In March 2020, just a few days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the covid-19 pandemic, journalist Barkha Dutt jumped into a Maruti Ertiga with two colleagues and started off on an epic road trip, reporting on the pandemic, the lockdown, and its immediate fallout across the length and breadth of India. Over the past two years, her YouTube channel, Mojo Story, has become a respected source of on-ground reportage on the unfolding pandemic, from the first lockdown and its attendant migrant crisis, to the devastating second wave, with the scramble for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, to the onset of the third wave as the Omicron variant spread. In the process, Dutt says she collected a lot of material that would benefit from the distance and perspective not always available in the immediacy of the visual medium. So she decided to write a book, Humans Of Covid: To Hell And Back, because “there will be books on the science of covid or the data of covid, but I felt I was best placed to write about the people whose stories have come to define this time for me”. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The stories in this book are haunting. How difficult was it to write?
I thought that having reported these stories, maybe the reporting would have been the worst part. But while I was reporting it, I had other things to displace my sadness, my depression and my sense of devastation—just the mechanics of reporting. It was only when I started writing the book that I actually collapsed—I, literally, mentally and emotionally collapsed. I had gone on a fellowship to Oxford while I was working on the book and I would call my editor Chiki Sarkar crying, saying, “I can’t write it, I think we will have to abandon this book.”
And then somehow I soldiered through it. It was much tougher to write the book than it was to report on the pandemic, maybe because it all came together and the enormity of what had happened in this country… the sense of a collective bruised nationhood—it just felt overwhelming.
Would you say it was among the toughest things you have done in your life as a journalist?
It’s kind of true that if I had to bookend my career so far, it would be from Kargil, 1999 to covid in 2020-21. And in the intervening two decades is the rest of my journalism. These two stand out for me as the most transformative personal and professional experiences of my life.
I was in my 20s when I went to report a war from the frontline. And in some ways covid was even tougher than reporting war, because it was longer. Its adversaries were not immediately visible or obvious, you didn’t understand enough about the virus, you didn’t know what you needed to do to protect yourself from it.
I am reminded of a nurse, Yogita, whom I met in Mumbai, who had witnessed 26/11 and saved new mothers and newborn babies during the attack on Cama hospital. She said the same thing to me: “At least 26/11 ended.”
There are so many layers to the story, including our own losses. You lost your father to covid and write about it beautifully in a chapter on ‘Fathers And Daughters’. How did you weave it all into a cohesive narrative?
That was one of the most challenging parts of this… we were basically looking to distil two years of reporting. It was really important to me to name every single person I met; for every person to have the dignity of an individual’s story. Deciding the structure was tough—do I tell it chronologically? Is there a first wave and a second wave story? Is there a story on policy? What is the story about?
And it was then that I realised that actually there are better books that have been written and will be written on data, there are better books on science and policy. My book would be about meeting people and giving their tragedies a face and a name. And to not leave them feeling invisible, and to not leave them feeling unacknowledged.
Many of these stories were reported by you and your team as they were happening. Why the urge to put it down in print, in the form of a book?
I am a child of television and the visual medium will always be my medium, but I think there’s still something about holding a book that makes it feel more permanent. I know what it feels like to hold a book in your hand, and to see it on your shelf or to see it on a friend’s shelf. Nothing compares with that feeling. Or maybe words are easier to revisit than a video…you can bookmark a bit, you can add a post-it note, come back to it. Also, the visual medium is very good for capturing the immediate but the written word is much better for the reflective parts of that story. There’s that stepping back and zooming out that’s only possible in the written word.
How did you find some hope in the narrative? You write about meeting Jyoti Yadav, the girl from Bihar who cycled over 1,200km with her father riding pillion, and that you didn’t want to romanticise her life and her achievement. How did you find that balance?
To be an effective storyteller, you need the tools of the craft of narrative-building, right? So you need hope and redemption. At the same time, you have to be mindful that you are reporting on a devastating tragedy and you can’t do an Ivanka Trump, who hailed Jyoti almost as a sportswoman instead of a child victim of a colossal sort of breakdown in social systems. And yet, if you present only bleakness, the chances are that your audience will not care about that person, right? So it’s very tough to get that balance and you can’t manufacture hope where hope doesn’t exist, you can’t manufacture resilience where it doesn’t exist. And where it does, you have to be very careful that you are also foregrounding an enormous lack of choice.
The toughest thing when you are reporting guttural, visceral tragedy and loss is you have to be sensitive, and yet you have to be effective. And that balance is excruciatingly difficult. I was very, very careful about consent—about asking for consent before interviewing someone.
All through these months of reporting, I felt very guilty. During the first lockdown, sometimes we didn’t have a place to stay or to eat, but these were logistical problems and we had the resources to find a friend of a friend. Someone would cook us food and send it, people were following our journey, people would open their homes. Nobody was doing that for these men, women and children I was reporting on, and the maximum I could offer was a packet of biscuits, some water on the odd occasion. I have always believed that I am not the government, nor am I from an NGO. I am a reporter, I have to do my job. But there was this constant, overwhelming guilt.
Are you happy to be back on the ground and away from television studios?
One of the things that has been reaffirmed for me through this experience is that I was always told people didn’t have the attention span or the interest to watch reported stories. I think covid displayed that that’s completely wrong, that people are hungry for reportage if it’s reported well, that there are all kinds of audiences. There are enough viewers who are longing for something fresh, different, or even something old-fashioned. Sometimes we just crave the old-fashioned, classic, reported story.