S. Mitra Kalita: An interview

“Home is a place you can always come back to,” writes S. Mitra Kalita in My Two Indias: A Journey to the Ends of Opportunity (HarperCollins), an exploration into the two divergent faces, and facets, of the country her parents left when they were 30. Interestingly, it was at 30 when Kalita made a “reverse journey” in 2006 when she came to India to work for a business newspaper (Mint). When Kalita arrived in New Delhi — with her artist husband, Nitin Mukul, and her two-year-old daughter, Naya — she was caught in the bubble of India’s booming, free-market economy. As she reported on the new economy, the other India — the India of the poor, the India of rising inequality — couldn’t escape her eyes.

In the book, she tries to reconcile the many faces of India that are so contrastly at odds with one other.
Kalita’s was a journey that enabled her to understand the bewildering country of her origin better. Her parents come from Assam and are now settled in the US. Though she was not born in India, she has always stayed attached to her roots. She sings Bhupen Hazarika’s songs and performs bihu every year. As does her daughter, Naya, now 6.

The book goes back and forth between the old and the new India — the India of her native village Sadiya and that of a metropolis like Delhi — as Kalita seeks to have a better perspective on the country’s economy, education, society and polity. Kalita writes in the epilogue: “With the benefit of hindsight and distance we could see merit in some parts of the Indian system.”

Kalita, who has earlier worked with the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press, has written on immigration for years. She knows that people, actually, never leave. “They always say they leave for better opportunity, but the reality is there is always something else to it,” she says.
In 2008, opportunity called Kalita back to New York City where she is currently working with the Wall Street Journal.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q. At many levels, the book captures a very personal journey you made to India. What was the trigger for this journey?
A. My whole life I have wondered what it would have been like if my father never left. And that could one undo someone’s migration. I came as far I could to make the reverse journey. This also happened in the backdrop of my daughter turning two. As a parent, you hit a point where nothing forces you to question your values or challenge them like raising a child. So much of what my parents passed on to me came from their Indian villages. I wondered how on earth was I going to do that with a child that had no village to speak of. In many ways, I represented a typical American. I moved around quite a bit. Of course, the job brought me here. But there was always another side to it. There was also a desire to answer the question: What could have been if my father had never left?
I came to India, a country on the rise. While I was here, there began in the US the greatest recession in a generation. Because I wrote a lot about innovation in India, I believe that there is so much to learn from failures. Once I heard people speak of India in in terms I couldn’t imagine I will hear in my lifetime, there was a personal curiosity of just wanting to see what that looked like. The opportunity to cover the recession also worked as a drive.

Q. With what perspective did you approach India when you set out to write the book?
A.
A lot of Westerners have written books about India. And there is no dearth of Westerners talking about the culture shock. I was pretty self-aware of many who have come before me and dissected India, perhaps through a similar lens. Where I bring the difference is two-fold: One, that I am an Indian-American. Two, my perspective on India was not of a Delhiite. I have great sympathy for the workers that managers curse. They come with no exposure into the workforce. Many of them are my cousins. Many of them probably could have been my parents. That is a perspective unique from some of the Westerners who write about the Indian economy. I also didn’t dwell on Delhi as a historical city that it is. Some of the beautiful books have been written about that. I didn’t think that was what I brought to the table. It was very ironical for someone who grew up in New York to articulate ways of an Indian village. I did that because I had lived so much of it through my upbringing. For a generation that grew up after liberalisation and in a much more urbanised India, it is a perspective that a lot of young journalists no longer have.

Q. On a lighter note, how soon did you realise that you had had enough of India?
A.
I don’t think it was as jarring as that. I think that if somebody were to say, ‘Would you come back?’ and if there was a right opportunity, I wouldn’t turn that down. You never say never. The process, pretty climactic and evident in the book, was the process of gaining admissions for my daughter in a nursery school. Because education and workplace training was such an important part of my job, I focused a lot on how undergrads in colleges were not being prepared for the workplace. Little did I realise that so much of that preparation, the lack of which was actually stripping Indians of the ability to innovate and think outside the box, starts at the age of 3 or 4. That process was difficult to go through although, ultimately, we prevailed. Just like something works out for so many processes in India. Nonetheless, it left a bitter taste in my mouth and I wondered: Can anyone really make it here without someone putting in a word or giving a donation. Ultimately, what sent me back was a phone call for another job.

Q. Were you happy to have been able to refresh your perspectives on India as you made this journey?
A.
I wrote about technology in India for years where I would always use the term leapfrogging. Little did I think that a journalist could leapfrog her career. You write about that for other people. But if I hadn’t come to India, there was no way I would have been in this position at the Wall Street Journal, a global newspaper. In the last five years alone, India has just exploded. I don’t think that my perspective of covering the recession would have been even possible had I not been through a booming economy. And for that alone I am intensely grateful to India. The other thing I am really grateful to the country is that it exposed a complacency within me that somehow good times will keep rolling.

Also, in a country where nine newspapers landed with a thud at my doorstep every morning, what better reminder could be of the role of journalists in the society. You have people hungry for information. It’s a real privilege that I was able to be a part of that. The other privilege was that Mint, that started as an experiment, was quite successful. There are a lot of reporters who have come through the newsroom and gone on to better things. When I started out, the paper didn’t even have a name and people in the US felt it was crazy for abandoning my job and joining a no-name newspaper in India. It’s nice to be able to have proven them wrong.

Q. Did you at all feel that this entailed some risks?
A.
Of course, there was a risk. I knew journalists coming to the US from India who were told that their experience didn’t count for anything. Having worked with both the American and the Indian journalists now, I think that there is a lot that journalists in the US can learn from the hustle of Indian newsrooms, from their competition. For example, we started the newsroom from scratch which enabled us to integrate technology and staff in a way that the West is still trying to do. It’s quite a challenge.

Q. As a business journalist, how do you view the trajectory of India’s economic growth?
A.
The trajectory of its growth is quite impressive if you look at where other global economies are right now. While it experienced a blip in the fall of 2008, it bounded pretty quickly. The real market and stock markets are still going very strong. It has really served as some kind of a bedrock with some stability in a world that is reeling from the recession. That’s commendable. A lot of what sent the world into recession — living with new means, being very comfortable with debt, lending being very free — shouldn’t be forgotten as India continues its ride. If you look at the real state bubble, there are still lessons to be drawn from what other countries have gone through. There has to be cautious optimism.

The other significant thing for India and China to bear in mind is that the US consumer has still not rebounded. Unemployment in the US is still very high. Even though the markets may say we are doing just fine, they are dependent on the strength of the US consumers. You can’t be a member of the global economy and say, ‘We are going to go on our own right now.’ It’s all integrated. Similarly, the US can’t decline jobs being outsourced to Bengaluru. India and China can also not just focus on their domestic market.
I don’t think I can be entirely celebratory. India has somewhat cautious approach to opening up. The recession, if anything, has forced the world to ask the same questions that India is going through: What is the role of the government in uplifting the people? In the US, it is a huge issue. Can we get ourselves out of this deficit? Whether we still have safety networks for individuals?

Q. You didn’t want this to be a ‘business book’, did you? Did you want it to be a memoir?
A.
I didn’t set out to write it as a memoir. I actually think I am too young to have done that. And it’s not a family story. It’s very hard to write about India as an outsider without saying, ‘Look this is my perspective, but I am an outsider.’ It became the device not to have used that excuse every minute, perhaps replacing the apology to tell it like it is. There have been a lot of Indian economy books, but they are not always accessible. They are not something that people will pick up. We are so quickly in the midst of change that it’s hard to sit and examine what this has done to the daily rhythm of an Indian household.

Q. What is your idea of home?
A.
I consider myself a product of many places. India, in its sense of home, is truly generous. I do feel like this is home. Delhi is home. Assam is home. The place we call home is representative of all the different walks we come from.

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