As the former editor of Time Out Mumbai, Naresh Fernandes is the type of jazz-loving journalist that only Rahul Khanna could slyly embody in Wake Up Sid. He’s laughed this comparison off before, and sportingly calls himself a “hack for the last 25 years,” but he’s anything but.
Fernandes is one of Bombay’s most eminent writers, whose love for the city permeates his work, whether he’s uncovering its lost jazz age in the Taj Mahal Foxtrot or detailing its rapidly developing landscape in A City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay. Fernandes is also part of the new wave of Indian journalism as the editor and co-founder of Scroll.in, one of the leading news sites outlets that joins ScoopWhoop, and Buzzfeed India in aiming to reach out to a nation of print-readers. With the rise of news websites and social media, Scroll.in has found its niche by contextualizing the news and cutting out the sensationalism that inundates readers.
We called up Fernandes in advance of his appearance in Vancouver at two Indian Summer Festival events on July 18 to chat about his journalism career, and his new role at Scroll.in.
How did you get started in journalism all those years ago?
I’ve been a journalist for far too long. It’ll be 25 years since I’ve been a hack (laughs). I started as a journalism trainee at The Times Of India in the 90s, and I got completely obsessed by how important journalism is in a society like India with such enormous challenges. How I realized early in my career is the power of the press is not cliché, that things change but things change not because of the individual journalist but because you work for a publication with the readership as enormous as The Times of India. It’s public opinion that brings about public change, but to realize that is a heady thing. That bureaucrats and politicians read what’s in the papers and care about it, and that’s something that really fascinated me, which is why I’ve been a journalist for so long.
How did you get started in creating Scroll.in. Was it to facilitate a need for better journalism?
So Scroll.in is something that a friend and I had been talking about in various forms for ten years. I have a friend called Sameer Patil, who is the business brains behind this and we’d been talking about how Indian newspapers are very good at a certain level. They bring you what’s happening on the day to day, but they don’t quite put it into context. So, we decided we wanted to start a publication – also conversely now in the age of Twitter and TV you’re being bombarded with this information all the time, but you’re not quite certain why it matters – so we wanted to start a publication that would be like: these are the 20 things that are happening in India, and India as it relates to the world everyday and this is what you need to care about, because this is the truly important stuff.
How do you see the landscape of journalism changing in India today?
You know, the smartphones has truly revolutionized the way people are getting their information even though India is one of the few places where newspaper circulation are growing. This has to do with the fact that more people are learning to read every year and so they’re buying newspapers. A great many people now, even in the languages, are reading on their smartphones, because as you know you can get information and you have no barriers to distribution. For instance, I’ve got a colleague working on a series of stories for us now in the state of Mizoram in the northeast, which is a very hilly area that’s very difficult to get a newspaper to there everyday and the biggest source of information there are these curated Facebook news groups. It’s getting to the stage where the administrators of those news pages are being viewed as important journalists themselves, and they’re invited by the state for press conferences. So this really changes the way journalism is being distributed. In a very horrifying case two weeks ago in Uttar Pradesh, a Facebook journalist was burnt alive by a local politician, because he was writing stories on his wall about the corruption, so this just changes how we think about the forums in which journalism is being conducted.
You’re an absolute master in narrative and historical journalism, but did you ever want to go into fiction writing?
Not really, I’m a boring fuddy-duddy fellow (laughs). So I look to tell stories in different ways in narrative ways, but I have no head for fiction. I need the framework of fact to start on.
You’ve melded the idea of history and land with your latest book A City Adrift, what got you interested in exploring this topic?
I’d been fascinated by Bombay. It’s a city in which my mother’s family has lived for a many hundred years and my father’s family came as migrants three or four generations ago, so Bombay is city in my backyard. I see all the great cosmic and global currents playing out: the industrialization, the financialization of our society and economy, parochialism, religious conflict, and the widening gaps between rich and poor. It’s a lazy man’s thing to do, but I just need to stick my head outside my window and these enormous stories that playing themselves out across the world, are actually happening in my backyard.
A City Adrift is part of a series that a publisher is doing on, and loosely calling them “biographies” of Indian cities, and that’s all they told us to do. When they asked me to do the Bombay one, I was trying to find a way to tell the story of Bombay in a way that hadn’t been done before. I came to realize that land has been the driver of Bombay’s economy and its imagination. Unlike other Indian cities, Bombay is literally a constructed city, both physically and in terms of Bombay society. People came here from other places and Bombay was reclaimed so I decided that that was perhaps the best way to tell this story.
Hear Naresh Fernandes speak about journalism & more at 5×15: 5 Speakers, 15 Minutes, at Indian Summer Festival on Saturday, July 18 at 7pm at The Imperial.