At the Mahakumbh Mela at Prayag, Allahabad, in 2001, Sagarika Ghose came across a Naga sadhu giving a talk on happiness. Taking a break from her reporting, the energetic journalist and author stopped to hear him speak. He asked his listeners to mull over the question, “Anand kahaan se milta hai (Where does one find bliss)?” and proceeded to list three ways humans usually seek it.
The first, recalls Sagarika, is to look for ‘temporary joy’ such as that found in material pleasures. The second is to seek security, such as in a job, however soulless it may be, because routine is comforting. The third and most meaningful path to bliss is to push yourself. “Just when you think you can’t go on, you must push on that extra bit. That’s how your spiritual resources are strengthened. And it’s an ongoing process,” says the youthful 52-year-old sitting in the visitors’ room at her spacious south Delhi home.
It’s a balmy monsoon morning, the kind when the rain takes a break to allow housewives the joy of drying laundry in the sun. A thatched awning above the huge windows that overlook a row of tall plants gives a tropical-beach vibe to the room, where an excess of photo frames and bright Indian sofa fabrics relay the interior-design diversions of the lady of the house.
Dressed in jeans, with dark-rimmed glasses on her face, Sagarika speaks without pausing as she qualifies her religious leanings: “I’m an atheist-humanist.” One of India’s best-known media personalities, her visit to the Kumbh became one of the most definitive moments in her life and career, and was the basis for her second novel, Blind Faith (2006). The mother of two found the ‘spiritual atheism’ of the Upanishads in perfect accord with her own personal philosophy. “Lose yourself (in action) if you want to find meaning. Self is best served by forgetting about the self.”
Philosophical musings are only a part of what goes on in the mind of this seasoned scribe. Born in West Bengal to an IAS officer and a homemaker mom – whom she says were quite contrary personalities – Sagarika studied history at St Stephen’s College in Delhi University, and then went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. “After doing my MPhil, I realized academics is not for me,” says Sagarika, who joined the launch team for Outlook newsmagazine in 1995.
“Vinod Mehta was the best boss ever,” she laughs recalling how the renowned editor sent her on far-off reporting assignments with her three-month baby and nanny in tow. She then worked for several years at The Indian Express, before launching CNN-IBN with her journalist husband. They both left nine years later in protest when the TV news channel was bought by Reliance, and the business group insisted on vetting editorial content.
At a book club meeting for Sagarika’s third and latest book, a biography of Indira Gandhi, the chairwoman of the Vasant Vihar book club introduces Sagarika to the expectant crowd: “I must say, I really admire Rajdeep Sardesai. He’s so much better than that Arnab Goswami.” Dressed in a lime-green chanderi sari, Sagarika’s bright, wide-eyed smile is fixed on her face as the elderly hostess extols her famous husband’s virtues.
Indeed, Rajdeep’s name is often evoked in bios of Sagarika, a fact that she has learnt to take in her stride. They met at Oxford and married after working in the same organization. She is equally accomplished, but it is another matter that Sagarika’s name is not so frequently mentioned when Rajdeep is introduced to audiences. Opinionated, charged and outspoken, Sagarika is also temperamentally different from Rajdeep, who is known for his balanced views and calm responses on TV debates.
“We actually signed a letter with each other about the personal-professional line while we were working together at CNN-IBN,” she says, narrating stories from the rocky early years of their media startup, when even colleagues were confused about how to deal with disagreements between the two. “By the time we got into a groove at work and learnt to be brutally open with each other in our relationship, the ride came to an end.” They now work in different organizations.
In the months leading up to the publication of Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, Sagarika, who is now consulting editor at Times of India and a panelist for the TV channel ET Now, would get up at 5 am, and write for two hours before beginning her work day. In the course of her research, she developed deep admiration for the late Congress matriarch, even if her actions weren’t always admirable: “She was an extraordinary woman.”
Sagarika has a bit in common with Indira herself if you think about it – the ease of communication, the restless energy, the sprightly built, the love for interior decoration, yoga and handloom saris. And the ambition, of course. “Work gives a woman an identity aside from family,” says the award-winning journalist. “We all have innate talents and skills; we’ve been put on earth for a reason. We must use them.”
Sagarika is also unafraid of speaking her mind. “The only time when I took a break from Twitter was when I started getting rape threats and someone hinted that they knew what time my daughter’s school got over,” she shudders, recalling a time eight years ago when she lodged a police complaint and went off social media. “I don’t mind if someone argues with me or disagrees with my opinions, but such vile personal threats did shake me for a bit.”
Now, however, with her son in medical college and her daughter studying law, Sagarika has developed a tougher hide: “I say what I want. As long as I am not defaming anyone, it doesn’t matter what trolls think of me.”
At the end of the animated book-club meeting, a group of older women leave the hall with satisfied smiles, chatting amongst themselves: “She is so articulate, and such a balanced perspective.” “That was a good talk.” “Such a bright young woman.” Inside, Sagarika signs book copies. Her face reveals none of the hard knocks of experience or the cynicism of her profession, and her child-like grin belies her age. It’s yet again her moment in the sun.
Photography by Dileep Purackal. First published as the cover story in the September issue of eShe magazine