Q. What was the biggest break in your career?
A. It is difficult for me to put my finger on any one reason or person. I think I see my biggest break scattered in the following three points. My personal circumstances back at home were the strongest reason. There was a lot of opposition back at home about me taking up journalism as a profession. During the initial years, forget any kind of support or encouragement, the conditions were hostile. My parents never wanted me enter journalism because it involves odd working hours, lots of travel, interaction with a lots of males and visits to places likes courts, police stations, etc. All this is does not fits in their (and in general Indian society’s) idea of a “good Indian girl.” So there was stiff opposition from all sides.
I had fight a war inside my home to just get myself enrolled in a journalism school. I have always fought my biggest wars inside my home and comparatively, the outer world seems much easier to deal with. I was 18 when I got myself enrolled in a journalism school. From the very first day I knew that I was stuck in a “perform or perish” situation. There was no option but to work very very hard.
Very soon I joined a local radio station and later started working in the local editions of national English dailies being published from my native city Bhopal. Of course, executing each of the above steps lead to a new war at home but I managed to swim through this.
During all my journalism education, I did around five internships, with a stint at the Hindustan Times being the longest. I wrote talks for radio and got some bylines in newspapers, even an eight-column city edition front page lead as an intern!
And I came first in my graduation exams as well. I had perform, otherwise there was that threat of immediately being married off. And I was scared of getting married. I wanted to become a reporter, stand on my own feet, earn my own money and I wanted to write. And marriage (in the Indian context) could have ended all my dreams before I could even see and identify those dreams properly. So I think my personal circumstances and my background was so much against me that I had no choice but to stand by myself, in order to protect myself.
So many times when people see my work as an act of bravery, I want to go out and tell them that behind this story is a girl who is, in a way, also trying to protect herself through her work. The voice that each of my story raises is not a strength shield only for the survivors it talks about, it is a strength shield for me too.
The second important decision was to switch from a English-language newspaper (Hindustan Times) to a Hindi-language magazine (Tehelka Hindi). English media has better prospects in terms of opportunities and money, so this move was considered suicidal by many peers. And I had never written longform in Hind before so it was a new challenge. But Tehelka Hindi was the best move of my career. I got to travel a lot and groom myself in strong field reporting. Tehelka Hindi was my training ground. And being the small struggling resource starved Hindi-language magazine team that it was, that work-space trained me to work like a one-person army. From pitching the idea to researching to lining up sources to arranging the travel to doing to story and then filing copies. One has to do all on one’s own, and that too on unbelievable shoe string budgets. The training at Tehelka Hindi was so hard that I did not feel a major jerk while switching to freelance reporting.
And the third important factor was meeting Nisha Susan. The idea of the book that I am working on now [about rape in India] actually germinated at her home in Delhi. I have nicknamed her “my magician.” She encouraged me do this book. I worked with her during the whole of 2014 when she was editing “Yahoo Originals.” She is a great editor, a wonderful human being and I learn a lot from her during every story that we do together.
Q. How do you balance your life, when much of your work delves into the dark side of humanity?
Honestly, my work has deeply impacted my personal life. Doing stories and then listening to tapes containing very dark interviews from victims who have lived through different kinds of violence while filing copies... I have to listen to the interviews tapes I make during my reportage again and again while writing and it’s painful. Sometimes I feel I like I do not recognize the person I was five years ago.
Ground reporting on the issues of social justice is does a kind of metamorphosis to you as a human being. You appear happy to the outer world but you when you are alone at your desk sifting through your reporting material, you know that you are not the same person you were before you started working on this story.
My work has affected my mental health. I increasingly feel misfit and I think I have lost that capacity to get up happily in mornings. There is a stress and I feel generally feel more depressed. I think now I am mutant of my own old self. I do not make any attempt to guard myself from the harm that the content of my stories do to me. Because it’s impossible.
Reporting, especially longform magazine reporting, is so involving and requires so much of your blood-sweat-and-soul that it becomes a part of you. After a point, the stories themselves give you light and heal you. Looking back, I think that my work has made me very vulnerable as a human being, which is good as well as bad at times.
Q. The 2012 rape in Delhi was a wake-up call in the U.S. Many of us did not know how horrific the violence against women was, and is, in India. Did you write about it? Does it, or some other case, haunt you?
A. I was in the middle of a investigation on juvenile rights when the 16 December case happened. So I didn’t write on it then. But I did a cover story titled “The Forgotten Rape Stories” for Tehelka to mark the first anniversary of the crime. Of course, not only 16 December but every rape case that I have covered haunts me. Sometimes I hear the voices of the survivors I have spoken to in my dreams. I remember the eyes of each one of them. And of those of us who have died, I remember the voices of their parents. I also have very vivid memories of the mothers of all victims I have reported on, alive or dead. I think these voices and images will not leave me till I die.
Q. How did you approach the traffickers who gave you so much detail, like Silvester, in “The Missing Girls of Lakhimpur”?
“The Missing Girls of Lakhimpur” was reported over the course of one year. I was following a police raid on a placement agency in Delhi that was apparently supplying trafficked minor girls when I met a human trafficker from Lakhimpur. I somehow got a chance to interview this trafficker in detail and I got many important leads from him. Then I took several months to build a network of sources, do research and plan the right modus operandi for the investigation. I managed to get people from the same villages I had to report on to become my sources. And that helped in reaching the traffickers and making them speak. Plus I had prepared a questionnaire and done thorough homework. But the network of extremely local sources really helped.
Q. What role do you see your stories playing in India? “Where Do the Missing Children of Delhi Go?” was submitted to the High Court of Delhi, and the court then ordered the police to investigate every case of a missing child for links to trafficking. Perhaps you’re also helping create an expectation of higher standards in government and law enforcement?
Yes, even the “The Missing Girls of Lakhimpur” was submitted in the Guwahati high court with public interest litigation. The process of change is slow but my stories make strong noise. And if a story is widely read or shared, then other organizations also start following up and you see more reports/opinions/analysis on the issue, which leads to building pressure at a larger level. The biggest challenge is to bring the issues of child rights and gender violence to the center stage first.
Q. “How Bhopal and I Betrayed Our Own” seems landmark. What prompted you to write it?
Bhopal is very special to me. There was time a when I thought that just like Immanuel Kant, I will never leave my city. But I had to migrate to Delhi for work. And I still have not been able to bring myself out of that depression that leaving Bhopal drilled in me. I have a deep sense of loss, and this has made very sensitive towards the issue of migration. I miss Bhopal and my home to my bones. Writing about Bhopal without being personal is nearly impossible for me. I think the piece is a result of the kind of “right” I feel on Bhopal … the kind of right that comes from deep love. And the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is a wound that will probably haunt me forever. It makes me love my city more so that I can dissolve a bit of the poison by my love. So many tragedies haunt me day and night; do you already think that I am living reservoir of tragedies?
Q. How often do you have to deal with fear for yourself?
Reporting is difficult in India (it is difficult everywhere but difficult in India at multiple levels). Firstly because if difficult to find places that publish in-depth longform ground reports and are willing to invest in ground reporting. Investment in reporting and space is meager when we come to regional and vernacular-language publications. So the first war is to get money, time and space for ground reports. Strangely, this has been one of biggest fears.
As far as stories are concerned, I have risked my life several times. Especially whenever I went undercover to do my human trafficking investigations, also while doing my stories on juvenile rights issues. The difference is that now with experience I am more prepared while doing my stories. Risk and homework are always inversely proportional. So I do my homework more exhaustively now and am better prepared, and this lowers the risk.
But India is a difficult country and after a point when you are out there, your safety depends on a lot of factors which are not in your control. My attempt is to always try and minimize the risk and go prepared. But eventually, every story is a act of love!