The experience of interviewing a journalist is daunting, to say the least. There is a constant feeling of your questions being microscopically analysed, and a co-morbid fear that they will be torn to shreds. It doesn’t help the confidence of the interviewer—yours truly—that the reputation and resumé of the journalist in question precede her by a few good miles. Sagarika Ghose’s latest authorial venture—a biography of Indira Gandhi—was the subject of discussion on her recent visit to Ashoka University. As she discussed Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister with a packed audience, I frantically revised my notes on her past outings as a fiction writer. My questions were supposed to allow me to understand her journey from Oxford and a semi-autobiographical debut novel—The Gin Drinkers—to Sonepat and a political biography. I should have known that this endeavour would itself necessitate travelling across multiple themes.
Ghose’s proneness to globetrotting in both her life and writings coincide perfectly with our journal’s ethos of locating identity in geography and language. The inevitable starting point of our conversation, therefore, was the centrality of Delhi in our lives. Ashoka is located in Delhi’s backyard, and Sagarika’s debut novel, The Gin Drinkers, is “very much a Delhi novel”. It’s easy to presume that seventeen years after having written a book, recollections about it would be a little hazy—but not with Sagarika Ghose. Having placed The Gin Drinkers in Delhi, Ghose insists on the novel’s internationalism: “The geography of [the novel] is kind of Oxford as well; there is an English boyfriend too.” She recalls how a lot of the book is actually autobiographical, as “a lot of first novels tend to be”. With the protagonist having graduated from Oxford? Definitely! But what about the other characters? “They’re real people, you know,” she says. Are they aware of dramatis personae being modelled after them? “I think they kind of figured it out, yeah,” she concludes laughingly.
It is not just her characters that make Sagarika’s fiction autobiographical—her personal ideology does too. For instance, Sagarika admits to having had an “angst about being an English-speaking person in a colonial society”. Reminiscing back to ‘growing up’ during her time at Oxford, she elaborates on this colonial angst. “We were less confident about our global identity in those days,” she recalls, “much more tentative, ridden with anxieties about, you know, ‘why the hell does my mother know so much about Lady Di?!’”
The focus of attention might have seen a transatlantic shift, from the English Royal family to Trump, but the conundrum of not feeling sufficiently Indian due to our obsession with the rest of the world stays. Her twenty-three-year-old self’s disquiet, that she was not ‘a real Indian’ or a ‘true native,’ was her reality then—the “complex” was a part of her “youthful self”. Three decades later, she is comfortable in her own skin—in being the “irreverent Indian”. Ghose now finds that reality is as simple as “what you are, and where you are”. For her, “the search for reality is the only reality”.
Intrigued by this perspective, I wondered how she finds her identity in the jumble of professional and personal roles that she performs. As a journalist, is life necessarily a series of displacements or is there rootedness to be found? Ghose is quick to answer—it is the former. As it turns out, it is precisely the displacement that she loves; she thrives on it. “There is nothing like displacement to really wake you up,” she claims. They say that one goes to the West to discover the East, and comes to the East to discover the West. In her experience, Ghose finds that truer words have scarcely been said: “I was desperately thinking about India all the time I was in Oxford, and in here I am thinking desperately of Oxford.” But by no means is that a wish for a more stationary life. There is nothing quite like the “enormous sense of fun, and upliftment [that comes from] seeing something that you haven’t seen before. Travelling, meeting people, recording their lives, writing about it, writing about their impressions, and then thinking about things, thinking about what and how that makes you feel, it’s just a magical experience. And I think as a reporter I’ve loved travelling. So, displacement has been very important to me.”
However, it seems that all roads come back to Delhi. While Ghose loves the occupational hazard of being a political journalist—travel, “being out there” on the field—the Mecca of Indian politics that is Delhi keeps her rooted to some extent. Her relationship with the city is slightly complicated. It is a city that she loves for its cosmopolitanism: “nobody belongs to Delhi, and Delhi belongs to no one. It is a wicked city, a bad old town.” She has written a lot about Delhi but most of her writing, including her journalism, she tells me, actually comes from having travelled out of Delhi. “My creative juices really flow when I am displaced out of Delhi.” So is it the city that she always comes home to? Sagarika equivocates. Her first impulse is to answer in the affirmative. Yet, she is wary of describing home as a purely geographical location. She thinks she comes back to “different homes, different spaces, and different experiences—as a kid, an undergraduate, a wife, a mother, a journalist. Home is more a centeredness with family spaces, work, and myself”. For her, then, rootedness “really comes from a recognition of where you stand, and where you are at the crossroads in your particular emotional and psychological development; it’s your journey and how that experience impacts you at that particular moment in time. Perhaps, if you had been in a different mode in a different time it would have impacted you differently. I believe it is a conversation between where you stand and what you’re experiencing. I guess that is the rootedness of displacements—they relay the conversation between you and your experience.”
As someone whose current geographic identity is close to undefinable, I couldn’t agree more. Most people from my hometown are ignorant of the existence of Sonepat; I tell them that I study in Dilli. Much like going home, Delhi is the city that I go to almost every weekend. Yet, for the past year, “going back”, and “home” have always meant coming to a certain Plot Number Two, tucked away in an obscure town that straddles two states.