multi-storied #8: Tell me your life.
Earlier this year, an editor from Granta asked if I could contribute to their Winter 2020 issue, titled “Second Nature.” She knew what she wanted: a piece on the Indian vulture, whose numbers had crashed back in the 1990s and were now slowly reviving under the care of a few committed raptor breeders. And she wanted me to tie this story a strand of culture in India: the Parsi tradition of sky burial, which relies upon birds of prey quickly picking clean the flesh of corpses. In the absence of vultures, some Parsis are worried that sky burials remain incomplete—that corpses bloat and decompose, their flesh liquiefying over years in ways that sullies the sacred earth.
Many of you will know that this is not a new tale to tell. For years now, newspapers and magazines in India have written about vultures and about Vibhu Prakash, who runs a vulture breeding centre in the northern state of Haryana. The environmental writer Meera Subramanian discussed Prakash’s work extensively in her book, and the novelist Nell Freudenberger wrote a long magazine piece about Mumbai’s Parsis and their quandary of disposing of the dead. For this reason, honestly, I wasn’t at first convinced of my assignment. Was there much value to telling this story again?
To that question, you ought to be the judge. Here’s the piece: Vultures. But doing it reminded me that we often misjudge the extent of “common knowledge”—not just among readers but among journalists too. And we tend to be too frightened of boring people. Horrifying them is fine. So is amusing them. Boring them, though—that’s the ultimate sin.
Fortunately for me, there was some new material to plumb in this tale. For one thing, there had been a pandemic:
The first few months of 2020 were a torrid time for SAVE’s breeding centres. The four facilities are spread across India’s northern half: one in the state of Haryana, not far from Delhi; one in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in India’s solar plexus; and two in the eastern states of Assam and West Bengal. During the Covid-19 pandemic, every centre found itself in a red zone – a coronavirus hotspot that was strictly battened down. Travel was practically out of the question, and boundaries between districts were sealed. In the breeding centre in Haryana, near the town of Pinjore, Vibhu Prakash needs a hundred goats a day to feed his 360 vultures. Ordinarily, Prakash buys old, infirm goats, since vultures prefer lean meat to fatty meat. But his usual markets were shut, and the only goats he managed to find during the pandemic had been plumped up on farms. Still, they had to suffice.
To source even these goats with any regularity, Prakash and his colleagues had to work until they wilted. ‘Our supplier went out to get them from Rajasthan or other states,’ he said. ‘Then the cops wouldn’t let him travel, so we had to get him passes from the government.’ In late May, even as the pandemic burned on, a cyclone hit West Bengal, flattening electricity and telephone lines. The breeding centre in Rajabhat Khawa, located in a wildlife park near the border with Bhutan, lost power. In addition to figuring out meals for its vultures, the staff had to find diesel for their generators – not just to switch on the lights and charge the cell phones, but also to electrify the fence that keeps the park’s elephants out.
(Full piece here.)
The article came out. I sent it to some people I know, both in India and elsewhere. And I was surprised to discover the number of people who didn’t know the details of the older story, or knew them only in a half-digested way. Two lessons, therefore:
Journalists and writers have to make it their business to read and remember the output of other journalists and writers. The rest of the world, happily for them, has no such obligation or compulsion. I was making the classic mistake of worrying about what others in my profession would make of a story retold. I remember, many years ago, working on a piece about the newspaper magnate Samir Jain. It involved talking to many journalists, naturally, and most people asked me why I had picked such an obvious subject. Then I’d discuss my assignment with others—friends, or my parents—and often be asked: “Who’s Samir Jain?” But this isn’t a case of “over-estimating” your readership; rather, it’s a case of over-estimating how much a writer’s own habits ought to be shared by her readers. And it is also a case of over-estimating…
…the effect of the Internet. We reflexively assume, I think, that when information can be found widely, it has also been consumed widely. Now, obviously there’s a fine line between unearthing further facets to an existing tale and rebottling old stories. And maybe I even crossed it at points in this piece. But perhaps, too often, we confuse ease of access with ubiquity of knowledge. This is why the power of fake news, for instance, still shocks us. “The truth is just a Google search away! Why would people believe that?” But clearly, that’s not how it works. In that sense, a story strikes me as the equivalent of a mine shaft. Once discovered, you keep working it. You dig on and in, you shore it up, you light it better. The skill lies in doing that, but also in knowing when your vein of ore is exhausted
Below the fold: more on boredom…
So much fantastic news for “A Dominant Character” this month. The book made it to the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2020, and into similar Best-Of lists in the Guardian and the Economist. Getting other people to be as fascinated and taken by J. B. S. Haldane as I am is an incredible reward. I’m still talking to Haldane enthusiasts and researchers, still discovering new manuscripts and articles—and even photographs, like this one below, which—MY GOD!—ought to have be the cover of some German edition of the book.
A reminder that the book continues to be easily available, in time for Christmas gift purchasing season!
In the US
One of the hardest parts of interviewing experts and specialists is getting them to tell you what they know in extensive detail. This puzzled me for such a long time. These people clearly live and breathe their subjects. They’re articulate. Why aren’t they getting into the glorious and messy technicalities of what they do? Why aren’t they wonking out they way I want them to?
The reason, I discovered, is that they’re polite. They’re reluctant to bore you. No one outside of their discipline has ever asked them to be detailed and long-winded about their work before, and so they’ve forgotten that their work might actually—in the right narrative—be interesting. This is why they speak in generalities again and again until you prod them into being specific. I now have an interviewing tic. At the first particular detail they drop—and it might be by accident, or it might be the result of my prying—I’ll openly display my fascination with what they’ve said. It might actually be fascinating, or it might not. What’s important, though, is to show them that I’m here for that kind of stuff, and that no detail will be tedious to me. They can talk without being concerned about committing that arch-sin of modernity: boring someone.
I recalled this happening during my reporting for the Granta piece, but I also spotted its importance in one of the finest articles I read last month. The writer Burkhard Bilger profiled a master-builder, a man who makes real the castles in the air of wealthy New Yorkers. The story is rife with that kind of detail, and it must have been won at enormous cost of time, with Bilger patiently encouraging Mark Ellison to be more technical, more fine-grained:
The stringers posed a different sort of problem. These were the boards that ran alongside the steps. In the drawings, they were made of poplar and twisted like seamless ribbons from floor to floor. But how to cut flat boards into curves? A router and a jig could do the job but would take forever. A computer-controlled shaper would work, but a new one cost three thousand dollars. Ellison decided to use a table saw, but there was a catch: a table saw doesn’t cut curves. Its flat, spinning blade is designed to slice straight across a board. It can be tilted left or right to make angled cuts, but that’s about it.
Imagine that Ellison said, “This was a difficult staircase to design” and left it there. Imagine the kind of questions Bilger would have had to ask. Why was it difficult? Why couldn’t you make curving boards out of poplar? How much does a computer-controlled shaper even cost? Was it straightforward to do it with a table saw? Draw him out, draw him out, draw him out, until he’s practically talking to himself—the ultimate triumph of the interview.
Detail makes it real.