Birth of long-form journalism3 min read . Updated: 21 Feb 2012, 08:44 PM IST
Birth of long-form journalism
Birth of long-form journalism
It’s the most important book of 2012 that you are unlikely to read; or at least that’s what the statistics say. Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about a slum in Mumbai has won praise from India’s leading historian, Ramachandra Guha, as “Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative non-fiction I’ve read in 25 years." Shashi Tharoor, an MP and best-selling author, has sung similar praises. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others have also been effusive in praise. East or West, Katherine Boo’s India book has emerged as the best.
It’s not that an Indian writing long-form journalism has not had a major affect on policy. It’s just that it happened in the US. Atul Gawande, the best-selling author, wrote a piece in?The New Yorker on the rising cost of healthcare costs in the US and how to control them. President Barack Obama had his entire healthcare team read the piece and some of the outcomes were adopted in his landmark healthcare reform. Good public policy can be, and often is, informed by the laborious task of narrative non-fiction.
Today, in India, we are witnessing the birth of non-fiction. Meenal Baghel wrote Death in Mumbai about the Neeraj Grover murder. Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro explores the dance bars of Mumbai; the book has been praised in the pages of Vanity Fair and The Economist. Every Saturday, our paper puts out among the best pieces of narrative journalism in India. Last Saturday, readers were led into the workings and prospects of India’s female boxing team. Mint’s partner publication, The Wall Street Journal, recently ran an in-depth five-part series on the heinous murder of a nun in Chhattisgarh. The Caravan magazine is trying to fill the gap of long-form journalism in India and become The New Yorker of India; The New Yorker, along with the Atlantic, are institutions of long-form journalism in the US. As we grow as a democracy, we will see more long-form journalism—for there are many stories to tell. The story of 26/11 has yet to be told, while in comparison, 9/11 has been covered in more than a dozen major books. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have more than a dozen major books each on them. While a few very good books have been written on the Naxalite movement or the Kargil war, a seminal book remains. One book that I eagerly await is Amana Fontanella-Khan’s (full disclosure, she is a good friend) The Pink Sari Revolution, about a woman in Uttar Pradesh who leads a group of women clad, aptly enough, in pink saris to fight for justice and against corruption.
For businessmen, businesswomen, or policymakers, it’s important to make time and engage the ideas coming out of these books and articles. The Reserve Bank of India rightfully wants to increase the number of banked customers, but how to implement that in a lower socio-economic urban setting? It’s hard to imagine the characters of Boo’s book going to a bank; they neither have the time nor the resources. Much more plausible would be to see the bank come to them, either in the form of a UID card or a mobile phone. Katherine Boo’s book makes it utterly clear that no form of low-cost branches is likely to touch the urban poor.
It would be good to know what books move our Prime Minister or finance minister or chief ministers. Are they even reading? President Bill Clinton is said to have read a book a day. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is supposed to have been a voracious reader. Those in power have a responsibility to read and engage these books and articles with the populace. It’s impossible for them to be everywhere and think of everything. Books and stories help them go where they cannot.
Long-form journalism is not for the faint of heart. The most common thread I hear among friends is that they have a stack of New Yorkers awaiting them. It takes time and effort to read long-form journalism. Yet the rewards, as President Obama will tell you, are manifold.
Boo’s book may have been the most important non-fiction book of the last 25 years, but India has so many stories to tell that I doubt it’ll be the most important book of the next 25 years. Indian readers and policymakers need to take notice.
Prashant Agrawal, a principal at a management consultancy, writes on public policy issues in India and internationally.
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