How reading books written by women changed me as a journalist

Last September, while we were living in confinement, a friend suggested that I read Inside the Haveli by Rama Mehta, which won him a Sahitya Akademi Award. This novel was about an educated girl named Geeta from Mumbai, who was married to a former prince from Udaipur. Her life after marriage revolved around Haveli, a traditional townhouse. The “haveli”, in this case, is not simply a house but a distinct institution in itself, governed by its own (mainly patriarchal) rules.

As journalists, we are supposed to look for parallels – to understand the news in perspective. This novel interested me in this sense because I could find similarities between life in confinement and the life of women in a Haveli. Like the Purdah system – I grew up seeing it – we had ‘mask’ rules during lockdown. And while one is rooted in patriarchy and the other in a health emergency, I could find similarities.

After reading the book, I decided to write something about being “locked up” in a Haveli, a “courtyard” or something like that. Soon after, I discovered the work of the late Urdu writer Khadija Mastoor. His novel, Angantranslated by Daisy Rockwell as women’s court, was the first Urdu novel I had read that was written by a woman about the politics of the time. I won’t say Mehta Inside the Haveli was apolitical. But, it was different because Inside the Haveli examined women’s issues from a sociological rather than a political point of view

women’s court unfolded around the score and gave insight into how politics seeped into the so-called women’s quarters. Of the many women who lived in the Haveli and were part of the family, protagonist Aliya’s life was most affected by the political unrest outside. I was struck by the rigid division of spaces between men and women. I then discussed this idea of ​​spaces with a friend from a Bhumihar family in Bihar. She told me there was also an undeclared divide in her household between “what men can do and what women can do”.

It was an intriguing phenomenon for me. So I wrote a review essay on these spaces in a house. First time writing something like this.

Most of the literature on partition is about the destruction caused by partition – how it ruined many lives. But most of these stories miss some of the most important – and human – aspects of the score – how it affected families, relationships and gender roles. In the book, Mastoor brings out those layers of pain wonderfully through her character, Aliya. The nuanced depiction of the protagonist’s emotions, affections, and detachments speaks volumes about the politics of the time.

Later, I read some other works by female authors – that of Usha Priyamwada Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewareinby Mannu Bhandari Mahabhojby Krishna Sobti Zindaginamaat Arundhati Roy Ministry of Greatest Happiness – all of them deeply moved me in different and surprising ways.

Inside the Haveli book cover by Rama Mehta (left), Ret Samadhi book cover by Geetanjali Shree

These writings also left a deep impression on my journalism and made me a more sensitive journalist. I know what kind of stories I want to work on and how to tell them – even when reporting on politics, I always try to include elements of my subjects’ personal lives and how that shapes their story.

Mannu Bhandari’s masterpiece Mahabhoj (1979), is one of the best works on the criminalization of politics. Bhandari, in an interview, once said that the book was his creative response to the anti-dalit massacre that occurred in Belchhi. The story revolves around the murder of a so-called low-caste Bishu man, and how the incident is politically appropriated and turned into an election issue.

Even if a journalist doesn’t have a lot of creative space in their writing, there has to be flow and storytelling. Metaphors and aphorisms are not strictly journalistic. But, in the digital age, a journalist produces work for more than one medium, so we have relatively more agency than before.

Another thing that struck me about Bhandari’s writing was the simple yet elegant prose. When it comes to writing styles, I also like Nirmal Verma. Although my friends often tell me not to read his work, he remained an unavoidable corrupting influence. Verma’s candid prose forces every reader to face their loneliness. His work always makes me wonder how one can write about emotions and things that could easily overwhelm and block the mind. But that’s the quality of a writer.

In the field, reporters often lose track when they become emotionally involved in a story. Their copies are filled with “adjectives” and “aphorisms”, and in such a case, publishers have to work hard to save a copy. I often watch how Verma elegantly writes complex emotions, with total simplicity. Still, it’s hard to use it in journalistic writing, but I tried. And it even worked many times.

In January 2021 I read Geetanjali Shree Back samadhi, and examined it. Recently, his translation sand tomb has been nominated for the International Booker Longlist. I have reviewed both versions. Shree’s writing was unlike anyone I had read before. It was very innovative, she said. Dhwani (sound) of a word and even invented new words according to his mood. Its non-linear sentences even made the book a bit difficult to grasp at times.

But I could see what the book was trying to say. I read it again and I also read the English translation. I was very persistent in reading it. Honestly, after that, I can say I’m better equipped to read long, complex material for a story.

Even though its complex, coded language is of little use to a journalist, this book was an interesting addition to my reading list and gave me a new perspective on literary storytelling.

It was the story of an 80-year-old Maa, the novel’s protagonist, who fell into depression after the death of her husband. The book traces her struggles and joys as she starts her life over from the beginning. She even decides to go to Pakistan to meet her ex-husband. The story was a commentary on the politics of the time. Shree even compares her main character Maa with Shaheen Bagh’s Bilkis Bano.

This book gave me a better perspective on Shaheen Bagh and the revolutionary zeal among old women. As I re-read the book, I also realized how powerful metaphors and aphorisms are for speaking truth to power and registering your protest. When it’s not possible to say things directly (and these days increasingly aren’t), you can use metaphors, poetry and aphorisms – even a joke – to say important things.

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Journalistic writing has changed a lot in recent years, especially for print journalists. Now every writer has to pass a litmus test – to be digitally compatible – without compromising on quality. I started my career in a weekly newspaper. I was mostly struggling with the existing pattern of news writing that all media schools teach – follow five Ws, one H – answer six questions in a story, which was considered fundamental to news gathering and news writing.

In the digital age where news breaks every 10 seconds on all platforms at once, answering these questions alone is not enough. Most organizations publish long-form digital articles, but personally I think the role of “me” is huge here, because in such articles, a journalist not only presents analysis, but also uses some kind of judgment – whether selecting sources, adding anecdotes.

So, I always try to understand myself, to have better judgements. As a young journalist from a lower-middle-class family, reading Sara Akash, a short story by the late Hindi author Rajendra Yadav was my first encounter with my challenges in life. It’s the story of a middle-class young man in college named Samar, who is full of idealism to do something big in life but instead gets stuck in trials and afflictions.

Insecure about her appearance and having no job, Samar marries a beautiful girl called Prabha only to have a misunderstanding on the wedding night herself. The spurned husband starts giving his new wife the silent treatment for six months. But in the meantime, he constantly struggled to find a good job that could match his expectations in life. The book made me understand more clearly how patriarchy and middle class insecurities affect both men and women. I also discovered that Samar was afraid to make decisions in life.

His life was oddly relatable. I felt how the questions and dilemmas of middle class life are always the same. Like him, I also faced similar questions. So we, the “little townspeople”, live two lives – one in a metropolitan city – a life full of new challenges – where the boundaries of bourgeois morality are blurred. And the other in our hometowns, where marriage and security issues loom like a specter. Bourgeois morality is in full swing in your hometown. You are judged for having girlfriends and not having a government position.

I have phone anxiety, I’m hesitant to start conversations, I’m hesitant to try new things – much like Samar. But reading Sara Akash somehow helped me through those challenges. I still read books to help me find myself. And I dare say, the work is still in progress.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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