The studio girl — that's what people used to call Phoolo Danny-Maharaj. It was a nickname given to Danny when she worked as a photographer and dark room technician at Two-Photo Studios in Siparia, prior to the start of her journalism career. Even when she began a career in journalism with the Trinidad Express newspaper the nickname stuck.
"There were a lot of girls working at the photo studio but I don't know how I alone got that name," Danny-Maharaj recalled with a laugh.
Danny-Maharaj who received a Hummingbird Medal (Gold) for her service to journalism at the National Awards ceremony on Independence day was nostalgic as she recalled her 29 years spent in the media. When she retired due to ill health, she was the Chief Reporter with the South Bureau of the Trinidad Express.
From as far back as she could remember, Danny always wanted to be a writer. As a girl she wrote poems inspired by images she saw. As she got older she moved on to writing skits for Divali presentations at her temple in Siparia.
She used to wait until her uncle left the house to read his history books. In her pre-teen mind back then, the coming together of words to form sentences was "magical". Danny-Maharaj was still an employee of the photo studio when she got the opportunity to freelance with the Express. She heard about a vacancy from a friend working there and although she didn't have any experience, Danny-Maharaj thought she should give it a go. At the Express she wrote articles and took photos. She loved the job but felt unsure about leaving the photo studio.
"Express wasn't a permanent job at the time and my grandmother, who I lived with, was very poor. I had to choose between a stable job and one that wasn't, so I left Express and went back to the photo studio."
Journalism continued to woo Danny-Maharaj and two years later she returned to the newsroom as a photojournalist.
"I would never forget my first assignment. I had to go to a labour meeting and (deceased labour leader) George Weekes was supposed to address the people. I was a 'country bookie come to town' so I was very naïve," she said laughing.
"I went there with a big tape recorder that I borrowed and I wrote everything that was said because I thought that everything was important."
It was former Express writer, now LA Times editor Davan Maharaj, who sat down with Danny-Maharaj to help her bring out the relevant parts of her notes.
"He was like my teacher. He guided me on what I should do and not do because my strength was really my photography."
Climbing the San Fernando Hill in heels, before it was paved, to get a story was another memorable experience for the Princes Town native.
"We had to hold on to the bushes to anchor ourselves and walk through tracks. But honestly I enjoyed the adventure."
For Danny-Maharaj, no single article stood out to her as memorable; all were.
"My joy came from the satisfaction that people experienced after their story was published so every piece I did had its own special memory.
"There was a time I wrote an article on an elderly couple who went on vacation abroad and came back to find out that they couldn't get pension. I contacted the Ministry and got it sorted out and wrote about it. I would never forget the man offering me money to show his gratitude.
"I refused it telling him it was my job and he just broke down and cried because he was so happy to be able to get the pension. It wasn't a front page article but I would always remember that."
The plight of the Tableland Anglican School that at the time was in dire need of assistance was another story that Danny-Maharaj would never forget.
"That was a troublesome story. Where the school was located there were no roads to speak of and to get in cost $100 by taxi.
"Despite the challenges I still went on that story and got an exclusive. The story brought the school into the spotlight and got it the help it needed. And that is what journalism has been to me, to serve and help people through my work."
Despite being a busy journalist, she still found the time to get married is now the proud mother of two teenage sons, Varun 17, and Vinayak, 15 years.
But it has not been all smooth sailing as three years ago her career as a journalist came to a screeching halt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"It started with an itching under my arm and after a while the skin started thickening. Nine months later, I found a lump."
"I never smoked, I was a vegetarian and there were no one else in my family with the disease but I was diagnosed with it."
Worse too, all of her mammogram results came back negative. The cancer was only confirmed after a biopsy.
Danny-Maharaj was deemed medically unfit but she refused to let go of a profession she always wanted.
"I had to be sure. I had to be satisfied that I really couldn't do the job anymore." She returned to work and found that she was too weak to do anything. She couldn't even perform basic tasks because she was so weak and got tired easily.
"I was satisfied in my mind then that I did all that I needed to do and I was able to finally let go."
While she no longer works with a newspaper, Danny-Maharaj has not stopped writing. Every emotion she has felt since being diagnosed with cancer has been documented in 15 notebooks. She has also written 60 poems and by next year she hopes to release her first book.
Receiving the national award has given Danny-Maharaj the motivation to complete her book. She is grateful to her husband and her mother-in-law Sahodra Maharaj for the support they have given to her, pre and post cancer.
"I think I have the best mother-in-law in the world," she said.
"To say that receiving a national award is humbling is putting it mildly. It is not my award; it belongs to the editors, my colleagues – not just at the Trinidad Express – and other people who believed in me. It is also for my late grandmother Jane Dirbal from whom I drew my strength and faith. This award is for everyone who played a part in my life and career."