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March 21, 2016

Barkha Dutt On Being A Headline Hunter

Text by Alpana Chowdhury

Eminent journalist Barkha Dutt talks about her non-fiction debut, This Unquiet Land, and her eventful journey writing it…

‘You are looking for a headline,’ said Kangana Ranaut at your book launch in Mumbai, when you interviewed her. Subconsciously, are you always looking for one?
“I suppose that is a fair charge! For the launch of my book, I had done a role reversal and several well-known personalities had donned the role of the interviewer, with me facing the questions, but I always tend to slip into the role of a reporter! Kangana was fantastically brave in that conversation. She opened up about how she had been abused and assaulted by a Bollywood insider whom she considered her mentor. I wouldn’t call it mere headline-chasing, as lifting the conspiracy of silence around sexual abuse and violence against women is hugely important — and I have done so through the book.”

Do you maintain a daily diary? How were you able to recall, in such precise detail, incidents of over two decades ago?
“I do not maintain a daily diary, but writing this book brought home how important it is to have one. However, I don’t throw away anything either. I had lots of old notes, scripts, journals and tapes that I revisited. Now I keep thinking, I should write down everything. It’s really important.”

How do you mentally switch off from the horrific incidents that you cover?
“The horrific incidents always stay with you — the deaths, the gore, the conflicts, the tragedies. But one has to try to block them out. I do so by reading a lot and by binge watching TV serials!”

Was writing this book a cathartic exercise, narrating, as you have, unpleasant incidents from your own life as well?
“It was difficult because I had to excavate memories and feelings I had buried deep inside. It was traumatic to relive them. Eventually, it was cathartic because the silence was broken — and I hope it will encourage other women as well.”

Book Review
“The postcards I collected from Kashmir were not of a sun-dappled Dal Lake…or walnuts laid out to dry on the gleaming thatched roofs of storybook cottages…. My collection was a chronicle of corpses and coffins,” relates Barkha Dutt, in her finely-balanced narrative of India’s fault lines. These fault lines are many  — the place of women, whether in a small village or in the country’s capital, continues to be dominated by medieval and even barbaric mindsets; religion that causes intense hatred between different groups; ‘secular’ politics that causes, as Hamid Dabholkar points out, the common citizen to be crushed between political parties that are either “programmatically communal” or “pragmatically communal”; terror that is routinely attacking different parts of the country; and Kashmir, that is a breeding ground of violence and the centre of a proxy war that has claimed countless lives. In a language that is crisp, evocative and precise, stark individual stories are placed against an informative, historical background. Dutt has written a disturbing account of a very unquiet land that is in grave danger of imploding, even as it appears to be blooming from the outside.

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