There are no easy rides in journalism. Its professional practitioners are called, from time to time, to do duty in locations of extreme conflict. Peter Arnett had to brave bullets and bombs during his coverage of Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Closer home, Anita Pratap trekked through the minefield-filled forests of Vavuniya for an interview with the LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran. And this week, I found myself — let this be an inspiration to young journalists —- smack-dab in the trenches of T Nagar amidst the rampaging Akshaya Tritiya shoppers.
And here is my first-hand report of that nerve-jangling assignment. Just a small warning: This is not for the faint-hearted, pregnant ladies, below 18 individuals and the already dead. Here we go:
Gold being the flavour of the week, it was decided by the editorial team in the office to come up with a feature report on Akshaya Tritiya, which as everyone knows, is traditionally the most auspicious day in the calendar for creating traffic hell in T Nagar.
The moment we, a couple of my colleagues and I, decided to travel to T Nagar to get a live feel of the Akshaya Tritiya buzz and bustle, I could sense some unease knotting in my stomach. Which was understandable: it was time for my lunch.
On the lunch table, the three of us ate without speaking much. Was it probably because the enormity of the evening assignment was already weighing heavily on our minds? No, it was most probably because we were seated in three different tables.
Lunch over, we gathered together and discussed, in hushed tones, on the best mode to reach T Nagar. Ideally, it is getting air-dropped. For, over the years, T Nagar has grown into a well-rounded neighbourhood that is unkind to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians equally. Nobody looks forward to going to T Nagar. And this includes those living there.
Anyway, we decided to take an autorickshaw and hailed one. We told him ‘T Nagar’, and in response he quoted a fare that possibly was a package deal including the price of gold that day. After some inevitable haggling, during which he probably thought we were trying to exploit him while we believed he was attempting to fleece us, we eventually set off together, unwittingly becoming, in the process, a metaphor for the life of married couples these days — not entirely happy with the other but need the other for selfish reasons as the alternatives could be no different.
As our vehicle rattled on its way to T Nagar, we, as true professionals hardened on the daily rigours of journalism, began charting out our plan for the evening. And as the senior in the pack, it fell on my creaky shoulders to take the lead and tackle the first important task: snapping the first selfie of the trip.
At a spot outside T Nagar, police stopped and told us that autos were not allowed beyond. Apparently Chennai police’s research has shown that the major reason for traffic problems is —- you’ll doubtless smack your head and go, how did this not occur to me — traffic. So on important occasions and places, they don’t allow it.
Off the vehicle, we slowly but surely began our walk towards T Nagar. Five minutes into our walk, colleague pulled my hand urgently, indicating me to stop as there might be something interesting around. His instincts honed to a nicety over several years in the profession, I knew he had the nose for being a good journo. And by boy, I was right: He had managed to smell out, even amidst the maddening crowd, a small shop selling mouth-watering samosas.
Samosas done, we purposely ventured forth into the line of jewellery shops and embraced the humongous stalemate in the form of people unable to get in or get out.
As we went around, it was clear that half the population of Chennai was out there on the streets of T Nagar that night. The other half of Chennai was, of course, inside the shops trying to purchase whatever it wanted to. But it may not have. For, in many shops there was so much crowd that the salespersons were outside. Another shop, perhaps understanding that this was anyway going to happen, had its entire sales counter outside itself. NO. I am not exaggerating.
Three hours or so, we roamed around the place and gathered enough information, quotes and experience to write out a satisfying 3000-word narrative journalistic piece, which using our rich editing skills, we have reduced to 9 words: ‘Never venture anywhere near T Nagar on Akshaya Tritiya.’