The life of a journalist is quite interesting. A journalist not only gets to meet interesting and intriguing people from all walks of life but also is a witness to the events that create history. However, the journalist’s own life is almost like that camera that is often hidden behind its own million photos which become the cynosure of all eyes. The life story of Meenal Baghel, the founding editor of Mumbai Mirror has also been somewhat similar. Though the articles, stories and now podcasts of this enigmatic Jaipur woman have helped people to make sense of their world, her own untold life story is nothing short of an adventure.
It is quite rare that you get to meet and understand the mind of a journalist. So, when Meenal Baghel, the ex. founding editor of Mumbai Mirror and now the host of Times of India podcast, agreed for an interview about her life at her parents’ home in Jaipur, I was almost as eager as a child in a candy store. For a person who had helped Mumbai Mirror from scratch, I had expected to meet a very no-nonsense kind of a professional. Instead, I met a soft-spoken lady who had a glint of humour in her eyes and a voice that spoke of her life experience. As we settled down to a free-wheeling chat, I asked her about her early years in Rajasthan. She said, “My father worked at State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur (SBBJ). I have studied in schools of Kota, Jaipur, Bikaner. From the very beginning, I was clear that I wanted to be a journalist. I have always been a story teller, a voracious reader, a writer and a debater.”
Interesting! But then, what prompted the move to Mumbai? “I graduated from Mira Girls College in Udaipur. I went to Mumbai because I was feeling very claustrophobic in Udaipur and I wanted to get out and start working. So, I enrolled in a part time journalism course in St. Xavier’s Institute of Communications, St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. I was at a stage where I wanted to take charge of my own life. I also started working at Indian Express as an intern. My foray into journalism was a homecoming of sorts because I loved the deadlines, the late hours and the intensity of my job.”
But didn’t a big city like intimidate a girl from a small city of Rajasthan? Meenal smiled and shook her head, “As a matter of fact, when I went to Mumbai, I realized that though it is a big city, it is very insular. At least in those days (early 1990s), I felt people were so caught up in their life in Mumbai, that it was almost similar to being in New York where people feel that New York is the centre of the world and nothing else matters. The Americans have a very little idea of what is going on in the rest of the world. Same is the case with Mumbai. For me, a person who knew more about the world than an average Mumbaikar, I never felt under confident in Mumbai. The schools I attended had so much engagement with politics, with social issues, language, literature and helped me to develop a good command over my language. They had these fantastic libraries where I used to spend hours poring over the back issues of The Illustrated Weekly and other such magazines. A lot of people sometimes struggle when they go to big cities from relatively smaller places. But my teachers were so fantastic that I never ever felt out of place.”
Her determination is quite evident in her soft yet firm tone. So, what was her career trajectory like? “After Indian Express, I got a job in the features team at Mid-Day Newspaper. That was the time my father got posted to Mumbai. After a couple of years, I got to know that Vinod Mehta who was the Mumbai editor of ‘The Pioneer’ had launched ‘The Pioneer’ in Delhi. So, I applied and got a job. My aim was simple. I wanted to work and learn from great editors. I was there for about a year. I worked as a general beat reported who used to cover crime and all sorts of things like junior reporters do. After a while, I learnt that M.J. Akbar, who was a big name in journalism at the time was starting Asian Age. I joined Asian Age where I covered politics and looked into editorial too. In 1996, I got a Chevening Scholarship, which is a fully funded one-year scholarship by the government of UK. When I came back, I joined Indian Express, which was headed by Shekhar Gupta. I was with the Indian Express for six years, which proved to be a great learning experience for me in both Delhi and Mumbai. Then I learnt that my friend Akash Patel, who was the editor of Mid-Day, needed someone to help him relaunch Mid-Day. So, I joined him as the deputy editor. In 2005, after about two years, The Times of India reached out to me as they were looking for an editor for the Mumbai Mirror which was being launched. So, that year, I joined the Times of India as the editor of Mumbai Mirror and there has been looking back since then.”
When I heard this, I had to know what helped her to survive in an industry which is known for its cut throat competition and office politics for sixteen plus years? Meenal replied, “I have a very simple policy which I think has served me well. I only believe in focussing on my job. If my job was to build Mumbai Mirror, I only focussed on that. For instance, Times of India is a huge building, there are a number of sections like Economic Times, Maharashtra Times etc, but all these years, I still don’t know many people there. That’s because I was focussed on going to my floor and working with my people and making sure that the Mumbai Mirror came out every day as one of the best newspapers. My approach is very blinkered in terms of my job. I don’t allow a lot of distractions in work. When we started Mumbai Mirror, a lot of people said it will shut down in a year. When you start a newspaper, you do face challenges, you struggle. I didn’t not allow any of those detractors to influence anything. In that sense I was a very determined person and I had decided that I will give it my best shot no matter what. More than that, I have worked in many places but I found The Times as one of the best employers. I don’t say it because I am working there but because the thing with them is once they figure out that you are sincere about your work, they give you enough space to do your job.”
But then there are all those famous turf wars that a regular feature of all news rooms! How did she deal with them? Meenal feels that she was very fortunate that she got into a senior editor’s position very early in life. “So, my big challenge has been leading some very dynamic newsrooms and taking care of the administration part. I believe that newsrooms are like human beings and their moods reflect on the newspaper editions that come out. There are days that you feel low on energy and the headline of the next day is equally low energy. Then on days, when the energy is high and people are on the top of their game, it shows in the next day’s edition. So, I feel it is important to have good energy in the newsrooms so that everybody trusts each other. In a lot of larger newspapers, there are turf wars, where people say this is my beat and you will not come on my beat. So, my entire challenge was to create a newsroom where these turfs don’t exist. For example, someone is covering aviation and a crime reporter gets a tip off. So, typically what will happen is that no one will share information or the aviation guy will say that this is my story. So, I make would make sure that the journalist who got the story would share the by-line with the person covering the story and they would work together. So, you had many more people thinking about not just their own beat but also about getting new stories.”
For an editor of a daily newspaper, it is quite a challenge to get interesting front page stories every day! How did she cope? Meenal smiled and said, “It would invariably happen that I would be searching for a kick ass story for the front page and till 9 in the evening, I wouldn’t get a story which is good enough for the front page. The 9 to 10:30 pm was a crazy newsroom. But perpetually at 10 pm something would come up. Actually, this getting stories at the last minute has been such a regular feature of my life that I now genuinely believe that God is a journalist.”
For a person who has been a witness to the evolving history in one of the most dynamic cities of India, when was it that she really realized the true nature of journalism? Meenal takes a sip of her tea and a faraway look comes into her eyes. “In the evening of November 26, 2008, I had gotten off from office and was at a friend’s son wedding. I got a call from a colleague who was at VT station, ready to go home. His voice was shaking. He told me that there was a mafia attack in Mumbai. He asked me if I could hear the guns in the back ground to which I said yes. I called my colleagues and we were trying to figure out what was happening. We were told that there was an attack in Colaba on the Taj Hotel. Our office was right opposite Colaba. It was all unfolding in real time. One of my colleagues was a photo editor called Sebastian D’Souza. He ran to the VT station with his telephoto lens and hid in an empty local train. From that position, he shot the photo of a man walking with a AK56. Another photographer colleague was hiding behind this pile of newspapers along with a constable who was firing at these terrorists. The constable just lifted his head and almost immediately got shot in the head. For the entire country, it was a night of mayhem, where most people had no idea about who these attackers were. However, the photograph taken by Sebastian was the only photo in the country which identified this man as Ajmal Kasab. We were all stuck trying to get back to our office because the entire area was cordoned off. We worked on our mobile phones and sent in the front page at 1 a.m. with the headline ‘The man who terrorized Mumbai’. Out of the ten men who eventually attacked Mumbai, only Ajmal Kasab survived and he was the guy whose photo Sebastian shot! This photo became the only document and the testimonial in the case that linked Pakistan with the terror attacks. So, that was the time, a lot of people realized that journalism is not just news but it is raw courage where journalists put themselves in the line of fire. There is a famous saying that journalism is the first draft of history and that is what happened that night!”
To be continued..
This article by Shailaza Singh appeared in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 7 November 2021