Transcript: Couch Talk with Sharda Ugra

Couch Talk  91 (play)

Guest: Sharda Ugra

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is Sharda Ugra, who is a senior editor at ESPN Cricinfo. Sharda talks about her entry in to sports journalism in the 80’s India, the challenges she has faced in as well as outside the press box during her career as a woman cricket journalist, the reinforcement of sexual stereotypes during an IPL broadcast amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Sharda!

Sharda Ugra (SU): Thanks, Subash. Good to be on the show. Thanks for having me.

SJ– It is my absolute pleasure for having you on. Thanks for taking the time.

You are a rare breed – woman sports journalist in India. and, you have done it for more than 2 decades now, and a lot of it on cricket. First, what got you in it and motivated you to keep sticking to it?

SU– I was always interested in sport and in writing when I was a teenager. I played very badly several things- cricket, badminton, football…rubbish. really awful standard. But, I loved watching, reading, loved playing, being part of a team and so on. I knew I wanted to be a journalist of sorts. I didn’t think that I’d get a chance to break into sports journalism. It just so happened. I got lucky.

The newspaper I first worked for, MID-DAY, they had a vacancy. A couple of friends of mine and I were trying for an in internship there during the journalism course after graduation. My friends got in and I didn’t. My friend’s mother was so upset that I hadn’t got it. She noticed this ad, she told my friend to tell me to call up and tell that [I] could apply for that and so on.

A couple of years before that, the same friend of mine -Ramola, her name is – she and I and a third pal of ours, we did a couple of interviews. It was a much easier time. Cricketers were much more accessible. We interviewed people like Imran (Khan), (Sir) Viv Richards and so on. One of the local papers had published it. So, I had something [in] my CV. It started from there. i was very lucky that I was hired by MiD-DAY. I haven’t stopped since because I am just pretty stubborn.

I don’t think I would do anything else. After I started working as a sports journalist, I don’t think I ever wanted to switch. So, I was fine with what I was and what I was doing.

SJ– Cricket – that is such a male dominated sport, from the view of people watching, playing and covering it. What were the challenges as a woman journalist? We are talking about late 1980s, when you broke into the career.

SU– 1989.

SJ– Yes. So, very late ‘80s. The society was quite different back then, even though you were in Bombay (now, Mumbai) at that time. Bombay was still ahead, from the rest of India.

SU– It was a very interesting time. Now that I look back at it, the fact that the women had to make their way in the world and their space needed to be respected and so on, that was just much more heightened and talked about and taken seriously. I was just talking to someone else a couple of days back and I said that there were actually women’s magazines that did stories about issues about dowry deaths and so on. Women’s magazine today by and large are about fashion and glamour and some on the side will do the serious stuff. Women’s magazine, in those days were – I know I am digressing a bit – they ran a section which said that “If you find an ad that is sexist, please send it to us and we will complain to the company about it.” and they actually did that.

If you think about it now, it almost seems like an issue that is ultra-non-cool to be doing it. At that time, it wasn’t as bad a time as it may have been because of the fact that women were fighting for their space in the working world and the world, [in general]. Those were news on the front page, headlines and that kind of stuffs.

A lot of times that I look back at it, it had to do with how concerned I was with presenting myself as a serious and professional person because it was sports. Sports was and in some ways is the only male dominated journalistic beat that there is. There are more men than women. In the late 1980s, women were covering  politics, defence, economics, development. Everything. Except sports. I wanted to be seen through the writing, through conduct as someone who is serious about it. i didn’t want to be seen as someone who is a fan or a groupie or any of those things.

What obstacles did I face? You would be surprised that the officials, the players, the scorers, they were just taken aback a little bit, but they were by and large fairly tolerant. They dealt with you in the way they thought best, which was fine. The only resistance or the fact that you felt out of place was in the press box because a few, not that many, pretended like you had invaded their space. The slightly senior people who might have been in the profession for a few years or more. People of your age were like you, because they were all going through the same. Guys that were your age are the same – they are my friends, I am in touch with them even now.

It was that, mostly – finding your way in the press box. But I never had a problem with officials. Either that or that I have a very bad memory, and I have shut it all out. What do you do when you go to a cricket game? You sit next to the scorer and you take notes and at the end of the game you interview the players. They give you tea, they give you coffee, they give you lunch, it is very civilized, and that’s how it works.

SJ– I was watching this documentary, here in USA on ESPN, about “Nine for IX” [Let them wear towels] which is about the title IX, where the women journalists were first breaking into the NBA, MLB etc., they generally never had issues with the players because the players were pretty much of the similar age group, and they were of the similar societal background. But, they had issues with the crusty old guys who always had the same spot in the press box. The power balance was shifting, so they didn’t want to give up the authority, patriarchal thing that still runs in our society. You said that you had some issues. What sort of issues are we talking about?

SU– Basically, people would just snub you, not talk to you, pretend like you aren’t sitting around there. But, a lot of guys don’t. I have to say this, guys of that particular generation, they were great. They would chat to you. They were a bit startled as to what you were doing there. But they would ask you questions. Because I worked for MiD-DAY, it was a paper that was famous in Bombay, they could see what you write and they were fine. I still remember, there was a press conference and we were having lunch and I sat by myself and Ayaz Memon came down and sat and started chatting. It might have seemed odd to him, and he came and asked “Why are you sitting by yourself?” There were a lot of people like that.

There were also a few people who were just really cold and pretended that you weren’t there. At that age, you got a bit agitated. You felt really like almost you were cast out into the darkness. Now that you think about it, the rest of the job was fine. I had no problems with that.

The documentary that you are talking about – I have great admiration for the women sports journalists in the USA because they deal with the issues like going into the locker room. The cases of Lisa Olson and others, of how when they got into it, [they] were almost targeted and victimized. I think either because it was cricket and we didn’t have to go into the dressing room, I was just very lucky and I was very fortunate.

SJ– In terms of getting assignments, or getting gigs or interviews, or something like that – I would think it is a double edged sword or a trap for women journalist. Because some think, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.” Like you don’t deserve to get that. But, if you do get it, you have to deal with “You got it because you are a woman.”

SU– That didn’t really bother me.

SJ– But, does it happen?

SU– No one actually said that to me. Because if you got a story that someone else didn’t get, they didn’t get the story. They didn’t get the interview or whatever the hell it was. No one said that to me because either they talked among themselves. I am not a babe sort of a person. I had to come across as a very practical, business like at work. I didn’t even come across as a feminine charms kind of person. I don’t know what they said about me behind my back, it really doesn’t bother me. I had nothing of that sort. Honest to God, I lived in a little bubble of my own and I was stubborn. I did what I enjoyed doing. So, it was fine. It worked out that way. People of my age, younger journalists of my age – we had a great time because we were going through the same stuffs that everyone was going through. Everyone asks me this question. I just say that I cannot think of anything like that. Like I said, may be I just blanked out everything bad.

If they said about “feminine charm” or something, yeah, but I got the story. Whatever it was, you and I interviewed the same person and I got the better interview, so, what does that mean? Eventually what came on the page with my by-line was important than what the theory was. In MiD-Day, It was great environment to work in. I had superb colleagues. We had great fun. You do feel under pressure, tensed all the time, whatever. But you think of it as a great learning environment.

MiD-DAY sports reporter left the job, [when I joined]. That’s it. I was the sports desk entirely. Start to finish. They were fine. They looked after you. They kicked you when you had to be kicked. It was a great place to work. Working with MiD-DAY was a great experience because it was four and a half years and they threw you into the deep end. You don’t have time to deal with any existential issues that you may have had and so on. It was fine.

SJ– You mentioned how in cricket you don’t have to deal with going into the dressing room because that doesn’t happen – press conferences happen outside the dressing room. But I came across this story, I got it firsthand. There was a female reporter when South Africa toured India in 2000. The press conference happened, Hansie Cronje was the South African captain, in the dressing room. And she wasn’t allowed entry to the dressing room. And Hansie put his foot down saying that she can’t. I’m sure you are aware of the story…

SU– No, honest to God that is the first time I am hearing it.

How many times has there ever been a press conference in a dressing room? I am trying to think… There was funny story about how we had one in the 1990s, when I was working for The Hindu. They took the whole press to have lunch in the dressing room. Another friend of mine and I laughed so much about this- Ajay Jadeja came out of the bathroom in a towel and he sees the press standing around the table. That was a different age, a completely different time. He walks about and it is lunch. He asks one of the board officials, “What is going on? What is happening here? Never mind the fact that there is a girl in the dressing room, there are reporters in the dressing room having lunch. What the hell?” you have those kind of stories.

This particular story that you told, I didn’t cover that series – it was in early 2000, right? When Hansie Cronje and match fixing [happened]. I was in-between jobs. I didn’t cover every single Test match that was played in India in the mid-‘90s either. I did a lot of first class cricket, Ranji Trophy while working for The Hindu. I didn’t do a lot of international cricket at that time.

SJ– I want to talk about sexism. It exists in overtly fashion and a lot of time, very subtle. In your career, spanning 24 years now, how has it changed?

SU– There are a lot more women in the press box. Not in great numbers, but you see us – we are around. We won’t vanish and go away. They keep coming. They will get stuff like this. Girls will get these sort of stuffs. Girls just have to have a thick skin. A lot of the people pay no attention to what is being said. MiD-DAY had 2 women photographers and one of the cricketers said to [one of them], “Why does MiD-DAY always have girls in their sports section? Is it for easy access?” and you would say, “What is that? Where is your IQ, is it in your knees?” The girls got startled. At that time, they didn’t know what to say. So, they just put their head down. But what did they do? They took their photograph and came back and all of us cursed the guy who said this.

There was a party in 1992-93 on the England tour. Someone told me and a photographer, a woman, when we were going in – “You know women are not allowed in these parties?” We said “Yeah, it’s OK. We are alright.” Because you have to get the job done. That is how you deal with it.

SJ– Now that you have had such a fantastic career, a long career; the instances that you may see sexism exhibit or manifest itself are maybe less? Do you get the feeling that it has improved in the cricket journalism atmosphere? Or is it the same?

SU– I don’t think it is the same. i don’t think it is unusual for a women to come into the press box, and sit down and do the work, show up at a press conference and ask questions. India has particularly changed very dramatically. Every sports desk has a woman working there. it is no big deal. This is across languages too. Every newspaper. This wasn’t the case in 1989. Television has a made a big difference. The number of women that are talking, writing, reading cricket has gone up enormously. I don’t see that much when I go to say any of the other countries. Firdose (Moonda) is one person in South Africa. There are a couple of people who are in television. I know Chloe [Saltau] in Australia. But the numbers in India are always larger. I think it is the sheer numbers of women that may be larger, I could be wrong about it, because I don’t know about daily sports beat in any of the other countries.

It has changed a lot. Is there sexism? Yeah, of course there will be some bozo in the press who would say something about one of the girls. But that is rare, and you don’t pay attention to the bozos. You just ignore them and move on doing your thing.

SJ– You said you have been on long tours. What is the life of the female cricket journalist on such a long tour? How has t changed over the years? Perceptions change. Lifestyles change. Society changes. In the span of 20-odd years, what are the things that you observed in terms of female cricket journalist on tours?

SU– I don’t think it is in any way different from the professional demands of the job – what you are going to do on the tour and so on. I don’t think that the guys and the girls have anything particularly different. They all are under pressure to produce the story.

The one aspect, now that you talk about it, it seems funny, but it was a very central thing – in every press box in India it would be the toilet story. I have many toilet stories. I don’t know if I should be telling the toilet stories.

SJ– Please go ahead.

SU– Wankhede stadium had one toilet outside the press box, and it was a gents’ toilet. It was hilarious – now that you think of it. i had to go a long way to (a ladies’ toilet). Cricket is a long game. it goes on for hours.

There is a ground in Indore where they hosted the inaugural match for the Usha Raje Trust where they now have the ODIs. the first 1st Class game that was played there was between Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. There was no toilet there. there was no structure at all. There was nothing. Then, I said, “Listen. I need to go to the toilet.” The officials were “Uff. This woman has come. Now she needs to use the toilet.” But, they came up with the most logical solution. The dressing room toilets – the only toilets were in the playing dressing room. I went with the fielding team and the officials, just to go to the toilet. All the other 3 or 4 people that were sitting around, chivalrously got up and cleared the dressing room and I went to the toilet and came back.

Literally, honestly, the toilet stories are the funny stories that you remember. Now, grounds are in much, MUCH better condition and shape. There are arrangements made for the fact that there will be women reporters there. Transports for grounds if the grounds are far from the metro, they ensure that you get back and so on. A lot of change.

Being on tour, I am trying to think of it. In a way, it is great fun that there are other girls also travelling with you. It is fun, you can go out once your work is done. There were three of us in the 2004 tour of Pakistan. We roamed out the whole day in Peshawar, because all of us had filed our copy early. And, we could go. And the poor guy who was taking us around in Peshawar, asked us at 4 o’clock “Do you not eat lunch?”. We were going to the market and other places around.

The tour can be great fun. Even during the world cup, Neeru Bhatia from The Week and Tanya Aldred and I had a celebration because it was Tanya’s birthday. Life on tour wasn’t bad. If you have company, it is great fun. If you have female company it is even better because there is lots of stuff to talk about. It’s not in any way difficult because you are travelling with a pack of journalists and you are seen as one of them.

You are looked after. There was a time when England came to India in 1993 when I landed in Cuttack, and there was no room available at all. There was warm up game or a practice match going on. One of the male journalists pulled out of his room and said “You can stay in my room, I will go and live with the other guys, there is lot of space. No big deal.” You do have a lot of that too. There is a certain camaraderie that exists. I wasn’t very old in the profession at that time. They just think “She is one of us. Let’s make sure we make her life comfortable.” Because there is no way I could have camped out in a tent or something like that. I remember it and I appreciate it.

SJ– In terms of the relationship between women journalists and players themselves, I have heard of instances when you were on a long tour and players were under pressure of form and performances and everything else. Sometimes they confide in the women journalists because they find it easy to talk to them.

SU– It is a theory that I think holds good. It depends because on what you ask them, what you talk to them, which could be things that are not related to their public image and so on. Peter Roebuck – sometimes when you think about him, you say you wish he were alive because he would write about this issue and shake everybody up, He said once and I must say on this programme – “There should be more women in the cricket press box.” I wasn’t going to argue with him, but asked “Why do you say that?” “Because they see more clearly.” I am not going to argue with Peter Roebuck. He said it. God bless him.

You do get that. With players, it depends on what you talk about – how you should approach a question. Should you be aggressive and get your headline out? I would like to think it is our advantage as women, or may be not. Who knows?

SJ– Whether you like it or not, you are the torch bearer. You are a trend setter. Do you feel you have a certain responsibility? You may not have wanted it, but you are saddled with it, perhaps?

SU– No, I don’t think of this as a responsibility. I was really ahppy when I crossed my 30s, because suddenly I was older than everybody, and by and large, most of the players. So, I just became a furniture, “aunty”. They said whatever they wanted to say to you. I became invisible. I spent all my 20s wanting to be invisible, which is not easy. Anyone who has met me knows that. Reduce your personality into porridge and, that you are nothing. That you are just here to record and watch cricket. As you grow older, you get more confidence. What I was very clear about, when I started out, is that I had to come out looking professional. I had to say “I am out here for the job. I am not a fan.” You are a fan when you start being a sports journalist. You then learn how to balance it all out.

SJ– It is a really interesting point you make. If a 25 year old male gets into this profession, he is not trying to, actively, be invisible. Or be the porridge that you said. Whereas, you had to…

SU– It was something that I brought up on myself. There were no rules for the game at that time. It was something that you brought on yourself because you thought that is the way to be. You are in this because you want to be writing decently enough for people to be entertained and to be informed by what you write. You can’t have people treating you as if you are some flibbertigibbert or something.

SJ– While also trying to be invisible, did you try to prove especially to your male colleagues that you belonged there and you earned your stripes?

SU– What happens in journalism, particularly, you hang around long enough, as in any profession, they do accept you. Some of them help you out. Some of them pretend you are not there. There was a journalist in Bombay whom I have never spoken to in my entire working life because he could not bear the idea that I was in his press box. But it doesn’t matter, I just think it is slightly comic. sI am still around, you know? That is all that there was.

I don’t think I was trying to prove anything to anyone else, like my peers, to be a rival, but just to the ones who were reading what I was writing. I just wanted them to enjoy what they read and be informed by what they read. The fact that I was female, I didn’t want that to be an issue at all.

SJ– I want to talk about the IPL cheerleaders and the sideline reporters. You had a column in The Hindu recently during the IPL season. Even they are, in a way, reporting certain stories. But, here you have Sharda Ugra who is a respected journalist who has come through the ranks. And then, there is the other image where IPL reinforces the stereotypes of what a woman is in the larger view of the society. Where do you stand? What are your views? How do you reconcile with that?

SU– You read the column that I wrote about it, it was pretty much where it stands. I don’t think those girls that come in as colour reporters or whatever they are called, come there for a particular purpose of journalism. They come there to be seen. It is a stepping stone for them to get a film or television or a presentation programme. I don’t really blame it on them. I just blame it on the people, this includes women in the television channels that shows them. I blame them, it gets my goat when they do this repeatedly all the time – the way they cover the cheerleaders.

I go back to my column again. The fact that the women owners are to be treated with full respect when you have to have conversations with them. But, everyone else is eye-candy. The point that I am making is that cheerleading is something very different from what it happens in United States and in their sports. It comes from American sports and collegiate sports. What you see in the IPL is different. There is no context of that at all- that sort of athletic, and the fact that a whole generations of cheerleaders have been there for Notre Dame or other colleges with football teams and so on. It is literally like here they are as associate Bollywood dancers kind. Something like that, and the girls come from overseas.

It bothers me, it really angers me, which is why I was saying about the women’s magazines, the little column in it that said “if you think that is sexist, send it to us and we will complain.” Watching this on television for 2.5 months or whatever…does nobody get it? Women in India have a tough time. We [the women journalists] are the lucky ones. (But) Girls out there who are working in farms, in shops, in smaller towns, studying – they have a tough time. India is going through and was going through in these last few months of last year or so– on a massive debate about so many things related to women’s issues, laws and so on. That is the best you could do? it just bothers me immensely. I’m told that there are women behind this who are in the higher official positions of power. This whole thing includes women. I am just completely outraged at the fact that this is allowed to happen.

I find cricketers turning into little jokers in the studios. I heard Harsha (Bhogle)’s programme  saying that we are not the audience of whatever, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Pornography sells. What are we going to do? Put a pornographic picture on cricinfo, on the front page, because pornography sells? No. That is not how it is. You can’t just say everything sells. Everything is not biscuit or toothpaste. This is the biggest pop cultural platform in India and you are just turning it into a completely.. .I am just ranting…

SJ– No, no! A lot of them take it as an escape route ignoring the fact that we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a society and everything matters. Everything is interlinked. A lot of them take the easy way out saying “It is not my responsibility. This is not our target audience.”

SU– “This is not our target audience. This is not our bottom line. This is about profit and loss.” How do you know? Have you tried anything different? You haven’t. You have this one mindless, sexist, revolting approach to women through IPL television. I am not saying the cricket is bad or whatever. The IPL television has this approach and they think this is fine. I wrote an email to someone and I named, literally named 10 women, not 1 or 5 … but 10 of them who could do the job who could do the job that those girls do because they are made for television, they know cricket, they ask questions, they are multilingual – they can speak in English and Hindi with equal fluency – and they are telegenic. We won’t even make it hard on your eyes. But, why would you not pick them? You picked these two girls. It is not their fault. I picked 10, and 10 is not a small number.

SJ– Correct. And none of them got even a second look?

SU– No. Not even a question.

There was a discussion. At one point, I was joking to someone “Listen, I am going to tell the TV channel at the start of every season that let me coach these girls and I will teach them that this is how you ask questions. It is very easy. Just make sure you pay me like a really good stipend or whatever it is called. I will coach them. You get me any two girls, and I will teach them how to ask questions on television about cricket.” And my friend looks at me and says, “You are a really sad person. Do you think that is what these girls are for?” and I replied, “Sorry. I forgot that.” That is not what they are there for in the first place.

SJ– Constantly, not just in India or the IPL, everybody is trying to grab the attention of the 50% of the world’s population, basically, while not really catering to any of them. When they say “We are trying to get the attention of the housewife going from the living room to the kitchen”…

SU– That is a lie. That is nothing but a blatant corporatised lie that they are telling us.

SJ– Even if they are telling the truth, what do they actually think of the women’s intelligence that she needs to be yelled at to grab their attention?

SU– Yell…shout at them, yeah. That is a complete lie. The programme, the chatter that happens between the commentators – that has got nothing to do with trying to get the women audience. It is like trying to make all the 18-45 age [male] group laugh and giggle and feel very macho when they are watching, and just think it is a great…

SJ– Alright. In terms of female cricket experts, we have seen Anjum Chopra who was on during the IPL. Of course, Isa Guha as well. Why aren’t we seeing more of it? If they really want to capture the women’s attention…

SU– They want to slot women in a particular category and they think that is the category that they want to slot them to, so they get more TRP, and therefore more ads and therefore earn back all the money that they paid for television rights. If you are foolish enough to do that with your television rights, they will say that this is their desperate move. I’m saying that, “we understand the economics of it, and there is pressure of the bottom-line and so on. But, you are functioning in a country that requires you to be a little more in touch with it, and responsible with it. You cannot do this with complete blithe ignorance of where you operate.”

The whole discussion of spot fixing and everything around it was almost typical of the way they handle everything – “we are in this bubble and this is the perfect happy family. This is the perfect entertainment show and we don’t care about anything else.” If the producer doesn’t encourage the commentators’ talk, they are not going to talk. They won’t feel compelled.  That is what is going to be – they are not going to speak about something that will spoil the little picture that they paint of happiness. They won’t. The producers have to encourage it, they have more power than anyone in a television programme. You can see what the people at SET Max do with that power. They just turn it into these bubble gum packets.

SJ– One last question for you and then I will let you go. How do we get more Sharda Ugras covering cricket?

SU– No, no! They don’t need more crazy people like me. They just need women. The more women that there are, the more will come.

SJ– Is there an active effort? You said about Roebuck saying there should be more women in the press box. But, is there an active effort as a part of the magazines or the websites or the newspapers or television stations to have more women covering cricket?

SU– I don’t think it is an active effort to have more women covering cricket in any way. A lot of the television stations got attacked; “You are hiring girls because you want to charm the cricketers and get your interviews.” That was one stream of thought that ran for a while. The girls had to work very hard. They were sitting the whole day in the damned hotel for these guys to walk in and walk out and give them [sound] bites. I don’t think there is an active effort, but if a girl does come out and is on the sports desk and says “This is what I want to do.”, I don’t think anyone is surprised. I do know, when I talk to a couple of younger reporters, that they do get put under a lot of pressure almost immediately when they come into the profession – particularly the younger generation, Subash. You were talking about the ‘80s. The girls get told “You don’t have to teach anyone how to play a cover drive. But, you have to know something about cricket.” It starts with that assumption. I think about it, when I talk to these girls, that I would never have been able to cut in in this day and age. It is too competitive and it is too brutal.

SJ– I am not sure I follow you – when they come in they are put under pressure – in what sense?

SU– That their bosses will immediately ask them “Do you know about cricket? Please don’t write articles in which you are telling people how to play a cover drive. Make sure you write a decent story.” I don’t think that is the kind of conversation a rookie male reporter has with his boss. That is what I am saying. I know this happens because someone has told me about it. i feel that right now, it is very tough for the girls coming in because there is pressure, like there is for any younger person coming in. But they have this additional pressure because of the fact that they happen to be girls. That is why I think that when you say the times are different and the opportunities as more…  The opportunities are more, there is access, but the pressure is more than when I joined first. I think I slipped through the cracks, but now, it is a lot tougher. But, they are coming in larger numbers and it is no big deal. They are coming through. There have been sports editors too. It is not an unusual job for them to do anymore. It is more demanding, maybe, but it is not an unusual job for them anymore.

SJ– Okay! Alright.

Thanks a lot for being on the show, Sharda!

SU– Not at all, Subash! Thanks so much.

SJ– It was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks!

SU– Thank you, Subash. Bye!

SJ– Bye!

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Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabhiraman