SOAS Alumni: Interview with journalist Kunal Purohit

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Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, researcher and podcast producer based in Mumbai, India. He pursued an MSc in Development Studies on a Felix Scholarship from SOAS in 2016-17 and worked briefly as a research assistant at the SOAS South Asia Institute.

Kunal, aged 31, has extensively reported on politics, development, gender, migration, health, hate crime and technology in India for a range of Indian and International publications such as India Spend, The Wire, Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post, amongst others. In 2019, he produced an acclaimed podcast on ‘The Last Courtesans of Mumbai’ for the Indian digital publication, The Swaddle. His work has won him several prestigious awards and fellowships such as The Ramnath Goenka Award (2013), the United Nations Population Fund (2014), The Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women Fellowship (2016) and more. 

We speak to him about his time at SOAS, his work and inspiration and breaking into independent journalism.

1. Could you take me through your journalism career? When and why did you decide to become a freelance journalist?

I’ve been a journalist for the last thirteen years now. I started young, writing for the supplement pages of Times of India, when I was in the 12th standard, and interning at various publications throughout my undergrad. My first job as a journalist was at the Free Press Journal, where I worked for about a year. I then made the switch to Hindustan Times, starting as their BMC (Brihunmumbai Municipal Corporation) correspondent covering civic issues and urban development and subsequently becoming their political reporter.

I’ve been working on a freelance basis for the last three and a half years now. I chose to get into freelancing directly after my masters as I didn’t want to go back to broken newsrooms or organisations that were hypocritical, refusing to question those in power and bring forth the reflections from the ground in their news reports. As Indians, we are generally conditioned to play it safe, have a stable salary and job security. But SOAS helped me be confident about my ideologies. After meeting many different people at SOAS who were so passionate about their work and would go lengths to fulfil it, I was inspired to take that chance and venture out on my own. I now work independently out of Bombay, but travel quite extensively across the country to report on labour movements, hate crimes, development, technology and right-wing politics.

2. At what point in your career did you decide to do your masters? Why did you choose SOAS?

I always felt like as a reporter, we tend to cover events, without really connecting the dots and situating them within wider framework. It’s necessary to connect the micro with the macro and I felt that was lacking in my work. I was looking at policies at both the local and regional level without sort of understanding the frameworks through which they came about and operated. I believe that these frameworks are provided by academic and theoretical knowledge. As a journalist, I would try to read up as much as I could but that can be difficult with a full-time job. Thus, I realized that it was time to step back and gain the knowledge that I needed to report and write effectively.

The main reasons I came to SOAS was because of how political and ideological it is, and the heavy sense of activism that exists within this campus. That was very attractive to me as a journalist, for we tend to see the political in everything: how politics pervades our everyday life, and how we can shape it in meaningful ways. At SOAS, I felt I could do that and be part of these political conversations.

Kunal, journalist at work

3. What was your experience at SOAS like?

After studying in education systems that exist in India, where one is not allowed to engage in conversations on politics, the professors don’t openly embrace an ideological stance and there is no spirit of debating on ideologies in classrooms and campus issues; my experience at SOAS was life-altering. I am not just saying it for the sake of this blog; I mean it from the bottom of my heart. SOAS altered my idea of what education is and how it should be delivered. It made me question the apolitical educational systems that we were educated in. We do have the ‘Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)’, ‘Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)’, ‘Hyderabad University’ etc, but these institutions are the exception and not the norm.

SOAS enabled me to think beyond my own situations and conditions. What worked for me the most was meeting different people from various nationalities and social situations and understanding the basic fundamental truth that we all share. These conversations taught me not to accept what was thrown at me, but question it and find my own truth. 

4. What is your favourite memory from SOAS?

I have lots of favourite memories; its hard to point out one. 

I was one of the active members of the India Society at SOAS that had been defunct for many years, but we revived it. We did the London Chapter of the ‘Not In My Name’ protests, gathering about a 100 odd protestors some of whom gave influential political speeches.

I also remember this one protest where an Israeli Ambassador was invited to SOAS. It was quite controversial, and the SOAS Palestine Society was actively protesting against it- and were allowed to. The fact that an educational institute would provide the students that freedom to showcase their beliefs and opinions was a fascinating moment. 

I also have fond memories of the JCR. I sometimes joke that I learned as much, if not more in there than I did in the classroom. It was a space where we had such intense conversations and debates—understanding so many different things about the world.

5. How important do you think a masters degree is for a career in journalism? 

A master’s degree in a foreign country is something that comes with a great sense of privilege. People who do it don’t automatically become good journalists, and people who don’t do it don’t become bad journalists. You don’t necessarily need a masters if you can expand your knowledge base and build on the resources they have, that’s a great thing.

Having said that, I think if one has the opportunity, they should go for it; for its not just the course or the degree, but even the experiences outside the classroom, that are crucial in shaping one’s reality, and exposing one to the lived realities of others.

6. Tell us about your life as a freelance journalist? What does a day in your life look like?

As a freelance journalist, I have quite some control over the kind of work I do. I am not obliged to do everything that is given to me. I can take my time working on stories, which is a rarity in newsrooms. So I feel that there is a greater quality check that way. I have quite a work ethic in the sense that I like to have a strict routine. I wake up and read my papers. I have a desk at home from where I work from when I’m not on the field. If I don’t have any stories to work on, I spend time researching and ideating; pitching and reaching out to editors and networking. At times, editors too reach out to you to commission assignments. 

That said freelancing is not easy. It does not guarantee one a stable income at the end of the month or the expected number of bylines. There can be a stream of rejections that may make you feel that you’re not good enough, but then there are times you have several stories to work on. There are many ups and downs; it’s not an easy ride. However, freelancing gives me a good sense of self and a lot of creative freedom. It keeps you on your toes, preventing you from becoming complacent or taking things for granted. 

Kunal Purohit

7. Most of your reportage has a strong human interest element and a narrative voice. Why do you think that is important?

I think journalists have a responsibility to break things down for the reader. As an academic you engage with theoretical concepts and frameworks but it is important to situate and investigate them on the ground. For example, I am currently working on a story that looks at COVID testing protocols and policies in India. As a journalist, my job is not just to report about these policies but also understand how exactly they are implemented on the ground. One way to do is to look at data and statistics, but the other approach is to go on the ground and talk to those people who are struggling to get tested and bring forth their voice. I believe that the readers would find the latter approach more impactful because of the human connection. 

I feel there is so much information overload, especially on social media. I think a journalist needs to cut through the noise and tell stories that deserve to be told—and one way to do that is to tell stories of people who are suffering through it and make them the voice and face of the story. 

8. A strong challenge facing most freelance journalists in India, especially those upper-caste/upper-middle class is to not appropriate/victimise the voices of the marginalised for international publications. How do you ensure this through your reportage and writing?

That’s one thing that one learns with experience and exposure to not just better journalism, but also better literature, a better understanding of your privileges and an understanding of the context everything operates in. It’s important to watch the language through which one represents people’s voices. For example, one can write ‘what she is saying’ rather than writing that ‘she is crying’ or inserting something like, “she said this as she wiped her tear”. The story must explain what is causing that sort of reaction. 

I think some of the most beautiful writing is the simplest writing. Instead of describing something in flowery language, a journalist’s job is to state the facts and describe the things the way they are. I think one thing journalists forget is that we are never the story, our job is to only chronicle. That basic humility needs to be there. As privileged journalists who go into underdeveloped regions, it can be overwhelming to see people being robbed of basic necessities that we take for granted and this often show through our language. However, it is important to make sure that our perception does not cloud what their realities are. Let the story speak for itself. 

Kunal

9. Your work spans several beats: from gender to migration, culture to development, and most recently you have been covering health during the COVID-19 pandemic in India: While the nature of most of these beats is intersectional, how important do you think it is to be versatile as a freelance journalist or do you think it is important to pick a niche?

This is a question that has always troubled me. When I was working for a publication, I had to narrow down my focus on city and state governance. Sometimes, such a narrow focus would cut out contexts that certain policies are operating in. I did feel that it was a little unfair. 

However, it is again very subjective for it may be argued that picking up one niche could be advantageous, for you do become good it over time and stand out for it in the market. But as a journalist, it may be a privilege to do so and freelancers often can’t afford that. Moreover, several of the issues are intersectional and being a freelancer gives you a unique positionality and freedom to focus on these grey areas and report more holisitically, rather than isolating yourself in beats.

10. You have also experimented with several formats: text, video, photographs and most recently podcasting. Do you see a future for podcast journalism? 

 I do think that podcasts are very influential mediums. The nature of podcasting is such that it allows one to captivate the audience in ways other mediums cannot. People often hear podcasts while driving or running, without really being distracted by other forms of content that may pop-up while watching videos or reading an article online. The audience attention is thus quite intact. Thus podcasts is a powerful way of storytelling and has great untapped potential, but it also requires the right environment and setup. It might take time to arrange for it and get people acquainted to this form of storytelling, but I definitely see it happening. 

11. What are the challenges faced by journalists, especially freelance reporters in India?

I feel that the mainstream Indian media is not telling the stories that need to be told and the burden is falling on independent Indian media and the international media. While the latter is financially lucrative, a freelancer usually does not have a very strong backing while reporting for an international publication. One has to be very resourceful to remain safe, to be able to take on the authorities and face the pressure that journalists usually face in India—especially in the current political environment that deems all political reporting against it as ‘anti-national’. 

Moreover, Independent media organisations in India are not doing too well and are not able to sustain themselves financially. Thus, it is a very difficult scenario as people who do want to do great journalism don’t have the resources to do so, and people who do have the resources don’t want to do great journalism. Despite these constraints, there is some great journalism emerging out of India and hats off to all people who have made that possible.

12. Any word of advice for SOAS students wanting to break into freelance journalism?

I would just say remember the beliefs that you picked up at SOAS. Your ideological beliefs are worth pursuing and independent journalism is a great way to do that. You might be constrained with your resources but at least you are not constrained by an organisation breathing down your neck and editors not accepting your stories for being critical of the government. 

Independent journalism has great strengths that one can exploit for their benefit. Having said that it’s not easy—it has its ups and downs. One has to be patient, persistent and resilient to everything that comes your way—be it the fact that you might not have a consistent paycheck, or be it going through the gamut of rejections and approvals. The challenges are there but SOAS does prepare you for it and gives you a very sharp take on how the world is outside. It prepares you as an outsider against the unilateral system. It motivates you to take on the authority, but ultimately, it’s you who must to do the fighting – and the writing. 

Check out Kunal Purohit’s work on his website or follow him on Twitter.

Devyani Nighoskar is SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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