Why It Took The Caravan Five Years to put a Woman on Its Cover

30 September 2015
Roli Books
Roli Books

In November 2012, I sat down across from the editor who is now my boss at The Caravan for an interview. He said: “So I hear you have criticisms of how the magazine only puts dudes on its cover? That’s good.” Three years ago, The Caravan was just about three years old, already much admired for its journalism and storytelling. Its profiles, in particular had become something of a byword, and stories about people ranging from Lalit Modi to Manmohan Singh had cemented its reputation for impactful cover stories. However, the magazine had not yet put a woman on the cover.

There is a kind of liberal enterprise that finds questions of representation embarrassing, if not irrelevant to its goals, but The Caravan has never been one of these places. A few months after that interview, I breezed in to work, sure that it was only a matter of time before my like-minded colleagues and I achieved our common goal. I was certain we would inaugurate a series of smashing cover stories featuring some of India’s most important and intriguing women. It took us until October 2015 to actually do it.

I write this not in celebration, but in a bid to untangle what we did and to offer some thoughts to The Caravan’s readers—who I know are also of like mind—about how we engaged with a simple question whose answer turned out to be unnecessarily complicated and painful. Why did it take us so long? Now light-headed with relief, I can’t help but think that all the man-hours of anxiety my colleagues and I devoted to it were futile. I also believe that having accomplished it once—all thanks to the writer of this month’s cover story, the musician TM Krishna—it will now be much easier to do it as a matter of course. Still, if the problem was that simple, we would have addressed it much earlier.

At The Caravan, we’ve often said, only slightly in jest, that an editor must say no to almost everything. Sure enough, our meetings are full of the debris of discarded or delayed ideas, and the “no” problem is multiplied threefold in the case of the cover story. A list of reasons for why a particular story might not work for The Caravan exists in every editor's head, based on complex and shifting calculations. It is here that we encountered our first obstacle in publishing cover stories about people other than men. “Contingency played a big part,” Alex Blasdel, our former senior associate editor, wrote when I asked him to recall some of our roadblocks here. “Contingency has some structural causes,” he continued,  “This has to do with everything from what pitches came through the door to the electoral cycles in various states.”

Most story ideas that were pitched or generated, both among editors and among reporters, tended to be about men rather than women or transgender people. Every rejected pitch was turned down for the same set of reasons, but the difference in volume affected the output. “In every close case,” Alex remembered, “there were good reasons not to commission or pursue a potential cover story on a woman, or not to put a story on the cover—reasons that evidently didn't have anything to do with gender.” An example many of us thought of in this regard is this story about Mamata Banerjee, commissioned for our election special issue in April 2014, which had no cover story.

Supriya Nair is an associate editor at The Caravan.