Whatever I do, my mother did first: Barkha Dutt

Barkha Dutt was called the 'first woman war correspondent' after Kargil. But she says her mother, Prabha Dutt deserves that honour as well/

hidden April 07, 2012 14:19:41 IST
Whatever I do, my mother did first: Barkha Dutt

by Barkha Dutt

Editor's Note: Before there was Barkha Dutt, there was her mother pioneering journalist Prabha Dutt. Barkha writes that though the media called her the "first woman war correspondent" after Kargil, that honour belongs to her mother. Both Chameli Devi Jain Award winners for Outstanding Woman Mediapersons, Barkha tells the story of her mother and why even now yeh dil maange more. Extracted from  Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way, ed. by Latika Padgaonkar and  Shubha Singh, published by Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd.,  2012.

Whatever I do my mother did first Barkha Dutt

WIkimedia Commons

News was as intrinsic to our formative years as the mandatory daily portion of green vegetables or the evening reward of milk and cookies. As a child of five I remember being asked to identify obscure world leaders from the covers of Time magazine to brush up my general knowledge. Much before I was a journalist, I was a journalist’s daughter and grew up, shaped and formed by early exposure to the adrenalin rush of news and the satisfaction that comes from making a difference.

Looking back at my 16 years in the news business, it seems that everything I do today, my mother had done decades ago. Though she died from a sudden brain haemorrhage in 1984, when I was just thirteen, Prabha Dutt’s accomplishments and outspoken convictions would be the abiding influence of my life.

In 1999, when I won the Chameli Devi Jain Award for my reporting on the Orissa cyclone and the Kargil war, it was my most cherished recognition because my mother had won the same award almost three decades earlier in 1982. In many ways, the battles that women of my mother’s generation waged to make their mark in a deeply misogynistic industry smashed the glass ceiling and made it possible for me and my contemporaries to do what we do today.

Though dubbed the country’s ‘first woman war correspondent’ for my frontline reporting of the Kargil conflic between India and Pakistan, that distinction was not mine. As a child I would listen goggle-eyed to the story of how my mother made it to the war front.

It was 1965. Prabha Dutt, at this time still single and a young woman in her twenties, had already had to fight to convince newspaper editors that women journalists were good for more than reporting on the local flower show in town. (Yes, this is actually the role an editor offered her when she first interviewed for a job). When war broke out between India and Pakistan, she was audacious enough to demand that she be assigned to cover the conflict. The response, not surprisingly, was a categorical ‘No’. Not used to taking ‘no’ for an answer, especially when it came to her work, my mother rather smartly asked for some days off instead, supposedly to visit her parents in Punjab.

Vacation sanctioned, she made her way all by herself to Khem-Karan, and started sending back dispatches from the front that the Hindustan Times found too good to not publish.

My defining memory of my mother comes from an iconic photograph of her perched atop a tank, army cap flung casually on her head, utterly oblivious of the curious stares of the soldiers behind her, wearing a huge smile that clearly marks the satisfaction that can only come from a good story.

In 1999, desperate to be able to report from the battle-zone of Kargil, I had to first tackle multiple gender hurdles with a sceptical Army which believed this was no job for a woman. Finally, after assuring them that a quick duck under a tree or behind a stone was a happy substitute for a loo and that I sought absolutely no preferential protection, I was able to report on what would come to be known as the country’s first televised war.

Ironically, this was still before technology had transformed the television industry. There were no portable satellite uplinks available to us in an era when mobile phones were not operational across Jammu and Kashmir. Getting our reports from the frontline on air was almost as tough as reporting on the war itself. We would most often ferry tapes back on the helicopters deployed to fly injured soldiers home, sometimes walking or driving for miles just to find one.

At other times, a bulky satellite phone was the only mode of communication that connected us to the outside world for days on end, and that too when we were able to get a signal on it. Kargil, and the early exposure to near-death situations, transformed me in ways that took me years to understand. It also challenged my simplistic assumptions about soldiers and courage. I spent time with the young men – boys-who-would-be-men, really – and I understood how valour and vulnerability could co-exist in complex, but searingly real, ways. It was humanising their stories that became the mainstay of my reporting.

The first major interview I did with Captain Vikram Batra would also become the first obituary I would write from the frontline. He was the swashbuckler, the bright-eyed, josheela soldier who led from the front. His comment in my interview, ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’, to describe his readiness to go forward for the next assault, would soon become a national motto.

Ten years after the war, I travelled with his twin brother, Vishal, back to the frontline. We sat under a clear blue sky and gazed at the mountain peak now named after Vikram as a tribute to his courage in helping India reclaim it from Pakistani intruders. We felt we could hear him speak to us. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching image was of Vishal reading aloud a letter he had written to his twin ten years ago, his voice resounding in the stillness of the mountains, a tearful, but proud salute marking his final farewell.

After the war, people asked how I tackled the fear. The truth is that there was no time to process it. One just kept pace with the breathless turn of events, lying flat on the roadbehind the giant shield of an army truck tyre, trying to speak over the thunder of artillery pounding Tiger Hill, spending more than a night in the car or behind a rock when the car got shelled. All this left no time to take cognizance of the risks. The acute awareness of being a woman and the determined resolve that none should call me ‘fragile’ or ‘weak’ made me self-conscious even in overwhelmingly tense situations.

I remember a long night spent huddled in an underground bunker with soldiers who were to go up for an assault the next morning. These men had just saved our lives, lunging to push us away from an ammunition dump targeted by Pakistani shelling and then offering us their bunker to keep us safe. We sat around a decrepit tape recorder listening to Kenny Rogers’ country music, trying our best to stay calm. In the accelerated intimacy that can only be created by situations where the lines blur between life and death, we felt instantly sentimental about these young soldiers. But, when the moment came to say goodbye and good-luck to them, my male colleagues cried openly, as I buried my face in my shirtsleeves and fought back the tears, resolved that none should ever throw my gender in my face once the war was over.

Navigating the complex issues of gender equality is something I learnt from my mother. Even before I understood what journalism was all about, I remember her storming intomy school demanding to know how and why I had been stopped from pursuing a woodcraft class on the basis of being a girl. The course, which required use of heavy saws and hammers, was absurdly open only to the boys. My mother would have none of it. Her spunk was legendary. As was her insistence on perfection and her contempt for mediocrity. As a person she was a deeply loyal friend, a yaaron ka yaar, but as a professional she was entirely willing to be unpopular, sometimes at great risk to herself, to me and my younger sister. As children, we remember hushed conversations around the dining table about one or the other threat from theprotagonists of her investigative reports. My father, an Air India official, spent several years posted away from India. So often, it was just the three of us in the house. I have vivid memories of stalkers lurking about in the lane outside, mysterious callers who would hang up after calling, and serious attempts at physical intimidation. None of it could quell Prabha Dutt. Whether it was scooping a story on the use of beef tallow in shudh vanaspati, or busting a medical scam at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, she had an irrepressible conviction. When the jail authorities denied her permission to interview Billa and Ranga, the notorious murderers who had been handed a death sentence for kidnapping and killing two school children, Geeta and Sanjay Chopra, she went to court against the decision. Not surprisingly she got her interview just before the two men were executed. And Prabha Dutt vs Union of India entered the annals of case law. Many years later, in pursuit of a similar interview, I would use it as legal precedent. However, I did not have her luck or, perhaps, her single-minded focus.

Though my mother died when I was very young, there is one thing I learnt from her early on. In life, you can only be true to yourself. The rest be damned. As I evolved into a journalist reporting on different issues, I found that some viewers and readers had a propensity to box you in with labels. My reporting on different conflict zones across the world has involved years spent reporting from Jammu and Kashmir. It is a state where, to borrow from Akira Kurosawa, there are at least seven shades of truth, if not more. The sacrifices of the military, of which I am a huge admirer, have co-existed with unforgivable human rights violations of which I am an outspoken critic.

The gains made by two transparent Assembly elections and a recently concluded panchayat election, have co-existed with a genuine sense of alienation in the Kashmir Valley. The shameful exodus of the Pandits is as much a truth of the state as are the many injustices heaped on its people whenever justice is subverted. Every time I have tried to reflect one orthe other nuance of this complex issue, I find the other side pouncing on me in anger. So, for the same series of reports, I have often been branded both ‘agent of the state’ and ‘antinational’. It is from my mother that I learnt to disregard dogmas and labels ascribed to you by others and carry on with whatever you believe in. It is also from her that I learnt that nothing can substitute good, old-fashioned field reporting. In a television industry increasingly glamourised and, I would say, dulled by the stifling sameness of studio chatter, my first love has remained being out there – chasing a new adventure. Whether it is reporting on the tsunami that swept India, or from Pakistan after Osama bin Laden was killed, or from Egypt and Libya during the Arab Spring, or from the villages of India during election campaigns, it is only out in the field that you can grow as a journalist.

But there’s one story Prabha Dutt got to report on that has left her daughter deeply envious. On my wall is a photograph of my mother squeezed between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, matter-of-factly chatting with them on their India tour. Now that is something for which I would trade a lot! Today, I only hope that I will do my mother proud. Getting the same award as she did means more to me than so many other recognitions.

Barkha Dutt is currently Group Editor at NDTV 24x7 and host of the weekly show, ‘We the People’. She won the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1999, for her reporting on the Orissa cyclone and the Kargil War. Her mother, Prabha Dutt, won the award in 1982.

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