Inderjit Badhwar: Fight false news with its own venom

Inderjit Badhwar, photo: David Vaughan

The Indian journalist Inderjit Badhwar has a reputation for pursuing stories with courage and determination. His investigative writing during the more than two decades he spent in the US earned him a Pulitzer nomination. But it wasn’t his work as a journalist that brought Badhwar to Prague last month. He is also an acclaimed and award-winning novelist, writing from a perspective that crosses continents and reflects his own international life story. He was here for the Prague Writers’ Festival, during which he spoke to David Vaughan about his writing and the challenges facing the both the journalist and the novelist in what some choose to call a “post-truth” world.

“If you get the idea that there was rootlessness in our family, a sense of anomie, a nagging feeling that we were hung between a world of tradition and a world of rapidly changing technologies, then I’ve given you the wrong impression. True we were Midnight’s Children. True we learned and spoke English better than the King himself. True we were the inheritors of educational, bureaucratic, cultural legacies of the Raj. We inherited snobbery, elitism. We realized we all lived in India in tribes of cultures. We were born in an India of 400 million people, one fifth of mankind, a population that was to double within 40 years. Poverty, mostly poverty of a kind, of urban ghettos, of rural privation, never witnessed in Europe or America or Tolstoy’s Russia. But there was no guilt. We did not dangle between reason and revolution.“

Inderjit Badhwar,  photo: David Vaughan
Those were a few lines from Inderjit Badhwar’s first novel, The Chamber of Perfumes, from 2004. Although he had already written many short stories, the novel was not published until he was already in his late fifties. The book was an instant success, bridging the lost world of 1950s India and the counter-culture of America in the 60s, in language that was free flowing and experimental, influenced as much by Ginsberg and Bukowski as by established Indian writers. So when I met Inderjit Badhwar in Prague, I began by asking him about his reasons for writing the book.

“I don’t think that the Anglo-Indian-American experience, written as a cross-over novel, had really happened anywhere. You had Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian which was a bestseller, but it was about his childhood in Calcutta. He lived and died in England. And then there are the Indian-Indian writers, who are local equivalents of Turgenev, Chekhov or Guy de Maupassant. They are writers who write about Indian village life, which is very exotic and, I suppose, extremely readable. I wanted to get away from that kind of thing completely, not because I disparaged it but because I wanted to do something different. That’s the reason it took me so long to get to this subject, because I don’t suppose I was ready for it until I got back from America, where I’d spent twenty-two years as a journalist. It’s only as I’d experienced living in America and being there during the 60s, during the anti-Vietnam protests and the whole hippie movement, and then coming back to India to rediscover what I’d left behind and whether it had changed, that I thought I was ready to write.”

Do you have childhood memories of pre-independence India?

“The British left in 1947, I must have been two or three years old by then, but I do remember very well watching British Tommies playing volleyball – there was a small British cantonment across from where I lived. Unlike other writers before me, I did not, or do not, remember any kind of British racism. They mixed very openly with my family. In fact, they had mixed dance parties together, with the foxtrot and even the tango, which my father knew how to do.”

You were an unusual Indian family – very cosmopolitan and sophisticated – and I understand that you were also a patrician family, with people in the past who had been very prominent in Indian society – and including writers.

“The thing is that India lives in so many layers even now, from wretched poverty to an amazingly rich, feudal life, which I think is non-existent in Europe today, to a burgeoning middle-class of perhaps 350 to 400 million people. Remember, India is a land of 1.2 billion people.”

And you were still a teenager when you came to America and studied in America. Is that right?

New Delhi in 1950,  photo: Public Domain
“I was twenty-two. I’d done a Master’s in History and Philosophy from St Stephen’s College in New Delhi, which was founded by the Cambridge Mission, and we still had English tutors and English deans and dons. There was no feeling of any kind of resentment for the Raj – what the hell are these white guys still doing running ‘brown’ institutions? No, there was no such thing. They accepted us, we accepted them. It was a loving embrace. Of course, they taught us Chaucer, they taught us Trevelyan’s Social History, and my subject was the history of Western political thought, from Hobbes to Laski. I think it served me well. It serves me well even now to understand the world and understand my own country, as well as to understand whatever I know of European, British and American culture.”

How did you get from that world, the world of urban India, with all its remnants of the colonial era, into the rough-and-tumble of journalism – investigative journalism even – in New York? It seems a completely different world.

“It was a different world, but I’d done a year-and-a-half reporting for the Indian Express, which was India’s largest English newspaper at the time, and I had a very good mentor, a man by the name of Frank Moraes.”

And you had a taste for journalism. You felt that this was what you wanted to be doing.

“Yes. There’s no other answer, right from my earliest schooldays. I went to a prep school – and again, this is the amazing Anglo-Indian experience, that people who have not experienced it, cannot fathom. We had a headmistress whose name was Herlissa Oliphant. She was a tall spinster, six-foot-three and very strict. It was either the slipper or the ruler if you misbehaved. And we had these wonderful school ma’ams, some of them Anglo-Indian, some of them completely British and some of them Indian.”

It makes me think of Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”, with its peculiar mixture of different languages and cultures.

“To me, Kipling is an Indian writer. I don’t think he was a writer who defended imperialism or defended the oppression of the people that the Raj lorded over. His metaphors were all Indian, he understood India as perhaps few Indians now understand India.”

I’m intrigued by the fact that you became a journalist and then a novelist, because a career in journalism teaches you all sorts of very strict disciplines about writing, about being concise, clear, sticking to the facts, investigating the background of what you’re looking at and thinking twice about everything. After all those years as a journalist, wasn’t it difficult to become a novelist?

George Orwell,  photo: Public Domain
“I find that actually the easiest question to answer because I know exactly what inspired me to do that.”

What was it?

“The man’s name is George Orwell. I don’t think he could have written Homage to Catalonia or Down and Out in Paris and London without basing them on his skills as a journalist. He did this with a literary flourish of unimaginable magnitude, and ultimately it was his craftsmanship as a journalist that helped him write what I consider to be one of the greatest love stories of all time, and that’s 1984. It’s a love story between Julia and Winston. It’s a story of betrayal, it’s a story of how a human being, no matter how brave, while fighting terrible totalitarian odds, can completely break down, become less than human and betray the person he loves most. 1984 completely and absolutely bridges the gap between journalism and literature. And it’s similar with some of the people here at the Prague Writers’ Festival, if you look at what they’ve written. Take the Turkish writer Ayşe Kulin, for example. The Last Train to Istanbul is about how Turks helped Jews escape the Holocaust. It’s written as a novel, but it’s pure journalism. She did a lot of interviews for the book. I can give you example upon example of how this works.”

But I’m interested as well in the difference between the world of the imagination and the world of investigation, especially at the moment, when there are many people questioning the authority of journalists and questioning the authority of facts that the journalists are presenting to their readers. Isn’t there also a danger in arguing that fantasy – imagination – is of the same value as facts and evidence in journalism?

“I agree with you. Because of the social media, because there are so few checks. I have a background in conventional, very strict journalism, with codes of ethics and fairness and we teach people that they cannot transgress certain boundaries. But where are these teachers on social media?”

You sound as though you are quite afraid of the growing role of the social media, but it’s there and it’s not going to go away. What advice would you give to journalists?

“Fight it with its own worst venom. I don’t mean become venomous about it. In India it’s very big – lying through social media, morphing pictures, going after ‘alt facts’, as they call them, distorting history, making up dates. But there are alternative websites. You know, there’s a terrific website in India called Alt News, which I think everyone should read. It’s only about two or three people, who take the most outrageous lies which are told on the social media by political parties and their trolls, and they research the hell out of them, they go after the photographs and find the real photographs that have been morphed, they look at history books, they look at the actual speeches, which have been given and which have been deliberately distorted.

Donald Trump,  photo: Michael Vadon,  CC BY-SA 2.0
Now, you can’t distort opinion. If it’s a guy’s opinion that the prime minister of India is an idiot, well, that’s not false news. That’s his view. But if he says the prime minister of India was caught in bed with X, Y and Z, it’s not difficult to research. So, I think you’ve just got to have very good and very committed watchdogs.”

There is a strong tradition in the United States of the moral authority of certain respected journalists and of people monitoring the press, but it seems to me that there is a shift going on at the moment in that many people don’t mind being lied to. If it is proved that what the politician they voted for is untrue, it doesn’t bother them.

“I think you’ve placed your finger absolutely on the moral dilemma of our times. Trump – he’s a liar. There are eleven women who came out and said that Trump is a groper. The funny thing is that people believed it had happened, but they didn’t care. So, it’s a paradigm shift in our moral compass. Now that’s where the role of the writer comes in. At what point does it start hurting so much that you actually begin to say that – look, something’s gone terribly wrong. Ultimately, where do you go back to when that happens? You go back to the whole question of ethics. To me that is what evolution is all about. Evolution is a compulsion of matter growing into different levels of consciousness until it gets to know itself or the ultimate being, which takes you to all kinds of metaphysical things like the importance of religion, the importance of truth and this kind of thing. So, the question you ask is the question of today. Knowing that evil is evil, should we still believe in evil? Did people believe what Goebbels was telling them? Did half of them believe that? Or did they just want to believe what they were hearing?”

Maybe they believed he was giving them a better future…

“Or maybe they believed he was giving them a better future. Exactly. But isn’t that ultimately the same moral dilemma of 1984? In the end Winston embraces Big Brother. He is almost tearful when Big Brother, with that soft voice of his, says, ‘Alright Winston, you’ve now been cured.’ Being cured means believing in this terribly evil view of the world. And I think that really is the human dilemma today. The only thing the journalist can keep doing is to use the skills that he has honed of investigating, of knowing how to search for the truth, to ask the kind of questions that you are asking, to make sure that the other person is exposed either for the fraud that he is or the genuine human being that he or she is.”

Prague,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
You’re here in Prague for a week, for the Prague Writers’ Festival. What are your impressions of the city?

“Obviously it’s like living inside a museum. As children we always used the word ‘bohemian’ with great love. Then suddenly you find yourself in the middle of Bohemia and then you think of the history of this place under the Habsburgs and as what used to be Czechoslovakia and the compromises that they had to make with Hitler and also with the Russians in order to survive. And there’s the great example of Alexander Dubček, who is a hero to a lot of people in the Third World. You can feel the heartbeat of Europe over here. You can feel that.”