By Curtis Stephen
If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river.
– Anthony Bourdain
After years of bloody conflict, the Afghan capital of Kabul lay in ruins. It was spring 1996. And CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Anita Pratap, the network’s New Delhi bureau chief, were reporting from the frontlines.
They were placing a spotlight on a battle-scarred city that was no longer in the headlines. The result was a searing documentary that earned a prestigious George Polk Award — which Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus (LIU) has given out in recognition of enterprising journalism every year since 1949.
The report captured the rise of the Taliban well before it became a topic du jour among foreign policy analysts after 9/11. But its impact exceeded geopolitics. It also changed my world too.
When Pratap attended the awards luncheon in New York, she received a pitch from Ralph Engelman, who was chairman of LIU’s journalism department at the time, for a student to work alongside her as an apprentice under its fellowship program.
She agreed. Months later, I was aboard a Delhi-bound Air India flight with no idea what would happen next.
That was exactly 20 years ago. And now I’ve been reflecting on that journey after the recent suicide of famed chef-turned-TV star Anthony Bourdain, whose work in bridging cultures through travel and food continues to inspire. And at a time when many Western societies are increasingly turning inward.
Nevertheless, the mystical India of pop culture lore persists. It’s the place where foreigners — preferably those with midlife crises — are supposed to find themselves (think, Eat Pray Love.)
But I was a 20-year-old aspiring journalist whose only major trip outside of New York was a family vacation to Trinidad in the late 1980s. In fact, weeks before I landed in India — the country was dominating headlines for conducting several underground nuclear tests.
And when the U.S. issued a public rebuke over Parkham II, New Delhi suddenly erupted into scenes of American flags being set afire on the streets.
While renting a room from a family in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, I was booked for three months. Yet as I strolled along New Delhi, I could feel the intense, soul-penetrating glares of strangers. “I’m different and it’s everything about me,” I concluded in my diary.
But one night, I was whisked off to an album release party for the iconic classical flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, where – to my great surprise – conversations about nuclear tests also veered into other subjects, like the legacy of artist/activist Paul Robeson. I quickly learned to expect the unexpected. And I suppose I should have, well, expected that.
Before I left the U.S., I met with Sudhir Kodati – who was born in south India and was a university grad student at the time. Go to the rural areas, talk to villagers, and be sure to visit the farms and schools, he counseled in a crash course that would transcend any tourist guide.
“It is very difficult for an Indian to understand India, much less an American,” he told me. “But at least you can try.”
And try I did. After a month with CNN, I hopped on a packed train and rode along the railway for 24 hours from Delhi to South India. In Kerala, I interviewed the late Kothapalli Jayashankar and Biyyala Janardhan Rao, two professors who were agitating for the then-revolutionary notion of creating the state of Telangana in the region.
On the pristine grounds of Nizam College, I spoke to students and professors alike about their hopes and concerns for India.
And in Andhra Pradesh, I came upon protesters calling for an investigation into the death of the rural activist Sanjoy Ghose, whose murder in Assam one year earlier was shrouded in mystery.
But for every question I asked, I also fielded just as many about life back home and the state of affairs for blacks in America. After returning to Delhi in time for Independence Day, I was among the massive throng of revelers who watched then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hoist up India’s flag at Red Fort.
While I couldn’t speak a word of Hindi, there was no mistaking the fiery spirit of defiance that permeated the air. But amid the cheers, I found mixed — as well as cynical — views about the nuclear tests.
Still, gathering those impressions provided a lifelong lesson for me – namely, to steer clear of preconceived notions. Even now, I marvel at having to navigate through India before Google even existed. And so everything that I experienced there was a surprising revelation.
In addition to CNN, I also worked with The Times of India’s local daily, Delhi Times. While there, I met the dynamic editor Sabina Sehgal Saikia. Intimidating? Very. But she was also nurturing and could engage any room with her magnetic presence.
For reasons that still confound me, Sabina instantly treated me like a longtime staffer. I can still her now, dishing stories my way — from covering the deadly consequences of infrastructure lapses on Deli’s sprawling roads to interviewing actor Rahul Bose.
Today, I wish I could thank her again for the vote of confidence. But sadly, she was among the 160 people killed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
On the day that I tried spicy rasam for the first time, it was Sabina whom I proudly told all about it.
“You’re becoming more Indian every day,” she said with a laugh.
“Shukriya, Sabina,” I replied.
She then laughed even harder. That too, I’ll never forget.