As her dark eyes scan across her computer screen, Moni Basu reads the words that will be among her last for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As Basu, a petite woman in her 40s, sits at her desk in her beige flowing skirt and polka dot top, she taps her manicured fingers against the keyboard. Her gold rings and bangles make a loud, clanking noise as she moves her hands.
Around her, the war memorabilia that once decorated her desk has been taken down, and save for the piles of paper boxes that rest around her, her desk – like the ones around hers – is beginning to look bare.
When she speaks, her voice is soft, yet captivating and clear, making it impossible not to listen to each word.
“It’s like everyone is packing up their dorm rooms,” said Basu, as she sent the beginning of her story – one about a mother who recently welcomed her two sons home from war – to her editor, Jan Winburn. The same woman saw her two sons, along with a third, off again three weeks before — with Mother’s Day just around the corner.
Just two days later, Basu, one of 73 people at the newspaper who accepted buyouts, would walk out the door of the AJC after nearly 19 years, and travel a few blocks away to her new job at CNN Wire.
“It’s going to be a steep learning curve for me,” Basu said. “I have been nothing but a print journalist all my life.”
In fact, Basu’s journalism career – which she says began quite by accident – started on a 1939 Remington typewriter. In the mid-80s, Basu struggled to get her ideas onto paper as a “two-finger typist,” with her fingers sliding through the keys and requiring Bandaids.
Basu’s decision to accept one of the AJC’s buyouts — a side effect of the troubled economy — was due largely to the shrinking state of newspapers nationwide, resulting in a more localized focus; the AJC is no exception.
“I feel that I have sort of outgrown this paper because of my interest in international news,” said Basu, whose reporting has taken her around the world, including to Cuba with Jimmy Carter and back to her native India.
Basu, who was born in Calcutta, moved extensively with her family, since her father — a professor of statistical theory — was not particularly fond of being tenured at one institution. The family moved from one city to another, including Beirut, Sydney and San Francisco, and every few years the family would move back to India.
“I’m really glad we went back and forth, because I really, truly, consider myself half American and half Indian,” said Basu.
During part of her childhood spent in India, Basu and her brother, Shantanu, would play with their mother’s saris – long, cotton, dress-like pieces common in India – that could only be worn once between washings. “I was the sari shop owner and I’d just whirl the saris and my brother would be the customer looking at them, and my mother would come into the room just shocked. It was a lot of fun. I was like 20-something,” she said, laughing, “No, I was six or seven.”
Basu’s father finally decided to settle down in one place after he was declared legally blind, choosing Tallahassee, Florida. “I think my mother, brother and I cried for three months because we had lived in the world’s most exotic cities,” she said.
After the challenging schools she had attended in England and India, American schools had little left to teach Basu, and she graduated at age 15.
She received a bachelors degree in political science from Florida State University in 1982 and stayed in Tallahassee to pursue a masters in International Relations.
Her hopes of one day being a diplomat with the United Nations were put aside when her mother suffered a massive stroke, and she began working for a local newspaper, the Florida Flambeau.
After a brief stint at United Press International and a year at the state of Florida’s Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, Basu took a pay cut and went to work as a news editor for the Tallahassee Democrat, where she remained until 1990, when she began working at the AJC.
Basu’s parents, who returned to India in the mid-1980s, both fell ill — her mother with the complications of her stroke and her father with Alzheimer’s disease.
When her father realized his memory was beginning to escape him, he began to write Basu long essays about his childhood. In her late teen years, she and her father struggled with his conservative expectations for his daughter. “My biggest regret in life is that my father went down after that,” she said. “I wish I had more time with him once I grew up, once I could see past my own foolishness.”
On several occasions, Basu visited her parents in India, often staying for long periods of time and freelancing stories back to the paper. During that time, she covered a destructive earthquake that hit Gujarat on January 26, 2001.
At the earthquake’s center in Anjar, Basu observed the aftermath firsthand. She saw a man combing through the crowd, dousing handkerchiefs with scented oil and putting them to people’s noses so they wouldn’t smell the rotting human flesh left behind by the earthquake.
After seeing a man putting a body into a crate headed for the crematorium, she asked him how he knew if the man was Hindu or Muslim; Hindu tradition emphasizes cremation, but if the man was Muslim, he may have wanted to be buried.
“The man looked at me with these eyes: they were this big,” she said, using her hands to widen her own eyes. “He took the cover off and it was just a piece of mangled flesh.” The man told her, “You tell me, is that a man or a woman, a Hindu, a Christian, a Muslim? What? You tell me what that is and I’ll do whatever you tell me.”
“I just felt like the biggest fool on earth. All they were trying to do at that point was dispose of bodies,” she said. Basu quietly followed the man, watched him cremate body after body, and wrote about the experience.
Later that year, she lost both of her parents within three months time.
Shortly after that, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. Basu was at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, talking to New Yorkers stranded in the airport, huddled around the Houlihan’s television screen and discussing their apartments’ locations and their relatives’ whereabouts.
“I was very happy to see 2001 over,” she said. “And 2002 was much happier.”
And then the war in Iraq began.
Basu’s best-known work resulted from her five embedded trips to Iraq with the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade.
While Basu had been to Iraq before, her experience being embedded— having the opportunity to see the soldiers day-to-day and to witness the war firsthand — gave her an entirely new perspective.
Before she left for her embeds in Iraq, Basu, along with photographers and others who would be interacting with her, attended a hostile territory training session for several days in Virginia. During the first of these sessions in which Winburn was Basu’s editor, she asked Basu why she wanted to return to Iraq.
“You know, I’ve seen a lot of that story through the eyes of the Iraqi people and it’s a little daunting to think I’m going to be clear on the other side and see it through the American soldiers’ perspective, but I think it’s really important to do that — to tell the war through a lot of different perspectives,” Basu told Winburn.
While her ambitions were solid, Basu still worried about one of the most common concerns plaguing foreign journalists: access to information. In a Sadam-ruled Iraq, each journalist was assigned a minder, responsible for ensuring that “bad” information about the government and the war did not reach the foreign press.
Basu and her minder, Salar Jaff, who now works for the Los Angeles Times, would often go out to dinner together, and “dance around” the subjects they both knew he couldn’t directly talk about, so Basu could get the gist of what he meant to say.
In 2003, after the fall of Sadam, Jaff told Basu all of the things about himself, his family and his job that he could not verbalize before without endangering his life. On that same trip, just before Basu returned to the United States, Jaff gave her a present that he asked her not to open until she returned.
Back at her home in Atlanta, Basu opened the package, only to find a bottle of Turkish perfume she assumed she’d never use.
“I turned the bottle over and then I realized why he gave it to me. The name of the perfume was “Freedom” and to this day it sits on my bathroom shelf at home,” she said. “I’ve never used the perfume, but I’ll never throw away the bottle.”
Breaking the barrier between journalists and an American military taught to be wary of the media presented a similar struggle to Basu.
Seargant Patrick Eaton, a member of the 48th Brigade who was perhaps most suspect of reporters around his soldiers was one of Basu’s hardest walls to break through.
Basu chose to gain the soldiers’ trust by spending as much time with them as she was permitted to, so she could learn about them through both their words and their actions.
Basu would accompany the 48th on as many patrols as she was permitted on. “You could have somebody describe to you what they did, or you could go with them and experience the war they were fighting,” she said. “That was my number one goal – to see as much of Iraq as I could.”
Captain Will Phillips, a member of Sgt. Eaton’s platoon who is now a training officer in Warren, Ark., remembers his first real interaction with Basu.
“As reporters, we try to remain unbiased, but we are human beings. We do our best, but for anyone to say they don’t have a bias, it’s just not true,” Philips remembers Basu saying.
Philips spoke with many other reporters during his time in Iraq. He can’t remember the name of even one.
“In the evenings, whenever we were all there, we’d sit down, smoke cigars, listen to music and talk,” he said. “And Moni was a part of that.”
Part of what made Basu so easy to trust, Philips said, is that she had knowledge of the military and even knew all the military acronyms — “she talks the talk and walks the walk,” he said.
Basu would sit outside her tent alone, most nights, and the soldiers would come and talk to her, often baring their souls about the tragic things they’d seen that day. Basu never wrote about what they told her without waiting several days and then talking to the soldier about it to differentiate between what they truly meant, and what they may have said simply in the heat of the moment.
On the last day before she left Phillips’ and Eaton’s platoon during her 2005 embed, Basu left her gear and helmet unattended, only to encounter giggles at the airport the following day. Someone had taken a marker to her helmet and neatly printed “Evil Reporter Chick.”
Basu, who recognized the neat, artistic handwriting, knew immediately it was Eaton, although the nickname was an ongoing joke with all the members of his platoon. “I think it was his way of saying ‘You’re OK,’ ” Basu said.
When Basu returned to the United States after her embeds in Iraq, she found reintegrating difficult, especially hearing casual complaints about traffic or the weather from friends, when the destruction and human suffering that she had seen was still so fresh on her mind.
“She sees some pretty horrible things,” said her husband, Kevin Duffy, who walked out of the AJC alongside Basu. “She eventually becomes the same Moni, but it takes some time to wind down from that.” While Duffy worries about his wife while she’s in a dangerous situation, he also knows she is very savvy and careful about the situations she puts herself in.
Basu’s Indian heritage, he said, also gives her an advantage when she’s in Iraq, as she is from a part of the world more culturally similar to Iraq than the United States.
While she has been told that, with the two cultures that she grew up in, she is always somewhat out of place, she disagrees. “I’m in my element in two places,” she said.
“She loves her culture,” said Duffy. “She loves the people, she loves the clothing, she loves everything about that part of the world. So it sort of replenishes her when she goes back.”
Her love for Indian culture also includes a love for Indian cooking.
Luckily for Duffy, Basu’s creative cooking style — and her insistence on cooking a full meal, even if she returns home from work at 10 or 11 p.m. — results in meals such as curried chicken, made perfectly because “Moni knows her spices.”
Basu doesn’t use a cookbook, but creates her dishes by sight — just like her mother once did.
Since both of her parents have passed away, Basu thought about her two homes, and made a big decision.
“I’m a journalist who knows so much about politics and the world and I’d never voted in my whole life,” she said. Three years into the process of becoming a citizen, she knew she needed to get her U.S. citizenship in time to vote when she realized it would be a historic election.
On election day 2008, Moni Basu voted for the first time in her life, cried, and had her experience documented by an AJC photographer, who later posted the photographs to Facebook.
“I was no longer an Indian,” said Basu. “I was very excited about being an American, but at the same time, I was very sad that I was no longer recognized as an Indian citizen.”
As Basu writes on her Facebook page, “It’s hard straddling two worlds.”