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THIS UNQUIET LAND

— BOOK WORM

In 'This Unquiet Land', Barkha Dutt whom I looked up to for fearless reporting, begins on an intensely personal note describing childhood molestation that left her emotionally scarred and then moves on to life as a journalist and the invaluable knowledge her experiences lent on political, military, economic and cultural complexities. Dutt has been a witness to some of the most important struggles of our time, from Kashmir to Kargil, and shares an honest narration of what happened when she was sent to some of the most dangerous places in the world.

 

Some chapters made me numb, others made me reflect. It's the latter in 'The Cost Of War' where she reminisces, 'We were huddled together in the safety of a tiny underground bunker, high in the Himalayas. In a space not larger than a double bed, eight of us—soldiers and journalists… The silence of the night was broken by the intermittent thunder of the Bofors gun and the sharp snap of the multi-barrel rocket launcher… 'Run, Run, Run, Now, Now, Now, Run' shouted out an anxious voice behind us, and so we did, with bodies bent over, our hands forming a useless protective cover over our heads, our cameras shaking…' What she wrote next left an indelible impression as she 'humanised the narrative': 'In my coverage of Kargil, what I was really trying to understand was the complex relationship between valour and vulnerability in times of war. These young men—boys-who-would-be men really—were among the bravest people I would ever meet.' Describing what we had experienced through newspaper and television coverage which she admits could not show how brutal it could be at times, she reflects, 'To meet hundreds of young men at the battlefront and talk to them about the possibility of imminent death changed me—and my beliefs—fundamentally. A soldier's motivation and readiness to die came first from the need to uphold the honour of his paltan, his platoon… everything else came next.'

 

The next chapter made me numb with disbelief. In 'Terror In Our Time' she narrates the brutality witnessed while reporting on terrorism. 'Sometimes a walk in the park, an evening out with your children—or even just the simple act of crossing the road—could place you in the line of lethal attack. Syed Raheem discovered that in Hyderabad. When I first met him, he casually took out his left eye'' and held it up for me to see on the palm of his hand. Just like that. Startled, and unable to look at the hollow, purplish red socket that was left bare for millions to see on live television. i reached out and tried to cover the raw flesh he had left exposed. 'Please don't do this Raheem Bhai' I implored. We couldn't even look at his damaged eye—he had to live with it.' The numbness and admiration for Dutt who had faced brutal situations and stayed put grew as I read ''In The Name Of God''. 'Charred and bloodied beyond recognition, the body showed signs of a final struggle—mouth open and one hand outstretched in an unanswered plea for help or maybe mercy. The head lolled sideways on the tarred road and the legs were brutally parted. For the man or men who had done this, murder was not enough. Rape was the preamble… the truth, in this instance, was too graphic to be telecast.' Barkha recalls the difficulties faced. 'According to an archaic press council advisory, naming religious groups during a conflagration of the kind we were witness to was to be avoided. But to omit mentioning the community under siege… would have been sanitising the truth.' This was India through the eyes and experiences of a journalist investigating the fault lines that have consumed India over decades i.e. caste, religion and terrorism.

 

Dutt is quick to point out in ''A Chronicle Of Kashmir'' that 'orphaned dolls, bloodstained schools bags, a toddler''s pink lace dress were testimonials to lives cut short… Children and women, not defined as combatants by any code of war, had been at the epicentre of the Kaluchak attacks… yet there was no outcry in the global media, no marches of solidarity, no moments of silence and no mass protests as there would be several years later for the Peshawar school massacre…' She goes on to narrate 'The year was 2000… the sight of 36 bodies, al Sikh men, draped in white sheets and spread across a village courtyard splattered with bloodstains and littered with broken shoes chilled every sense. This was a meticulously plotted massacre designer to draw President Clinton's attention and internationalise the Kashmir problem.’ The book moves on to political dynasties and other unforeseen sticky situations. 'News began to spread that Sharif had called Singh a 'dehati aurat'. The controversy was started by Hamid Mir… I was both furious and taken aback… Social media had just picked up the story. Sensing trouble, because I've seen how even a misplaced comma can mean a full stop in Indo-Pak talks, I called officials in both the foreign ministry and the prime minister's office and recounted in detail what had transpired.'

 

What ''This Unquiet Land'' does is showcase a journalist's perspective. 'Our reflex action formed over the years—hear bomb go off, drop everything, pick up camera, run, report, run back. We knew there was an inherent risk to our lives… we were dedicated journalists or danger junkies or both.' It does not make for peaceful bedtime reading, admittedly, but read it if only to debate about the future of journalism. I made sure I bought the book as soon as it was on the shelves and attended her seminar in Jaipur Literature Festival. And my last thoughts as I closed and placed it in my bookshelf was that Barkha Dutt has done a remarkable job by bringing to light stories that deserve attention… stories that humanise the narrative… something she clearly feels strongly about. Salut Barkha Dutt — few authors have put themselves so squarely in the centre of the century's great conflicts, and even fewer can describe what they saw as well as you have done.
 

THIS UNQUIET LAND
 
09-FEBRUARY-2016
 
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