Five Questions for featured author Kay Benedict
1. How long have you been a journalist? About 27 years
2. What is your current position, beat, or area of expertise?
I am Associate Editor, covering the ruling Congress party on a daily basis. I also cover Parliament when in session. Last many years I am writing on Indian politics, mostly national politics and at times the political developments In states. I have also been covering general (national) and provincial elections.
I also write on Church affairs and Christian issues which are relevant to the Indian audience. 3. What brought you into journalism?
I hail from the southern state called Kerala . I was in high school when my mother died young, at 38 due to sudden illness. My father was a businessman. He used to buy tea leaves from estates, process them and export. Suddenly his business collapsed due to a combination of ill-luck and cheating by his business partners. He lost millions. My mother’s sudden death too came as devastating blow to him. Three months later, he too died. We were 12 children! all orphaned, all of a sudden. (Being devout Christians my parents or grand patents were loathe to practice family planning).
I was the fifth and barely managed to pass my high school examination. The atmosphere was a bit depressing after the deaths in the family for a teenager like me and I ran away to New Delhi, 3000 kms away, to meet two of my friends.
From there I went to Shimla, where I met a paternal uncle of mine, an educationist, who had retired as vice chancellor of Jodhpur University (Rajasthan) and was a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. A kindhearted soul, he encouraged me to study further and offered financial help. With his help and encouragement I continued my studies.
Before I left Shimla, he took me a bookstall called “”Minerva” on the Mall Road and bought - Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary - and gifted it to me, so that I could learn some English. I still have that red-bound dictionary.
I returned to Delhi and took up some odd jobs. In those days there were no computers, even land-based phones were a rarity. I used to write to my uncle in English (as he was not very proficient in Malayalam). But my English was so pathetic . I had studied in a Malayalam (my mother tongue) medium school. My uncle, who had done his Masters in English Literature from Oxford University in the 1950s, was a brilliant writer in English. His articles regularly appeared in the edit pages of various English dailies published from New Delhi and he had authored a few books on education. He was a regular face at seminar circuits. He was a great inspiration for me.
He was not the one to tolerate sloppy writing. He used to send me back my letters with all the mistakes duly marked with red ink with covering letter which affectionately said that I was not working hard to improve my English. “Hard work is the only way to get ahead,” said one of his typed replies on a portable “Hermes Baby” – a tiny, portable typewriter from Switzerland. Later, he gifted the machine to me enabling me to write my first journalistic piece.
A few years later he died, but his words rang in my ears for years afterward. My writing “adventure” began soon after I received my uncle's advice, which had stung me. I took it as a challenge. And within a couple of years I was able to get my first article printed in a mofussil paper. A few months later, I managed to join a popular fortnightly magazine which specialized in investigative reporting, even before completing my graduation.
After a year, I joined a daily owned by a popular media house in Hyderabad, as a reporter, my first newspaper job. My uncle who happened to see the paper on a flight enroute Mumbai and saw my name in the paper, was so happy that he promptly send me a congratulatory letter.
A year later, I joined a leading national newspaper – The Indian Express – having 23 editions across the country, as sub editor and became chief sub editor and principal correspondent after five years. After eleven years, I quit to join The Asian Age published from Delhi and a few other metros, as special correspondent.
Two years later, I joined The Telegraph as senior assistant editor but I opted to continue my beat reporting. After about eight years I quit and joined another newspaper called “DNA” (Daily News and Analysis) published From Mumbai and now Bangalore and a few other cities. After two years I was promoted As Deputy Editor, but I still opted to cover political parties. In 2008 October I joined Mail Today (owned and published by leading media group India Today) in collaboration with Daily Mail of London, as Associate Editor.
Now coming back to your question, what brought me to journalism? It is a combination of factors; may be a subconscious desire to show the world and my uncle that I can write a few words in English, and may be the Holy Spirit willed so. All through my life I felt some inscrutable, mysterious force – we call it God – guiding me and protecting me.
I did not want to become anything. I did not want to become famous, did not want to make quick money, strive to get a fat salary, a promotion or big position. I just flowed, like a river. At the same time I had compassion for the underdogs and wanted to do something for the society. Gradually, it dawned on me that journalism is better than a position in a multinational firm or a government job. Journalism those days was ill-paid and men and women, most of them, who took up a career in journalism, did not come for money but service to the people.
In the initial years I was very enthusiastic about investigative journalism. Gradually, I got into political reporting, prodded by the newspapers I joined. 4. Which story or event was the most memorable you’ve covered?
Travelling to a dacoit infested forest-riveraine in West Champaran district of Bihar on the India-Nepal border. The bandits had burnt houses and shot 15 tribal people dead in the impoverished village nestling on the fringe because the villagers refused to send girls to spend the night with them. Occasionally, dacoits used to come down from the forests, pitch tents near the village periphery and sent a chit (slip) to the village head asking for says “5 goats, 10 chicken, 30-40 kg rice, vegetables…….and a few women”.
They cooked rice, roasted the goats and chicken over charcoal fires. They got drunk, danced through the night and relished the women kept captive till the dawn.
The fear-stricken did not have the guts to say no. Fearing reprisals they used to obey the orders religiously. In that eventful day, the youth in the village said enough is enough and refused to oblige the dacoits. They returned the slip saying that they could supply everything except their women. Their “audacity” and insult infuriated the bandits and they soon encircled the hamlet, set several houses on fire and when the youth retaliated, opened fire killing 15 of the villagers.
Situation now has vastly improved with the local government stepping up security.
5. What change (or changes) have you seen in the journalism industry in your country or region during your career that has had the most impact, positive or negative?
I have seen a lots of changes. In India , journalism was considered a noble profession of intellectuals and bit of social service till the 1960s and 70s, in the 80s investigative journalism became fashionable and many boys and girls belonging to the creamy section opted for a career in journalism because of the sheer glamour of it. Once a lady journalist told me she became a reporter so she could interview ministers, celebrities et al!
Mid-nineties saw an explosion of electronic media and TV journalists themselves became celebrities and household names overnight. With 24x7 breaking news, journalism degenerated into a mad race for breaking news …and TRP ratings, the trend continues till date. They promoted everything negative – superstitious rituals, devil worship, and a string of negative serials depicting the darker side of human persona, marketing/selling being the sole criteria in a highly competitive environment.
However, there are some silver linings. The media is a great educator (especially the internet), it has has exposed many wrong doings and wrong doers, helped to bring the criminals to book. Two recent cases involving Indian media are: reviving and reopening a case related to the cold blooded murder of a model-turned waitress in a high-end restaurant by the son of a VIP and a case dating back 19 years - where a top police officer molested a teenaged girl who later committed suicide, silenced witnesses and harassed her family. The incident which happened in 1990 was reopened and the guilty but influential retired cop, is now facing trial thanks to sustained media campaign.
PS: In between, in 1990 I got married to Kiran Baptish Shah (now Kiran Bendict). She is a teacher by profession. And I have a son Kizley Bendedict - around 18 yrs now, completed his schooling last year and is doing engineering (electronic and electicals) course from MIT ! (not your MIT - this MIT is called Manipal Institute of Technology). It is located in Karnataka - eight hours drive from Bangalore and less than two hours from Mangalore.