Ramesh explains what it’s like covering Asian Games even before he turned 18
When freelance journalist Ramesh Menon was a child, his elder brother Suresh used to write in the ‘letters to the editor’ column of the local newspaper. Ramesh found it fascinating to see his brother’s byline. At that time he lived in Chandigarh where his father worked in the ACC cement company.
Ramesh was a student of DAV School. He first contributed to the school magazine with an essay called ‘My trip to Cape Comorin’. He was ten years old when he got his first byline. “It was a big thrill,” he says. He also started writing letters to the sports page of ‘The Tribune’. He kept doing it. As he grew older, he also wrote in magazines like ‘Sportsweek’, ‘Sportsworld’, ‘India Today’ and ‘Outlook’. By the time Ramesh reached Class 10, he had 3000 published letters.
So, it was no surprise Ramesh moved smoothly into a freelancing career. Thanks to that, for the next ten years, he had a series of unforgettable adventures...
Once, as a teenager, when Ramesh came to Kochi for his holidays with his parents, he read in the newspaper about a function being held in honour of Mollywood legend Prem Nazir at the TDM Hall. So, Ramesh went for it. He got access by saying he was from the press. He met Prem Nazir and Mohanlal. Ramesh asked Mohanlal for an interview.
Mohanlal said he was shooting for a film in Ambalamugal. And Ramesh could come there the next day.
The next day, Ramesh went to the location and got in touch with Mohanlal’s assistant manager Rajan.
After waiting for three hours, Mohanlal gave the interview. Ramesh says, “Not for one moment did he behave with me as if I was not a professional. He was polite, kind and warm. He talked to me nicely even though he was a superstar.”
Even before he turned 18, Ramesh went to cover the 1990 Asian Games as a freelancer. In China, he was the youngest, out of 5438 journalists. A medal was presented to him. Ramesh was given an Indian jacket and became part of the delegation that took part in the march past.
One highlight of the Games for him was when he went to the Great Wall of China with Indian athletic stars PT Usha, Shiny Wilson and Ashwini Nachappa.
But Ramesh felt nervous. Before the start of the games, Ramesh and freelance photographer Pankaj Sharma had gone to the national camp which was held at the Sports Authority of India in Bangalore.
Usha was training, under the guidance of her coach OM Nambiar. A senior New-Delhi-based woman journalist named Ritu Sarin had come to interview Usha. Ramesh was standing nearby. The athlete spoke in Malayalam and Nambiar did the translation. When Ritu asked a particular question, Usha said, “These press people will even kill me to get their headlines.” Naturally, Nambiar didn’t translate it. “But I heard it,” said Ramesh. He sent a story to the Kolkata-based Sportsworld magazine with this quote. This became the headline of the cover story.
So, Ramesh was scared to face Usha.
At the Great Wall, Usha said, “You are the one who created so many problems for me.”
Ramesh defended himself by saying, “You said it.”
In February 1991, the World Cup hockey championship was taking place in Lahore. Ramesh planned to cover it for the ‘Punjab Kesari’ newspaper. From Delhi, he took a bus to the Wagah border. When he entered the Pakistan immigration centre, they checked his luggage. Ramesh had a few film magazines. They set it aside.
Then they called a senior officer and showed him the magazines.
The officer said. “We do not allow this.”
Ramesh said he is a journalist, so some magazines will always be with him.
“Sorry, we cannot allow it,” said the officer.
Ramesh did not protest when they confiscated the magazines.
He took a taxi and went to Lahore 30 km away.
But later, he came to know the reason for this. “There was a huge black market for Indian film magazines,” he says. “Most probably, they would have sold it and made a tidy profit.”
When Miss India Madhu Sapre went to take part in the Miss Universe pageant at the Queen Sukrit National Convention Centre in Bangkok, in 1992, Ramesh was the only Indian journalist present.
Against all expectations, Madhu won the second runners-up title. Ramesh got an exclusive interview. He also flew with Madhu when they returned to Mumbai.
At the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, Mumbai, Madhu held up the gold-plated trophy. But she was stopped at Customs. Madhu said, “I won this trophy at the Miss Universe competition.”
The officer said, “People give many excuses. But too much gold smuggling is taking place these days.”
So, she had to show all the brochures and photos before they were convinced.
Ramesh went along with her to her home at Andheri (East). There was a pooja. He took some exclusive photos. After Ramesh wrote the story, he sold the story, as well as the photos, including the history of the pageant to 47 publications all over the country, including Femina, the official organisers of the pageant and in multiple languages.
The 1994 Miss India contest, conducted by the Times of India group, was coming up. But the word was that Bollywood, as well as the fashion industry wanted Aishwarya Rai to win. “Most ambitious girls dropped out thinking there was no chance,” says Ramesh. “The gorgeous-looking Aishwarya had made a name as a model.”
In a nightclub in Delhi, a few days before the event, Ramesh met Ranjan Bakshi who was the regional marketing head of Times of India. In front of Ramesh, Ranjan told a few local models to apply, but they refused. However, one lanky model said she would take part. Her name was Sushmita Sen.
Ramesh had already met Sushmita. He was sitting with fashion photographer Suvo Das at his studio in Delhi when a girl walked in asking that a portfolio be done. It was Sushmita. Ramesh and Sushmita bonded because of their mutual love for writing.
Sushmita told Ramesh the reason behind her participation. Her mother had told her, “Beta, there is something called upsets. Life is all about that. It can happen to the best.”
Sushmita had no money. So, she went to Janpath and bought some clothes.
Ramesh flew from Delhi to Goa to cover the contest. In the contest, after several rounds, they announced the Top Five. Backstage, the make-up and dress designers fussed over Aishwarya. Sushmita got angry and said, “Why do you favour one person? We have all struggled and come. All five should be treated equally.”
In the last round, Ramesh says, when you see the footage, Sushmita is coming up to the stage crying. That round went into a tie for the first time in the 42-year history of Miss India. They had to call Aishwarya and Sushmita back and answer a question once more.
Designer Ritu Kumar asked Sushmita, “What do you know about the textile heritage of your country? How old has it been and what do you prefer to wear personally?”
Sushmita said, “Maam, I will answer it section by section.”
Then she paused and said, “I think it all started with Mahatma Gandhi’s khadi. It has gone a long way since then, but the basics of Indian textile heritage lie in there. To answer the second part, I wouldn’t say it's khadi, but I like ethnic clothes, traditional Indian outfits because I personally feel I can carry them off very well, but otherwise I have a lot of western outfits as well.”
When the marks of the judges were tallied, as Sushmita’s mom predicted, an upset had taken place. Sushmita beat Aishwarya by a margin of 0.2 points. (Sushmita scored 9.4 to Aishwarya’s 9.39 on a scale of 10)
“It was as close as PT Usha losing her bronze medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games,” says Ramesh with a smile.
Sushmita returned to Delhi.
A few days later, Ramesh met her and did an interview.
Three weeks later, on February 13, Ramesh flew to Mumbai to cover the Filmfare awards. While there, he went to the Mid-Day office and met the editor of the Sunday magazine. Ramesh gave him the transcript and the tapes of the interview with Sushmita.
The next Sunday, the magazine headline said, “Aishwarya doesn’t deserve to win what she won,” says Sushmita Sen
The publisher of Times of India, which conducts the Miss India show, called Sushmita and shouted, “Who the hell told you to give that interview? I will take your crown back.”
Sushmita did not know what had happened. She started crying.
She called Ramesh and said, “You messed it up for me.”
Sushmita, Ramesh and her then-boyfriend Rajat Tare met at a cafe. There, Sushmita composed a hand-written letter in which she wrote, ‘My apologies. Ramesh is a dear friend, whatever we spoke was in a personal capacity. It was also misconstrued.’ This was faxed to the Times publisher.
The publisher called Ramesh and said, “You give me a statement mentioning that ‘Mid-Day’ twisted your words. I will allow you to write for Times of India.”
Ramesh said, “I am a small journalist. I am not working with anybody. I cannot deny a tape which I had surrendered to ‘Mid-Day’. It’s unfair to my reputation. My hands are tied. So I’ll suffer not writing for `Times' and stand by my story.”
It’s not only beauty queens that Ramesh met, but bandit queens also. Once when he went to do a story at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, in 1994, he got a tip that dreaded dacoit Phoolan Devi was going to be released the next day, after an 11-year jail term. Using his jail contacts, Ramesh came to know that Phoolan would be going to her uncle’s house at Kingsway Camp. So the next afternoon, Ramesh and photographer Pankaj Sharma went directly to the house. Phoolan was at home. She was sitting cross-legged on a coir cot in a saree. “She had a pleasant smile on her face,” says Ramesh.
It was difficult for Ramesh to reconcile this simple woman sitting in front of him, looking so harmless, as being the dreaded leader of a dacoit gang which had killed 22 men during a massacre at Behmai village in Uttar Pradesh on February 14, 1981. “She looked like any woman from the rural areas,” he says. “If she walked past you on the road, you would not look at her twice.”
When Ramesh asked what freedom meant to her Phoolan said, “I am starting anew. It is going to be a new life.”
For Ramesh, this meeting with Phoolan was a scoop. “No other media was present,” he says. “All of them came to know a day later.”
Later, Phoolan entered politics and became a two-time Member of Parliament from Mirzapur as a member of the Samajwadi Party.
However, tragedy struck, when, on July 26, 2001, Phoolan was shot dead by three masked assailants. One of the killers Sher Singh Rana was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014.
As for Ramesh, these days, he has moved in a new direction. He runs a non-profit community group, which aims to revive the handloom industry in India.