Growing up, Barkha Dutt was totally rootless. She spoke English, not her parent’s Punjabi. She devoured Enid Blyton and studied English literature during college, but read few Indian novelists. She didn’t even know her caste. This has opened her up to criticism as being a progressive elite who is out of touch with her heritage, and challenged her to be especially thoughtful in the way she examines the many overlapping values in Indian society. A successful broadcast journalist and columnist, she currently runs the YouTube-based news channel MoJo Story and recently published a new book, Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back.
Barkha joined Tyler to discuss how Westerners can gain a more complete picture of India, the misogyny still embedded in Indian society, why family law should be agnostic of religious belief, the causes of declining fertility in India, why relations between Hindus and Muslims seem to be worsening, how caste has persisted so strongly in India, the success of India’s subsidized institutes of higher education, the best city for Indian food, the power of Amar Chitra Katha’s comics, the influence of her English liberal arts education, the future of Anglo-American liberalism in India, the best ways to use Twitter, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded May 5th, 2022
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m chatting with Barkha Dutt. If you have a connection to India, she needs no further introduction, but if you don’t have such a connection, she is a very famous Indian television journalist. She is an owner of a YouTube news channel, Mojo Story. She’s an opinion columnist with the Hindustan Times and the Washington Post, and she was part of NDTV’s team for 21 years. She has two books. The most recent one out is Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back. Barkha, welcome.
BARKHA DUTT: Thank you, Tyler, and thank you for having me.
COWEN: Which do you think are the most valuable conversations in India that the West is essentially blind to?
DUTT: I think the West is able to see India only through certain tropes, tropes that it has gathered from newspapers like the one I write for, Washington Post, as well as the New York Times. Some of these narratives that the West understands about India are true, but they are incomplete. Therefore, the West understands India in terms of, let’s say, debates around whether there is equality for religious minorities, whether there is a free press.
These are valid questions. Many of them are raised by journalists like myself, but they do not tell the full story of a complex, paradoxical nation, where there are multiple simultaneous truths. Therefore, I think that Indians are sometimes exasperated by the simplistic, reductionist understanding of our very complicated, 1.3 billion-strong nation.
COWEN: If I’m a Westerner, where should I go in Western media to find the relatively better coverage of India? Or is that impossible?
DUTT: I would say just don’t go to any one source. I think that a lot of Indians would say that the more diverse your sources are, that would perhaps be more representative. But we would also urge you to read and watch and listen to us.
I think there’s also a sense that there have been some great foreign correspondents, and I’d like to name two who have done stellar work on India: Ellen Barry of the New York Times and Annie Gowen of the Washington Post. Both made it a point to do very, very textured reportage out of India. But those are individuals I’m naming, and not platforms. I don’t think that there is a platform that really captures the nuances and the texture of my country in full.
COWEN: I have so many questions about India for you. In your earlier book, This Unquiet Land, you described India as, and I quote, “essentially misogynistic.” What do you think is the most deeply rooted structural account of how that came to be?
DUTT: Though as I’m answering that, I’m struck by the fact that my nation has a much more progressive set of laws around abortion and the right to legal and safe abortion than the Americans might have soon. That’s just an illustration of what I mean by complexity.
When I studied at Columbia, at the Journalism School, I had a flatmate — I think I write about this in the same book — who assumed that because I was an Indian woman, I would have an arranged marriage, I would have no rights, I wouldn’t be outspoken. Then when we got to know each other better, I found that the Western rituals of the dating scene were often much more patriarchal than anything I’d experienced.
That said, of course, I have grown up and resisted entrenched patriarchy, entrenched misogyny. The expectations of what it means to be female in India come out in a very insidious, everyday way.
You know the big things, right? You know about where the public spaces are safe or not safe for women. We had the infamous Nirbhaya gang rape in Delhi, the capital of India. Gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student that brought hundreds of thousands of Indians on the streets to protest. There is sexual violence within the circle of trust; there is the refusal to legalize marital rape.
Those are all the big examples, but it’s the small examples that really get under my skin. The way rules at home are gendered; the way that, even when you’re paid a compliment as a woman and presented as a superwoman, that’s really code for tying you up in chains of gold.
You will see this advertisement where there’s this perfectly turned-out woman — not a hair out of place, a perfect shining string of pearls, a perfectly crisp sari or pantsuit — ringing her house from her boardroom, where she just closed a billion-dollar deal, asking the help to make whatever — cottage cheese curry for dinner or tandoori chicken curry for dinner.
That’s supposed to be a compliment, but what it’s really doing is gendering the home as a space for women to run, wherein what ends up happening is that, at the moment, the number of women working in India has actually declined instead of increased because most women cannot cope with the multiple pressures of home and work. I always say that we speak much about equality at work; we just do not talk about equality at home. That’s the premium on getting married, the premium on parenthood. There’s so much to unpack here.
Again, I would say to you, Tyler, it’s a very interesting inflection point for the United States, where you are when it comes to the rights of women. The fact that there was so much misogynistic resistance to Hillary Clinton, for example, when she was running for president. All of those are things that we settled long ago, but we’ve got other really, really grave issues that we fight literally every day, every hour of our lives.
COWEN: Would you agree with the common impression that, overall, in India, women have it better in the South than in the North? If so, what would you infer about underlying structural causes of misogyny in India?
DUTT: I would agree with that. The reasons for that are manifold. Some relate to the fact that there are some societies, for example, in the southern state of Kerala, that are matriarchal, where the very organization of society is the home itself, but it all keeps coming back to home. That settles a lot of your other affiliated freedoms. There is the organization of many of these societies as matriarchal. The literacy and education rates are higher.
Local units of governance have, in fact, performed better. We saw this even in the COVID management across the board in the South. I think a combination of culture and governance, the fact that there’s been more investment on healthcare, on reproductive rights — all of this has led to, I would say, the South being a better place for women than the North. I say this as a woman who actually lives and has grown up in North India.
COWEN: How much of that difference between the North and the South do you think stems from Islam, which is, of course, more prevalent in the North?
DUTT: I don’t know. This is an interesting question. When India moved to strike down the practice of triple talaq — which, I’ll just explain, was the practice of a Muslim man being able to divorce his wife by simply saying the word talaq three times — I was all for that change. I am one of those who actually, as a progressive, would typically support a uniform family law. Just to explain, if that’s got too complicated, we do allow personal laws for our religious minorities, which means that triple talaq was supported by some Muslim groups with the argument that it was part of the personal law. I totally oppose that.
The Hindu personal law was reformed several decades ago, and it is time for other personal laws to be reformed as well and modernized under the umbrella of common family law. But I do not believe that one or the other religion is actually responsible for inequality. I believe the orthodoxies of all faiths militate against the rights of women. All faiths. Therefore, I would in another context — and we can speak about why that time is not now — in another context, I would be totally for family law that is agnostic of religious belief.
I am not among those liberals on the left of India who believe that faiths must be allowed to practice their own personal laws because I do believe that those militate against the equality of men and women. However, I don’t think that’s specific to a religion, but yes, the Hindu law was reformed several decades ago. Not fully so. There are changes that are needed culturally among the Hindus, among the Christians, as I said, among the orthodoxies of all religious faiths.
COWEN: For its level of income and education, India seems to have a relatively low birth rate or total fertility rate. For Hindus, they seem to be just about at replacement fertility, and that’s been the case for what, seven years? Why do you think that is? Why is child-rearing so relatively unattractive in India, especially amongst Hindus?
DUTT: That’s such an interesting question because one of the most politicized conversations in India is around population growth. Of course, the suggestion or the innuendo has always been that, one day, Muslims will outnumber Hindus because Muslims are growing at a galloping pace.
Actually, the data tells you — and this is well documented, both within India and in a recent survey that was released by Pew— that, though the rate of growth is higher among Muslims, definitely, than it is among Hindu communities, the rate of decline is also now the sharpest because there was a much higher rate of growth among Muslims, and that the Muslims will never outnumber Hindus.
But would I take that — to take your question — for there being a lack of enthusiasm for child-rearing? Not true. This has been a decades-old fight to get India’s population under control, and it is finally starting to yield results, which is why I actually disagree with legislations that are now being proposed in several parts of India to actually either incentivize or penalize those who have more than two children. I think penalties don’t necessarily work. Incentives can, but penalties certainly don’t.
We also have the added issue of female feticide, which is girls who are killed in their womb before they’re allowed to be brought into this world because of the premium that is still placed, very much across classes, on a boy child. I think what you’re dealing with when you quoted those numbers, Tyler, is actually the success of India’s family planning program, where there has been a very, very strong awareness campaign around urging families to not have more than two children, and we are finally within striking distance of that figure.
COWEN: Will India eventually become underpopulated, and it will be quite an old country before it’s ever truly rich, and have an inverse-pyramid problem of supporting everyone if that’s the case?
DUTT: We’ve often been told our people, our demographics are our dividend and not our weakness. I think both of those narratives are somewhat simplistic. I don’t think we are ever going to go the China way, where China’s now having to reverse its one-child policy. I think the reason that we are never going to go the China way is because, up until this point — and once briefly in the ’70s when Indira Gandhi’s son tried to enforce a population control program — we have never had the state force punishments for people who have more than X number of children.
I hope we continue to follow the progressive approach to family planning and population management that we have, where people, on their own, are understanding that they should not be adding, certainly, more than two children to the demographics. So, no, I don’t think we are going to ever be in that position where you’re going to have the reverse problem. I think we’re steady on this.
What concerns me more is the set of proposed legislations that now seeks to actually have a kind of enforced system of family planning, which I oppose. I oppose it mostly because — again, to go back to that misogyny that we were talking about — it will actually end up penalizing women who are often denied the right, let’s say, to access contraception and sometimes the rights to it, as well, in relationships that are not fully equal in the bedroom.
COWEN: Many outsiders have the impression that relations between Hindus and Muslims and the aggregate in India have become worse over the last 10 to 15 years. If you put aside particular actions of particular political personalities, and you try to think of a structural reason why that might be true — because normally the intuition is, people grow richer, they’re more tolerant, there’s more commercial interaction, there’s more intermingling — what would be your structural account of why, in some ways, that problem has become worse?
DUTT: You just spoke of intermingling, Tyler. I think that one of the biggest reasons for the worsening relations, or the othering, as it were, of communities that are not your own is the ghettoization of how people live. For example, if there were neighborhoods where people live cheek by jowl — that still happens, of course, in many cities, but it also happens less than it used to, and that is true. We are seeing a Muslim quarter, to give an example, or a Christian quarter in a way that we wouldn’t have before our cities were so ghettoized.
I think that kind of intermingling, of living in the same housing societies or neighborhoods, participating in each other’s festivals as opposed to just tolerating them — those are the structural changes or shifts that we are witnessing. It’s also true that it is tougher for a person from a religious minority — in particular, an Indian Muslim — to get a house as easily as a non-Muslim. I think I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that. Also, the last point is interfaith marriages or interfaith love. This is a deeply politicized issue as well.
While I’m talking to you, in the last 24 hours in the Southern city of Hyderabad, one of our big technology hubs, we’ve had reports of a Muslim family that attacked a Hindu man for marrying a Muslim woman. In reverse, we see Muslim women also targeted all the time if they choose to marry Hindus. This is not helped by the fact that you’ve had several states now talking about what they call love jihad. That’s the phrase they use for marriages that are across religious communities, in particular between Hindus and Muslims.
The percentage of Indians marrying not just outside their religion but also outside their caste — which in Hinduism is a hierarchical system of traditional occupation that you’re born into — is woefully low. I don’t know if I remember my data correctly, but I think less than 5 percent of Indians actually marry outside of their own communities. I would need to go back to that number and check it, but that’s what I remember off the top of my head.
Those are the structural reasons: the fact that people don’t love or have relationships outside of their community, don’t live enough with people of diverse faiths, and don’t participate in each other’s lives.
We used to have this politically correct phrase called tolerance, which I actually just hate, and I keep nudging people towards the Indian military. The Indian military actually has a system of the commanding officer taking on the faith of his troops during religious prayers. The military has multireligious places of worship. It even has something called an MMG, which is not just a medium machine gun but a Mandir Masjid Gurdwara, which is all the different faiths praying together at the same place. We don’t see a lot of that kind of thing happening outside of the military.
Another survey done by Pew reinforced this when it spoke of Indians today being more like a thali than khichri. Let me just explain that. A thali is a silver tray where you get little balls of different food items. Pew found that Hindus and Muslims — when surveyed, both spoke of the need for religious diversity as being a cornerstone of India. They like the idea of India as a thali, where there were different little food items, but separate food items. The khichri is rice and lentils all mixed up and eaten with pickle. The khichri is that intermingling, the untidy overlapping.
We are just seeing less and less of that overlapping. In my opinion, that is tragic. Where there is social interdependence, where there is economic interdependence, where there is personal interdependence is when relationships thrive and flourish and get better. But when they remain ghettos, separations just tolerating each other — that, I think, remains in the realm of othering.
COWEN: Why has caste remained so strong in India? It’s not supported by the state anymore. You would think there are considerable incentives to marry outside your caste or have business relationships outside your caste. Yet, as you said, the rate of marriage across caste — whatever the exact number may be, it’s fairly low. That’s a surprise, right? What has happened to cause that persistence?
DUTT: I’ll tell you a little story about myself. When I was 18, I studied in one of India’s top liberal arts colleges. I used to be asked, “What is your caste?” I used to say, “I don’t know.” I was very proud of saying that, and I really didn’t know. My parents had never told me what my caste was, and it was their way of bringing me up to be a progressive Indian.
Then a few years later, I did one of my first journalism stories in the gang rape of a Dalit woman in a village in Rajasthan. The Dalits are the people who are at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. They’re often treated as outcasts. They often do menial jobs, like cleaning toilets or handling the dead skin of cattle, which they then work into leather. They’re also — it’s shameful that this practice exists — manure scavengers, which, in other words, they literally carry the shit out of toilets that don’t have water or clean our sewers. For these reasons, they’re often treated as completely at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
The woman, Bhanwari Devi, who had been gang-raped — she had been working with a government program to stop child marriages in her village. Among the men who raped her was the father of a one-year-old child who she had been trying to stop from being married. After she complained, she was made to live on the outskirts of her village, not allowed access to the village well.
When one of the courts actually acquitted the men she had accused of rape, the judge remarked that men of a higher caste would not touch a woman of a lower caste, so this rape could not have taken place. I tell you the story to say that the disavowal of caste is a privilege of sorts. I’ve had to accept the hard way that you can’t disown the reality of caste, much as I would like to.
Has there been mobility out of the entrenched caste structures? There has been. In the cities, you will see less and less of this discrimination of the kind that I have just described having taken place. It was also two decades ago.
You say the state does not recognize caste. In fact, the state has special affirmative action — which I support — for what are called scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which have traditionally been discriminated against for centuries. The problem is, Tyler, that now we have everybody wanting a slice of this affirmative action, which allows you quotas in jobs and education, at least in institutes that are run and managed by government.
You have something called the OBCs, the Other Backward Classes, who say, “We’re not at the bottom, but we are somewhere in the middle. From state to state, we’ve also suffered either economic or social discrimination.” You have this highly politicized conversation. You have the entrenched social tradition, even where professional practices are no longer interlinked with caste. You have just this entrenched social structure, and it will not change, in my opinion, till there is economic, professional, and social mobility.
We’re seeing a lot of that, in fact. A lot of things have changed, but not when it comes, once again, to love and marriage. I feel that that’s where the real tests are. It’s like people who say, “Some of my best friends are Black. Some of my best friends are Muslim.” Yes, but would you be comfortable with your daughter marrying one? That’s where the test is.
COWEN: Why is there so much talent coming out of India right now? I know you could always say, for a long time, there’s been a lot of talent coming out of India. Surely that’s true, but it does seem there’s a discrete break. If you look, say, at the number of Indian CEOs in Silicon Valley, who also have done extremely well, it seems fundamentally different from, say, 20 years ago. What accounts for that?
DUTT: I actually think that those who are today leading the big companies, whether it’s — I don’t know, let’s take Sundar Pichai of Google or any other big tech firm that you pick up, Tyler. The fact is that they actually left India several years ago, maybe even more than two decades ago.
That talent obviously migrated out much earlier and perhaps is today acceptable or recognized or taken cognizance of because there’s proof of concept. I think before Elon Musk took over Twitter, we had an Indian CEO of Twitter. I can name any number of companies. You already know all of them, and so does your audience. I think there’s proof of concept. I think there have been people who’ve proven a mark.
We’ve long been described in America as a model minority community. A lot of it has to do with our excellent subsidized institutes of higher education. If you were to look at the background of most of these CEOs who are today leading conglomerates out of the West, most of them would have studied at institutes like the Indian Institute of Management or the Indian Institute of Technology, the IIT or the IIMs.
These are very, very difficult to get into. They are subsidized, which means that you don’t have to be rich or wealthy to actually be able to study at them. They really do draw the best minds. Literally, almost everybody who’s making global headlines today has studied at one of these institutes.
I think it speaks to one of the success stories, something that India got really right, which is very specialized, highly skilled institutes of technical learning. We may not have got our liberal arts as right at the higher education level, but certainly, our sciences, our management, our technical institutes — I think we’ve done a fabulous job with them.
COWEN: Do you think it boosts the case for an avowedly elitist approach to education, which it seems India has done? It’s very hard to get into those schools. They’re very, very good. If you finish, you’re branded as high quality in some way. Does that interact with caste in some manner, that there’s, in general, an elitist approach, and when it comes to the foreign market, that pays off big time? Or no?
DUTT: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to it because I’m okay with an educational elite, actually. I think that there is some merit in keeping society competitive and aspiring, and pushing people to do better and better, as long as there’s a level playing field to access those centers of excellence.
The fact is that many of these whiz kids, as they were once called, have actually studied at government schools or what I call Kendriya Vidyalaya systems, and so on. Not all of them have gone to posh — what are called private schools in the West and what are called public schools in India.
I do think that to create a competitively drawn elite that is elite not because of what they earned, but because of how well they did in exams, may be an old-fashioned idea, but it’s one that I actually support. I think one of the reasons we actually do better and well outside of India is because we come with some of these skills.
We’ve been brought up to be industrious, hardworking. We’ve been told in middle-class homes and even in lower-middle-class homes that education is everything. Education will make or break your life. If you get into a good college or a good institute, your life will change. This is the Indian ethos. This is what aspirational India is all about. I think it answers your question about why so many Indians are doing well outside India.
Does it eliminate the caste question? Yes and no. As there are more institutes, as they draw people from more diverse groups, you are still seeing people who are Dalits, who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, who could have an IT degree and still face social discrimination when it comes to who they want to marry. They won’t be cleaning toilets, and they won’t be denied access to the village well, but if they want to marry, so to speak, above their caste, they will still face resistance.
Economics doesn’t tell you the full story. It isn’t that if you’re at the bottom, you get a great degree and you become wealthy, that’ll just buy you out of all the other forms of discrimination. It is like race. It is a little bit like the race debate. The fact is, you can be a music legend, a cinema legend, a basketball legend, but it will not take away what happened with George Floyd. I think you’re seeing something similar here, where an educated elite person will not face the kind of discrimination that Bhanwari Devi, whom I reported on decades ago, did in her village in Rajasthan, but will not be totally free from all instances and all examples of discrimination.
The other important point to note is that where there are quotas, not all of them get filled. You do need a certain baseline to get into these higher institutes, whether of medicine or technology. That’s where I think we really have to work. I think our institutes of higher learning are excellent. Where we lag behind are the institutes that come below: our schools, our colleges, our first degrees. That’s where the gap is, and that’s what leaves some of those quotas at the higher level underfilled or underutilized.
COWEN: If I look at top CEOs in India, very often they might come from, say, Gujarat, and very often, they’re not Brahmins. If I look at the top CEOs outside of India, say in Silicon Valley, it seems most of them are Brahmins. Why that difference?
DUTT: I know that Silicon Valley has been grappling with questions around caste discrimination. I know California, in particular — I actually know one of the women who first raised it, wrote a whole book — Yashica Dutt — about growing up as a Dalit and then living as a Dalit in America.
Yet I can’t say to you that there is a coincidence between caste and technology and success. I think what I can say to you is that there has been an overlapping coincidence of socioeconomic backwardness among marginalized groups, so that is Dalits, that is Muslims. There is a coincidence because of the jobs and professions that these groups are typically employed in.
If you’re, let’s say, a leather-skin tanner or your job is to cremate bodies — I’m giving you professions that are typically so-called lower castes — you’re not going to earn a bunch of money to educate your children to do something else, or it’ll be tougher for you.
Therefore, that coincidence that you point out between Brahmins and success abroad possibly came from the fact that if you’re marginalized on the basis of your caste, you are most likely also earning less than other groups, which means that your ability to, let’s say, go outside of India is diminished compared to other caste groups, so there will be some coincidence.
It’s a little bit like if you looked at the same CEOs in India — most CEOs are men. There are coincidences, interrelated factors that explain why certain groups are able to access resources and opportunities in a way that other groups are not. I don’t think it means that somebody set out to make all the CEOs of Silicon Valley Brahmins; I think it was a series of factors about access to opportunity and resources and education.
COWEN: Plenty of Whites in the United States have resources, education, but is it possible the Brahmins of India who come to America — they’re better at cracking foreign cultural codes, they’re more used to diversity, they’re more used to strange environments? The complacency is taken away once they leave their country. Because it’s not just that they have done well — they have done especially well as leaders in a particular kind of leadership roles.
DUTT: I guess my hesitation in answering your question is that I hate essentialism. It’s the same way that I hate it when people say women are better leaders because we are more empathetic. The problem with essentialism is, the moment you pay yourself a compliment based on gender, caste, religion, color of your skin — whatever — country of your origin — if you’re going to accept one generalization is true, then you’re going to have to suck up the generalizations and the caricatures that aren’t so flattering.
I’m just hesitant in going beyond saying certain caste groups — like certain gender groups, like certain religious groups — were more influential in terms of places that they occupied at the top of social hierarchies. For example, maybe exposure to culture among what are so-called upper caste groups was more because income was higher. Therefore, there was a luxury of, let’s say, being also able to be exposed to classical music and classical dance.
All of these things are things that flow from how society has treated you. I can’t answer why it will play out differently for, let’s say, the White American male, but I hesitate to reinforce the essentialism of your question. Maybe I don’t know enough, but I’m just really uncomfortable with that beyond saying there’s a coincidence of money, social hierarchy, opportunity, and education.
COWEN: Why is Indian food the very best food in the entire world?
DUTT: That essentialism, I can accept.
DUTT: I’ll tell you why. Because there are so many different kinds of it. I think the thing about this country — and in some ways, an unlikely country in terms of not having a singular organizing principle to it, either in terms of religion or language but just a broad idea — it is so diverse. The best thing about us is our diversity, and that diversity is reflected in food.
I haven’t eaten so many cuisines within my country, and I’m 50 and I haven’t. It will take a lifetime for people to get to know Indian food. I think the biggest reason that it’s so interesting is, one, because there isn’t one thing called Indian food. There isn’t one kind of Indian food.
But mostly because of flavor and spices. The one thing we can never be accused of is being bland, neither our food nor our people. There’s a lot of, obviously, experimentation with spice and with flavor, and the palette has just now become that. There is no notion of ever having a meal that is not flavorful or full of aromas and spices. I don’t cook, but I eat a lot. As I said, that’s one compliment I’m happy to take as a generalized truth about my nation.
COWEN: As you know, there are plenty of reports of food aid, say, rotting on the sides of the highways, not being delivered in time. Yet, what’s also striking about most regional varieties of Indian food is just how extraordinary the vegetables are. How does that common picture fit together? There’s a major infrastructure problem with food transport, yet arguably, you have the best, tastiest vegetables in the entire world. How can that be?
DUTT: It can be because it’s our coal train supply lines where the weaknesses are. There are weaknesses in our infrastructure, which is why you see in this country, where people still go hungry, that there are godowns full. Food Corporation of India, which is the government-run manager, as it were, of grains in the country — every year, you’ll see these pictures coming out of India which will show you a mountain of underutilized wheat that has rotted. There is a surplus, and there is an underutilized amount. It is rotted.
There are two problems. I’m not an economist. You are, so you may have a view on this. There are two problems here. One is, of course, in the supply chains, the efficiency of the transport system. The other is that governments still buy or procure grains at what’s called a minimum support price. This was the context for a recent year-long, unprecedented protest by farmers of North India on the outskirts of India’s capital, one that got global attention because the Modi government moved to reform, or that was the word they used, and allow private players to come into this market.
I don’t know enough to say what is better and what is worse. There has been the suggestion that this minimum support price system has created a mismatch between demand and supply, that there have to be more efficient ways of treating agricultural markets. I’ve read and heard all the arguments. I’m not an expert, I’m not an economist, but I do know that there is often this glut of grain in a country where so many millions are still poor.
Therefore, there is obviously something structurally wrong. That doesn’t contradict the fact that there is plentiful variety of vegetables. It is just whether those vegetables actually manage to reach the markets in such a way that is a fair price for the farmer.
COWEN: Let’s say you had to pick a single Indian city or region to eat from for the rest of your life. Probably it wouldn’t be Delhi, but what would it be?
DUTT: It would be Delhi.
COWEN: It would be Delhi. Why?
DUTT: It would be Delhi. It would be Delhi because, one, I’m a connoisseur or devourer as it were, or a glutton, when it comes to street food. I think that there is no street food better in the world than in Delhi, especially if you go to the older quarters in a market called Chandni Chowk, where you literally have rows and rows and rows and rows of shops that will give you just the best — both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Also, because I think we’ve managed to combine that street food culture with a reasonably international food scene, as well as a regionally diverse food scene.
Mumbai would come close. It would have to be between those two cities. I wanted to say Bangalore because it’s one of my very favorite cities, but in terms of my own food experience, I think it’s also that we are in the North. We eat more, and we care about food more. We’re also more unfit for that reason, but it’s true. Again, you’re drawing me into essentialisms that I disavowed myself from, but culturally, the Punjabi or the North Indian is obsessed with food.
The notion of hospitality, of how you treat your guests, is very tied into food. You never let anyone go hungry from your home. It doesn’t matter whether that person is a stranger. It’s just steeped in the North Indian culture. I pick Delhi. I would pick Delhi because I think it does everything. It does the posh, it does the accessible, affordable, it does the street food, it does regionally diverse. Maybe I’m just more familiar with it because, other than New York, this is the city I’ve lived in all my life.
COWEN: I would pick Chennai, actually, for the vegetables, and put Bangalore near the bottom. I think Bangalore has a high average, but relatively low peaks. There’s nothing there that’s so special. Kolkata, you can’t dismiss either.
DUTT: Yes, you can’t dismiss any of these cities. I guess I’m grading them in terms of the sheer variety of options. I just think that the variety of options — the next time you’re in Delhi, maybe I can prove my point.
COWEN: Which is your favorite Indian novel?
DUTT: That is an interesting question. There was a novel on the Indian bureaucracy and political system called Raag Darbari, which I read when I was in school, which is one of my very favorite books.
I’m thinking hard because I don’t read a lot of fiction in India. I was brought up on Enid Blyton and Amar Chitra Katha’s comics. I don’t know if comics count as worthy, but really, my exposure to my culture was through comics. It was actually really fascinating. All the fables, the myths, the stories of our classics were brought to us in comic form. I know it’s not the answer you were looking for, but really, how much we’ve learned from Amar Chitra Katha cannot be discounted.
The other book that comes to mind is English August, which was again made into a film later. It’s also a stellar book. I’m thinking. Indian novels? Oh, I’m reading a very interesting book right now by the first Indian novelist — Geetanjali Shree, who writes in Hindi — to be nominated for the Booker.
She actually wrote the original novel in Hindi, but it’s now been translated. My Hindi is not so good that I could read the novel in Hindi. It’s actually about a woman in her 80s whose husband dies, and she’s treated as this classic widow, shunned by her family, overlooked, and how she discovers her zest for life again. It is an extremely compelling feminist fable as it were, and an extremely compelling book.
COWEN: What would be a good non-Bollywood movie for an outsider to watch to understand India better?
DUTT: Masaan. Masaan is set in Varanasi. It is today the prime minister’s constituency in Uttar Pradesh, our most populous state. We’ve been talking so much about caste and love, and love across communities. It is a movie that actually is set against the backdrop of the ghats of the Ganga River, where Hindus from all across the country bring those who have died to be cremated.
It is about the community that actually performs these last rites, and the story of a young man who does this for a living and who also falls in love outside of his caste. Therefore, it actually is at the intersection of many of the things we’ve been speaking about. Its protagonist went on to become a big Bollywood star, but when the film came out, it had an art house cast. It was very low key, and it’s a really excellent recommended watch.
COWEN: You majored in English literature in college. How did reading Jane Austen, or whatever else you might have read, make you a better reporter of Indian and international events?
DUTT: [laughs] That’s a great question. I think it didn’t make me a better reporter. I think my liberal arts education gave me a way with words or gave me a certain confidence and a set of communication skills, but I was totally deracinated. I was totally rootless. I grew up in a bubble. I am what the right wing of India today disparagingly calls the Khan Market Gang. Khan Market refers to upmarket bazaar of Delhi. It’s used as a metaphor for a certain kind of liberal progressive elite who is totally out of touch with her own roots.
While of course, in a globalized world, it’s very hard to define what is the product of colonization and what is yours, there is truth in the fact that those three years studying literature at St. Stephen’s College were wonderful, the happiest three years of my life, but completely dislocated me from the complexity of my country.
Even in terms of language, I regret that mostly I dream and think in English. It’s not because I think of English as an outsider language. In fact, I think of it as one of our own languages. But we have a three-language model in India that is now being questioned — and I’m against it being questioned — but it’s basically English, Hindi, and your mother tongue.
The point is my mother tongue is Punjabi, but my parents never taught me how to write in Gurmukhi. They never taught me how to speak in Punjabi. I can understand it, but I can’t speak it. I can speak in Hindi today because I became a reporter and I traveled all across India, and I learned the language. But I mostly grew up speaking, reading, and writing in English and mostly knowing Jane Austen over, let’s face it, the Indian novels you asked me about. I had read every Enid Blyton, and I hadn’t read an Indian novelist when I went to school.
COWEN: How do you feel when you read Kipling? Is it offense, like, “Oh, these colonial bastards,” or is it, “This was just a thing of its time,” or, “I can’t enjoy this anymore,” or you side with it in some way? What’s your gut emotional reaction?
DUTT: I’m able to separate writings from their time. I know this is a politically incorrect thing to say, but I don’t look at Noddy and Golliwog and Blyton and say, “Oh my God, how racist.” I probably should. I probably would if I were a child growing up today.
It’s the same for Kipling. All of us knew the poem “If — ” by heart, by rote. We could all recite it. We learned it in this decontextualized way. A lot of our education was completely decontextual. We would just read it as a bunch of words. Oftentimes, we didn’t know what they stood for, what they represented. We had no idea, and because we imbibed them in a decontextualized way, they became part of — they’re more childhood associations rather than illustrations of colonization.
Of course, yes, words matter, language matters, context matters, but I’m able to separate timing and literature. I would never enjoy Austen today, but hell, Bridgerton is the most-watched series on Netflix. I haven’t watched it because I don’t want to watch women forcing themselves into corsets, looking for an ideal man, but why is most of the world watching it? I think there’s something to be said about entertainment for its own sake, memory, nostalgia, words that formed you, shaped you, that you could have a good laugh at, not take too seriously.
COWEN: For lack of a better word, I’ll refer to Anglo-American liberalism. Do you think Anglo-American liberalism has a future in India? Say the views of someone like Ramachandra Guha, who is not a Hindu nationalist, broadly liberal. Maybe in the 1990s, people expected Anglo-American liberalism would become much stronger in India as the country globalized. It doesn’t seem that’s happened. What does the future look like for that strand of thought in India?
DUTT: I think that strand of thought needs to be more open about other strands of thought. Ram Guha is a friend and somebody whose readings and writings I’ve learned a lot from. I’ve read him all of my life. I read every book that he writes.
I probably would be described in the same way. I don’t think of myself as that, but if you ask somebody, maybe in India, randomly, they’d classify me as that, I suspect — as an Anglo-American deracinated, rootless, urbane liberal who doesn’t know anything about her own culture.
I’m actually trying. Journalism has enabled that in me, Tyler, to learn more, to educate myself, to realize that simple-minded ideas I had of what’s progressive . . . Let’s take religion. I’m an agnostic. I don’t believe in any institutionalized religion. Many Anglo — whatever — Americanized liberals or Western liberals don’t. There’s a Nehruvian idea of a separation between state and religion. It doesn’t work. This is a country where religion overlaps into culture every single day, every single moment. It’s an untidy overlapping.
I think we’ve got to learn to return to the language of faith, to spread and protect Indian pluralism rather than say, “Hey, I don’t believe in any religion,” and somehow expect people to understand what I’m saying. I need a language of mass communication. Until the Indian liberal finds that language — whether it’s Ram Guha, or whether it’s Barkha Dutt, or whether it’s somebody else — we will be destined to fail in this new India in communicating a message to a larger number of our countrymates.
COWEN: Why is the intelligentsia so prominent in Bengal? And why, historically, have those individuals been so left-wing?
DUTT: [laughs] Tell me, isn’t that true for America as well? I’ve often wondered about this. Why is there a coincidence between certain professions, certain spaces, and being left? I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s because intelligentsia here grows up questioning structures of power and conformity and social norms. Therefore, you end up being positioned on the left of any establishment that you’re questioning. That would be my best guess.
That said, one of the things that I think I didn’t speak about when I spoke about the intelligentsia is that we are felled by dogma. One of my quarrels with the Indian intelligentsia — or sections of it — is its failure to recognize and respect the sentimentalism around institutes of the state: the military, the flag, our veterans, our anthrop. This whole idea that we’re all citizens of the world — yes, I’m also a product of a globalized world. But we, again, don’t understand that there’s a constitutional patriotism is what we should be advocating instead of saying, “Oh, we’re all one world.”
I guess what I’m saying is, the intelligentsia and the left probably coincide because of this need to question all accepted norms. But I think that if you want to communicate with a larger section of people outside of your echo chambers, you need to be able to pick up the language of some of these norms, the ones you relate to, and convert them into idioms of modern expression.
COWEN: Why do you think alcohol drinking has stayed at such low levels in India for so long? But now it’s rising, of course. Will it eventually converge to Western levels of alcohol drinking?
DUTT: Has it declined? Do you have numbers that show that? I don’t know. Illicit liquor is a huge, huge —
COWEN: No, it’s growing, but if you go back 30, 40 years, it seems there’s much less alcohol being consumed in India than, say, in England, the former colonial master, or America.
DUTT: Again, it’s a cultural thing. We don’t have the idea, for example, of a neighborhood pub. We don’t have the concept of people dropping off after work to get a drink with their workmates. We still have judgments of women drinking. We are a society that is in a moment of churn, where many traditional families have sent their kids, for example, abroad to study, where there will be this exposure to different cultures, but they’ll still be mindful of it when they come back home. They may not smoke or drink in front of their elderly family members.
It’s culturally very different, but I do see our cities are changing. I also see a kind of illicit liquor consumption in rural India that is extremely entrenched and often results in massive tragedies because of the spurious liquor and so on.
I completely disagree, by the way, with prohibition. This has led to many feminist debates because there are states — Bihar being one of them — that actually outlawed alcohol by making the argument that it led to greater domestic violence at home. And there were women who supported this because their men would go and get drunk and come back and be violent with them. I do not think that restricting anything and pushing it underground is the answer.
I do think that there are cultural conformities associated with how you drink, where you drink. Do you drink with family? Do women drink? Maybe that leads to the gap between how the West looks at alcohol and how we do.
COWEN: You’re on Twitter. How is Indian Twitter different from, say, USA Twitter?
DUTT: I don’t think it’s different. I think everywhere, trolling is an organized, well-oiled machine. It can be either political or paid. It targets women in a language that it spares men on. It is caught in the polarities of right and left. It’s a whole lot of noise.
You learn the hard way to not read your mentions, or to speed-read them. You grow a really thick skin, and you use it for what it’s good for. It’s good for a few things. It connects you to people across continents and cultures. If you’re a journalist and you’re interested in being exposed to a variety of thoughts, it exposes you to all of that. It helps you find interesting speakers for your programs and for your reports.
Sometimes — I spent two years covering the pandemic — it connects; it creates a community of very kind strangers. We had a massive shutdown of public transport in our first lockdown. I had people from Twitter saying, “Oh, do you need a place to stay here? You can stay here. Do you need food? We’ll send you food. Do you need shoes? We’ll send you shoes.” It’s a community. You have to know what to take from it. Otherwise, it is political as hell, it is noisy as hell, it is coarse as hell, and it’s a terrible place to be for women.
COWEN: I’d say in the United States, there’s a considerable backlash on Twitter against the possibility that Elon Musk will buy Twitter, which may very well happen. Is there a similar feeling in India? Or do people just shrug their shoulders, “Uh, some other rich guy from far away.”
DUTT: No. There’s a lot of interest in Musk taking over Twitter. India’s right wing is super excited. They look at Twitter as this woke, far-left platform that took Trump off and shouldn’t have.
By the way, I’m not alone among liberal friends who think de-platforming Trump was wrong because I just don’t like cancel culture. That’s a whole different debate. You can take down specific tweets, but I’m not sure that you should be de-platforming people.
It’s a very complicated space, but yes, the Indian right wing is super excited. The Indian left is extremely worried. Musk has already made his position clear that he wants a Twitter that is free from the far left and the far right. Good luck with that. Chomsky spoke about manufactured consent in mass media. I think we are in the age of manufactured dissent. I think Twitter amplifies those disagreements, even if they don’t exist offline.
COWEN: Your own YouTube channel aside, which kinds of videos do you watch on YouTube?
DUTT: I watch a lot of American satirists from Colbert to Trevor Noah.
Believe it or not, I watch a village cooking channel out of Tamil Nadu because, as you now know, I love food. This is a community channel that is run by these farmers who only speak Tamil, but you can look at their video, and it is astonishing. I’ve been thinking for a long time, “Oh my God, I have to find out who runs this channel, who has done this for these farmers?” Because it’s superbly produced and it’s beautifully shot. You can just look at how they’re cooking. They’re cooking in the field. Every day, they cook a new dish, and they release a new video. I know it’s an odd example to give, but I watch a lot of that.
COWEN: What would be the name or search term for that, just for our listeners?
DUTT: Village cooking channel Tamil Nadu should do it.
COWEN: Okay, great. Do you watch TikTok at all, or that’s just too far?
DUTT: TikTok — it’s banned right now, I think, because of the India-China standoff. It was one of the apps, but I don’t watch. I watch a couple videos when they’re shared on Twitter or Instagram. I’m totally off Facebook. I use Instagram because I’m in a broadcasting industry. Otherwise, the vanity of it and the filtered reality of it really gets to me.
Actually, of all the platforms, I still find YouTube and Twitter the most productive because there’s actually something to engage with in terms of content. Everything else is one big vanity parade in some ways.
COWEN: Should India ban TikTok?
DUTT: No. I’m not a fan of the Chinese capture of the Indian markets. For example, every Diwali, it really bothers me. I grew up lighting potter-made diyas, and now you see the cheap plastic that the Chinese have permeated our markets with. I’m not a fan of that capture, but TikTok isn’t going to send the Chinese who are sitting on our territory in the Himalayas out. Also, I think banning technology is useless. You can always create a VPN and get TikTok anyway. It’s not even something that works.
COWEN: Why do you think WhatsApp has proven so especially popular in India?
DUTT: Two reasons. I think for most people, it is the way we talk now. No one SMSs, no one does text messages anymore, no one emails anymore. You can share pictures, videos, and have entire conversations. But I think it’s also a vehicle of fake news, and it is used as that by a multitude of players. Anytime you want to spread negativity — as good as and useful as it is, it is the most effective vehicle of fake news, in India at least. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries. And you’ve got this crazy . . .
I, for example, had a WhatsApp forward sent to me about me, which said that my politics was explained by the fact that I had been married three times to three Muslim men — I’ve never been married — and this explained the fact that I believed in a pluralistic India. They made up names of these men. This was on a WhatsApp forward that got circulated so heavily that it was forwarded to me as well.
WhatsApp is almost like a political or a weaponized vehicle of fake news now, but I use it all the time with friends. It’s just an easier, non-intrusive way of talking.
COWEN: Barkha Dutt, it’s been wonderful chatting with you. Again, her new book is Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back.
DUTT: Thank you, Tyler. Thank you for having me. Please do come to Delhi so I can prove that we are the food capital of India, if not the world.
COWEN: I am coming to Northern India this August, so we’ll see.
DUTT: I look forward to it.
COWEN: It’ll be great. Thank you. Take care.
DUTT: Thank you, Tyler. Bye-bye.