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March 15, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Gauri Lankesh

'Being a woman is my security right now'

Gauri Lankesh For the past two decades, Lankesh Patrike has been the hardest-hitting Kannada weekly around. It is one publication that every politician and celebrity openly labels yellow but eagerly reads in private.

In its heyday, litterateur, poet and filmmaker Paalyada Lankesh's weekly broke major political scandals that rocked governments, caused mayhem in the legislative assembly and often beat the English mainstream press in uncovering scams. Since Lankesh's health started deteriorating six years ago, it had lost that special edge.

The question what would eventually happen to it had come up several times, but Lankesh's family -- wife, daughters Gauri and Kavitha, and son Inderjit -- insist that they never really thought of the publication without its founder.

Lankesh died quite suddenly at the end of January, of a heart attack partly precipitated by his escalating diabetes and his past indulgent living. His family was suddenly left with the legacy of a very demanding magazine.

Two days later, his eldest child, Gauri, 38, a mainstream journalist for over 16 years, decided that she would step into her father's shoes as editor. Two months down the line, Patrike is doing as well as it has over the past few years: a circulation of 70,000, and not a single issue or story missed.

Her brother Inderjit continues to handle Patrike's business affairs. Their third sibling, Kavitha is a filmmaker and not involved with the magazine's actual running.

Gauri was working for Eenadu's Telugu television channel in Delhi when her father died. She has been a journalist for 16 years, beginning with a stint at the Times of India, Bangalore. Then she moved on to Delhi with her then husband, journalist Chidanand Rajghatta. She returned to Bangalore soon after and took up as a correspondent for Sunday magazine, a job she held for nine long years.

Many of Gauri's contemporaries believe she has now got a lucky break in a career she herself admits was stagnating. What is it like to be a single woman living alone and heading a hard-hitting news weekly that has often brought its editor death threats and worse? M D Riti finds out:

Did you ever think that you would be the inheritor of your father's legacy and that you would become the editor of Lankesh Patrike some day?

Never. I don't think, for one thing, that anyone could ever be the true inheritor of my father's legacy. He was so huge in the worlds of Kannada journalism and literature. On the day he died, my friends asked me, as we waited at the Delhi airport, what is going to happen to Patrike now. I told them there was no question of ever doing anything other than shutting it down pronto. His shoes were just too big and difficult to fill.

What were the circumstances under which you decided to edit the weekly?

I didn't think it would ever be feasible, at first, to run the paper under anyone else's stewardship, leave alone mine, because everyone would want to see another Lankesh, which is impossible. But so many people sent messages saying, please don't shut the paper down because it has always stood for secularism, Dalits, women and the downtrodden. Patrike had become a forum for voices that mainstream media had no space for.

My sister, brother and I all went to meet my father's dear friend Mani, the editor and publisher of leading Kannada eveninger Sanje Vani and Tamil daily Dina Sudar, who has been publishing our magazine for years. We told him we wanted to close the paper down. Mani was quite upset. He said, there was your father, who quit his regular job, put all his savings into starting this publication, and had the courage to struggle and make it something. You people want to now give it up without even a struggle. Why don't you at least have the guts to try it for a while, and close it down if it's not working out?

Then again, the circumstances under which my father called it a day seemed almost like a portent. He died on a Monday, after he had written all his columns and put the edition to bed. It seemed almost like an insult to his memory to close down the magazine abruptly, when he had wound up his affairs so neatly! One question that continued to worry us was whether my father would have wanted Patrike to continue. We still don't know the answer. He never told us.

Even though he was ill for so long? He never discussed its future with any of you?

No, in fact he was toying with the idea of starting an evening newspaper over the past two years. We all shot the idea down at home because we didn't think he had the health to do it. He always felt he wanted it to be alive as long as it was serving a purpose. And I think it still is serving one.

So you never got into journalism with the idea of taking the weekly over some day?

Was I being groomed for this job? Certainly not, because my father started the paper at the same time that I started studying journalism. There was nothing for me to inherit at that point in terms of a publication! Actually, my first choice of profession was to be a doctor, but it didn't happen, so I decided to become a journalist. In all these 20 years, I wrote for Patrike just once. I kept myself deliberately away from the publication because it is such a strident, hard-hitting paper, and I was working for the mainstream English media.

Your critics point out that your career graph has been far from spectacular, and that for the past decade your career has been either stagnating or going downhill. Do you think this was a lucky break for you?

I would be the first person to admit that my career was stagnating like nobody's business. Perhaps it was because I did not want to take risks. Maybe it was because my personal life has not exactly been terrific. I was concentrating more on finding personal happiness than on chasing a career. Today, I am happy with myself, and don't mind whatever price I have had to pay for it.

Are you happy with both your personal and professional lives now?

As a person I am very happy with myself now. Last year I decided that I finally had no problems about being alone, had resolved all my personal confusions, and was ready to concentrate on my career. At the time my father took this decision for me, and I had to come back, my career was really taking off. As for this editorship, I don't think at all that I have earned it. I am just doing my best to make sure that I do earn it now!

What are your plans for Patrike now?

My father did give the paper its direction until the very end. But over the past two years, as his health failed, the paper had stopped really touching its readers. I am trying to reach out to the people again now.

As the second generation of family running this paper, do you plan to take the publication in any other directions, make its reach more global, put it online or whatever?

My father was averse to technology. He was most conservative in that area. Until the very end, he wrote with his own hand. He never understood Internet or even the stock market. He felt strongly that change can best be implemented when done at a micro level. I agree with his point of view, but I also realise that the micro level is also getting technology savvy. Once we stabilise, I do plan to put Patrike on the Internet, and also some of my father's other writing works. Right now, I am serialising one of his novels, and hope to put that serial on the Net too.

Will you have an online edition of Patrike?

We discovered that someone had already registered a Web site in the name of Lankesh Patrike. It has nothing on it except for a picture of my father. My brother wrote to the man who had the site, and it turned out to belong to a fan of my father. He told us that we could have it any time we wanted it. We plan to activate that site in a few weeks from now.

How do you like being the editor of a weekly with a very male identity, in terms of its readership, its staff, and its leadership right until now?

Women might have their spaces in Patrike, but the focus is definitely hard news, investigation and typically male areas of interest, with the kind of stories that male journalists in the districts mostly do.

I disagree with the statement that our readership is largely male. We have given birth to some of the best writers in Kannada too. Like Vaidehi, Lalitha Nayak and Banu Ustad. They still prefer to publish with us first as we give them a very special readership. My father also inspired so many women to become journalists in Kannada.

Your father has frequently faced threats to his life, law suits, been called all sorts of names. He took all these in his stride. As a fairly young single woman, living alone in Bangalore, are you up to withstanding such pressure?

For all the people who filed cases against my father, there were a far greater number who refrained from doing so because they felt he was right. I am trying to run the weekly much more professionally without losing its sting. I think being a woman is quite useful in this situation, because if any of our reporters met a politician who was angry with my father, the politician would use the foulest language against my father. But if they badmouth a woman, they will lose respect and face in the society themselves! So being a woman is my security right now.

Well, people may not badmouth you, but your being a woman may not dissuade them from attacking you physically, as they have tried to attack your father from time to time. They will know you are particularly vulnerable as you are single and living alone.

I am not afraid of physical attacks at all. I used to come home at 3 am alone many nights until a fortnight ago. I only stopped when I saw a man wrapped in a saree lying in the middle of the road on one such occasion. Now I keep my driver with me until I reach home. Apart from that, I have not even got any blank calls. I have received a couple of calls trying to blackmail me about my personal life in taluk level `blackmail' newspapers. Those too stopped when I said, go ahead, write whatever you want about me. I have done nothing wrong to fear exposure.

When you speak of running the paper more professionally, do you mean that it will become less of a tabloid and more upmarket?

There is nothing tabloidy or downmarket about us apart from our A4 size. And we are not a highly priced paper, of course! Those people that we criticise like to dismiss us as a yellow tabloid, when we catch them doing wrong things. We have always taken the risk of telling things as they are. Look at our last issue, for example, where we did a cover on all the wrongdoing of S M Krishna's right hand man, Minister D K Shivakumar. One of my reporters went to Shivakumar's constituency of Sathnur, and found that people with documents and papers literally coming out of the woodwork, wanting to expose the man. We had the guts to publish this story, while mainstream papers shied away from it.

Bringing out a publication in a vernacular language calls for a very high skill level in that language. Do you have that degree of comfort working in Kannada?

I hope so. Not a single word has gone into the paper that I have not personally seen and approved in the past two months. My father felt that English was the language of expression of the superficial and stylised Indian. He always told me that no true self expression can come in a language that is not Indian. I now find that he is quite right. After almost two decades of writing and thinking in English, I find that the opportunity to write in Kannada has given me so much spontaneity and freedom of expression.

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