What Makes Vikram and Seema Chandra A Power Couple?
Seema Chandra, food authority. Officially, she is Managing Director, smartcooky.com. When hubby Vikram Chandra, Group CEO, NDTV, complains (and insists that their two boys do too) that she does not cook often enough for them anymore, her retort is “Where is the time?” While she is busy focussing on how to live Guilt Free (her food series) as far as what we eat is concerned, Seema’s culinary expertise is more than evident in the scrumptious snacks that we all enjoy on a winter evening.
Rufus, the resident ‘woof’ factor, tries to make his presence felt —Vikram has got stuck in the legendary New Delhi traffic. Which is how I find myself sipping wine with Seema on a cold December evening because she says, “I have to celebrate!” She wants to raise a toast to the success of something that she had been working towards for a long while.
By the time Vikram joins us, we have already discovered that our children were from the same school; I learn that Seema does not make much of an effort to maintain her svelte, healthy figure and find out how she has kept both her sons from watching television. (By the way, there is something really cool to be said for getting the very man from the Gadget Guru programme to show me how my recording device works!)
Seema and Vikram have been married for a “long time” (Vikram’s words), an office romance that had the two recently celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in the Maldives. And when asked what he bought her for the special occasion, the answer is a firm “Nothing”! Vikram explains, “We have a system that we don’t get each other presents anymore. We’d much rather have good quality time — and moments — together to remember, so we just went for a lovely holiday.”
He points out, “If it hadn’t been for work, we wouldn’t have met. We met more than 20 years ago, a month and a half before the Babri Masjid demolition — November 1992.” While Seema half-complains that “he always says that”, it is evident that this is a joke that she has got used to. “I was a reporter at Newstrack and she joined at the same time. The first story we worked on together was on Kashmir, right?” Vikram looks a bit askance at Seema.
“Yes, it was, until Madhu Trehan (producer and anchor, Newstrack) realised that the couples who worked on the same story would never go home! She put in a rule that girlfriends and boyfriends could not work together!” laughs Seema, taking a sip of wine as she relaxes in their home near Chattarpur — a green oasis amidst trees, overlooking a pool, where one can easily pretend that one does not live a hop, skip and jump away from the bustling road running between Delhi and Gurgaon.
Vikram continues, “I’d gone to Kashmir. I was reporting on how Pakistan television was often relaying what was happening in Kashmir. And Seema was asked to work on that story with me — she was here in Delhi recording whatever their television was saying. At some point, in the course of each day (at that time, communication from Kashmir was really bad), I would get to a telephone and call her from the Valley to find out what their TV had said that day, and then I’d somehow find a way to get to that spot the next day and report on it.”
“Just imagine! I started the whole relationship by waiting for the phone to ring!” Seema laughs.
One of the other memorable stories they worked together on was on Tantrics, with Seema getting very embarrassed by having to transcribe Vikram’s work on strange Tantric rituals.
“So, he was clearly the hot-shot reporter and I was this cub researcher,” she reminisces. “It was an office romance without a doubt! And there were many couples there, like us. It was great fun. Those were very interesting days.”
They both left Newstrack subsequently and worked apart for six to seven years, with Seema working as a producer on TV 18’s flagship car show, The Road Show, for five years and was also doing stories for the Amul India Show, while Vikram joined NDTV. Seema then took a break to have the first of her two sons. All that time ‘Doc’ (which is what Prannoy Roy, co-founder and executive co-chairperson, NDTV, is referred to as) had been pestering Vikram about getting Seema to join NDTV instead of working for TV 18! “Actually it was quite hilarious because a couple of times Raghav (Bahl, founder TV 18) had asked Seema to persuade me to join TV 18 and Prannoy would ask me to ask Seema to work for NDTV…!”
But Seema made it very clear to ‘Doc’ that working together with Vikram was not an option. She did not want to complicate things in the organisation for others with Vikram being senior. “I was very sensitive to that. People at work can’t be themselves. So, why make it awkward for others? Also, by then we were married and one wanted that space.”
Prannoy and Radhika (Roy, co-founder and co-chairperson, NDTV) then met Seema and suggested that she take on an area that did not have anything to do with what Vikram did in the organisation — food, something that very few people were working on at the time; a field that Seema was passionate about.
Looking back, Seema considers herself really lucky. “It helped a lot. I cannot afford to crib even for a second. I have to give full credit to NDTV as an organisation. The level of trust they have in you. No one questions your integrity and even though I was a new mom who was working part-time because I made it very clear that I would not work full time — the child was too little — I was told that was fine; just deliver. In that way it is a very different organisation from the others. It spoils you as a woman for sure!”
So Seema stayed and grew, and eventually went back to full-time work when her two boys were older — with her having nothing to do with news, and Vikram having nothing to do with food. And, yet they always bounce ideas off each other and critique one another.
Seema says, “I will comment on it from a television producer’s perspective. I’ve been a producer for over a decade. For example, if I saw The Big Fight, I might say that ‘that was good’, or ‘this was tacky’ or whatever. Because I feel, as a couple, you can’t be polite then. If you care, you will say it as it is. In his case I’d like to believe that it is in his best interests. And, certainly in my job, because he is so good with finance and numbers, I have very often run things by him. Again, there is a little sensitivity here. And yet I know he will be my best critic.”
Vikram adds, “And vice versa. Especially when I’m doing these longer shows, I always keep my phone on for the reason that she will often SMS me, with ‘What the hell are you doing?’
Or ‘You are not making sense anymore!’ Or, ‘Put your hair back’!
I still have yesterday’s….”
“Oh yes, I was quite annoyed with his The Big Fight this Saturday,” Seema interrupts.
“She sent me this SMS saying ‘you are repeating yourself’.
“And I want him to see my messages during the break so that he can rectify things,” she adds.
“It is particularly helpful when I am doing my 12- or 24-hour telethons,” he acknowledges.
I ask if they have ever been on air together. Seema smiles, “He once came on my show (the Guilt Free series) for a special.”
“That is also the only time that we have ever been on air together,” says Vikram.
If not journalism, then what would they have explored? Vikram says, “I’m not quite sure what I am anymore, frankly. Am I a journalist, which I am part of the time; am I a social activist, when I am doing my campaigns? To some extent I am an Internet-entrepreneur, and I run NDTV at a broader level, which is when the businessman hat comes on. So there are various hats that I keep shuffling between. I would have got into the Internet anyway.”
Without hesitation, Seema answers, “I would have been an architect. I love homes and spaces.”
While Seema practises yoga, Vikram swims when he can. And they are both passionate about reading. “Vikram finds time to read every day,” Seema says admiringly.
“On the Kindle,” adds Vikram.
“I cannot,” says Seema. “How can you?”
“Ever since I have shifted to reading on the iPad with the Kindle App, my reading has gone up about 400 per cent! I carry my entire library with me, 5,000 to 10,000 books, wherever I go.”
“A colleague gifted me a cook book by Monet, the painter, for my birthday. Monet’s recipes! How he had this beautiful kitchen garden. For me, you can see there are food books in the 100s (pointing to her book shelves) — there is nothing like a book,” says Seema emphatically.
In the meantime, Vikram has opened his iPad and rifles through his books to show us. The author of The Srinagar Conspiracy says, “I’m reading Abu Bakr’s Management of Savagery. On our 20th anniversary trip, she was reading Mystic Musings on the plane and I was reading Abu Bakr’s book! I read Harry Potter on my iPad. I have Enid Blyton too.”
“It is very strange that in a household where we both essentially work in television, weeks will go by and the television doesn’t come on!” Seema confesses. “Also, we can never decide what to watch. Ever!”
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