On some days in a reporter's life, nothing works out. And as we headed to Myanmar last Friday, I had a feeling it was going to be one of those days. It began with an overnight 'red-eye' flight from Delhi to Bangkok - and as I looked hazily at my BlackBerry, I groaned. We had hoped our flight would get in to Yangon with just enough time to race over to the most important event - a rare press conference by Aung San Suu Kyi. But now it looked impossible.
For the past few months, as we tried to negotiate our visas into Myanmar for the elections, Suu Kyi's NLD party office had regularly turned down all requests for interviews, saying she wanted to focus on her campaign. This press conference would be the single opportunity to come face to face with the woman that had made the Myanmar's Junta bend and forced the government to announce a slew of political reforms so she would agree to participate. But as we landed in Bangkok - rushing over to the Yangon connection (remember there are no direct flights from Delhi to Yangon, but more than 12 everyday from Bangkok), the NLD's email said she was preponing the press conference to 9 am. As our flight was also delayed, we reached her residence only in time to see her party members leaving the venue. Some days, everything goes wrong.
Meeting with Suu Kyi was not just a journalistic assignment for me. In my years at Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College - where Suu Kyi had studied, we were constantly inspired by her struggle. In 1990, when the Junta dismissed elections after the NLD won 80 per cent of the seats, we felt the despair. In 1993, when India conferred the Nehru award on her in absentia, there was a genuine hope the military would listen to Indian and international pressure and ease the restrictions on her. Instead she would stayed under house arrest for a total of 15 years.
Standing at her lakeside residence on the famous University Avenue, I felt I must have been there before, given how much we had read about her.
Like every one of the 200 journalists who had flown in for the elections, I wanted to interview Suu Kyi, but I also wanted to carry a message of support from the college and Alumni who were keen to see Suu Kyi enter Burma's parliament, or the Hluttaw, and hopefully make a visit to India soon. In Peter Pophams biography, "The Lady and the Peacock", there is an amazing picture of Suu Kyi from a college play, dressed as a Greek goddess, wearing a wry smile. It's a smile that goes well with her clipped accent and self-deprecating humour - and belongs to someone who is used to facing adversity without wanting to make a fuss. Even here in Yangon, she begins her press conference by saying "Don't ask any tough questions, or I might faint!"- a reference to the fact that she had been overcome with motion sickness on a campaign boat ride some days before, and had to cancel her tour.
We missed seeing Suu Kyi there, and over the next few days, we seemed to carry the jinx. The next day we stood outside her residence, waiting for her convoy to leave for her constituency of Kawhmu ahead of the April 1 elections. I had my plan ready, and kept letters for her in a big envelope in case I could hand them over. As the convoy drove out, Suu Kyi's car stopped right next to me - but despite knocking on the darkened bullet proof window, I didn't get her to turn her graceful silhouette our way, and she drove off. I turned around to find my cameraman Manoj Arora, partner of many assignments, smirking...he had filmed me banging on Suu Kyi's window, and said he would save it as my "My Name is Khan" moment. The picture of me desperately trying to catch her attention like Shah Rukh Khan's character did with George Bush was hilarious.
At the party office next, we found lots of thrilled faces. Suu Kyi had just visited, and women she had smiled at were practically swooning with excitement. We met with a group of 'election tourists', Americans (who else!) who had flown to Yangon to see the historic elections, and to do some Suu-Sighting too. One group had even followed her to Kawhmu- driving over really bad mud roads for hours, just to catch a glimpse of her. But we missed her again and again.
That night, at a campaign rally, Suu Kyi smiled at us - from every poster. So many of her candidates were first-timers, unknown young men and women, that the only face on all campaign material was hers - an amazing turnaround from a couple of years ago, when displaying Suu Kyi's image was banned. Now, every street corner sells Suu Kyi t-shirts and caps. Even at the government run shops at Yangon's airport, we even found Suu Kyi fridge-magnets. The rally itself was a Woodstock style rock concert...and as we clambered onto the tops of trucks parked to get a view, the entire crowd broke into old Burmese protest songs, that Joan Baez had once made famous. There's a lot about Suu Kyi that is reminiscent of the rebellious 1970s, and as you walk into the NLD office - the only exception to all-Suu Kyi images, is a poster of Che Guevera.
On Election Day, we were at the party headquarters still desperately seeking Suu Kyi. When news came in that she had won Kawhmu with a whopping 128 of 129 polling stations in her favour, the crowds went wild. Through the evening people sang and danced: with rap dancers, folk musicians performing. There was no sign of Suu Kyi, but the LED screen above the party headquarters was beaming video of her campaign speeches, and that seemed to be enough to keep the crowds energized. Myanmar's people are remarkably calm and stoic, but the celebrations that day were euphoric - One NLD supporter told me this was about freedom from fear, and joy at being able to wear their hearts for this woman they love on their sleeve.
By our last day in Yangon, we had practically given up on sighting her. Suu Kyi was now back in Yangon, understandably exhausted, and not meeting anyone till the results came in. We started our day by going to her residence at 7 am, just to see if any crowds would gather, but her security was clear: Amay Suu (Mother Suu) was "ill-healthed", and we must come back later. It was interesting to meet someone even more desperate than us - a German journalist who had been sitting there since 6am!
Eventually, we had to be content with shaking hands, or should I say paws, with Tai Chi Toe, who had come out for a walk. That's Suu Kyi's dog, presented to her by her son Kim when he made a rare trip to visit his mother some years ago.
Despite her tiredness Suu Kyi announced she would visit the NLD party headquarters that morning to meet her party workers who had been working around the clock. As news of her visit spread, the crowds surged. Traffic jammed for a kilometer around. Added to the hundreds of foreign journalists were another few hundred local journalists who are now part of Myanmar's new media boom. Add to that thousands of her supporters, who were waiting for her to claim victory in the elections, and the situation was a near stampede. By the time Suu Kyi's convoy reached, the real worry wasn't the crush, but us fainting in the humid heat.
The rest of the story is better told in pictures. Somehow I managed to get inside the party office and Suu Kyi's tight security ring. In the bustle, I saw her turn when she heard I was from her college. She said she wouldn't speak about the elections till the results were official, which was just as well, since I seemed to have morphed from a cynical journalist into a weak-kneed fan. She spoke fondly of her friends in Delhi... and of her time there, promising to visit India soon. And then stood while I took a photograph with her. My smile in that photo is far from wry. On some days in a reporter's life, everything works out.
Click here for CNN-IBN's full coverage of the historic polls in Myanmar