Bookaholicanonymous is extremely happy to present this tete a tete with journalist and TV anchor Sunetra Choudhury. Read how her recently released book Behind Bars came about…
‘Amar Singh said no for the longest time. I just kept at it till he finally agreed. I think he still has mixed feelings about sharing such intimate details with me’- Sunetra
Sunetra Choudhury is a familiar face with people who follow NDTV, she is a journalist and anchor with channel NDTV 24x7. Her career started with The Indian Express in 1999, she later became the deputy chief reporter there. Later in 2002, she began her TV career with Star News. Then she moved to NDTV in 2003. She is primarily located in New Delhi, and is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She was born in Shillong, Meghalaya.
What made you finally decide on the topic for your book Behind Bars?
In a way, the story found me. One of the subjects of my book, Anca Verma, who was in jail for four years for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act, got bail. She knew of me as a journalist and asked to meet me. That meeting led to a kind of bonding and when we chatted, this alternate universe behind bars just revealed itself to me. That’s when I decided that I had to work on that story.
What was the aim of writing this book? Was it to give us a peek into the lives of VIP inmates and how rules are bent for them or something else?
Yes, it was that and to just tell a good story. I felt that this story was stranger than fiction. I felt that this was at once funny, tragic, unreal, heartbreaking and inspiring and I wanted to tell everyone about it
How many inmates did you meet before finalizing whom to write about?
I actually went about it in another fashion. Anca’s story led me to look for others and so I made a list. Then, the hard work of convincing them started. I actually started working on it with just three people and wrote it subject wise. So when I had 13, I knew I had a good mix of people telling different aspects of prison life.
Were they all willing to talk to you?
No, they weren’t. Amar Singh said no for the longest time. I just kept at it till he finally agreed. I think he still has mixed feelings about sharing such intimate details with me. Some of the people I really wanted just didn’t want to talk. For instance, Abu Salem’s associate Monica Bedi. I was very disappointed but it was their story to tell.
Tell us a challenging situation you faced while meeting and researching for the book? Or who was the most difficult to approach/convince?
The most challenging aspect of the book is that some of my subjects are still in jail or their cases are still ongoing so whatever I was going to write potentially impacted them directly. So, I remember standing outside for hours at Cherlapally jail to meet Kobad Ghandy, the alleged maoist idealogue. Along with my interview, the meeting was also for very important things- he needed chappals, food and medicines which his lawyers had to carry for the 70 year old. The lawyers were all political activists too and while writing this book, one was arrested while on a fact- finding mission in Chattisgarh! I realized how powerful the State can be and how misuse of power works. Kobad was in jail despite being acquitted by two courts and would perhaps die in jail if the State had its way, because of the long list of cases against him, cases with hardly any evidence.
Tell us a funny or a pleasant experience?
One of my subjects was the very flamboyant Bihar politician Pappu Yadav. He is a grass root politician who has spent more time in jail than outside; jail is also where he got his degrees. I made contact through his MP wife, Ranjeet Ranjan who he also met through jail.
Now, Pappu Yadav was very busy so he’d ask me to come see him at 7 am. I would do that but sometimes; he just wasn’t in the mood to talk. That meant hanging out with the couple as they took out their Harleys and drove to Khan Market. Fun!
Were the VIP inmates in your book telling you the truth about the reason of their being behind bars? Your take
I didn’t take their word for it. I got the court documents and went by that.
Let's talk a little about your first book Braking News. Tell us how different or similar is your first book to your second?
Braking News was all fun. It was an adventure, a
travelogue across the country. Even if parts of the country were sad, deprived,
the characters were light and made it an easy read. This book is anything but
that. It is dark and parts of it some found too difficult to read.
Which was easier to write?
Braking News was easier as it was writing about an
experience so I didn’t have to do research as such. Behind Bars is
only research and interviews and of real people with very serious problems. So
much tougher. Apparently, you can see me evolve as a writer (as someone pointed
What next? What can we look forward to from you?
I have a few ideas but I am in no hurry. Stories sometimes write themselves.
Bookaholicanonymous wishes Sunetra all the best and hopes to many more interesting books from her!
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