“When former prime minister Morarji Desai visited Nathu La pass in the late 1970s, women journalists were not allowed to cover the event, because the roads to the pass were dangerous and rough. But my mother did not give up until they agreed to take her along! Her question was — ‘Why cannot women take on risky reporting assignments?‘” Nita Nirash, the daughter of Santosh Nirash — the first woman journalist of Sikkim, remembers her mother as fierce and relentless. Santosh, lovingly known as Mata ji and Mummy, was 92 when she passed away on June 10 this year at 5 AM after fighting a prolonged illness. The state of Sikkim and the media fraternity mourned the death of the veteran journalist.
Santosh Nirash, The Educationist
In a telephonic interview with Feminism In India, Nita Nirash spoke at length about her mother, who was a trailblazer and inspiration for many journalists — both young and old. Santosh Nirash was born in Pind Dadan Khan (currently in Pakistan) in 1928. She moved to Sikkim in 1959 as the headmistress of West Point School. Because she was extremely passionate about writing on socially relevant issues, she shifted to journalism in three years. However, Santosh did not stop pursuing her vocation as an educationist and became the first to start a private nursery school in Sikkim in 1978.
Santosh Nirash, The Journalist
Along with her husband Prem Sagar Nirash, a retired army officer and a journalist with the London Telegraph, Santosh Nirash started Broader News and Views in 1976—Sikkim’s first English monthly magazine. She had first skirted with the idea of journalism when she edited the magazine Vanguard while pursuing graduation from Dehradun DAV college.
Nita recollects that Santosh Nirash lamented the shortage of Hindi newspapers in Sikkim and thus, started Zamana Sadabahar in 1987. Santosh would cover social issues and events but journalism was not the only thing that kept Santosh busy. Nita remembers her ‘mummy ji’ as a social activist who would excitedly talk about everything she could, to people.
She would readily join young reporters on assignments even outside Gangtok, Nita recounts. “At times when she was out working till late night, we would wait for her so we could all have dinner together. When she would finally come home, she would assure that there was nothing to worry because she was never alone,” says Nita. Santosh’s decision to pursue journalism was met with support from her husband and family members.
Santosh Nirash was as friendly as she was blunt. Nita recollects that her mother, who detested violence, once at an event she was covering, passed a chit that said, “Be polite and do not abuse people in your speech” to the politician who was going to speak.
According to a report by The Sikkim Chronicle, when Dil Kumari Bhandari became the first woman from Sikkim to become a member of the parliament, Santosh Nirash called it a stepping stone towards women’s empowerment in the country. She also passionately wrote about and reported on women’s emancipation.
Also read: Homai Vyarawalla: India’s First Female Photojournalist
The Several Hats that Mataji Donned
Santosh Nirash also worked as a counsellor in the family courts, was a member of Sikkim Central University Sexual Harassment Committee, was the ambassador for Sikkim Aids Control Society, a member of Sikkim Press Club and Women’s Council.
Her contributions to the fields of philanthropy, education and journalism did not go unrecognised. She was awarded the Khangchendzonga Kalam Puraskar, Sikkim Sewa Samman (Journalism), Nirman Puraskar, Kashiraj Pradhan Lifetime Journalism award by the Sikkim government in 2018, among others.
Santosh Nirash had a childlike glee and loved sweets and dry fruits that she would always eat and offer others, Nita recounts fondly. She remembers how her mother’s eyesight did not weaken despite her age and illness. “And until last year, she also had all her teeth.”
Also read: 10 Women Journalists Who Made Their Voices Heard In 2019
Keeping Her Legacy Alive
Keeping Santosh’s journalistic legacy alive are her daughters Nita Nirash who works from Sikkim and Niraj Nirash, who works with the British Broadcasting Corporation in New Delhi.
On the day of Santosh Nirash’ unfortunate passing away, Sikkim also mourned the loss of its first woman MLA, Hemlata Chettri.
Featured Image Source: All pictures have been provided by Nita Nirash