Shalini Singh is an Indian Journalist. She has worked for The Week, Hindustan Times, and Tehelka. Shalini exposed the illegal mining in Goa while working with HT. She has been awarded the Nieman fellowship at Harvard University which begins next month.
In this interview with acadman.in she talked to us about her early life, journey in journalism and Much More
Please tell us a bit about your early life, your school education and your aspirations at that point of time?
I was born and brought up in Delhi in a nuclear family. My paternal grandfather and parents gave me a liberal, humanist upbringing where independence in thought and decision-making from an early age was supported. I did my schooling from Delhi Public School Mathura Road (1986-1999), where I studied Commerce with Maths in class 11 and 12. Unlike my grandfather who was a renowned writer in the field of science and mathematics and applied that knowledge to solving problems in the Indian railways, at an early age, I wanted to become either a psychoanalyst (a term I could barely pronounce then!) since I was interested in understanding how the human mind works, or an architect or a corporate professional. That I was naturally drawn to writing prose and essays since I was a child was never imagined to flower into a career because the (wrong) perception back then was careers are generally made in ‘safe’ fields, not pursued in hobbies or keen interests. (Looking back, I’m glad I followed my heart.) After my class ten boards, I interned during summer vacation in a family friend’s advertising firm, to learn how it works and briefly volunteered with Maneka Gandhi’s People For Animals [when I went to interview her recently as a journalist while covering the gender beat for The Week magazine, I was pleasantly surprised she still remembered me 20 years later!].
Looking back, I feel I’m someone who enjoys the process of working towards some sort of a purpose. I like time being utilised productively. Even free time should be as much as fun as it can be! For instance, as a kid, I worked at a stationery store in the colony market to fund my daily packet of chips or polished all my dad’s shoes for a fee and used that money to buy my mother a birthday present or a Nirula’s pizza for myself – I liked earning my treats! My family didn’t tell me to be this way or that, they just let me be and offered encouragement.
What were you subject at Sri Venkateswara College? How was your life there? Were you sure that you want to be a journalist? How motivated you to pursue a career in journalism?
I took up Economics as my Bachelors degree at Sri Venkateswara College (1999-2002) simply because my marks in class 12 turned out well and all my friends were either going to study Economics (a ‘hot course’ then) or Commerce. We planned on doing our MBAs and then going on to work at some top corporate jobs that would earn us lots of money. I remember studying extremely hard in my first two years, almost clocking 8-10-12 hours a day months before the final exams, and scoring a first division too… but then it began to feel empty inside. I didn’t feel I was imbibing anything relevant to everyday life. I view life through a pragmatic lens. It had become, for me, just about scoring marks. It was only during my third year that I realised perhaps Economics wasn’t my subject (with due respect to those who enjoy it and do well because they are cut out for it) and I personally would have been happier studying Literature or Philosophy. But it was too late to change so I plodded on and managed to clear all my papers. In fact I scored the highest in the subject – public policy – I least studied for!
After graduation, I took coaching for MBA entrances, funding parts of it from the money I earned working part-time in event management during college. But the peer and self pressure to crack CAT etc was so much that when I didn’t make it to any of the top management colleges I was actually relieved! This to me meant that I had to find my calling. I knew by then that it had to be a creative field that involved thinking and writing. Instead of investing another year to crack the management entrances, I managed to get a job as a trainee copywriter in a multinational advertising agency that was just entering India. Back then (2002), in advertising, women were mostly in client servicing or art/design and few in copy-writing or scripting. In fact I was the only girl in my team. But I didn’t look at the job through a gender lens. Perhaps it was a progressive upbringing – I was given remote controlled toy cars as well as dolls to play with in my childhood. It was simply work that you enjoyed doing irrespective of what or who you were born as. Even though I quit the job after a year because I didn’t find myself cut out for the general lifestyle aspect of the profession back then – drinking, smoking, partying late nights – I learnt a lot. I also managed to build a substantial portfolio that helped me get through the mass communication course in post graduation…
Where did you go for the degree in journalism? Please give us an overview of your life there?
After quitting advertising I sat for mass communication entrances in 2003. I didn’t make it to the final rounds in the Delhi institutions and finally took a chance in Mumbai. This time I was determined to crack something that I locked myself in the Rajdhani train’s bathroom each time the checker came because my ticket was still wait-listed till departure time. Plane travel back then was still not affordable.
I got through the post graduate diploma course in Social Communication Media (SCM) at Sophia Polytechnic that was to change my life. I learnt ethics in journalism from eminent rural journalist P. Sainath, life in the Indian media from writer Jerry Pinto and film appreciation under then department head Jeroo Mulla, among several other teachers in the field. SCM offered us a year-long buffet course in media after which you had a clearer idea of which branch you wanted to pursue. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering nuances in field reporting, film and photography from these stalwarts who have had both a profound professional and personal influence on me and several others. I think simply because they are passionate about their fields and practice what they preach. I came out of SCM wanting to be a film-maker, interning in ad-film production at Famous Studios in Mumbai for a month but ended up becoming a features writer instead…
Which was your first job? How did you get placed there?
My first job after post graduation was as a junior features writer with the American magazine for teenagers called Seventeen based in Mumbai. My salary was all of Rs 5,000 of which Rs 3,000 was my paying guest rent. Even though I wasn’t cut out for fashion and beauty articles, I enjoyed learning from my colleagues who covered those beats. I did snippety pieces on culture and travel for the six months that I worked there. In fact, actor Abhay Deol’s first ever interview to the media was to me for that publication! I remember we had a nice, long conversation at a popular coffee shop in Bandra where before leaving he said he saw me doing more serious journalism in the future. I quit after I did a cover story – an email interview with singer Britney Spears – that was the zenith you could touch in a magazine of that genre. The experience, 13 years ago – to be able to live alone and manage expenses within earnings – was a step forward in my personal growth.
How did you come working with Tehelka?
I came back home after 1.5 years of studying and working in Mumbai. I landed a job as the Delhi correspondent for a new architecture and interior design magazine back then, Better Interiors, and worked there for a year. One day while having coffee with an old college friend at a cafe-bookstore, we struck a deal. I had to buy him ice-cream and he’d buy me a book. Randomly, I picked up Tarun Tejpal’s Alchemy of Desire that I started reading the same night. About 20-30 pages in, I related one of the characters to my late cousin who had also been a well-known journalist in Chandigarh. (In real life, my cousin was idealistic to the point where he ended up taking his life in 2002.) Charged with curiosity, I Googled Tarun’s email ID and wrote to him asking if that character was inspired by my cousin. Few weeks later he replied saying yes and that I should come over to the Tehelka office. (Back then, this was a big deal because I was one among many students who had contributed Rs 100 each in the initial crowd-funding of Tehelka and hoped to work there some day.) Perhaps a common sentimental chord struck, and Tarun offered me a job which I gladly took up. This was 2006. I spent a year in Delhi, sinking my teeth in the features beat after which I got posted to Mumbai. I worked there for a year, covering culture, cinema, theatre. In November 2013, whenTehelka crumbled, it was an ironic and a difficult story to report for my then organisation.
Did you find that the Journalism School had prepared you sufficiently for the many tasks you were required to execute at your Job?
Journalism doesn’t mandate hard technical skills to start off. Yes, if you’re someone who can take good photos, shoot videos or crunch data etc – that’s excellent. But to begin with, if your heart and mind aren’t aligned and genuine passion doesn’t fuel you in this profession, then I’m not sure how long you would be able to stay in it in a way that benefits both the profession and you as a professional. Journalism is factual storytelling. Words, photos, videos, data are all tools that help you tell that story. For me, the Social Communications Media course helped align the larger purpose or raison d’etre as a reporter at a moral and ethical level. Then, the rest – writing, photographing etc – came.
How was your experience working at Hindustan Times?
A mixed bag, both professionally and personally. I spent the maximum time at Hindustan Times (HT) – 5.5 years. After quitting Tehelka in Mumbai and coming back to Delhi, I was sure that I wanted to next work at HT, a newspaper we grew up reading. I requested the then editor to somehow find me a place in the features team of the main paper. I began my job with HT’s Weekend section on Labour Day of 2008. In December that year, my father suddenly took ill and passed on. It was now just my mother and I and quitting wasn’t an option. I tried to process the grief through work. At that point in time, I felt I had to sink my energies into something deeper to find meaning in life through work. In 2009, I applied for the Coastal Concerns fellowship with the Centre for Science and Environment and in 2010 I took time off to research and report from Goa. My mandate was land development issues in the state at that time – resource tussles between residents and the well-heeled from the cities who wanted to build holiday homes there. Towards the end of my two-month tenure, I found that mining was another environment issue giving big trouble to India’s smallest state. I broke the illegal mining story in Goa in HT in 2010, that went on to win me the first Cushrow Irani award given by The Statesman newspaper in 2011, the Prem Bhatia award for best environmental reporting in 2012 (this also included the work I had done under another, the Forest Rights Act fellowship, also with CSE, where I researched and reported from Odisha on the POSCO project struggle in 2011) and the Ramnath Goenka Award for best environmental reporting in the print category for 2013.
How would you describe your current job at The Week?
I worked with The Week from September 2013 to May 2017. Here, apart from general features on social/human interest issues, I covered the gender beat along with cinema and theatre. I had a good innings with the publication and quit to go on a mid-career reflection journey, being awarded the Nieman fellowship at Harvard University along with 11 other international journalists and 12 American journalists that begins next month in residence at Cambridge in Boston, US.
Being a woman, what kind of challenges did you have to face so far in your career?
I try to view the world through a neutral lens. I would like to see reporting as a reporter, irrespective of gender. However, some aspects can pose as challenges, it also depends how you deal with them. For instance, when I was doing a covert bit of reporting on the mining issue in Goa, I had to climb up and down several times on a high mining truck and it was the first day of my period, which for many women is a hugely difficult time. It was painful, but if I didn’t do it I would have lost my chance to get that crucial information for that story. In addition, I was stationed in a tribal family’s home in a forest with no mobile and internet network and I wasn’t carrying a change. Then, of course there are safety and harassment issues, which can strike you as a woman anywhere. For instance, I was attacked in the evening time in the posh Lodi Garden in New Delhi in 2016. The attacker wouldn’t have known I am a journalist, he just saw a lone woman. I was fortunate that it wasn’t anywhere close to being as bad as it can be for several women anywhere. It wasn’t easy, but as a citizen, I reported the incident in the police station and as a journalist I Tweeted that complaint, tagging the relevant authorities and prominent people I know who come for a walk to the park at that time.
What is the future of magazines in India?
It’s a digital age, print magazines are going through a tough time. Given that in India we are still increasing our literacy levels so hopefully (English) newspapers and news-magazines will survive for a while longer. There is reflection on the identity of a news magazine and a greater integration with digital media. For instance, carrying a shorter interview in the print edition given space constraints and the longer/complete version in the online space. Or offering a video or photo-feature in the online version of the same article in print.
Where do you think Indian Journalism stands and in which direction it is moving today?
Our media was born out of the Indian freedom struggle. Since media is a reflection of society, there is a churn in media today as well, especially with the advent of social media. I’m not very fond of screaming debates on television, which end up reducing serious public issues to personal ego battles. Nor do I like inordinately large spaces given to issues that matter to less than 1% of the population. As a reporter, one is always looking for the ‘new’ in the ‘news’. While there is much one despairs about in the Indian media today, there is also tremendous hope. For me, that is currently in the form of independent voices like the People’s Archive of Rural India, where I am a founding member.
What is the condition of rights of Indian journalists as compared with rights of journalists in other countries like Finland, Netherlands, or even USA, UK?
Excellent question! Sadly, India currently ranks 136 out of 180 countries on the press freedom index. There is a sense of clamping down on freedom of expression today that is eerily making people become more silent too. Regarding the other part of your question, I might be better qualified to answer this next year, when I come back from the Harvard journalism fellowship having spent time with 23 other journalists from different countries and getting to know their experiences!
Please tell us about the books which have inspired you or has made a huge impact on you?
As a child, I was moved by Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, about the persevering journey of a young seagull. When I grew older, I found great resonance in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Closer home, my grandfather’s autobiography, Reminiscences of a Mathematician Manqué, stands as a reminder that the wider and higher a tree wishes to branch out, it must be firmly rooted in the ground.
Please tell us about some of your stories which have made a huge impact, or you believe was very difficult to report?
I would say the expose on illegal mining in Goa. Apart from winning several accolades, I believe it contributed to the policy impact in the state when a moratorium on mining in the state was announced the same year. At the time of working on the story which took close to two months, I wasn’t even thinking if it would go on to make any difference. All I knew was, here is a story to be done and I am going to try my best to do it. So from ground up – visiting impacted villages, families – to the ministerial level, the story grounded me in the 360-degree of reporting. Apart from the challenges I mentioned above, I literally shadowed the then chief minister of the state for an interview! Tired of being stalled by his secretary, one day I just jumped into his waiting car outside his Panjim residence and requested; he answered my questions! (Luckily, he did). I had a chance to reprise all my work in the environment space in an essay called ‘Others in Arms’, for a book titled,Will the Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change, which is based on a recent lecture by writer-activist Naomi Klein and has essays from five other international writers.
What would be your message for students of journalism across India?
The glamour of the field is a mirage. Journalism has the ability to change our world. Let’s make it for the better. Even as you find your individual voice within it, I urge you to hold on to idealism, be fuelled by passion, move with pragmatism and execute with honesty.
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