Book review: Beyond the Headlineshttps://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/book-review-beyond-the-headlines/

Book review: Beyond the Headlines

The shrill self-belief which fuels nightly television talk shows can come over as hideous self-importance when extended across three-hundred pages.

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The candour, which is a refreshing hallmark of this book, could have been brought to bear on this storyline too.

Title: This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines

Author: Barkha Dutt

Publisher: Aleph

Pages: 336 pages

Price: Rs 599

News journalists rarely write good books. The drama and immediacy which gives urgency to their news reports doesn’t translate well to the printed page, read in the cold, distant aftermath of the stories recounted. Broadcast journalists face a particular challenge in turning to a more reflective medium. The shrill self-belief which fuels nightly television talk shows can come over as hideous self-importance when extended across three-hundred pages.

Barkha Dutt is a notable exception. This Unquiet Land is a considered, compassionate and engaging account of the wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, which continue to disfigure India. It is not simply reportage; from the opening pages, the reader is convinced that this reporter cares, that the fault lines she delineates are not explored simply out of journalistic zeal, but because she wants her country to confront its demons and to conquer them.

Gender is the fault line that gives Dutt greatest concern. She writes tellingly about the prevalence of sexual violence — in Delhi, amid riots in Gujarat — and injustices such as those suffered by the half-widows of Kashmir. Interwoven into the narrative, without being too intrusive, are episodes from the author’s own life: her admiration for her tough, trail-blazing journalist mother, Prabha Dutt, who died when her daughter was just 13; the childhood experience of abuse by a distant relative; imbibing feminism with a radical tinge as a student at St Stephen’s; extricating herself from an abusive relationship as a postgraduate; and the exhilaration, adventure, exhaustion, fear and occasionally head-in-hands despair that comes with front-line journalism.

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There is also an unmistakable anger; not a curdling, souring fury, but a pervasive sense that the country can do better — that more resolve needs to be shown in tackling corruption, caste and the profound inequalities of class. While the middle class is, on occasion, the collective hero of the story, such as when taking to the streets after the “Nirbhaya” rape and mutilation, at other times its cocooned lack of empathy and concern is seen as cause for national shame.

Dutt is more of a celebrity than many of those who appear on her programmes. Yet to judge by this book, she has not lost her humility. Some of the interviews she recalls most tellingly are not with VVIPs, but with those simply caught up in turmoil and tragedy. Often, it is the courage and character of those with no special rank or position which she finds most memorable. She commends the “sheer generosity of spirit” of Mohammad Sartaj, the air force technician whose father was killed by a lynch mob in Dadri and who responded with courage and grace rather than rancour.

In a particularly effective and sensitive chapter on Kashmir, she describes how “the horror of militancy on the one hand and the monumental mistakes and violations by the state on the other left many ordinary Kashmiri imprisoned between the battle lines”.

Not everyone, however, has been charmed by Dutt. India’s prime minister is clearly suspicious of her liberalism, and once made from the platform a wounding reference to her which clearly lingers. Dutt recognises the BJP leader as a smart politician and brilliant communicator, but has had next to no access. Indeed, she’s had more chance to get to know and understand Nawaz Sharif than Narendra Modi.

That distance sometimes shows. “Modi’s ambitions are personal not ideological”, she asserts — though surely his success comes from the combining of the two. “His political career may have had Hindutva roots”, she says, “but it was clear to me that if he needed to abandon these in the pursuit of a political legacy, he wouldn’t think twice.” I’m not convinced of that; self-aggrandising opportunism is common among successful politicians, but Modi’s political roots run deep and I can’t see him forsaking them.

This Unquiet Land offers no prescription for addressing India’s ills. That’s in some ways a relief; journalists who want to solve problems rather than report them are in the wrong profession. But it does mean there is a hand-wringing aspect to the book; it’s a series of chapters rather than an argument.

And then there’s the Niira Radia controversy — the biggest blot on Dutt’s reputation, and rather more than an “episodic blip”, as she describes it here. She gave the appearance in those leaked phone conversations of getting enmeshed in the stuff of party politics rather than seeking to understand and report it.

Of course she’s right to say that at times you flatter and indulge potential sources to build a relationship and extract information. But her steely defence of her actions doesn’t chime with her own comment at the time that she “should have known better”. The candour, which is a refreshing hallmark of this book, could have been brought to bear on this storyline too.