Nirupama Subramanian: Making Every Word Count

Meet Nirupama Subramanian, Political Correspondent with The Hindu, who has been an important source of information on happenings in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Meet Nirupama Subramanian, Political Correspondent with The Hindu, who has been for many Indians, an important source of information on happenings in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. 

By Aparna V. Singh

Nirupama has previously worked with other publications such as The Times of India, The Indian Express and India Today. In 2002, she went to Harvard on the Nieman Fellowship for Journalists, which allowed her to work on a book based on her Sri Lankan stint, Sri Lanka : Voices from a War Zone. She received the Prem Bhatia Award for Best Political Reporting in 2008 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Woman Mediaperson, 2008-09.

Currently based out of Islamabad, Nirupama graciously made time from her busy schedule for this e-mail interview with Women’s Web. (This interview was originally conducted in November 2009). 

Aparna V. Singh (AVS) Have you always wanted to be a journalist? What was the path to getting there?

Nirupama Subramanian (NS): My path to becoming a journalist wasn’t anything unusual. You can call it a mix of circumstances and a half-desire to be a journalist.

I began to be interested in journalism as a student in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Those were the post-emergency years, and a journalist’s life seemed very exciting. Sunday Observer was a quality paper, and Sunday magazine was very inspiring. Indian Express was in the midst of its Antulay scoops. C.Y.Gopinath, who was a well-known name in journalism (he used to be in JS magazine I think) came to our college to conduct a journalism workshop. I still remember it was called Blue Pencil. The assignment, if I recall correctly, was to write about the Sony Walkman, which had just come into the market then. I think he had written a piece himself, and later we compared ours with his.

I still remember his words: make every word on the page count; if you blow hard on the page, there should not be one word here that can fly away.

But I also thought I could make a career in academics, especially after I came first in the BA Sociology exams in Mumbai University. After that, I moved to Delhi University where I did a Masters in the same subject from the Delhi School of Economics. St. Xavier’s Mumbai offered me a job as a lecturer in Anthropology, but I wasn’t very sure of teaching as a career. Anyway, while I waited for the academic year to start at St. Xavier’s, I also applied to the Diploma in Social Journalism that Times of India’s newly set up Times Research Foundation was offering. I wrote a test in the ToI building opposite VT, got through, and decided to take it. Just two days before that, I’d started a temporary job at Mid-day in Mumbai. I left it soon as I got the TRF letter. I can’t remember anything of those two days, except that it was a small office and there was a woman there smoking a lot.

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TRF took me back to Delhi. It was a one-year training programme in all sectors of journalism as it was then: print only. Reporting, editing, photography, making a page (there were no computers then). We had three trainers: K T Oommen (he’s with the Manorama School of Journalism these days) who taught us reporting, Seema Sharma, who taught us editing and Hartman D’Souza, who gave us a basic understanding of photography. It was a magic year, and TRF, our class of 22 students on a Bharat Darshan too. After that year, all of us got absorbed into the various editions of ToI and I have been a journalist ever since.

AVS: Years into the profession, what is it that still drives you? Is there anything that discourages you?

NS: Well, it’s been 24 years since TRF, and a lot has changed, and frankly, I find much that is disheartening. Maybe it’s also the result of growing up and becoming familiar with how newspapers really function and with the kind of editorial decisions that are made daily, and why those are made the way they are. But what I find really disturbing as a print journalist is that after the explosion of TV journalism, our newspapers are increasingly led by electronic media. On the premise that attention spans are getting shorter, we have fashioned our newspapers after television. No more than 250-300 words, is what we are told daily, for even the most complex stories. In the process, reporters end up skimming the surface, and do not manage to convey much insight about what they are writing. The result is the gradual erosion of the newspaper’s role in providing credible information.

If you take one of the most influential papers in the world today, the New York Times, a news story of any importance is never less than 800 words. It gives the reporter enough space to report the facts, explain the story, and substantiate a thesis, if there’s one. The other fall-out is that reporters have lost the craft of building a story, because brief reports hardly allow for that. In the rush to provide “what readers want”, newspapers are going for tabloidisation, trivia and sensationalism.

What drives me despite all this? Well, honestly I don’t know if I have a general answer to that. But at the moment, being in an exciting, newsy place like Pakistan since 2006 has been a great motivator in itself. The privilege of witnessing history being made, and writing its first draft, as that saying goes, and the desire to do it as well as possible has been a big driver both here and in Sri Lanka. Writing for The Hindu, which still provides more space to its reporters than many other papers, is also a factor. I don’t imagine that I have changed any lives for the better, but I do think that in what I write, I have tried my best to educate the reader about complex situations, and this is also something that keeps me going.

AVS: Can journalists do anything about the sensationalist direction that news is taking today?

NS: There’s only one way to break out of this: stop buying the line that trivia, sensationalism and celeb gossip is what readers want. It’s self-serving to say that we are giving readers what they want; it denies the journalist agency. If P. Sainath had bought that line, he would have been covering fashion shows. But he has made it his mission to cover poverty, hunger and starvation in our rural areas, and has brought the issue very much to the centre-stage, virtually single-handed, of course with the platform provided by a newspaper that believes that these stories still need to be told.

AVS: Women journalists on the frontlines and actually based in conflict areas – is that at all common? Is life any harder being a female political journalist? Or the other way around – do certain things become easier for you?

NS: Let’s say that women journalists in trouble-spots are not uncommon. And in India, what kind of stories a woman journalist does is no longer a problematic issue. I think few women complain anymore that they get to cover only flower shows. We have to thank the early women journos who dared to break out of the mould for showing the way in this – people like Usha Rai, Prabha Dutt. If you take the front page of any Indian newspaper today, you will find as many female as male bylines, if not more. And the explosion of the electronic media has also opened the field for women. I have to say though that I never particularly thought of myself as a “woman” journalist. I’m a journalist, period.

But having said that, I think gender – both for male and female journalists – does play a role in the way people react to you as a journalist in certain situations. But even in this, Indian women journalists have broken down a lot of stereotypes. Speaking for myself, I think my gender has not really made things either easier or more difficult. For instance, in the days leading up to the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad in 2007, the mosque leaders would hold press conferences every now and then. Once, I was barred from entering the mosque, but I looked the man in the eye and told him “media is media, there is no difference between male and female journalists.” He did not have a ready reply and did not dare to push me out as he might have done had I been a man, so I just walked past him.

AVS: You’ve worked out of 3 different countries in the Indian subcontinent – India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Did your experience in all three differ? Which has been the most challenging?

NS: Certainly Pakistan has been the most challenging. The learning curve was steep after Sri Lanka, which was a single story country: Tamils vs. Sinhalese, Tigers vs. Sri Lankan army. Here, on a single day, there are multiple developments along different tracks. On one day, you could have a big terrorist attack story, separately a huge political development plus something on the India-Pakistan front. Enough to make you feel ill by the end of the day.

The other aspect is the working environment. The bilateral agreement is only for two resident journalists from each country in the other. For an Indian journalist in Pakistan, the burden is on the journalist to demonstrate that s/he is not an “agent of RAW”. Most people tend to think that if you’re Indian, you must be part of the Indian High Commission, somehow linked to the government. What you write, the words you use, and what you speak, the people you meet, can all be held against you, and one has to tread extremely carefully. There is very little access to the corridors of power. But meeting people outside officialdom is much easier, and this is how I have worked my way through Pakistan. Plus, even though ordinary people may be suspicious of the Indian state, Indians are always welcome. Pakistanis are great hosts and open their homes and hearts to Indians in a very sincere and warm way.

AVS: Any political correspondents that you admire for their work or whose work has influenced you?

NS: I have always admired Shekhar Gupta for his interviewing abilities, and for his scent for stories; my colleague Vidya Subhramanyam is a great political reporter; so is Anjali Puri of Outlook. I respect their work immensely.

AVS: TV journalism somehow makes the profession look very glamorous. Perhaps the reality is different? What would you say to young people, and in particular young women who want to be journalists? What do they need to prepare themselves for?

NS: Hard work. There is no substitute for hard work, and however glamorous it might look on the outside, television reporters out there are working their backsides off. The competition is tough but if you are good at your job, you don’t need to worry.

AVS: Finally, considering the nature of your work, how do you organize your time for self/ family? How do you cope with stress?

NS: As I work by myself, and live by myself, I can adjust my working hours as I please, so long as I keep to the deadlines. Exercise is my big stress-buster. I go for a hike in the Islamabad hills three or four days a week. It’s a 2.5 km trail and takes about an hour to complete up and down, and it clears the mind and leaves you feeling refreshed. I also do some yoga three or four times a week.


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