Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Daughter Courage
This Wednesday morning Washington Post and HT columnist and owner of the digital news network MoJo Story, Barkha Dutt, grief stricken from the loss of her father to Covid-19 a few days earlier and wan and pale from contracting the disease herself, performed a simple ceremony to honour his memory — mixing his ashes into the mud of his favourite rose plant and two evergreen trees in her garden, she knelt in silent prayer to seek his blessings and bid him goodbye.
Then, changing into a cotton salwar-kurta, her de rigueur work garb, and duly masked with her PPE kit at hand, she got in her car accompanied by her loyal team, to hit the road again and report on the unfolding Covid catastrophe wreaking havoc across the country.
In many ways Dutt could be called a first responder to the pandemic. Ever since March last year, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden all-India lockdown, which had rendered millions of migrant workers jobless, homeless and walking, often with their children, aged parents and belongings on their shoulders, back to their villages, Dutt had walked shoulder to shoulder with them, bringing their unimaginable anguish and pain to the drawing rooms of the world.
The journey, which had begun in Gurugram, Delhi on March 27, had seen Dutt travel by road through Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka and Ladakh among other states. Unlike big traditional news media outlets, Dutt had gone where none would or could, affording her viewers direct access to the heart of the crisis, not its numbers and statistics, but real people, penniless and distraught caught in the vice-like grip of a human tragedy.
For instance, it was Dutt in Mumbai, during the early days of the lockdown who had chanced upon an old woman named Lilavati, sobbing and alone outside a railway station. Hers was not a catastrophe directly related to Covid, but a part of its collateral damage. Beaten and abandoned by her children, she’d arrived at the station that day, clutching half a packet of biscuits, in the hope of catching a train out of the city. The ominous silence of the platform and lifeless trains were reminder of the individual, particular anguish behind every statistic. Dutt, for once at a loss for words, had simply wrapped her arms around the weeping woman, wiped away her tears and ensured that she was put on the first available train and securely received.
It had also been Dutt’s relentless reporting from the ground which had galvanised a range of individuals to launch initiatives for rescue and relief. Whereas traditional media outlets concentrated on in-studio talking head debates, Dutt, with her one-man rag tag army, was bringing home the crisis one step, one face, one tragedy at a time.
New York-based chef Vikas Khanna recalls how it was Dutt’s reporting from a petrol station deep in the hinterland, which had given him the idea to launch his philanthropic mission Feed India and use gas stations as distribution centres. To date, it has served over 54 million meals to the hungry.
“My life from March to November 2020 has been a chronicle of graveyards, cremation grounds, hospitals, death, tragedy and loss. I continue to experience the opposite of a lockdown, having been out there and on the road for most of this year,” she said about that period of her life when she had thrown caution to the wind and followed the story to the heart of its sorrow.
But it was in the pandemic’s deadly second wave that Dutt has really come into her own. Sensing the oncoming tidal wave, with her reporter’s instinct and almost to the exact day of the launch of her previous year’s OnTheRoad reporting, she returned to the road on March 24 this year, determined to spend the coming months as a traveling itinerant reporter once again.
This time, with hospitals morgues and crematoriums overflowing, there had been an ominous urgency and desperation to her coverage.
It had been only a few days later while in Mumbai that she’d received the news of her father testing positive for Covid-19 in Delhi. “Keep him in your prayers,” she had posted, from her makeshift studio on a pavement outside a cremation in Ghatkopar, where a weeping man had said to her: “First, there was no space at the hospital, now there’s no space at the shamshan.”
“I (will) learn or try to learn to walk that tightrope between being a distraught daughter and a tough, clear-headed, calm professional,” she’d written, as she doggedly continued her relentless reportage.
But ultimately the distraught daughter had to return home. Her father’s condition had deteriorated rapidly, and against his wishes, he was advised hospital treatment. Dutt had promised to bring him home in two days. But it was a promise she could not keep. “My father Speedy, kind, gentle, compassionate, lost his battle to Covid this morning.” She wrote on April 27. His last words to her had been: “I’m choking, treat me.”
The fact that Dutt had now become part of the story that she’d been reporting for the past year, did not escape her. Putting aside her personal anguish she spoke to the world’s media, telling them how despite her bereavement and illness, it was her duty to soldier on. “All I can do now by way of tribute is to redouble my commitment to giving voice to those who don’t have one. It might be the only correct way to mourn my father.”
But such is the climate of hate and polarisation in the country that even in her moment of profound suffering, Dutt’s detractors did not spare her. Her reportage from crematoriums and morgues earned her the sobriquet “vulture” from those who had long hated the guts of this independent, outspoken woman; and her personal tragedy was dismissed by them as “a PR stunt”.
“But Barkha’s a karma yogi,” says one among her many admirers, Delhi-based veteran foreign correspondent Padma Rao, who as a cub reporter had hero-worshipped Dutt’s iconic firebrand journalist mother the late Prabha Dutt, a role model for a generation of women. “Poisonous, jealous people can go fly a kite, Barkha will never be stopped. She’s Prabha’s daughter, after all,” she said.
And Rao is right. Because not even a fortnight after losing her father, Prabha and SPEEDY’s daughter, untethered and free, once again glides across the Indian landscape, gathering momentum and strength.
After all, not for nothing had her parents named her “Cloudburst”.