“Behind every successful woman is a tribe of successful women, who have her back.”

In conversation with Preeti Zachariah, uncovering what it’s like to be a woman in a dynamic and fast-evolving world, where being humane is what matters most.  

Prerna: Could you tell me a little about yourself?

Preeti: Journalism was kind of an afterthought in many ways. I did an MBA, worked in the industry for about two and a half/three years, then decided to switch. I've always loved writing, so I considered journalism. I have to admit it was a very random switch. In 2011, I enrolled at the Asian College of Journalism, and I studied there for a year. I started working at The Hindu right after, worked for the Mint Lounge for a while—maybe seven years overall.  In 2018, I was accepted by Columbia's Master's program in Arts and Culture Journalism. Now, I teach at a journalism college in Chennai; I also continue to write on the side.

Prerna: What led you to join the journalistic and publishing industry?

Preeti: It's a cliché, but I've always loved reading and writing. Over time, however, I realized that what made me half-way decent at what I did, was mainly this: being insanely curious about the world. Of course, reading and writing are important and necessary too, but my curiosity is my greatest strength. I'm pretty curious as a person. I want to know a little about everything, and that helped me more than anything else. I love to cull stories from the world, and I think that is why I do what I do.

Prerna: So, would you say it is your purpose?

Preeti: I'm still figuring that out. Well, I think a part of me has always wanted to write, and journalism was one way that I could. I occasionally also dabble in fiction too. For me, it is all about storytelling and people. I’ve always written about topics that interest me –art, culture, women, literature, fitness. I love the fact that every time I’m out on a story, I learn something new. It’s fun, you know?

However, it is not always easy, especially since I have to juggle this and a full-time job. I teach for a living, so to still honor my interests, I wake up early—by around four or so, at least most days. There’s value in carving out time to write – a reminder to hone one’s self-discipline.

Prerna: What were the challenges you faced upfront when you joined the industry?

Preeti: Money. I mean, it has always been money, right? When I started my first job—a management one – I got paid pretty well. That was me at 21. What I was earning at 25 was not even half of that, though. There were many ups and downs, but I like the fact that there has been a lot of learning.

When I got back from Columbia in 2019, the pandemic hit us, and the government changed overnight. There were several changes in the media ecosystem at that point. Now that I’m 34, it worries me that I don’t have too many options to speak of. I am always fighting against time and money.

Journalism is changing, especially with a lot of organizations shutting down.  The current government also seems to be playing a role in the slow death of the industry. I’ve never been a political journalist, so I have never been on the receiving end like someone who, for instance, has written a story that does not fully support a specific ideology. But I can see the change in the ecosystem.

I saw what it was like when I joined in 2012, and have seen it change pretty rapidly since. The number of people who have entered and left the industry keeps rising. This is the most difficult part of the job – you want to write good stories, but you are not allowed to do so. A fettered press is an ineffective one. I wish our media ecosystem were more supportive of diverse voices, different views. You need editors who have your back and publications ready to put your stories out there.

Prerna: Could you share an incident where you were made to feel that the judgement was biased?

Preeti: There is a lot of discrimination in the workplace. Women continue to be paid less for the same work, irrespective of industry. It’s true in the corporate sector, true in the teaching industry, and is true in the journalism space, too. We, as women, always have struggled at workplaces.

It is a pity. Women are, for the most part, great employees. We are great at multitasking, really conscientious, manage our time well. Growing up, I always watched my mom balance her career with housework and childcare. We all have the talent, but the market doesn’t always recognize that.  Having said that, I come from a place of privilege in many ways; just being allowed to think or say these things is a privilege, you know?  

Prerna: What were the challenges you didn’t expect you would have to face?

Preeti: I have never really faced what would qualify as a major challenge at work. I have made mistakes, a lot of them, but that is a given.

I've been fairly lucky with bosses, which I think is also a reason why I stuck around so long in the profession. I have known friends, though, who have left the profession because of a bad editor or a bad manager.

I think, given the other challenges at the time, I’ve been very lucky. Despite having reported in rural India, I have never felt intimidated as a woman while reporting on a story. Language has sometimes been a challenge, but I’ve also managed to get by, found people to help me out with it.

The major question, though, as a journalist, is the longevity of the profession. “Will there be space for me in 10 years?” is a question I ask myself all the time. The industry feels like it is evolving retrogressively; I don’t think we have cracked the digital space yet. Which, in turn, leads to fewer platforms for good journalism.

I continue to, foolishly sometimes, hope that there is and will always be space for good writing. I mean, the idea of history starts with documentation, no? Before that—Stonehenge, the Ice Age, the Neanderthals—feels like such an endless abyss of lost time.

Prerna: What inspires you to create?

Preeti: My approach to writing is pretty realistic. Some writers are born, I guess. I am not one of them. I wish I possessed genius; I do not. I don’t really have an artistic process or sudden bouts of creativity.

It just comes down to sweat and cusses and lots of hard work. I like to think I am constantly evolving as a writer—the things I read, the people I love, the process of simply living—it all helps. But what mostly keeps me going is sitting at my desk every morning with an open word document. I wake up early most days to get some writing done, no matter the form it takes. It’s all about sitting down and doing it. Growth comes only with consistent practice and balance.

I began pretty late in life, at least that’s what I think. I was 25 when I started writing, and it’s still a learning process. I still read. I’m looking forward to getting better at the things I do. Being a journalist helps because you’re never really at the mercy of the muse; you have deadlines sweeping you by all the time. I don’t think there’s much of a difference in the way I write for either journalism or fiction – it always starts in the same place, with research. It has become second nature, so much so that I do a quick Google search before going on a Bumble date. (Laughs)

Prerna: What or who would say your sources of inspiration would be?

Preeti: It has always been reading. And love; I really love language and storytelling. Fiction has always been my safe space, though I keep telling myself that I should start reading more non-fiction. I do read some, of course. I love Emily Nussbaum, Anthony Lane, Gay Talese, Samanth Subramanian, Rohini Mohan, and Roxane Gay. I also enjoy Joan Didion’s works – she is a fabulous writer, very easy to read.

Prerna: What advice would you give to budding women writers, editors and journalists?

Preeti: I think I would tell them to be prepared for how much the world will let you down, will walk over you. It is going to be a struggle.

Knowing who you are and being comfortable in your own skin is the best you can do for yourself. It helps to remember that we’re all constantly learning, and that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters.

Try different things, push yourself to do things that might scare you, read a lot, and let your mind expand. The more you do this, the more of the world you’ll get to see. More than bookish knowledge and gaining several degrees, the only genuine way to grow is to put yourself out there – create new experiences, strengthen relationships, and be okay with figuring things out as you go. This lets you heal and makes you more humane; it also teaches you to be more open to everything.

Kindness doesn’t hurt, either. I think we need a lot more of it in the world. In the end, it all comes down to the way you think, change, and learn to love the world. Remember to ask yourself – “What is it that you’d like to be remembered for?”

Prerna: What is the one thing you wish you knew before you joined the industry?

Preeti: Having worked in the industry for eight years, one would get used to seeing one’s name in print. I learnt how, well, insignificant my stories really are, in a larger context. As a journalist, it is important to remember that you are only as good as your last story.

So, I own cats, and I use newspapers to pick up their litter. How ironic, right? My cats have helped me realize that sure I can write a great story today. But the high of it is an ephemeral one. Really.

Jokes aside, however, I’ve enjoyed the ride and still do. There are times, even today, where I’m excited to see my name in print or share my story on social media. That never gets old. No, I’m not sure if I would have done things differently, though.  I fumbled and made a lot of mistakes, a lot of them. I think everyone should be allowed to make their own mistakes. That’s how you’ll learn from it, and also learn to move on.

Prerna: “Women have to work twice as hard as men to achieve something.” Has this been true in your case?

Preeti: I don’t think this is specific to journalism. I think it’s about life. It is also about spaces and inhabiting those spaces as a woman. There will definitely be, at some point in your career, where spaces will feel unsafe. In the age we live in, I think journalists are one among the many groups of people who get killed a lot in their line of duty. There are definitely risks involved in the profession.

But as women, in this profession, in any profession, we live with some degree of fear. We are taught to be conscious of ourselves, taught not to draw a lot of attention, occupy less space in the world. I hope things change, I really do.

Prerna: Who would you like to thank in the history of women in publishing?

Preeti: I haven’t thought about this too much, this discovery of women before me. So, in no particular order – The Bronte Sisters (who wrote under men’s names), Martha Gellhorn (interesting to know that she was married to Ernest Hemingway), Virginia Woolf (especially her ‘A Room of One’s Own’ where she talks of economics, the necessity of female independence, being stable mentally and financially – were all big learning lessons), Sylvia Plath (for her poetry and her brilliance), Kamala Das, Arundhati Roy…oh, so many of these women!

I suppose I’m grateful for every woman who came before me, for the legacy of women who fought for the spaces we now inhabit. Again, I am aware, always aware, that this does not extend to all women. There still exists a vast collection of women in our society who live in starkly different ways and do not enjoy the freedoms I do.

In short, I am grateful for all the people who came before me. I am grateful for the women writers who came before me. Many women in the industry have contributed to how I think, and the diversity of it all has made me embrace the differences and think about writing differently. Women writers have always been a big part of my own story.

Prerna: You have been a teacher for about a year and a half now, right? What do you have to say about that?

Preeti: Frankly, I don’t think of myself as a teacher. I’m not too fond of the hierarchy that comes with the title. I want to think of myself as a facilitator; we read and write together, and I take on the role of an editor when I have to look at their work. I hope that they learn to expand their minds and hearts by thinking differently. It is essential, sometimes even more than what you learn, right?

I am not and have never been strict. It’s just not in my DNA. I help my students to work on their skills, but more than that I want my students to know that they have the space to think, to look at the beauty the world has to offer, and come to terms with the not-so-beautiful side of it – to look beyond the unfairness and inequities. Learning and adapting to change has been the most important thing I have learnt, and is usually the lesson I try to impart as well. You need to be a good human being, more than anything, and I hope my students can understand that.