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Barkha Dutt behind the fault lines

In "The Place of Women", the journalist in Ms Dutt takes a backseat and the woman in her gets behind the wheel

Shivam Saini 

Stories from India's Fault Lines
Barkha Dutt

324 pages; Rs 599

Making sense of India, with its vastly diverse socio-political landscape, is no different from solving a jigsaw puzzle with ill-fitting pieces. In her debut book, Barkha Dutt, one of the most well-known faces in Indian journalism, has attempted to put together those pieces - This Unquiet Land is a brave book.

In 324 pages, divided into seven chapters, Ms Dutt walks the reader through her reporting experiences over the past 20 years in an attempt to trace what she calls "India's fault lines". Along the way, she weaves in some context - historical and personal - into her observations on gender, terror, Kashmir, war, dynastic politics, class and caste. Much of what Ms Dutt has written about falls within the realm of issues that are deeply divisive, so the author has taken due care to back her analysis and commentary with years of reportage.

She even throws in a scoop or two, which saves the book from becoming a mere rehash of her reportage. It was while reporting from the front line on the Indian side during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan that Ms Dutt, then in her 20s, first gained recognition as a television journalist (and even inspired a Bollywood movie starring Preity Zinta). In 2012, Brajesh Mishra, who had been then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's principal secretary and national security advisor, made a revelation to Ms Dutt that finds exclusive mention in the book: that India had not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons or crossing the Line of Control (LoC) during the Kargil war.

Another, more recent, scoop is a "secret" hour-long meeting in November 2014 between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, at the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu. The "under-the-radar encounter", which, according to Ms Dutt, was facilitated by steel magnate Sajjan Jindal in his hotel room, "paved the way for [Mr] Modi to openly reach out to Nawaz Sharif two months later through a phone call that was positioned as an innocuous good-luck call for the World Cup."

It is, however, in the first chapter that her personal voice is at its strongest. In "The Place of Women", the journalist in Ms Dutt takes a backseat and the woman in her gets behind the wheel. Her confession about her earliest understanding of the role gender plays in Indian society is as honest as it is relatable.

Charged with youthful feminism, her younger self wondered about gender-specific societal norms with a "certitude that left no room for the slightest self-doubt". Why a woman, for instance, was expected to take her husband's name; or why girls were assumed to be fond of Barbie dolls while boys were given violent video games to play with - the things that bothered her barely crossed the minds of millions of Indian women who were fighting more severe battles in a different socio-economic world. The first real blow to her "simplistic certitudes" came when she found herself reporting on the gang rape of a Dalit woman by a group of so-called upper-class men in a remote Rajasthan village in 1992.

Equally horrifying is an account of her own sexual abuse as a 10-year-old by a "much-older, family figure", an episode that left her "often wary, even scared, of sexual relations". She also reveals an incident in which she returned home with a "purplish blue mass" on her cheek after her boyfriend in college "sexually forced himself" on her.

This Unquiet Land offers more than just the author's observations about the country's inherent complexities; it also gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the personality of the 44-year-old journalist who is often described as India's Christiane Amanpour, the CNN television host who is widely known for reporting on most major crises since the Gulf War. Ms Dutt's characteristic questioning tone runs throughout the book - only, it's much softer, yet forthright, in portions that concern her own life.

The narrative is also packed with sights, smells and sounds, at times riveting enough to keep you hooked even as you read about subjects that have been covered to death. The breakfast of egg and toast Ms Dutt shared with soldiers in a bunker during the Kargil war; or the moment when she took off a strand of beads hung around her neck and gave it to soldiers ready to go into war; or how she cradled a wounded photojournalist in her arms as she sat on a crowded street after a terrorist attack in Srinagar - although such deeply personal experiences in the course of reporting may never make it to the newspapers, they sometimes end up becoming the most potent images that last in a reporter's memory.

A book such as this one also presents an opportunity for a journalist to take a closer - and deeper - look at issues that were once required to be reported under deadline pressure, but Ms Dutt has gone a step further. Her clarifications on some of the controversies that have marked her journalistic career are too hard to miss. In her 10-page memoir-like "introduction", Ms Dutt devotes considerable space to defending the alleged taped conversation between her and corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, and countering allegations that her use of an iridium phone during the Kargil war betrayed the position of Indian soldiers to Pakistan.

"If I have one regret about those hurtful few weeks," she writes about the aftermath of the Radia controversy, "it's only that I spent too much energy explaining myself; I should have let my work speak for me instead." Ahem, this book could really do without more such explanation.

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First Published: Tue, December 29 2015. 21:15 IST