Her Own Beat

A veteran journalist recounts some prized scoops

Amrita Rangasamy travelled widely to cover grassroots issues. SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 December, 2013

AMRITA RANGASAMY CAN USUALLY BE FOUND in the library of the India International Centre (IIC), on Lodi Road in Delhi, poring over reports as part of her research into famine and governance. In the evenings, she shifts to the institution’s lounge, where she reads periodicals, or catches up with friends who drop by to meet her. Small, silver-haired and bespectacled, there is a scholarly air about her. But engage her in conversation about her career, which began in the 1960s, and she is seized with a childish glee, as she rattles off tales from decades of reporting, during which she marked herself out as one of the country’s foremost journalists on development and governance.

Rangasamy is one of the breed that the journalist Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar described in her essay in Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way, a collection of essays by winners of the Chameli Devi Jain awards for journalism. “After the initial reports of riots, droughts, and floods had made the headlines,” Aiyar wrote, “it was often women journalists who went back to the scenes of carnage or devastation and gave its victims a voice.”

When I met Rangasamy in the IIC in November, she recounted one of her early stories, from 1966. At the time, there was a statute in force in Madras requiring rice to be rationed due to a food shortage in the region. Waking up at around 3.30 am on the morning of the assignment, she wore a silk saree and diamond earrings, and told her mother that she was going to cover an event attended by the “chief minister”. “Why alarm people?” she said of her lie. “It was best to tell her something that will keep her calm.”

Rangasamy and a photographer set out in a jeep for the Red Hills region about half an hour to the north of the city, where they had learnt rice was being sold illegally for distribution to the black market. They reached a shop where, she said, “rice was being weighed, and put into gunny bags. And then gunny bags were moved around in the trucks.” Rangasamy went to the men who were watching over the smuggling, and told them, “Veettilluh kalyanam. Engalukkuh arisi illuh. Randu mootai venum” (There’s a wedding at home. We don’t have any rice. Please give me two bags of rice). Her saree and rings, she said, ensured that they would buy her story and “walk into her trap”.

Once Rangasamy had confirmed that the shop was selling rice illegally, she pretended to leave. After driving a short distance away, she instructed the driver to turn the jeep around and rev the engine to illuminate the scene for the photographer—“trucks loaded with rice bags and a row   of cycles with rice bags strapped to the back”. The photographs were on the front page of the Indian Express the following day, and Rangasamy’s report, which appeared in her column on page three, was noticed by the district’s collector, who cracked down on the racket.

In another report for the Express,around the same time as the rice story, she dressed in the garb of a Girl Guide to gain access to the inmates of a remand home in Madras who, she had heard, were being abused by the superintendent. “The first thing is to have an identity that totally puts people off track,” she said. “We had to impersonate somebody else.” The fact that people were unaccustomed to female reporters worked in her favour.“I’d look upon it as an advantage that there were no female reporters, not as a handicap,” she said. “When I went chasing rice smugglers nobody thought I was a reporter.”

While these stories represented Rangasamy’s more dramatic exposés, much of her work entailed more conventional, if no less adventurous journalism, as she travelled across the country to cover elections, poverty, drought and floods in Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and Naxalite conflicts in Srikakulam.

Today, Rangasamy rues the fact that the explosive growth of the country’s media industry over the decades has not been accompanied by a sustained culture of journalism about issues such as poverty and deprivation. Despite the low pay and the sometimes heart-rending stories she covered, she said, “I enjoyed every day of my work as a reporter. We had nasha (spirit) in our body. You know what I mean? We were out to get somebody.”