‘Trolling is a mind game’

Barkha Dutt. Photo:Sushil Kumar Verma  

Does Barkha Dutt meditate? She must. This was the primary thought running through my head as I read her debut — This Unquiet Land — a tough, rangy book about many Indias, and almost as many Dutts. What kind of woman is this, after all, who watches back-to-back episodes of 24 to wind down? A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, who elbows her way into high security vans and Kargil bunkers. A “culturally unidimensional student,” coming of age with India’s liberal economic reforms in 1991. Unbearably pious Delhi Modern School prefect, shunning the fluffy Nike and Reebok socks favoured by the rich kids, opting instead for the dull blue school-mandated gear.

Who is this woman who supposedly has two Kashmiri husbands; who canoodled with her college sweetheart on a second-hand Lambretta; who for her 18th birthday asked for two books: Benazir Bhutto’s Daughter of the East and Germaine Greer’s The Madwoman’s Underclothes? This woman, who has been called so many vile names, of which, “elite, par kati mahila (woman with short hair),” courtesy Sharad Yadav, is surely the most inventive? And how on earth does she stand the weight and scrutiny of so many hate campaigns against her?

“I think I follow the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt,” Dutt tells me, “Who as far back as the 1920s advised women in the public eye to ‘grow skin as thick as the hide of a rhinoceros.’ There is no doubt that women are targeted in a way that men just are not. That misogyny is true everywhere but especially amplified online, where so-called critiques of our work fast descend into comments on how we look, what we wear, and oh-not-to-forget, our fictional husbands and lovers! Malicious online trolling is a mind game — they want to unsettle you with their hatred, they want to intimidate or bully you into silence… and I’m damned if I’m going to let them do that.”

As much as I wanted it to be, This Unquiet Land is not a memoir. It’s not meant to be. It’s a book about India (not the definitive book about India, Dutt claims there can be no such thing), rather, a look at India through Dutt’s eyes and experiences, investigating some of the fault lines that have consumed India over four decades: gender, caste, religion and terrorism. Rather than work chronologically, she works thematically, zigzagging between Kargil, Nirbhaya, the 2004 Tsunami, 26/11, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq. What emerges is the well-worn theme of paradox that has come to define India — the haves versus the have-nots, set against a backdrop of economic reform, continuing government corruption, stifling bureaucracy and the complexities of a justice system that refuses to acknowledge marital rape because “it could destroy the institution of marriage.”

“How we see issues from gender to war to secularism to capitalism is impacted by how we are shaped and formed,” Dutt tells me. “As our influences change, our observations and conclusions on these matters change as well. I also wanted to hold myself up as an example of an Indian who became an adult on the cusp of liberalisation and how the changes in my life and in the media ran a parallel course to some of the biggest changes in India.”

More memorable than the morass of Gandhis, Modis (Narendra and Lalit), Obamas, Clintons, Musharaffs and Kejriwal mufflers that are bound to infiltrate the pages of a book like this, and infinitely more exciting than the décor of Rahul Gandhi’s Tughlak Road residence or the titbit that Nawaz Sharif has a fondness for spouting lines from Mughal-e-Azam, are Dutt’s encounters with the less famous. The intensity of the book is contained in nuggets of dialogue. Here is an ageing villager in the Kashmir valley who captures Farooq Abdullah’s kaleidoscopic personality by saying, “ Voh to disco hain (he is like a disco).” Here is Sheelu Nishad, a young woman who was kidnapped and raped: “Why should I hide my face or name? If they play with our honour, should we be ashamed or should they?” And here is Mohammad Akhlaq’s son, Sartaj, after his father has been dragged out of their house and killed with bricks and hockey sticks: ‘I just want to say a small thing and make a plea. We have all read the song, we all know the words, Saare jahan se accha… if we could just follow the sentiments expressed in this song, we will be fine as a country.”

In Dutt’s writing, as in her TV reportage, there are touches of that over-pious schoolgirl, a sense of righteousness, which, coming from where she stands, in the centre of Delhi’s political glass house, can sometimes ring a touch disingenuous. She is the first to admit the paradox of her privilege though, and perhaps for someone who is so frequently accused of being anti-nationalistic, it’s not so abnormal to want to emphasise what a proud Indian she is. Where Dutt is strongest is in her understanding of gender. She writes about her own experiences of being sexually abused as a young girl by an elderly relative, the smell of rancid hair oil being her particular Proustian trigger. “I wrote about sexual abuse because I felt I could not write about other women’s experiences with violence and abuse without first being honest about my own,” she explains. And it is perhaps this spirit of openness that has made other women feel safe to share their stories with her. Bhanwari Devi, Sakina Ittoo, Bilkis Bano, Zakia Jafri, Parveena Ahangar, Maya Gautam, Sunitha Krishnan, Raja Begum, Kalpana Saroj, Sunita Induwar, Sampat Pal Devi, Kavita Karkare — these are the real warriors of the book.

This Unquiet Land is a terrifying portrait of 21st century India. It does not make for peaceful bedtime reading, but it does provoke a debate about what the future of journalism might be in India. Dutt, whose entry into journalism coincided with the birth of private TV news, says she feels like a misfit in the current media environment of nightly shouting. “I worry that there is less and less complexity in our media discourse, less context and history.” When I ask which journalist she’d choose to have with her on a desert island, Dutt’s reply is sharp: “Can I have a lawyer instead?”

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 10:17:01 PM |

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