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Monday, Aug 19, 2019

Review: Illiberal India; Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by Chidanand Rajghatta

A reminder of lapses in India’s recent history, Illiberal India also looks at the individual behind the persona that Gauri Lankesh has become since her death

books Updated: Sep 22, 2018 09:44 IST
Avantika Mehta
Avantika Mehta
Hindustan Times
Demonstrators hold up placards against the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh during a 'Not In My Name' protest in New Delhi on September 7, 2017.
Demonstrators hold up placards against the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh during a 'Not In My Name' protest in New Delhi on September 7, 2017.(AFP)
204pp, Rs 499; Westland Books
204pp, Rs 499; Westland Books

The day Gauri Lankesh was assassinated was the first time I heard of her. A child when she reported for Times of India, I did not mourn her individual death. Instead it felt like the death of an idea, or ideals. How did India become so debased that its citizens are gunned down for disagreeing with the majority? Slowly and with impunity says Illiberal India, Chidanand Rajghatta’s tribute to his ex-wife and lifelong friend.

Illiberal India is as much an intimate look at the woman behind the persona that Lankesh has become since her death as it is a reminder that India’s history as “Outragistan” paved the road towards its present state of “Lynchistan.” A memoir of sorts about Lankesh’s life, Rajghatta’s remembrances of her are poignant and paint a portrait of a passionate, unafraid woman unable to see injustices without wanting to correct them.

Even as it begins with email exchanges that are light, jocular, Lankesh’s zeal and commitment to justice are evident. But the author paints a more intricate picture of his friend. Her gentle teasing over his new born son’s name, a quiet way in which she promises to not drown him in debates so they can maintain their friendship, her elation at Obama’s 2008 win — “It’s good to know America still has a heart.” These are marks of a sensitive, intelligent woman with a tender heart, a feisty personality and an inherent sense of humour. After reading those exchanges, Lankesh is no longer just an icon but an individual whose loss is deeply felt by the reader.

Author Chidanand Rajghatta
Author Chidanand Rajghatta ( Courtesy Westland )

As Rajghatta chronicles their lives together and Lankesh’s life after their brief marriage, it is evident her priorities as a journalist were the polar opposite of what most in the profession strive for these days. She wasn’t a woman chasing TRPs; she believed in reporting from the ground; not missing details; ensuring that marginalized voices weren’t drowned out amid the din of majoritarian ire and privilege. Her close relationships with student leaders like Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid and Kanhaiya Kumar are well documented. What stands out throughout the book is her disregard for her own safety in pursuit of the truth and her hatred for irrationality and extremism.

Watch: Interview with Chidanand Rajghatta

Simultaneously, Rajghatta — a veteran journalist himself — leads his reader through the history of a constantly “fermented” contemporary India. Readers are confronted with key moments when Indian society revealed itself to be driven by hate, intolerance, and worst of all, apathy. The story of Lankesh and Rajghatta’s professor at the National College in Bengaluru, the banning of Satanic Verses, or the treatment of MF Hussain over his paintings of goddesses in the nude; the author points out moments in history that could have changed the present, had anyone cared enough to take notice and act.

Read more: Excerpt: Illiberal India; Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by Chidanand Rajghatta

The picture he paints of India is grim, especially for an author who starts out calling himself a centralist. We are alive in an ugly time in our history. At best we can hope to learn from it, or continue to repeat past and present mistakes till the nation is led to civil war. Whatever we become, the author and his book make it clear that this current intolerant and bigoted India is ugly, the nation at its worst. “Not the India that Gauri and her ilk lived and died for.”

Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

First Published: Sep 21, 2018 20:14 IST

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