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Editor, Journalist, and Writer Mr. Joel Rai speaks candidly about life, journalism

Brief Profile:
Name: Joel Rai
Profession: Journalist – Associate Editor, Business Standard. Formerly deputy editor, India Today and senior editor, The Indian Express
Son of: Late Mr L B Rai and Mrs Premmani Sereng
Better half: Single
Child(ren):
Place of birth: Darjeeling
Primary School: Bethany School
Secondary School: St Joseph’s School
Higher Secondary school: St Joseph’s College
College(s): St Joseph’s College, Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi), Indian Institute of Mass Communication (Delhi)

1. Could you please tell us about yourself, how was it growing up? How were you as a kid – sidha, badmas, chuchha, quiet silent type? Any fond childhood memories that you would want to share with our readers?
A. For whatever reasons, my teachers in all classes liked me and I have affectionate memories of all them. So I guess I grew up conforming to their image of me as a likeable kid … in other words, I was a pretty “sidha” boy in school. I was quite, never missed my homework. The few times I got a beating from the teacher hurt me mentally rather than physically because I believed in my own saintly image! I had a rollicking time through school, enjoyed all my classes and was always interested in sports too. I represented my school, at different levels, in cricket and athletics.

2. What made you take interest in journalism? 
A. I think my love for writing was what got me interested in thinking of journalism as a career, though now I realise that to be a journalist you have to be much more than just a good writer. I was editor of my school and college magazines, and it seemed a natural progression to go in for a diploma in journalism after my postgraduation.

3. When/how did you decide to take up journalism as a profession?
A. After completing my postgraduation degree at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, while my parents hoped I would go ahead and pursue a PhD programme, I wanted to get going with life. So even as I appeared for the MPhil admissions at JNU, I had set my heart on a journalism diploma.

4. Journalism must have an unusual profession choice back in the day, how did your parents react? Did they not push you to join a government job?
My parents’ earliest wish was, like with all parents, for me to become a doctor. I left the science stream after Class XII, but even as I was halfway through my BA honours degree in English, they suggested I should get back into science and sit for the medical entrance exams. I held my own against them! But once my mind was made up, they were proud that I had chosen to do something different. At the time that I began working in the media in Delhi, I can remember only one senior didi from our community. She worked for an afternoon paper.

5. Can you please tell us about your struggling days, if any?
A. As far as struggling is concerned, I can only admit that in my intial days I worked long hours, more than 10 hours in office. I survived, with a bit of help from my parents, on the salary I got. Those days, there were no email, mobile phones, Google, Internet, and a lot of legwork was involved in everything we did back then. Even later, my work involved long hours at work. Yes, I once spent a straight 36 hours in office.

6. Could you please tell us about how you got your break? 
A. Nothing spectacular about it. I replied to an ad in the papers from the Delhi bureau of an international paper. I had got a great recommendation from my journalism school for having topped the course.

7. Which was your big break, as in an assignment/report/editorial which announced to the world that you have arrived? And how did that happen?
A. Looking back, I think the series of stories I did for The Economic Times (Times of India Group) on the unsavoury goings on in a national junior golf body has to be the first time my work was talked about, unfavourably, of course, in the golf circuit. My section editor backed me, but the newspaper editor of the time called me and almost reprimanded me for my stories that had uncovered biased national selection procedures, etc. Of course, later he called me again and congratulated me when the erring officials of the body were dropped. I believe that my stories had had a bearing on what happened.

8. Working on news/editorial pieces, especially those that are of very sensitive nature like the Ram Janma Bhoomi case, or the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case etc – must be really difficult. How do you find the inspiration for your persistence?
A. It had just been days since I started working for an international paper based in Pakistan when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. I was sent to cover some of the events that happened. As a rookie, I did not do much except to write mood stories surrounding the assassination. I was in Teen Murti House where Rajiv Gandhi’s body was kept. After being right in the middle of the riots and the tumult, I wrote a piece called “Tears and Teargas”. Our foreign office was very interested in Rajiv’s death and lapped up whatever we sent from India. Later, I jointly worked on a long story on the Babri Masjid and the situation the Muslims of India of India found themselves in during the controversy. Hardly a month after that story, the mosque was destroyed. These happened early in my career and I was vindicated I had joined the right profession. Knowing you are bringing people’s issues out into the open is inspring. When I saw the utter devastation in Uttarakhand after the deluge last year, I was glad to visit the state, meet the victims and write about their plights in the hope that the government and the people concerned would be influenced. Meeting people, hearing diverse views, getting the contours of a story right, getting the approval of the editors – these are rewarding moments in journalism.

9. What do you like the most about your profession?
A. Journalism is a career that teaches you to be responsible. You cannot afford to be careless about facts, about words, about reporting what others say because you will cause a lot of confusion if you do so. The work can be very demanding both in terms of time and labour, but it is very satisfying at the end of it all. I used to say that I would not ever opt for a 9-to-5 job, but believe me sometimes I wish I did – when I find I have time for nothing else except to catch a few hours of sleep. But with every story you do or handle, you learn new things.

10. Was it difficult for you as a Gorkhali to be established in the world of journalism? How did you overcome them?
A. Well, I cannot say I faced racism. Though I will always hold it against MJ Akbar that when I first had occasion to meet him for an assignment, which I never got eventually, he asked me, “Which part of Nepal are you from?” That was, in part, what helped me form my thoughts about a separate state, but that’s another story. Other than that, I never faced discrimination due to being a Gorkhali. However, I must confess that language can be a hindrance. Even today, my Hindi is passable as best. When I was doing a story on the Muslims in Muzaffarnagar displaced by the Jat-Muslim riots last year, a Muslim elder at a relief camp, speaking in Urdu, told me, “You should have come here with someone who speaks the language.” I smiled to think that they couldn’t understand my Hindi! Sometimes though, I feel that the trust factor between a source and journalist is affected by my being a Gorkhali.

11. Has the world of journalism let down people from north-East? Former CNN-IBN TV Anchor Rajdeep Sardesai claimed “tyranny of distance” as his defence when accused of not covering Assam riots. Do you think that the Main Stream Media has let down North-East India?
A. I do not think the world of journalism has let down people from the Northeast. I have been asked his question often enough, and I always say that news is important or useful to people closest to the origin of that news. Whenever the separate state issue has reached a high, the Delhi media has given it wide coverage, both on electronic channels as well as in print. But they cannot sustain the news once it starts becoming routine. But similarly, as a senior journalist in charge of different sections of a newspaper I used to struggle with how to present news that is important but routine. For instance, it was big news when the US hit at Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and we carried big news about casualties – both in fighting as well as those among civilians caused by suicide bomber, etc. After some time, the daily tolls started becoming “boring”. Later, we stopped carrying stories on the daily deaths. Now were we ignoring the happenings? No, but the news value had gone. Sometimes what is of crucial importance to the people of Darjeeling may not be of interest to people in the rest of India, so it doesn’t get covered by the so-called “national” media. But that does not mean the media in Delhi is not unaware of the situation. It is just a selection of news based on interest to people elsewhere in the country. However, the media in Darjeeling covers situation there and influences opinion in circles that matter, which is more important than being covered by Delhi papers and TV and nobody paying attention to it.

12. Is the field of journalism more open to the people from North-East India today than it was when you started? How?
A. I do not think the field was ever closed to people from the Northeast. It was just that fewer students from those regions studied in the big cities. Once people started coming to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities in big numbers, our horizons opened and we have seen more Northeasterners not only in journalism, but in every field. Look at fashion designing and the number of designers from the Northeast. Was there a bar earlier on people from Northeast in joining the world of designing?

13. What are the qualities media companies are looking for in a potential journalist? Any words of advice for youngsters who want to follow on your footsteps?
A. Journalism requires two types of workers: reporters and editors. For a reporter, more than language skills, he or she must be bright, curious, aware and ready for hard work. Understanding what is news and what makes news newsworthy, is essential. Networking skills — like an inborn penchant for making friends or earning people’s trust — can help a person to become a good reporter. Foremost, a reporter must be curious and always ready to explore and unearth new things. An editor, on the other hand, needs to have strong command of the language, English or any regional language in which the newspaper or TV channel is run. At the same time, like the reporter, he or she must understand news.