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I have attended Hollywood awards ceremonies and watched couture-clad A-listers walk the red carpet, but I have never seen anyone look as glamorous as Arti Kumari on the day of her wedding in Bihar, India.
For the final ceremony of the multiday celebrations, Arti wore a full velvet skirt covered in golden embroidery, matched to the gossamer red veil over her head. Heavy gold jewelry encircled her neck and wrists and dangled from her nose and earlobes, so that every movement created a tinkling rustle of metal against metal.
On that hot day in May in Arti’s village, I was 11 months into a reporting project with Emily Schmall and Shalini Venugopal Bhagat, my colleagues from The New York Times’s South Asia bureau. Until that point, we had assumed that we were going to be writing a fairly traditional article about one of the most pressing questions facing India: What was keeping Indian women out of the workplace? It was a pattern that not only trapped many women in poverty and abusive relationships, but also limited the country’s economic growth.
We had been following Arti and another young woman, Nasreen Parveen, hoping to use their lives to bring statistics and expert analysis to life. We wanted to show our readers what the macro trends for female employment looked like in real women’s lives. But as I stood in the crowd of wedding guests, watching Arti and her new husband, Rohit, on a flower-bedecked platform, a doubt was already starting to gnaw at me.
The material we had gathered was fascinating and profoundly illuminating. But it simply wasn’t suited to the structure of a typical news story or a column for The Interpreter, the Times newsletter that I write every week.
As I organized my growing file of notes, the story began to remind me of a podcast or television miniseries: The drama lay not in one event, but in how the women confronted a series of obstacles. And that mirrored the reality of what was keeping Indian women out of the work force — not one single barrier but a series of them, reinforcing one another.
That kind of episodic drama wasn’t a good fit for a single article, which would need to be short and focused. And we didn’t have enough audio material to make the story work as a podcast. But I realized that there could be another way to do podcast-style episodic storytelling by taking advantage of a platform that The Times has embraced in recent years: email newsletters.
The Interpreter newsletter has a large and loyal audience. And it reaches subscribers directly. What if, I asked Emily and Shalini, we turned this project into an email series?
It would be an experiment: Although podcasts like “Serial” had shown that there was appetite for this kind of story in audio form, The Times hadn’t done anything like it via newsletter before. But I was pretty sure that the Interpreter audience would appreciate the new form. And it would give us a chance to let the story breathe.
Emily and Shalini agreed, and our editors signed off on a six-chapter “written podcast.”
Over the following months, we continued our reporting. Arti began her marriage, experienced triumph and disappointment in her search for a job, and became pregnant. Nasreen made plans to open a fashion boutique, persuaded her parents to agree to let her marry the man she chose and coped with tragedy when a fire tore through her family’s home.
Emily and Shalini, both based in India, made multiple reporting trips to visit both women and their families. From my home in London, I hunted down explanatory context for the young women’s struggles the same way that I do when reporting on events like wars and corruption scandals, calling scholars to ask for statistics and analysis. Slowly, the series took shape.
We wrote. And rewrote. And rewrote again. Even though the series as a whole was long, space felt tight. Every chapter of about 1,400 words needed to move the story forward, offer context for readers who had never been to India and end on enough of a cliffhanger that they would come back for the next installment.
Many drafts later, we had our series: India’s Daughters.
But as the publication date for our first entry approached, I felt a heavy weight of responsibility. Several colleagues had warned me that they didn’t think readers would tune in for six chapters of any story, much less one about two unknown young women.
What if they were right? Sure, Arti and Nasreen were compelling characters. And the question of women’s employment in India is important. But there was no news hook.
Happily, Times readers proved the skeptics wrong. Thousands of readers became deeply invested in the two women’s stories, and hundreds sent me emails, sharing how much they liked the series. Many begged for spoilers, saying that the suspense was killing them. Some wrote that the series had taught them about a part of the world they knew little about. Others had lived or spent time in India, and told us that they were gratified to see their reality reflected in the series. Our gamble had paid off.
Arti and Nasreen’s stories aren’t over, even though our series is. No one can say what will happen to them, or to India’s millions of other daughters, in the years to come. But their fight for the future they demand, and the parallel struggles of millions of other young women like them, will continue to shape the world’s most populous country.