[Issue 13 / 1 May 15]
NO RACISM IN ENGLAND WHEN MAHATMA GANDHI ARRIVED IN 1988, MISUNDERSTANDING OF IDEAS OF IMPARTIALITY IN JOURNALISM, AND THE NEED FOR GREATER AVAILABILITY OF BENGALI FOOD IN DELHI
By Kulpreet Yadav
Sam Miller, a journalist and writer whose first book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity was published by Penguin India in January 2009, was born in London in 1962. He studied history at Cambridge University and politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, before joining BBC World Service. In the early nineties he was the BBC’s TV and radio correspondent in New Delhi and on his return to the UK in 1993 was the presenter and editor of the BBC’s current affairs programme South Asia Report. Later he became the head of the Urdu service and subsequently Managing Editor, South Asia. He has also worked as a reporter in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. His latest book, A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes, was published in 2014.
This interview was conducted over email.
Kulpreet Yadav: My intention to interview you turned more urgent after reading ‘Gandhi the Londoner’ in Granta 130. What made you repeat the journey that Gandhi took as a young man in 1888 after he arrived in England onboard SS Clyde?
Sam Miller: I’ve loved Gandhi’s own writings since I first read his autobiography more than a quarter of century ago. And his account of his London years is so funny, and there’s much in his writing overall that is quite the opposite of the chastely abstemious figure of popular representation. He loved to experiment, to try new things. I always found it bizarre that the Attenborough film of Gandhi left out the London years – given his wonderful descriptions of learning to dance and play the violin, of flirting with English women, of encountering evangelical vegetarians, of reading the Gita for the first time in English translation. It’s a story of its time, but also a story that any student going to study in a new city would recognize – and I became keen to trace his steps as he arrived in London. And I do actually, more seriously, think an understanding of his London years is critical to an understanding of his ideas. He loved London, and was very nostalgic about the time he spent there; and after his London experience no other imperial city – in South Africa or India – could come close. He did not encounter racism in London, and he did everywhere else.
KY: From ‘Delhi—adventures of a mega city’ in 2011 to ‘A strange kind of paradise—India through the eyes of a foreigner’ in 2014, the ambit of your narrative, in its geography and scope, has expanded rather swiftly. Has it something to do with the journalistic eye that has seen and interpreted so much, or does it stem from the need to discover yourself in your new home?
SM: A mixture of the two. I am at heart a journalist, but one who has felt the need more recently to restore what I see as a kind of authorial honesty to my narrative. I am uncomfortable, instinctively, with writing, particularly long-form journalism dealing with complex ethical issues, in which the author is absent, or attempts, usually unsuccessfully, to hide his or her viewpoints. That stems in my view from a misunderstanding of ideas of impartiality and fairness in journalism. I know some readers say that I over-use the word ‘I’, and to a degree that is a matter of taste. But it also might be said that a lot of writers hide behind passive verbal constructions and circumlocutory phrasings to conceal, or disguise, their own views.
KY: Most people argue that the urban planners have let Delhi down. The infrastructure is substandard, the contractors are greedy, and workmanship poor. Are these the real reasons for the mess that Delhi has become? Or is it the sheer inflow of people, particularly from east India, which doesn’t have urban centers with many options of livelihood, and the mismatch this inflow has with the Delhi’s civic capability to keep pace with? In short, the needle of blame should rest on whom: people who populate Delhi, or the people who manage the civic affairs of Delhi.
SM: The needle of blame will keep spinning whatever I say. Everyone is responsible for the city they live in; and as city-dweller we will collectively get the city we deserve. City planners need to deal with the real city that exists, not one that is suppose to exist based on the blueprints of previous city planners. In a free country it is impossible to keep migrants out; and they will keep coming so long as the opportunities in their home town and villages are so meagre
KY: If you are given one day of autocratic control of Delhi, which are the three areas you would address on priority?
SM: Creating safe public spaces for all, particularly women. Reducing air pollution. Greater availability of Bengali food in all parts of the city.