In this episode, Shruti speaks with Barkha Dutt about her new book, “To Hell and Back: Humans of COVID.” They discuss the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, the failures of the Indian state, the stories of Indian migrant workers, the decline of cable news and much more. Dutt is an Indian television journalist, author and owner of the YouTube news channel Mojo Story. She is an opinion columnist with The Hindustan Times and The Washington Post. Her previous book is “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.”
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan. Today my guest is journalist Barkha Dutt, the author of the new book “To Hell And Back: Humans Of Covid.” Barkha is an award-winning journalist, the founder and editor of the digital news and content platform Mojo Story, and a columnist with The Washington Post.
We talked about her on-the-road coverage of COVID in India, statistical lives versus the human lives of COVID, the lockdown and the migrants, the overwhelmingly present and absent Indian state, the difference between covering a war and a pandemic, misinformation, the decline in Indian TV news and more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.
Hi, Barkha. Welcome to the show.
BARKHA DUTT: Hi, Shruti. It’s so nice to see you, and face-to-face.
Aggregation of Despair
RAJAGOPALAN: I know! This is really exciting for me. I read the book. I was dreading reading the book because I thought I will go through the entire journey again, and it was traumatic enough the first time. Every story clip that I have seen of yours on Mojo now—suddenly I remember those names, and people are coming back.
But there was something extraordinary I discovered by the end of it, which is, in my everyday life, I’m an economist. We deal with statistics, aggregate numbers, trends, When someone tells us a story, that’s an anecdote. That is not what we do. But there is something quite remarkable about stringing these stories together and reading it in this kind of form. What do you think that our numbers and aggregate data miss that the stories capture?
DUTT: That’s such a great question. When you said you were dreading reading the book—as an author, I was dreading writing it because it meant reliving so many painful moments, so much despair. And it was difficult to write. I was aware when I wrote it that this is not a populist book. I have chronicled two years of our collective lives at a time when people want to block these two years out.
As an author, that presents all kinds of challenges. However, I remember telling Chiki Sarkar, my editor and publisher, that, “Chiki, even if nobody reads this book, this book has to be written. And I have to write this book, as painful as it is for me.” The reason is exactly what you said, that we lived COVID in snatches. We lived it from crisis to crisis, from loss to loss, from hope to hope. It was lived day to day, moment to moment, hour to hour. And then now we want to pretend it didn’t happen.
I think my book comes from the belief that there will be a day when we will need this book. There will be a day when we will be ready as a people, as a country, as a society to step back and remember and look back and then look ahead. The one thing that united every single person I met—over two-plus years of reporting this pandemic—one thing that united them was not wanting to die or lose someone uncounted, unchronicled, untold.
As painful as it was, even if those people today want to block out the memory of what they have suffered, I know that they would want their father, mother, brother, sister, friend, uncle, domestic help—whatever your equation may be with somebody who lost something—that to be acknowledged in some way.
And also perspective, narrative—I had none of it in a day-to-day way as I traveled across India. To step back and see it all come together, to look for the common patterns, to look for things that teach us about individuals and about us as a nation, I think that’s the reason I wrote this.
The Failure of the Indian State
RAJAGOPALAN: For me, the other interesting thing when I was reading the book—we have the numbers, even though we don’t capture numbers well. We are undercounting deaths, which you’ve written about. There is underreporting of even specific things, like how many healthcare workers have been assaulted or how many of them died on the front lines.
One really lovely thing that I think the stories capture which the numbers don’t capture is the why. Saying that there was X million people who got COVID or Y million people died from COVID doesn’t tell us that they died out of helplessness, or they died because they were poor and that’s when COVID hit them, or they died because they were elderly, who are generally invisible to society, or they died because of the healthcare system.
Now, when you start putting these dots together, what gets unmasked is that the Indian state is failing us at every level. It’s failing us at a policy level, having enough hospitals, even failing us in terms of making bandobast [arrangements] or enough buses to take migrants back home. That is something I felt the numbers don’t capture that the stories capture. Is that a good way to think about the narrative, other than the collective grief and sorrow we’ve experienced?
DUTT: See, I think that numbers have a numbing effect. It doesn’t matter how many zeros you tag on to the lives lost, globally or in India. It doesn’t matter. And I don’t mean to slight anyone’s work here. When I say it doesn’t matter, I mean in terms of emotional triggers. Of course, it matters in that it’s invaluable research that epidemiologists globally have done on the actual death count. I just want to clarify that when I say it doesn’t matter, what I mean is how people respond.
You can tell people that India’s death toll was anywhere between 5 to 10 times higher than the official count—and, of course, that’s a staggering statistic. My book has relied heavily on the excellent work done by data scientists in this area. But when I say it doesn’t matter, I mean it in a framework of the emotional numbness that it induces. You can keep tagging on the millions, and because we are unable to cope right now with what it makes us feel, we actually look at these numbers and your eyes glaze over emotionally.
Therefore, the book is called “Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back” because it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the people. It’s not about all the people, but it’s about as many people whom I could give a face and name and a story to.
One good way to think about the nature of the Indian state, I would say, is this: That the state was either too present or too little present. And that was the paradox of its handling. I do want to caveat that by saying that, of course, I see states struggle all over the world. Even today, I see the American state in particular is struggling with an extremely callous anti-vax movement that is callous vis-à-vis not just its own people, but vis-à-vis the rest of the world, given vaccine inequity. I think what happened here was this trollish judgment of those who were trying to examine and ask the whys and the hows and the whats. That is a toxic response.
If, for example, states were more willing to say, “Yes, we struggled. Yes, we made mistakes. Yes, we learned from those mistakes”—and I saw the Indian state also learning from some of the mistakes—I think the public would’ve been receptive. And I think the public, in some ways, by the way, is still quite receptive. It sees the world struggle. It doesn’t judge the state in the way that we would imagine that people do.
To go back to the nature of the state’s response—too present or too little present—what do I mean by that? Too present in certainly the first wave when the national lockdown is imposed. 1.3 billion people are making it the world’s largest lockdown, are pushed into a lockdown at four hours’ notice in a televised national address by the prime minister. Nobody has an adverse response because by then the world is already using this mechanism.
What happens next is something I discover when I step out of my studio to go to the borders of the capital where I live. And I see men, women and children, their universes bagged into little sacks on top of their head, leaving on foot without food, water or money. I realize that something colossal is about to unfold. Of course, for the next three months, almost, following the migrant workers and their exodus becomes my entire life.
The mistake we did was to treat the lockdown as a curfew in the beginning. Instead of it being something that was designed to keep people safe and therefore allowing people to participate in it and lead it, we got the police to lead it. The police, which again, in the many paradoxes of India, were also frontline workers, also suffered colossally, but when weaponized against poor—the brutality of workers already struggling to get past borders of states without anything—just trying to get home, like you and I would, and then being beaten up by the police, sent back home.
There’s this image I can never lose from my head of Manoj, a rickshaw driver, sitting outside a major public hospital in Delhi, leaning against a police barricade, having been beaten by the police, and then dropped by the police at the gates of a hospital that will no longer take him in because the hospital is COVID only.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is Jai Prakash Narayan Lok Nayak Hospital. The one that’s named after him, that the irony of it is just almost too cruel.
DUTT: Staggering. Why has he been beaten? Because he has no income. He needs to buy vegetables. The vegetable retailer is too expensive. He’s trying to walk to the wholesale market so that he can buy vegetables for cheap. This is in violation of the curfew. In Tamil Nadu, we actually had a father and son thrashed to death in a custodial death for allegedly violating the curfew guidelines, as they were called. That is too much of the state.
When you needed the state, there was too little of it. When you needed, let’s say, bureaucrats at the borders directing migrant workers to night shelters. When you needed people outside the gates of public hospitals, instead of people running from hospital to hospital at a time when there was no public transport, the ambulances had run short—
RAJAGOPALAN: Opening an ambulance channel—16 months into the pandemic, we didn’t manage to achieve that.
DUTT: I took my father, who I lost to COVID, in an ambulance where the oxygen cylinder malfunctioned. It was not an ambulance. Till that time, this is a dimension of the story I hadn’t paid attention to, what was the infrastructural availability of the ambulances. But when I had to requisition an ambulance for my own father and there were no ambulances available, in the sense that I’d have to wait for one, I panicked, and I hired one from a private agency. And a ramshackle Maruti van arrived with no paramedics and no infrastructure except for one giant oxygen cylinder. And I had to load my father with his attendant onto the back seat, which was really like a thin little narrow strip on which we had to place him. And I was in the front seat.
It’s a different matter that—one of the reasons that I think we lost him is because of that oxygen malfunction between the house and the hospital, which was an hour’s journey. But as we were taking him, the traffic snarls—there was no green passage for the ambulances. I remember taking videos even at that time and tweeting them out furiously to the state government and the central government and saying, “We need a green passage for these ambulances. These police barricades are not helping. Why are they there? Who cares? Why do you need a police enforcement of this right now?”
Of course, my father’s oxygen levels plummeted dangerously, and he never made it back alive. We can talk about that later, but I’m saying I experienced this myself, the absence of a green passage. To go back to the nature of the state, we really needed the state at times, and the state wasn’t there. And we really didn’t need the overarching authority of the state at times, and then it was there. That is the paradox, I think, that was the most problematic during these two years.
What’s the Story?
RAJAGOPALAN: You talked about the migrant workers. Now, there are a few very interesting things. You are the person who made the migrant workers the story, right? You were the only person who went out there to report when everyone else was sitting in a studio. At one point, there were these jokes on Twitter that all the TV channels send their reporters wherever Barkha is. Other reporters are literally stalking you.
Now, when did you know that this was the story to follow? Because you are someone who has access to pretty much anyone you wish to interview. You could have spoken with anyone in the union government, state government, bureaucrats, healthcare professionals, experts, which is what everyone else was doing. When did you know that the migrant worker story was the big story in your mind?
Second, in one sense, it became a big story because Barkha Dutt reported the story. You are the person who made that the face of India’s first COVID wave. How do you think about that?
DUTT: I think I knew it by the second day after the lockdown. The first day, as I told you, the lockdown is imposed, I wake up in the morning and I step out. The media is an exempt essential service, so I’m able to use my press card and go out. And I go out and I see, as I said to you, this flood of men, women and children leaving the city. I see absolutely no attempt in the beginning to stop them. Like I said, there was nobody. I say this in the book, that it was the absent state on full display.
There was nobody at the borders. None. It’s later, when this became a completely unhandleable deluge, that you try to use the police, but in the first 72 hours, there’s nobody. I’m not sure what to make of it the first day. I take pictures; I interview a few people. I put those videos out. I go back the second day where now 24 hours have passed. We are in the 36th hour of this, and I see that there is just like an unstoppable exodus taking place from the capital.
I start interviewing the people, and they are factory workers. They walk really fast, by the way. I’m struggling to keep pace. I’m literally flip-flopping behind them, and they’re walking really fast. I ask them, “How many kilometers are you going to walk?” This man says 500. Somebody else said 300 and somebody else said 700 and some—I am gobsmacked. Then I start interviewing them with their consent.
I always say in Hindi, kya aap baat kar sakte hain? [Can we talk?] because consent is something that’ll come up again and again. It comes up later, especially when we’re shooting inside hospitals and how we tackle that. I always say, “Can we talk?” I never put a camera in anyone’s face. They all want to talk. One very angry man said to me, “Is this happening to us because we are poor? Am I walking because I’m poor? Would I be walking if I were a politician’s son?” I know in that instant that this humanitarian crisis unfolding before my eyes—and to my shock, I barely—not barely; I did not see any television channel when I was there.
RAJAGOPALAN: They were all two weeks behind you every time.
DUTT: Even more, actually. It was strange. Again, I know some of my colleagues are very upset when I say this. And I will, again, caveat to it by saying of course, all channels have the individual reporter somewhere who was the exception—sterling work by small-town local reporters, sterling work by photographers in digital platforms. But big media as represented by TV, that was missing. As channels were missing, they were doing expert interviews from inside their homes or inside their studios. And until this date, I have no idea why. Was it fear of COVID? I don’t know what it was. Laziness, it’s the way TV—
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not just that they were top experts. I remember looking at coverage where they’re showing Bollywood actors talk about how they’re making rotis and banana bread for the first—it’s a very elite bubble, right? The top 1%, the top 5%. That’s where everyone is, because they think work from home means we’re all now going to struggle with—
DUTT: We’re all in the same bubble. That’s your echo chamber reality. Anyway, I then knew that this was going to be the colossal parallel crisis to COVID. I also knew talking about the elitism of our audience and of me as well—I represent and come from the same class of relative privilege—that to get people to care was going to be difficult because people were already scared.
The English-speaking elite was already scared for themselves. Their economic activity, their professional lives had come to a standstill. Honestly, in a situation where it was every woman and man for themselves, how was I going to get my audience to care? Here is where I always say that no amount of preachiness or activism can substitute the power of storytelling.
In the end, whether it is making people care about social justice issues or making them care about politics, you need—when I say a good story, I don’t mean to be reductionist about anyone’s tragedy, but you need the craft. You need the craft or you need the consistency. Mostly you need both to get people to care about things that are not immediately connected to them. How do you get people to care?
RAJAGOPALAN: Thomas Schelling, who won the Nobel prize in economics, he wrote a lovely piece, which is part of his larger body of work, distinguishing a statistical life from a human life. I think what you did is saying that more workers are crossing state borders than happened during partition, which sounds like, “Oh, I should sit up and take notice.”
But it’s still different than Ranvir or Manoj and each person that—you’re constantly walking with them, you’re talking to them, you’re talking to their families, you cover the first end of this story. Then you actually travel to their hometown, then you talk to the grief stricken. I think what you did was, when everything else was about statistical lives, you made the story about human lives.
DUTT: That’s such an interesting distinction. I’ll tell you that something that really haunted me, and my hundredth day on the road in the first wave was in this village. I kept thinking of this image that I had seen in Aurangabad in Maharashtra of a roti, piece of bread, stale bread lying on the railway tracks. And there were these workers. The trains had just opened after, like, what?
RAJAGOPALAN: Two and a half months.
DUTT: Yes, like really long time, many weeks, but they hadn’t opened in some regular way. You had to still get to some sort of railway station centers to be able to get home. These men were walking to the closest railway station. It was still a couple of hundred kilometers to walk to get to a point where you could take a train home, they hoped. And they sleep at 4:00 in the morning in the shelter of the tracks because they think that commercial passenger trains are not plying, only special trains are, which is true.
RAJAGOPALAN: Which is true.
DUTT: They don’t count for the fact that goods trains—they’re carrying cargo and so on, supplies—are still plying. And a goods train runs them over in their sleep, and what’s left of them is this roti and this one slipper, a little bottle of medicine. No one cared to tell us who these people were. What were the names of these men who died in their sleep on railway tracks leaving a little scrap of bread behind?
I said, “I have to go to their village,” but their village was really far. It was in an Adivasi district of Madhya Pradesh, and I was somewhere else in the south of India by the end. I planned it such that on my 100th day on the road I could be there, but it was so difficult to get there that even when we reached the last motorable point, we had to walk many kilometers in. And then we were in this abjectly poor village.
I couldn’t send the footage back on that day. And I was so upset because we couldn’t actually get the report out on that day because there was no signal. I remember days and days of my days on the road spent under mobile towers, long mobile towers trying to get signals so I could send footage back. Logistics is half of journalism. It’s a very unglamorous thing to say, but logistics from the Kargil war to this date, for me, has been half of the journalism I’ve done, which people discount. Sorry, we’ve gone everywhere.
What I wanted to say was that it was about for me, then and in this book, getting my audience to know these people as people. You have to know them to care about them, and so it wasn’t going to help me if I was going to do dashboard, expert-driven reportage. I did plenty of that.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, you did.
DUTT: I did plenty of that. I’m not discounting the value of that, but that wasn’t going to make people care.
How To Craft a Big Story
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s the interesting thing I find about the migrant worker story, because I feel like you made it the story of the day. When do you know that a story, just as a journalist, that this deserves two days or three days, and this deserves 100 days of my life? There’s a huge opportunity cost for every time you’re traveling to a very far-flung tribal village. You’re not covering six ICU hospitals collapsing, some doctor dying, some politician making a faux pas.
At one point you had to abandon and go to Ladakh because there might be a warlike situation at the border. How do you know that this is what I need to chase and make this the big story of the pandemic?
DUTT: There are two ways. Sometimes you just instinctively know that this is the big story, and sometimes you know that this is not the big story right now but it needs to be. I think with the migrant workers, it was the second, that it was not the big story. I so much felt that it needed to be. One of the reasons that I felt this was, I think I had a very unique perspective that other journalists perhaps did not have because they did not—and I’m not trying to pay myself a compliment here; I’m just stating a fact that I was one person who traveled from the north to the south.
I was actually able to witness the magnitude of what was happening through one person. Whereas the way newsrooms are organized, it’s usually multiple inputs coming into a centralized place. So somebody knows what’s happening in UP, somebody knows what’s happening in Kerala and somebody knows what’s happening in Bihar. But there isn’t one person who knows that it’s actually happening in all of these states. For me, that scale was very, very staggering because I was living it.
I remember this particular day when the solicitor general of India went and told the Supreme Court, “There are no migrants on the road.” And I was on the road, and I was seeing these children, men, women. Sometimes 3:00 in the morning they would walk because it was too hot to walk in the day. Children crying because they didn’t have food, people passing out, just fainting.
And a nine-year-old child saying to me, when I said to him playfully, as he headed home to Uttar Pradesh from his family’s place of work in Bhiwandi in Maharashtra—I said to him, “Do you know what COVID is? Do you know what coronavirus is?” He said to me, smiling, “Yes, it means I don’t get food.” For me, it was like, “How can this be not the most important thing that’s happening in our country right now?”
It did not stop me from reporting on other things. I spent a lot of time in hospitals, a lot of times outside hospitals where a lot of the tragedies were unfolding. I also found that a lot of the big—I did go inside hospitals where we were permitted, where it was okay to do so—children’s ICUs, specially abled children, what was happening with medicines, what was happening with Remdesivir, why was Ivermectin being prescribed, why were steroids being prescribed. It’s not that I took my eye off the ball on all the medical and medical infrastructure stories, but I just felt that the humanitarian crisis was almost overshadowing what was happening with the pandemic.
Consistencies are a very important but sometimes dull part of journalism. We get bored too easily, the audience and the teller of the story. I just had to hold my nose even on days when I would think sometimes maybe people are really bored now seeing this. I said to myself, “Even if people are really bored, they’re going to have to. They can turn it on away, but I just have to tell the story.” I think it’s this kind of stubbornness.
I was living it. I could see. When I say living it, I mean I was living it from the north to the south. I was watching this. I think that unique perspective of being one person who was watching it—I think that made me very, very immersed in it.
What Is the Big Difference Between Indian States?
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to tap into this unique perspective of yours because we know on what margins different states differ—the CliffsNotes version of, the southern states are richer; they have better infrastructure. The northern states are poorer, but they’re also younger. We know the numbers, and we know that the migrant crisis was much worse in the northern states because that’s where the seasonal migrants are coming from.
DUTT: The number of workers there is much greater. They’re also coming from states that are poorer, less developed.
RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. You pointed the similarity out. You told us that this is unfolding everywhere. Over and over again there is some version of this story. What, to you, are the most stark differences between the states, because you covered a lot of them?
DUTT: Before the state, I’ll tell you, what I was fascinated by was how the power of one can make a difference to a crisis. A lot of times, all of our conversations get politicized into left versus right, BJP versus non-BJP. I want to take this conversation above that noise and point out to you that there were individual district magistrates, bureaucrats, who could make or break what was happening in terms of just small things.
I’ll tell you, whether it was the collector of Nandurbar in Maharashtra, who decided that in time for the second wave he would commission two oxygen plants, or in the first wave the DM in Dharwad in Karnataka, she was able to stop the exodus in her district. I asked her how she did it. She said that there were two things. “One, I immediately created a place to stay, and so I emptied out all the youth hostels that were under government control.” She said, “It wasn’t just about people needing a place to stay. They also needed the sense of being treated as people, especially at a time when they were separated from their families.”
She got clothes stitched for them by the Khadi Udyog. Immediately as she was placing them in these rooms, she would hand them these sets of clothes. It was obviously not a survival gesture because there was food and water and accommodation would have been enough. But in her mind, that gesture of dignity, of recognition that these are people, they want to have a bath, they want to wear a clean set of clothes. I don’t know, it’s that attention to little detail.
Surat, fantastic collector, when the trains started running, was at the railway station from morning to night, sending people off, supervising. I just want to say that governance—never has local been as important, never has hyper-local been as important, both in journalism and governance. I was able to get to these places, but I was also dependent in little Mufassil towns on what are called stringers in the journalist parlance, which are freelance local input providers who knew . . .
For example, I didn’t even know where the ghats were in the second wave when I went. If migrant workers were my focus in the first wave, the uncounted dead were my focus in the second wave. But I was so heavily dependent on local stringers to show me. I couldn’t reach some of these places; they were remote. Some places we could only get to either by walking or on backs of motorcycles.
There was a lot of dependence on these local networks, but let’s apply that to governance models. Just like I say that the state was too present or too little present, this pandemic tested how our structures of power were organized and arranged. It tested the Panchayati system. It tested the district civil bureaucracy. It tested the federal structure. I found that where district governance worked, there was a completely different outcome to what happened.
Secondly, yes, there was a greater efficiency in the southern states. This had nothing to do with BJP and Congress and the left. I will pick up two states where I saw this greater efficiency, Karnataka and Kerala. One was a BJP rural state, one was a left rural state, but there was a greater efficiency. There was a greater efficiency in use of data, in how centralized the data was, in being able to track movement, in being able to respond to it.
People like yourselves will be able to tell us why this was. But certainly, anecdotally, I observed this on the ground. And obviously where investment had already been made in the public health system, it was a lot easier to respond to the pandemic, as opposed to the north where primary healthcare centers were almost never used. They were locked in most places.
RAJAGOPALAN: They don’t have electricity in half of those.
DUTT: There was no electricity. There was a shortage of doctors. There was a shortage of everything at the peaks of the waves, whether it was testing kits and PPE kits in the first wave—and even testing facilities ran short at the peak of the second wave—oxygen, ambulances and beds, everything. In rural India, which was a great invisibilized story of the second wave, the only way you could tell what was happening was to go to these villages and say at the Pancha—again you were dependent completely on Panchayats.
You would go to the sarpanch and you would say, “What has happened in your village?” He or she would tell you that “Strangely, in the month of March and April, we have seen a spike in deaths.” And you would find that in little hamlets, 30 people had died of a fever. We don’t know if it was COVID, but 30 more people just died. That is how we were computing what was happening. We were never this dependent as we were in this pandemic on local systems of governance.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s absolutely right. To answer your question, there’s three margins on which there are differences. One is the southern states are richer. GDP per capita, we’ve seen over and over globally, makes such a big difference on the ability for individuals and for the state to handle the pandemic. The second is state capacity. The southern states have had more capacity historically, and they’ve built more capacity.
There are some very interesting papers. Some of this goes back to whether they were under the Zamindari system or Ryotwari system, whether they were under the British government directly or under one of the local Indian monarchs. That makes a difference to state capacity today, because history casts such a long shadow when it comes to state capacity building and things like that. The interesting thing about the local part that you mentioned . . . State capacity may take a long time to build, but state responsiveness can be injected relatively quickly by individuals who can take massive amount of initiative.
DUTT: Actually it reminded you how the bureaucracy had been imagined.
RAJAGOPALAN: Imagined. Yes.
DUTT: You saw that at play.
The Limitations of Public Health Advice
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Even Dharavi would’ve been a vastly different disaster had it not been contained so well. Various IS officers, people in the—
DUTT: I remember going to Dharavi in the beginning of the first wave and saying, “Oh my God, 8,000 toilets for 800,000 people?” Dharavi was such an interesting challenge to the fact—and I think the Indian state realized this in the second wave—that this copy-and-paste template from the rest of the world of stay at home . . . What does stay at home mean to people who stay in a room where eight people live in the same room? What does it mean?
900 million Indian households live in fewer than two rooms. I saw this with my own eyes, that we were pushing people indoors—which was okay; maybe we didn’t have the science. Then we now know it’s airborne. Maybe we didn’t know, and the world was saying, “Stay at home.” We were telling people stay at home, and we were using the police to enforce stay at home.
Frankly, I don’t judge the state on this because we didn’t know enough about the science. This was a time when we thought that the virus travels by surface and fomites, and people wearing gloves and they were not wearing masks. We didn’t realize that the outdoors is actually safer. Just think of these people who were hoarded into little spaces—and like I said, not enough bathrooms. And, of course, everything else that happens, spikes in domestic violence. There was such a ripple effect.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but the responsiveness is really important. I have a good Dharavi story for you. You were one of the Emergent Ventures COVID prize winners.
DUTT: Yes. Thank you for that. Yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, thank you. One of the very early Emergent Ventures grants that Mercatus gave it is to a company called Infinite Analytics. It’s an AI-based consumer research company. And Akash Bhatia and Puru Botla, who got the grant, they use large-scale aggregate mobility data to track very, very granular at the block level, anonymized movements.
They locked down Dharavi, and they created X number of zones in Dharavi, but they still saw movement within. And they said, “What’s going on?” Akash and Puru were able to show that you need to reconfigure the blocks such that each block has bathrooms, because people are crossing blocks to buy milk and go to the restroom. The wonderful thing, and why Dharavi got contained, is the IAS officers and the BMC actually listened to them.
They actually saw this analysis, and they said, “Oh, we need to reconfigure.” In a matter of days using this research, they reconfigured the blocks. I’m not saying that’s the only reason Dharavi’s outbreak got contained. But that is so important, that responsiveness to new information in a world where we’re all dealing with just massive uncertainty, and we just don’t know what the disease is and how it’s spread.
DUTT: That’s fascinating. I know that when I was there, the bathrooms were such a big challenge. That is where I actually say that even as it—like the mea culpa moment for me. These are not stories that I ever covered in my life. My book opens with the story of the village with the yellow water, and it’s one hour from Delhi—one hour from this emerging superpower that is my country.
We are telling everybody, at that time, “Please wash your hands; wash your hands every two hours.” And you go to this village where when people wash their hands, their skin breaks into a rash because the water is contaminated from effluents from the surrounding factories. They have to buy their drinking water, but even to wash their hands, they’re risking skin disease. And you’re telling them, “Wash your hands.” And the water—I saw it with my own eyes—it was dirty yellow water coming from the supply lines. I had never thought in my life to report this story. I didn’t even know about it.
RAJAGOPALAN: There are 100 more like it, that’s the other thing. If this were exceptional, you would have reported this story at some point. I think part of the reason these stories are also invisible is we see horrors like this.
DUTT: We’re numbed. We are also defensive, and rightly so, of the Western gaze, the Oriental gaze, being portrayed as the country with the poor kids on the street and the garbage piled up and the cows on the street.
RAJAGOPALAN: Paan stains everywhere.
DUTT: We have resisted a stereotypical self-image. I get that, and I’m as angry and irritated as the next person of the tropes that are reductionist and do not take the great complexity of my country that I love into account. But we have to be able to be comfortable among ourselves about the multiple realities. If the Orientalists do not tell the multiple realities of our country, we can’t stop telling the multiple realities of our country.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. In terms of multiple realities—there is one thing. The pandemic, unlike other things you’ve covered before, it’s gone on for a really long time. Right now we have completed more than two years. We are in the second anniversary of the lockdown this week, essentially. You’ve also covered riots; you’ve also covered wars. You’ve covered some of the biggest stories of my lifetime, right?
How was the pandemic different from covering a war? You’ve written a great book about covering the Kargil war. It came much after your reporting, almost 15 years after.
Between a War and a Pandemic
RAJAGOPALAN: There was a long gap, so it was almost like a retrospective of that. And for the first time in India, we lived through the war as civilians, who were not from army and navy families or any kind of military families. We felt the loss because you were telling us the story. How are these different? How is a war coverage different from a pandemic coverage?
DUTT: Let’s first talk about how it’s similar. If I had to bookend the decades I’ve spent in journalism, the one bookend would be Kargil and the other bookend would be COVID, and there would be two decades in between them from 1999 to 2020. Is that two decades?
DUTT: [laughs] My math is poor.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it’s two decades.
DUTT: It’s two decades, right? Okay. In those 20 years, some things haven’t changed, and here’s what’s not changed. I say this now as a journalist. When you report on a crisis which is far removed from large sections of your audience—and even COVID for the elite was—the second wave changed that, but in the first wave, it was still like, if you stayed at home, you felt you were relatively safe.
Your audience is not immediately impacted by what you’re reporting on. That was true for Kargil, and that was true for COVID. Obviously, there are some people in your audience who are impacted, military families in Kargil, and obviously whoever was impacted by COVID, medical health workers and people who caught COVID. But largely, your audience is unimpacted.
What is the first thing you need to do? You need to treat what you’re reporting on as—you need to make it about people. For me, Kargil was about the soldiers, the 20-something soldiers, three to four years younger than myself at that age; I was in my 20s. The men I was meeting—and they were only men then—the men I was meeting were 23, 24. I was under 27, somewhere there.
They were my age; they were my generation. They were boys who would be men with stories of broken engagements and fears and vulnerabilities. Yes, there was the multi-barrel rocket launchers and the Bofors guns, and the reclaiming of Tiger Hill. But for me, that reportage was, again, about who are these people? I focused on that.
And it was very similar in COVID, that—who are these people? Who are these health workers? Who is this man who went to bury his best friend at a burial ground in Chennai, and gets hit with bricks and stones, and has his car and ambulance trashed? Who are these two best friends, Hindu and Muslim women? Doctors who get stoned when they go and try and talk about the pandemic—who are these people? Talk about the people. And so it was similar in that way.
It was similar in the way that it was a logistical nightmare to report. In one, there was no live broadcasting. We still filmed on tape. I would walk kilometers to beg chopper pilots who were carrying coffins back, to also carry my tapes. There were no phones; there were no broadcast vans. In another, there was a curfew. There was no place to stay. There was no food. We were completely dependent on the kindness of strangers. At least, in the beginning—obviously, the second wave was different.
And logistics, because by the time I reported the COVID, I was not just—it was the birth of Mojo, my digital platform. We were a small team. We were four people in a Maruti car, but we were also reporting from the remotest places with no phone signals, no mechanisms to send footage back. That was a similarity, and that both were extremely dangerous assignments—three similarities.
Here’s where it becomes different. The war had a finite end. It may not have been in sight when I was at the war front, but it was not a long war. It was not like Yemen that went on for years.
RAJAGOPALAN: It was not an endless crisis and conflict.
DUTT: No, it was a war that ended. COVID showed no signs of ending. Even two years into it, it showed no signs of ending. It was the longest crisis—longest, possibly, life-threatening crisis that I have ever reported on. More than me, I remember the words of this nurse whom I met at Cama Hospital in Mumbai, whom I write about.
And she said to me—she was there when 26/11 happened. She was in the neonatal center, and her job was to save new mothers and newborn babies from Ajmal Kasab as he stormed their hospital. She said to me that, “That was really a frightening night, but this is tougher.” And I said, “Really, you are actually saying that this is tougher than 26/11? You had a terrorist with an AK-47 in your ward, where you had newborn babies.”
She said, “It’s tougher because there’s no end in sight.” I met her at the peak, I think, of the second wave, and she said, “There’s no end in sight.” Just the length, the absence of a definable adversary, the “invisible enemy,” as I think Trump called it, but correctly so, and constantly shifting knowledge. When I started my journey in 2020, we were told to not wear masks.
We were actually told that “The masks are in short supply, and we don’t think it helps much. So leave the masks for the healthcare workers.” And that made perfect sense to us, so we wore these plastic blue gloves wherever we went, which made no sense, we now know. I’m saying that’s how much the science changed. The science constantly changed. It changed on Remdesivir, it changed on Ivermectin, it changed on Hydroxychloroquine, it changed on steroids. The science kept changing. Those were the similarities and the differences.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. And also in one area, you see the Indian state almost at its highest level of prowess in terms of all the national resources, and you’ve got to win this war. And logistically, I think the armed forces are the best part of the Indian state, right?
DUTT: Yes, very much so.
RAJAGOPALAN: They really have their act together. Here is the other extreme, where you—just the Indian state, like you said, is either missing or it is brutal, and it’s simply not functioning the way it is supposed to function in most places. That, to me, was a very interesting thing. I recently read your Kargil book again to prep for the interview, and I thought every time you talk about the army—and you are critical, but you’re also pointing out all the things that the army is very good at doing, the everyday aspect of that.
DUTT: I have to confess that I’m a sentimentalist about the military, because I cut my teeth as a reporter covering it. But I have also seen, at close quarters, so many things that can be learned from it that are valid for nonmilitary people. I always say pluralism—this corroded phrase, “secularism.” I prefer pluralism. There is nobody who exemplifies it more than the military with its sarv dharm sthals, multireligious places of worship. The fact that the commanding officer, whether Hindu or Muslim, will perform either the arti or the namaz, if that is the religion or the festival of his troops, and so on.
There’s so many things to emulate. But also that they are able to de-escalate social situations; that they’re called to lead flag marches at times of communal conflagrations. But more than that, their efficiency in mobilizing, and that is one of the things I kept calling for. I was judged quite sternly by some people for it. I thought that the military . . .
Let’s go back to the migrant workers for a moment. After the initial “Let them leave, look the other way,” there was this attempt to stop them. And, of course, the attempt to stop them didn’t work. Then there was this slightly panicked attempt to, “Okay, let’s see what happens if we allow them to leave.” There was no planning for that. Instead of having, let’s say, barricades or crowd control and allow only 500 people at a time in single file, maybe use the military to do it, it was a free-for-all. And of course, there was almost a stampede at the bus stops and the railway stations.
Then they were stopped again from leaving. I, at that time, said that the military should be called. The second time I thought that the military should be called was in managing oxygen movement. In either case, I don’t know why it was not done, but I thought that the military would have been very, very good, especially at being able to resolve cross-state disputes.
The movement of oxygen tanks was getting impacted in intrastate battles and so on. The military has a lot of efficiencies to borrow from. But I also wanted to make a point about, when the Indian state works, it works really well. One of the things that I know that we are very good at compared to the rest of the world is at mass immunization programs.
DUTT: We have seen this now with the pace of our vaccine programs. We have seen this now with how our healthcare workers—our ASHA workers, our community health workers, our local bureaucrats—are able to reach the remotes places, crossing rivers, climbing mountains to vaccinate people. We’ve had a lot of experience with mass immunization. Our vaccination program faltered, not because we don’t know how to make it run, but because we simply didn’t purchase enough vaccines.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know.
DUTT: We started too late. When it started, we knew how to do it.
RAJAGOPALAN: It was very smooth.
DUTT: There are certain things where, with all our flaws, we have state capacity.
RAJAGOPALAN: Lant Pritchett calls India “the flailing state,” famously, where the head doesn’t know what the limbs are doing. In a sense, you have certain function. We do elections really well; we do immunization really well. There’s certain things we know how to do very well, but the everyday picking up garbage, making sure there’s a sewer line, making sure there’s water and pipe water, those things we don’t do well.
The Epidemic of Misinformation
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s one more thing to touch upon. In one of your previous responses, you said the science kept changing. One is, of course, the science is changing and the world is learning. The other is, there is massive amounts of misinformation. Now, as a researcher, I know how to cope with it, because I’m doing very little in real time. At best, it’s a column which is written in a couple of days’ deadline or something like that.
You are one person who’s doing this in real time, and anyone can go back. It’s not like it gets erased. We can just go back and watch the videos you did last week, where you told us something completely different, if that is the case.
RAJAGOPALAN: How do you know what is misinformation, what is correct information and what is changing information? Because that’s the nature of what’s happening in real time.
DUTT: Also, deliberate fake news. Let’s also factor that in, because we actually had TV channels at the height of the first wave using hashtags like #CoronaJihad vilifying an entire community.
RAJAGOPALAN: Tablighi Jamaat.
DUTT: Look, the Tablighi Jamaat congregation was wrong. I said it then, and I’ll say it again, but it was as wrong as any mass congregation at the time.
RAJAGOPALAN: It could happen anywhere. We had the Kumbh congregation just before the Delta wave. This can be any religious or nonreligious.
DUTT: It’s wrong. I’m saying it’s wrong irrespective of which religion it is. There were some active fake news around that. There were some active fake news, including suggestions that Muslim patients were spitting on doctors and so on. These hashtags were actively hate-mongering. In this information age of WhatsApp forward, one is hate and deliberate fake news. But the more complicated thing for people like us is, you want to be on top of what you’re reporting.
You don’t want to be very slow and the last, but you don’t want to say anything that’s inaccurate. I actually think that it’s okay. I always tell young journalists this: “It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Your audience will understand that. Just when you don’t know, please say you don’t know.” Let’s take Remdesivir. I literally do not understand till this date, because I’ve seen the Americans now go back on this.
Just when Indians had started accepting that it was a completely useless pursuit, we’re now seeing new studies out of the U.S. suggesting that, if brought in early enough, Remdesivir can help. I saw doctors from public health hospitals and private hospitals queue up for hours instead of treating patients, trying to get Remdesivir. I saw people sell—poor people sell whatever little gold or land they owned to try and get a Remdesivir injection. But do I know? I don’t know.
I can only tell you that Lancet said this, this study said this, the WHO said this, and then say, “I don’t know.” Today, I know that it’s not spread by surface, but I didn’t know at some point, so I have to say, “I don’t know.” What you can’t give in to is rumors.
The other thing you have to be really careful about, especially in a digital medium, is unverified videos. There are viral videos, and there’s a lot of pressure on us as a digital platform—or this has gone viral; should we not take it? I’m not conservative at all in any way, but I am conservative in my journalism. I’m actually okay to not have that viral video than to have it and say, “Oh, this was from some,” I don’t know, “some completely unrelated event.” We saw so much of this happening.
You have to be able to be late. You to be able to say, “I don’t know.” You have to be able to say you made a mistake, if you made a mistake. You can’t just pretend that you didn’t remove it hastily, and you have to acknowledge it. I don’t remember offhand, but I do remember maybe once I had to say, “I’m deleting this because I made a mistake. I’m sorry for that.” I don’t remember what the story was, but you have to be able to say it.
RAJAGOPALAN: You have a different responsibility, right? If you break a story and you follow a story, that’s the story. No one is willfully, other than very few people, pedaling misinformation or fake news. But inadvertently, do you feel the big responsibility? Do you worry about this at night, or is this just part of your everyday life, and you have to do what you have to do?
DUTT: Yes, it’s a great question. When I was younger, it used to suffocate me slightly that I was always the story. I know that there are people who accuse me of making myself the story, and I have to ignore noise from a lot of sides, from the left and the right, to be who I am. I’ve gotten a lot better at being that person. I think when I was younger, I was more hassled about what people were saying to me.
I actually thought that people were interested in a genuine argument, and I would actually engage and explain. Now I don’t do it. I don’t at all explain myself. Obviously, in an interview, if I’m asked a question, I answer it. I’ll tell you, the biggest realization to me that I would be made the story, irrespective, came to me in 26/11. When certainly all of television made a mistake, because we had no idea that the handlers of this attack on India were based out of Pakistan, were monitoring this in real time.
All channels, like hundreds of journalists, were reporting this in real time, because there was zero communication with the government. We had no idea what was happening. On the third day, many of us created our own deferred signal. We just decided, okay, we’ll go 20 minutes late on the live signal. After it was all over, we were told that Pakistanis were monitoring this in real time.
The self-regulation mechanism body for television was born out of those 2008 attacks, but I was held literally singularly responsible for that. I couldn’t understand it. I was like, there were literally 150 other people there, and I am answering in interview after interview what the media did wrong. Then I just realized that it doesn’t matter, for reasons that I do not fully understand.
There’s always going to be an inordinate focus on me, my work and me personally. I don’t know why it is. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m female; sometimes I think it’s because I don’t conform to somebody’s ideological assumption about me. The right has a lot of problems with me, but there are enough people on the left who dislike me.
I’m extremely, stubbornly libertarian. Extremely, stubbornly my own person. For the left, my sentimentalism about the military is a problem. The fact that I identify as an Indian is a problem. There’s some voices on the left who do not believe in the nation-state, but I do. I don’t identify myself as a global citizen. I’m a ferociously proud Indian. The right dislikes me for all the reasons that we know.
But I really believe that most of my country resides in neither of these spaces—is guided by common sense, is guided by a certain degree of sentimentalism. That is always where I have sought my audience, in that place which is able to make up its mind on an issue-by-issue basis, is not consumed by dogma. I think that people don’t understand this about Indians, that we are not essentially dogmatic. We’re not.
RAJAGOPALAN: We are also not one thing.
DUTT: We’re not one thing. Just like our country is many things, we as individuals are many things.
RAJAGOPALAN: Many things, yes. Sometimes it is the female identity which is going to be the dominant one. Sometimes it’s the linguistic “I’m a Tamilian” identity. Sometimes it’s our occupational identity which is dominant. We also saw this through COVID, over and over. I think, for me, the shock of it is, anytime you and I engage on Twitter—
DUTT: You get trolled?
RAJAGOPALAN: No, I don’t care about that, but the notifications explode. Then there will be the—oh, the 40 of them—
DUTT: The tropes.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’ll hide the view because it’ll say this is abusive content or whatever. Then you click on it—40. I’m like, “Oh, good God. Barkha wakes up every morning and this is what is—” I can’t even imagine what that is like, but on the other extreme, I think it’s also bizarre thing.
It’s almost of too much of a good thing is terrible for you. You’re held to a higher standard. If 150 other journalists do the same thing, we don’t expect more of them. But Barkha should have known that they should not be done in real time.
DUTT: It’s okay. I find that people have a proprietorial relationship with me, it’s a strange—if that’s the word. Whether I do something good or I do something less than good, there’s that sense of, everybody takes it very personally. I made an argument about period leave, and I had a legion of millennial, younger women just hating me for that week, and then I didn’t budge, and then they hated me some more.
It’s my life, and I’m used to it now. I just want to make the point that—I want to share a little story. I went to the Jaipur Lit Fest, and I was signing my books. There was this young woman who came to me, and she just came to get her book signed. Then she said, “Can I hug you?” I said, “Of course,” and I hugged her. She and I were both in tears. We have no idea why we were in tears.
I put that photograph out and I said, “We spend so much time talking about trolls, and, of course, all of these big tech platforms owe us an explanation for how they enable hate online. All of these things are true, but we don’t talk enough about the kindness of strangers. We don’t talk enough about the intimacy of strangers. We don’t talk enough about the fact that I could not have done this journey if people did not know me.”
People sent me food, people sent me shoes, people offered to give me their car when my car broke down. The right-wing trolls who troll me day in and day out, one of them messaged me saying, “I know I’m your troll, but do you need a car?” This woman who’s now a friend of mine in Mumbai, she was like, “Do you have clean clothes?” I said, “No.” She said, “Can I run a laundry for you?”
People weren’t allowed to meet each other, so I would leave it at the gate of her house, and she would run my laundry for me. People fed me. And even with trolls, we look at the comments below, but we don’t see how many likes there are, or how many retweets there are, or how many people. I’ve learned this over time, and I’ve learned this because I’ve had many years of training doing this.
I am able to focus actually, now, for the most part, on the good, and filter out the toxic. I engage with criticism where I respect that criticism. Otherwise, I do not engage with it, because you know what? In the public space, everybody’s going to have a view on you. Somebody is not going to like a photograph you shared. Somebody’s not going to like the tone of your voice. Somebody’s not going to like a question you asked. All that you can do is to do the best you can, and then leave it.
I really worry for journalists. One of the things that Twitter et cetera have done to us is this chasing of likes, is this fear of being disliked. We are not in a popularity pageant. We are not. Yes, your audience needs to connect with you. Sometimes you will make your audience uncomfortable, and they will hate you in the moment for it, but they will respect you eventually. This is what I believe.
The Rise and Decline of Cable News
RAJAGOPALAN: Speaking of this popularity contest, I want to talk to you a little bit about TV and cable news. Your career has basically been that TV cable news career, and then now you’ve moved on to digital. It’s also paralleled India’s liberalization journey. You started with Doordarshan when Doordarshan was just modernizing and bringing in these kinds of young voices.
Then, of course, you’ve had a very long, exceptional career with NDTV. Just like Indian liberalization and Indian economy, TV news was at its peak. And then it’s seen a decline, and really a fall from grace, where now it’s completely captured as a political popularity contest—and also captured by special interests, to be honest. What explains this rise and fall of TV cable news institutionally? What is going on that they’re all so uniformly terrible?
DUTT: We cannot understand the decline of TV news without understanding the revenue model of television. The fact is that, in India, television is mostly owned by big business houses. The fact also is that your economy is not liberalized enough to not need any government, when business houses need clearances and permissions, and so on. Business houses have a certain risk-averse attitude to power.
Business houses own media. This is not untrue for other places in the world either. I write for The Washington Post, where the owner is Jeff Bezos, but Bezos would not be able to ever tell the Post what it can publish or not publish. That goes back to cultural historicity around free speech. We have not managed to deepen some of these traditions.
We cannot understand television without locating it in the context of why our free speech commitment, even though it’s constitutional and fundamental, remains something that has not deepened over the years. On the contrary, it has weakened. Secondly, the revenue model is broken. Television costs too much to run. It is behemoth, large, elephant-size operations, with being completely dependent on advertisement and big capital investment.
Because of this, it has stopped spending money on reporting. There have been mass layoffs in many of these organizations, and it has not adapted itself enough to technology, and the nature of the market has changed. I don’t know anybody anymore (other than above a certain age group) that does, for example, appointment viewing anymore.
People just watch when they can. Mostly they watch on their phones and on their laptops. If you’re being consumed on your phone and your laptop, why would you invest in, let’s say, satellite vans? Why would you? I don’t know, but it costs so much money to run it. Revenue is broken. There’s a fragmentation of the market. And when I say, “Revenue is broken,” there’s no way to earn, except by having—then, the editorial policy is being directed by the big business that own it.
Some of this also has to do with our audiences. We have, or some parts of our audience have, accepted news as entertainment. Upending Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent,” which is the phrase used for mass media to manufacture dissent, which is what mass media does in India, where you have these dialectics of artificial confrontation, where you will position two extreme views against the other and make a tamasha [circus] out of it.
That tamasha is, TV is the new radio. Somebody is eating dinner, it’s running in the background. You’re seeing somebody shout at each other; you’ve got these big giant-sized captions because you have shrinking attention spans. It’s just become a stale medium, and that is why you see so many people in the last 10 years who have left television and have tried to create a new grammar for themselves in digital.
Of course, in digital, to save us—if TV was about the tyranny of first the state, because it was state-controlled, then the tyranny of the market—the digital medium suffers from the fear that we will be governed by the tyranny of the algorithm. To save us from that, I always say to audiences that complain nonstop about media, that if you are willing to spend the price of two Starbucks coffees per month to support the journalism you believe in, you will be keeping the journalism you believe in alive.
RAJAGOPALAN: Your point is very well-taken, and all these big business houses have millions of investments, licenses pending, so they do need to have this complicated relationship with the state. Otherwise, everything else that they do tanks, which is also not ideal. Is the problem a question of barriers to entry? Is it that we have very, very high licensing fees? In fact, the licensing fees for news channels is higher than for other channels. Is it the lack of a subscriber model, the large enough group of people?
DUTT: There’s too much control.
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s too much control.
DUTT: I now see that control is coming into the digital space. The government has understood that the new medium will be digital, and therefore, you have all of these new content guidelines that will make it very difficult for independent players to survive. Therefore, you will be back to the same business houses that back TV, backing digital. You’ll be back to the same compromised content, unless a subscriber model is able to take off. Therefore, I’m not absolving journalists of our responsibility, but I do also believe that, like we choose our politicians, we also choose our media.
RAJAGOPALAN: You are also an entrepreneur now. You run your own business. Mojo is fantastic, but it is a startup company, even though it’s become very, very prominent during COVID. What are the difficulties of running a business in India from a business perspective, whether media or nonmedia, and especially a digital media company?
DUTT: For me, the biggest difficulty is that I would like to create Mojo to be something other than my channel and my platform. I would like there to be more personalities. I would like there to be diverse personalities; everybody doesn’t have to be like me or think like me. I would like it to be a big-tent space, because I am anti-dogma. Yes, I may draw the line at certain things that I find hate speech or bigotry, but under that threshold, I would like to encourage diverse opinions. One challenge is, how does this become about other journalists and other kinds of programming? That’s the first challenge.
The second challenge from an entrepreneurial point of view is, I do not want to go the VC route. I feel like I will be trapped in the same thing that I tried to escape in television. People will have views on risk and risk appetite and profit and all the rest of it. I believe that I seek my future in subscription and sponsorship. I think that those are the most honest ways to produce content. But of course, sometimes people want to be very careful even about what they sponsor.
I think the challenge for me is to build a model. I think this model is true in large parts of the world now, where things that interest me nonjournalistically are going to have to pay for things that I love journalistically. Because I don’t think subscription by itself will pay for the journalism that we want to do. There are going to have to be other spaces, whether it’s production or master classes, events with a big revenue model.
RAJAGOPALAN: Some cross-subsidization model. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.
DUTT: I remember talking to somebody in Omidyar who told me about this Oscar-winning movie, “Spotlight,” and how it was produced by a company where the films subsidized the journalism. And they do cinema and entertainment to subsidize journalism. This is not a completely crazy idea that I have. I think that there are lots of things that interest me. I’m completely a popular culture person. I like public speaking. I like organizing and curating ground events. Hopefully, in the post-pandemic era, we can go back to that. There will have to be a cross-subsidized model. I don’t think anywhere news pays for itself.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process, and both for your columns versus the book versus other things that you write? You give talks and you speak at events and things like that.
DUTT: I don’t ever prepare for a talk or an event. I have never written a piece of word on a paper. I remember once interviewing Oprah Winfrey at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and I did this introduction to her, and she said, “Where’s the teleprompter?” I said, “I’ve never used a teleprompter in my life.” She said, “You’re lying,” indulgently. I said, “No, I just freeze if I have to read a prepared text. I don’t know how to do it,” and then in the course of the interview, she asked me again, “Where are your notes?” I said, “I don’t use notes because I find that otherwise, I’m constantly looking down instead of at the other person.”
That was the best compliment I received because she was like, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you’re interviewing me without notes and a teleprompter.” To answer your question, I don’t go in with notes. I don’t go in with a prepared script ever at talks or for interviews. Columns are more immediate. Therefore, they’re easier because they’re usually about something newsy, something that’s happened, and mostly about something I’ve reported myself. It’s fresh in my head.
I’ve done two books. I find the process of writing a book extremely difficult. I’m an anxious writer. I know that visual language is my first language, and, therefore, I always worry that I don’t write well enough. This book was very painful for me to write, because I think I hadn’t grieved for my father. I think I was haunted by guilt. I think I hadn’t grieved for everybody else’s loss.
It felt like I was part of this community of mourners, but none of us had mourned. And twice I called Chiki and I said, “I can’t do the book.” I missed a deadline. I was a month late with submitting the manuscript. I went away to London on a fellowship to Oxford to see if I could do it better there, and I couldn’t. I would just cry for no reason while writing the book with no immediate provocation.
These days, I find myself crying while discussing something. I was just saying tuberculosis with somebody the other day, and mid-sentence, I burst into tears. There’s obviously a lot going on with me. While the process of writing was very difficult, writing a book needs a lot more work. There’s a lot of reading I do; there’s a lot of cross-checking of facts that has to happen.
There’s a lot of rewriting I do, and I’m not a rewriter. I’m a very spontaneous person. There are almost no take twos in anything I do for video, but in the writing of this book, I rewrote. I needed to re-create something, I needed to bring it alive visually. It’s very difficult for me because I’m used to the visual just speaking for itself. I’m a broadcast person, but now I have to adapt that language and describe it. There’s a lot of rewriting. I feel that I’m a slow writer. The book is different in the way that I write it.
RAJAGOPALAN: Is there a process?
DUTT: No. Oh, no, nothing. There’s no process. I carry my laptop around. I get impatient with where I’m sitting. I sometimes find a sofa to lie on, sometimes I sit at a writing desk, sometimes I take into a café. Mostly, I don’t know if this happens to other writers, but it’s traumatic for me to write. I struggle.
RAJAGOPALAN: It happens to other writers. It’s very comforting to [chuckles] know that this is the case.
DUTT: I struggle.
RAJAGOPALAN: The book is very well-written, and it’s very vivid. The thing about the book, I think, that I was a little nervous about while reading it, but also which got me through to the other side, is how visually descriptive it is.
DUTT: I’m glad to hear that because that was a real challenge.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s almost like each time when you describe someone, I feel like I know them. And sometimes I do know them because I’ve seen them in one of the Mojo clips in the past, and I’m like, “Okay, wow.”
RAJAGOPALAN: I’ve been asking through the podcast—we finished 50-plus episodes, and all of it in the pandemic. My usual question is, what have you been binge-watching during the pandemic?
I’ve been stalking you during the pandemic. [chuckles] I know you’re not binge-watching anything. But I do want to ask you, since you’re a foodie and you post so many food things, what were some of the memorable meals during the pandemic, as you were traveling all over?
DUTT: The thing about food—and I know it sounds like a little bit elite to talk about food when we were reporting on people that didn’t have food, but that’s a dysfunctionality about our privilege that we have to accept. Food was a source of joy and solace for me at a very bleak time, especially because in the first wave, there was so little of it available.
I remember one of the best meals I had was in Kolhapur when a dhaba—the dhabas were closed on the national highways. I had no idea why we did that because—God knows. Anyway, we learned from that; we didn’t do it in the second wave. The dhabas weren’t officially allowed to be open. And we would go into these places, and we would beg them, khana de do [please, feed us]. They say, “You can’t be sitting here. The cops will come and get us.”
We would go and hide at the back of a dhaba and some little khet. And this one man, he cooked us some Kolhapuri dal and some naan. It was just the best food. I remembered that. I remember being in the Dharwad and having golgappas at some little redi [street vendor] and I was like, “Oh, my God.” Then, poha, and I mean, I don’t know. I would take photographs of all of it because it was such a source of joy for me.
It’s not just because I was a foodie, but because there was something reaffirming. There was something reaffirming about the rhythm of life, that you could still taste. I remember after I had COVID—and I got COVID. The day I cremated my father, I tested positive. And for 14 days, I could taste nothing. I would just eat and eat and eat. It was just a desperation to taste again.
There’s something about that food that was about the reaffirmation of life. In this book, I just want to finally say that little things gave me pleasure. I would buy a box of Nutties at a store that was open, and I would take it with me, little plate of chaat. A little plate of chole bhature, the food that people would pack in tiffins and send us from their homes that—“You haven’t had home-cooked food.”
To me, it represented that intrinsic—one of the things is that it’s been a bleak time, but it’s also been a time when I’ve seen and met some really kind and generous people. And even extremely poor people, when they could feed you, they fed you. They fed you and they fed you, and if you would offer them money, they’d be offended, with so much love and generosity.
I just want to say that “Humans of COVID,” as much as it is about our collective loss, it is also about our collective spirit. It is also about our collective resilience, our collective hope and the fact that we are intertwined and we are interconnected. And this is not my story; this is our story.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much for doing this.
DUTT: Thank you for having me.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is such a pleasure.
Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan.
In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Naushad Forbes about his new book, “The Struggle and the Promise: Restoring India's Potential.”