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A pillion-rider's view of India, with riots as the background

August 01, 2012 15:06 IST
Journalist-author Harish Nambiar talks about his book, Defragmenting India

Harish Nambiar's Defragmenting India looks at the country after the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots took place. Nambiar, a journalist with Reuters, narrates his journey cutting across the country from the point of view of a pillion-rider on an Enfield Bullet motorcyle.

In an interview with Abhishek Mande, Nambiar tells us just what prompted the journey and indeed the book.

They say every journey you take makes you wiser. How wise would you say your journey made you? What would you say were your five greatest (for the want of another word) 'learnings' from this journey?

Well, the only thing I learnt, and may have since forgotten, is how to sit steady on a motorcycle behind the rider. This question, though, will probably be more resonant for Rohan, for whom it was a definitive growing-up story. 

What really made you plan this trip? You do mention it was a spur-of-the-moment decision but would love to know what the thought behind this trip was.

I might come across as pretentious, if not a downright liar, if I told you that I never plan details of a trip. I keep my planning to the minimum and ready to take in as much as I can of the places, regions and people I meet. I fancy I am more of a traveller than a tourist. Very often, I do not even carry a camera.

This particular trip was a little odd in the sense that my companion was somebody who started out hero-worshipping me a few years earlier. He was a supreme biker, but most of his bike stunts were exhausted on the Sion-Trombay Road and the Central Avenue of Chembur in Mumbai. He had got me to promise him that someday I would accompany him on a cross-country biking trip. The trip itself happened several years after the promise was made to a 19-year old tyro. It so happened that I had leave, I had his offer and also the fact that I had never made a biking tour. His parents knew and trusted me and were happy to allow him to go on a long trip as long as I was with him.

What prompted you to write this book? Was writing it on your mind when you started out?

Writing has been on my mind for years. But in the tradition of the best dreamers I was slow-cooking a novel I had conceived in 1992, making excruciating progress with many false starts. I become cynical about journalism every few years and usually get over it by blowing up my provident fund account on travelling for a few months after leaving a job. This trip triggered something extremely deep in me because I had covered the worst riots in Mumbai early in my career as a reporter. That a casual road trip should have changed direction so dramatically ruled out the rest and recreation angle.

But that was true only of me, it was not so for my companion, Rohan. So I steadfastly stayed the course by keeping it casual and easy. But it allowed me to measure the pulse of a vast cast of characters from inside their living rooms, in restaurants, at their workplaces. When I returned, I started to write about it. Before I knew it, I had 10,000 words and soon enough, no job. I decided to stay at home and write this book out entirely. 

You also mention the reason why you refuse to not update the narrative plot to the time of publication. Please could you elaborate on this?

In my parrying with various publishers I was often asked to explain how my book was different. I was forced to make a case for a candid reportage of the state of the nation in the background of a historically shaming event. During the biking trip the riots set the framework, providing the theme of the various tenuous and sharply etched differences among Indians. It was also the time when the opening up of Indian economy had finished its first decade. Rural India was being urbanised at the speed of thought.

My entry into journalism had coincided with India's balance of payment crisis that triggered the opening up of the socialist economy. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait when I was working on my lab journal in the Times School of Journalism in Delhi, I reported the beginning of Advani's RathYatra from Chandni Chowk as a trainee reporter, Rajiv Gandhi was blown up in Sriperumbudur when I was on the Economic Times desk on my first job. All this history washed over me as a journalist and yet my work was mostly as a crack reporter of city crime and investigative stories.

I was too young and lowly in the profession to merit a book of memoirs. This travelling in the middle of a huge national crisis allowed me to present a picture of Indians convulsing from the shock waves of the riots in Gujarat. My private reading and writing ambition made me confident that I could braid up a fair, candid portrait of India of the time. There was a paucity of such countrywide treatment in book form. There was Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken and Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa's Out of God's Oven. Both were written with a writer's voice. Mine was a reporter's recording. That was my case for the book. And I wanted it to stay locked in that time, because it would be a valuable document only if it militated against and, at times, foresaw some of the later developments in the country. Airbrushing it with hindsight would kill its value as reportage.    

Could you also perhaps share with us the challenges you faced while getting this book published? You mention it took five years to find a publisher. What were the demands that were placed upon you?

One top publisher sent me their internal assessment of the manuscript that reeked of just-out-of college student's stupendous lit-crit pretentions after they had sat on the manuscript for more than a year. A passionate, point-by-point rebuttal of some of its sillier assessments and judgements sealed my fate there. Another top imprint suggested I include the Moplah rebellion in the book; I thought that was not appropriate because the route we took and the people we met did not allow for a point of departure to include that subject. That publisher too went mute on me thereafter. The most sensible editor response was that she did not want to do a road book at that point in time. These shenanigans ate up the years.

What took you so long to write the book? Did you face writer's blocks? How did you overcome them?

My profession has trained me to write under pressure.

But a motorcycle accident, which resulted in my younger brother's death and a severe head injury for me, was an unforeseen random variable. After my treatment I slipped into a medical condition called clinical depression. These totally unexpected personal tragedies interfered with the completion of the manuscript. I managed to complete it in 2005, nearly three years after I began. 

What sort of books do you read? What for instance would be your top five favourite reads ever?

I have a wide array of interests but nobody in my immediate background to dictate a taste in books, so my reading habits have been more guerrilla than genteel. Instead of the top five favourite reads I would choose the five titles on my shelf that I am yet to read: Claude Levi-Strauss's A World on the Wane, Teju Cole's Open City, David Mitchell's Number 9Dream, Sankar's Chowringhee and Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil.

What are you reading now?

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Gujarat Riots. What would you say has NOT changed in these 10 years not just in Gujarat but also in India?

Narendra Modi, for one, in Gujarat. And a constantly decentralising Indian polity that makes national decision-making a Herculean task for a coalition of the willing in New Delhi. 

You mention hundreds of anecdotes in the book. Which is the one you haven't mentioned and one you could perhaps share with us? I may be wrong but I felt a little cheated because as the narrative moved forward, the 'shadows of the Gujarat riots' that the back of your book mentions faded away.

There are many things that did not find their way into the book. One that I could share with you is our visit to dance maestro Guru Maguni Das at his modest, thatched house-cum-ashram where he trained young boys who move in as infants and stay till before puberty to train as Goti Pua dancers. When we were ushered in the children piled up the awards their guru had received in a heap in the middle of the floor as if dumping unwanted newspapers. Among the awards and citations were Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Award, Tulasi Award from Madhya Pradesh government.

It was amusing as well as vaguely exciting to see that the awards were treated as curious symbols only visitors tend to be impressed about.

And to answer the second part of your question, we travel away from Gujarat. But the issues raised by Gujarat continue to haunt us via the small spat in a Sambhalpur school that threatens to become communal or through the ghastly, mutilated statues in temples where people still worship. The route we take and the people we meet allow me to move back and forth and also expand the theme of Hindu-Muslim riots to other faultlines in Indian society.

The book also underlines that the Hindu-Muslim fight is the most dramatic and ugly of the very many conflicts in Indian society, but factors like urbanisation, education and economic and social empowering of new classes and sections of society are changing the power equations in old conflicts subtly and unnoticed. And they both feed and dissipate the pressures around old faultlines.

As a journalist, I cannot resist asking you this. What prevented you from abandoning the journey and head to reporting about the riots? Was it perhaps the scars of reporting about the Mumbai riots of 10 years earlier?

A reporter has to keep running, scared or scarred. And usually towards the news, not away from it.

But seriously, I was at the time with a financial portal, which was to collapse all around me within weeks of the end of our trip, and was contracted to carry only outsourced reports. So, reporting was not on the agenda. Plus, I was on a leisure trip with somebody who had a lot of expectations from the trip. His parents had entrusted him to me. And, nobody knew how the event would spiral out. But, despite being world-weary, I could not keep away from a subject that kept chasing me. The fact that my companion was not as affected helped me build in that distance, and write something more lasting than the here-and-now report.

What are you working on now?

A novel exploring the idea that the Internet seems to have established the victory of the individual over the collective and has made nearly every group and individual an equal and opposing minority, almost eliminating a clear, commanding majority.

Image: Harish Nambiar at a book promotion event for his Defragmenting India

Abhishek Mande