Interview with Sanjukta Basu, feminist writer and polymath

Sanjukta Basu

Ms. Sanjukta Basu is a writer, photographer, analyst, blogger, fervent microblogger, freelance journalist, commentator, academic, an avid traveller, a social crusader, and a feminist scholar. She’s a TED Fellow and Founder of Samyukta Media, a pioneering social media dissemination, and outreach organisation. She’s one of the first women in India to extensively write on politics, and avant-garde issues, both in press media as well as social media.

TEDx Speaker Write on politics & culture. She has written for, amongst other platforms, dailyo and Firstpost.

  1. You’ve had a vibrant career. What’s the secret to succeeding utmost, at such a vast multitude of things? What impels this dynamism? What gives you the requisite confidence for such transience?

1) When I hear such words for myself, I feel very uncomfortable. Honestly, I don’t see myself in such a big imagery. I thought that is important to mention. If you think of success, I can’t claim to be very successful (In the conventional sense). For instance, careerwise, success is attainment of the highest echelon, as becoming the head of a company in corporate sector, or in Art and Cinema, winning prestigious Academy Awards, or being a Dean in a career in Academia.

I can’t claim to even have a successful career as, from the perspective of the society we live in, success is understood as a linear and a vertical ladder, that is constantly scaled; I have never been able to follow that; I, on the other hand, have been jumping on various boats. My life is akin to the sea, where I keep switching boats. I do great on each field, which I reckon is a natural talent, being very good at anything I pick up. Perhaps that can be attributed to my creative nature; I’m able to come up with interesting solutions and novel takes on various issues and problems. But I don’t stay long enough in one boat, to be able to become ‘the’ most significant factor on that boat.

For instance, as a social media strategist, I started my own venture, by the name of “Samyukta Media”

Back in 2011, When people were not even ready to pay for social media, people did not know the power of social media today, there is so much money to all countries elections being run by Facebook and Twitter. But back then it wasn’t like that; I was quite ahead of my time to have you know, started thinking about like live tweets, live blogs, how you should have your event should have a blog, like it and do organizations can reach out to the audience with their causes all of the day was thinking in 2011, but people were not really ready to pay me for it. There was no money in social media. And I kind of one of my weaknesses, if you call it, is that I sort of thought that oh, you know, this is not working out, hey, I want to be a photographer. And then I became a photographer. So what happened is, had I merely slogged in the field of social media for a few years further, doing nothing else but focusing on making my brands and intermedia these most successful brand in India, I probably would have been able to do that.

Today, I’m a political writer. I was I started my career as a lawyer, then went on to being a photographer. So that’s the thing I have done a lot of things that’ve excited me. I think I was able to do that, because, I was never afraid to take the risk. I was never afraid to quit one job, take up another job, or quit one interest, take up another interest. I didn’t guess I have just been a really big risk-taker. I have a modest income with my writing and my photography.

  1. Please tell us about your writing career. What are your pointers to aspiring writers and journalists?

2) I not a professionally trained journalist. I didn’t study journalism, I studied law, and then, recently, I completed my Masters in ‘Women and General Studies’, in which I’m currently pursuing my PhD. I’ve taken a whole lot of things in my hand over the last two decades. I’ve been a real estate lawyers; I’ve been a corporate lawyer; I’ve worked with women organisations on legal research; I have been into social media and communication. But what has consistently accompanied throughout was writing, blogging to be precise.

On the side, as a teenage, I used to write on my diaries, and it was in the early 2000s, that blogging posed itself as a writing media. It thus happened, that the plethora of writing which was once in private diaries, went public; But I wasn’t conscious because the audience was faceless; I stood no risk of judgement or adjudgement. When you lose all your inhibitions, and you write because you like it, that’s true writing: empowering. If somebody likes or don’t like it I want to write I will, right. Although today when I write something, I do care, I do want people to read my daily columns and do care about my recognition, and acknowledgement, and all that. But that is today. When I… when I started writing my blog I had no expectations, and I had no inhibitions. I think that gave me a strong base; Once the base is strong, you can aspire to do, you can aspire for higher things.

Earlier, before the advent of blogging, I lacked this sound foundation, because of inhibitions about sharing it with people close to me, who might judge and scrutinise me. That is where your power comes, being fearless of all judgement. That was the beginning; Although today when I write I do care about my recognition, acknowledgement and readers-remarks. Initially, to overcome the threshold of inhibition and construct a base, I blogged, in which, contrary to writing in a diary and showing it to scrutiny of family and friends, it didn’t matter to me what people thought about it and how they judged. Absolute fearlessness of writing is immensely powerful. Today whenever I write a poem or do my routine political columns, I want readership, appraisal and feedback. But when I started off, I had no expectations and I had no inhibitions. I think that gave me a strong base, which once granted, you can aspire for higher things, and at that initial stage, you have no fear for loss, you can only get better, it’s only ahead from that point; it’s so natural. In a few years, I received recognition [for both writing merit and relatability of content].

So, My writing career took flight with the advent of blogging. I received lots of positive feedback and overwhelming emails and comments. Most of them are from women. Women could connect with my writing, at an unprecedented level, because my early writing as all about a women’s everyday living, including facets that are otherwise commonly subverted. It was all about a woman’s narrative: about my day-to-day struggles, that of a typical late 20s or 30s single woman: It was about longing, desire, love, sex, relationships, partners: It has stories of, for instance, my heartbreak, dating, my sexuality etc. As more people read and I candidly connected to more people, both online and offline, I learnt more, and that interpersonal experience sharpened my writing: I wrote about women around me, their respective life narratives, for instance that of my mother or that of a female friend. So, honesty is the only thing I’d give as a pointer for writing. Be passionate and frank about what you write. I think people so extensively could connect and relate with my writing so-well, as it was raw, visceral, pure emotion. It was honest. I spoke my heart out. There’s no second way about being an excellent writer than being strictly honest.

Today I write a lot about the electoral politics of the country. This entirely doesn’t usually come across as (stereotypical) ‘women-writing’, as women usually don’t cover this; most women tend to cover women’s issues, social issues, sexuality, communities, marginalisation, which I also do: I also write about hate crimes, violence against minorities, women oppression etc. But nowadays, I write mostly about politics, feeling compelled about voicing my concerns about the country, for the sole reason that I’m passionate about it and feel strongly about.

  1. Do you think various aspects and parts of your career exert a mutually pro-active influence? 

3) Notwithstanding what I am writing, I’ve a lot of thoughts in my head. Intersection becomes a part of your way of thinking. Your entire thinking has many layers, it becomes multidimensional. It has an influence on who I am, it impacts my leadership qualities, it has an influence on how I interact with people in my day-to-day life. I’m a jack of all, master of none. At the end of the day, I believe that being very knowledgeable in exclusively one field, and having a unidimensional inclination, and being clueless about the rest of the world makes one narrow and socially unproductive and impertinent.

  1. What inspires you? What drives you to write, mobilise and crusade? 

4) I think I’m my own inspiration. I’m 42 year old, single, having had a wide range of interests, activities, dreams and aspirations, a combination of all of these has furnished me a very interesting life: Not a perfect life, but an interesting (emphatically) life. I feel that just by merely looking back at my own life and trying to understand it, inspires me to do more, write more and explore further. I have this obsession about documenting every single aspect of not only my life, but every single experience: whatever I encounter, interact with, and watch and observe in my life. That drives and impels me to write. I document everyday detail from the most mundane to the most crucial things: moviegoings, feelings, travel, and so on. Now that I’m all-grown up, I’m 42, having studied feminist movements and feminist life narratives, I have reckoned that I was not naive then, thinking that writing about my life makes sense: even if you’re a women no one knows about, if every woman simply documented their lives, it’d become useful, important and interesting.

Thenceforth, writing gave me audience, audience gave me issues, causes; I connected with more people, I learnt about issues, I learnt of causes. Everything I know about the world today, from Caste Violence to Political Oppression and Fascism, is own to my writing, because I wrote and connected issues. Had I uptook a 9 to 5 job, lived a conventional, mainstream life, probably got married and settled early, been someone living in my own world, I would not have had this wide insight, and probably would not have connected to the larger world. Thus, today I’m confident that I’m a politically well-versed and active person. Writing makes me feel confident, impels me to do things that I believe are important for humanity.

I recall, even when I was a early teenager and wrote near-exclusively in my private diaries, every page of my diary used to be (intended as) a document for the world to see someday. I used to always think that someone would see and read these someday, and they’d know about me. So you know I was always writing about myself, for the world: So that way I was always a narcissist, an attention-seeker; I wanted to document everything about my life for the world to see.

  1. What does Intersectionality mean to you? 

5) I learnt the term during my academic discourse, while pursuing my Masters in Women and Gender Studies. Intersectionality is basically accepting the fact that, both in the physical and metaphysical sense, we live in a world that is full of complex relationships, ideas and values. Everything has many sides to it. Intersectionality is placing yourself amidst the chaos and then figuring out both the world and yourself. No matter who you are, Your life’s meaning, value systems and priorities have to be understood in the web of everything that you have, vis-a-vis what the others provisions are. Intersectionality is about not looking at things in the flat, simple binaries and reducing matters to ‘is’ or ‘not’; It’s about our experience and feelings, an intricate web. Intersectionality emerged as a tool of the subaltern, because certain narratives and experiences weren’t popularised by the mainstream. But at the same time, the former need to foster a mutual understanding as well. No one narrative can prevail. Therefore, to me, Intersectionality to me would mean, to place everyone at the same intersection of all the myriad narratives and lived experiences, each of us understanding everyone else’s various, mulitiple realities and differing vibrant, diverse points of views.

  1. What all does your expression of freedom entail?

6) Expression is my oxygen; I’ll still probably survive if my food supply is cut off, but if my internet access, which I use to publish myself, is severed, I won’t survive a moment, subjected to that (laughs).

It is my day-to-day living. I live through my words. In all senses of the word, I “live” via my expression. Every act that I do is an exercise-in-expression. Without expression I would be as good as a walking dead.

I should be able express every single experience and detail of my life (indiscriminately) without facing the fear, or shame of the world around me. You know I felt it important to tell that my habit of expressing whatever I feel has cost me relationships, friends, partners, kith and kin, including my sister. But I have strived with people, trying to convey them that they cannot command or control what I express, quantitatively or qualitatively. It is (subject to) my own (sense of) good judgement, or bad judgement, as to how much I talk about some (whatsoever) subject: in public, or in private.

It may include my views on other people, politics, sex, love religion, God,… everything. I draw my own lines. It is my own good judgement which determines as per the situation, what I express. No one else should control that.

  1. How has your writing played a role in changemaking? How can one translate one’s intellectual crusade to a social one? 

7)  There’s no formula as such. You need to have an intent and then it will happen. From my personal experience, the more I come to know, the more I share. I don’t know whar would I have done for the past 15 years if there was no blogging and social media. It was only that I got an avenue to go out and publish what was coming to my mind. That has made all the difference. I don’t need to write a book or contact a newseditor, or wrote in esoteric peer-reviewed journals, where knowledge was locked away from most; My crusade was to reach the lowest common denominator as well as, the intellectual elite. I give away knowledge, from my reading; That’s my crusade for social change: To bring my intellectual capacity and learning to the masses, indiscriminately and all-accessibly. Knowledge is power, It brings social change. I’ve disseminated to, influenced, and inspired tens of thousands of people, with knowledge I gained. I have received responses, remarks, comments, testimonies and feedback from women, who’ve been inspired, empowered, impelled to shed their inhibitions, relate to exactly how they felt, realise their potentials. Women have sent me testimonies that I have inadvertently voiced their very feelings, and driven them to proclaim their vocality.

I speak freely on every topic; I guess that’s the only role I’ve played in being a changemaker. In the Indian context, I reckon, by mere virtue of ‘being’ a single 42 year old woman, who is not celibate, open and vocal about her sexuality, and openly and extensively talking about her boyfriends and her sex life, and various relationships; And at the same time trolling the trolls, and talking about both women-pertinent issues as well as issues that don’t pertain to women alone. I talk on feminist issuss, but I also wholesomely discuss politics and so much more, at length; That’s the complexity that’s rare in feminist circles as well, and that’s where my pioneering scope lies. Indian women rarely talk about intersectionality, and it is still dominated by First World women. There are notable scholars and political analysts, many great inspirational feminist women, as Niveditha Menon; But the thing is they are on journals, not on social media, not on twitter. Indian women still don’t occupy popular niches of discussion of unorthodox concepts and novel issues. Communication, Sharing knowledge Unorthodoxy, unabashed outspokenness and leading an unapologetic life, that is how I believe I am acting as a changemaker.

  1. What does your attachment to the grassroots mean to you? How do you manage to reconcile such an illustrious material and intellectual career in multiple mainstream fields, with a strong connect to the the land and its people?

8) I don’t think I have an illustrious career. I stay extensively connected with my friends who operate on grassroots. I travel on budget; I’ve not been on a regular job for four years, of my own choice and volition. I’m connected to the people as an obvious way of living my life; I made choices as such, as money never meant anything to me. Whenever I was confronted with the dilemma of chosing between monetary opportunities and staying linked to the ground and doing my passionate social crusade, I chose to adhere and anchor to the latter. I don’t have many liabilities. I’m not a wealthy person. I stay connected to land and people because I lead more or less a frugal lifestyle, and it was a conscious choice to not be materialistic. I’m living on my savings and don’t possess any significant material assets. I don’t have any liabilities like that of conventional employees. As a result, I can freely follow my interests and social work, say, stay in a tribal area for over a month, learn their culture, capture their folktales. I don’t do media work, for professional sake. When I get published in some magazine or newspaper, I, now and then, make a small renumeration. I always do things because my heart wants me to do them. The point that I want to make is when I go to locales as interior rural areas and far-fetched fringe areas, that I often visit for most of my stories and photographs, I don’t click them with a monetary purpose in mind. It was a conscious choice to not be mercenary or materialism-oriented. That has helped me stay attached to the ground.

  1. You’re a photographer as well. Broadly, What is your sense of aesthetic, that you quest, and strive to capture?

I have never myself thought of it. The motto of my life is to get famous, but not at the expense of any notorious act. Photography is a low-barrier-to-entry profession. Now there are too many photographers and I’m just a small fish. So how do I carve out my niche, leave my impression, find my space. That’s my quest : To make my name, my distinct identity in this competitive world. And that’s where I start looking for things that others aren’t. That led me to projects and themes that nobody has thought of. I travelled to various cities to observe women under the theme of Gendered Public spaces. I document the City with my camera to see how women are using these cities like: How many women are there on the bus stop? Are they with children? What are they doing? Are they engrossed in the cellphones? Are her legs parted apart? Is she relaxing? Does she have a conscious body language? That’s my project, namely “Gender in Public Spaces”.

And thus, then I become a feminist photographer.

Then I have a tattoo, which has a lot of stories behind it; So other women must be having a lot of undocumented stories behind their own tattoos. Tattoed women are (narrowly) stereotyped: connotated as outgoing, provocative, sexy, an easy-to-bed woman and so on, and just that. But the various kinds of stories behind them go undocumented, which I strived to capture them by both my words and my camera, and commenced my project (entitled) “Women with Tatoos”.

I started travelling, and my third project “Rural Women with Intellect”. Traditionally, all the great photographers have documented either the very oriental exotic beauty or the vulnerability of women in non-progressed societies. I didn’t wish to do that. I wished to do portraits that capture the intellect of women ; that depict that she’s a critical thinking women. Portraits that portray her at par with sharp thinkers and conventional intelligent minds. She’ll question and be critical; She’s not one to simply accept power and authority. Some of these photos (inadvertently) do become aesthetically nice. But aesthetic is not the purpose I pursuit (per se). What matters to me is the theme that I follow. I follow a feminist theme.

I do all kinds of photography from Abstract Photography to colourful Grand Indian Wedding photography. I admire stark, impressionist colours.

My aesthetic sense involves a lot of symmetry. I try to keep a sense of bright colours, symmetry, balance, shape, and minimalism. My frames do not have too many things, I strive to maintain that. Minimalism is something I emulate in my everyday life. I have learnt to present myself in the way that I like myself. Despite having a lot of body issues ever since my childhood, and not conforming to conventional societal beauty standards, not fitting the populist idea or narrative of beauty, As long as I look into the mirror and am liking my own image, I feel, I have achieved my aesthetic. I love myself.

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, amateur researcher, activist, and writer, having previously written for The Telegraph, The Gulf News, The Sunday Independent, and The New Delhi Times, amongst numerous other national and international newspapers and outlets.


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