60 Minutes | Society

My faith is eclectic and so is India: Vinod Dua

Vinod Dua is a hard man to get on the phone. He doesn’t answer your calls, and his response rate on SMS is 33.33%—one in every three texts gets a reply. But he does call back, eventually, and we manage to schedule an interview.

Brushing aside my feeble pitch for a morning slot, he decides that we shall meet at 7 in the evening. I would later discover why: he likes to sleep from 10 am till 1, which also explains my mid-morning calls going unanswered.

Braving rush hour traffic, I arrive at the India International Centre (IIC) 15 minutes early. I text him to say I’ve reached, and am about to settle down with a novel when my phone beeps. It’s him. “Please come to the tea lounge. I’m already here.”

As soon as I step into the tea lounge, I spot two venerable award-winning journalists in animated conversation. Neither of them is Vinod Dua. I navigate past several tables of august company until I finally spot him, in the far corner.

Dressed in a grey shirt, matching trousers, and an off-white Nehru jacket, Dua has an avuncular air about him, though with a hint of steel. He greets me warmly and asks me to order.

I am acutely conscious of the photographer hovering a few feet away. In our brief conversation, he had convinced me that entire Delhi would plunge into darkness at 7 pm sharp. So we decide to finish the photo-shoot first.

As the photographer starts clicking, I notice that Dua moves with some difficulty. “I fell and hurt my knee,” he says. At this year’s Red Ink Awards, he needed assistance to get on the stage to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. I mention it and he smiles, “I can neither bend nor crawl nor walk, otherwise I’m fine.”

Not a psephologist

Photo-shoot over, we head back to the lounge. On the way, we are stopped twice by elderly gentlemen wanting to know when they are getting a drink with him. I ask him if he comes here everyday. He nods. “The IIC is India’s most privileged old age home.”

After we settle down, the first thing he tells me is that he is not a Punjabi. “But everyone told me you were Punjabi,” I say. “No, I’m not,” says Dua. “We are originally from the Khybher Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan. We are Pakhtoons who did not convert to Islam.” The second thing he tells me is that he is not a psephologist. “But weren’t you and Prannoy…” I want to ask. “Nope, I just did a quick translation of the election analyses into Hindi.”

There was, however, ample documentary evidence that he was a big foodie—his food show Zayka India Ka (‘Flavours of India’) was quite popular. So I ask him how he would do such a show in today’s climate, where religious taboos of the majority community were threatening to delete from the menu some of the great ‘flavours of India’.

‘My approach would be exactly the same,” he says. “People eat whatever is available in their area, subject to weather conditions, soil, etc. That is why there is so much diversity in what people eat. For instance, I get excellent mutton curry at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati and excellent vegetarian food in Vaishno Devi. Food has nothing to do with religion.”

“But all religions have food-related taboos,” I counter.

“Those taboos may apply to religious believers. I’m telling you what I believe, which is that food has nothing to do with religion. That a particular community is non-vegetarian, another is vegetarian, and a third is vegan—I don’t believe in any of this.”

What Dua does believe in, though, are vegetables. He believes in all of them. “My favourite is bottle gourd. I love brinjal, especially baingan ka bharta, but I love all green vegetables.” I say he doesn’t come across as a vegetarian, and he laughs.

“Love for vegetables apart, I am a hardcore red meat-eater. There is this place in Nairobi called Carnivore. They have a huge coal pit where they roast different kinds of meat on skewers. I have had zebra, gazelle, crocodile, and octopus.”

What about beef, I ask. “Never in India,” says Dua, “But abroad, yes.” I want to know why a hardcore meat-eater like him hasn’t had beef in India. “It’s because I never trusted the quality here.”

Dua is a gourmet who can cook as well, and he’s even created his own recipe for a deadly mutton dish. “It was Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary, so I decided to prepare something different. I cooked red meat in desi ghee, mixed certain masalas, added mixed herbs, and then 60 ml of rum.” I point out that many might find this dish too strong. “I suppose it was meant for jaded palates and sharabis,” he laughs, “But I can tell you it turned out pretty good.”

It strikes me that Dua would be more than happy to spend the rest of the evening discussing food. As if reading my mind, he quotes Bernard Shaw, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

To change the subject, I ask him if he believes in god. “I know that we have created god. Various forms of god give us strength.” He picks up his phone to read out something he had posted on Facebook. “Hindu deities were appropriated by pseudo-Hindus in the name of Hindutva in the eighties… My faith is eclectic and so is India. I am reclaiming my pantheon. Here it is in alphabetical order: Ganeshji, Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Nanak Dev, Hanumanji, Hazrat Amir Khusro, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Jesus Christ, Kali Maa, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Khwaja Saleem Chishti, Shri Shirdi Sai Baba, Yatha and Sarosh.” The last two are Parsi deities, he explains.

Hindi anchor

Dua, who is 63, began his media career more than four decades ago, while still in college. “As a student, I saw on TV this man, Deepak Vohra, who anchored an English programme called News Forum. I thought I could do something similar in Hindi.” So in 1974, he went to the television centre attached to All Indian Radio (AIR) on Parliament Street and left his application.

About a hundred people were called for auditions and interviews. “In those days, I had long hair, a beard, and always carried a packet of Charminar. The interview panel took one look at me and wanted to know what made me imagine I could anchor a TV programme. I told them I have seen your anchors, and I know I can do much better.”

When they asked him what was wrong with their current anchors, Dua replied that they looked and spoke like jilted lovers. “They were clearly not used to this kind of attitude,” recalls Dua. “I cleared the interview. Then there followed a camera audition, and another surprise interview, where they make someone sit next to you and ask you to interview him on a given topic.”

In the end, of the 100-odd applicants, only four made the cut. Dua was one of them. “The other three were Vijayalaxmi Chhabra, who retired recently as Director General, Doordarshan, Madhavi Mudgal, the Odissi dancer, and Arun Kumar Singh, a former ambassador to the U.S.”

Dua began by anchoring a programme called Yuva Manch, before getting more programmes after Amritsar TV was started in 1975, followed by some more for Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). “In all, I was doing five shows a month, earning Rs. 50 for each, plus Rs. 400 from home. I had a bike and a room in the hostel—I had a great time.”

Over the next four decades, Dua would go on to become a familiar face on Indian television, with programmes such as Janvani, Chunav Chuanuti, and Newsline, among several others.

Today, Dua is involved in only one show, Jan Gan Man Ki Baat, a 10 minute current affairs programme that he does four times a week for the news website, The Wire. He hasn’t done a TV show in more than three years, and I ask him why. “I keep getting offers, but every time something happens at the last moment, and they go cold. I think ever since this government has come, I have been kept out. I am an untouchable.”

A troll or two

Dua shares a recent story about a leading television anchor approaching him with the idea of being an ombudsman for his show. “We had a meeting right here, at the IIC. I wasn’t too sure about sitting in judgement over my peers. But he was keen, and I was open to the idea. But after that one meeting, I never heard from him.”

Dua has often been critical of the government in Jan Gan Man Ki Baat, but it has never been without reason and evidence. “Initially I did get trolled a lot,” Dua admits. “But the audience soon realised that I don’t spare anyone. Now, save for one or two trolls, the response is overwhelmingly positive.”

How have other journalists reacted? “Many have asked me to be careful,” says Dua. But he is quick to add that he has no time for what passes for TV journalism these days, especially the prime time debates, which he dismisses as “mock Parliamentary cockfighting.”

Hindi news channels, for the most part, have turned into “low-cost reality entertainment television,” says Dua. “If a child falls into a well, it is news. But if you stay with that child non-stop for 10 hours, you have moved from news to reality entertainment television.”

For Dua, the media has a responsibility to voice people’s grievances. “Once you decide to articulate a popular rage which is suppressed, then even those who are intimidated by perceived power get the courage to speak up.” It strikes me that this is the best possible answer to why journalism must speak truth to power.


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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 11:22:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/my-faith-is-eclectic-and-so-is-india/article19284275.ece

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