By Lata Jha:
I often wonder what made me want to become a journalist. It definitely wasn’t my social skills. Most people would call me an introvert, but I’m just not the kind of a person who would go up to people and initiate a conversation. That absolutely doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in their lives or stories. I am. I live to tell tales, and bring out stories. It just means that I don’t know how to begin asking questions.
It would be worth mentioning that amongst several other things, I’m scared of unfamiliar spaces. It was thus a shock to my parents when I began reporting in the Bronx during my first week at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where I’m currently enrolled for a Master’s degree. The Bronx is not New York’s most peaceful, prosperous neighbourhood. It has its share of horror tales. A single child from a protective family, I have lived my life in India being chaperoned, and escorted to every single place, from school to college to social outings. I had never stepped out by myself, not even to get notes photocopied. That made me the butt of a lot of jokes, but my parents just never had the heart to let me be on my own.
I don’t know how they managed to send me to a different country, a different continent, or how they lived with the thought of me touring this alien city, and meeting strangers at odd hours, all by myself. It’s a conversation we haven’t had yet. But I’m guessing that it was because I had made it clear that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Reporting for three months in the Bronx took me to a lot of places, and introduced me to a lot of people. Perhaps it was somewhat destined for me to begin my journey, and have my first interview turn out the way it did, to be able to survive the uphill struggle of the next three months.
He was a counselling representative at a community-based partnership that provides social services and legal representation in the Bronx. I was pursuing a different story altogether (one that turned out to be a complete disaster ultimately, if I may add), and met him accidentally. At that time, I was hungry and nervous for a story, for sources, for quotes. I didn’t want quality; I just wanted to hand in an assignment and prove my commitment. He seemed willing to talk, so I asked him if he would like to be a character I could shadow for an entire day. “Can I come home and meet your family?” I asked. He agreed.
Now, when I think of it, I have absolutely no idea why, or how I had done it. Within a week of being on my own in an alien country, I was with a stranger in his apartment trusting nothing but my instincts.
And then, he began to talk. I don’t know if he was trying to be a helpful “character,” or if he just let it flow, but he talked. He spoke of the American education system, of immigration, of politics, his love for dogs, sports, and so on. Somewhere down the line, conversation veered towards his family. I usually avoid asking personal questions if they have nothing to do with the story, so I don’t know how it was initiated.
“I was brought up as the son of, who were actually, my grandparents,” he said. “I was born out of wedlock to my sister, who was actually my mother.”
I was shocked. And uncomfortable. It was never my intent to either probe, or write about such private details. And I didn’t incorporate them in the story. “How did you find out?” I asked him finally.
“I was a smart kid. I figured it out,” he smiled.
In a conversation over the course of a couple of days, he also mentioned that he had separated from his wife, and hadn’t seen his only son in years. His second wife seemed to be having issues too. When I asked him if I could photograph him at his workplace, he said he didn’t mind it except that I’d have to speak to the director, a lady who ‘had a lot of stuff of her own going on’.
“You seem really troubled by all the women in your life,” I said. He laughed loudly, but didn’t say anything.
In those two days, I saw him interact with a number of people who came to his office, seeking help. Some just needed contact details, while others were looking for everything from shelter to courage. As he listened to their anguished tales, and pacified them like a kind, elderly uncle, I saw him forget his own troubles, his tough life, his many challenges. I saw him give all of himself to them, and perhaps seek solace in the fact that at least somebody went out of that door, a little less miserable.
I didn’t initially know what to make of my meeting with him. It didn’t give me a fantastic story. But it taught me to overcome my fears, and made me realize that I’m tougher than I think. Also, that people are, more often than not, willing to share their stories, and let you into their homes and hearts if they feel they can trust you.
For a reporter on her first job, there couldn’t have been a bigger lesson. For a girl away from home for the first time, there couldn’t have been a more unforgettable starting point. I’m not saying that you will always have these preposterous encounters, and that you will someday look back, smile on, and feel grateful. What I am saying is that in its own way, life will help you see how important it is to broaden your horizons. So, if like me, you treasure your comfort zone, go out there today, and challenge yourself. Do not hold back.