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The amazing grace of Gauri Lankesh

The uncompromising politics of the slain journalist comes alive in a new book by her ex-husband

A 1984 photo of Lankesh on the rooftop of her father’s house in Banashankari, Bengaluru. Photo: Chidanand Rajghatta
A 1984 photo of Lankesh on the rooftop of her father’s house in Banashankari, Bengaluru. Photo: Chidanand Rajghatta

In 2017, hours after journalist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down by assassins in front of her home in Bengaluru, tributes began to pour in from all over the world on social media. Perhaps the most beautiful of these reminiscences was by her ex-husband, Chidanand Rajghatta, a journalist based in the US for many years, with whom she remained friends until her death. “Forget all other labels: leftist, radical, anti-Hindutva, secular," he wrote, “For me, there is just this: She is the epitome of Amazing Grace."

The sentiment behind this soaring statement informs the spirit of Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh And The Age Of Unreason (Westland, Rs499), Rajghatta’s memoir of his relationship with his former spouse, which is out this week. While holding up a mirror to a life of passionate commitment to justice, he forces the reader to confront the bitter realities of contemporary India—a society riven by hate, where unreason slips in through the slightest of cracks and exacts a terrifying, often fatal, cost.

The moral thrust of Rajghatta’s narrative is abundantly clear from the title. By the time she was killed at the age of 55, Lankesh had ruffled several dangerous feathers with her staunch advocacy of secular ideals. She was also unstinting in her support for rationalist thinkers like M.M. Kalburgi, who was killed in a manner uncannily similar to her murder, in Dharwad, Karnataka, in 2015. Since she had been involved in rehabilitating former ultra-left rebels from the early 2000s, Lankesh was widely scorned as a “Naxal sympathizer" after her death, anathema in the eye of right-wing outfits. Schooled in the progressive belief system of her father P. Lankesh, a writer, thinker and journalist of eminence in Kannada, Gauri became a repository of liberal values—though, tragically, India had to wait until her murder to fully recognize the importance of a mind like hers in the nation’s political discourse.

To appreciate the scope of Rajghatta’s book, it is essential to read it in conjunction with The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader, edited by scholar and translator Chandan Gowda and published by DC Books and Navayana in November, weeks after her demise. An assortment of Lankesh’s early writing for publications like the Sunday magazine in the 1990s, along with her later columns in Kannada for the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, which she founded and edited till her death, the volume allows a glimpse into her fierce intellect. Her investigation into the controversial miracle-working Sathya Sai Baba or the profile of a serial killer of women in Bengaluru are riveting, auguring the making of the razor-sharp political analyst of her later years. Already we can hear her crystalline voice, which didn’t tremble in the least as it spoke truth to power.

Rajghatta’s revisiting of Lankesh’s life, especially her intellectual evolution from an English-language journalist to a leading voice in Kannada media, reveals her intrepid disregard for norms and her refusal to be pigeonholed into any single role. Even in their courtship and marriage, she remained an iconoclast. When the two decided to tie the knot after dating for some years, they had one of the plainest ceremonies ever—the marriage cost Rs15.50, the price of a legal registration. During their life together in a small barsati (rooftop) apartment in Delhi, Rajghatta remembers, Lankesh made it clear he would have to share the household chores. Then, after spending the 1980s and 1990s working in various English-language media outlets, first as desk editor, later as reporter and bureau chief, Lankesh reinvented herself radically after her father’s untimely death in 2000.

By then, she had left her brief marriage, which lasted from 1985-89, and moved back to her hometown in Bengaluru, close to the culture and language she had grown up with. Whatever little acrimony there was in the separation was quickly set aside by Lankesh, who, with her characteristic generosity, not only kept in touch with her former in-laws but also embraced her ex-husband’s new family.

Back in Bengaluru, she joined the Lankesh Patrike, a popular Kannada news magazine founded by her father, taught herself to think, write, edit and report in her mother tongue. In the next few years, as editorial differences with her younger brother Indrajit (who had succeeded their father as the publisher of Lankesh Patrike) deepened, she launched her own magazine, Gauri Lankesh Patrike—without missing a beat, funded entirely by subscriptions, with a skeletal staff to run it—and kept it afloat in spite of severe financial constraints.

She turned her attention to the microcosm around her—to the exploitation of farmers, oppression of women, the rise of militant Hindutva and the controversy over the status of Lingayats (the community she belonged to) and the Veerashaivas (who are often considered a subset of the Lingayats, albeit controversially). Throwing herself into reporting from the ground, Lankesh went back to the first principles of journalism: the importance of not missing the details for the big picture; the need to ensure that the small voices were not drowned by the sound and fury of national politics; and to amplify the plight of the wretched and the disenfranchised. She adopted student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid as her “children", identifying with their struggle and supporting them in their fight against right-wing extremism. In her unrelenting pursuit of truth, often at the risk of her physical and psychological well-being, Lankesh held herself to a far higher standard of excellence than the TRPs and clickbait statistics that drive the Fourth Estate today.

In a sense, the rediscovery of Lankesh couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time. “There are very similar trends and upheavals going on both in India and the US, indeed in several countries across the world," says Rajghatta in an email. “The resurgence of hyper nationalistic right-wing politics, the otherization and demonization of minorities and foreigners, the privileged reasserting their power—Gauri was in the thick of these debates and battles on her much loved home turf."

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