Alert to the phone cradled by her side, as she sits one leg tucked under, Sagarika Ghose looks pretty, sharp and driven — a fair reflection of the dynamism of modern-day media. In equal measure, she is the keen observer of the old journalist school and the passionate campaigner, who marks the 21st century shift from old press to new media.
She’s part appalled and part incredulous about the reviews of her second novel, Blind Faith. The novel was crafted to capture the many conflicts between orthodox religion and evolving dimensions and between the genders as they change form and role.
Considering the panorama of the emotions that play across the novel’s canvas, it is only befitting that the reviews be a bit of a mystery. Reader reviews have liked the book and consider it a far better read than her first novel The Gin Drinkers. Not so the professional reviewers who have, sometimes, been scathing, vicious even, about the journalist’s tryst with the Kumbh. This is what flummoxes the author and she is as scathing about the critics as they have been about her. “The book is about the Kumbh, about the conflicts of religion. But they didn’t get that. The reactions were very petty. Unintelligent reading is foisted on the public.
I am an intensely political writer. Yet, some have called it a teen romance! I just don’t get it.” An author trashing reviewers? Oh yes, Ghose is in full flow now. “The reviewers are an incestuous club thrashing books. They have a very cavalier attitude to reading. That bothers me. I do carry a lot of baggage with me. My persona as a journalist. People see you on TV and expect something, I don’t know what. When you’re young, although I’m not so young, and you’re attractive, although I’m not so attractive, you are Enemy No. 1.” A quick switch to her centre of attention now, religion.
“It took me five years to write this book. I went to cover the MahaKumbh in 2001. Anyone who has seen the Kumbh cannot but be moved — its sheer unobtrusive grandeur. Religion’s spine of steel that has endured. I went as a sceptic. But it was a leap of faith, that makes you accept a radical concept like the Advaita. The Kumbh is the ultimate symbol of Advaita. The plurality of one. We scorn religion. But when you experience a truly religious phenomenon, you have to accept its sheer magnificence.”
If The Gin Drinkers was cathartic, then Blind Faith captures the restless energy of the ‘seeker’. Having tested the waters, Ghose hopes to weave in more Kumbh impressions into her next book, which she’s planning “not before 2008”.
There’s no taking her away from the Kumbh — “the VHP was there; they were nothing. One scraggly group on the sidelines”. Insights — “There’s so much to learn from our texts. Religion can give us modern ideas. Take Gandhari, for instance. Her calling card as queen was her blindness. Where else do you see a handicap made into a strength? The whole notion of disability is turned on its head.” Despair, “people expect the same kind of Indian novel — Chandni Chowk, Partition — it shows the degree of mental enslavement.” Also, “We don’t write about our religion enough. We haven’t given it dignity — the sheer enormity of Hinduism and its totally quiet quality.” Then, as she sees me to the door, “Go to the Kumbh. You must.” And the critics, I expect, can jump into the Ganga.