They needed a trainee in Indore. At that time there was no other English newspaper in Madhya Pradesh. It is very rare to get a job on the basis of your internship. I just gave my last viva and took a bus to Indore on the very next day. I joined HT as a trainee. I was asked to report on school education but there was a slot in crime, I requested and got that. I was there just for two months.
How did you come to Tehelka? Please tell us your experiences of that time.
I had applied for a job in both Tehelka and Times of India. I had even reached the final stage of the interview at ToI. Meanwhile, my work at HT attracted the attention of the editor of Tehelka and luckily they wanted to place a reporter in Bhopal. I informed him that I work in English and I would have to switch to Hindi. So he told me – a good report is a good report in any language. He asked me to meet him in Delhi. When I went to his office, I was told that I would have to submit two reports in two days and it should be written in Hindi. I had a syntactical problem in Hindi. I submitted the stories on the third day. One was on Transgenders and the other one was on the Bhopal Municipal Corporation. It was supported by documents like RTIs and Pictures. I worked really hard for that. The editor was quite impressed. After I submitted the stories, I was called again. The editor went through all of my reports in HT and then I was hired. Salary was very low but I got the post of Madhya Pradesh Correspondent. The thing that excited me a lot was that I had a whole state to report on and I could travel. I worked for around eighteen months in Bhopal. I did a lot of cover stories on de-notified tribes, honor killing, prostitution, etc. That was the happiest time of my life. I had developed a network. I had people on call in all the districts. Then my parents started to put pressure on me for marriage. So, I transferred myself to Delhi. I got an increment and my designation also changed to Senior Correspondent. I carried on with my investigations. I would have stayed in Tehelka but the whole thing happened (in December 2013). Tarun Tejpal was accused of sexual harassment and I resigned immediately. It was difficult for all of us there.
How important is the degree of Journalism in becoming a Journalist?
I think a journalist should never graduate or do masters in journalism. To be a good journalist you should study history, geography, civics etc. and after that, if you do even a ten months diploma in journalism that would be sufficient to learn the technicalities.We don’t have such teachers who can teach us journalism. This is a very wide profession. This field needs passionate people. So make use of your student life to read a lot. You can read anything, like English literature, Hindi literature, world history, poetry, etc. The first principle to write is to read. You can only become a good writer by reading good writers.
How much do grades matter in securing a job in mainstream media?
No, I don’t think grades matter. But it should not be the excuse to flunk your exams. If you are doing a course then it is a good idea to do it properly. It’s a fact that grades do not matter. But when you tell someone that you just passed on the border with 33 marks; it wouldn’t make a good impression. (Laughs..)
What is the importance of internship in journalism?
Internship is very important. We receive a lot of internship applications. Caravan regularly hires interns. Ladies finger regularly provides for internships. Anybody who wants to report from Gender Line can apply for internship there. One should do at least a five to six week internship while studying. In my five years of studies, I had more than an year of internship experience. This is very beneficial. This is how you get to know people and ideas.
Why did you choose to become a freelancer after leaving Tehelka?
After leaving Tehelka I worked as a freelancer for two years. Actually, I had to work on my book and I thought I could bear my expenses. In English, you can get about five to eight rupees per word. During my stint at Tehelka I got some awards, which helped in getting work. Like people know that there is a reporter who is working. You can easily approach an editor or vice versa. A lot of people approached me and I used to get plenty of work. I also realized that as a freelancer I can do more meaningful work.
How did you come to work with Caravan Magazine?
The position of staff writer in Caravan was very similar to my work and the work which I wanted to do. I don’t think any other media house works in the same manner as Caravan does. We file the draft of at least twenty-five thousand words and chop it down to 15000 words before printing. You get two to three month time to prepare a report. I grew up reading magazines so my mind works in that way. I feel stifled in two hundred words. It makes you handicapped. I like the long form. Editing process in Caravan is very rigorous. First draft, second draft, third draft, fourth draft then after finalizing, the copy is edited once again. Every report is proofread at least five times. There is a round of fact checking. So you can learn a lot here. If you want to pursue book writing or long form in-depth reporting or do better in magazine writing, then Caravan is the best place in India.
It is said that the readers of magazines are very less, but I used to get a lot of feedback since the time in Tehelka. It’s a myth that people don’t read long articles. When my story on Badaun double murder case was published on Yahoo, I got 48 emails in the very first 24 hours. So people read long stories, provided content is good.
Some sections of media are really working good. Their stories are full of facts generally. But if they do only one such story which creates a negative perception amongst the masses, people stop watching it. How do you look at it?
I think there is a trend of polarization happening in people as well. I don’t know why people think that media is divided into groups. I fail to understand whether readers are the reflection of media or media is the reflection of readers- It’s a classic Chicken-egg scenario. But it’s a fact that media is also a reflection of the audience. If we apply a broader view then it tells the story of our times and comments on the political situation. We are actually living in a very polarized time. There is a sort of pressure on you that if you will not flatter the government, then the reader/viewer will also say that you are doing negative journalism. But as media, it is our responsibility to speak truth to the power. We are not here to butter the government. Our time is pretty polarized. As a journalist, I feel a lot of pressure while reporting. I think when a political party comes to power with an absolute majority it accompanies a wave. This wave had been seen earlier also, about which I have read. But now, I’m feeling this on my own. There is a pressure to not write critical things about the government. But we have to do this. If we won’t; who will? There are a lot of stupid things right now. Like lynching of Muslims and the whole beef discourse. All this is really stupid and it needs to be pointed out. And when we point it out, people say we are doing negative journalism. But this is our job to tell that how many people are dying from hunger, what is the mortality rate, etc. If we are saying 93 lakh children died of hunger, you can’t say -we are doing negative journalism. I am just doing my job. I have to take the government. The report should be fair; it should have merit. It should have versions, quotes, and statements. One should approach all sides.
You have extensively reported on socio-political issues. How do you choose your stories? On what basis do you give preference to them?
I don’t know whether they select me or I select them. I don’t understand this till today. This is a process of natural selection. If ten things are presented to me then I would naturally choose one. Of my whole work, 80% has been selected by me while the 20% is assigned by the editor. I never did a story which, according to me, was not meaningful. I follow my intuition.
What is your view on media becoming irresponsible and showing false episodes? For instance, Chip in ₹ 2000 notes; announcing students as terrorists, etc.?
I think all of this is increasing day by day in the process of catching eyeballs. I have stopped watching television since long but stories like the chip in 2000 rupee note and all that, these things bubble up on Twitter and YouTube and eventually you get to know these stories. At the time of JNU incident, there was a section of media which was taking a pro-government stand. And the media was polarized into two camps, as a result, there was jingoistic nationalism. I think all these people have forgotten what Ambedkar has said. He said that the rights and concern of the citizen should precede the national interest.
If some students have protested, who are you to call them Terrorists? This just shows the hollowness of a section of the media. TRP concern might be the one reason behind it, but you won’t do anything for that. Right? And we should not forget that there was a section of media which questioned. This I think is the beauty of Indian media, which I think makes it very vibrant.
What kind of difficulties one have to face while working in the field?
There are a lot of difficulties. The more you do homework the lesser will be the risk. Do a lot of research in advance. Plan out the modus-operandi. There has to be a backup plan. Sometimes when you go undercover, you have to make a fake identity that involves a lot of risks, even risk of life. When I did the investigation on human trafficking, it had a risk of life. And even in general, reporting in India is not easy, especially in rural areas. It all depends on your network through which you go. The network decides one’s fate. It should be someone with resources and good intentions as well.
What would be your message to those who got inspired by your work and want to follow your footsteps?
I don’t have any footsteps. I am full of loopholes. I am a very flawed person. I don’t think anybody should be like me. I think every child and youngster should make his/her own way. Anyone who wants to make a place in journalism should read a lot and should be genuinely and naturally curious about the world. I read somewhere that everyone is interesting; you just have to look harder. Don’t impose the profession on you. Journalism is addiction and madness. You have to sacrifice your personal life. It’s a very chaotic life. It is very much emotionally challenging as well. You have to be detached like surgeons. That detachment does not make me rude because of the compassion in my heart and it has a seek of tenderness as well. I am passionately dispassionate. Initially, I used to cry during a story and wanted to grab the collar of the accused and all that mellow drama. Some numbness also comes over time. Sometimes I feel I have become a mutant. I think I am not the person I used to be six years ago. I am more depressed now. You know the political environment in the country and the things in general. With knowledge, you do feel a bit depressed. It’s very de-establishing too. Students should read and then write a lot. Read literature. If you won’t read literature you won’t be able to do anything. They should be interested in the world around them. Be ready to sacrifice a lot. It’s not going to be easy and try to keep yourself emotionally stable.
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