Every Guardian south Asia correspondent over the past decade can remember the first time they met Kakoli Bhattacharya. A smart, brilliant and tenacious journalist, Kakoli joined the Guardian in Delhi in 2009 as an assistant, translator and fixer – but the role she would play in the lives of all the correspondents who worked with her far outstripped her official duties.
On Saturday, Kakoli – who was known to her friends and family as Pui, meaning “birdsong” – died in hospital of Covid-19. She was 51. Her death leaves a great absence. Here, Delhi correspondents past and present share their lasting memories of a much valued colleague and friend.
Jason Burke (south Asia correspondent 2009-2016)
I remember meeting Kakoli for the first time in a poor area of north Delhi where we were to work on an “honour killing” story. She was as enthusiastic, perceptive, warm and capable then, and was never any different through the six years we worked together. Switching effortlessly between any of her various languages, negotiating the wilder reaches of Indian bureaucracy with equal ease, chasing down contacts or stories, she was indispensable.
I remember her sitting with me on a charpoy in a village in Haryana, explaining in her calm, clever way all the local political and social dynamics, or a trip to find the family of a Uttar Pradesh hitman where we ended up talking to the killer himself in prison on a mobile phone.
Even as my own understanding of the region deepened, Kakoli never ceased to amaze me with her own profound knowledge. That she is no longer with us is a huge professional and personal loss for all the correspondents who owe her so much over the years.
Somehow she managed the Guardian’s demands with those of her very talented daughter. My thoughts are very much with her daughter, Khushi, and her husband, Himanshu.
Michael Safi (south Asia correspondent 2016-2019)
Covering India, you are bombarded with advice. But on one matter my predecessors in Delhi were unequivocal: work with Kakoli, and make sure she’s happy. They had learned what quickly would become clear to me too. Whether by her steady demeanour, or her extraordinary ability to track down names and phone numbers, in a country that often challenged and perplexed Kakoli just made everything easier.
At one of our early meetings, I told Kakoli I had been utterly defeated by bureaucratic manoeuvring required to get a journalist’s accreditation in Delhi. She arched an eyebrow. Why hadn’t I told her earlier? She made a couple of phone calls, and I had the certificate within a week.
I got to see what Kakoli was really made of weeks later, when she managed to talk us into being allowed to stow away overnight with a group of “cow vigilantes”, young men who kept watch on trafficking routes between Indian states, on the pretext of preventing cows from being illegally smuggled to slaughterhouses.
It was not especially dangerous, though the men were armed and unpredictable, but Kakoli dismissed any suggestion that she might ride out the midnight patrol in the hotel. She never blinked, chatting throughout the night to the young men and their leaders, drawing out of them rich quotes and anecdotes that would find their way into the story. Later she confessed it was a hair-raising evening, but in the moment, she was pure steel and charm.
Kakoli tried to quit the Guardian around the time I arrived in 2016. She wanted to devote herself more fully to helping Khushi, her daughter, achieve her dream of representing India in badminton at the Olympics. She agreed to stay on the condition that we work around Khushi’s training schedule. That was how we ended up holding editorial meetings at courtside, or how her son, Hriday, ended up translating for me during some stories in Delhi – Kakoli was away at a mountain training camp with Khushi.
Her husband, Himanshu, a water expert and activist, also became a regular source for Guardian stories on the vitally important topic. Kakoli made you feel like family, and seamlessly integrated her own family into the Guardian’s work.
Hannah Ellis-Petersen (south Asia correspondent 2019-present)
I still remember arriving in India and within hours, the first person who had called was Kakoli. Did I have somewhere nice to stay? Had I eaten? Had Indian bureaucracy defeated me yet? I was feeling overwhelmed at the chaos of Delhi but Kakoli made me roar with laughter and instantly feel at home in my new city.
Her gifts as a journalist became clear the next morning when we worked on our first story together. I speculatively sent her an image from a newspaper of a woman bathing in a polluted river: did she know anyone who could speak about these scenes of Delhi’s pollution? She replied a few minutes later with the name and telephone number of the woman in the picture. I still have no idea how she did it. But she never failed to find a contact, no matter how mysterious or obscure.
Kakoli had a knack of being such a charming, empathetic presence that even the most reluctant interviewees would open up to you when you worked with her. We were dispatched to find farmers who were illegally burning their fields in Punjab. For hours, our efforts were rebuffed but Kakoli was never to be defeated by a story. By the end of the day, we sat under a tree, playing cards and drinking chai with a group of farmers who had all joyfully confessed to Kakoli they had set fire to their fields a day earlier. On another occasion, during a terribly sad story about the rape and murder of a nine-year-old in Rajasthan, Kakoli sat quietly and held the girl’s weeping grandmother in her arms.
Kakoli’s deep knowledge of south Asia was indispensable, her belief in the power of journalism was unflinching and her warmth and kindness made her feel like family. Her dedication to her daughter Khushi’s badminton career was also particularly awe-inspiring, especially as her commitment to the Guardian never faltered. We spoke almost every day and even when she told me that her fever was getting bad and her oxygen was dipping after being diagnosed with Covid, her only messages were to ask if I was doing OK. She was selfless and brilliant to the end. I will miss her every day.
Rebecca Ratcliffe (interim south Asia correspondent 2019)
I worked in Delhi only briefly but feel very lucky to have reported alongside Kakoli. She was incredibly driven and resourceful. No matter who we needed to track down, no matter the time of day or night, she somehow always found a way, and always with baffling speed.
Together we covered one of the most pressing human rights stories in India at that time – Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was designed to identify illegal immigrants. It was a bureaucratic nightmare, and threatened to make 2 million people in north-east India stateless.
Kakoli was warm, kind and wise, and that made her a brilliant journalist. People would open up to her – whether we were all sitting face-to-face or speaking over a crackling phone line.
Kakoli was also the most caring colleague. She would share her many stories of reporting across India. She would help guide your ideas. And, when you felt completely flustered and overwhelmed, she would tell you not to panic – the story will work out. She was both a skilled and determined journalist, and a true friend.
Annie Kelly (editor of the Guardian’s Rights and Freedom reporting project)
I had the enormous privilege of working with Kakoli as a Guardian freelancer in India and for two weeks in 2009 making a documentary with her about honour killings, on which she worked as a local producer.
She was a great, talented, determined and tenacious journalist with an astonishing capacity for putting people at ease and an instinctive understanding of how to tell stories with clarity and compassion. She was also brilliantly funny, vivacious and kind (at one point holding my hand and feeding me boiled eggs she’d brought from home when I was sick on assignment). Even though I haven’t seen her for over 10 years I’ve thought of her often.
Her deep love for her family was clear and my deepest condolences go to them at their enormous loss.