Quite a debut – This Unquiet Land
December 6, 2015 Leave a comment
No sooner than Barkha Dutt, arguably India’s best known English electronic media journalist, announced the launch of her book, I decided to pre-order it.
Barkha along with Vikram Chandra has been one of the constant faces of NDTV anchoring their prime time shows apart from hosting the popular weekend discussions.
I have to admit that Barkha has come down several notches from the pedestal of admiration where I placed her, not just because she continues to over-amplify the “problems” of her megastar friend Shah Rukh khan.
I also have resorted, at times, to mildly trolling her on twitter, of course never abusively or distastefully, but often as a form of protesting over-generalizations about Hindutva or lack of an equally vehement condemnation of bigots of other hues. [In particular, I always cringe at her addressing Owaisi as Owaisi sahib].
But I didn’t hesitate to read her first of many books I guess, and I must say that she doesn’t disappoint.
The title didn’t reveal much about the structure of the book when it was yet to be launched ; While I expected it to be a political commentary, through her view that is, I expected it to be a little more anecdotal. But Barkha manages to keep the narrative direct without clouding it with too many personal experiences.
The staunch feminist that she is, it didn’t surprise me that the first chapter she devotes to the “plight of women” in India. The few cases that she elaborates to buttress her point about the grave injustice to women in India makes for revolting reading – It is very hard indeed to not feel ashamed as a man to think about what one’s own grandmothers and possibly even mothers had to go through. Barkha sums up the feminist argument quite succinctly when she writes that “Feminism is about Freedom”.
The next chapter “The Cost of war” covers what’s possibly the most important phase of her career – coverage of the Kargil war – that catapulted her to the pinnacle of journalistic stardom. She successfully manages to bring out the “human aspect” of Kargil war apart from the intrinsic political maneuvering between India, Pakistan, and the US. The uncomplaining attitude – be it about their safety, equipment, and conditions – of brave soldiers of Indian army did bring a lump to my throat. I could perfectly understand the emotional response of Barkha to give her strand of beads to the soldiers.
The two chapters that chronicles the introduction, growth and the invincibility of terror in India makes for compelling reading. Barkha is one of the very few commentators that I have come across, Tavleen Singh being the other, who acknowledges the fact that 1984 riots has been severely under reported due to the times. Contrasted with the minute-by-minute coverage of the 2002 riots, it has become the nature of India’s so called seculars to underplay the 1984 riots as some form of legitimate protest while lambasting the 2002 riots as a “state sponsored pogrom”. However, knowing her position vis-à-vis Narendra Modi, I didn’t expect her to be any less critical of the Godhra riots.
Barkha is quite unsparing in her criticism of violence – In the name of god, she’s aptly named the chapter – driven by religious divide, but I have always suspected her resolve to condemn the jihadi variant of it. As shameful as it is, the bringing down of the Babri Masjid, no commentator till date has to my knowledge condemned the act of serial blasts as a ‘response’. It is yet another quirk of Indian secularism that the “cause” of serial blasts – Babri demolition – is always discussed but not the blasts and in case of Godhra the “riots” are always discussed but never the burning of the train and the related conspiracies. Barkha fails in my view to ‘buck’ this trend.
Barkha brings out clearly her personal equations with the Gandhi family and the apparent dislike that PM Modi has for her. Surprisingly I found that her equation with the “most famous son-in-law” of the country isn’t what I thought it might be. Her descriptors for Modi and Kejriwal – Juggernaut and Maverick – while being quite appropriate also underscore her nuanced understanding of the Indian political spectrum. Full marks to her.
In the last chapter, Barkha deals with the vexed issue of “caste” in Indian society. The inhuman subjugation of Dalits is something to be extremely ashamed of, for a Hindu and an Indian. Her recounting of how a tragedy such as the Tsunami of 2004 did nothing to break the caste barriers is a stark reminder of its dominance in Indian society. Barkha though, in my view, fails to adequately chronicle the shifting sands of the caste equation ; She quotes the supremacist attitude of a Brahmin, but in reality the Dalits suffer most at the hands of the OBCs. Using the ‘Brahmin anecdote’ does capture the mindset that permeates the society but I am afraid it does not bring out the attitudes of the ‘neo-brahmins’ – the castes that have migrated socially upward and perpetrate the same treatment that they may have, once been at the receiving end of.
Barkha had a few times tweeted about the “delay” in completing her work; It actually works out in her favor as she had the opportunity to include the most recent incidents such as Dadri and intolerance in her book. I suspect if the book had been launched, say six month earlier, the epilogue may either not be there or may have seen a different ending.
I have reserved the “Chronicle of Kashmir” for a later read, as I found it hampering my flow of reading ; the other chapters I felt were connecting to the dot and I didn’t want to change directions.
In the last 12 months or so, I have read Rajdeep Sardesai’s much touted “Elections 2014” – and now much translated too – book and Vir Sanghvi’s “Mandate” ( a book that I finished during my flight from Bangalore to Delhi). If I am forced to rank, I’d rank Barkha’s book a shade better than Vir’s work and certainly much better than Rajdeep’s.
The only mild criticism that I have is that there’s no humor in the book, I am sure she had scope for it in plenty especially in the chapter about the Gandhis, Modi and Kejriwal. The only moment that I noted was her wry comment about how the social media created “2 Kashmiri husbands” for her that she never had.
Barkha’s book has a strong heart and a strong mind and for most portions holds a mirror for all of us, Indians.
She says loud and clear through her book that it is “We the people” that make or break this wonderful country of ours, India.