Shekar Dattatri, Vayu Naidu, and the nostalgia of firsts

I am back post-vacation at the school, fresh and all geared up for Term 2. Two days in, who is surprised I have my first story? Here is a little nostalgia trip peppered with school anecdotes.

I remember my first interview like it was yesterday. Except it was a long, long time ago from yesterday. It was some day in my 8th grade. If I had known that it would shape so much of the next few years, I would’ve taken the effort to remember the date. But for now, let us just leave it at Grade 8.

My high school was known to be gung-ho about extra-curriculars, taking the effort and energy to help every student find their niche, so to speak. Towards this end, I remember my director and History teacher calling me one day to ask if I would be willing to conduct a couple of interviews. Just because. With no intent of publication, no word limit, no restrictions whatsoever, the only purpose was to converse, listen, and learn the art of interviewing. With that brief, I asked who it was I was going to meet. Shekar Dattatri, I was told. The enormity of the name didn’t strike me just then.

I was dispatched to do my homework. And gosh, was there a lot to do. I quickly formed one clear opinion. This man was a legend. A gazillion documentaries, a truckload of awards and accolades, a wide host of issues close to his heart, and a bunch of books to boot – this man was a force to reckon with in the field of wildlife conservation and filmmaking. And so, armed with a printed sheet of questions, a notebook, pen, and quivering voice, I set out to take that “interview.”

Fast forward to a scene in his living room. Thirteen-year-old me has not the first idea what to do. So I do what I could best. I sit there. Long story short, over the next hour or so, I learnt the basics of my journalism. How do you introduce yourself? How do you pitch your story? How do you pose your questions? When is the gap long enough to slip in the next one? How do you take notes while still keeping up with the conversation? How do you know when to prod and when to step back? Amidst the answers to my rather juvenile questions, he taught me all of it. As I was setting out to leave, he asked me only one thing. “Send me the piece when you are done to proof?” And so I did.

And he replied. Boy, did he reply. Many, many days in the years that followed, I have rued losing that email in the switch from childish Hotmail accounts to my more “professional” avatar. It was a tome, over a thousand words long, laying out in neatly ordered bullet points everything I “could do better.” One lesson I distinctly remember, a lesson that has stayed with me ever since. I had spelt his name ‘Shekhar’ through the article, falling prey to the stereotype of Tamilians and their love for Hs. “Always, always double-check how your interviewee spells his or her name. It is their identity. You don’t want to trip up on that.” Golden rule.

So fast forward about ten years to yesterday. I was the teacher, and two of my grade 9 kids were poised to take their first interview. Dr. Vayu Naidu, storyteller-par-excellence, ex-academic, novelist (think Sita’s Ascent) and overall uber-cool person, was visiting the school. And we figured we might as well sit down to have a chat. So the two kids and I (as self-ppointed wallflower) ushered her into a classroom and settled in. And the stories she wove!

She spoke and spoke and spoke about the hows and whys of her life story. Why did she start telling stories? How did she chart her career? What fascinates her about tales that need telling? What are the ABCs of a good storyteller? We bombarded her, she parried, the conversation flowed seamlessly.

Fast forward some more to today. The two kids sat in front of me with their notes, scrawled squiggles of various levels of illegibility. How do you take running notes like that, Akka, they wanted to know. I promised them they would too, for sure, if only they kept at it. Can we use your notes, Akka, they asked. If you can understand it, sure. [Key: u/s is understand, c/n is cannot…] With that, we wrote.

Article aside (and unlike my first tryst, this might actually get published), I caught myself wanting them to remember. Remember how momentous October 6th, 2016 was in their own stories. Remember the tenor of her voice and texture of her tone. Remember the kindness of the pause as she waited for their inexperienced hand to catch up with her. Remember the carefully calculated deliberateness of her words, stopping to spell out proper nouns and foreign words. Remember, many years from now, that one day way back, a very learned person took the time to teach you the ropes. Remember, I wanted to tell them.

Instead we wrote. We formed our introductions, prioritized our questions, framed the answers in first person, and tied up the loose ends. We recreated narratives, painted a story, and ran grammar checks. We soaked in the excitement of the possibility of our names in print, a high that is still as potent as it was a decade ago. And we created memories that will hopefully last a lifetime.

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