Publish with us

Follow Penguin

Follow Penguinsters

Follow Hind Pocket Books

 From the Writer’s Desk ft. Rahul Pandita

by Avleen Kaur


To write books that have political blood and bones, in a country like ours, is a brave job that requires hard work. And here’s someone who’s trying to do it right by talking about important issues through deep rooted investigative journalism. We sat down with the incredible Rahul Pandita and discussed both his books, Our Moon Has Blood Clots and Hello, Bastar; the different processes that went behind writing a memoir and an investigative book, and what inspires him to write. 


What prompted you to write Hello, Bastar and what are you trying to say through it?


Hello, Bastar is a labour of many, many years of travel through central and eastern India, in what are widely known as left-wing, extremist-affected districts of India. Most of these travels happened at a time when the editors and intellectuals in Delhi and other bigger cities had very little idea about the movement and how large its future could be. Nobody anticipated how it would consume us in many ways in the following years until our former Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh called it the country’s biggest internal security threat.  

This book is basically about how a handful of young men and women believed in a certain idea of revolution and how they created the modern Naxal movement from the jungles of Bastar in the 1980s. Hello, Bastar is mostly meant for a non-academic reader, for someone who is a student of India and really wants to know what is happening in this part of the country.  


While your previous book, Our Moon Has Blood Clots was a memoir that rose out of personal and community experience, Hello, Bastar is more investigative in nature, made out of reportage and interviews. How different were both the processes? And was the latter more comfortable considering your journalistic background? 


I think Hello, Bastar was a relatively easier book to write because it was largely a part of what I do as a journalist. So, writing this did not feel as hard as the previous book which is part memoir-part reportage of the exodus and torture that happened to a minority community in the Kashmir Valley. That book was more difficult to write because of the personal history involved. And as my editor, Meru might recall that there were times when I had to wait through patches of darkness because of which the book became extremely difficult to write. But during those patches, Meru did handhold me quite a few times during the writing process for which I remain grateful to her.  


Both the books talk about conflicts. Is that something that particularly intrigues you?  


Well, I am a conflict writer. Early on in my career, when I came to Delhi, I made a pact with myself. I vowed that I will not report on things based out of New Delhi because most times when you care about an incident or event, you have a preconceived notion about it. And most times when you actually investigate on the ground level, you are surprised to realize that your preconceived notions about most things were absolutely false. So, the reportage part of Our Moon Has Blood Clots or the entirety of Hello, Bastar has been built out of investigative journeys made through the length and breadth of the country.  


Talking about preconceived notions, there must be a lot of things you would’ve learnt during Hello, Bastar. Was there one thing that particularly shocked you or was a wild revelation? 


Whenever I get a chance to interact with young people, I tell them, ‘I’ve learnt nothing in school or college. Whatever I have learnt of life, I have learnt from Bastar, really.’ I spent weeks and weeks embedded with the Maoist guerillas and Adivasis in the back of beyond and learnt years in days. So, every journey, every day has been replete with some learning. And many of those learnings have left me shocked, surprised and sometimes also thankful that I could travel to these parts and learn so much not only about these people but about life in general. 


And was it difficult reaching out to a community you don’t belong to? Were you apprehensive? Were they apprehensive in sharing their life and story with you?  


So again, I think this is a part of a larger problem which Indian journalism suffers from. Where journalists are just paradropped at some place because of a particular incident and they spend a couple of days there, piggybacking on the previous work of stringers or local resource persons and later on claim to understand everything about that area. In the past, I have typically called it ‘clean-bedsheet journalism’ where you leave for a small town in the morning and make sure that you come back to the small hotel by the evening. But that’s not how things work, at least in Bastar.  

You have to spend a lot of time in Bastar to understand its reality. When you’re travelling in the village during the day, you might come across an ordinary Adivasi at the roadside tea shop. Later, you find out that he is a Naxal Guerilla. But that is not something you will know if you just have tea there and proceed back to your station. Conflict zones are like snake pits, you don’t know who is who until you familiarize yourself to the place. 

Also, it takes a lot of time for people to open up about their story. There were times when we were embedded with Maoist groups of men and women, where young women especially would really shy away and not talk at all. But after spending some days with them and talking to them, telling them you mean well, that you’re there to know their story and make them comfortable – they open up. And that again, is unfortunately not possible when you’re there for a day or two.  

Once an author wrote that he spent a lot of time in Bastar but didn’t meet a single Naxal there. I remember joking about it and commenting that Naxals are not like Coca-Cola or Haldiram Bhujia. If you go inside villages, the penetration of Haldiram Bhujia is immense. But that’s not how Naxals are to be found. You have to spend a lot of time there before they let you in. 


Does the fear of backlash or controversy of writing about sensitive subjects govern your writing in some way? 


I think both my books with Penguin India prove the fact that I really don’t care about labels. In the past, I have been called a specialist of this and that and I refute those claims completely. I am just a student of India. Even my twitter bio says that. I came to journalism because I had jigyaasa, the intellectual curiosity about the things I saw around me and I wanted to explore their reality. So, my modus operandi is simple. If I’m intrigued about something and want to seek answers, I seek them for myself first before seeking them on behalf of anyone else. And that has pretty much guided my reporting from anywhere in India. So, I’m not really into what is fashionable to say and what isn’t. I say what I see and I try to write passionately about it.  


Do you have a particular target audience in mind when you write a book? Do you think Our Moon Has Blood Clots reached the right audience, considering the current political climate of the country? 


I think I am glad that Our Moon Has Blood Clots came out when our country’s politics was slightly simpler than this. My understanding of writing is very simple. I am a firm believer of the fact that your writing should be accessible to the last man down. So, there are many people who write to me saying that we have very scant understanding of English but they were able to read my book and I consider that my strength. I also think Indian journalists often miss out on the element of storytelling. So, when I write my books, I consider them an extension of my journalism. What I really want to do is to give the feel, colour and sound of the place and people I am talking about and that comes only when you have a basic understanding of storytelling. So I think these two parameters are personally very important to me.  


Politics shape every individual, especially a writer. And you, quite directly, write about overtly political issues. Considering that pen is mightier than the sword and books have the power to shape individuals, do you feel a heavy responsibility while writing?  


Yes, there’s a responsibility about what you’re writing.  

But again, like I said, you should not worry about labels. What you see, you see to the best of your ability. We’ve just come to this terrible and ugly situation where everything is reduced to the binary of left and right. Everyone has this pressing need to put everyone in a basket. I would not like to be in any basket. I hate this basket system. Personally, I give a lot of leeway to people. Most things around our universe are not black and white. They are shades of grey. There is a subtle nuance about everything. Who are we at the end of the day? We are the sum total of our experiences. Our politics is also shaped by what we have gone through as individuals. So, you should always keep that in mind before you accuse someone of being an urban Naxal or a closet Sanghi or any other such labels.  


Lastly, do you think there is a possibility of an endeavor where Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims could come together to share their respective points of view regarding the 1990s in the shape of a book or an art piece together?  


That’s an ideal situation. But for that to happen, the Kashmiri society from both sides has to meet somewhere. Unfortunately, we are not there right now. To begin with, the idea of reconciliation has to come from the majority in many ways. There has to be an acknowledgement about what happened in the 1990s. To the best of my knowledge, there is very little collective acknowledgement. In a private space, what a Kashmiri Pandit says to a Kashmiri Muslim doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. What you say collectively as a debate matters, which will then find expression in writing, art and theatre. I think some work here and there gets done. My friend, M.K. Raina is an eminent theatre personality and he tries to perform initiatives like these. There are plays in which both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have participated. And you will find a microcosm of this in things such as weddings sometimes. There’ll be a Kashmiri Pandit wedding and a Kashmiri Muslim singer will be performing there and everyone will be nostalgic about olden times. But these events are far and few and come from a personal space. But in terms of society at a larger level, these efforts are largely missing.  






If you’re intrigued to read Rahul Pandita’s works, you can get your copy of Our Moon Has Blood Clots and Hello, Bastar at your nearest bookstore or through Amazon.  




A journalist’s janata journal

Vir Sanghvi’s has been an interesting life – one that took him to Oxford, movie and political journalism, television and magazines – and he depicts it with the silky polish his readers expect of him. In A Rude Life, he turns his dispassionate observer’s gaze on himself, and in taut prose tells us about all that he’s experienced, and nothing more for he’s still a private man.

He unhurriedly recounts memories from his childhood and college years, moving on to give us an understanding of how he wrote his biggest stories, while giving us an insider’s view into the politics, glamour and journalism of that time

Here’s a glimpse into his book.



A rude life FC
A Rude Life || Vir Sanghvi

As Advani had predicted, the BJP did well but not as well as Janata. It got 85 seats while Janata got 143. (The Congress got 197, far more than any other party but around a hundred seats short of a majority.)

The BJP said it would support Janata but even together, the two parties did not have a majority. They needed another fifty seats and they got them when the Left parties agreed to support them from outside.

This three-cornered alliance was full of contradictions. The 1977–79 Janata government had fallen, at least partly, because Janata members objected to the Jan Sangh’s communal roots. The BJP was even more of a Hindu party now than the Jan Sangh had been in 1977. Would this not be a problem? And what about the Left? Was it comfortable being part of a three-cornered arrangement with the BJP?

The only person for whom the alliance made sense was L.K. Advani. He would be remembered, he believed, as the man who had taken the BJP from a mere two seats in parliament to being the kingmaker at the next election.

There was yet another complication. Janata was not the old Janata Party any longer. It was now the Janata Dal, composed of some of the old Janata veterans but supplemented by a new party of Congress defectors led by V.P. Singh and Arun Nehru. The two sides did not get along. Chandra Shekhar, from the old Janata, for instance, had total contempt for V.P. Singh whom he viewed as a characterless opportunist.

How was this all going to work?

I was deeply skeptical about the prospects of any arrangement lasting. Till that point, India had mostly been run by governments with majorities in the Lok Sabha. Mrs Gandhi had briefly lost her majority after the Congress split in 1969 but even though she knew that she could count on the communists to back her, she had called a mid-term election (where she won a majority) as soon as she could.

Our sole experience with coalitions was the disastrous 1977 to 1979 period when politicians frittered away the goodwill that had got them elected and forced the electorate to recall Indira Gandhi, her transgressions during the Emergency forgiven.

I did not believe that this government would last even for a year. Apart from the contradictions between the BJP and the Left, there were too many differences within the Janata Dal itself.

I went to meet Chandra Shekhar at his ‘ashram’ (a large estate; ‘ashram’ sounded nicer than ‘pleasure palace’) in Bhondsi on the outskirts of Delhi. I had known Chandra Shekhar during my Imprint days because a friend of mine, Kamal Morarka, was a dedicated Chandra Shekhar supporter who boosted his prospects even when the Rajiv wave was at its height.

Chandra Shekhar believed he should be prime minister. He had opposed the Emergency and later had been the centre of all opposition to Indira Gandhi. He believed that with the Congress out of power his time had finally come.

I told him I didn’t think he had the votes. Besides, V.P. Singh had led the campaign against Rajiv (Chandra Shekhar had refrained from personal attacks) so the media expected Singh to be the next prime minister. Chandra Shekhar did not agree with me but looked grim.

I have no idea what happened next but TV footage showed Chandra Shekar, Devi Lal (a Haryana leader) and others laughing delightedly before they went into the meeting of the Janata Dal parliamentary party. After the meeting was called to order, Chandra Shekhar was called on to speak. He said he proposed Devi Lal for prime minister.

Devi Lal was then asked to accept the nomination. He said that he was honoured to be nominated but felt that the position belonged to V.P. Singh.

V.P. Singh then got up. He did not nominate anyone else. He grabbed the job and ran with it.

Obviously some deal that excluded Chandra Shekhar had been struck. Devi Lal had agreed not only to accept V.P. Singh as prime minister, he had agreed to deceive Chandra Shekhar as well. They had made a fool of Chandra Shekhar in front of the parliamentary party and the TV cameras.

Afterwards, Chandra Shekhar told the press that he had been betrayed which may have been the understatement of the year. But even he did not realize how completely he had lost out. When the ministry was sworn in, Chandra Shekhar’s supporters were sidelined or kept out. Yashwant Sinha, who was told he was only a minister of state, walked out of the swearing in and drove straight to Bhondsi to confer with Chandra Shekhar.

I met Chandra Shekhar a few days later at his MP’s bungalow in Delhi. He was livid with V.P. Singh and with Arun Nehru who, he said, had plotted the deception. Oddly enough, he felt no rancour towards Devi Lal without whom none of this could have happened. The way Chandra Shekhar told it, V.P. Singh had publicly declared that he wanted no position. But his followers had made it clear that they would not accept Chandra Shekhar. So Devi Lal had been chosen as a compromise candidate.

Either, Arun Nehru took Devi Lal aside after the consensus was arranged and told him to give the job to V.P. Singh or the whole exercise was a con job from the very beginning, intended only to make a fool out of Chandra Shekhar. He preferred the first explanation. I thought the second was more likely.

The problem with V.P. Singh was that he was a little like Arvind Kejriwal is today. Financially upright, soft-spoken, competent and capable of evoking strong emotions among his supporters. But he was also a man without any core beliefs, without any long-term loyalty (except to one or two political friends) and without any transparency. Even Advani who was vilified by the secular media was a relatively straight person.

If he said he was going to do something, he usually did it. V.P. Singh, on the other hand, was capable of such duplicity that if you asked him what day of the week it was and he said Tuesday, the chances were that it was really Friday. But he was charming, intelligent and entirely plausible at first. I had admired him in my Imprint days and I could see why he was now such a hero to the media. But how long, I wondered, before the media discovered how hollow he was? How long before the early popularity faded?

error: Content is protected !!