Sitting with his eyes closed, with his palms placed on the table and deep in thought, until I entered and broke his moment of silence. Mr Sampath Kumar greets me with his trademark smile.
After gaining years of experience at the All India Radio (AIR) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), he now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism. Mr Kumar was a popular journalist; two of his fans were bandit king, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran
His other fans include his students and if you ask them about him, they will tell you how they felt an instant connect with this 68 year old man right from his very first class.
How were you bitten by the journalism bug? Tell us about your entry into this field.
SK : I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a scientist and got into the media by accident. I worked in a paint company and then moved to All India Radio since I was interested in music. I thought working in AIR will give me an opportunity to plunge into these fields. I was privileged and got to meet and interview film stars that I admired.
You later worked for Doordarshan. Tell us about your Doordarshan experience
SK: When Doordarshan opened a bureau in Chennai, my first job there was as a news producer. Since Chennai was the only branch in south India, the job involved a lot of travel. Television back then was in the infant stage and we had to shoot on black and white reversible 16 mm film, edit the film and convert it into video. I learnt it the hard way, but when I look back, my Doordarshan days gave me a chance to learn many things.
But working for a bureau meant working on different beats. Did you at any point find it difficult working on different beats?
SK: One day I would be covering a cricket test match and the next day I would be covering a music concert and the next day I would be out on a documentary shoot. It was an enjoyable experience. My knowledge had increased and improved after seventeen years in television and 6 years in AIR. It also helped me develop tremendous taste and liking towards different areas.
Can you describe some of your memorable stories?
SK: My Memorable stories are many. When I was working for the BBC, I had filed a story on Veerappan and stated that he had killed over 120 human beings and thousand elephants. He later sent a message for me with Mr. Nakkeeran Gopal.I played the tape he had sent and he had told me to correct the number of people killed from 120 to 133.
Veerappan had listed the atrocities committed by the Special Task Force which were responsible for his action. He also told me that he was my fan and wanted to meet me. In spite of that entire he did, I think Veerappan was very straightforward and a man of conviction.
I had also done a report about Prabhakaran when he surrendered his arms to the Sri Lankan government. I got the opportunity of going to Patikola and Jaffna, two places where nobody else was allowed to enter. When I went to meet Prabhakaran, I was treated like a royal guest. In spite of being so ruthless at war, Prabhakaran and his team were extremely hospitable. During that visit, I realized that Prabhakaran was Robin Hood to the village but a villain to the nation.
But was there ever any sense of fear while working and meeting people like Prabhakaran and Veerappan
SK: When I was on the job, I never felt scared. The only time I ever broke down was when I did a report on the Tsunami in December 2004. After reporting from Chennai, I went to Nagapatnam. There were heaps of dead bodies lying all around and I was reporting amidst the heaps of bodies. In the evening, when I finished reporting, I had to travel 40 miles to get to cup of tea. Later when I went back to the hotel room, I started crying.
As students of journalism we are taught about the importance of being objective and distancing ourselves from events and people. Is that possible?
SK: Journalism is a privileged job. When you go out reporting, you suffer with the people when they are suffering and rejoice with people when they are rejoicing. It is impossible to maintain objectivity. I tried my best not to get involved but I couldn’t. Several times I have gone and reported about atrocities committed against poor people. I could not help but give people money and return penniless. I rather be known as a good man than a good journalist. As a journalist you need to empathize with people and fill your heart with compassion.
From reporting to writing a novel, tell us about the novel that you are working on.
SK: I am writing two fiction novels in Tamil. One is about the life of a musician and his wife and their ego problems.
The other book revolves around the hero who is the rebel. I have located my characters in Sri Lanka. The novel captures all the suffering of the people and the tyrannical government. The story is about an easy going young man who is not interested in politics or any movement but how he is drawn into the conflict. I will finish the books in a couple of months.
Although these books are fictional, is there any resemblance to any real characters?
Today, you are one of the most popular teachers at the Asian College of Journalism and have won many admirers. Tell us your secret.
SK: After I retired from the BBC, Mr Sashikumar, the Chairman of the Asian College of Journalism asked me to teach the radio module at his college. I thought that a younger person may perhaps do justice to the job but he said that my experience was more valuable than youth. Hence I accepted the responsibility. When I interact with students, I get rejuvenated and excited. The mutual love and respect that they have been showering over the years has made me enthusiastic and I am indebted to them.