During the last parliamentary elections, NDTV had a good idea. It sent two of its reporters and a camera crew in a bold, red bus on a 15,000km trip around the country to cover the campaign. The two reporters were Sunetra Choudhury of the English news channel and Naghma Sahar from the Hindi one. It turns out that sending Sunetra was a brainwave, because unlike other journalists who keep planning to write a book about one of their defining experiences, she went ahead and wrote one. And unlike other journalists who inflict their selfimportance upon the rest of us, she’s a person who is chatty, creative and has a selfdeprecating sense of humour. These turn out to be necessary ingredients for her travelogue Braking News.
Sunetra charted out a route that went along the west coast, touching the south and back up the east coast and the Hindi heartland; given the militarytype planning by the Election Commission of a multiphase poll, she tried to chart a route that would touch as many places as possible before each went to polls. At various planned stops, and even some unscheduled ones, the reporters broke their halfhour programmes into segments that included a bit of seeing the sights, sampling the voters, trying to catch the netas, and even having lunch at someone or other’s home. It helped that the bus itself was a big attraction to curious onlookers, no matter which part of the country they visited. The episodes, to even a jaded viewer like me, were a refreshing break from the usual news programming, and Sunetra says that later in the journey she found that for quite a number of viewers it was more like a TV serial.
The book fleshes out the adventure, and gives a kind of behindthescenes narrative of the twomonth journey. Fortunately for the reader, Sunetra has no hangups about writing of her nearobsessive search for a clean loo; she has no hangups writing of the tensions that inevitably build and dissipate when a handful of people are thrown together for two months at stretch; she has no hangups writing about her and Naghma’s continual hunt for local cuisine (So that when she returns home and asks her husband whether she’s lost weight, he diplomatically replies: “You look good”); and she does not even spare herself when she has a wry observation to make.
One of the funny moments include Sunetra and her colleagues travelling in Morena, Madhya Pradesh, famous for the Chambal dacoits, and on the road stopping an old man on a motorcycle because he carried a gun. To her colleagues’ horror, Sunetra asks the elderly fellow: “Are you from a dacoit family, sir?”
On another occasion, the NDTV bus stops in Honnavar, Karnataka (they are on their way to Mangalore), and both reporters are in dire need of a loo. But the only public loo, “smelling from a kilometer away”, is locked. And a group of shy and curious local boys are following them around. So the two decided to just squat behind some thin bushes and do their thing, each standing guard for the other. Incidentally, it’s episodes like this that tell you what the issues in India actually are.
Sunetra’s style is relaxed, though there are moments when you wish she had not tried to pack in so much information (all journalists are like this). It’s only the academic stretches where you feel the length of the twomonth assignment. Otherwise, it is a breezy read. One only hopes Sunetra’s next book is an insider’s acc­ount of working at a TV news channel.