By Jennifer Rodrigo
“To tell the story of people from a country I was not from, to respect their sense of identity, but be aware of the politics and propaganda, to show their decisions, justifications, regrets and biases without patronising - this was one of the most challenging things,” recalls Rohini Mohan, author of The Seasons of Trouble, a nonfiction account on postwar Sri Lanka. The book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, 2015 and Tata Lit Live First Book Award (Nonfiction). Rohini has been a political journalist for more than a decade, writing on human rights in South Asia for publications including Al Jazeera, The New York Times, Tehelka, The Caravan, Foreign Policy, Economic Times, and The Hindu.
She is based in Bangalore.
What got you into political journalism?
I was a business management graduate who hated her desk job. An aunt said, "You read so much, why don't you try journalism?" It was random - I thought I would write pretty words. But in 2004, when I covered the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, something changed inside me. Journalism became a way of trying to understand the world around me better. It puts me in unfamiliar situations repeatedly, forcing me to contend, learn fast, struggle at making sense of it. You learn contexts, that no issue is black and white. I admire daily beat reporters, but can't do it. Instead, I learn in another way, taking a week or a month to interview someone, or do a field report or research, immerse myself in its ecosystem. For me, political journalism is about political themes, policies, human rights, people with and without power.
Tell me about The Seasons of Trouble. What was the most challenging thing about writing it?
After my first reporting trip in Sri Lanka in 2009, I was struck by how little I knew about the country and the conflict. I kept coming back, for 5 years, until 2014, making 2-3 trips a year to Sri Lanka, meeting as many people as possible, going south, going deep north, trying to understand. I met politicians, soldiers, journalists, activists, monks, Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims. I didn't publish anything, thinking I won't get a visa for my next trip if I do. I had a full-time job in Delhi, and this became my secret project. When I realised I wanted to write a book, the biggest question was who it would be about. There are so many versions of the conflict, dictated by ethnicity, history, ideology, lack of information. To tell the story of people from a country I was not from, to respect their sense of identity, but be aware of the politics and propaganda, to show their decisions, justifications, regrets and biases without patronising - this was one of the most challenging things.
How has the response been for the book?
I was most afraid of what Sri Lankans would say - whether my friends here will dismiss it. I was writing as much for Sri Lankans, as for people who had no idea about Sri Lanka. But the response has been touching - people write with things they identify with, things they knew about but not in detail. Most people have connected to the characters deeply. Every week, someone writes asking what happened to Mugil, or Sarva, are they okay? Has Sri Lanka changed for the better now? This moves me, that the book touched a chord in faraway Ireland, Australia, or Poland.
3 things no one knows about you?
As a child, my ambition was to be a singer
Every few months, I try to quit eating meat and fail.
I tried to move to Sri Lanka in 2011, but didn't because I couldn't afford rent in Colombo!
5 things on your bucket-list?
Read every book in my house, though the stack is growing fast
Learn to swim
Go on a long backpacking trip with my mother and sister
Live in Nigeria and Brazil
Have a conversation with JM Coetzee
Expectations for GLF 2016?
It's the first time I'll talk about my book in Sri Lanka, and I get to do it in the south and in Jaffna! I'm most excited and petrified! I'd love to meet the wonderful Sri Lankan authors I've read. I'm looking forward to all the heritage walks GLF has arranged.
What do you love most about Sri Lanka?
The accent, the arrack and the food. I love that you make fun of Indians.
What do you like the least about Sri Lanka?
You have just two major languages, and it baffles me how so few people are bilingual
3 words to describe yourself?
Curious. Optimistic. Disorganised.
Are you working on anything right now?
I am doing full-time journalism in India
Rohini Mohan is one of the many writers who’ll be attending the Fairway Galle Literary Festival 2016 in January.