24 June 2009

A year of striking it out on my own

I have been very busy in the last few months, perhaps the busiest in my life yet. And in the all-consuming daily rush, I never noticed that I completed a year of working on my own this May. Yay!

I took on this new freelance writer-editor avatar of mine after I quit my last conventional job in April ’08. When I quit, I had no friggin idea what to do next, how I would pay the looming EMIs..., heck, I didn’t know from where the food on my plate would turn up.

But quit I did, and never once regretted it. The workplace repulsed me with its mediocrity and cheap, small-time politicking.

When I look back I feel happy about all the anger I have. It keeps me on my toes and from compromising on work ethics.

In my personal and professional life, I have taken risks, calculated or otherwise. And I wouldn’t like to go back and change anything.

I started out as a journalist in Vijay Times, and those were really crazy, fun-filled days. The shifts were endless, and the only respite came from the copy churned out by translators (news reports from Vijay Karnataka – a Kannada daily – would be translated to English). I remember one story that a hapless colleague had to, well, decode. In the copy, it said a train stopped and then did a U-turn. Am not making this up, because this simply is the creation of a mind with far more imagination powers than my humble brain could ever boast.

I took a break from work and completed a distance education course in environmental law. My interest in developmental journalism drove me to do this course. It helped clarify a lot of concepts about environment, conservation, and development.

Then, suddenly, one day I got a call from a recruitment company and asked if I would be interested with a job at AOL. First, I had no idea that AOL had an office other than its call center in Bangalore. They had a very low profile then. Secondly, I didn’t know what a copy editor could do there.

Anyway, I went to the interview, which lasted a whole day, and walked out with a job. That was my first 5-digit salary. I made some lasting friends there and learned a whole lot about the business of search.

But I had to leave as a new life waited in Kolkata, post-marriage.

People considered me lucky to be picked by The Telegraph, but here was where I met my first snobbish, half-wit, bossy boss. I left soon enough, and it was such a relief.

I then joined Clear English India where I worked for nearly two and a half years. Jyoti Sanyal was its founder and the sole reason for me taking up this job. He cautioned me against leaving a big name as The Telegraph and joining a start-up. Thank god, I didn’t listen to him. As his student, I had never thought I would get to work with him. The time at CEI was, in a sense, an extension of my education. But after he died in April last year, I saw the same mediocrity and politicking, I was so wary of in newspapers, creep into CEI. If I stayed, that’d mean a violation his memory and I felt I’d become a part of the mire. So, that was that, and I left.
The first couple of months as a work-from-home writer/editor were nightmarish. But, slowly, magically, things changed and I am grateful for that.

In the last year, I have worked with diverse clients and all of them have been positive experiences. The major part of my work was for a medical tourism company, which involved viral marketing and SEO. It’s a lot of hard work, patience, and persistence, but you do get a teeny-weeny high when you see an article you wrote show up on the first page of Google.
My journalism background does place me at an advantage over most others. I have worked with publishing software like QuarkXPress, Adobe InDesign, Dreamweaver; I have edited some of the toughest texts on earth, namely, Indian legalese; and I respect the sanctity of a deadline. This is a unique combination.

I have had happy clients till date and their feedback has made up for the lack of a security blanket. And I’m hoping I’ll never have to take up a job again. I’d like to rely on my skills and resources to grow independently, even if things take some time to shape up.

10 June 2009

FYI for the Government of West Bengal: One high tide over, many more coming

I wrote this on Sunday in my diary, and wanted to post it the same day. I am hopelessly late, but here it is:

Today, the high tide will finish what Cyclone Aila left unfinished a fortnight ago.

About 900 km of the Sunderbans’ 3,500 km-long embankment was breached by Aila. The water that will surge through today will determine the fate of the people of Sunderban for the next couple of years. Saline water will make the land un-cultivable. More people will slip below the poverty line.

It would be expecting too much from the state government to have had some sort of preparation for the cyclone. (This document that I found after a very brief search says, “A simple frequency distribution of all observed cyclonic activities in the Bengal delta suggests that these events usually occur twice per annum: in late May and in early November.” It also adds that climate change will cause more storm-like surges in the Sunderban in the 21st century.)

But the high tide does not come all of a sudden. Between the cyclone and the high tide, villagers toiled all by themselves to re-build as much as they could. Thousands fled, but I cannot fathom the strength and courage of those who stayed and put brick on top of brick and hoped they could save their land. They ignored the plight of their own families and worked on the embankment for up to 12 hours a day on some chire (parched rice) and gud (jaggery).

The CM on his visit to the cyclone-hit villages requested people to sort this out on their own. And, if they did, he would pay them Rs 81 per day for work done on rebuilding the embankment. (It turns out they were paid not more than Rs 26 or so per day.)

Why was the army not called in to work on the embankment? How can villagers be left on their own to deal with a problem that is not local at all? Does the CPM government even realize the implications of Sunderban drowning?

Even after the high tide came and caused fresh misery, the army has still not been called in. There will be many high tides, and there is the monsoon yet to come in its full fury. In reaction, the government will do the same thing it has been doing over the years: nothing.

Forget Sunderban, uprooted trees are still lying on the main roads of Kolkata. The civic administration said it doesn’t have enough axes to cut the trees up. (Somebody should nominate these people for Lying Through Their Teeth award, or for The Best Excuses to Skip Work award.) For once, they may be telling the truth. The axes have all been sent to the suburbs for some cleaning up work.

Oh, and in the meantime, the mayor of Kolkata came up with an interesting idea. He was so touched with what the CM did for the cyclone-hit, that he nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. (This one gets me, and I am at a serious shortfall of words for this.)

I am amazed at this apathy. And I shiver when I realize that all it took to show us the government’s impotence is a cyclone that never really hit with all its force. It kind of swept past and ravaged south Bengal on its way out. But what if the eye of the cyclone was Kolkata?

At least, after we saw the state government’s relief efforts (?), we know that we are on our own. At least, we have places to run to, and buses, cars, trains, and planes to go there. Not so, for the people of Sunderban.