Some coffee in the NEWSROOM

Amni Shivram, the first Malayali woman journalist, on her career and love for embroidery and knitting

Amni Mathai Shivram, 85, has an interesting anecdote about being the only woman in the all-male office of The Free Press Journal in Bombay, in 1953. A greenhorn at the desk, her first job, she was extremely nervous and diffident. So she would not join her colleagues at the coffee break. “I was scared to even have water,” she recalls. One day the editor E. Narayana Menon informed her that her colleagues had boycotted their coffee because of her. “Their chivalry is challenged, they say. So Ms. Mathai you better have tea or coffee with your colleagues,” he said.

“That was it. All barriers of being the only woman in a male office ended,” says Amni who, as sub-editor, is probably the first Malayali woman journalist.

From Muvattupuzha, where her father was headmaster of the local school and her mother a teacher, Amni graduated from St. Teresas’s College, Ernakulam and completed her post-graduation from University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her family laid great stress on education. “My grandfather would say that the one gem nobody can steal from a person is education. These words have stayed with me,” says Amni whose book My Town, My People published in 2006. She is now working on a book on embroidery and knitting patterns. Comparing her life to one “guided by GPS,” Amni believes she strayed into journalism. “I go this way and then life takes me another way.” It was a strange turn of events that led her to Bombay. Amni was unhappy about leaving home to pursue a teachers’ training course in Thiruvananthapuram. “I was crying,” she says when she received a phone call from her sister in Bombay. Sensing her sadness, she asked Amni to come away to her. She reached Bombay where their family friend M.U. Mathew, an executive with Burmah Shell, requested his friend in The Free Press Journal to give her a job. “I knew nothing about journalism but Mathew uncle said it was about correcting compositions, précis and about the demands of the page.”

Amni’s colleagues were stalwarts like TJS George and the late Bal Thackeray. “Bal Thackeray used to call the news desk a Malayali club, as so many of us were from Kerala. TJS George used to do the Sunday paper: Bharat Jyoti,” she recalls.

Her training was to correct teleprinter messages, none of which appeared in print. When she was disheartened at her work being trashed, she learnt that it was part of training. Finally, when TJS George asked her to write a feature, she wrote about dreaming of her mother, who died when she was just two. The piece was published in the evening paper, Bulletin, and “the emotional piece drew good response.” She moved on to handling the weekly woman’s page that grew in popularity and became a daily page.

Another incident Amni remembers is accompanying cinema correspondent Ajit Merchant to interview actor Bharat Bhushan to the sets of Mirza Ghalib. Ajit introduced her as being head-over-heels in love with the actor. “I was very embarrassed, but my colleagues always pulled my leg,” she says. A memory of actor Pran made her change her opinion about the villain. “He was a very kind-hearted man, unlike the image he portrayed on screen, as I was privy to his generosity on the sets of a film,” she recalls.

In 1957, Amni married her colleague K. Shivram, (son of Ambat Sivarama Menon, the first elected minister of Cochin State), and moved to Vijayawada. Her husband asked her to give up work till their youngest child turned 10. She raised a family with a spiritual zeal, integral to her lifestyle. She embroidered, knitted and dressed her children and husband in clothes stitched by her. The photos of their parents fascinated her grandchildren and they urged her to write about tailoring, embroidery and cookery,a book, which she is currently working on. “That’s not for publication. It is for my family, called Teenagers’ Treasures”.

Amni now lives in Ahmedabad where her son runs a dance school. When Amni went back to media, after her sabbatical from keeping home, she joined Indian Express as a freelancer.

“The media in 1953 was very ethical. We were driven by the freedom movement and a sense of nationalism. Things began to change. When an advertisement for soap powder appeared on the front page of The Free Press Journal, the entire editorial staff resigned, including me. It was unethical then. Today, the scene is different. Papers are rife with gossip and speculation. When basic principles of living harmoniously like love your neighbour have been forgotten then what about the rest?”

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:32:49 PM |

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