Book review: This Unquiet Land is a first-hand view of the ‘real’ India

The book by the Indian journalist Barkha Dutt is both a memoir and an eyewitness account of the significant events in India over the last two decades.

Indian journalist Barkha Dutt. Andrew Toth / Getty Images / AFP
Powered by automated translation

I read This Unquiet Land: Stories From India's Fault Lines wholly because of its author.

Barkha Dutt is one of India’s most-prolific journalists, and anyone who follows Indian news has an opinion on her and her politics. When such a figure writes a book that is in part a memoir and an eyewitness account of significant events in the country over the past two decades, it is bound to ruffle a few feathers.

Released by Aleph Book Company in December, it has almost 4,000 customer reviews and an average rating of 1.2 stars on Amazon India. Dutt dismisses this as a trolling effort by right-wingers who, she claims, have been urging people to give her book a one-star rating. This might be the case – only about 75 of the reviews are from verified purchasers.

So let me say this upfront: If you are looking for a book that minutely maps India’s growth trajectory before and after liberalisation, this is not the one for you. You’d be better served by VS Naipaul and Gurucharan Das.

Thankfully, Dutt doesn’t suffer from pretensions of academic illustriousness. She warns us, fairly early, that this is “not the definitive book about India. There can be no such thing”.

What it does, though, is unpack India in a way that most of the country’s educated middle class can relate to, with a narrative that develops as Dutt learns, unlearns and dissects her own conditioning and the intellectual upbringing that isolated her from the struggles of “real India” – the one that still grapples with fundamental questions related to class, caste and the woman’s place in the country’s social fabric.

Dutt drapes her experiences around India’s “fault lines”, as identified by her during the course of a 25-year career in television journalism.

She takes readers through her years as a rookie news reporter and gives a sense of what it takes to be a relentless reporter at a time when women were routinely kept away from meaty assignments.

The book does have its self-congratulatory moments but they’re easily forgiven, especially considering that, on the whole, Dutt manages to pull off a surprisingly unbiased retelling of incidents and issues she has dedicated her career to. We see glimpses of defiance at being appointed the de facto spokesperson for TV news reporters.

We also get to see angry defensiveness at the vitriolic criticism of her reporting of the Kargil in 1999, and alleged involvement in the Nira Radia tapes controversy in 2010.

As a leading journalist, Dutt has rubbed shoulders with everyone worth knowing in the corridors of power in India (and beyond), and many are given sauce in her book. The Gandhis, Yadavs, Narendra Modi, the Obamas, the Clintons, Nawaz Sharif, Kejriwal and a host of other political bigwigs are mentioned – but they are not what This Unquiet Land is about.

Dutt’s heroes are the “nobodies of India, the people who are on the outside looking in on the political tamasha (drama) in the country, with religion and caste distinctions forming the backdrop.

But more than anything, the book is about middle-class feminism. The questions that Dutt grapple with, that still make her uncomfortable after all these years, are a relief to anyone who has ever questioned their beliefs and felt like a fake for it.

She is aware of her class privilege and attempts to strip herself of it to be able to get to the heart of gendered politics in India.

This Unquiet Land is a book that gives us a feminist idol who admits to being a work in progress, and is as inclined towards introspection as she is fiercely opinionated.