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Now, How not to interview

It all boils down to identifying with the person one is seeking a ‘story’ from. Despite that person being poor, illiterate, deprived, and disadvantaged. Good writing and reporting come from empathy, whatever the story, says Sakuntala Narasimhan

Illustration: Arun Ramkumar

The small town of Latur in Maharashtra hit the news some years ago when it was devastated by a nasty earthquake. I was part of a team of journalists who were taken to visit the place to access the damage and write about it. We went round, speaking to residents and taking pictures.

In front of a dilapidated hut sat an old woman who, we were told, had lost her husband and four sons in the calamity.  One of the reporters in our team, a young, twenty-something, in tight jeans and a skimpy top, from a major newspaper, went up to the woman, and thrusting her microphone in front of  her, asked “Aapko kaisa  lagaa? (how did you feel)”.   The woman glared at her and chose not to answer.

What does one expect this woman to say – that she was sad? Devastated? Angry? Miserable? I thought that was crass – asking her to describe her trauma for the ‘story’. Kaisa lagaa? No words of sympathy or condolence, just wanting a ‘quote’ for her report. I was taken aback.

There is also the matter of dress – a ‘reporter’ clad in tight, designer jeans and high heels, wearing lipstick and designer sun glasses, does not resonate with a rustic grandma who is expected to give you ‘quotes’ about what it felt like, to lose members of her family to a natural calamity.

I remember, when I was working on a book on the Lambadi women of  rural Andhra Pradesh, I was warned by my mentors that I should shed my ‘citiness’  while gathering information – just an ordinary  synthetic sari, no sleeveless blouses, no fancy handbags either. The interviewer needs to identify completely with the person being interviewed. I had to sit with the rustic women in their thatched huts, on the mud floor, and eat their food – boiled rice, mixed with tamarind water spiced with just salt and chillies – if I wanted to establish empathy.

I also remember one occasion when I was part of a group of four journalists gathering information about the ‘seepages’ in the money that the government had announced for them (but of course, a large portion of the  compensation was being siphoned off by middlemen). Being illiterate, the beneficiaries did not even know how much they were entitled to and how much was actually reaching them. Local netas (leaders) were also playing politics, by twisting the truth to win political brownie points against the ruling party functionaries.

During one visit to a slum colony that had been devastated by fire, we also discovered that the residents doctored their responses, if they thought that we were officials  who had come to determine how much  compensation would be appropriate – some moaned and exaggerated their losses so that we would sanction larger monetary assistance (their  assumption was that we represented the sarkar (government) and could help get larger amounts sanctioned if we were ‘impressed’ with their plight.)

An interviewer needs to establish not only empathy but also sift the facts to get at the truth. That means additional work, of course, and it is always far easier to go over with a notebook and pen and jot down ‘quotes’. In fact, there are times when pulling out a notepad and pen erodes that empathy.  Likewise, thrusting  a microphone before the  victim is also a no-no. Modern technology helps in this, by making available non-intrusive gadgets that are barely visible, so that it becomes easier to record.

There have been reports in the media about VIPs (ministers) visiting victims’ families in the rural areas, and getting their food ordered from hotels. (Poor people’s food is not good enough for VIPs, right? They need five star menus). Refusal to share their rustic (and simple) fare is the worst insult a visitor can heap on the economically weaker sections. The hosts, naturally, feel honoured and pull out chairs for the visitor while the hosts keep standing deferentially.

An interviewer cannot, and should not put on, airs just because he or she is a city person and educated. You want the deprived sections to give you information for a ‘story’, the interviewer is the one seeking a favour, taking up the interviewees’ time.

July – September 2022