On The Itinerant As Philosopher: An Interview With Aman Sethi

Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, a portrait of a day laborer in modern Delhi, is the latest contribution to an emerging subgenre of creative nonfictional books about Indian cities—itself a subset of a growing fascination with the poetics and practices of the metropolises of the Global South—that includes Suketu Mehta’sMaximum City (2004), Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012), and Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta (2013). A Free Man is not a tract, not a plea for social justice, not a cri de coeur about subaltern immiseration; it offers countless insights into the quotidian lives of Delhi’s poor, but is also funny, fabulistic, full of vagrant personality. Following a public conversation at New York University between Sethi, Nigerian American novelist Teju Cole, and British Asian writer Sukhdev Sandhu, this interview was conducted by phone between New York and Addis Ababa on December 12, 2012. Belying techno-boosterist platitudes about the speed and ease of contemporary communications, a poor connection meant that the recording was fragmented, full of dropouts and sonic sputtering, making transcription—and subsequent publication—a lengthy process.

SUKHDEV SANDHU (SS): In some countries, I suppose particularly in the UK, journalism is a profession that people despise only slightly less than that of politicians. What is the status of journalism in contemporary India?

AMAN SETHI (AS): It is definitely mixed. There’s a lot about the Indian media that appalls the public for very good reasons. There are numerous allegations that journalists in India are too close to power, that journalists in India are inherently conservative. And a lot of that is true. But when you’re traveling through places outside the metropolis, my interactions with people suggest that they still think that the media has a significant role to play in somehow checking power. So I don’t think they’re despised, yet.

SS: Indian journalist friends of mine who may be trained, or partially trained, in the West, or who’ve lived in a number of countries, they often talk about India—and also China, and some other countries—as factories of stories. That almost on a daily basis, there are dramas that would consume Western media organizations for a year or for a decade. And they almost encourage their friends who have an interest in storytelling or narration to go East, to go to India, because there it will be fertile for their imaginations. Is that a point of view that you have some sympathy for?

AS: Well, I think it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you write. That is a question that I’ve been asking myself a lot over the past few months. Until this year, I’d only worked in journalism in India, and, a few months ago in August this year [2012], I moved to Ethiopia to cover Africa, which is, of course, a very large leap for my newspaper. In India, I think journalism happens when you can hold power accountable for attacks. Now that I’m in Addis [Ababa], I’m trying to figure out what my role means. I used to cover the Maoist insurgency and mining and corruption. In Africa, my role is more explanatory and still, there’s huge amounts of nuance that I’m missing because I just haven’t been born in that context. I would basically say that journalists should probably just follow the story that they find interesting, rather than, you know, deciding that one part or another part of the world is more exciting.

SS: What was your journalistic training like? You studied both in Chennai and at Columbia. Were there different emphases? Lots of people regard certain American journalism programs as the gold standard for anyone aspiring to be a reporter. What were comparative experiences like?

AS: So, I think it is true that a lot of people in India do think that programs like the Columbia journalism, or, you know, the NYU program are programs to aspire to. Chennai is in some ways modeled on the journalism school at Columbia, and occasionally professors visit from there. I found the Chennai school very good, because the good professors taught in a way which was almost like a crash course on the humanities. I found myself reading Foucault, for instance. At Columbia, I deliberately chose the business journalism program because I found that in the course of my reporting in India, on mining specifically, I found I couldn’t really understand the documents. So I came to Columbia with a specific focus on learning how to read a balance sheet and these kinds of things.

SS: In the West, people are very excited about their perception, or how they see India. They talk about the prominence of magazines such as The Caravan orFrontline. There are many Western organizations—media companies—investing in Indian companies. In a period of recession and declining readership, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow seems to be the Indian literate middle classes. At the same time, there’s an idea of an ever-growing interest in Indian nonfiction, and [this] globally. As someone who’s worked in some of those organizations, does it feel like an exciting or prosperous time for the kinds of writing and journalism you’re interested in?

AS: One question is the growing market; that’s of course true. A lot of it has to do with demographics; it has to do with a rising literacy rate. There’s going to be a few more years of, you know, increasing literacy, more and more people. More and more readers, actually—the size of the market’s still growing. And then of course there’s English literacy—then English literacy as a subset of general literacy. And that’s also, of course, rising. So there is truth to the idea that we’re still finding new readers. That it’s not a zero-sum game at this point, that magazines and newspapers can grow without taking readership away from each other. So on that front, it is an exciting time for writing in the Indian newspaper industry.
But Indian newspapers aren’t necessarily breaking new ground when it comes to reportage. There’s a huge difference between magazine readership and newspaper readership. And when it comes to books, in India, most print runs are like four or five thousand copies, six thousand copies. Books and magazines are relatively small numbers.

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