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Usha Rai - Session 01, 2022-03-10

Identifier: OH-003-9-1

Interview Summary

(00:00:33) Childhood, family and memories from the freedom struggle

Rai talks about her childhood years, growing up across various cities of India because of her father’s transferable job. She speaks about her parents, siblings and grandparents. She recollects memories from her childhood and also those from the freedom struggle. She says she owes her journalism to her maternal grandfather who used to bring out a literary magazine in Telugu. She also recounts being neighbours with Amitabh Bachchan’s family in Allahabad.

(00:10:02) College life in Nagpur- playing badminton and bringing out the college newsletter She recounts her college years in Nagpur, starting in 1958, and her special love for playing badminton. She shares that bringing out the college's newsletter spurred her to later become a journalist. When she was offered a chance to play badminton professionally, she shares that she chose not to pursue it. However, she continued to play the sport competitively.

(00:15:01) Training at the Indian Express, Bombay In Bombay, Rai trained as an apprentice at the Indian Express where she says she had a great time and learned a lot. She was one of the few women in the profession and was inspired by Kamla Mankekar and Aruna Mukherji. It was during her time here that she had her first experience of covering an environmental disaster-the one that took place at the Panshet Dam. She speaks about being especially moved by an air crash. She shares about continuing to play badminton across various cities and boyfriends from the fraternity.

(00:21:01) First job at The Times of India, Delhi She talks about moving to Delhi and starting a job at The Times of India, where she was the only woman, at a good salary. Rai shares the challenges of being a female journalist in the 1960s, such as not having easy access to a loo in the office and not being allowed to do night duty or the crime beat. She covered painting competitions, fashion shows and flower shows initially and says the men never took her wanting to pursue journalism as a profession seriously. Later, doors opened, and Rai discusses covering the University of Delhi and feeling "the power of the pen".

(00:31:05) Covering the Delhi Zoo and developing relationships as a journalist She delves into her time spent at the Delhi Zoo and how developing contacts with people there, such as Kailash Sankhala and M. Kamal Naidu turned into strong friendships.

(00:35:45) Incidents from Jim Corbett National Park She details three incidents at Corbett- her first time seeing a leopard in the wild, a mahout mauled by a tiger and a shooting incident that went on to become a court case.

(00:42:01) Moving from The Times of India to The Indian Express and covering a story on the molestation of nuns Rai shares that she left The Times of India after 27 years and joined The Indian Express in 1991. At the Times of India, she was not being promoted and her male counterparts were earning more than her. She received a better salary at The Indian Express and here, she ran a page on development issues, a breakthrough at the time. She narrates covering a front-page story about Jain nuns being molested by their leader and how her work resulted in similar incidents getting exposed. She speaks about how journalists raise issues, but are not always able to get the desired result/s. When the development page was reduced to a column to make way for World Cup Football and the advertisements the page would then carry, and her contract was coming to an end, she decided it was time to move on from The Indian Express. [00:46:25- 00:47:22 - Restricted Access. Contact for details]

(00:51:20) Covering the education sector She discusses reporting on the education sector. She had her first exposure to an international conference when she attended the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtein, Thailand [Archivist’s note: the Conference was held in March 1990]. She used to cover Ministries such as Human Resource Development (MoHRD), Women and Child Development and Environment and Forests. Covering education under the MoHRD, she travelled across the country. The Education Secretary Anil Bordia was a very good friend who inspired her a lot. She shares that she won an award for her work covering Government school education in Delhi [Archivist’s note: Rai received the Media India award in October, 1981).

(00:54:55) Covering people’s movements in India and the Ministry of Environment and Forests She talks about the various contacts she developed in the Environment field. Rai also shares about covering the Narmada and Right to Information Movements and what resulted from movements such as these. She draws parallels between reporting on animals and the poor.

(01:00:30) Covering international conferences related to environment and wildlife She speaks about covering the Bruntland Commission and the Earth Summit in Brazil, learning to accept jargon like "sustainable development", and visiting the Amazon River and Rainforest. She also shares details about getting the chance to see a lot of Australian wildlife when she visited Perth, Australia [Archivist’s note: she visited Perth, Australia to attend a conference organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature].

(01:06:57) Pets in the family Rai speaks about her sister's love for a cockatoo that she kept as a pet and while on the subject of pets, about dogs that she herself has had as pets.

(01:09:35) National Commission for Women, issues of gender injustice and women in journalism Rai says feels she had a small role to play in the setting up of the National Commission for Women [Archivist’s note: the first chairperson was Jayanti Patnaik) and shares that she was among the first women to write about issues such as female foeticide and female infanticide, across states in India. She goes on to shed light on how dowry deaths became an important issue. She opines that women could have helped further social causes if it was not for having to cover political or economic beats to come up in one's career. However, she acknowledges the good that came out of their doing so as well, such as showing they were competent to cover these issues too. She rues that television journalism diluted serious focus on these causes. [01:10:38 - 01:11:22 - Restricted Access. Contact for details]


  • Creation: 2022-03-10



Usha Rai is a veteran journalist who began her career by working as a journalist with The Times of India. She then went on to work for The Indian Express and Hindustan Times. For over 40 years, she was a pioneer in reporting on women’s issues, health, environment and development. For the Times of India and the Indian Express she has covered several international conferences like the Earth Summit at Rio, The World Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, and The International Development Conference, Copenhagen. Some of the organisations she has done work for are the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, India, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India, United Nations Population Fund, United Nations Development Fund for Women, Plan India, ActionAid and Aga Khan Foundation. She has written the text for coffee table books on Taj Mahal, Vijayanagaram Empire and Khajuraho by Raghu Rai. Other books she has contributed to are The Wonderful World of Wall Paintings, Man Mettle and Steel and A Fragrant Journey of 50 Years. She is the recipient of awards like the Chameli Devi Jain Award, FAO Science Writers Award, Media India Award and the Stree Shakti Lifetime Achievement Award. She currently works as a media and communication consultant. She does freelance work and contributes to The Hindu Business Line, The Asian Age, The Hindu, The Sunday Guardian and The Tribune.


76 Minutes

Language of Materials


Repository Details

Part of the Archives at NCBS Repository

National Centre for Biological Sciences - Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
Bangalore Karnataka 560065 India
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