It was a balmy February morning in 1968 and the Reporters’ Room at the Hindustan Times in Delhi was abuzz as usual with lots of interesting news. The Beatles had arrived in India and gone off to Rishikesh to meditate with Mahesh Yogi. Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Maino had just got married. And Pierre Cardin, the famous maverick fashion designer, had arrived with his models for the fashion show he was to put up. For once, the boring press conferences had taken a back seat and everyone was talking about the Gandhi wedding and the Beatles. Not too much about Cardin, though.
The Rajiv-Sonia wedding was top news. For weeks, everyone had been discussing whatever snippets they could garner from the select few who had access to the Gandhi family. The clothes. The invitation list. The preparations. And now finally it had taken place. The famous poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan had hosted the mehendi session and stood in for the late Feroze Gandhi. Sonia had worn a sari, which was woven by Mahatma Gandhi for Rajiv’s mother, Indira, when she got married. Pictures of the handsome and glowing young couple appeared on all the front pages.
That day I was listening with fascination to a reporter, who was talking about the other big news that was just emerging. The Beatles at Rishikesh. There had been opposition to the visit of the Beatles. The left parties thought they were CIA spies. Others were angry with the Maharishi for hosting them and “selling our culture to foreigners”. Some were targeting sitar maestro Ravi Shankar for taking on a “hippie” student like George Harrison.
Our reporter said he had to struggle to reach the ashram, which was located in a forest. The Beatles had come with a large entourage, he was saying. Wives, girlfriends, helpers and a bunch of press people. They were hostile to the local press. He had befriended someone from the entourage and bribed him with weed and some booze to get news. Yet he had barely got a glimpse of the Fab Four.
It was all so exciting for me. I was a 20-year-old unpaid intern. A small town girl from the South. Thrilled at being in an actual newsroom and that too in Delhi. Even though I only got to cover flower shows or follow senior reporters taking down notes, I felt I had made it. This one small step inside the hitherto unshakeable male bastion gave me freedom to dream of doing stories like the one I was listening to.
I tore myself away and went to meet the reporter I was to shadow that day. I was excited because he was to cover the press conference of Cardin. I had read up everything I could find out about Cardin. He was not the usual run-of-the-mill designer. He had “democratized” the fashion industry by introducing ready-to-wear dresses, which working women could afford to buy. He had plunged into men’s fashions and now his men’s wear sold more than the women’s wear. He had even designed clothing for the Beatles. And in this show he was going to display his "robe électroniques", a dress decorated with LED lights that would light up on the catwalk as the auditorium lights dimmed.
I found my senior journalist standing next to the chief reporter’s table. There was a problem. A colleague who was to cover a political press conference had fallen ill he told me and now he had to stand in for him.
“Never mind, she can do the fashion show,” the chief reporter said, pointing to me. “She is a girl. She will know more about fashion than you do.”
I was trembling as they continued talking over my head. I knew nothing about fashion or about Cardin, except for what I had read up the day before. Pierre Cardin was a famous designer. How could I cover his conference? What if he spoke only in French? What if…
“Arre it’s no big deal yaar,” the senior reporter said. “It’s only a fashion show and he is a French designer. He is not so well known here. Just go. They will give a press handout. We can write the report with just that.”
Before I knew it I was given a Press pass, bundled into a taxi and sent off to the five-star hotel where the designer was staying. I stood in a corner of the lobby, over-awed by its grandeur. Too scared to find out where the press conference was.
Luckily, I saw a bunch of male journalists walking towards a lift and followed them. As we went up, they ignored me and continued talking about The Wedding. No one seemed to know anything about the French designer. Or even care. They looked quizzically at me when we reached and I entered the crowded hotel room with them. “Do you work for him?" one of them asked.
The conference began just as we went into the room stuffed mostly with men. Cardin spoke in English. Though it was highly accented I could still follow him. I edged closer to the front. The models had come out and were standing around hedged in by male journalists. One of them beckoned to me.
“You are also from ze Press?’” she asked. I nodded. “But you are a girl.” she laughed. “They are all men.”
Soon all the girls were crowding around me. There were about six. All tall and beautiful and in their late teens. They chattered and giggled and touched my sari. “Can you teach me to wear zis?” one of them asked. Some only spoke French. A few knew English.
By now, most of the male reporters had left. I picked up the press release and got ready to leave too.
“Please come with us to the hotel,” one of the girls said. “You can go to your office later.”
“Oui, Oui,Oui,” the other girls agreed. “You can teach us to wear a sari,” one said.
Their manager came and spoke to me. “The girls are so excited at the thought of spending some time with an Indian girl,” he said. “Your male colleagues would do anything for a chance like this. Come on. I will get you dropped back later.”
For most of the girls, it was their first trip out of France. They were not allowed out of the hotel that day as they had to rest before the show. We just sat around the hotel swimming pool. They in their mini-skirts. We chatted about clothes, home, food and jobs. We went to their room and lounged around. It was a fun day. We exchanged notes on the excitement of being on the brink of our careers.
When I got back to the office later that evening the words just flowed. My time with the girls merged with the press conference and my anticipation of the show. The next morning my article on Pierre Cardin and his models was a big hit. My boss was pleased. We had a scoop.
And that evening I got to see the glowing "robe électroniques" sitting in a dimmed auditorium just ten seats away from Rajiv and Sonia.
Gita Aravamudan is an award-winning author and journalist.