Book review

Not just liberals but also those who reviled her must read this collection of Gauri Lankesh’s works

TM Krishna pieces together the many voices of the audacious yet compassionate journalist that emerge from the ‘Gauri Lankesh Reader’.

I did not know Gauri Lankesh when she was alive, nor had I heard of her work. But the sheer cold-bloodedness of her assassination, the hate and spite that had nurtured this violent act, and the reality that we live in times when such murders are committed with impunity, tearing into the very soul of our constitution, shattered me. I had opened my column soon after the incident with the following lines:

“Is this a monologue sans an audience or is it an appeal to the people of my country? I do not know but I am just terrified. The last few days have pushed my mind and heart into a state of despair and hope is indeed fading.”

Unfortunately, in the six months since I wrote those lines, very little has changed. My fear has only magnified and we seem to be waiting for another Gauri to fall prey to these brutes. If we want to fight the frightful madness that is enveloping this country it is not enough to bemoan her death, we have to feel her spirit and celebrate her unguarded openness.

The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader, a collection of her writing edited by Chandan Gowda, is a pathway into Gauri’s mind. But this is not a book just about her. Gauri becomes a conduit for liberty, equality, protest, dissent, change, learning and uninhibited love, reminding us of true living. This does not mean she was always right, but she was always caring, especially towards those who are marginalised. This wonderful book is a character portrait that draws a complex, beautiful, spirited and moving picture of Gauri. It travels through time and as we travel with her, witnessing her changes and realignments, Gauri appears in many different voices.

The uncompromising journalist

In her early days as an uncompromising English-language journalist, Gauri dug deep to unravel the truth. Unlike her later columns, she remained entirely independent of the subjects she wrote about. Her social and religious positions were clear, yet she did not let them creep into her storytelling. Ah, now that I have used the word storytelling, I must point out that her writing is gripping and nuanced, much like a short story writer. Depending on the subject, she imbued her words with wit, empathy, detailing and political acumen. Her essay on Nagaraja, the Bangalore rapist and murderer is brilliant and does not miss any twist or turn. At the very end, it gives even the heartless killer, a patient and non-judgmental hearing. Her disdain for powerful gurus such as Sai Baba or for that matter any form of authoritative power is clearly evident throughout her writing. Her humorous yet insightful piece on the Rajiv Gandhi and Veerendra Patil political saga is truly marvellous.

When she wrote of her father or for that matter whenever he appears even as a reference, we receive mixed emotions. Gauri adored and admired his literary, political expanse and courage. Yet he hovered over her as a “difficult act to follow”. Her politics were not exactly his, but she seemed to struggle with his intellectual weight. But the way Gauri fought through this and impacted Karnataka’s social consciousness without depending on her influential last name is stunning – something the book brings out with great finesse. The Lankesh Patrike/Gauri Lankesh Patrike partition, may have been forced, but this divide allowed her to emerge as an independent thinker. Her portraits of leading intellectuals of Kannada-land are replete with personal anecdotes. Unlike her early impersonal manner, these essays reveal an uncanny ability to keep a distance, yet remain emotionally connected. Her short essays on her Amma, BV Karanth and KP Purnachandra Tejasvi are subtle and thoughtful.

The passionate activist

It is evident from this collection that Gauri found herself in her activism. On the strength of her own thoughts and with sheer audacity she tread paths that her father did not. The activist Gauri’s writings are distinct, personal, spirited, filled with excitement, anger, responsive and reactionary. Whether she was writing about Bababudangiri, Revathi, the Dalits of Savanur or the adrenaline that filled her when she was surrounded by activists in the Chikmagalur jail, we realise that everything became personal. Every experience became part of her life, politics and consequently, her writing. In a number of articles that are a part of this collection she called out the falseness of Narendra Modi, the double speak of the BJP and naked violence of the ABVP and its fraternity. She had absolutely no time for the BJP and its ilk and made no bones of it. Gauri was a rationalist who always denounced superstition and religious mumbo-jumbo.

The final section of the book gives us Gauri through the voices of others. This allows for an objectivity that she would have certainly appreciated. Her mother’s piece, where she narrates a few incidents from the personal pages of Gauri life, is a melancholic but gorgeous read. In a few paragraphs she brings to life P Lankesh, Gauri, and her ex-husband Chidanand Rajghatta.

A relentless force

It is evident from this book that Gauri was strong, brazen, difficult and confrontational. But who can ever fault her for any of those qualities, especially when they were driven by a passion for protecting a secular, embracing and equal society? Above all, here was a rare person who remained critical and evolving, never for a moment satisfied with who she was. She was an English journalist who initially struggled with her Kannada but overcame it – over half the essays in the book are English translations from Kannada. She took on the challenge of keeping her father’s weekly alive, realised that activism was her calling, did not step back when her brother took away the Lankesh Patrike, never shied away from naming those who are destroying our society and implicitly trusted the democratic framework. But under all this she comes across as a warm, endearing and compassionate human being who shared with abandon. As her ex-husband and good friend Chidanand Rajghatta said in his Facebook post “She is the epitome of Amazing Grace.”

It will not suffice if just liberals and secularists read this book. I wish that all those who spread half-truths, lies, and unrelentingly abused her read this book. They may vehemently disagree with her worldview, but I am certain they will experience her preciousness.

The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader, edited by Chandan Gowda, Navayana and DC Books.

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