Interview with Anita Pratap, writer, journalist, media person

Anita PratapAnita Pratap! I guess people who followed current affairs closely in the eighties, nineties and early years of the millennium will find a thrill of recognition at this name.

Veteran journalist and writer Anita Pratap won acclaim for her reports from areas of conflict such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. She won several and won awards after award for excellence in reporting, including the prestigious George Polk award for TV reporting for excellence in coverage on the Taliban takeover of Kabul. She worked for over two decades with international media houses such as the TIME magazine and CNN. Anita’s historic interview of the LTTE chief Prabhakaran in 1983, the first ever one he gave to the world, made news. Her interview of Bal Thackeray during the Mumbai riots of 1993 for the TIME was a revelatory piece that initiated serious discussion worldwide.

Her dynamic, perceptive and acerbic writing, especially when talking about politics has given her a cult status, in both print and electronic media. She is the author of book the Island Of Blood, a sensitive and clear documentation of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and co-authored Unsung, an ode to ordinary Indians doing extraordinary things. She is now into film making after she left India to live abroad.

In an e-mail interview, Anita speaks about issues close to her heart. She was in Trivandrum to receive the Shreeratna Award 2013 from the Kerala Kalakendram. on the International Women’s Day.

Suneetha: To people like me who have followed your stories on South Asia, the Prabhakaran interview was the one that remains in the heart, but do tell me which is your favourite, and the one which you think made the impact of the sort you wanted when you started out with the story?
Anita Pratap: Prabhakaran gave the first ever interview of his life to me and that itself made the interview special and historic. It was an eye-opener to all, including me, because there were aspects of his personality that came to public notice for the first time. Every one knew his military prowess, and the Sri Lankan media had demonized him into this bloodthirsty, blood-sucking, evil, vicious monster, but in this interview, he came across as a thoughtful, introspective man who was emotional and deeply affected by the injustices, betrayals and humiliations suffered by the Tamils over the decades. He was tough and determined and his unwavering commitment to his cause was crystal clear. There was no mistaking his sincerity and genuineness. What came as a huge shock was how soft-spoken and mild-mannered he was with a ready smile. He was not fearsome in person.
Another interview which many seem to have forgotten is my famous interview with bal Thackeray during the Mumbai riots in 1993, which I did for Time Magazine in which he said “Kick out the Muslims”. There is a background to this interview. I had gone to Babri Masjid a few days before Dec 6, 1992 (the day it was demolished) as I had been following the VHP’s program carefully and I could clearly see the ground situation deteriorating steadily. I went early, three days before the big event, precisely because my previous groundwork told me to expect trouble. I visited all the kar sewak camps, who had come from the different states. The Maharashtra contingent was the most virulent. They were all shiv sainiks. They told me clearly they intended to demolish babri masjid. And so I was expecting this to happen. that is why I disguised myself as a kar sewak with a head band and so was the only journalist to watch the entire demolition, all six hours! All the other journalists were rounded up and removed by the police and a few were beaten up by the shiv sainiks. Both police and shiv sainik left me alone because of my headband. And I was an eye witness to the whole demolition. The riots began immediately thereafter in north india. I then decided I had to go to Mumbai and meet bal Thackeray, who was not taken seriously at that time by anyone in delhi. I felt that he was a guy to watch out for because he could arouse such passion and violence. Instinct told me that such leaders become big in Indian politics. So end of December en route to kochi where I always spend Christmas with my parents, on my own expense, I went to meet Bal Thackeray. At one point he asked me to get out, but for a journalist, that is end of story. I tactfully changed the subject and somehow got the conversation going and eventually he struck a strange chord with me. At first he was rude and aggressive, but eventually I could sense a grudging respect. A few weeks later the devastating anti muslim riots broke out in Mumbai and I flew down from delhi to Mumbai to cover for the riots for time magazine. The riots were horrible. And then I went to meet bal Thackeray and as he had just met me, remembered and gave me the interview. With riots spreading all over and Mumbai being brought to a standstill by his shiv sainks, he was on a high. And he said all muslims should be kicked out to Pakistan. When published that TIME interview created a furore and The then home minister chavan said bal Thackeray should be arrested for making such a provocative statement. At that point bal Thackeray denied having said this and when I stuck to my guns and said I can play the tape to the authorities, he threatened me and I had to live under police protection in delhi. A commission of inquiry was appointed and I deposed before justice sri Krishna and he endorsed my interview etc. I have talked about this episode in great detail in my interview with Savvy magazine when they put me on their cover “anita pratap takes on bal Thackeray”. Savvy magazine asked famous photographer Gautam Rajadhakshya to take my picture and I don’t know how but he managed to take this ultra glamour picture of mine. I have never lived down that photograph. Subsequently all my interviewees were disappointed to see me in person because I am no way close to that glamorous persona in real life. Anyway, bal Thackeray went on to ever more popularity in mumbai and I went on to cnn. Life went on but those were very turbulent days.

Suneetha: When you look back at the TV beat you have done, and compare this with the situation in each of the regions you have covered, how has media coverage become different from your initial days? Do you think the 24 hour news channel concept has changed the way the media approaches issues and news?
Anita Pratap: the media world has changed so dramatically and completely that sometimes I feel tv journalism in my time was another century in another planet. When I was in cnn, there was only doordarshan and bbc. As I am an Indian with experience for almost 20 years, I had a network of contacts and much goodwill all over india. so it was relatively easy for me to be the first with the news, everytime. Cnn had the technology that no one else had and I had the contacts that no one else had. So it was a perfect match and I have broken stories within a minute of it happening. I take immense pride in the fact that even the CIA go to know about India detonating the nuclear bomb in may 1998 from me on cnn. That world was different because my guiding star (and that of my generation of tv journalists) was not only being first with news, but also being accurate and being fair. Today there is a trp-driven competition that completely distorts reality and priorities. Also I am just amazed at how hysterical especially delhi tv coverage is. They are so shrill. And the anchors seem like self-appointed sergeant majors scolding the nation. I find it distasteful and disrespectful. And frankly my ears cant take it for more than a minute or two. Why do they assume we are all deaf? I guess they feel they have to outshout each other to be heard. In the resulting cacophony, you cant hear anyone and you cant make sense of what is really going on. I mean you know immediately what has happened but you cant grasp WHY something that has happened. Tossing one allegation with the opponent’s counter allegation is not journalism. Journalists have to get to the bottom of things so that there is clarity on major public issues. I find it only confuses and muddles the picture even more.

Suneetha: About your books: Island of Blood was a noted book in many ways. What memories can you share about the writing of it?
Anita Pratap: Writing it was traumatic. I am first and foremost a mother and then a daughter. I had never talked about some of the horrible things I have seen and terrifying situations I have been in because maintaining normality and enjoying life was paramount when it came to raising my son and being the daughter of retired parents who worry if the car didn’t start in the morning. There was no point in telling them all this as it would just scare the living daylights out of them. So I kept all these things locked up in a corner of my mind. When I started writing my book, all these memories came flooding back. It was overwhelming. I would wind up weeping. It was like a volcano erupting and hot lava scalding my mind, my heart, my very soul. What violence I have seen. What travesties of injustice. Writing about how I felt deep down inside while I remained the calm Ms.Professional was a cathartic experience. Writing the book was a healing experience.

Suneetha: What prompted you to write a book like Unsung, after a boiling version of the globe like the Island of Blood? Any more books in the pipeline?
Anita Pratap: The reason for writing unsung was simple – I felt our younger generation were getting too captivated by celebrities and were seeing them as their sole role models. This is extremely dangerous for us as a nation. Some of the celebrities do have exemplary character, but not all. They don’t always symbolize worthy qualities. They might have fame and fortune but so often their personal lives are completely messed up. They are so stressed out and insecure. Besides the life of a film or cricket star is extremely rare. How many of us will ever have a career like that. They are the exceptions. That’s not normal. I took 9 ordinary individuals, some from very poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, who braved terrible obstacles to do amazing public service. These are the real role-models and our youngsters should derive inspiration from their lives, their courage, their determination, their love, patience, willpower, humility, and simplicity. My life and all that I have been exposed to as a journalist have taught me that these values are what bring joy in one’s life.

Suneetha: Which stint did you enjoy most as a journo, the print one or the TV one and why?
Anita Pratap: Print any day. You get down to the meat of the story. Tv is more superficial. The medium is excellent for breaking news, but for more in-depth understanding, to stir contemplation and imagination, there is nothing more magical, stirring and enduring than the written word. TV kills imagination and it somehow encourages more fleeting responses in the viewers. So you feel something when you see a bomb explosion and then you forget all about the victims and the horror of it when a new and bigger calamity like tsunami strikes. Also too much of these visuals inures and desensitizes viewers. Tv performs a vital role in a democracy but it shouldn’t be overpowering, eclipsing everthing else. I wish print would re-discover its rightful place in people’s minds. As citizens, we are poorer if print loses authority and readership.

Suneetha: You have been appreciated again and again by the public with awards, has the meaning of awards changed for you down the years? Do share your thoughts on the Shreeratna Award 2013 that you have being awarded?
Anita Pratap: who doesn’t like an award or appreciation. Yet, it is not an end in itself. It has to be a means to an end, the end being, to use using the legitimacy and credibility the award gives to do greater public service. It is tragic when journalists and others use political influence and lobby to get awards. Awards have meaning and value only if they come your way on its own as a token of people’s appreciation. I received the coveted amercian George polk award for tv journalism that journalists dreams of and it was an important vindication of my kind of journalism. But The shree ratna award is very special to me for three reasons – the reason for giving me this award is for an issue that is very close to my heart – empowering the disempowered. I have given innumerable interviews all through my journalist career wherein I have said that I see my role as a journalist to be the voice and face of the voiceless, faceless millions of india. After all, the rich have the pr agencies and lobby, who do the ordinary and poor people have to take up issues that are of life and death importance to them other than journalists? So it makes me very happy to get this shreeratna. Secondly it is an award given in kerala, my homeland. Usually, it is the fate of most people that they are appreciated all over the world but never in their hometown. As Jesus Christ famously said a prophet is never accepted in his home. He was speaking of himself. Most artists, writers and intellectuals say they get accolades from around the world but back home no cares two hoots. This is usual. So when I get this award in kerala, it means a lot to me. Getting appreciation and acceptance in one’s own land is the sweetest of them all. And thirdly the award is being given on the occasion of the international women’s day. All through my career, I have tried to empower women through my journalism because I do believe a society moves forward in a sustainable, holistic and progressive manner only if women are empowered and engaged in decision-making. At home and in public space.

Suneetha: Could you fill in about your work in documentary film making? Why and how you choose your subjects and the latest work?
Anita Pratap: I did documentary films because I felt tv journalism was shallow and superficial. Especially breaking news variety because how much can you possibly explain in 90 seconds? At the same time, the television medium is powerful. So I tried to tackle different and sometimes difficult or tv unfriendly but important subjects – like how a state like Mizoram moved from terrorism to democracy by doing documentary films. I felt we were all ignoring, forgetting and disrespecting our ancient traditions, which are so awesome and so much a part of our heritage, our very identity. Our careless attitude puts these traditions at the risk of being lost forever. So I did a documentary on a wonderful ashram that struggled to keep alive ancient Indian temple carving craftsmanship. Or highlighting the beauty, complexity, philosophy and spirituality of Indian dance that originates from Lord Shiva.

Suneetha: You hail from Kerala, and how much do you connect to Kerala now?
Anita Pratap: Now? I have never ever lost connection with kerala. I started my school in st Teresa convent in Ernakulam and left in my third standard and after that I never lived in Kerala. But we came for long summer holidays every year and spent xmas with my grand parents with all my 54 first cousins. our kandoth clan, as we like to call ourselves, is very close knit.. We have so much fun laughing and teasing each other. About 25 of myc cousins are coming to Trivandrum for the award function from all over Kerala and then we are all going on Saturday to spend the weekend together in Ponmudi. My husband who is coming down from Tokyo marvels how close we all are and how much we fun have together. We grew up together in our ancestral house. My parents lived in Kochi until my father suffered a stroke in May 2007 and passed away in 2008 December. But even after that, I come to Kochi twice a year, sometimes even four times. I have to mingle with my cousins, eat tapioca and fish curry and jabber away in Malayalam. I speak fluent Malayalam because I always spoke to my mother, aunts,uncles and cousins in Malayalam. In our Norwegian embassy kitchen garden in Tokyo, I have a curry leaf tree. No dish tastes good for me unless there are curry leaves. I have tasted the best cuisines from the top chefs from around the world. But the tastiest food on planet earth is our nadan food. All my cousins and friends in Kerala will testify to that.

Suneetha: How do you relate to Kerala’s miserable social scene these days especially regarding women?
Anita Pratap: with sadness. I often wonder when, why and how the women scene in Kerala took a turn for the worse. Kerala was and still is in many respects a model state precisely because women were empowered, took part in social issues and took charge of their lives. The birth rate came down to zero, infant and maternal mortality came down dramatically in Kerala because of the role of women. This has been internationally acknowledged. What happened then? How did the power, rights, prestige, independence and strength of our women leach away like this? Why is there so much alcohol abuse? Why do so many Kerala women suffer domestic abuse and street indignities? In this lie the seed of our destruction as a civilized and highly evolved society. I feel very strongly that if this situation is not corrected and reversed, Kerala will suffer more in the future. The rights, safety and position women enjoy is the true barometer of the success and progress of a state or country. If women are subjugated, harmed or ignored, that region simply cannot, will not, enjoy prosperity and peace. Examples can be found through history and right now in the world. Norway, my husband’s country consistently tops the UN’s Quality of Life index in the world. A major reason for that is the empowerment of women. Total, utter and irrevocable gender equality and power. Kerala has everything going for it. Kerala women are extraordinarily bright, talented and intelligent. If this innate ability is channelized properly, if the women of Kerala are engaged and involved constructively, our current and future generation would be so much better for it. Women of Kerala must find their voice. And they must unite as one voice. We have to support each other, irrespective of what social, financial or political background we are from. I am thoroughly dismayed at how politics interferes with every day functioning in every field every day in Kerala. The extent and intensity of political intrusion in daily lives is truly astounding. Playing politics should be left to politicians in the legislature. If a hotel employee is sacked for negligence, it will be met with all kinds of allegations that he was fired because he was bjp or cpm or whatever. This is paralyzing.

Suneetha:Any message for the women journos/ women in Kerala?
Anita Pratap: we have come a long way. And we mustn’t forget that. But a longer journey lies ahead of us. Together we rise, divided we fall. So Kerala women must unite, find a strong political voice so that decisions are taken, not as a favour, but as matter of right, to protect, safeguard, empower and cherish women.

An edited version of this was published in the Hindu Metro PLus page on March 6, 2013.

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