Sapna Bhatia (MA International Journalism, 2005) – the storyteller with a difference

When an experienced radio and TV journalist with 20 years in the industry has the brainwave of setting up a responsible botanical retreat in her native India employing the underprivileged, a new story has to be told.  Sapna Bhatia recounts tough beginnings and how she is helping others overcome theirs. Sapna Bhatia

You were challenged from day one to reach your current position.

I come from a very conservative family in Rajasthan and had an upbringing where finding a husband was considered a greater priority for a woman than an education. I was told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t step outside the small town where I was from. I lived on this remote farm and, if I remember rightly, took a train for the first time at the age of 24!  Studying was eventually tolerated but getting married was still supposed to be my main goal…

Tell us about the journey that brought you to City.

Radio was my first start, working for a government station. I still remember the first salary I got. It was like walking on Cloud Nine! It was once I became more comfortable in English that I caught the writing bug. After I got married, I moved to Delhi and started working in the media, and then told my husband that it had been my dream to study abroad and be in an environment where I could learn. After 10 years of marriage and in my mid-30s, I went to City to study broadcast journalism, with prior experience as a presenter and correspondent in India under my belt. It was so liberating because I had grown up within this patriarchal, hierarchical system and going to City just opened my eyes. I had no fear of raising questions in so safe and constructive a student environment.

How did you find the learning curve?

We had to unlearn what we had learned in India and then embrace the importance of systems. For example, I never knew that you write three words per second or that there’s a different way to write a script for the cutaways or even the editing and how we should be systematic. When I went back to India after graduating, I had to work with and train people. I had always had a passion for journalism and now had to combine that with the inquisitive, critical mindset nurtured by my time at City. Upon my return to India, I set up TV News International, where I still work today alongside my more recent Kaner Retreat project.

Kaner Retreat1How did you build up your impressive track record in journalism?

I was in international journalism in the broadcast division, so most of us had similar experience. However, the MA in International Journalism from City definitely helped create opportunities. I worked with CNBC Europe, for APTN and Al Jazeera English. I did lots of South Asian programming. I interviewed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto two days before she was assassinated. None of these opportunities would have come about if I had not gone to City. It was a major turning point in my life and career. To this day, I continue to produce international content for international broadcasters, so storytelling remains a fundamental part of what I do.

How would you define the work of a journalist?

70% is your research. If you don’t know the stories, you won’t be asking the right questions to use storytelling effectively to reach customer. If you don’t know anything behind what’s going on, read between the lines.  More specifically in the case of India, things were a little different when I was working in television. In the 90s, we had the explosion of satellite TV, so people with little broadcast training moved from print into TV. It was firefighting every day, but storytelling remained the conduit.

How and why did your Kaner Retreat project come about?

I’d say one of the initial motivations was to offer people the opportunity to completely disconnect, literally retreat, and offer themselves some luxury downtime. However, I wanted to make sure the commercial, “boutique” side to the venture was balanced with certain social commitments. In short, I have gone to particular lengths to employ local people whose dreams up to that point have been dashed – women who do not enjoy the same job opportunities as men, the unemployed, young people who dropped out of school and were going to end up doing very menial jobs. I also insist on responsible tourism and respect for the environment.

Kaner Retreat2Did you have to overcome any obstacles to the project?

COVID meant we had to do a soft launch to begin with. However, the main challenges I faced were to do with attitudes from people. When I first met the head of the village where the retreat is now based, he asked me where my husband was – he was not accustomed to seeing women work and wanted to go via him. My response? “You’ll have to deal with me!” Some of my staff have had difficulty looking me in the eyes when we’re working together. They mean it as respect, but I insisted on them looking at me, on the same level. When I was running the training in the early days, they would not even sit in front of me nor on the chairs. Running the retreat in this small feudal place is still a battle but one that I hope will inspire. The other challenge I’ve had to face is being considered a misfit, due to my lack of a hospitality background. I tackle this by ensuring the local community is as actively involved as possible and that everything is done with a view to conserving the natural surroundings and resources.

The retreat has recently featured in a book of forty of the world’s most unique desert properties.

A friend at City told me that somebody was writing a book called “Desert Escapes” focusing on unique concepts. They called me saying they liked the whole botanical concept and that’s the reason that we feature in the publication. We cover the trajectory of desert botany in the experiences we offer people. So it’s kind of an experiential place. If you say “desert botanical resort”, it feels like an oxymoron. My grandmother introduced me to the plants of the desert and the medicinal properties, meaning I saw a lot of life in desert, and then I started going to Kew Gardens and other places. And though there was botanical art, there was nothing on desert botany. So then I commissioned this whole series on desert botany for my retreat and here I am today, juggling this venture with my journalism and loving every minute of it. In all this, I haven’t lost sight of the role my time at City has had to play.