Shades of Saffron in Good Faithby Vinta Nanda August 23 2018, 5:28 pm Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 9 secs
Saba Naqvi, an accomplished and admired journalist in India, has always fascinated me. I’ve been watching her on prime-time television debates for sometime now and have been curious to know how she sits through most of those vicious and chaotic arguments, oftentimes as the lone plural voice, rebutting malicious attacks on her, with such ease.
I was thrilled to get the chance to do this interview with her for The Daily Eye and am happy to be publishing it on the eve of her participation at an interactive session, which many Mumbaikars are waiting impatiently to be at. The session has been organised by the All India Professionals Congress (AIPC), Mumbai and the event has been scheduled for Friday the 24th August, 2018 from 06:30 pm onwards at YB Chavan Hall, Nariman Point, Mumbai.
Saba will be in a conversation moderated by Sanjay Jha, National Spokesperson for the Indian National Congress (INC) and President AIPC, Maharashtra, and along with the very well known Senior Journalist Nikhil Wagle as well as Member of Parliament, Senior Journalist and Author Kumar Ketkar.
The last book that she has authored, Shades of Saffron, is also going to be officially launched at this occasion, and thus it becomes the perfect opportunity for me to explore her trek through the times that are framed between the moderate right wing politics led by Former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the (almost) extreme right wing politics led by present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.
I was not going to let this moment pass without getting to know Saba Naqvi better than I know her through her journalism and authorship and her frequent appearances on television. So for those of us writers and content creators who hunt for contemporary women protagonists to explore in our storytelling; here’s the person who embodies the secular, liberal and empowered woman of present time India.
Before you dive into her interview, let me tell you that you’re about to find a million stories to tell through Saba Naqvi’s gaze and the impressions that her experiences have left on her mind, which she shares with us lucidly.
So here goes, Saba Naqvi, nofilter and unedited, for all of you to read...
Q: An introductory note about yourself, where you grew up, what has influenced as well as driven you to believe in the position that you take, when expressing yourself on television and through your work as a journalist and author?
A: I grew up in a very liberal and interesting home in Delhi but my experiences have also been shaped by long summer breaks in Lucknow and towns spread across the Awadh region where my late grandmother and many aunts would take us when we were left in their care.
I was never raised to aspire for a conventional middle class life. I was never protected in any special way because I was a girl; on the contrary I was encouraged to be independent which I naturally was. Money by itself was never something to aspire for, only a certain amount to make it possible to have choices in life. We had many relatives and guests walking in and out of our home as children, so I also learnt the value of hospitality, generosity and sharing. I always admired people who worked for things that were larger than their immediate families and/or bank accounts. None of the concerns about seeking career security were ever imposed on us.
I have by nature always been a blunt outspoken person and that is what I do on television. My years of experience as a journalist make it possible for me to quickly respond to narratives that are offered.
Q: What is it that you've taken from your father Saeed Naqvi into your own life path as a journalist?
A: My father is a self made man, who came from a small town/rural background to the big city and did extraordinarily well in journalism. He speaks the Awadhi dialect, knows every Urdu poet by heart and is known for his recitations. But the most amazing thing he did is manage to travel the world and do amazing interviews with incredible world figures: the first interview with Nelson Mandela, when he came out of jail; Fidel Castro for 2 hours; Libya’s Gaddafi, Mikhael Gorbachev and Shimon Peres to name a few.
I often disagree with my father but if you ask me in a professional sense, I think he embodied all the strengths of a great reporter, which means covering things before you pontificate about them!
I’ll always be indebted to him for giving us a world of ideas, reciting poetry I often did not understand and for raising us in his chaotic, colourful, generous world of good food, great talk.
Q: Authorship started for you with your first book, In Good Faith. Can you tell us about the journey that you took through India which came into becoming your first book?
A: That book is the closest to my heart and inspired at the start by a series of short films called Mera Bharat Mahaan that my father did for Doordarshan. When I was a trainee in journalism, the Babri movement had exploded so I quit a job on a desk of a leading news magazine and set out on an incredible journey, a search for an India that was tolerant and safe for all communities. I travelled across India for two years searching for examples of composite culture and syncretic communities and wrote a column titled In Good Faith in Indian Express. I was searching for an India that synthesized identities instead of atomizing us all into a Hindu atom here, a Muslim particle there, a Christian molecule some distance away…
It is a personal journey because I am the product of a mixed background and have always been fascinated by the manner in which identities are preserved, formulated and advocated. In my case it is also the story of how identities are imposed by others and perhaps even by the politics of the country. That journey was as much a search for synthesis in the public domain as in the personal. It must begin with the story of my family. My father comes from a Shia Muslim family rooted in a village in Rae Bareli district and the town of Lucknow where my grandfather practiced law. The family has a distinct culture and language. The ideas of a composite culture have both been advocated and lived within the family. There is an equal facility with classical music and the finer and complex expressions of the great Urdu poets as with irreverent street poetry in the local dialects. There is a heightened political awareness as members of the clan extended across little towns in Uttar Pradesh have been split between an old linkage to the Congress party and ideological commitments to the communist parties. My grandfather’s elder brother was the first Congress MLA from Rae Bareli, while my grandmother’s younger brother was a communist and a part of IPTA.
What is less known about me is that my mother, Aruna, came from a Christian background and her father was part of the Indian Civil Service that preceded the IAS. She is the pillar around whom we all still converge after our journeys of life. She is an educationist who keeps the large family and clan going.
Q: How much of a difference has the distance between 2012 when you wrote In Good Faith and 2018 when you've released Shades of Saffron, made on your thoughts about Indian politics?
A: It’s a long journey and I don’t think I ever imagined an India where people would be lynched for what they are allegedly eating or an India where I would be abused day in and out for my name on social media. As a citizen, it’s a troubling time.
As a journalist, however, I must state that being put on the BJP beat 20 years ago, began an incredible experience for me. So I have lived in and reported on interesting times. The BJP has been a fascinating party to cover, understand and comprehend. When you read the book you would see that I have spoken to almost all the central figures and leaders of the party at some time or the other. So this is a first hand account while most books on Vajpayee, Modi or BJP are based on secondary sources.
About the trolling and abuse as a journalist, I would like to make the point that we are not the stories. Yes, some of us get trolled and abused and face direct threats, yet we are NOT the victims; we are people with voices and platforms. There are thousands of real victims in our country. Even as I do face threats I also get so much love, support and respect from ordinary citizens who walk up to me and say so.
I am careful about understanding that boundary and when I’ve had a chance to speak to students I specify that it’s our job to tell other people’s stories and not our own. Social media also opens us to the risk of overdoing the self projection and I think we need to self correct on that front. I’ve also been guilty of that at times when I’ve tweeted too much about “I” did this; ‘I” said that: “I” was attacked and so on.
Then I stop and say, “What the hell are you doing Saba. Stop this I-Me-Myself rubbish!”
Q: The last 20 years have been indisputably transitional for our politics, and the colour Saffron that represents one particular ideology is fast becoming ubiquitous to the political discourse. In the times of this overwhelming presence of media in the lives of mass populations, how in your mind can the colour saffron be saved from being either violently adored or dangerously despised?
A: Saffron is one of the beautiful colours I associate with the shades and tones of India. I own at least 2 saffron kurtas and 2 saris. I don’t think a particular political party owns saffron but yes, saffron is indeed used to describe the shades of politics. My recent book on the BJP was first titled just Vajpayee to Modi, then we added “Shades of Saffron” and this also works because the BJP in coalition was a different entity to the BJP that rules at the Centre with a near majority of its own.
Q: You're an Indian Muslim. How do you view yourself as a writer, journalist and opinion leader in that light?
A: I never entered journalism thinking of myself as a Muslim. As I have written in the introduction of Shades of Saffron, I did not see my being a Muslim as a problem in getting access to BJP leaders. I am a journalist first who happens to be a Muslim.
Q: As a Hindu, who prays to all Gods, Jesus and Allah, pluralism to me is a necessary principle that will deliver peace; as a thinker and writer who is Muslim, what does pluralism mean to you? (I'm coming from a place where many of my Muslim friends fear that a narrow Hindutva outlook would break India's back and push the country down the Iran/Pakistan way, so I'm very interested to know your thoughts on this).
A: I have written extensively on this in In Good Faith. Pluralism is embedded in our language, literature, poetry, music… It is at the heart of what is the idea of India. Yes, it’s being challenged very seriously today. History is being rewritten and cultural motifs recast. But how are you going to expunge the Muslim from the Hindu in our popular songs, our popular imagination? We have to provide a rich counter narrative and In Good faith published in 2012 has over 30 such examples.