By Karthik Shankar:
[su_row][su_column size=”1/2″]In This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, a pillar inscribed with the words Suko Buddhanam Uppado (Joyful is the birth of Buddha), originally an ode to the Buddha, is actually meant to memorialise Mahinda Rajapaksa, the recently ousted Sri Lankan President. That in a nutshell sums up Samanth Subramanian’s writings; that real stories are usually hidden behind a façade.
Deceptive appearances even apply to Samanth. The bespectacled 33-year-old resembles someone you would meet at an IIT alumni reunion. On the contrary he forged a different path. When his friends were busy applying for engineering courses, he opted for journalism as a placeholder in American colleges. A few journalism courses later at Penn State University, non-fiction writing had fully taken a hold of him.
Today Samanth’s articles have appeared in almost every esteemed publication from The New York Times, Boston Globe and Caravan to The Hindu, Mint, Newsweek, Foreign Policy and even the hallowed pages of The New Yorker. He is also the author of two books, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast and This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. Both his books broadly follow a classic travelogue format but Samanth eschews surface level observations and instead digs into something more complex. From Hyderabad’s fish cure to the merciless tactics of the LTTE, Samanth’s discerning eye for the sights, sounds and smells of a place are backed up with deeply astute observations of how culture and global politics intersect.
Samanth gravitates towards the art of long form narrative journalism, still a rarity in the Indian journalism circuit. While he has written profiles on personalities like Subramaniam Swamy and Samir Jain, Samanth belies any kind of snobbery in his subject topics. He balances writings on topical issues with detailed investigations on what might seem like the truly mundane – tracing real estate messages back to their source or trying to understand India’s obsession with Guinness World Records.
Youth Ki Awaaz interviewed Samanth about his insightful work, the recent election in Sri Lanka and our country’s recent political climate.
Q: You have profiled people and communities that are far removed from you, such as the Patuas or the Shehnai makers in Varanasi. How do you manage to get insights into such close-knit communities? Do tell us a little about the journalistic dos and don’ts that you keep in mind while writing on issues.
A: A certain kind of insight only comes with time: with time spent with people, with time spent reading or watching or travelling. In turn, this time requires patience, which brings me to my first journalistic don’t: Don’t get impatient. This is difficult to follow, particularly if you’re working on a book-length project that spans four years. But it’s crucial. Impatience leads to quick judgements and to hastily assembled conclusions. I keep telling myself – given that I’m a naturally impatient person – that I need more time; that I need to learn more. Fortunately, my innate curiosity propels me forward in that direction. If I wasn’t curious, I think, I would be satisfied too easily and quickly with the first layers of information that I find.
Q: Your book, This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War, used narrative journalism to tell some extremely unique stories about post-war Sri Lanka. How did you ensure that the chronicle moved beyond the ‘foreigner in a strange land’ archetype and towards deeper observances of ethnic communities stricken by tragedy?
A: Again, as above, time was a part of this. But we must not discount the value of the “foreigner in a strange land” archetype. A foreigner sees things afresh in a way that locals may not; he is liberated from ideologies and loyalties in ways that locals are not. So I didn’t want to lose these qualities altogether. But you’re right – I also didn’t want the story to revolve entirely around my foreignness in Sri Lanka. And overcoming that required weeks and weeks of straightforward, not-very-sexy reporting. In a way, I was lucky: the stories I learned were so compelling that they virtually told themselves. Really, I was a medium rather than a narrator; the stories flowed right through me and onto the page. There was a degree of judgement I had to exercise about how much I should remove myself from the narrative, and I think I spent most of my writing time wrestling with this problem. Removing myself entirely would have rendered the arc of the book too dull and impersonal; injecting myself too far into it would have made it self-cantered. Achieving a balance was key.
Q: Sirisena’s election as President of Sri Lanka has been received enthusiastically in India and has even been touted as a diplomatic coup for us. Do you see anything changing in India-Sri Lanka relations?
A: Not immediately. I was sceptical of how much things would change after Sirisena’s election, but the last couple of weeks have been promising. He has gone on record as saying that he will tilt his country’s foreign policy away from China and back towards India. But India-Sri Lanka relations over the last few years haven’t been bad; they’ve just been tepid compared to relations between China and Sri Lanka. A lot depends on how India approaches Sri Lanka, under Narendra Modi’s prime ministership. I feel Modi and the BJP are less invested in Sri Lanka as compared to the Congress, so it doesn’t (as yet) seem to figure very high on the government’s list of priorities.
Q: In his election campaign Sirisena promised to open an investigation into Sri Lanka’s war crimes. Do you think such a move would help or hurt reconciliation in a country that is so strongly divided across ethnic and religious lines?
A: A sincere investigation can never do anything but help reconciliation. The truth about the army’s war crimes is shrouded even from the average Sinhalese, who will no doubt be horrified to learn about some of the crimes that were perpetrated in his or her name. There are other modes of reconciliation as well, of course, and a war crimes probe cannot and should not happen in a vacuum. But I think it’s a key part of the effort to rebuild trust between the two communities.
Q: Modi’s rise to national prominence was backed not only by the masses but also the intelligentsia. Ironically, there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in Indian politics. What is your take on this?
A: I wouldn’t call it anti-intellectualism; Modi’s section of the political spectrum has intellectuals of its own, after all. Rather, I’d call it a strain of illiberal intellectualism – one in which a tolerance for unfamiliar ideas is diminished. (But perhaps, in that case, that isn’t intellectualism at all? It’s a good subject for a debate!) One effect that Modi has created is this: By apportioning to himself all the glory and credit for the so-called Gujarat model of development, he wants us to believe that one strong leader can push a state along its curve of progress, without any need for thinkers or counter-argument. That is never a happy state of affairs for a country.
Q: There have been some alarming moves by the Modi government to remove ‘hindrances’ in the way of development like the amendment of the Land Acquisition Bill and freezing the accounts of NGOs like Greenpeace. What do you make of this euphoria around ‘development’ today and somewhere is it creeping up on our democratic rights?
A: It’s pretty dispiriting. You bring up the example of NGOs, which is a good one. No one suggests that NGOs should not be regulated in India. They’re regulated everywhere, as they should be. But there’s a targeting of particular kinds of NGOs that is agenda-driven and anti-democratic. The word “development” is bandied around far too easily, and it is always taken to mean one kind of development. That’s dangerous, because it suggests that other concerns can be ignored in pursuit of this one-dimensional development.
Q: With all the hoopla over Obama’s visit, do you think India will pay a price in regional influence for orbiting towards the US when Chinese influence/intrusion in the South Asian region is more than palpable?
A: I don’t think so. I don’t see a drastic shift in India’s policy vis-a-vis the US or south Asia. Foreign policy is an animal of great inertia, and it doesn’t change course dramatically when a different government comes to power. India’s influence in south Asia is enormous, just by sheer size and demographics. That won’t change on account of improved relations with the US.
Q: Love Jihad, the ludicrous claims at the recent Indian Science Congress and the reshuffle of the Censor board; saffronisation seems to be seeping into our socio-political environment. What are some of the red flags you see?
A: “Seeping in” is an appropriate phrase. Saffronisation isn’t storming in, as many of us had feared when Modi won the election. But what’s happening is that his victory and the atmosphere around his prime ministership are empowering right-wing or intolerant elements. There’s a sense that you can get away with quite a lot along the lines you mentioned – that the atmosphere is right for it. The Science Congress really was the perfect example. All these so-called claims about ancient Vedic science have been floating about for years now. It can’t be a coincidence that they were aired in the very first Indian Science Congress after the BJP comes to power. I’m not saying there are top-down directives operating in each of these examples; rather, a lot of them are indeed bottom-up occurrences, in which people with outdated or chauvinist or intolerant views now feel free to impose them upon the rest of society.
Q: Coming to personalities in Indian politics, do you think someone like Kiran Bedi will inject transparency into government in Delhi or do you see her as yet another incorruptible person who gets tainted when they join politics?
A: It’s too early to say that she’ll be tainted by politics. She may surprise us with her governance. But fundamentally, the political machine is broken. The way parties are funded, the way they operate, the systems of incentives that exist within politics today – that’s where the problems lie.
Q: You wrote an extensive profile on Subramaniam Swamy for Caravan that both managed to demystify the man and obfuscate his motives even further. For someone with a lot of clout, why do you think Swamy wasn’t offered any post in Modi’s ministry? Or is he a man who enjoys wielding power while perennially perceived as an outsider?
A: I think Swamy would have loved a post in the cabinet, but I also think that his perception of his own influence is out of proportion with reality. He is a smaller player than he thinks he is. The BJP considers him a mildly useful asset and nothing more. And he is too much of a maverick for Modi, who prefers people who will zip their lips and obey him staunchly.[/su_column]
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Describe your work space.
It’s a large, large desk. There are a couple of stacks of books on either side of my laptop; right now, one of those stacks consists of three books by the late BG Verghese, the former Indian Express editor. There’s a desk lamp that I love, the quaint kind that come on when you yank on a chain. There’s the usual mess of chargers and earphones and USB cables. And there are four notebooks – half-filled, of varying sizes, with notes I’ve made for stories or taken down while reporting.
The view from your window…
A gulmohar tree, which right now has very few leaves and looks stark and frightened. In the summers, though, the tree is in full bloom, and it’s a magnificent sight. I leave the door to the balcony open sometimes, even through the heat, just to be able to look at it. Beyond it, unfortunately, is some ugly construction work happening on the building across the street.
What do you do when you hit the mythical writer’s block?
Read. When I’m writing, I have a couple of books next to me at all times – usually books that revel in language and ideas, even if they’re unconnected to what I’m working on. So if my own thoughts do dry up, I dip into these books and read a page or two. And immediately things begin to stir in my own mind.
And where does one find that mystical Muse?
Again, in other books, but also in the everyday world around me. It’s useful to look around and wonder at the processes underlying the so-called mundane things we see every day. The processes are inevitably fascinating and complex, begging to be chronicled or probed.
The one journalist you’re inspired by.
David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, who combines vast energy and knowledge, a prolific output, and a beautiful sense of language.
One topic/area that the Indian media needs to cover more.
The environment. We’re living in the middle of the greatest collective crisis that has ever faced humanity, and the impact of that crisis will be felt most strongly in countries like India. Yet our coverage of it is sparse and ill-informed.
How does one get to do what you do?
But there are plenty of people who do what I do! Journalists across the country do similar work, and it is easier now than ever before in India to become a journalist. There are more publications, there are schools that train you (admittedly with inconsistent results) to be a journalist, and there are platforms where writers and reporters can showcase their work online. To become a journalist, you simply get into journalism. There’s nothing mystical about it.
The one delicious fish recipe you discovered when you were in the process of writing Following Fish.
The Mangalore fish curry, which I describe in detail in my chapter written from Karnataka.
One ‘do’ and one ‘don’t’ for aspiring writers?
Read as much as you can. Never attempt to reach for another writer’s voice in place of your own.
One non-fiction book every young Indian should read.
“Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo.