Monday, September 7, 2009
An interview with Rina Mukherji, a journalist in India, on important issues of the day
PHOTO CAPTION: Rina Mukherji with her daughter [see note at bottom of page for explanation of photo].
An interview with Rina Mukherji
webposted by D.Bloom in Taiwan on September 15, 2009
Meet Rina Mukherji. She is an Indian journalist based in Kolkata, who has a keen interest in many compelling issues of our day, both in her own country and overseas as well. In a recent email interview, we sat down with Rina to ask her a few questions about her writing, her interests, her family life and her concerns for the future.
[Rina is a Kolkata-based journalist who has had a long career writing on business, politics, law, science, medical research and a host of developmental issues –in short, everything under the sun. She is a highly-acclaimed environmental journalist whose articles have been widely published in India and abroad. She writes in both English and Hindi, and has worked for several national dailies and magazines in Mumbai and Kolkata. She has freelanced for nearly all major Indian publications so far. She also holds a doctorate in African Studies, and has several academic articles to her credit in books and journals. She has qualified in classical Indian dance forms such as Kathak, Bharat Natyam and Kathakali, and has a special love for Hindustani classical music, which she considers a great form of relaxation. She loves to compose poems and pen short-stories and has had several of her works published in literary magazines. Painting in oils and water-colours, cooking, knitting and embroidery are her other passions.]
Question: You have been writing about development issues for a long time, of course.
What do you feel were your most important stories so far?
Rina Mukherji: Now, that’s a tough one. However, I must say that of all that I have written, there are three stories that are very close to my heart.
One was headlined "Stranded in the Sundarbans", which was published in The Hindu, on February 24, 2008 [www.thehindu.com/mag/2008/02/24/index.htm].
This story was on the effect that global warming and rising levels are having on the poorest sections of the Indian population. Prior to that article, I had done numerous articles dealing with the issue, starting with the disappearance of two islands in the Indian Sundarbans into the Bay of Bengal due to the rising sea level. But each story dealt with one aspect of the problem -- namely biodiversity, people, agriculture, or salinity. This was the first article of mine that dealt comprehensively with the entire gamut of problems that we are facing in the eastern region.
I wrote it for The Hindu, which is the biggest newspaper in southern India and is one of the major national dailies, to apprise the rest of India with the gravity of the situation in the Indian Sundarbans. This article was widely quoted all over the country and abroad, and achieved what I had intended to.
Subsequent to my article being published in The Hindu, there has been a lot of attention given by the authorities and the media to the problems being faced by already-marginalized people all over the country. Perhaps, this has not been enough for the poorest in the Sundarbans; but at least, it has been a beginning which I hope, shall translate into much more in terms of relief.
Another story that I am proud of was titled "Worth Trust’s able work force". and it appeared in "CIVIL SOCIETY" in January 2009 [ http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/Jan09/jan094.asp ]
The disabled or handicapped are either an object of pity, or else never considered worth being trusted to do anything worthwhile to be counted as worthy citizens of society. But the Worth Trust and its work is an exception. Run by a conglomerate of industrial groups, it is a rare institution and workplace where the disabled are employed as employees on par with the able-bodied and paid as per industry standards. Most significantly, it is unlike any do-good NGO that calls on people to donate to keep it going. The website only requests visitors to please inform the trust of disabled persons they can employ. Very few people know of this place; and I feel proud and immensely happy of having got my readers to know of it.
The third piece I want to spotlight was titled "Devi Cult and the Girl Child", which was published on the South Asian Women’s Forum’s webzine CONNECT [http://www.sawf.org/newedit/edit09192005/gendervoices.asp ].
Although this was written for a little-known webzine, it dealt with a subject I felt strongly about all my life. As a little girl growing up in a Hindu home, I always resented the manner in which the birth of a girl-child was dreaded. You may have heard about female infanticide indulged in by the rustic and illiterate in Indian villages. But educated, urbane Indians who may or may not indulge in female foeticide continue to be prejudiced against girl-children. Begetting a girl-child is considered unlucky, while a boy-child is always welcome. No one ever talks of a girl being expected; a pregnant woman is said to be "expecting" a baby boy.
The column in the webzine -- "Gender Voices" -- gave me the opportunity to write on many issues that are generally swept under the carpet, and I therefore consider the column to have marked an important phase in my professional life, in spite of the fact that I was an unpaid contributor for the webzine.
Question: You studied science at university, majoring in chemistry and then
you followed it up
with a Master's Degree in Politics, and then a doctorate in
African Studies. In your life, in terms of your university studies and
your career goals, who was your mentor and who were your most important
teachers in school or at home?
Rina: You know, in India, it is very rare to find a mentor. Ours was a typical Hindu home; where a girl-child is never in the reckoning. My parents never bothered to think of or encourage me to have a career of my own. When I won prizes at the inter-school or inter-college level, my parents never bothered to cheer me on. A girl-child is only looked upon as a potential home-maker. Of course, it makes most Indian girl-children grow up more mature than their counterparts elsewhere. My choice of career, my doctoral fellowship, everything was my own doing.
But that said, I would also single out certain professors at the university who recognized my talents and encouraged me to attain all I wanted to. They include my doctoral guide, Professor R. R. Ramchandani, and the then Head of our Centre for African Studies and currently Director, Centre for International Strategic and Development Studies, Professor A. B. Sawant.
I have a small personality problem. I cannot spend years working on just one subject. I get bored easily, and hence need constant intellectual stimulation. I need to move on from one subject to another in quick succession. These professors encouraged me to do so, and thus I found myself research and write on many different subjects.
Professionally, this quality was appreciated by several editors in organizations that I worked for. Here, I would single out Mr Hari Jaisingh, Resident Editor at the Indian Express, Mumbai in the late 1980s, Mr Anish Gupta of the Hindustan Times, Kolkata, and Ms Rita Anand (editor, CIVIL SOCIETY) whom I am writing for right now. All of them gave me the freedom to work on a myriad subjects I wanted to work on, and I unfailingly come up with some of my best stories day after day.
I loved to study; and even today, I want to learn. Every subject I handle, every article I write means a new learning experience that I cherish. I hated the compartmentalization of knowledge which is the norm in Indian universities. That is precisely why I ultimately chose an interdisciplinary subject to do my doctorate in. (In fact, it was one of the first interdisciplinary subjects introduced by the University Grants Commission at the research level).
I loved to write, and loved to learn. I was certain that I did not want to teach; it was too boring a profession for me. I loved excitement and wanted to do something to change the way things were. It was around the very first year of college that I had started freelancing for newspapers and magazines; and absolutely loved it. It was after my master's degree that I seriously thought of training to be a journalist. That was what prompted me to do a post-graduate course in journalism and mass communications, and become a professional journalist.
QUESTION: You cover every aspect of development now, from child
rights, education, disability, human rights, the environment, gender, health. What do you think is the most important development issue now in
India, and also in other parts of the world?
RINA: Overpopulation and illiteracy, in my opinion, is the bane of the developing world. This is what is affecting us all.
Whatever our rate of economic growth, our achievements on the economic front get negated in the face of an unplanned population growth. We have a huge population of one billion. We cannot afford to provide the basic necessities and housing for these people, faced as we are with limited resources. There is not enough land for our people; every natural calamity hits our people harder. There are not enough jobs; and not enough money going around totrain the poorest in skills that can make them useful. Overpopulation breeds illiteracy, and illiteracy limits access to resources. It is this, more than anything else, which accounts for what is being termed the clash of civilizations, violence and war everywhere.
QUESTION: The world is facing possible global warming and climate change in
the next 500 years. What do you think we can do to prepare for this
now, and should we as a human species be worried about the future?
RINA: I have a problem with your question: we are already facing the consequences of global warming -- right here and now! We have already lost two islands in the Indian Sundarbans, and there are many more getting swallowed rapidly by the seas. The same is the case with certain islands in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. The problem is getting exacerbated by population pressures here in this densely-populated region. Cross-border infiltration in the Indian Sundarbans is causing the forests to disappear, as trees get illegally felled and forests cleared by people in need of a place to settle down.
In addition to planning our families, we need to conserve our forests. Our carelessness in taking nature for granted has caused the depletion of our groundwater levels. Large-scale irrigation has only worsened matters, (as a recent report by U.S. scientists on the basis of satellite imagery has just revealed). Organic farming and indigenous crop varieties suited to our soil should provide the best bulwark to this problem. In addition, our coastline is suffering from increasing salinity, which in turn, is causing a drinking water problem for the population. Cyclones and storm surges only worsen this problem. This time, the Indian Sundarbans cannot yield a single crop, owing to saline water from the seas having overrun the farmlands.
We cannot turn back the clock on global warming. But if we move to crop varieties that are salinity-resistant and need less water, it can help us overcome the worst effects of global warming.
Similarly, strengthening public transport, and lesser reliance on vehicles that emit noxious fumes, can contribute to reducing the sum total of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
QUESTION: Do you believe in a God or in gods -- or what kind of spiritual base
do you use to gain
emotional and intellectual clarity about life?
RINA: Being an Indian and a Hindu has made me realize that all religions are true; it is only that they follow disparate paths to the same destination. Hence, each one subscribes to the same basic tenets of right thinking, simple living, honesty and charity. To me, my conscience is the personal God I believe in. It is the sum total of revelation and reason that define my faith.
I must admit that I do not believe in rituals, since most are based on superstition. To me, work is worship. I derive innate strength from reading religious philosophy, and striving to experience the Almighty in nature.
QUESTION: You have
also covered lifestyle, art, film, music and dance in the past (and
occasionally write on these even now) and you have also written on
literature, faith and religion. How do the arts play an important role in
our lives? How does religion play an important role in our lives?
RINA: When man moved on to a settled life, the idea of an omnipotent God/Goddess came in. The desire for Order had the elders formulate religion.
The performing and fine arts had their origins in religion. In India, classical music had its origins in the vedic hymns; just as church choirs seem to be the precursor of all music in the West. Classical dance forms in India developed in temples, as a stylized form of worshipping the deity. The most beautiful sculptures and frescoes we see in India are found in the Indian cave temples of yore.
In India, you will find the roots of the Chinese yin and yang. Ancient India never considered the Almighty to be a He (unlike the Semitic religions from the Middle East -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In India, the Almighty was always considered to be Ardhanarishwar -- or a Supreme Being with the qualities of both the male and female. Our dance and music compositions are all aimed at celebrating this reality. Additionally, we appreciate the anahad (immanent) and aahad (struck) naads, or immanent /inherent sounds in nature, and the ones produced by striking on various instruments.
Similarly, the very first books written were of a religious nature. Secular writing came much later. To me, the idea of religion is related to the need for order in society. Literature, the fine and performing arts are aimed at helping us realize the Supreme Being, by lifting our spirits higher and appreciate the world better.
QUESTION: What is your favorite way to be happy? What leisure time activites
give you the most pleasure and inner happiness?
RINA: I love to read, dance, sing, embroider and knit, watch movies, and of course, travel. But not necessarily in that order!
Of course, as a mother, I have found special pleasure in nurturing my daughter, and seeing her grow up. It may be a tough task balancing work and home; but I will say that it has definitely been worth it. Spending a mere week holidaying with my husband and daughter rejuvenates me for the next 15 months, in the least!
QUESTION: Are you hopeful about the future of humankind and this planet, or
do you despair a bit from time to time?
RINA: One hears a lot about how the West has caused global warming to reach the present level; but on my trips abroad, it was heartening to see a lot of awareness at the individual level. Scandinavians are extremely mindful about such matters; in Spain, you find most people using public transport, or else cycling away on their chores. Although there are a lot of private vehicles in the U.S., pollution norms are strictly followed.
In our country, it is the lack of reliable public transport that compels people to fall back on private vehicles. In many parts of the country, pollution norms are ignored. It is this that makes me despair. When I see the condition of our coastal people, who must battle the rising seas, loss of livelihoods and an acute drinking-water problem, I cannot but wring my hands in helplessness.
There are many yet who ignore the need for planning their families, and fail to understand the imperatives of the day. It is high time that people realized that our resources are limited. We cannot colonize another Earth!
Unless mankind practises restraint, we will all sink!
IN A PERSONAL ASIDE, RINA ADDS: "In case this is of any interest to you or readers of your blog here, on a more personal note, I am a Hindu married to a Parsi (Zoroastrian). Ours is an inter-religious marriage -- something of a rarity in India. (Perhaps that is what got a friend of ours to write about our marriage being one of the most successful inter-religious /inter-community marriages to keep going for years. Although neither of us is rigidly religious, we celebrate both Hindu and Zoroastrian festivals at home. And yes, my husband
is very well up in all kinds of religious philosophy; religious writings are his favourite non-fiction reading.He can explain every nuance of religious /theosophical belief."
PERSONAL ASIDE, part 2: Regarding the photo above, it was taken at the time of our daughter's Navjot. Navjot refers to a thread ceremony performed by Zoroastrians. This is akin to that done by the Hindus among the upper castes. Nav (new) jot (light, or enlightenment) refers to a ceremony that makes Hindus or Zoroastrians twice-born or enlightened. I would say, it is something like Christian baptism in the West.
However, among Hindus, the privilege is bestowed on males only. Zoroastrians give the opportunity to both males and females. A Zoroastrian child does not belong to the community unless this ceremony is performed by the age of nine.
Since my husband and I got married under the Special Marriages Act, our child is free to choose whichever religion she wants to follow. The two of us follow our respective religions; she makes her own decision once she becomes an adult. The ceremony recognizes her as a Zoroastrian; if she wants to follow that religion, she is free to do so. In case she wants to be a Hindu, she can do so, too.
Posted by DANIELBLOOM at 4:09 AM