Insist, persist with stories: Sankarshan Thakur tells Northeast India

His career graph is rich, with experience of conflict reporting from Kargil to Colombo, reporting from the ‘road’ as he prefers and books to credit. For Sankarshan Thakur, journalism was legacy. Still, he worked hard at it. Currently working on his book about Nitish Kumar, Thakur speaks to Teresa Rehman about his home state Bihar, the need for people in the North-East to ‘insist and persist’, and his family

1. You are known as one of India’s finest journalists. What keeps you ticking?

I think it is just the simple sense that there are stories to be told and one can play a part in telling them. We live in a huge, complex and decidedly the world’s most fascinating nation which exists on many layers of time and reality. Very often one cannot relate to the other, much less have a measure of comprehension. There are always, everywhere stories that need to be told. I keep saying – often to exhort younger colleagues – that getting to see the world at someone else’s expense is the great gift of journalism. I think I feel best when I am on the road, and this profession affords me that luxury.

2. Did you in a way inherit this profession from your equally illustrious father?

In great measure, yes. I do not remember a time when I wanted to be anything other than a journalist and watching my father at work must have been part of the ineffable process by which my mind was made. For far too many reasons, my father was an immeasurably more illustrious person than I ever hope to become.

3. You are also known as a ‘Gentleman editor’. What makes you different in the cut-throat and crazy world of media?

Am I? I never knew. I like to think I am hard about work on the floor and unforgiving of shoddy work. But that is how it should be. It also has to be just about the work and no carryover animus, which is really a waste of time apart from other things. I had very hard taskmasters when I was young in the profession and I am forever grateful that they had the time and the interest to put some of us through the mill. It is good to be able to pride your work and have the ability to be critical about it. That’s also how you get to respect other people’s work, and that is important. I believe the world — and this profession — has enough space for good people, they do not require cutting each other’s throats for doing well. I read somewhere a long time ago that good things come to people who wait for them. That’s a good dictum to live by. And no matter how good you are at your work, it is also important to be a good human being.

4. Do you think the so-called ‘national’ media has failed in its duty towards the regions that lie in the periphery?

That’s a tough one. Depends on what you call ‘national’ media. The term confuses me because so many of the ‘national’ media brands have now gone multi-edition and become local media brands. What has happened as a result, though, is that information is increasingly fragmented and strait-jacketed. News from the Northeast, for instance, is only printed for consumption of the Northeast. That is a troubling trend because in a country as vast, divergent and iniquitous such as ours, it is unhealthy for people in one part to have little or no knowledge of what’s happening elsewhere.

5. Sitting in Delhi, what kind of images can you conjecture about Northeast India? Especially the images being portrayed by the media?

There are stereotypes, inevitably and unfortunately. But these stereotypes exist not only about the Northeast. They exist, for instance, about Kashmir as well. Or, in some parts of the country, about places like Bihar. Too much media attention centres on New Delhi and other metros. There is a constant need to correct that and expand the coverage base both in print and electronic media. Having said that, we are also in the midst of an information explosion. Deciding what to pick and what to leave out is a minute-to-minute challenge that newsrooms have to deal with. It is not that information is not available, it is just that it is often not thought fit to be lifted for the consumption of a larger audience.

6. Was there anything or anyone in your early years that shaped your life?

Too many things, too many people. At home, among my seniors, among colleagues and peers. I had better not get into naming people because there will always be those I will end up leaving out and that will not be a nice thing. But my parents and my uncle-gurus in my formative years, and when I started out as a journalist, seniors like M.J. Akbar, Shekhar Bhatia and Kewal Verma. But as I said, there are too many people I must be grateful to for whatever it is I have made of myself.

7. Do you think you are able to do the kind of journalism that you had always aspired to do? Do you think media today is obsessed with trivia?

Yes and no, and I have to say I have been extremely fortunate all my career to have been assigned the kind of stories that I wanted to tell. As I said earlier, I prefer reporting from the road most, and I was lucky my editors encouraged that and do so even today. What I do miss is longer format writing, but that is no fault of organisations I have worked for, it is more about how I organise my own work. Perhaps one day I shall be able to do it full time, but that time has not come yet. To the second question, I would say the media has much more varied space now than earlier so trivia too has its space. The newspaper today is also your daily dose of gossip, celebrity and moviedom. But all of that is usually allocated to particular sections, I would say the space for news has, by and large, remained intact. It is the choice of the kind of news that one may sometimes have differences with but that is not new and that is entirely a subjective take.

8. You are from Bihar and you have written extensively on Bihar. How would you define Bihar?

As an extremely interesting and complex space that is often not merely misunderstood but also misrepresented.

9. Do you think Bihar has been misrepresented in many ways in the media?

Yes, but if I were to begin answering that, it will consume too much of your space. So another day.

10. Please tell us more about your family/home/the person behind the famous journalist.

Very humdrum middle-class, close-knit and, therefore, rewarding as well as difficult. My father left us in 1999 when I was reporting the Kargil War for The Telegraph and it is a void nothing will ever fill. I live with my mother, my wife, who works at the World Bank, and two children – Jahan and Aayushmaan — who go to the Shri Ram School in Gurgaon. My only real wish for them is that they grow up honest and graceful people who understand the country they were born in rather than the big city they live in.

11. How do you think under-reported regions like the Northeast of India can manage to tell their stories to the world?

By insisting and by persisting. I think your web magazine is a great way of getting the region across to the world.

12. Have you ever been to Northeast India?

Yes, but regrettably only once. I reported Manipur in a series of stories for the Indian Express in 2001 and was extremely taken by the utter disregard we in the so-called ‘mainland-mainstream’ have for the region. I think we have not even made the beginnings of understanding it and I suspect that is because, bluntly put, it does not matter to our lives. It should.

13. What has been your best story so far?

I will be a poor judge of that. The story that will never leave me, and which changed me in ways I do not yet understand, is reporting the Kargil War over two months in the summer of 1999. But there are so many other stories that stay. Manipur has stayed. The IPKF war has stayed. The stories of famine and discrimination in inner India have stayed. What’s sometimes terrible to sense is that you report them and ten years later you go back to find nothing has changed in the lives of people and that can turn you a cynic.

14. You are also an author of a critically acclaimed book on Laloo Yadav. Why did you choose him as a subject?

Oh, he was, and remains in many ways, one of the most fascinating politicians contemporary India has produced. He came from nowhere to dominate a hard-nut state like Bihar through sheer personal chutzpah. He created great hope, gave a sense of pride to large sections of people who had not merely been exploited but also been deprived their due share. His unbecoming was that he took the people for granted. He set out to empower people and ended up grasping for power himself. Had Laloo Yadav had vision and patience, he would have gone very far. He tripped himself, he betrayed his own promise. But he remains an utterly charming man, a great soldier of secular ways and, of course, an unparalleled entertainer when he wants to be one.

15. How different is writing books from journalistic writing? How do you manage to wear both the hats?

The truth is, I think I have not written enough, I should have done more books and longer essays than I have so far. It is tough, but the greater truth is I am extremely lazy and that is a shoddy excuse to make. I hope to do better.

16. You are now working on a book on Nitish Kumar. What’s coming next?

Let me first get the Nitish Kumar work out of the way. Then I shall gather the courage to think beyond. I have made quiet promises to myself but my laziness keeps getting the better of them.