In September last year, when we were living in lockdown, a friend suggested that I read Inside the Haveli by Rama Mehta, which earned her a Sahitya Akademi Award. This novel was about an educated girl named Geeta from Mumbai, who was married to a former prince in Udaipur. Her life after marriage revolved around the Haveli, a traditional townhouse. The 'haveli', in this case, is not just a house but a separate institution in itself, run by its own (mostly patriarchal) rules.
As journalists, we are supposed to look for parallels–to understand the news in perspective. This novel was interesting for me in that way because I could find similarities between life in lockdown, and the life of women in a Haveli. Like the Purdah system – I grew up seeing it - we had ‘mask’ rules during the lockdown. And though one is rooted in patriarchy and the other in a health emergency, I could find similarities.
After reading the book, I decided to write something about being “locked-down” in a Haveli, “courtyard” or something like that. Soon after that, I was introduced to the work of the late Urdu writer Khadija Mastoor. Her novel, Angan, translated by Daisy Rockwell as Women’s Courtyard, was the first Urdu novel I had read that was written by a woman on the politics of the day. I won’t say Mehta’s Inside the Haveli was apolitical. But, It was different because Inside the Haveli looked at women's issues from more of a sociological rather than political gaze than
Women’s Courtyard was set around the Partition and gave glimpses of the way politics filtered into the so-called women’s quarters. Among the many women that lived in the Haveli and were part of the family, the protagonist Aliya's life was the most affected by the political turmoil outside. I was struck by the rigid division of spaces between men and women. I then discussed this idea of spaces with a friend from a Bhumihar family in Bihar. She told me there was an unstated division in her house as well between “what men can do and what women can do.”
This was an intriguing phenomenon for me. So, I wrote a review essay discussing these spaces in a house. First time I wrote something like that.
Most literature around Partition is about the destruction caused by partition – how it ruined many lives. But most of these stories miss out on some of the most important - and human - aspects of the partition - How it affected families and relationships and gender roles. In the book, Mastoor wonderfully brings out these layers of pain through her character, Aliya. The nuanced portrayal of the protagonist's emotions, affections, and detachments reveals much about the politics of the day.
Later, I read a few more works by women authors – Usha Priyamwada’s Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein, Mannu Bhandari’s Mahabhoj, Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama, Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness –all of them deeply moved me in different and surprising ways.
These writings have left a deep impression on my journalism as well and have made me a more sensitive reporter. I know what kind of stories I want to work on, and how to tell them – even when reporting on politics, I always try to include elements of the personal life of my subjects, and how it shapes their story.
Mannu Bhandari’s seminal work Mahabhoj (1979), is one of the best works on the criminalisation of politics. Bhandari, in an interview, once said that the book was her creative response to the anti-Dalit massacre that happened in Belchhi. The story revolves around the murder of a so-called lower caste man Bishu, and how the incident is politically appropriated and made into an election issue.
Even though a reporter doesn’t have a lot of creative space in their writing, there should be flow and narrative. Metaphors and aphorisms are not strictly journalistic. But, in this digital age, a journalist produces work for more than one medium, so we have relatively more agency than before.
Another thing that struck me in Bhandari’s writing was simple yet elegant prose. When it comes to writing styles, I also like Nirmal Verma. Though I often get warnings not to read his work by my friends, he has remained an unavoidable corrupting influence. Verma’s candid prose forces every reader to confront their solitude. His work always makes me wonder how one can write about emotions, and things that could easily overwhelm and block the mind. But that’s the quality of a writer.
In the field, reporters often lose track when they get emotionally involved in a story. Their copies get filled with “adjectives” and “aphorism”, and in such a case editors have to work hard to save a copy. I often look at how Verma elegantly writes complex emotions, with utter simplicity. Still, it is tough to use it in journalistic writing, but I have tried. And it has even worked on many occasions.
In January 2021, I read Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi, and reviewed it. Recently, its translation Tomb of Sand was nominated for the International Booker Longlist. I reviewed both versions. Shree’s writing was unlike anyone I had read before. It was very innovative, she stressed upon Dhwani (sound) of a word and even invented new words to suit her mood. Her non-linear sentences even made the book a little tough to grasp sometimes.
But I could see what the book was trying to say. I re-read it again and also read the English translation. I was very persistent to read it through. Honestly, after that, I can say I am better equipped to read long-complex documents for a story.
Even though her complex, coded language is not of much use to a journalist, this book was an interesting addition to my reading list and gave me a new perspective on literary narratives.
It was the story of an 80-year-old Maa, the protagonist of the novel, who sank into depression after the death of her husband. The book tracks her struggles and joys as she starts her life again from the beginning. She even decides to go to Pakistan to meet her ex-husband. The story was a commentary on the politics of the day. Shree even compares her lead character Maa with Bilkis Bano of Shaheen Bagh.
This book gave me a better perspective about Shaheen Bagh and the revolutionary zeal among old women. While I was reviewing the book, I also realised how metaphors and aphorism are powerful tools to tell truth to the power and register your protest. When it's not possible to say things directly (and in today's times, it increasingly isn't ) you can use metaphors, poetry and aphorisms - even a joke - to say things that matter.
Journalistic writing has changed a lot in the last few years, especially for print journalists. Now, every writer has to pass a litmus test–to be digital-friendly–without compromising on quality. I started my career with a weekly newspaper. I was mostly struggling with the existing template of news writing that all media schools teach– follow five W, one H– answer six questions in a news report, which was considered basic for information gathering and news writing.
In the digital age when the news breaks every 10 seconds on all platforms at once, answering only these questions is not enough. Most organisations publish long-form digital pieces, but personally I feel that the role of “self” is huge here, because in such pieces, a reporter not only presents an analysis but also uses some kind of judgment – whether it is selecting sources, adding anecdotes.
So, I always try to understand myself, to make better judgments. As a young reporter coming from a lower middle class family, reading Sara Akash, a novella by late Hindi author Rajendra Yadav was my first encounter with my challenges in life. It is a story about a middle-class young man in college named Samar, who is full of idealism to do something big in life but stuck instead in trials and afflictions.
Insecure about his looks and not having a job, Samar gets married to a beautiful girl called Prabha only to have a misunderstanding on the wedding night itself. The jilted husband starts giving his new wife the silent treatment for six months. But in the meantime, he was constantly struggling to find a good job that could match his expectations in life. The book made me understand more clearly how patriarchy and middle-class insecurities affect both men and women, I also found Samar to be afraid of taking decisions in life.
His life was intriguingly relatable. I felt how questions and dilemmas of middle-class life are still the same. Like him, I was also faced with similar questions. Also we, “small townies” live two lives – one in a metro city – a life full of new challenges – where the boundaries of middle-class morality are blurred. And the other in our home towns, where questions related to marriage, and security stand like a spectre. Middle-class morality is in full throttle in your hometown. You are judged for having female friends, and not having a government job.
I have phone anxiety, I am hesitant to start conversations, I am reluctant to try new things – a lot like Samar. But reading Sara Akash has kind of helped me to chalk out these challenges. I am still reading books to help me find myself. And I daresay, the work is still on.