Interview with Journalist Deepak Adhikari

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Deepak Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets at @Deepakadk.

1) In your two decades of journalism field, what have you learned and experienced? What motivated you to enter the field of journalistic writing?
Well, one decade and a half would be more accurate. Although I started my career in the mid-1990s, there was a lacuna at the turn of the century. Between 1998 and 2002, I lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates, moving from one city to another: Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Dubai. I was trying to earn some petrodollars and live life abroad. In my own naive way, it was my attempt at broadening the horizon.
To me, learning is an ongoing process. Maybe I will stop learning the day I die. The other day, I was making this point to a couple journo friends of mine. It might sound odd to come from a person with so many years of reporting and writing, but every new assignment is a challenge for me.
I was saying that an assignment, to me, is a problem and I should come up with a problem-solving.
A renowned writer recently put it to me slightly differently in the context of a book. She said every book is an inquiry.
So, in sum, I learned not to trust the received wisdom. I learned to question everything and be satisfied only after getting an answer. Books have been written and learned men and women have made precious observations on our profession. Mine surely is a humble attempt in an already saturated domain. But I would suggest insisting on being curious. Once we lose that curiosity, that spark, we risk being anything but a journalist. So, be curious, have a keen eye (in fact all the senses), listen to what people are saying, read a lot and write as much.
I became a journalist by accident. Or, let me put it this way: a failure led me towards journalism. I was normally a good student, stood first in my class of about 20 or so students. But SLC turned out to be a risible failure: I scored 32 on mathematics (I had answered questions worth at least 75 marks out of 100). I passed in the second division. It greatly disappointed my parents who wanted their eldest son to be either an engineer or a doctor.
In the early 1990s, Phidim, the headquarters of Panchthar district, where I was born, was establishing itself as a literary hub of eastern Nepal. The local littérateurs organized literary festivals which attracted literary luminaries from as far as Darjeeling across the border in India. An explosion of local newspapers (there were three local weeklies in the 90s) meant that there was a dearth of an editor who had to be a graduate. My father, a school teacher, became an editor of a weekly called Kabeli (named after a river that flowed between Taplejung and Panchthar district). So, at home and outside, I was surrounded by people who loved literature and promoted it.
To cut the long story short, I was enrolled at Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus with English, Political Science, and Journalism as my major (suggested by a relative who taught there). In my Bachelors second year, I had to intern at a media outlet. I was somehow late in choosing my place (there were sought-after outlets such as Kantipur, Gorkhapatra or Nepal Television). I ended up at Drishti Weekly, not the most charming place to be. But it turned out to be the right place for my initiation. The weekly had just broken up (with a group launching Budhabar weekly, the official newspaper of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). The editor and publisher, Shambhu Shrestha, not only accepted my letter for an internship but also offered me a job the very first day. But it was not going to be a reporter. He needed a proof reader. I accepted the lowly paid (by today’s standards) job after extracting a promise that I will be given chance to report as well.
2) Early days of your career you honed your pen in the Nepali language before making the transition to English writing? Can you tell us briefly about this shift and your time with Drishti Weekly (1994-1998) and Nepal Weekly magazine (2003-2008)?
It’s true that I honed my reporting through working in the Nepali language. It was only natural. Growing up in a place like Phidim, where public library didn’t exist, wasn’t very helpful. Forget library, the small town didn’t even have a bookshop. Therefore, most of my reading consisted of Nepali literature, periodicals, and magazines such as Garima, Sadhana, Madhupark, Kamana and weeklies like Drishti and Bimarsha.
As I said earlier, I might have wanted to intern at English newspapers like The Kathmandu Post, The Rising Nepal or even the magazine Spotlight. But I lost the chance and ended up working at Drishti. Also writing in Nepali ensured that my work would have a huge readership. My grandfather, who died in 2008, was a huge fan of my writing (He was the only one in our extended family who was happy to see me as a journalist). I have written about him here.
Language was easy to master but reporting proved to be challenging. My first byline appeared in early 1994, when I covered a speech made by late Man Mohan Adhikari (I would later interview him when he was being treated at Teaching Hospital) in Kirtipur. Memories are hazy, but the speech had to do with elections. In the first two years, I wrote features on social issues. But by 1996 (coincidentaly the year the Maoist launched armed insurgency but it was hardly covered by my newspaper then), I started to train my eyes and ears on Nepal’s messy parliamentary politics. By the end of my stint at Drishti, I was handling everything. Although there were editor (Shambhu Shrestha) and associate editor (Gokul Banskota) and a few what I will call ‘roaming reporters’ who helped these left leaning papers by helping with news the day before it was finalised, I wrote editorials, main news and edited pieces sent by reporters based in several district across the country. My partner in crime was Rajaram Gautam, who is now an op-ed editor at Kantipur. I was poorly paid, but this was very important (and rather intense) experience for a rookie reporter who was in his early 20s.
I returned home from Gulf in the autumn of 2002. I found myself doing one after another story, (the first one was on the Nepali Diaspora in UAE) for Nepal magazine (then fortnightly). I must credit my friend Sudheer Sharma (now the editor in chief of Kantipur daily) for facilitating my second innings. He was the magazine’s assistant editor and encouraged to me to continue reporting, which indeed was the only skill I had in order to survive in Kathmandu. I wrote several stories for nearly six months and took a break to complete my Masters. I then joined the magazine as a staff reporter when it became a weekly in April 2004 under the stewardship of Sharma.
Even while working at Nepal Weekly, I was dabbling in writing in English. I contributed pieces for Post Platform, a column at The Kathmandu Post, where you can write short musings. I would also translate my stories into English and Akhilesh Tripathi, then editor of Ekantipur would publish it. I was also part of United We Blog, Nepal’s pioneering blog site founded in October 2004 by Dinesh Wagle and Ujjwal Acharya, which played an important role after the royal takeover of February 1, 2005, when communications, including the telephones and the internet, were shut down for several weeks. So, these were places where I tried my hand at writing in English.
3) You were awarded Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship in the summer of 2008 and wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. How did it help in your writing and career-wise? Did you have any mentor or colleague who helped you develop your skills? How different you found the newspaper compared to national dailies of Nepal then?
Yes, I was awarded the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship in 2008, which was the biggest opportunity I got as a journalist. For that, I am grateful to Ghanashyam Ojha (then with The Kathmandu Post), who supported my application and boosted my morale saying that a journalist writing in Nepali too can apply and win the prestigious fellowship. Ten fellows from nine different countries across the globe gathered in Washington DC where we attended a week-long boot-camp where we were trained on the basics of American journalism. Then, all of us were sent to our respective newsrooms. I was posted to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was April 2008 and I was badly missing Constituent Assembly elections at home. I tried to kill my homesickness by writing a piece on the CA elections. I had a mentor, Greg Victor, a gregarious man, who was the paper’s op-ed and forum editor. He has reported from China and visited India, Bangladesh and knows the region very well. He was of immense help. My next story at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was on Bhutanese refugees who had just been resettled in the city. Through Nepali community, I tracked them down and wrote the story, which was well received both in Pittsburgh and in Nepal.
In the summer of 2008, we gathered in Florida. The week-long training at the Poynter Institute, which in the US, is considered a premier institute for journalists, both new and old, proved to be an eye-opener. There too, I was lucky to have mentors like Tom Huang (Deputy Managing Editor of Dallas Morning News). I still have the “Best Newspaper Writing” series from Poynter, which sits on my bookshelf as a prized collection. In New York, I met some wonderful people: writer Amitava Kumar, Chinki Sinha, who returned to India and is an assistant editor of Open magazine. I also met Salman Masood, New York Times correspondent in Pakistan. My fellows including Sopan Joshi of India, Umar Cheema of Pakistan, Samuel Siringi of Kenya and Ivan Zhai of China were also inspiring journalists. These ties have proved to be lasting for me.
Well, there is a vast difference between the national dailies in Nepal and in the US. Although Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered mostly the city with about three hundred thousand population, its circulation reached one hundred and fifty thousand on Sunday. Even though the newspaper circulation is in decline in the US, locals still read it religiously. I think that US market is saturated with too many newspapers. Even small towns, say like Damak in Nepal, have several daily newspapers. Apart from the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh has Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Many of the Post-Gazette staffers were laid off and bought out during my stay there and were worried both about their future and that of the paper they so dearly loved. Now, it seems to have established but the threat from readers’ migration to Internet seems to be there.
4) You’ve written for several renowned papers like Time magazine, Guardian Weekly, Open Democracy, Foreign Policy in Focus etc. What was your first article/essay? What’s your process of writing, reporting, and submitting? Is your style called Narrative writing?
My contribution to these foreign outlets began after I acquired a degree of confidence in writing in English for the Post-Gazette. I contributed my first piece the Guardian Weekly in 2008 from Pittsburgh, where I profiled a Bhutanese refugee. Back from Nepal, I contributed a piece on a middle-aged man whose son had been disappeared during the Maoist insurgency. Then in 2009, I got a chance to write for Time magazine. I came in contact with Jyoti Thottam, who was South Asia Bureau Chief of the magazine. I pitched half a dozen story ideas and she gave me a go-ahead for a feature on Somali refugees stuck in Nepal. I contacted the Somalis, interviewed them and other sources such as government officials, UNHCR and wrote the story. The story was published in Time.com on November 10, 2009.
Actually, I had broken that story in December 2007 for Nepal Weekly magazine where I used to work. For long, I had been looking for such a break and I continued to expand my repertoire. I pitched to outlets that were interested in stories from Nepal.
To work as a freelance reporter, you have to have a good rapport with the editors (first you need to find their email addresses). Then, you send a bunch of ideas and start working on it after their approval. As usual, reporting is the key. But more important is the perspective. You have to keep in mind that you are writing for an international audience. You have to assume that your readers don’t know anything about Nepal. So, the challenge is to both incorporate basic information such as where Nepal is located and bringing in the nuances and different shades of the topic you are dealing with. After submission, the editor edits your piece and sends with what in journalistic parlance is called C-and-C (comments and corrections). In recent years, I have explored narrative writing. But not all of my writing can be characterized as such. I also write short news pieces, personal essays, and features.
5) Can you tell us briefly about Narrative writing? You also worked for Kantipur Daily and Hello Shukrabar from 2008—both Nepali papers—and then joined Agence France-Presse in 2010; what made you interested in narrative writing and how different it is from other forms of writing? Your experience in working with AFP.
Let me tell you how I first ‘discovered’ narrative writing. I was given a copy of a New Yorker at our orientation in the beginning of our fellowship in the US. Although I have been a regular user of Internet since the late 1990s, I hadn’t come across the magazine’s website. I read through New Yorker and was immediately captivated by it. Then, I began to explore the form. I was at the right place (if not the right time). My exploration took me to all sorts of publications that used narrative non-fiction as the preferred mode of storytelling. Not only New Yorker, I became familiar with The Atlantic Monthly, Nation, New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone, Granta, GQ, Esquire, Outside, among others. I found myself glued over the Sunday edition of New York Times with the New York Times Magazine which published long-form stories.
The narrative writing, also called long-form, is a mode of fact-based storytelling that borrows elements of fiction. So, you have plots, characters, setting etc. The cardinal rule is that everything should be based on reporting, the writer should not deviate from the fact. If you do, the genre might be called non-fiction novel as happened with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a classic in crime reporting.
Back to your question: after my return from the fellowship in the autumn of 2008, I found myself in a slightly different media landscape in Nepal. My employer, Kantipur Publication, had split, paving the way for the launch of a rival daily, Nagarik. So, I was offered the job at Kantipur daily, where I oversaw Koseli, a weekend supplement, and the Art and Style section. My responsibilities kept changing and after a year, I was tasked with launching a youth supplement called Hello Shukrabar. In it, I wrote restaurant reviews for nearly a year.
Apart from this, I continued to write for Time magazine and others. In 2009 and 2010, I also accomplished two major works. I edited the second edition of Torture Killing Me Softly, a prison memoir of Bhutanese human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal. In 2010, I translated A Boy from Siklis, a biography of late conservationist Chandra Gurung by Manjushree Thapa into Nepali. The book has been published by Himal Books as Siklesko Thito.
In November 2010, I was offered a job at Agence France-Presse as a Nepal correspondent. I accepted it as I was veering towards writing in English. Having written in Nepali for over a decade, I also wanted to experiment with another language. And obviously, money was one of the factors as English journalists are better paid than their Nepali counterparts.
Although most of my long-form work has appeared in The Caravan magazine and Himal Southasian, I realized that I had been using the form, albeit a bit differently, for some time. I have done a number of wrote 5000-word cover stories for Nepal Weekly magazine between 2004 and 2008. Those cover stories, some of them were really investigative reportage—on organ trafficking, sex market of Kathmandu, human trafficking in Gulf countries—I would discover later, fitted into the category called long-form.
All forms of writing have their own values and are useful in their own terms. But in today’s complicated world, sound-bite reporting and a 500-word report feel inadequate to tell the complete story. You have to squeeze the news to shorter and often cliché-ridden reports due to constraints of space. You have to deliver it quickly which further hampers the chance of thorough reporting and investigation.
6) Comparatively, narrative writing is not that popular in Nepal, especially in English, why you think both traditional and online media have shrugged from it? Is there lacking Nepali writers writing in English who either lack the quality for narrative writing or the media, including Himal Southasian, prefers non-Nepali for the distinct style?
A couple of Nepali newspapers and online news sites have published some good narrative writing in Nepali. In English, apart from Himal Southasian published from Kathmandu, the long-form is hardly published from Nepal. One problem is simply the lack of space. For a 4000-word story, a magazine is the best place. A newspaper can go as far as to something between 1500 and 2000 words but no longer than that. Online, however, offers a way out: length doesn’t matter as long as people prefer to read it. But again, there is a paucity of reporters who want to pursue the long form. First, you have to devote a month or two on a single subject. Second, you have to have a solid reporting and storytelling skills. From what I can tell, organizing such a long piece is the arduous task among these different stages. That means you need to have a good editor who can help you make the piece work.
In Nepali, some recent books can be categorized as narrative non-fiction. British Samrajyaka Nepali Mohara (Nepali Mercenary of British Empire) by Jhalak Subedi, which is about the British Gurkha soldiers’ history and present situation, is a good example. Similarly, several memoirs and autobiographies have come out recently, adding to an already rich Nepali literature. The newspapers, be they in Nepali or in English, should devote more space to narrative writing.
7) Your 5 favorite writers and narrative books.  
To limit the esteemed men and women of letters to less than half a dozen is a hard job. But I will try. I am greatly inspired by writers like VS Naipaul, Jon Krakauer, Pankaj Mishra, Basharat Peer and late Anthony Shadid. I am tempted to name a set of another five authors but would resist the urge. In terms of narrative non-fiction books, do allow me one more (total six) because there have been some great non-fiction narrative books in recent years. Forget Kathmandu by Manjushree Thapa, Behind the Beautiful Forever by Katherine Boo, A Free Man by Aman Sethi, Red Market by Scott Carney, The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb and Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer.
8) Do you consider yourself as a journalist or narrative writer? Have you any plans to write books on the narrative style? Could you briefly tell us about your plans on any books that you’ve in mind you’ll be writing in future?
Well, I consider myself both. I have been a journalist for several years now. I can’t detach myself from that. In fact, I think myself as a reporter because that’s what I have done for most of my career. The narrative writer is something I aspire to become. I am just dabbling in this genre so only time will tell how far I will go.
My major long-form piece was the profile of Maoist chairman Prachanda which was published in February in The Caravan. I received tremendous feedback on it. I would like to develop that piece into a book, maybe a biography of Prachanda. I have plenty of ideas for non-fiction books. Having mostly lived in eastern and central Nepal, I want to explore the country and write about the places and people. I have extensively covered the Bhutanese refugee issue and am immensely interested in Bhutan. Both these topics have made headlines in international media in recent months. I see a book or two in there. The migration of millions of Nepalis for work in Gulf countries and their experiences deserve another book (Although in Nepalis there are some good books on the topic including Devendra Bhattarai’s travel narrative Registan Diary).
9) How can narrative writing be developed in Nepal as it’s similar to non-fiction? Should the media, both print and online, should be more responsible and accountable to it? And how can Nepalese writing in English develop this form of style?
As I said earlier, there’s no dearth of topics. Stories are there, they are waiting for a narrator. I remember several good narrative pieces published in Nagarik daily and Kantipur in 2009 and 2010. Those were the heady days of Nepali journalism. There was competition between the two leading newspapers and they published quality reportage. But now, they have gone back to their earlier, complacent phase. Nonetheless, a few online portals such as Setopati.com are doing a good job, although they have a long way to go. They have roped in a few excellent writers with great style.
But language alone cannot produce a great narrative writing. The reporting is the key, which gets reflected in your work.
An American journalist friend of mine once said all the great writers are writing fictions; only those who failed as novelists end up being a journalist. In other words, every journalist is a failed novelist. I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration.
What’s true is most good reporters who worked in English newspapers in Nepal have been poached by international aid agencies. Instead of writing for newspapers, they are now writing reports for their organization that will hardly be read outside their domain. Many are also busy writing grant proposals because that is where the money is.
 
10) Your suggestions to young Nepalese who are into journalism, essay, and narrative writing. Can you share your secret behind quality writing and getting published too?
First of all, let me warn you: there’s no short-cut to quality reporting. For years, you may have longed to see your first byline, but that is only the beginning of a long struggle. So, brace yourself for a lot of hard work, unusual and odd working hours and chronicling mostly grim side of life and the world. The reporter’s life is that of chasing stories, meeting deadlines, sometimes having dead ends and a constant struggle, an even battle for finding news in an overcrowded mediascape. A certain degree of restlessness and worry permeates the newsroom. As the evening deadline inches closer, you have to produce the piece that your editor is waiting to edit.
In the beginning, you will make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but don’t repeat them. Learn from your as well as others’ mistakes. I too studied journalism but it didn’t prepare me for the rough and tumble world of journalism. As veteran Indian journalist and novelist Tarun J Tejpal remarked at the Kathmandu Literary Jatra a couple years ago, you have to dirty your hands and find your feet in the pell-mell that is journalism.
As I outlined in the beginning, a journalist’s life is that of reading and writing. Equally important is building contacts and keeping tabs on what’s going on. You have to be “plugged in”, as one of my former bosses would say.
The notion of journalism as a profession has been much glamorised in the popular media, especially televisions that project an image of a journalist who hobnobs with the powers that be and has all the answers to difficult questions. But at heart, it’s a tough world out there.
Quality writing comes only after hard work, the shoe leather reporting.
Apart from maintaining contacts with your sources, building a network of fellow journalists, more important, the commissioning editors is important. First, you got to have a byline in a prestigious international publication so that it will help you pitch your idea to another outlet with the clips from the former. To stand out you should develop a few qualities: perseverance and positive attitude towards life.
But the most important virtue I would like tomorrow’s journalists to have is integrity. If you are honest about your work, you will definitely reach the pinnacle of your career.