Recently, Harsh Snehanshu, one of my earliest friends in the world of content-based entrepreneurship, interviewed me as a Featured User on his networking app Whereabout. The original interview was published here on July 23, 2016. Selected questions and answers:
Q: Your journey is very interesting. What part of it did you enjoy the most? A writer, an editor, a teacher or a journalist?
Each of these roles during my journey has been closely related. I have been able to draw connections among them, in a way that I’ve never felt I am doing anything different. That happens when you are doing things for the one underlying purpose of your life that you’ve figured out – the ‘thing’ itself doesn’t matter. Each stage just helps you get better at it and evolves you. In terms of ‘enjoying’ my roles, I enjoyed being an editor the most, and will always do. As an editor, I got the opportunity to mentor young writers, shape their writing skills, make their work effective and impactful with a sense of purpose, and shape the public discourse much more powerfully than I could do as a writer.
I enjoy the role of a journalist as well because this profession is about being everything: a historian, a sociologist, a political scientist, a business guru, an economist, and so on. I enjoy this profession because it is all about being “jack of all trades, master of all”. You falter, and your journalism suffers. I have always loved accumulating knowledge and reading, and this thing about journalism excites me no end. It challenges me every day because not only do I find myself small in front of the sphere of knowledge that already exists, but also because new things are being added to that sphere every moment in this fast paced world.
Q: How did NTMN happen? What were the challenges that you faced?
I had just started writing in the public domain (most of the writing I did then embarrasses me now). I was 17 then and I couldn’t fathom the fact that there were people around me who said they loved writing but didn’t write. When I got the idea, I immediately wanted to try this out. It didn’t cross my mind even once that this could be the beginning of something that would shape me and my life, and also several others’, so massively. I just wrote the first story the day my first semester exams got over. I did that on my personal blog, where I used to publish my stuff. But immediately, I wanted to do it with a separate ‘brand name’.
And what happened after that was kind of big in those two-three initial years of social media-led public discourse. In those days, student websites did nothing more than just exist and have fan following isolated within colleges where team members studied. We became a students-led website of note that got adulation from the who’s who of journalism and public discourse in those days, and won global recognition.
The biggest challenge I faced was sustaining the website for so long. No satire website barring Faking News had survived more than a year or so. I knew the dictionary meaning of the word ‘perseverance’ but I truly understood the meaning only when I persevered to stay alive in the face of competition, failures, fast-paced evolution of social media and public opinion, and distractions as a student (mainly two distractions: 1) exam seasons, and 2) our best people having to leave the team or become less active once they finished college life). There’s a reason I look up the ‘about us’ page of every new website I visit: Irrespective of the content quality, I have immense respect for websites run by small part-time teams that survive for long. Quality comes if you persevere long and consistently enough, consciously learning and evolving.
Q: Why did you decide to take a break from NTMN?
There are times in life you have to let go. It was a tough moment. For three years, I had given it everything. I hardly had a college life. It was all about NTMN. I had got burnt out with satire. I did not like the overall quality of Indian satire; that dislike had much to do with the overdose of repetitive content about UPA government. I saw that the kind of satire I wanted to do was not getting audience yet in India, though I was not too excited about that either. At this stage I was selected for the TFI Fellowship. I found more purpose in that. Also, these were first few years of my career. Making it all about one venture was not the wise thing to do. In retrospect, even if NTMN was a global superhit today, I’d still advise the younger Tanay to leave. I’d have missed out on a lot of learnings in life if I had stayed attached. My life lessons from NTMN and post-NTMN reflections are close to me, and I’ve written quite a few articles on this, and plan to write more.
Q: Why TFI? How did it evolve you?
Because college placements to become a civil engineer was too conventional for me, and taking up the IIM offer was something I didn’t find a reason to do except that everyone thought that was the most lucrative thing to do in my situation. I cannot do things without knowing why I am doing it, and the only thing I found a reason for in that March of 2013, was taking up the Teach For India Fellowship. I joined it to do something unconventional while making real impact, and nothing more. When I came out, my purpose in retrospect had evolved beyond recognition. I still have friends who talk of teaching as a leisurely job, but the truth is, it is one of the toughest forms leadership can take. No job in this world, if done with a sense of purpose, is leisurely. Teaching most certainly not. Moreover, TFI was hardly about teaching: the Fellowship programme covers the minutest details of leadership, and enhances you emotionally and as a person to the extent that other jobs would do to you in no less than ten years. I employ the skills I learned during the Fellowship, every day as a journalist.
Q: What did you learn as a teacher that you didn’t know at all earlier?
There is this one single biggest learning I had: everything is possible; don’t complain, find ways. I find youngsters around me giving more reasons and complaints to explain their failures, when their time would better be spent trying out ways. It is grossly disappointing. This learning has come out of not just immense success stories, but also some big failures during the Fellowship. It helped to reflect and carve out learnings in retrospect. And now as a journalist, I’ve got to apply the ‘don’t complain, find ways’ rule very, very often. At my j-school, I saw the ones who got stories and completed their stories to the ultimate polishing finish, were the ones who followed the ‘don’t complain, find ways’ idea – even if unconsciously. Others were left cribbing.
Also, as a teacher in a municipal school, I realized that it’s so easy to blame government school teachers and say they do not teach. I have written about this at length, in an article calling for a stronger recognition of the fact that it is not the system at fault as much as the culture is, and we are all part of that culture. The poor education culture means there is not just lack of good teacher training, but also a lack of awareness about what teaching can and should consist of. When the young topper who has got the best education in the world tells me he will not go and teach in underserved communities because teaching is below his dignity, I would tell him he is part of that rotten system he so conveniently blames: the dignity of the teacher is what it is because what we have made it to be. So, this realization was the biggest learning for me.
Q: How do you think a journalist could shape the society?
I couldn’t click as a teacher because I am not the doer myself; I love being the messenger and to mobilize the potential of the society. That is why I enjoyed being an editor more than being a writer (doesn’t mean I don’t love writing). As editor of NTMN and as a writer otherwise, I could see the times I felt the most successful was when the reader base told me how I changed how they think. Journalists have the power to change perspectives by putting out unbiased, unloaded reportage and fact-based opinions, unlike preachers and propagandists. What we talk about in public discourse and how we think is a lot because of what the media puts out: that’s the power of journalism, but we do not realize it because it’s so ingrained in our life.
Q: For aspiring writers, what’s the best starting point? How should one go about writing?
For aspiring writers, it is essential to first become a thinker. Young writers often do not think critically about the world around them, but want to write. It is just not possible. Think and then feel to the extent that you want to vent out. Think, apply your values to the world around you, and know why you want to write. What to think depends on whatever you care about. But without caring deeply about some thing, one cannot write. Thinking and feeling are experiences you create for yourself, and every outing with friends, family vacation, books you read and movies you watch, are incomplete if you do not create those experiences for yourself. Without that, you are just living a life given to you by others: that sandwich with friends, beautiful vacation spots with family, the author who wrote the book, and the director who made the movie for you. Once you start thinking and feeling, you will become a writer, because you will naturally want to express. Writing is a form of expression, it is not a skill in itself except for the quality of how well you express and the language skills. It is essentially expression, and that cannot come unless you think and feel deeply about the world around you.
Once you do that to a basic extent, start writing – rather, expressing. Here on, it is a cycle: you write because you think, and when you write, you think even more. All this while, read a lot to enhance your skills of language and how you express. Once you are able to do this much, two additional points: respect your reader, and write every day.