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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Book review: This Unquiet Land by Barkha Dutt

Towards the end of Barkha Dutt’s book, I came to this sentence about wealth in India: “The net worth of the billionaire community in the country…was enough to eliminate absolute poverty in India twice over."

As I read it (this is true), the doorbell rang. A good friend was there, straight from a wedding he had driven clients to at a vineyard near Nashik. He was almost speechless in wonder at what he had seen: 15 varieties of dessert, endless appetizers, a huge stage with criss-crossing laser beams, clumps of saffron liberally dumped into glasses of milk, unlimited wine and liquor, vast quantities of food, Bollywood star as emcee—all for about a thousand guests.

And this too: Drivers were not allowed entry with the guests. They had to go to a separate enclosure at the back.

“It must have cost at least a crore," he said. I’d have guessed more, but let that be. In wonder myself, I returned to Dutt’s lines, which had come to life in my friend’s words. Five pages later, Dutt writes in another context: “It could not be said that India was today a more equal society than [in 1950]." Indeed: What else does a separate entrance for drivers speak of?

Dutt structures her book around what she calls “fault lines" in India, wealth being one. Years of reporting from the front lines of these fault lines have opened her eyes to them in ways, she confesses, she never thought about in her youth. In fact, a recurring theme is Dutt’s reflection on how the black and white way in which she considered issues in college and her early reporting years has evolved to the more nuanced, more shaded perspective of adulthood and experience. Perhaps that happens to most of us, true. But with a journalist seen on TV screens across this country every day, it carries an extra resonance. You know it will affect not just the quality of her reporting, but how viewers react to her as well, and my feeling is, in an intriguingly inverse way. The more shaded Dutt thinks her journalism has become, the more she is seen in black and white.

Like this lesson from her Kargil war reporting that first made Dutt a household name. “To meet hundreds of young men at the battlefront and talk to them about the possibility of imminent death changed me and my beliefs fundamentally," she writes. “A soldier’s motivation and readiness to die came first from the need to uphold the honour of his paltan, his platoon…everything else came next." As a young jawan tells her: “I don’t think any soldier would want a war."

All this struck a powerful chord, for these are exactly the sentiments I heard from soldiers I spent time with on the Line of Control (LoC) in 2004. It did for me what it did for Dutt: “I realized how flawed were the assumptions we civilians make about nationalism and war."

The rich and famous aside, much of the book is also written around what Dutt hears and learns from the more ordinary guests on her various shows. From soldiers to a Dalit entrepreneur, victims of the 2002 Gujarat massacre to the son of Dadri’s Mohammad Akhlaq, who was murdered—Dutt has talked to them all. They offer sobering, thoughtful, heartfelt commentaries—often “softly" and “shyly"—that Dutt clearly sees hope in. Of Akhlaq’s son, for example, she writes: “His words contained within them both the tragedy and the promise of our country’s future."

And yet I know—not just from watching her shows, but from personal experience too—that these are not the only kind of guests Dutt has had. Once when I was on her show, another guest scoffed at the judicial process that led to Yakub Memon’s punishment. It was absolutely right to hang Memon, he shouted—no, he was hardly soft or shy—because: “If you have taken the right to live from me, I have the right to take the life from you!" This and more in the same vein brought him much appreciative applause from the studio audience (I got none, not that I’m complaining).

So what baffled me about Dutt’s book is the minimal presence in it of people who hold on to sentiments like these. Clearly, there are a large number of them in this country. Surely Dutt draws lessons from them too? What promise of our country’s future is contained in that guest’s words?

I’m also not sure why Dutt and her publisher wanted to get the book out so fast. Mohammad Akhlaq was murdered on 28 September. Just over a couple of months later, that tragedy—and the lessons from his son—find substantial mention in Dutt’s book. The rush occasionally shows. “Psuedo" and “a slightly stained tall glasses" are two errors, and the epilogue—largely about Dadri—seems tacked on just to stay topical. Why so in a book that’s been in the works for at least three years?

In the epilogue, Dutt writes with refreshing candour about growing up in Delhi. “To be a middle-class Indian" in those years before liberalization, she says, “meant you displayed a slight scorn for and embarrassment at any obvious display of money." She explains “how important education was to our lives and how we scorned conspicuous consumption."

Certainly, those days are long gone. Who feels such embarrassment any more? But both my friend’s Nashik experience and Barkha Dutt’s book suggest a fascinating question: Were we a better country with that scorn in place?

Dilip D’Souza writes the column A Matter Of Numbers for Mint.

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