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Given the simmering tension between the media and the legal fraternity, the third installment in the “Working Title” series could not be more apt. In this piece, we get ex-AMSS associate and journalism student at Columbia, Suhrith Parthasarathy to talk on his decision to leave law, the joys of journalism and the perils of shifting careers.
by Suhrith Parthasarathy
Given the simmering tension between the media and the legal fraternity, we thought the third installment of the “Working Title” series would make an interesting read. In this piece, we get ex-AMSS associate and journalism student at Columbia, Suhrith Parthasarathy to talk on his decision to leave law, the joys of journalism and the perils of shifting careers.
Seemingly everywhere I go, I get asked: “Why did you quit law?” It’s one of those bedeviling, gnawing questions to which the answer is far from simple. For if it were, I wouldn’t have to give a different response each time the issue is broached. This piece, though, presents me with an opportunity to examine the question, and hopefully set the record straight.
Nearly nine years have elapsed since I first set foot in Calcutta, as a skinny, flushed 17-year-old, full of raw, yet nervous ambition. NUJS that summer was buzzing. We had just won the moot at Vienna, and everyone—or at least a good majority—was taken in by the romance of it all. I am not sure I thought of it this way then, but in retrospect, it feels like we were all pushed by this torpedo-like effect into a big vacuous hole. It was all really thrilling, though, and it was an awfully fun time. Before you think of me as your typically cynical plonker—whom I may well be—I must clarify that I look back at my time at NUJS with utmost fondness. Law school, I believe is an experience that can’t hurt regardless of the career path you ultimately choose for yourself.
In any case, NUJS, by itself, did nothing to dissuade me from the idea of being a lawyer—I did ok for myself there; I landed a job at Amarchand in Bangalore, and the time when I started working, in June 2008, happily for me, coincided with the absolute trough of the financial crisis. So there wasn’t work enough for the 15 or so new graduates that had been hired, and none of us, as I remember, particularly complained. We played lots of tennis ball cricket on the spacious terrace—a seemingly made-for-cricket area—of an otherwise small “Midford House.” The cricket would often start as early as 10 in the morning, and continue till late evening with lunch and work breaks in between. As you may well guess, it was a really enjoyable time, and I don’t remember contemplating much about life and such then.
But like all good things, the fun eventually came to a slow, stuttering halt, and we suddenly had real work: the kind where we had to take a crack at drafting agreements, type out mundane due diligence reports, and do the odd bit of research on a finer point of the law. Now, there are certainly lots of people who find this kind of work interesting, stimulating even, and no offense meant to them, but it just wasn’t for me. I more or less knew this was the case, when I used to hide in the library of the Bombay office during my internship—under morbid fear of being given any kind of work—but I nonetheless wanted to give it a good shot. All of this makes me sound like a proper slacker, but I like to believe that if I find something invigorating, I usually devote substantial effort to it—like staying up till 3 at night to watch a football game, or waking up in the wee hours of the morning to watch test match cricket.
Having convinced myself that a law firm job—the plush benefits notwithstanding—wasn’t for me, I moved to Madras to work in litigation. This was anyway what I had gone to law school for. To one day, argue in a real courtroom. I joined the chambers of Satish Parasaran, and this, I must say, was a thoroughly enjoyable time. I relished almost every bit of it, even the several miles that I had to run everyday to ensure that a matter in some distant courtroom doesn’t get dismissed for non-appearance. Then why quit, you may be tempted to ask. I think it had largely to do with this grinding feeling in my stomach that I wanted to do something with sport.
Sport has always defined my life. I had not been endowed with supernaturally athletic gifts to win Wimbledon—something which I dreamt of with alarming regularity—but I loved the narratives that sport produced; they are full of mystique and mythos. I wanted to, one day, tell these stories. Imagine what it must have felt like to be at the Camp Nou when Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored the stoppage time winner against Bayern Munich in 1999 to win Manchester United the Champions League. Imagine what it must have felt like to be at Chepuak during the 1986 tied test; at Kinshasa, Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle; at Beijing in 2008 when Yelena Isinbayeva gloriously soared over the 5 meter mark; at Wimbledon in 1980 when iceman Borg beat McEnroe 8-6 in the fifth set of the final—the list is endless. It was a dream job in its truest, purest sense, and I wanted it, and in fact continue to want it.
During my time at Amarchand, I had started writing a blog on sport, and I found it to be an utterly gratifying experience. Not that I was in need of any therapy, but the writing still felt weirdly therapeutic. I shudder at the thought of reading my earliest pieces now, but at the time it gave me a sense of confidence, and it certainly made me feel good about myself, enough to make me want to shift careers.
But here’s the thing with career shifts. One, you must really want it—which I had convinced myself I did—because there are clearly a lot of sacrifices that you need to make, and two it really helps to have your family’s support—luckily for me, I have the most beautiful parents in the world, and they have allowed me to chase my seemingly irrational and neurotic dreams.
So, 10 months after I had left Amarchand, I quit law entirely. I interned at The Hindu, for a few months, in its sports bureau, and I had a nice time. I watched, and covered, a lot of local soccer in Madras—which I had no idea even existed—before deciding to study broadcast journalism at the Asian College of Journalism. Here, I shot and edited videos—which can be both painstaking and pleasing—and learnt about sequences, all of which made me see movies in an entirely new light. I also made a trip to Hoshangabad, a small district in Madhya Pradesh, with a group of classmates, and we shot and edited a short documentary on the displacement of tribal people. I also learnt a bit about journalism, how it works and so on, but I still felt I needed to educate myself further.
So here I am at Columbia in New York City, studying in one of the finest journalism programs in the world. In my time here, among other things, I’ve written a profile of a thoroughbred (a magnificent bay gelding), and a story on a murder in The Bronx, showcasing how the lives of the murderer and the victim converged—this included a visit to the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, in upstate New York, a maximum security prison that looks a bit like the one in The Shawshank Redemption. These aren’t things that I would have imagined myself doing in my wildest dreams, but I sense that in the years to come they may form an important part of my life experiences. They’ve been among the more challenging things that I’ve ever done—moot courts and even real courts were never so daunting.
My time here at Columbia has been less about classwork, and more about being out in the streets reporting—a hand’s on training in its truest sense. In the fall, for instance, I was constantly out in The Bronx, reporting on hyperlocal issues—which would have otherwise been ignored—that are incredibly crucial to the learning experience. Often, particularly as a result of movies and popular culture, there is a misconception that Manhattan alone is New York, but the city has four other boroughs, each unique and beautiful, and I have had a great time covering them, especially The Bronx. In many ways this has been about stepping out of the comfort zone, leaving a career, which by all accounts I was confident I could have succeeded in, for an unknown and uniquely stimulating life.
I know this piece was supposed to be specifically about my experiences as a journalist, and the travails that shifting careers entails, and instead I have imposed some semi-autobiographical babble on you, but truth be told, I am not worldly wise enough to give any kind of intelligent advice. What I can tell you, though, is that regardless of what you choose to do—unless you decide to immerse yourself in quantum physics or something on those lines—your legal education is likely to prove useful. It helps you think logically and cohesively, and you tend to approach issues with a lucid mind. I can also tell you that if you shift careers, you’re likely to go through phases of introspection, but usually the answers to your own lingering doubts are simple—quite unlike responding to others—you’re chasing a dream, and there are few things as exhilarating.
Suhrith Parthasarathy graduated from NUJS, Kolkata in 2008. After brief stints at AMSS and in the chambers of Satish Parasaran, he interned at The Hindu and eventually studied broadcast journalism in the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. He is currently studying journalism in Columbia University, New York.