This is a meticulously researched and passionately argued book that makes a powerful impression but whose racy style and original use of words can leave old codgers like this reviewer gasping. Take Barkha Dutt’s fondness for the word ‘angst’ for instance. It sprang into vogue in my teenage years in England when Colin Wilson’s The Outsider took the adolescent world by storm. ‘Angst’ signified an unfocused nostalgic concern for the human condition or the state of the world in general. Émile Augier’s nostalgie de la boue, literally ‘mud nostalgia’ in French, conveyed a similar romanticised sense of yearning for the roots of creation and was also much bandied about among those of my peers who professed an interest beyond dates and dances.
That was 60 years ago. Recently I watched an Indian TV interview with a young Bollywood star (male) going on about another young Bollywood star (female) having “some angst” against him and not being frank about it. I realised that ‘angst’ has become an in-word with India’s smart but basically Hindi-speaking (or thinking) set. It seems to denote anger. Sometimes it’s used in these pages to mean only that; sometimes it suggests something slightly more like the meaning I knew. The author is an ingenious girl. I like her ‘global desi’ but am bewildered by ‘more fatal’. What can be deader than dead? I assume that some of her more choice terms— ‘foreground’ as a verb for instance—are derived from her trade. I guessed at the meaning of ‘conflicted’ as another verb and ‘engrained’. ‘Empathetic’ is a favourite that I googled for some modern connotation that might not have penetrated my doddering senses and read, ‘If you tell an empathetic person that your heart is broken, she might touch her own heart and gaze at you sadly through moist eyes.’
That would be an ideal reader reaction to this thundering expose of the evils of contemporary society through whose murky depths snakes the shining thread of the individual sacrifice and heroism of men and women the author extols. There are Bhanwari Devi, Mohammad Sartaj, the Kashmir orphanage buddies Aijaz and Shahnawaz who said shyly “We want to help the poor”, Sheelu Nishad who vowed to “turn into a bandit and seek revenge” if she didn’t get justice, and Sunitha Krishnan who demanded societal change. These individuals pitted against the system armed only with faith and courage command respect and admiration.
I am less impressed by strident denunciations of the supposedly uncaring or only superficially interested chatterati, especially in Delhi, which has no thought for the suffering multitude. This is a good selling line that, by implication, may outrage some readers and make others feel deliciously guilty. But it’s overdone and stating the obvious. Nor does it stand up to scrutiny in personal terms. Obliged to abandon his 50-room ‘palatial kothi’, Pillar Palace, in Sialkot, the author’s grandfather moved to Indian Punjab where he became finance minister. Her mother was a distinguished journalist on a national newspaper (India’s very first woman war correspondent, we are told) and her father a senior Air India executive posted in New York from where he brought back a Mercedes in that age of austerity. I can’t think of more enviable credentials, however much the car may have embarrassed Barkha and her sister. Her privileged background cannot have been irrelevant to the access she enjoyed to the high and mighty to which many references are made throughout the book.
While on the subject of image and perception, a word about the so-called Radia Tapes might not be amiss, but mainly because Dutt goes to some length to defend herself. She comments ingenuously on ‘the ludicrousness of the assumption that I had the clout to influence Cabinet formation— or any interest in it.’ The allegation, if I remember right, was that she was engaged as a go-between. Questions of clout and interest are irrelevant if she was paid to take on a job that seems to have consisted mainly of passing on messages. Not that this has any direct bearing on the themes of the book. But it may have some bearing on how readers view the author and value her statements and conclusions.
Six of the book’s seven chapters deal with some of the more explosive topics that make headlines today: the oppression of women, war, terrorism, religious fundamentalism and the place of political personalities. The seventh is an overall summary followed by a short epilogue that ends on a slightly banal note of piety. Introspecting isn’t Dutt’s strongest point. But she does favour us with some welcome observations. One is the candid acknowledgement that Manmohan Singh’s first Budget was a turning point in India’s evolution. ‘Without it, there would have been no India Shining, the rise and rise of Narendra Modi would probably not have occurred, nor would we have witnessed developments like India’s ambition to become the world’s newest nuclear superpower and its current status as the world’s fastest growing major economy.’
She also understands well that Modi’s ire against the Gandhis is as much personal as political: they represent the ‘entitlement, elitism and privilege’ he lacks and which he promises the multitude in rabble-rousing speeches against the status quo. But I wonder whether she is right in thinking people criticised his name-embroidered coat because they saw it as a sign of ‘gentrification’. It’s more likely they recognised it as the vulgar ostentation of someone who was tastelessly making up for earlier deprivation. After all, the gentry don’t go about flaunting their names on their clothes. That sort of showmanship is the mark of the arriviste.
Dutt’s Introduction gives two reasons for writing this book. She says she wanted to explore the causes and effects of the ‘cataclysmic change’ she reported. She also wanted to ‘write about’ the impact of television news on events. Both are valid objectives. But it’s no criticism of her vivid prose to reiterate she is more successful in presenting situations, invoking images and portraying characters than in analysing and assessing. I remember a survey that showed many English viewers were convinced pasta was a fruit after seeing a spoof TV programme that depicted spaghetti dangling from trees. Taking another example, Indira Gandhi claimed Punjab villagers called a particular rice “radio rice” because AIR had broadcast its virtues. Dutt doesn’t offer anything comparable. The focus of This Unquiet Land is on performance and performer, not audience. The author is an ace reporter and her name is printed on the dust cover in much bigger type than the book’s title. This is Barkha Dutt of The Buck Stops Here and We the People speaking. A sober in-depth examination of cause and effect would not have made such gripping reading.
Even so, from time to time Dutt does throw in a dollop of statistics or a chunk from some ponderous official report or profound thesis to provide the heavy ballast that any ‘serious’ work feels it should have. This may be understandable in India’s intellectual climate but the recollections of a colourful writer who has been everywhere, done everything and knows everybody need no other justification. It’s a treat to read them as the diary of a reporter whose job, as Graham Greene put it, ‘is to expose and record’. I am tempted to quote further from The Quiet American: ‘Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers.’
Merging the two roles can distort the picture. Leader- writers must offer solutions; a reporter’s job ends with depicting the situation as this book does so evocatively. Also, a media that can be both avaricious and obsequious and thrives on patronage like all other institutions in this unquiet land need not be excluded from the ‘myriad villains’ Dutt’s fault lines have spawned.
(Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor)