For C Vanaja, one of the first few Telugu women journalists, this year marks a silver jubilee in the field. Foraying into the career at a time when women were rarely seen in regional media, Vanaja used every medium available to reach out to people and tell stories. Today, she is an independent journalist and a filmmaker too, but likes to call herself ‘a non-fiction storyteller’.
“For me it has been a tough journey. A journey where there were no steps or elevators but one where I constructed each step on my own and climbed up,” Vanaja tells TNM.
Backed by two gutsy women
Born into an agricultural family in Khammam, Vanaja’s life-long romance with journalism started with the tiny newspaper bits her grandmother collected every time she went to the grocery store in the nearby town.
“With her hands she would iron out all the newspaper used for packing the groceries and keep them under a grinding stone before handing them over to me to read. No matter which newspaper or which date, we would devour all the news published in those little bits of paper. My grandmother was the first person who sowed the seeds of revolution in me,” Vanaja recalls.
Married at the age of 13, Vanaja’s grandmother was a gritty woman who was determined that her granddaughter shouldn’t be confined to the walls of the village and meet a similar fate like hers.
“My grandmother became a widow at 20 and my mother too gave birth to me when she was just 14. My grandmother fought tooth and nail with my relatives when they proposed marriage for me when I was just 13 years old.”
“We drew inspiration from women novelists like Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani, who was married at 14 and later went on to become a writer. Though she had only some basic education, my grandmother was a voracious reader who would sneak in novels whenever we went to the nearby town,” Vanaja adds.
Strength from education
After finishing Class 7 at the upper primary school in her village, Vanaja bought textbooks for higher classes and started studying on her own. “I appeared as a private candidate for my Class 10 exams. My mother and grandmother told me to consider each textbook as a novel, read it and write whatever I could remember. None of us had any hopes that I would clear the exam. Those were the days when the pass percentage was less than 50% even for school-going students. But the strategy worked and I passed,” Vanaja says.
“On my first day at intermediate college in Kothagudem, I went with my hair neatly oiled and plaited and adorned with hibiscus flowers. When I reached college, I felt awkward and out of place. I slowly stopped wearing flowers and started tying a ponytail. And soon I chopped my hair off, because unlike in the village there was no one to care for my long hair,” Vanaja says.
Vanaja’s uncle, who was a Communist leader, held Marxism classes for the villagers at her home and it was here Vanaja says that she was introduced to real literature, outside of pulp fiction.
“I started attending these classes and that was where I heard that one was dead the moment they stopped questioning the status quo, a maxim I have stuck to throughout my life. All the Russian literature translated into Telugu dumped in the village and newspapers that arrived once in a month as packaging material for groceries only made me more rebellious,” Vanaja says.
Vanaja during her university days
At the age of 16, Vanaja rented a room in Kothagudem and started living alone as the bus service that took her daily to the college from her village was stopped. After completing her BSc, Vanaja, who had by then made her career choice clear, joined journalism at the Telugu University where she actively took part in radical politics.
Finding a foothold
Looking for a job, Vanaja found that in a field largely dominated my men, no one wanted to hire a woman as a reporter and appointing her on the desk was not possible. “The prevailing mindset in the Telugu newspaper industry at the time was that women as reporters were not suitable at all. Even if they were hired at the desk they would leave the job when they got married and, anyway, they did not work night shifts. These were common excuses given,” Vanaja says.
A magazine called Suprabhatham agreed to hire Vanaja as a trainee sub-editor cum reporter for Rs 1,000 per month. “By then I turned away a Group III government job thinking that I was going to be a big journalist,” Vanaja chuckles.
The young journalist got her first break after her reportage on ‘Orphans for sale’ went on to become the cover story of the magazine. Six months later, she was hired by Andhra Jyothi as their business reporter. But her dream was to become a political reporter.
“But all my requests were turned down as editors were strongly convinced that it was not safe for women to be political reporters,” she adds.
It was editor ABK Prasad of the newly launched Vartha newspaper who, heeding to her request, appointed her their political reporter in January 1995.
Bias continues, 25 year later
Have things changed in these 25 years? Sadly no, Vanaja says. “The top two Telugu newspapers do not have a single woman reporter in their political bureaus. There aren’t many people in this part of the world, even in journalism, who believe that a woman can do everything a man can. I remember when I went to report Assembly proceedings, there was no toilet for women for reporters from galleries. I guess it is the same case even today. If you need to use the toilet, you need to go to the lobby and request a woman minister to use the washroom in her chamber. It hasn’t changed much.”
Vanaja won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka award in 2005 for her story on Janathana Sarkar or the parallel government run by Maoist guerrillas in Dandakaranya.
“Everyone, even freshers, says they are in journalism to bring about change. Initially I believed I was bringing out stories to change the world. Now I am not sure if they really did but they have changed me as a person. Stories like ‘Orphans for sale’, Smarana, Janathana Sarkar, Platform 5 have changed my perspective and given me a reason to stick on. I did stories that touched my heart and engaged me as a person intellectually, creatively and politically.”
Vanaja says she doesn’t believe in the fast pace of journalism today, especially the trend of breaking news and the race for TRPs.
“I consider myself lucky to have started in an era where journalists had the leisure to work on a story. I consider myself a vagabond and security suffocates me.”
Advice to young journalists? “I would say only one thing: Do not confine yourself. When you become a journalist, know that you are a storyteller not just a reporter who reports news. Don’t confine yourself to a newspaper or TV or any one medium. Learn to read, learn to write, learn to talk and learn to shoot. Use each and every medium to tell your stories. Keep telling the stories, whether or not you are hired as a storyteller.”