We hunkered down every time a vehicle passed by. Sitting inside a car on a humid September afternoon in Chennai, even with the windows rolled down, was stifling. The clock ticked ever so slowly towards 4 p.m.
My colleague Satish Kumar and I had arrived at CIT Colony in central Chennai at 2.30 p.m. itself. We were employed with the young, energetic news channel CNN-IBN at the time – he, a video journalist, and I, a cub reporter, in my first reporting job.
The pressure had mounted by September 2007 from our headquarters in Delhi. My boss and then bureau chief had gone to London on a three-month Chevening scholarship, leaving me to handle the explosive political situation. I had no contacts, except for a few well-meaning senior journalists who did not hesitate to give me numbers. Perhaps they felt sorry for me. Dravidian politics can be daunting even for the most experienced hand. Luckily, I had the brashness of youth on my side. Worse, I was smarting from a dressing down.
The chief minister of Tamil Nadu at the time was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) M. Karunanidhi, a blessing for reporters starting their careers. Press conferences were regular and sometimes held even twice a day – at the Secretariat in the afternoon and at Anna Arivalayam, the party headquarters, in the evening. There was no dearth of news.
And then the Sethusamudram project hit the headlines. Tamil Nadu and Karunanidhi were hogging the limelight. As Hindu outfits howled over the project, demanding an alternative route to the proposed shipping canal in the strip of sea between Sri Lanka and India, the atheist DMK, in alliance with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre, stood firm. Then Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy, the Hindu Munnani’s Ramagopalan, and others took the project to court. Their argument was that the proposed alignment for the project would mean destroying the Ramar Sethu – Adam’s Bridge – the mythical bridge built by an army of monkeys for Lord Rama to wage war with Lanka and bring home his abducted wife Seetha. This, they argued, would hurt the sentiments of Hindus.
Karunanidhi was undeterred. He would say that Rama was a lie and a drunkard.1 The Hindu outfits would froth at the mouth. He would say that Ravanan, the kidnapper of Seetha and the king of Lanka, was a ‘Dravidian hero’, a good man.2 More frothing. He would refer to the Ramar Sethu as Adam’s Bridge, pooh-poohing mythology and Hindu religious sentiments. Froth boiled over. All to no avail.
Ally Congress, worried that the Sethusamudram issue would hurt Hindu sentiments elsewhere in the country, began to back off, adopting a pacifist tone. Karunanidhi only became more belligerent, upping the pressure on the Centre to implement the project. A bandh call was given by all parties in Tamil Nadu in late September 2007 to demand the immediate implementation of the project. And then the Supreme Court termed the planned 1 October bandh illegal.
When CNN-IBN’s Supreme Court correspondent Ashok Bagriya conveyed the developments on email, I was excited. Here was a chance to redeem myself in the eyes of my boss Radhakrishnan Nair in Delhi. The wounds of a screaming the week before were still fresh in my sensitive mind.
At a regular press briefing in the chief minister’s chambers in the Secretariat the previous week, a popular English news channel’s Chennai correspondent had played a dirty game. While all Tamil channels had placed their microphones on the chief minister’s table, this correspondent kept hers at a slightly elevated level. Their video journalist framed it in such a way as to seem as if only their channel was present at what was in fact a press conference. The channel thus aired as ‘Exclusive’ a regular press briefing by the chief minister on the Sethusamudram ruckus.
Radhakrishnan Nair was quick to call and yell. ‘But sir…’ was all I was able to get in edgeways. I was not given a chance to explain. ‘I don’t know how you are going to do it but get me an exclusive interview with him immediately,’ he said and hung up, leaving me furious at the injustice of it all.
Armed with Bagriya’s information about the Supreme Court terming the bandh illegal, I called the chief minister’s private secretary. There were two of them – Marudhanayagam was ill-tempered and prone to be rude to young reporters. Shanmuganathan was even worse. I took a chance and called the latter.
‘Sir, the Supreme Court has termed the bandh illegal just now and stated that it will not be allowed,’ I told him. ‘Please tell Ayya (respectful term in Tamil for an elder male) I would like to know what he says,’ I pleaded. Shanmuganathan was almost as powerful as Karunanidhi at the time.
‘Appadiya,’ he said. Is that so? ‘Irunga.’ Wait. I strained to listen to the whispers wafting over the phone as Shanmuganathan conveyed the message to the chief minister.
‘Oru nimisham, Ayya pesanumaam,’ he said. One minute, Ayya wants to speak. Before I could recover from the shock came the all-too-familiar voice rasping over the phone. ‘Ahn, enna sonnaanga?’ asked Karunanidhi. Yes, what did they say?
Frozen and stammering, I repeated the message from Bagriya to the chief minister of my state, all the while frantically using sign language to convey to my colleague Satish that Karunanidhi was on the line. I suddenly remembered the speaker phone option and switched it on. Satish had a light-bulb moment and began recording the audio on his phone.
Silence for just over five seconds. ‘Appadina naaney unnavirathathula utkaararen,’ he said. Then I will sit on hunger strike myself.
Regaining my wits somewhat, I begged him to give me a byte on camera as I was employed with a television channel. ‘CIT Colony-kku vaanga, naalu mani,’ he said and the line was snapped. Come to CIT Colony, 4 p.m.
Satish was a lot more excited than I. I was worried about a few things. One, my Tamil, which tended to be peppered with English. Karunanidhi was notorious for ridiculing those who did not speak fluent Tamil. Two, the NDTV office was a stone’s throw from Karunanidhi’s CIT Colony residence. I wanted a real exclusive.
And so we waited in silence in the street next to the chief minister’s residence, removing the ‘Press’ sticker from the car and ducking every time a vehicle passed by. As the designated time arrived, we sprinted to the gates of the house. The security guards were aware of our appointment, thanks to Shanmuganathan. We were ushered into a large empty hall. A lone chair was placed at the centre of the hall. Karunanidhi arrived and asked us to begin.
We looked around uneasily, hesitant to ask for another chair on which I could sit and begin the questioning. He waited, yellow shawl in place, the dark glasses giving no hint of what was going on in his mind. Dressed in his usual starched white shirt and white veshti, the chief minister sat patiently, his assistant of many decades bossing us around, asking us to hurry up.
Left with no choice, I knelt down and extended the microphone to him, asking him the questions I had rehearsed in Tamil in my mind. ‘If the Supreme Court has banned the bandh, I will personally sit on hunger strike,’ he said. The message was powerful. It was classic Karunanidhi. He would never openly defy the highest court of law. But he would show his muscle. And it was all I needed to redeem myself.