Vol. 1, Letter from India: Your Woman in Kolkata

Reporting from the City of Joy and my encounters with the Chinese Indian community.

You can also read this letter online at bit.ly/emydeewritesletter1

Hello everyone! Welcome to my first dispatch.

In fact, I’ve been mulling on starting a newsletter for a couple of years, since it became a thing with Tinyletter, especially for writers. But honestly, what held me back was the idea that what I wrote might reside forever in someone else’s inbox—that I couldn’t just go back and hit the Edit button if it made me a cringe at a later date.

So I held out, until the right tool came along. I think I capitulated to Substack because of the clean and easy Medium-like writing interface. And because Tinyletter’s future seems uncertain after Mailchimp bought it. And because Substack, like Tinyletter, keeps things much simpler than Mailchimp and is typographically better looking than Tinyletter. Some people are using Patreon, which offers more flexibility in terms of subscription permutations; but unlike Substack, which also allows subscriber-only posts, it doesn’t feel like a dedicated writing tool.

I’ll be honest: The prospects Substack offers for monetising select posts and hosting a podcast in tandem is also enticing, though I’m not likely to do either for a while. But it would mean the world to me to get to a point, eventually, where I’m able to rally a faithful, personal readership around the things I’m interested in exploring. So stick around, won’t you?

Kolkata was something special

When I got confirmation in November last year that my application had made it through the selection for a slow journalism workshop in Kolkata sponsored by the National Geographic Society and led by Paul Salopek of the Out of Eden Walk project—an estimated ten-year journey on foot to retrace our human ancestors’ migration out of Africa during the Stone Age—it felt like coming one tiny little full circle.

Because back in 2012, I was supposed to have spent six months in Kolkata to report on criminal justice in the West Bengal region for an international NGO. I remember how excited I was to be paired with a photographer a few years older than me, who I’d thought was so cool because she had photographed bears in the wild. And I’d made contact with the criminal lawyer I was supposed to shadow, and was excited to get to work, to throw myself into the deep end. I poured over travel guides and blogs, and fantasised about making a temporary home of a hostel room I’d found—it was a little worse for wear, but I chose to imagine it as poetically ascetic. I imagined hanging out with other aspiring journalists on the dingy rooftop of the faded building under the night sky, made warm with the camaraderie of like-minded people. It would have been my first real experience of international reporting, but it didn’t happen.

Just before I was supposed to leave for Kolkata, I fell ill. I was running a recurring high fever, and the lymph nodes on my neck became swollen. I did tests; and the doctor woke me up one morning with a phone call and told me that he was worried I might have lymphoma (!) and that I would have to do more tests. The doctor said it was best I didn’t go to India, and the NGO couldn’t wait. Beth needed a partner. The works goes on. Another journalist took my place. And I put Kolkata behind me.

Luckily, in the end, it wasn’t lymphoma. And it wasn’t something a short course of steroids couldn’t fix. But I’ve always wondered, in passing, about how the trajectory of my life might have been different in even the subtlest way had I spent those six months in Kolkata, then—which isn’t to say that things haven’t turned out alright.

Still, it seems apt that the next time—the first time—I went to India, it was to Kolkata, and on a reporting trip. I was determined to apply for the workshop, having followed Paul Salopek’s journey since he started, even though I’d only found out about it a few days before the deadline and hadn’t yet secured a story commission that was the prerequisite for acceptance.

Luckily, in the end, everything fell into place. And then I was there.

And one day, I found another rooftop for breezy—albeit polluted—afternoons.

Notes on seeing

As with most workshops where you’re tasked with producing a story by the end of it, this one was short but fairly exhausting: the waking up at 6 a.m. to catch the best light for photography, pounding the pavements till 7 p.m., then writing up drafts till 3 a.m. and getting just a few hours of shut-eye before doing it over again. But I appreciated how intense and single-minded it was. It felt liberating, for a little while, not to have to think about any other stories at the same time. This was all I had to focus on.

One of my many workstations while in Kolkata. I jumped around different guesthouses. It was a pain unpacking and repacking my backpack so often, and lugging it around, but I like getting the feel of different neighbourhoods.

The workshop’s four mentors—Paul Salopek, Don Belt, Prem Panicker, and Arati Kumar-Rao—were all encouraging and approachable, and working alongside a group of like-minded fellow journalists was very reassuring. I think I’ll definitely look back on this experience, though short, as having been defining in some way.

For one, it’s deepened my resolve to pursue the deep-dive stories I want to pursue in a world that revolves around blaring headlines and sound bites, particularly in Malaysia. Such a pursuit feels more validated now, simply because the people whose work I admire are doing it too. I was encouraged by the feedback and advice, which you don’t often get freelancing. It was a good opportunity to reflect on how I’ve been doing.

That’s me with “helmet hair” in Kolkata. Thanks Vangmayi for the photo!
Photograph of the whole Out of Eden Walk Kolkata crew by Nantha Kishore.

Here are some of my takeaways from the workshop—in words paraphrased from the mentors, mixed in with my own notes:

  1. Slow journalism is not inefficient journalism. Streamlining processes—like taking solid field notes so you don’t need to spend too much time transcribing after—matter. This workshop, though a slow journalism workshop, has showed me how much can be done towards a longform piece in even just two days on the ground, and that has been confidence-boosting. Slow journalism isn’t necessarily slow, but is perhaps more an immersive approach to reporting. It’s observing a place and its people deeply—if possible, over a period of time. To paraphrase: Fast journalism is about information; slow journalism is about meaning.

  2. Don’t give the art of storytelling too much power. The word “story” is used too indiscriminately these days—even in marketing speak! Don’t make it out to be too magical. It’s not mystical; it’s sweat and blood.

  3. Make sure the connections you make in your story aren’t contrived. Readers are smart. They can see when you’re stretching it.

  4. Besides just asking questions, set some time out just to sit and observe. How do your subjects interact with the world? How does the world treat them?

  5. In finding stories, pay attention to what you find most compelling. When something moves you, there’s a good chance there’s something there.

  6. There’s value in telling the stories of people who don’t make the news, of people who make societies work. If there are places that seem silent to you, it’s not because nothing’s happening. It’s because no one’s listening. This reminds me of a passage from Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about surfing for even non-surfers by one of my favourite writers, William Finnegan:

  7. A professional journalist should practice military precision when it comes to submissions and deadlines and all that—as Captain L.K. Mann, one of Paul’s guides through rural India and ex-soldier of the Indian Army, showed all of us!

  8. You can use literary techniques to tell true stories, all without making stuff up.

  9. Don’t just report intellectually. Use all your senses. Inhabit the landscape with your body. What did the place feel like on your skin?

  10. Allow for serendipity. Sometimes you can be so laser-focused on looking for what you’re looking for that you miss other things. Be alert to what’s happening in real time. Don’t think so much about the final destination.

  11. A writer’s identity is inescapable while reporting. And every writer will come to a story differently. The best you can do is be honest about who you are.

  12. When interviewing your subjects, let them dictate the energy. Let them lead you.

  13. When someone needs to think about a question you ask them, that’s a good sign. Something that spills out of someone’s mouth may not be very valuable.

  14. If you’re asking hard questions in an interview, do it in the middle. You want to end on a good note, so that the door is open for you to come back to your subject.

  15. Trace things back to their origins. People, too. Everyone has an origin story.

  16. In your observations for a story, think about whether there are any quiet moments that say something about the human condition.

  17. It might be useful to think about your editor as being blind. How do you tell a story to make them see? Don’t tell them it’s raining. Make them feel drenched.

  18. There are some stories that you might choose to withhold, even if the story has the potential to change the world, because of the trust your subject has put in you. Basically, just be a decent human being. It may be that not all stories are yours to tell.

  19. Write cinematically. There’s plenty to learn about good storytelling from the movies. Screenings during the workshop included scenes from Wong Kar Wai’s films and The Godfather.

  20. Being a writer just means being someone who writes, writes, writes.

All that aside, what I appreciated most about the workshop is how it offered ways of thinking and being that were both practical and poetic, putting the “literary” in journalism—which is exactly what I’ve wanted to do ever since I read Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. Yes, there’s room for art in journalism!

There’s so much to do going forward, and I’m excited to get to all of it.

One of Arati Kumar-Rao’s teaching slides from the workshop. Recently, she received a National Geographic Explorer grant to continue the work she’s done independently for years: documenting forced human migration in India caused by climate change.

Hanging out with the Chinese Indians of Kolkata

I spent about a full week pounding the pavements in Kolkata’s two Chinatowns—the original one in Tiretti Bazaar, and the other one in Tangra—to draw out a story about cultural survival through diversity, contentious histories, and what makes a Chinatown in this modern age in light of the drastically dwindled numbers of Chinese in the city. I made calls, wandered the streets, dropped in on the places where people socialise, and wrangled—unobtrusively, I hope—invitations to people’s homes.

I had been told that the Chinese community in India (well, anywhere actually) can be a closed community, that they generally like to keep themselves to themselves—you don’t ask me questions and I won’t ask you questions, that kind of thing—and that it might be difficult to get access for a story. I did encounter some of that, but mostly, I think being Chinese myself helped in that regard. Some declined to speak with me, but people were generally welcoming of a curious stranger. I think some were probably curious about my curiosity, which always helps. And once people see you return day after day, they tend to relent. You’re not just doing a touch-and-go.

I’m grateful to the many people I’ve met for their hospitality, for letting a stranger poke into their daily lives to better understand a story, and occasionally, for letting me in, so frankly, on the intimate details of their inner worlds—their love lives, even. I grew up on novels and I love the idea of writing fiction, and I’m dabbling in it in my own time, but there’s nothing quite so rewarding as writing nonfiction, and this is why. You get to see the world through so many people’s eyes.

Thanks to all the families who invited me into their home, and everyone who was willing just to take the time out to chat, and to help pave my way to more people I could speak to. I feel like I’ve seen so many different aspects of Kolkata just by following this one community: from the city centre, to the tanneries in Tangra, to the spruced-up neighbourhoods in the northeast like Salt Lake City (apparently so named because it used to a be a salt marsh, though I’m sure its American connotations aren’t lost on anyone), known for its prevalence of software companies—and where there’s even a “Big Ben”, I kid you not.

Not everyone I’ve met nor everything I’ve seen and heard will make it into my story, but I’m grateful for all of it. My piece will be published in the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Spring 2019 issue, and I’ll send out an update once it’s online.

Memorable encounters with language

Exhibit 1 —
Rangan Datta and John Wu at Sea Ip Club in Tiretti Bazaar.

What many Chinese Indians said to me: “Wait, you don’t speak Cantonese? But you’re from Malaysia! Aren’t most of the Chinese there Cantonese?”

Most Chinese Indians here speak English, but I’ve found myself in the funny situation of not being able to communicate with some of the older-generation Chinese here who don’t speak English, nor Mandarin, which I’m passably fluent in. Almost all Chinese here, however, speak fluent Hindi, even to each other in all-Chinese social settings; they tend only to use Chinese dialects at home with family. So, while speaking to John Wu here at Sea Ip, one of the five remaining Chinese social clubs, I asked Rangan Datta, a local blogger who has visited the community often, to play translator for us.

I’ve got a thirty-minute audio recording of John Wu talking, and admittedly I don’t know the language, but his speech sounds like music to me.

Exhibit 2 —

As with any contentious period of history, you get people want to keep talking about it, and people who think the past is best left in the past. The former camp thinks you should talk about it so future generations don’t make the same mistakes, while the latter camp thinks talking about it only resurrects old feuds and bitter memories. I think they’re both right. History can be wielded as a deterrent, or a weapon.

I spoke to some of the Chinese in Kolkata about the 1962 border war between India and China, which was responsible for an exodus from their community, with only about 2,000 of them left now when they once numbered in the tens of thousands. Lawrence Ho was eight years old when the war broke out, and he was sent along with his family to a desert camp in Rajasthan. He was reticent about the subject, and though he shared with me some details about the experience, he also asked me to stop recording a portion of our conversation. Someone also recited a Hindi proverb; translated, it says: If you’re swimming in the river, don’t disturb the crocodile.

So, don’t stir up a hornet’s nest. 

Or, as my parents might say in English—translated literally from my father’s Foochow dialect—to my eighteen-year-old cousin John, for instance, when he went off to Wisconsin for university:

"Oi, don’t go sticking a worm up your arsehole.”

Yes, that’s apparently an actual Foochow saying!

Exhibit 3 —

Some quirky turns of phrases I learnt while interviewing some Chinese Indians:

  • “When they want to freak around, they will go out with their friends. There’s nothing for them to do here,” says Michael Ho about his children.
    I think this was more an individual quirk that something people say with any frequency. But I love it!

  • Lawrence Ho puts it another way: “They like to chill their life, you know? That’s what they call it. Chill their life.”
    Definitely add the chuckle you’re imagining.

  • Michael Chen, a mixed Indian Chinese, tells me about his home life: “We are more Chinese than Indian at home. Chinese, Chinese, maximum Chinese! Whatever food we cook here, all maximum Chinese!”
    Seems to be used as a substitute for “most”/“mostly” quite a bit.

  • “My daddy expired.”
    As in, passed away. Mostly, I hear this from the older generation.

  • “When I passed out of school…”
    As in, graduate.

A spin around Tangra

There are many different ways to see a city. Once, in Kolkata, from the back of a motorbike, hoping any cars slicing too close wouldn’t take my leg off.

Here’s a vignette of random footage I recorded. This is Christopher Chang, a 38-year-old dentist, who lives and works near Tangra—an area west of the city built on marshland known as “the other Chinatown” by virtue of the Chinese-owned tanneries that once dominated the area. I met him through other Chinese I met in Tiretti Bazaar, and he was nice enough to take me around Tangra on his morning off.

Christopher is a third-generation Chinese of Hubei origin. In India, perhaps because of the longevity of the caste system, sons still do the work of their fathers and grandfathers—and most Hubeinese are dentists.

“Well, it’s easier, isn’t it?” he said, while we sat in the waiting room of an upstairs office selling dental supplies after taking a spin around Tangra. He was looking for a new supplier after a dispute with his regular one, who hadn’t appreciated being told there was something wrong with his equipment in front of his other clients.

“Everything’s established already, and you don’t have to start over. I’ve inherited all my father’s clients.”

In Tangra, I also dropped by the office of the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India, which was hard to find—tucked deep in a building without signs on the outside to call out to you, next to a graveyard. Founded in 1969, it’s one of the last Chinese papers left in Kolkata. It’s just a few pages long, and boasts a readership of only about 200 people. It contains some news, and announcements of births, deaths, marriages, and the like.

There’s some misinformation online that tells you the editor, K.T. Chang, still handwrites the paper. In fact, he has it printed out from a computer, like anyone else—but he prints out individual articles, which he then lays out manually into a broadsheet, using a short blade, a ruler, cellophane tape, and paperweights, before photocopying it for distribution. When I intruded, his focus never wavered even as we spoke. He had a glass of yellow whisky at hand.

Tangra didn’t make it into my story in the end, but I hadn’t really intended it to from the outset, which meant that I explored it in more chill fashion, and wasn’t so worried about reporting efficiently. Before I left, I walked into a Buddhist temple to say hello to a nun that Christopher had mentioned was his sifu. She would be good to talk to, he had said. We ended up talking for a good hour or so, and she ended up inviting me upstairs to lunch with her students and a visiting nun from Taiwan.

Truth is, I find it hard to be an “efficient” reporter. When you’re entering a community to understand it, sometimes, if you’re lucky, people will want to point you on to other people, and they will want to show you something, which sometimes has nothing to do with what you came looking for—and you need to develop a hunch on whether something might be in service of your story, or perhaps a different story, and also be okay with rejecting people’s hospitality when you really need to stay on track.

Several years back, when I was working a stint at an online news website, the editor afforded me a great opportunity to have a veteran British journalist and media trainer shadow me for a few days while I worked. The trainer kept his distance, so as not to interfere with my reporting or make interviewees uncomfortable, and the idea was that he would observe me and give me feedback after on things I could improve on.

In the end, I remember he told me that I was doing most things right, but one thing he would say was that I spent too long talking to people. (I believe he was referring specifically to an afternoon I spent doing vox pop interviews in Kampung Baru, a Malay neighbourhood in the Kuala Lumpur city centre, when I walked into a shop and started asking questions and someone asked me to sit down and have kopi and chat, and that’s exactly what I did, while the trainer was thirty or so metres away, stealthily evaluating my skills, haha.) He said that as someone who had spent most of his career reporting news for TV, he would go into a story knowing exactly how many quotes he needed and from whom—two here, two there; get in, get out.

I did learn to do that soon enough, but it’s no surprise that I’ve gravitated towards longform writing. Still, in terms of the nuts and bolts of shoe-leather reporting, no experience has been so formative as the months I spent covering breaking political news in the run-up to the thirteenth Malaysian general election.

Kolkata in literature

More about the book on Goodreads. My profile here.

And that’s one long-ass letter from me. It won’t always be this long!

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