Annie Zaidi and Naomi Datta left mainstream journalism to become full-time writers speaking truth to power.
It’s never easy to quit your job and start off on the road to self-employment. We speak to two Mumbai women who moved from journalism to full-time writing careers, both taking on the problems facing India today in their individual ways.
A peaceful countenance, a crisp cotton sari and a pleasant smile as she greets friends and guests at her book-reading session. It wasn’t the first time I was meeting Annie Zaidi but the girl I had known as a passionate poet and creative writer had never aspired to make a career of it.
Yet, here she was, experimenting with both fiction and non-fiction writing with seven books and other works to her credit.
Born in Allahabad and raised mostly in Rajasthan, Annie studied journalism at XIC, Mumbai, and joined Mid-Day newspaper soon after. “Through my job, I learnt how to write, research and gather information. Journalism helped turn me into a writer, and especially the particular kind of writer I am,” she says.
In 2008, Annie took up a part-time job that would help pay her bills and give her more time in hand. After completing her first manuscript, she quit the job entirely and lived on her savings for a year. By the end, she was financially broke but much more confident about her writing abilities.
“It is not easy. But it is worth doing if you want to do it,” she shares. “And sometimes, it is also useful to do it so you can discover how badly you want to write. The year I quit, I had decided that life was too short not to do the things I wanted to. That my art and craft matter more than job security. And that if I failed, then so be it.”
She goes on, “If you choose to do this, you must be prepared to be your own person. You surrender certain social circles and shrug off peer opinion. You live on a very tight budget. You don’t spend the way your friends or family members do. You may not be able to afford to have kids or send them to decent schools. You have to accept that these are choices, and nobody owes you anything.”
Her first book Known Turf was a collection of essays based on her experiences while working for Frontline as a reporter. The book was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010. Since then, besides books, she has written plays in Hindi and English, and experimented with writing and directing short films.
Her second book Love Stories #1 to 14 and third book Gulab were romances of a different kind. “I observe politics or the economy or the personal and often deeply lonely lives around me,” she explains. “The love stories were written separately over two years. Whenever I wanted to take a break from non-fiction, I would write a story. But I did impose a strict discipline upon myself, writing six to eight hours a day.”
Annie’s latest work Prelude to a Riot, written two years ago and published in late 2019, was born from observing how bigotry works in a society that does not see itself as bigoted or radicalised but is, in fact, quietly marching towards violence.
She says, “Hate is a subtle and evil virus, every bit as dangerous as Corona. I wrote the novel to capture that malignancy and its inevitable outcome. Unfortunately, by the time it was published, people were saying it is ‘timely’ because more violence unleashed.”
The 41-year-old believes in speaking freely, especially in a democratic republic founded on the premise of universal rights. She says, “Anybody who has the ability, the language and the tools should protect our fundamental rights. It is through silence that oppression works. But the few who are still speaking up for the rights of the many sadly get labelled.”
In 2018, Annie won The Hindu Playwright Award for her play Untitled 1. In 2019 came the prestigious Nine Dots Prize for her upcoming memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation.
While writing a personal narrative, Annie has tried to examine the wider causes for the feeling of dislocation or displacement, impoverishment and discrimination, which can lead to migration or a feeling of homelessness.
Radiant smile, quick wit and her one-liners on everything from politics to Bollywood – these are what one remembers after meeting Naomi Datta, author of How to Be a Likeable Bigot – A Handy Guide for the Savvy Survivor, a humorous take on life in India today. But being a satirist is a second career for Naomi, who was a broadcast journalist until a few years ago.
Born and raised in the beautiful Khasi hills in Shillong, Meghalaya, Naomi came to Mumbai in 1999 to pursue mass communication from Sophia College. She always wanted to be a TV host. “I come from a small city, and it is a big deal there to have someone anchor on a national news channel,” she says. And so she worked hard to land an opportunity at one of the best TV shows of that time, The Amul India Show on TV18. Soon, she was producing and hosting her own show.
As Naomi lived her dream, broadcast news took a strange turn, with anchors shouting from the studios, and the focus shifting away from reporters on the ground. Disillusioned, she quit television to move towards the entertainment world, and worked as a creative director and writer for shows on MTV, Star World and Netflix.
Humour comes naturally to Naomi, which is why her writing is also full of satire that makes you smile. She didn’t plan her first book, as she tells us: “I was in-between jobs and a bit disgruntled with Indian TV. I started writing a short story as a gift for my best friend. The story kept developing, and in four months, I had a novel, a satire called The 6 PM Slot. I got signed up by Penguin Random House.”
The book was appreciated but Naomi was not ready to be a full-time writer yet. For eight years, she continued to write satirical pieces, columns and even worked on projects with production houses as social-media strategist or creative director.
“Over the years, I was active on Twitter, and an online voice and persona developed – snarky, irreverent, sharp and yet not offensive. I realised that people enjoyed my commentary through Twitter or my columns. We also live in weird times – there is polarisation, intolerance and general toxicity. I thought this was the best time for my brand of satire and humour. It holds up a mirror to you but makes you laugh at the same time. We don’t do much satire in India – people often don’t get it. I feel I do it well, and there is an audience for it. Therefore, the book.”
Naomi’s second book How to Be a Likeable Bigot came out in December 2019 to very positive reviews. It is a collection of satirical essays on everything from corporate brown-nosing to mummy politics to armchair bigotry. Her publisher wants her to start work on the third one quickly.
So, what is the 42-year-old writing next? “I am currently locked down at home like everyone else! I want to write twisted, funny short stories about a post-Corona world. Human behaviour fascinates me endlessly. My friends are always worried they will end up in my books, and they will and have. And because my default setting is satire, it is mostly not flattering,” she says.
“I have a few ideas – when I finish washing, cleaning and cooking, I will write.”