The veteran journalist Leela Menon passed away on 3 June in an old age home in Kochi. On hearing the news, I felt self-reproach for a single reason: all these years while she was here, I couldn't tell her how much she meant to me.
I myself hadn't realised it of late. When I met her for the first time in 1995, I was a scatterbrain. It was our first meeting too. The venue was Taj Hotel in Bangalore. I was there to attend a symposium on women empowerment chaired by Sandra O'Connor, the first woman justice in the US Supreme Court. It was only because George Joseph, a former senior colleague who had joined the USIS had recommended it, in spite of being a trainee journalist, that I too got an invitation. It was my first flight, my first five star hotel experience and my first formal dinner.
Seeing the crowd of eminent lawyers, including Nalini Chidambaram and famous journalists, I receded to my room, terrified as I didn't know how to talk to them or what to talk to them about. I was sitting in the room, absolutely demoralised, when the doorbell rang. Much to my surprise, it was Leela Menon. She made me nervous by saying that she had wanted to see me because she had liked my stories very much. Those days, in our newspaper, trainees had no right to bylines in the main pages. She told me that upon reading a striking story without a byline, she was curious as to who had written it and found out that it was mine. I could not believe it. She sat with me chatting for a while. Her child-like voice and Malayalam pronunciation with a northern Kerala accent made me feel like listening to a grown-up child with a pretty face, adorned with a large red bindi. She was kind enough to praise me for little things so much that I was cheered up. It was difficult to guess that she had been under treatment for cancer. She was graceful and cheerful. At the symposium, she asked sharp, well-articulated questions.
I should have told her then itself how special she was to me. Being an idiot, I didn't. I could have told her that she was the first woman journalist I had heard of, that there was no other Malayali woman reporter in English or Malayalam that I knew of, that in those days, when I saw her name, there was a vague feeling of happiness mixed with an anxiety, because it was no more a name, but a promise or an inspiration to a girl who was brought up in a remote village by a lake, where everyone tried to convince her that it was impossible for women to survive in an outdoor job. I should have told her that I was eager to make sure that her name was there day-after-day in the paper as it proclaimed to me that there is a Malayali woman who is surviving in an outdoor job. That there is such a job too. A job which is thrilling, a job which could make me feel happy than any other work. Later, I started hearing the adventurous stories of Anita Pratap, who had interviewed the LTTE Chief Prabhakaran. But it was Chitra Subramaniam with her Bofors papers who is responsible for forcing me to take that decision to join journalism. Only now do I realise that these three women were deciding the course of the rest of my life. They had manoeuvred a dreamer girl to travel all the way till here. I should have told Leela Menon that she was the first among the three.
Her most important exclusive in those days was the Suryanelli case. It was she who broke the news of a 16-year-old girl being sexually assaulted by 42 persons over 40 days
Her life itself was a big story about empowerment and success. Born in 1932 in the village of Perumbavoor in Kerala, Leela Manjari had passed the sixth form with the highest marks, a rare accomplishment for a girl of that time. She has written in her autobiography how she had to learn type writing and shorthand and give up dreams of a college education as her parents couldn't afford it. Then, with the help of a relative in Hyderabad, she got a job at a post office. She was just 18 at the time. Along with the job, she joined an evening batch in Nizam College and took a degree. All those years, she was reading so much that she became fluent in English too. Later, she was transferred to Kerala. It was then that she ventured to learn the Morse code, something which no other woman had dared as the job required late working hours. Thus she became the first woman telegraph operator in the country. Prema Viswanathan interviewed her for The Indian Express. She was thrilled by Prema's profession and wanted to pursue journalism. On Prema's advice, she joined a journalism course which she passed with a gold medal. She was 40 years old then.
She quit her government job when she saw an advertisement for a secretary to Ramnath Goenka, the founder of The Indian Express. She got the job and it allowed her to watch politics and media from close quarters. Soon she joined The Indian Express as a reporter in New Delhi. Her story on air hostesses made a national impact. She sought a transfer to Kerala to be able to take care of her ailing mother. She was asked to take charge as a reporter covering Idukki and Kottayam districts. The rest is history. There were many stories on human rights violations. There were many scoops. Some of her stories, like the one on the terracotta village called Aruavakkode, became case studies on how media can effect change in society. She was the most famous reporter in those days - nothing short of an icon.
Full of verve
After our first meeting, I hadn't seen her for a long while, except reading her bylines. Her most important exclusive in those days was the Suryanelli case. It was she who broke the news of a 16-year-old girl being sexually assaulted by 42 persons over 40 days. In 1997, her husband Major Bhaskara Menon passed away. It had been reported that she was working at the office when he called to tell that he was not feeling well. He said 'I love you' and the phone was cut off. She rushed home only to find that he had died of a heart attack. She overcame the shock by working to exhaustion. In 2000, she had to resign from her job after an unpleasant confrontation with the then editor. Soon after, she started writing in Malayalam, which proved her mettle as a journalist. But then came a heart attack followed by a car accident. Even then, I didn't see her unhappy or tired. She was always cheerful, always active. But on the second attack of cancer, she was reportedly very weak and lonely. It is heartbreaking to imagine a person like her in such a condition.
It was a great moment for me when she came to receive the first copy of Hangwoman, when the Penguin Books organised a book release at Kochi after it was released by Arundhati Roy at Thiruvananthapuram. Our last meeting was on the occasion of the state government's Vanitharatnam Award ceremony on 8 March 2016. Nine women were selected from different fields for their contributions. It was Leela Menon who was selected from journalism. I was there too - for literature. She was weak and left the venue soon after the awards were given away.
Now, she has left forever. Although I never told her, she meant a lot to me. And to our generation.