By Ted Genoways
November 13th, 2009
On a blustery Saturday afternoon last March, Jason Motlagh and I sat in my office, discussing the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Jason had recently completed an article for us on separatist rebels within India, and we had been kicking around ideas for a follow-up. Now that he had covered India’s internal terror threats, why not examine the largest and most audacious foreign terror attack ever carried out on Indian soil? And, yet, there didn’t seem to be a single, thorough accounting of what exactly had happened on those fateful days. We soon hit upon the idea of something that would be closer to literary nonfiction than traditional journalism—or even “new journalism.” This would not be the story of Jason’s journey in the wake of disaster, but a straightforward narrative of what happened in Mumbai. The last question Jason asked: “How long should it be?” It seemed too early to tell. “As long as it needs to be,” I said. “We’ll just see.”
On Monday of next week, we will proudly unveil the results of Jason’s months of research and writing. The product of multiple trips to Mumbai, interviews with survivors, pages and pages of police records, transcripts of intercepted phone communications between the gunmen and their handlers, video from closed-circuit security cameras, and reports in the Indian media, Jason’s account is a singular journalistic achievement. And no part of the reporting was simple. The gunmen all used aliases, and reports were often conflicting about who was where and when. Some witnesses spoke little or no English, the gunmen conversed only in Urdu, the distress calls from one location (a Jewish center) went out in Hebrew. Witnesses disagreed about timelines and sequences of events. Even police and prosecutors have often seemed confused and overwhelmed as they sort through evidence and present their case at the ongoing trial of Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman to survive the attacks. As recently as a few weeks ago, the Indian National Security Guards (NSG) insisted that they had never heard of Lieutenant Colonel RK Sharma—one of the principal subjects of Jason’s narrative. (Sharma was eventually located and deposed on October 26.)
Jason has not only managed to sort out all of these conflicting reports but has stitched them together into a story of stunning depth and sensitivity. He covers seven significant locations from dozens of points of view and details the events hour-by-hour for those critical days. The effect is panoramic, kaleidoscopic, encompassing. You are dropped viscerally into every moment even as you are moved from place to place by the omniscient hand of the writer. It is gut-wrenching. It is heart-breaking. It is also 19,000 words long, which is to say, in the world of journalism, it’s epic. But the story warrants this treatment, and the writing sustains it. Rather than drop this whole piece on you all at once, we’re going to release the report on our blog in four sections—each 4,000 to 5,000 words—over a period of four days next week.
As much as this is a milestone for VQR’s reporting, it is also a test. Will readers embrace something of this length online? Will compelling life-and-death scenarios told in spare, gripping prose be enough to bring new readers to our website—and keep them coming back for subsequent installments? We’ve seen countless laments for the demise of great journalism and complaints about a waning of the ambition that marked the golden age of magazine reporting. Next week, we will offer this essential piece of writing in hopes that there is still an audience for something deeper than soundbites, more careful and humane than cable shout shows. We are hoping that there is still a hunger for original reporting and not just reaction stories. But we are relying on you to tell us whether this is a shining example of a resurgence in long-form journalism or the last of a dying breed. If you think this special report is as important as we think it is, we hope you will spread the word. If you can help us demonstrate a demand for this kind of reporting, it will help us seek out the support we need to do more of it in the future.
For now though, we just ask you to keep an eye out for these reports. They’re worth your time.