Teatime Interview with Olga Tellis (Camera A C100)
Duration: 01:06:38; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 2.077; Saturation: 0.083; Lightness: 0.333; Volume: 0.140; Cuts per Minute: 0.045; Words per Minute: 130.999
Olga Tellis is a pathbreaking journalist who anonymously wrote for over a decade a column in Blitz called "Garibi Hatao, my foot". Tellis is better known for her litigation on behalf of pavement dwellers of Bombay, resulting in the landmark case Olga Tellis and others vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation.
She is also a bookworm, and has avoided appearing on television. This interview took place at her current office- Asian Age, Wadala.
SS: Good evening, Olga ji
OT: Good evening.
SS: First of all thanks for giving us this time and opportunity to interact.
SS: We'd like to talk to you about your experience and your journey in the city and journalism as well as your activism.
SS: To start with, obviously its going to be the pavement dwellers case. There are other things also that we'd like to talk about, but before starting with the pavement dwellers case, how was it that you got involved in that and what was the time...?
OT: You know I've always been taking up slum issues and sort of injustices to people. So I had very clear ideas in my head about this whole issue. So when the government decided to do away with the pavement dwellers - one fine day in August - everyone went, there was a group for Human Rights or something who went to the court and asked that they should not be removed during the monsoon.
OT: So since I was there, I said - when we came out, I said - Its not the question of the monsoon or not, its that they don't have a house - I mean they don't have shelter. So they come and live on pavements. And they are sort of refugees from your bad economic policies where only urban areas are developed and the rural areas are totally neglected. So they come to Mumbai for jobs and then they're not even asking anyone for help, they just go to the pavement, and set up house there.
OT: So I said you should ask differently - not just during the monsoon, they should not be removed per se. So they said no no it can't be done and all that. So then... you know I used to meet - we used to have a little group that used to meet every night at this documentation centre. And so I was telling them what happened in the court...
OT: So then we said let's write this - I said I'll write this letter to the courts because at that time this public interest litigation had just been announced. And so I dashed off this letter to the Supreme Court and said - you know explained how they are to be removed and how they are here because they are looking for livelihood, and they don't have it in rural areas, etc.
OT: And the next thing I knew it was converted into a petition and then I asked - Indu is my friend - Indira Jaising - and she fought the case.
SS: Who all were in the group? What was that - you said you used to meet every night...?
OT: Oh this was you know Pradeep Prabhu and some others. I can only remember - because I knew Pradeep so... and 3-4 people.
SA: Who... you would meet every night?
OT: Almost, every night. And sometimes we would go to that nearby Irani restaurant and have egg curry and things like that. We always had tea and we used to chit-chat, discussing, you know, how we think we can solve the problems of the world. But it was fun.
SS: When you wrote that letter, was there some expectation that something will happen? Or?
OT: Ya. I expected to get a reply. I mean it didn't... the enormity of the thing didn't strike me. It was something that I did - you know like I always act before I think. I think and I act, you know that sort of thing. So to me it never occurred that it'd be such a big thing like it became - with people for and against it and all that.
SS: And that human rights was PUCL?
OT: Ya, PUCL.
SS: Who all were there?
OT: That I don't remember. There were lots of people but no idea. Maybe somebody will know... One of them was this son of Sirvai. The lawyer.
SS: And then when your letter got converted to a petition then this thing had to be that some lawyer had to be hired...
OT: Ya. I mean they wanted to give me a lawyer and I said no, I have my lawyer. I wanted Indu since I wanted to make it an economic document you know, and not a legal. Because legally it was proved, there is nothing for the poor and the homeless in the constitution. So that's how I got Indu to fight it and she let me do the whole - write the petition - I mean whatever that is. And she put in the legal parts actions.
Garibi Hatao, My Foot
SS: Before this case were you earlier also involved in some slum issues?
OT: No. You know I used to do a column for the Blitz every week. And over there mostly I took up slum issues because to me... I always fight for injustice - it kind of - I get very worked up and I said something has to be done.
OT: So I knew everything about them. Then secondly I had participated in the farmers agitation, from Nipani to... they sat on the highway for a month. I participated in that. So there I got to talk to a lot of farmers and I knew exactly what was their problems. So that's how I could make a very strong case where the judges would find it difficult to... disagree.
SS: You were working at that time, you were writing for...
OT: Ya... I was working for a newspaper group. A Kolkata group.
SS: Generally... what was the reaction of your fellow journalists?
OT: Oh they were all very helpful. A lot of people were very helpful... like people I hardly knew... or I did know - they said we'll do all your cyclostyling for you, you know for the cost. So there was a lot of help coming from different people.
SS: And then in a way it was 5 years. 1981 you filed the case...
OT: Ya. And '84 the judgement came. And in between adjournments... you know the usual way the courts behave.
SS: So what was it, because at times it can be very frustrating also because the ground realities don't change.
SS: The case goes on.
OT: Ya. But I've always said you know that there is no justice really. These delays are even worse. Its like delaying justice. And as they say, justice delayed is justice denied.
SA: So we've been trying to excavate particularly the history of the city around the '80s. Because for our generation, people broadly on the left and interested in the sort of stalemate and where we can go from here, we thought its very important to look behind. Because we have been fed on a sort of bite-sized information tablet of the '82 mill strike, the decimation of the left, the rise of the right, Bombay becomes Mumbai... and its too skeletal a framework. We wanted to go deeper into these changes. Otherwise its just the liberalisation, the rise of the right, liberalisation, privatisation... So in looking back, this period from '81 to '84 was crucial in the history of the city. Of course there are the mill strikes which kind of eclipse... us and our understanding, but Simpreet was making a timeline from the PIL being converted. And in '82 and '83 you see all the NGOs being formed - Nivara Haq, YUVA, SPARC... So could you tell us a little bit more about the milieu in the city then?
OT: About the city - see the city has always been like a mother. Mumbai is like a mother. Everyone comes here for help, for sustenance, and things like that. Its a city with a lot of warmth and welcomes any and everybody which is not common in our country, or to other cities I would presume. Because you always hear people saying Mumbai is such a warm city, etc.
OT: The whole '60s and '70s saw the ideological struggle, the left and the right, and it was really exciting - one of the most exciting periods. And then the '70s and '80s by then it cooled down. But then there were a lot of rights groups that came up because of this. And there was a growing sense and awareness of injustice to people and demanding their rights, things like that. So it really was a very interesting period. Of course the '60s and '70s were where all the ideas bloomed. Till today nothing comes close to what the '60s and '70s... they kind of let off sparks of creativity and today you see all that happening - all that happening had its birth in the '60s and the '70s.
OT: So that's how... and you know everyone was struggling at that time.So a lot of these movements were going on. Unlike today where everyone is sort of well-placed, big jobs, lots of money. So there isn't that kind of struggle that one saw in these formative years or whatever you want to call them.
AS: Was there any direct relationship around the case and so on with these other groups? Like she mentioned YUVA...
OT: No. My thing was just me. And of course then PUCL and all came in as interveners. But basically it was just me.
SS: So they never approached you or tried to have a discussion with you that...?
SS: And if I'm not wrong there were 2 other pavement dwellers also.
OT: Ya. But I don't even know who they are. We just went to them - and there was one guy so inebriated - he gave his name and he just put his fingerprint or something. Ya. We just went to Reay Road and...
SS: Reay Road?
AS: And even after the success of the judgement was there something - which was several years later - I mean you just described like when the judgement - the landmark part of it came when it was made and it was a right to life argument...
OT: Came much later. Ya. And they said there was nothing in the constitution they could - and that's what I wanted to prove - that the constitution at that time was the poodle of the property classes. If you had property, you were recognised. If you didn't, you were nobody, there was nothing in the constitution for you. Now we have all these changes coming in.
SS: What was your reaction when the order came?
OT: Oh. I was so immature, I cried my eyes out. (giggles) I mean I was so upset that after all this you got nothing. Of course the slum dwellers benefited because they said you were not to remove people unless it was really urgent - you needed it for water pipes or whatever.
SS: How were you seeing... if one does a very cursory search or talk to people, this is the case which is most quoted, not only in our courts, but worldwide this has been studied, written about and sort of celebrated also. And you yourself, said that you cried when the order came.
OT: Ya. Because you know, I said, what next. And that sort of thing. That's why. Like one never realised that you'd get nothing for the pavement dwellers.
SA: So in your opinion, that judgement could have been about about more...
OT: Ya, but you know it was a constitutional issue. They had constituted a 5 judge bench. And... so... they looked at it... it was like a constitutional issue. So then there was nothing they could do within that.
SS: You used to go to Delhi when hearing...?
SS: You used to travel... everytime?
OT: And things haven't changed. You still have amendments after amendments. And... it's... I can't understand why judges can't see what's happening, you know. Because a lot of the time these amendments are just playing for time and to harass the other party, perhaps. So... I wish something could be done about that. Because I learnt a lot about how the judiciary functions, and how it's only the lawyers who make money.
AS: In general the Blitz column and your journalistic work, this was at the same time right?
AS: Or it was even before?
OT: No, it was...
OT: Ya. Because I was working with the... Anandabazar group.
OT: So... it happened at the same time. And they were very helpful. They never ever said anything - 'why did you do this?' - and all that, you know.
Garibi Hatao, My Foot
AS: But the Blitz column because it was like 10 years of...
OT: Ah that was yeah, 10 years of doing the column. And it was anonymous, like, you know, because I couldn't put my name to it.
AS: Could you tell us a little bit about the contents of that?
OT: It was mostly about injustices. So, and mostly about slums because even in those days they used to - every Saturday night, I realised, they would catch them take them because they had to... the police had to show - we did this much and we got so many people caught - So they'd just catch them like that and put them in, So I used to watch all this, you know.
AS: And these years would be roughly from... the Blitz column was in approximately what years?
OT: Oh I think it was from about '70 to '80, it was about 10 years.
OT: And ya, it was always about injustices, whether... it could be anything - slums or if people had problems with others or companies or something like that, I'd... expose it.
AS: And it was called Garibi Hatao - My Foot
SA: Was that a take on post-emergency and...
SA: I mean, was it the Congress slogan of Garibi Hatao
OT: Yes, it was Mrs. Gandhi's slogan during the emergency. So it was called Garibi Hatao - My Foot
. No garibi
was ever hatao
SS: So it would be something to... in the sense, in contemporary times we don't have any other parallel of like someone...
OT: No. Because see only someone like Blitz would use it. And he did it during the Emergency! He saw to it that my column ran. Even though they were so strict and all, but somehow he managed.
SS: That's another kind of big lacuna and missing history we're really trying to string together. Blitz and the kind of bar it set for journalism...
OT: Ya. You know they were the original investigative journalists, but were called yellow journalists and yellow newspaper and all that stuff. Today everybody is doing the same thing.
SS: I think Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was also writing for Blitz...
OT: Yes, K.A. Abbas, he used to do The Last Page. I think it was called The Last Page.
SS: So did you work with him?
OT: No. I had nothing to do with him. I just gave my column in.
SS: You were not regular to the office?
OT: No, to Blitz office? No. I didn't have to. I just gave my column on my way to work and...left it there.
SA: Could you rewind back in time from the '80s to your own kind of coming into journalism, education, and perhaps therefore the '60s and '70s as being that time of immense energy and ideological...
OT: Ya, you know I went to a common school, and to a common college, Sophiya's, was an all women's college.
OT: But I always wanted to work and to be able to express myself. And one of my father's friends told me that there was this opening in a paper at that time called the Onlooker - magazine, The Onlooker, which has nothing to do with the later Onlooker. It was run by an Irish gentleman called Mr. Hamilton. And so I went there and he told me - yes you can join as a proofreader. So I used to go to college in the morning and in the afternoon come here and work. It was a terrific grounding because it was a society paper, so you got to meet the whole world. And that's why later on when I got into serious journalism I knew just about everybody. So it was easy access.
SS: So where sort of your grooming in politics...
OT: Ya my grooming was all from reading. I was an avid reader, and I watched things closely. I was always interested in politics. And I had the good fortune to come in touch with the CPI(M) people, you know that time Ahilya Rangnekar and Mr. Kolatkar and people like that, and they really kind of adopted me and let me be part of them. I learnt so much more in those days. In those years Maharashtra had famine for quite some time. And I went with them into Maharashtra. There was no part of Maharashtra I didn't know about because of that.
OT: And also for the first time I saw what is poverty. Because we were so sheltered - in Colaba, South Mumbai - and you hardly ventured too far out from there. It was only when I started working that I moved around and one saw so much, bewildering stuff. And of course one then got plunged into it because I could never resist politics, so I'd get into everything. And the trade union movement was very strong and so I used to write on that.
OT: And we had N.G. Akbar as the editor of Sunday who let you write a lot and do the kind of stories you liked. He played up people who no one heard of and later became - people like Datta Samant and all that. So you know, it was very exciting times.
SS: Can you talk about... since it has come up, the Datta Samant period... Because some people have been talking about that shift - that earlier the trade union...
OT: Ya, ya, ya. Datta Samant, once he came on the scene, all the others were literally wiped out - the CPM, the Socialists, George Fernandes - they were all relegated to the background because Datta Samant was very.... he understood balance sheets, he understood what companies were doing, how they were siphoning out money and he always gave the example of Premier Automobiles and things like that. So he wouldn't demand 10 rupees and 50 rupees more like these others. He would demand 300, 400, depends on the people, on the company. So he took over the whole trade union movement. It was also a period of violence in the movement. And...
OT: Ya, even the CPI, one of the biggest leaders was killed.
SS: Krishna Desai.
SS: Krishna Desai, and all that. It was very happening times.
SA: Do you remember the police riots?
OT: Yes yes. I used to write their press release, the police.
OT: Ya. You know the poor things, they didn't know how to go about it. Like I said, I always go... somehow the underdogs - they come and I go for them. So I used to write their press release and all that because they didn't know how to do it. So when the Police Riot took place I was right in the middle of it because I went with them, you know. But then since they brought the army out and all, I was - people I knew in government and all would say - just stay away - because you never know what's going to happen. ...But I saw it all, you know, right there.
SA: Can you tell us more about that? Because we were just reading a book by a researcher called The Subalterns of the State where she's calling the constabulary subalterns of the state - you are taking orders at the lowest rung, and yet you're bound to serve nation and the state...
OT: Ya, their plight was terrible. Like even for housing, they were given a plot in Worli. But the police commissioner grabbed that plot for the top people... on Pochkhanawala road, and these people had to go to the suburbs. They were given alternate accommodation in the suburbs. And they worked hard hours, even till today, they say they couldn't even get time to have a cold drink! So they worked very hard, they were underpaid and they were treated very badly. And so that rioting I think really probably changed things for them.
SA: Could you tell us a little more about this time? We know that one of their demands apart from their wages and housing and 8 hour shifts was right to free association and so consequently being able to have the union which...we believe then Ribeiro disbands. And then we also know that 15th August they first began with hunger strike and then those black ribbons and then things escalated to the mutiny on 18th August. As much as you could tell us about...
AS: I mean could you describe those days?
OT: I don't really remember, that's so long ago.
AS: As in if you were around Worli or... what was the scene? We've also been trying to find photographs of...
OT: Ya it was very tense, the scene you know. Because it was close to... I think it was close to wherever they keep their armaments,...
OT: Which ones?
SS: Naigaon Armament and another is in Worli.
OT: And you know it was something the city had never seen, the police going on a strike and creating this problem. But they were fighting for justice. And Ribeiro, he tried his best but it just didn't work because... they wanted the government to understand what their demands were. And at least that they should have a group if not union.
SS: Some association.
SS: Mr. Ribeiro in his book Bullet for Bullet, writes a bit about it but doesn't... he just sort of brushes through it, not going into the details and the real grievances
OT: Ya but the details were mostly them... having these press conferences, telling people about it. And this one thing happened and they were all put in jail or whatever. So you know it fizzled out.
SS: How you actually came in contact with them?
OT: I don't know, maybe I was covering them and then I found that they didn't know how to write their press release. So I volunteered. So then they would come and...
SS: You remember any name?
SA: Any of their leaders...?
OT: Ya. I don't remember any name.
AS: We've been looking for photographs of that event for a film project,... because there's a history of let's say the people who were working city, among them the police,... Do you remember... and then we talked to people about it there was this mention of how subsequently there was a TOI... strike in the Time of India. Somehow also around those days because of the so called riot itself, people were not able to go to their offices and so one day after I think, one of the days the newspapers were not... So its a funny thing that we can't find any newspaper coverage except Times of India archives which we managed, but we can't - there's no newspaper which we can find. We were told...
OT: But Express must have covered it. Everyone covered it.
AS: But do you remember any particular images or photographs... I mean do you remember anything like a headline, or anything that you might remember from it?
AS: We were also told that Blitz...
SS: The Daily.
AS: The Daily covered it and so on.
OT: You can ask Manek Daver... Because he was the editor of Daily at one point of time.
SA: And Blitz archives, do you know how we may...?
OT: No, a lot of people I know have been wanting, but his daughter - she has it, but I think she doesn't really cooperate with them or something. Have you tried her?
SA: No. We were told this guy Gyan Prakash had access to it...
OT: Ya, ya, everybody goes to him only. Because there's this whole thing in Princeton University. But here I don't know what she did with all the volumes of Blitz.
SA: It is an important archive. For us to access TOI... [...] even for an academic institution costs 45,000 dollars a year. Apna
TOI we have to do via borrowed passwords.
OT: I know, yeah.
AS: So 10 years of your column you didn't save the writing... ?
OT: Oh no. I must have cut some and then again it gets lost. I never keep my material.
SA: You don't have it...
OT: Ya. I'm not a... you know...
OT: history oriented person. I live life for today. So yesterday is gone. No baggage.
AS: Did you ever come across Anand Patwardhan the filmmaker who had been filming around the '80s...
OT: I know him vaguely but I can't say I know him. I know who he is. Because afterwards he took up this whole slum thing and then made a documentary. And then Shabana Azmi went on hunger fast and things like that. I didn't...
SS: So that time... there were no interactions between you and others?
OT: No. Because see I did this because I believed in it and then now... so it was like - okay, it was over now. So I carry on with my work and my fighting... for justice.
SS: If you were asked, what would be the other remarkable things or cases or stories you would have... which would be dear to you...?
SS: There would be many!
OT: Ya, to me each story is thing...
OT: Well, one of them I did was on the Stock Market, the Bombay Stock Exchange. There was this accusation of insider trading at the topmost level. I did that story and the market literally collapsed the next day.
SA: When was this?
OT: Oh I don't remember dates and all that. It was quite some...
SA: 80's? Or...
OT: Ya it must've been... in 2001 or something like that. Around that time. And the president resigned.
OT: And then the other one...
OT: One of the cases... one of the people I took up for was Simranjit Singh Mann, I don't know if you've heard of him...
OT: He was heading the Central Security Force at the airport. After the Blue Star Operation he kind of revolted and... and of course, I covered him and wrote about it and all that. So he was always in touch. So even when he went underground, he used to be in touch with me, you know. So much so that when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated, I think they said that he was behind it or something. So then I was called to give evidence and all that. I had to go to Bhagalpur. It was very exciting.
SA: How do you feel? Its a monumental judgement despite the fact that you didn't feel enough was achieved.
OT: Which? The pavement dwellers?
SA: Ya, because like Simpreet said, not only is it cited everywhere, even internationally as a time when right to life was linked to right to livelihood... in its interpretation to date people have the right to be where they want to be...
OT: Yes I know. Some guys who don't like me would be saying 'God we have to take your name every morning!' - one fellow told me at that time. I didn't even realise what it was... that he was grumbling about. Then I realised it was this case and that he had to mention it for whatever his cases were.
OT: No... to me its just part of - like I said - what I was doing. It doesn't really... I mean I don't really think of it. People keep asking of it or mentioning it or want to know about it... Friends' children who study law, they come across this case, so the father says 'oh I know her'... and you know they would sort of talk. But otherwise... its just one of those things I did.
SS: Also, you've been covering politics for long.
OT: Ya, I started as a political journalist.
SS: So how would you see... if you take say Bombay as the centre, what have been the shifts or... you would have also interacted with politicians, maybe closely. How would you see, has there been any difference in these interactions? ...Beyond corruption, but otherwise...
OT: Ya. You know in those days the politicians were more sound. They were all... they had some kind of ideology and purpose. Today its all money. You have money, you become a leader, and things like that.
OT: I don't know... it must... it has changed but I don't have much contact with them because I now do mostly business. I've been doing business since the last 10-15 years. But in those days it was very interesting. They were very... even today they're very... educated and all, but those days it was little different, because those were the formative years of Maharashtra. So there were a lot of struggles - Vidarbha, Marathwada and things like that. So... they had a lot to contribute.
SS: Why this shift from politics to business? If...
OT: Because you know after Antuley... Antuley was the last interesting Chief Minister. And maybe Manohar Joshi. But after that it was just so... you know... unimportant. It was nothing exciting, and I'm always looking for something different, something new. So then I... at that time this whole... the first takeover - Swaraj Paul trying to takeover Escorts happened. So I was the correspondent in Mumbai. And since we didn't have any business correspondents at that time, so I started doing it. And then I realised I like business.
OT: And to me there was nothing... when I was young I always said there's nothing I can't do. Now you realise... things are really more complex. And then I used to hear one of our colleagues who covered stock market, talking about the stock market and all that. I was very interested and I gradually shifted to business. And now I'm dubbed a business correspondent.
SA: What did you make of the Niira Radia tape leaks? On one level they exposed what we all knew about the cosy nexus between lobbyists, journalists and oligarchs...
OT: Yeah but one knew about these lobbies. Its just that it got exposed, you know. Otherwise... every big business house had their own lobbies, they had their members of parliament, you know... which Dhirubhai Ambani really exposed because he realised this is how they're going about it. You have to have your MP's in Delhi, in Parliament and you get what you want. So whether the biggest names, or the so-called cleanest names, everyone had their lobbies.
SA: But they also had business journalists on the other side, right?
OT: Ya there were some... like they say in Delhi no, most of the journalists, they get attached to politicians and parties and things like that.
SA: Because the tapes... the juicy...
OT: Ya, the involvement of journalists in making decisions...
AS: ET. ET, Bombay was particularly....
OT: ...trying to influence decisions and things like that.
SA: Where she's calling the editors directly and saying I want above the front page tomorrow morning...
OT: Who, Niira Radia?
[...Barkha Dutt... Vir Sanghvi]
OT: Ya but it happens till today. Its just that that one got exposed because its so high profile and involved big people and all that. That's why. Otherwise it goes on even till today. Every one still has their lobby
OT: of course Modi is supposed to be above this. He doesn't entertain these kind of things. But...
SA: He's on the front page for an ad for Jio...
OT: I know...
SA: It doesn't get worse...
SA: You don't even have to open the newspaper, the front page.... there's him promoting a ...
OT: A brand, ya...
SA: Nowhere in the world...
SA: Before the PIL or around that time, maybe concurrent... was your protest in writing about the writing in the Asiad... games, which again we know so little about...
SA: Asiad Games.
OT: Asian Games.
SA: The Asian Games.
OT: No see this was a Delhi story primarily, I only cover Mumbai and Maharashtra. At that time I was only doing that. I had nothing to do with the Asian Games. My scams were the ones that were in my area.
SA: But we while researching some of your writing have come across some wonderful quotes which have been attributed to you, saying...
SA: Ya. The Asiad Games, and that when this comes you use exploitative labour to construct...
OT: Oh, I must've taken up that issue. The labour issue I took up more than the games.
SA: Ya, the labour issue.
OT: Ya... it was that. Maybe that's what I took up. The labour being exploited to put up the city and all that sort of stuff. Which happens all the time.
SA: Is there any way you could help us access your archive? Because its important to preserve this in the public domain, this kind of writing...
AS: As in it was for the public and now its sort of disappeared from the public, no? It was meant for a public readership, the columns, but now that same public can't read it anymore because its kind of gone.
OT: Ya, and even the public have grown up...
AS: No, sure...
OT: ...from those days of ...
AS: ...of innocence.
OT: Fighting for rights, and fighting for this or that... today we take it for granted.
SA: Did you ever write for illustrated weekly and those sort of magazines?
OT: No, I was attached to this newspaper, so you can't normally write. But hwne I did the pavement dweller case and Nani Palkhiwalla and all wrote articles against this whole thing, that - what is she trying to do? convert the whole city into a slum?, etc - Then Pritish Nandy said I could reply, he said would you like to - I said yes I would like to. And I replied. But otherwise no, I don't write for newspapers. I couldn't write. Because when you're attached to one newspaper, you write only for that.
SS: Even in present times we see that, like say with issue of slums, let's stick to that, so immediately there are these groupings, even among journalists, or in society, very clear demarcations or fault lines one can see...
SS: For and against.
OT: For... any issue?
SS: Like say, sticking just to the issue of slums - so whenever these demolitions...
OT: Ya ya, right, right.
SS: But in the realm of say a journalist, would there be any attempts to... get across to each other? Would the younger journalists approach you that why you thought right to life includes right to squat? Or...
OT: Oh... No, but they were all aware of it you know. And... ya sometimes like I was invited to give some talks, but I didn't... because I'm not someone who could talk. And so I would always push Indu and say 'you can talk to her, she knows everything.' So that's it.
SS: You'd avoid that.
OT: Ya but I used to get many invitations, even from abroad you know, some homeless associations in America and all. So I pushed them all to Indu. Cause I... to me... my case was over and as far as I'm concerned its over because I'm not into it... I'm not an NGO or something.
SA: Simpreet has an interesting timeline here, of events. I'm wondering if you'll want to just go through it, it may trigger some...
SS: Ya like in the sense... July is when Antuley declares that slum dwellers...
OT: ...be removed in August. The pavement dwellers.
SS: And then you write a letter and then its...
OT: converted to a petition.
SS: Ya... so those 2-3 months, were you spending time... because...
OT: No, no time. Like I told you... this was one of the thing I felt has to be done so I just wrote the letter and then carried on with my work. And then when this was converted to a petition... Indu told me, and I said - see, all of you said nothing can be done, see what's happening! So that's how it was. And then she fought the case.
SS: So fighting of a case would mean... so there would be an affidavit by the municipal corporation, or affidavit by...
OT: Ya... they had, ya...
SS: And then you would have to reply...
OT: Ya so I would reply. I would tell.... as I said the original petition, I wrote it out and Indu then put the legal parts into it. That was our thing. And then the Bombay Municipal Corporation also had its say. And... ya... but there's nothing really that one had to do, except go and attend the hearings. And once you did that... petition, there as nothing more left to be done. Then you just had to fight it and be able to answer the advocate general at that time, Bopde, Indu had to.
AS: And last... things... ?
SS: One is if you can... you've been in this city for decades...
OT: I was born here.
SS: Ya.... so how do you see the city?
OT: Oh, its grown beyond recognition. And like I said, the suburbs, they look like flourishing cities. There's more things happening in the suburbs now than in South Mumbai. South Mumbai is almost dead by 8 o'clock or 7 o'clock. But the suburbs and Bandra and all I believe are really thriving. Because most of the people have shifted there now.
OT: And... of course... these high rise buildings. Now for instance we had... when they were going to reclaim the sea for Nariman Point, we had a Save Bombay Committee.
SS: Kisan.Mehta and ...
OT: Ya. And so I was part of that committee, because I used to do all the writing and all that sort of stuff and Blitz was supporting it. So we protested against it, but there were people within our community obviously who would go and tell Mantralaya everything that happened...
SS: Would you like to name....?
OT: (no) He's no more now so why... and...
OT: But anyway that doesn't matter because in any case they would win, they're not going to listen to you because there was a lot of money involved. In those days Rajiv Patel was the king of Mumbai. Obviously a lot of money was involved. Not only that, then Cuffe Parade also came up.
SA: But again Blitz played a role...
OT: Ya, ya, Blitz was the only one who would take this up. The others would all be silenced by ads and things like that.
OT: I remember when Nariman Point and this came up and I was telling one of my peons, his name was Jadhav, I said 'you'll should protest, like I'm protesting against it.' He said 'no no I like these buildings, it looks nice' and all that.
OT: Then once there were some heavy rains or something and none of them could come into the city. So the next day I told him 'see you wanted all this here no? Instead of fighting to get a better deal for you all in the suburbs,... you have to now come here, all this way.' So you know to make people aware, its really very difficult, because they love all the glitz and the glamour. So it was very interesting... all these movements that came up because of this.
SS: So what other campaigns or movements in the city you became part of or supported?
OT: Oh, mostly trade unions.
OT: Ya. And this, we had the Save Bombay Committee. And what else...
SS: Which trade unions?
OT: Mostly Datta Samant and... I of course supported the socialists, George Fernandes and others. And then when Datta Samant came, again I used to do some press releases and things like that. Because he never had all these outfits, he was just a fighter.
SS: So George Fernandes... the general strike he called for...
OT: Ya. Oh, many strikes.
OT: That railway strike, I was not here at that time. I was out of India. But ya, all his strikes. Then S.R. Kulkarni was another big striker, always called for strikes. But he would call it off by midnight. He was the All India Port and Dock Workers union. And he headed for years and years. But he did quite a lot for the ports. Ports and dock workers.
SS: Who all other journalists were there who were supporting or part of such activities?
OT: I suppose all the leftist journalists.
OT: See in those days there was Madhu Shetty and all, but they were all against Samant and they supported the textile people. Because nobody wanted Samant to come up because he was making all of them irrelevant, So I was the only one supporting him, in those days.
OT: Then of course came the Shiv Sena. And I supported them also, but all the other journalists were against the Shiv Sena. But I understood what his problem was, that the Maharashtrians were not... because I could see in my own office - you get one non-Maharashtrian and he gets all his cousins and everyone into the thing. I saw a lot of this. Now it might have been narrow minded that I thought...okay... sons of the soil... I kind of supported it because I saw things happening. But...
SS: But in the sense... in a way there is some fact in it... its a factual thing, what you are stating. But also if you look into the issue of mills... more than 80% of mill workers were Maharashtrians. But when mills were closing down, they were being shut, Bal Thackerey never supported the mill workers.
OT: Ya, that's one of the things held against him. Ya.
SS: Because that was a major blow to the chawls of Maharashtra.
OT: Ya ya. Lakhs of them. Then they all went back to...
SS: Isn't there a contradiction?
OT: Ya. I suppose in every movement there would be contradictions because how pure can you be? Even Gandhi was accused of doing some things wrong. Because its not possible... there's so many other things that come into play. But basically that was his idea.
AS: My last question is in... because also we are trying to work with the history of cinema and there's some interest in it, whether for you... 2 parts, 1: whether you felt any part of Bombay's ... say the Bollywood scene or anything was - other than Shabana... - whether in their work you had some...
OT: No I...
AS: You were never committed to any...
OT: Nothing. Me and movies... I don;t see movies whether western, Hindi or whatever, I don't like movies. I don't feel the need to be entertained, so I never ever go anywhere to movies or plays. The only play I go to is - my nephew, he acts, so I go and see his plays.
AS: But these people never appeared say in your political writing as chracters like Shabana or ...?
OT: Maybe if she did something, if she went on a fast or something you wrote about it. When Sundays first started and we didn't have a film correspondent and things like that, I had to go an interview Hema Malini and Dharmendra. I hadn't a clue who... I would take somebody, go and see a movie just to see what is this all about. At that time the big star was Rajesh Khanna and I hadn't a clue and everyone used to be very shocked because to them Rajesh Khanna was the world. That's my only brush with Hindi films. Otherwise no...
AS: What about the arts broadly?
OT: Nothing. What do you say... I have nothing to do with arts and crafts. Basically just my work, you know., I'm not interested in anything else.
AS: But even when it overlapped, like Bombay Velvet you didn't go and see?
OT: Siddharth made it no? Siddharth Bhatia?
AS: No. This is the Anurag Kashyap produced film but it has notionally some of the histories around the Blitz and ...
OT: Ya no no I'm not interested. You know to me life itself is one big movie and everything happening there. Why would I want to go and see it again somewhere else?
SA: Its just a coincidence that these little chunks of Blitz's history coming out in... (movies). Bombay Velvet is based on... Nanavati murder thing...
OT: One very bad... ya I believe... the movie said he was a blackmailer. It was very disgusting. So petty. He didn't even own a press... Russi, finally. No, he was one of the most honest people who could see. But you know the big business would... because he was exposing them and so the only thing to say is blackmail. He didn't even get ads so what would he be doing with the so called bribes? Real rubbish.
SA: I just had one sideways question. You mentioned S.N. Kulkarni the dock workers...?
OT: S.R. Kulkarni.
AS: S.R. Kulkarni. Is he alive? Would you...?
OT: Not so sure. I think he is but he's sort of really ill and things like that. Because I don't know why recently somebody I met who knew him and... ya... Most of them are very old and gone. Sharad Rao died recently. George is very ill. Datta Samant of course was murdered. His brother's there. I think he runs some union still. I don't suppose he does anything much. P.N. Samant.
SS: So along with Indira Jaisingh and others, who was in your gang?
OT: I never had a gang. I never had a gang, even when I was in school, college... I never had a gang. Because you know... I was like a blinkered person... me and my work, that's it. So I had no time for gangs. I had no time to sit and gossip or chit chat or something. My free time I'd be reading. I loved reading. So I don't even have a group that meets every evening or something like that. Nothing.
SA: Your nails have always been like this?
SA: Someone wrote about them, recently, that you still have these immaculate, red nails.
OT: No. They won't believe I do my nail polish in the cab. And I dry it out in the window.
SS: So what are you reading these days?
OT: Oh I just finished a book on TV18. Very interesting book on Raghav Behl... very fascinating. CNBC I look at everyday, its the only channel I really watch, but to know the history behind it, it was really fantastic. And the way he worked for it. Amazing, this person. Behl.
AS: And that whole thing now Reliance took it over... this is the part that Reliance more or less...
OT: Ya, now. He really couldn't run it anymore, they ran out of money and all. So he sold it to... I mean... Reliance took it over. And then Rajdeep and all went out on their own.
AS: Yeah. At that point.
AS: Did you appear on television?
OT: No, never did. In the beginning they always asked me and I said no I'm a print person. I don't do like all this.
SA: You are very camera friendly, even then. My mother also said 'she's gorgeous!'...
AS: Okay. Thanks so much.
SA: Thank you very much.
SS: Is there anything that you yourself would like to...?
OT: One thing you know when I did the pavement dwellers case and Nani Palkhiwalla had written in the Illustrated Weekly against this whole thing and all. And then I attacked him in my column in Blitz. Or I attacked him in my own paper now I forget where. And he was... why I'm telling you this, because I'm amazed at his humility. The humility of people like him, Dhirubhai Ambani, its something you learn from. He called me and he said you know I'd like to say a few things, I'd like to correct, so would you like to come have tea? I said ya, okay. So I went. He was so... you know he was such a big name in those days and to me, I was so taken up by him. And then of course he grumbled. He complained against the princes he had fought for and said they didn't even pay him. He started to complain to me about it.
OT: And I think I must have written about it also. But its this kind of thing... its amazing how much you learn about people. And 2 people about whose humility was really touching, Mr. Ambani's and Palkhiwalla.
SA: What do you do in your leisure time... ?
OT: Read. I don't have any other hobby or anything you know. My plants. But that's normal. They are on their own, they don't need me really. Weekends I spend with my sister and her family. And... that's it.
SA: We of course weren't around for that event at the Press Club that commemorated your 50 years of journalism.
OT: Oh I'm glad you weren't there.
SA: How was it? What was it like?
OT: It was most embarrassing.
SA: But tell us no.
OT: No. It was really very embarrassing because I've always believed that I work for the love of my work, and not rewards. I follow the Gita. I try to follow it as much as I can, I studied it. And I found there it said this... and I've always felt that. You do your work and that's it, you've completed with yourself.
OT: So when... somebody made a big noise about this. Oh yeah there was a journalist I met. I was covering a press conference, it happened to be my birthday on that day, an RBI press conference, And so someone who knew me came and wished me. So the journalist sitting next to me said oh its your birthday? - Ya. And then he went and wrote on his Facebook that he was sitting next to a legend and on her birthday how she worked and things like that. And the next thing I knew it was flooded with comments and all. I hadn't a clue as to what was happening because I came back and I used to do my stories. So me is more getting my stories done. And then I could see on my internet all kinds of... people responding and all. I was wondering what is this, but I didn't bother with it. Until I saw one other name of a journalist who was also at that meeting. So I called him and said what's all this, even you've got into this act, talking about one picture and all that.
OT: So then he told me - I'll send you a link. So he sent me the link and then I realised what had happened. And then Gurbir called and Gurbir said yes yes, we must honour. And it was so embarrassing. I said no I'm not coming. I won't come, you can have your function and things like that. I said 'if you want me to come, you bring other senior journalists and let's talk of our experience or something like that'. And so that's how it happened.
SS: So who all were there... senior?
OT: Raikar. Raikar was there, he called someone from my office. Didn't even know me. He just joined. That's it. And Raikar was talking about me and so I asked what's he saying, he's supposed to talk of himself. He said no no I did it because you weren't coming.
OT: But ya... I don't like... I told him I'm always making fun of people who get honoured and... somehow so vacuous you know. It doesn't seem right. And now you're making me go through the same thing, most embarrassing.... But he wouldn't hear and a whole lot of people he kept asking to talk to me...
OT: So good you weren't there.