being brown

Posts tagged “journalism

Two pieces of great writing

Recently, in a span of a week, I read two articles that to me meant all that writing is supposed to mean. The first was Vinod K. Jose’s analytical look at Narendra Modi in The Emperor Uncrowned. And the second was K.P.Sasi’s reflections on his father, a veteran Marxist, and the journey of Marxism in the country in K.Damodaran: An Unfinished Chapter. The subjects themselves are very different. While the former is written by a journalist about a controversial ( fascist) but extremely successful politician, the latter is a more heartfelt critical reflection by a left-leaning film maker about his father and the politics of his time. Both articles, however, raise two all important and all-consuming contemporary questions ‘ For whom, this Development?” and “ is there anything in the world that can excuse mass killings- ever?” Enough about the content of the articles; I will let you read the articles yourself to determine their merits.

However, what really makes me sit up with both these articles is that, they embody the best things in writing. K.P. Sasi’s article is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgia-ridden eulogy. Not only is it looking at the father with a critical eye, it makes parallel critical observations about communism in Kerela, India, the USSR and the world in general, making that subtle but significant link between the personal and the political. Along the way, he also makes important observations about the current state of organised Marxism in India- what is, essentially, an outsiders view of a movement in which he is well enough invested ideologically, to have reasonably high expectations. What is beautiful is that he uses Marxism as an analytical tool to scrutinize the movement and its personalities!

Vinod K Jose’s article is laboriously researched. It makes all the right linkages and demonstrates journalism at its best. Complexities of life and personality gives perspective to a man who is, for the most part, known either as ‘the best thing that happened to Gujarat’ or as a ‘mass murderer’.

Finally, contrary to contemporary aesthetics of web writing, both articles are long. I am a slow reader and I took almost half an hour to read each. So this is where I will have to disagree with contemporary internet aesthetics and say this- some subjects cannot be written about in bite-sized pieces.

Now, I urge all of you to read these articles. If you have time for only one, do read the K P Sasi article! And tell me if it didn’t move you.


When Sedition became Sexy

Arundhati Roy had a case of sedition filed against her. She is a sexy woman but that didn’t make sedition sexy. It just made the government look silly. Binayak sen, though, was charged with sedition and waging war against the Indian state; he was committed to life in prison for the same and that made sedition sexy.

Victim of national paranoia

Victim of national paranoia

The equanimity with which some people are taking this horrific tale of injustice is mildly unnerving. On Barkha Dutt’s show, We the People, the ‘oh so reasonable’ Swapan Dasgupta, with his impeccable English concedes that even if Sen was guilty of sedition, the penalty is over the top. However, do not lose heart, he says. Because, as another guest points out, the Indian judiciary has a redressal system that is good enough to set wrongs right. Of course, he meant that the case will go on appeal and a higher, saner court will topple this ridiculous ruling. Little regard is given to the fact that the man will, in all probability, lose many years of his life, looking for justice in this remarkable judicial system that has mechanisms of redress. Suffice it to say, the time spent in different courts will amount to his lifetime- the sentence for life is not looking that ridiculous, is it?

Swapan goes on to say, the magistrate has just interpreted the law and there is no need to think that the Chattisgarh court is in some kind of conspiracy with the government to put Binayak Sen in prison. He is trying to remove the political context from the judgment because civil society assumes that context and that’s why it is outraged. But 10-15 minutes in to the discussion, he contradicts himself when he says that the judgment has been taken with a context in mind. The context being that some number of people, police and civilians were killed by the Maoists. Indeed the judge seems to have said something to the effect of how he would normally have been sympathetic had it not been for the larger issue of Maoism. This convenient politicizing and depoliticizing is what makes Swapan the hawk that he is.

Harsh Mander, also on the show, amply illustrates the paranoid context that really is in play in this judgment. He alludes to a POTA-type draconian law that makes the way the evidence has been assessed and evaluated or used questionable. This law is specific to the state. In the commercial break during the Big Fight programme, an ad by the Chatisgadh government was aired. It was an animation advertisement about the terror unleashed by the Naxals and how the Government of Chattisgadh itself is inclined towards ‘jeeney ka haq’ or the ‘right to life’. If it is true that the sessions court judge himself conceded that he might have been more lenient had the situation been ‘normal’, he is himself setting the paranoid tone for the context. His own argument is in line with the Government of Chattisgadh.

This paranoid response of a state, both legislative and judiciary, to an innocent man’s ( forget his service to the less privileged) is eerily reminiscent of that other witch-hunt in another ‘democratic’ country spear headed by McCarthy. And, like in that other case, it just shows the failure of the state.

The Journalist Menace Just got Worse

(Curiously, this isnt about the Raadia tapes or the Wikileaks.)

Nothing, I repeat, nothing spoils my day more than a crappy piece of journalism. And to read one in the newspapers, early in the morning after my walk is even worse. This morning, after my beautiful jog in the park that made me feel on top of the world yet again, I was confronted with this article in the Bangalore Mirror. The Eunuch Menace Just got Worse. The picture was much larger and the elephantine headline seemed to jump of the paper and have a life of its own. Needlesstosay, my day went downhill after that.

The article was about how a cop, a constable, was attacked by two transvestites/ transsexuals and how the police, who were incensed by this travesty were looking for these ‘eunuchs’ in the ‘eunuch’ part of the city.

I come from Bombay, and we have our share of impoverished transsexuals who accost people at traffic signals. Once, one of them spat at me because I did not give her money. But, I have seen them often when not working/begging. I have seen them at the door of the local train, talking loudly about the price of something or the other, gossiping about ‘that one’ and ‘this one’, much like the other women in that compartment and the men in the compartment next door. They beg for a living because society has made it next to impossible for them to live a dignified life. Remember, society is also the one that says that to give charity to transsexuals and to get their blessings is akin to being blessed by god. With such circumstances, the blame for the ‘menace of eunuchs’ can hardly be laid at the door of the eunuchs.

And yet there are those hijras who have come out of the vicious cycle of humiliation, poverty and violence. I am reminded, instantly, of that Tamil show host Rose. She hosts this talk show called Ippadikku Rose and has a dignified and open attitude towards many social issues. And then there is that hijra who was elected as the mayor of a city in Madhya Pradesh. These are wonderful success stories where transsexuals/ transvestites have come to their own despite all odds. And for each of these success stories, there are atleast a hundred more that are constantly trying and hoping.

To title an article “ The eunuch menace just got worse’ and to go on and report one instance of attack is criminal insensitivity of the highest order and shoddy journalism at the least. If two men were to attack me, abuse me and steal from me, I would hardly expect the Bangalore Mirror to write an article entitled “The Menace of Men Just got Worse”.

Halfway through the article, the author says, “As a cop, he has been trained to deal with anti-social elements, but the attack by the eunuchs came as a shocker.” There is an obvious lack of alertness and preparation by the cop. Understandable, he was going home after a long day and did not expect anything untoward to happen. But one wonders why the ‘attack by the eunuchs came as a shocker’. Would he have been better able to deal with an attack from men/women? Would it have come as less of a shocker?

The writer continues, “Humiliated at one of their colleagues from the state police headquarters falling prey to eunuchs, the Kamakshipalya cops launched a major search operation to track down the offenders.” Why this sudden humiliation at being attacked by eunuchs? What is it about attacks by men that doesn’t hurt people’s pride. Irrespective of who attacks whom, the police should be humiliated for not bringing attackers to book. Unfortunately, the inability to do ones job doesn’t elicit emotions like humiliation.

Further in the article, it is said “Police inspector N H Ramchandraiah said: “I dispatched a few teams in search of the two hijras. They were sent to Magadi Road and in other areas of Basveshwaranagar where most hijras stay. We are still clueless but hope to nab them soon.” One can only imagine what is going on in these places now. Innocent hijras are probably being rounded up beaten and searched at this moment. Talk about humiliation!

Transvestites/ transsexuals are subjected to humiliation at every step of the way. With greater activism on the sexual minority rights front, one hopes that time will change this aspect of their life.  But this highly insensitive article only goes to show that this time is stretching to the horizon.


Moving Pictures Move

Being unemployed for the last few months has been great for my cinematic education. I have come across three beautiful movies in this time that I would recommend to everybody around me. They are: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and District 9.

Movie: Before Sunrise

Director: Richard Linklater

Year of Release: 1995

Before Sunrise is a love story. And it’s about love at first sight. Now before you dismiss it as some kind of run of the mill romantic comedy, let me explain. It is about an American guy (in his early 20s) who meets a French girl (also in her early 20s) on a train to Vienna. They impulsively decide to spend a day and night together exploring Vienna and exploring each other. The next day they part ways, the girl goes to Paris and the guy goes back to America. The movie is about the meeting and the exploring. Each time they speak it seems they are tentatively and hesitatingly digging deeper into each other. All at once you see confusion, excitement, curiosity, embarrassment, longing, love, desire, lust, intrigue and the all important need to define where next this relationship is headed. At last, when night arrives all these emotions are manifested in their conversation about whether or not to have sex. Should we do it? Perhaps not? Would it spoil this wonderful thing we have had all day? And yet, they seem to enjoy even this discussion of the possibility of having sex. Their comfort with each other is so complete. In the end, they realize they cannot really bid goodbye to each other and decide to meet again in the railway station at Vienna after 6 months. Obviously, we don’t know if they do.

Movie: Before Sunset

Director: Richard Linklater

Year of Release: 2005

Before Sunset is a sequel. It is set ten years on (quite literally with the same actors), when the characters are in their early 30s. They have both changed considerably. The guy who was a struggling writer in the first movie has actually published a book and as part of its promotion has been touring Europe. He meets the girl in Paris. The girl is working for an environmental organization. They hit it off once again. Obviously, someone stood someone else up 6 months after their first meeting. But that is cleared up fairly early in the movie. A very interesting and engaging repartee follows between them as they discuss politics, love, sex, work, marriage, children etc throughout the movie. There is less embarrassment and confusion. They are very different people now, but their changed selves are falling in love all over again. The audience now wants to know if this is going to be another transitory meeting like the earlier meeting or if it is the beginning of something more lasting.

Movie: District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Year of Release: 2009

In contrast, the third movie, District 9, literally takes the heart out of your lung cage, plays ball with it, slaps it around, gives it a shake, irons it out, puts it through the shredder, stamps on it, and then, still beating, albeit faintly, puts it back in your lung cage. Admittedly this movie requires a mood, the mood to think and the mood to be bombarded with the realities of the world. If you have read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, this is very much like that. The story, set in South Africa, revolves around a man, an officer in the administration, who is given the job of clearing out an alien settlement, District 9, because they are ‘illegal’ immigrants and have created a lot of resentment among the locals.  The movie starts out like a political documentary with sociology experts and the like giving their piece of wisdom to the camera. And quite early on you are introduced to the protagonist. The character has a comic clumsy side to him and the start is rather lighthearted, very deceptive of what is to come. In time, the protagonist comes in contact with some fluid that changes a human in to a ‘prawn’ which is the derogatory term for the aliens. Attitudes of people everywhere changes towards him. Why? His own attitudes towards the prawns, the people, his wife, and the Nigerian arms trading gangs are changing completely.

The one unnecessary element was perhaps the segment about the Nigerian arms trading gangsters. And ofcourse too much blood and gore for my liking. I firmly believe in the strength of a subtly crafted message. But I also realize it’s the times we live in; the more blood and gore the more candid the picture is perceived to be.

This is social satire and political allegory of the toughest, most hard-hitting kind. Interestingly, when I googled the movie, most reviews seemed to consider it in the category of sci-fi and evaluate it on that score. However, except for the alien bit, I think it has very little sci-fi and lots more of social commentary.

Be sure to catch these when you can. They are classics.

A for Ayodhya, B for Barkha

The day the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya is fairly well etched in my memory. I was about 9, and had woken up to go to school, as usual. I went up to my mother in the kitchen to take my daily dose of milk and to leisurely drink it sitting content on my father’s lap in the hall as he perused the newspaper. But not this day. My mother told me not to go anywhere near my father. She said a masjid had been demolished in Ayodhya and that my father was upset about it and that he was in a rather foul mood. She added that I should be a good girl and do my chores quietly and not make her raise her voice cause that might irk him. I think the last bit was just a ploy to make me behave just this once.

My father was, in general, a mild man. And this state of affairs was quite a novelty in our house. He seldom got angry, though when he did, about once or twice a year, we would all shudder to his bellowing voice. Moreover, his temper hardly lasted a few minutes. But whatever it was that was demolished in Ayodhya left our family with a brooding, unhappy man.

Thus began my political education, quite literally at my father’s knee. That cold winter’s day in Chennai, far away from the sight of the demolition, formed a milestone in my personal life.

Tomorow, the Allahabad High Court decides on the 60 year old title suit in the Ram janma bhoomi – Babri Masjid case. But I am not going to dwell on either the verdict or the controversy. Instead, I am going to talk about a talk show host.

Barkha Dutt, that omniscient journalist of the NDTV, had a program this Sunday on Ayodhya. We The People aired Ayodhya Verdict: Time for Closure? Now, I am not a fan of this talk show or its host. In fact, quite the contrary. But then there is such a dearth of good English talk shows in India, I scout around for one and always seem to end up on this one, not least because Barkha is a skillful wielder of the English language. More importantly, she has some interesting people, some powerful people, some people who can make a difference and some who are just plain stupid on her show and that’s good enough entertainment.

She is politically biased, but then so is every other journalist and that is not an issue. But I think her journalism itself is skewed. So below is a list of my grouses against her from just the one programme on Ayodhya

  1. Towards the beginning of her programme on the Ayodhya Verdict, she asks meaningfully, “ Will there be an appeal in the Supreme Court when the verdict is out or will this become a political issue?” She asks as if one is exclusive of the other.
  2. “The basic question is will all parties accept whatever the high court says?” No, that isn’t, even remotely, the basic question. The basic question could be one of the following, “ What kind of verdict would mean closure or justice to either party?” or “What are the implications of a certain verdict to either party?”
  3. “Is it a bad thing to put an issue like this in the judicial slow cooker?”, “ I don’t Know if anyone is in a hurry to have this matter dealt with” – both rather presumptuous observations. Obviously, there are people to which this is a matter of great significance because there wouldn’t be a much awaited verdict nor a We The People on it, otherwise!
  4. “With such reasonableness around the table, is it fair to say we have moved on”, “Good sense cannot be counted on when it comes to matters of faith”- both implying a certain polarity between rationality and faith that is definitely up for debate. And more importantly, with respect to the particular kind of response she has categorized as rational or reasonable; does it really merit that tag?
  5. “Can a court decide what archaeologists, believers, non-believers, secularists etc have not been able to decide on…can three judges decide this?” Quite obviously, not! The Court is deciding a title deal and its verdict will be within the framework of the Constitution and law of the Indian State. Of course, there was a little uproar at this, but we don’t hear the specifics of peoples objections as their mics are deactivated and we hear only Barkha plaintively screech “No honestly, that’s the question”….seriously, plaintive screeching isn’t cute.
  6. ‘Paraphrasing’ the arguments at one point she says, “…we have spoken about it the way we talk about it now. What does that tell us? Does it tell us that institutional memory fades? Does that tell us that religious polarizations have a shelf life? Or does it tell us that in a sense different things are important to us now?” The three questions give a sense that she has explored the very breadth of possibilities, when actually they all mean the same thing. She is referring to the reasonableness or rationality when she speaks about the way we talk about it now. And she says, “At what point in the lifecycle of a controversy does it run out of its own life force?” Those first three questions were set up to lead to this. Because, all of them implicitly assumed that every controversy had a lifecycle
  7. ‘Paraphrasing’ the arguments at another point she says, “The constitution is above faith and religion should be kept out of politics. All these are idealized paradigms. We live in an India that’s messy, where religion overlaps with culture to the extent that it becomes non-distinct, those lines.” Ok! Again assumptions galore. So what exactly makes religion and faith messy? Whose fault is it if your rational and reasonable law isn’t in tune with your religion and faith? The problem with creating this polarisation is that it assumes everything to do with religion and faith is irrational and not compatible with democracy or the law. Of what use is that kind of democracy or law to a people whose religion forms a major part of their identity? Admittedly, these are rather philosophical issues that are beyond the scope of this debate, but it is possible to steer clear from these issues and still have a debate on what the verdict implies.
  8. And then we come back to “Can the court adjudicate in matters of faith? Because faith after all is not a rational thing”, Poor Soli says time and again, the court is adjudicating on a title suit; he is even forced to fall back on hindi when he says, “faith ki bath kahan sey aagayi” But to no avail, Barkha labours on.

Seriously, someone needs to deactivate her microphone!