Why you should care
Because Samanth Subramanian’s got the ear of the West and the voice of the East. And as India rises, so will his writing.
For someone who serendipitously turned out to be a journalist, Samanth Subramanian has an enviable gig these days. The 33-year-old native of the south Indian city of Chennai wrote his first book before he turned 30. He’s written (really) long pieces about politicians, media barons, Carnatic music, advertisement campaigns, corporate managers with bipolar disorders and Indian colas — among other things. In short, he has the kind of rare job that lets him write about anything, everything, and exactly what he wants. This in a nation that’s experiencing a sea change in the written word.
Subramanian has already followed in the footsteps of acclaimed Indian writers like Pankaj Mishra, Basharat Peer and Ved Mehta by writing for The Guardian, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times and The New Yorker. But you might say he really made a name for himself during this year’s election, when, despite whatever John Oliver says, the West got wildly hungry for news on the subcontinent.
Next up for Subramanian? His second book, out in India in July, is a non-fiction account of the Sri Lankan conflict — a tale many in the West likely don’t know by heart — titled This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War (Penguin). In a wide-ranging conversation with OZY, he talks about experiencing that conflict, how the foreign press writes India, and the country’s election coverage.
What was your path to becoming a journalist? Where and how did you manage to score your first job in a country where openings are almost always spread via word-of-mouth?
My first job was as a sub editor at CricInfo India [the world’s most-read cricket website] and I really wanted to work there. So I walked into the office and asked if there were any jobs. One of the managing editors there at the time set me a little test, for about two hours. After I passed the test, I was offered a job. I guess that seems fairly straightforward, but yes, you’re right, it wasn’t like this job was advertised at all. And I guess maybe the informality of my approach worked much better back then, in 2001, when everything was much less corporate. I’m not sure it would work as easily now.
For many years, it was only foreign correspondents from other countries providing news about India to the rest of the world. You — and I — are members of a new generation of Indian journalists writing about India for the rest of the world. What’s changing in the way the world reads about India?
The necessity of providing a more nuanced picture about India to the West has increased. Earlier, it suited a lot of people — journalists as well as readers — to just be content with a straightforward, one-dimensional portrait of the country, because there wasn’t much active daily engagement between India and the West. As that engagement grows, as the interest of the readers of these newspapers grows, correspondents are called upon to be more nuanced about their work. So, for example, you had Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times [former correspondent in India] and now Ellen Barry [the South Asia bureau chief] who present as nuanced and complex a portrait of their subjects about as nearly any Indian correspondent.
The other part is that there are a lot of Indians writing in the Western press as well now. So once say, Pankaj [Mishra] goes out and publishes a piece that is complex and articulate, correspondents here will, consciously or unconsciously, feel the need to up their game. Whereas earlier, perhaps there was less by way of comparison, possibly because the reach of the Internet was less pervasive. That has changed now.
[And] between 2007 and 2014, India’s role in the world has also broadened.
And what about the elections that just concluded? As someone who’s written about politics as well as the media, what’s your opinion on how the just-concluded elections were covered by the Indian press?
Well, I don’t have a TV, so I can’t tell you what happened on the news channels. But magazines and newspapers have, by and large, done a comprehensive job. They’ve had to struggle a bit, I think, just because the campaign has been so long and the election itself stretched out over five weeks. So it’s difficult to keep coming up with original and interesting stories over such a long period.
I think, if it would’ve been shorter, the coverage would quite naturally have felt sharper, more pointed. Whether the stories in substance would’ve changed, I’m not sure. The one thing you could point to is that none of the newspapers gauged the pro-Modi sentiment accurately enough. Everybody predicted that the BJP would get perhaps 200 or 220 [seats], give or take a few, but nobody quite called it as it turned out [the BJP took 282 seats]. Then again, nobody anywhere called it, except for one polling agency. But the kind of situation we’re now in, where Modi has won so overwhelmingly – if we go back to look at newspapers and magazines, we will find little illumination about the reasons for such a comprehensive win. Ideally, once the results are out, you should be able to go back to the papers to figure it out and piece it together, to see signs of the ground-level factors that propelled him to such a victory, so that we can understand how he won in such a comprehensive manner. But I’m not sure we’d be able to do that here.
Your next book is about the Sri Lankan Civil War — which you experienced while living in Chennai, then Madras. The conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who wanted a separate country for Tamils and the Sri Lankan armed forces. What was that like?
When I was growing up, if you read the newspapers in Madras, the headlines from Sri Lanka would be huge. There would be discussions of the Tamil cause, and it would affect the politics of the state to a huge extent. Rajiv Gandhi [the former prime minister of India] was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber. So all these things happened in and around the place I lived. Even before I lived there, there were shootouts between Tamil militants in the heart of Madras. There was always a sense that even if the war was happening in another country, the fortunes of that war and of the LTTE were tied to the thinking and the politics of Tamil Nadu [the state of which Madras is the capital].
What were the concerns of the people who lived in the LTTE-controlled Northern and Eastern areas? Will they get the political representation they’re looking for?
There were concerns about the heavy security presence, about people who had disappeared, about livelihood and political representation. On paper, they have representation — everybody can vote, you can form a political party, and you can vote for one if you’re a Tamil. But the roots of the conflict lie in the greater devolution of powers that the Tamils had originally wanted. There’s varying degrees of this: the LTTE wanted a free state, a separate country, but others wanted a federal solution, like we have in India. Even the kind of devolution of powers — for example, police powers and land powers that are supposed to reside at the district level — those are not being granted. I think that’s a primary cause for concern. If police powers don’t reside locally, as happens in India, where the state government controls the police, there is always a fear that the central government can use the security apparatus against you.