Monday, May 31, 2010

The sound, fury and music of new age journalism

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post,
Issue 112 Vol IV, May 31, 2010

EVER since the 19 month long dark epoch of Emergency in June 1975 - January 1977 - infamous for the curbs on freedom of press - the media in India has been in a heady spin evolving itself in embracing new challenges in the professional and technological domains of globalization. The last two decades of India's tryst with liberalisation and economic reforms have witnessed the fastest growth of institutions of mass communications and journalism. A large corps of well groomed and 'brave hearted' journalists have been scripting their own concerns and core issues perceived to be affecting the lives of a billion plus people of India, a vast majority in their own age group. It is precisely with these thoughts that I chose to write about Annie Zaidi's maiden book, titled in the youth lingo, 'Known Turf'.

It was a timely phone call from Hyderabad that enabled me to attend the function of the release of the book on 23rd of April by Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, the freshly nominated member of Rajya Sabha, with a well deserved reputation for his incisive and hit-it-hard views on issue of socio-economic development and secular polity. The venue, a classroom size conference hall in the Annexe of India International Centre, mostly frequented by the retired 'Big Babus', was, for a refreshing change, overflowing with young people attired in all their carefree variety. Sh. MS Aiyar, dressed in trade mark kurta-payjama, graciously apologised for being twenty minutes late, making a reference to the mention in the book (at Page 267) how the long waiting ladies had admonished him in political rally in Dehradun. He told the audience how he had to agree to meet the persistent author of the book on the suggestion of Mr. P Sainath, the well known columnist on the rural scene in India. He further said that his long conversation with the author about the brave new themes and then the reading of the book convinced him to release the book. He read a couple of passages and the engaged in conversation with the author to the immense delight of the audience. The deep sensitivity and sparkling sincerity of the author towards the people and their issues dealt in the book enlivened the evening filled more with literary than hard core journalistic air about it.

Coming to the book, subtitled 'Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales', published by Tranquebar Press, 280 page, paperback, is, according to the author, "a collection of essays, drawing upon research, travel and personal history." The book indeed opens with the 32 page chapter about author's trip to 'daaku land' -the Chambal Valey - when travelling by Shtabadi to Gwalior in Oct 2004 in the wake of massacre by the Gadariya gang, she discovers that Phoolan Devi - the legendary ex-bandit 'queen' turned member of Parliament was also travelling by the same train. There are sensitive portrayals of the people of the bad land, invoking parallels with the Bollywood films and references to historical records. To quote the author,
"Finally, I think in our national imagination, the life of Chambal daaku may be forfeit, but it is life that serves as a testament to the oppression people once suffered, before somebody stood up and said, enough!"

The net section with two chapters describes demanding dimensions of travelling and staying for a female reporter in the 'rural heart-land' of India,
"I had not eaten all day and dared not get down at the station to buy food ... it was the first time in my life that I could not sleep because of hunger."

The third section with seven chapters contains respectively the touching accounts of malnutrition among children in Madhya Pradesh,
"I usually do not touch babies...I should not have picked her up. It is hard to forget the sight of baby eyes that don't look into your own .. I should not have held her, for I remember now that she weighed less than my hand bag ... Quickly, I handed her over to her mother and fled. Fled, from the baby who weighed less than my handbag."

Then the author navigates the reader into issues of death due to starvation, displacement of people in the wake of big dams. The picture of dying weavers of silk saris in Benaras tells it all,
"The Benaras trip was a difficult one ... it was here that I discovered one of the most awful things about being a reporter: watching grown men and women break down."

The deeper motivation for my sharing this book for the readers of South Asia Post pertains to Sections IV and V - from pages 91 to 161, which touch upon fractured body and tortured soul of Punjab as viewed and examined by an open minded journalist who makes an enigmatic understatement,
"There is a bit of Punjab in my blood, although I don't speak the language ... dancing to a series of Bhangra and Gidda numbers in school ... from movies, from songs and legend...Sikhism...Excitable tempers. Money. Rivers of milk. Lassi...voice came out garbled and, until work forced me to, I hadn't felt any desire to try and decipher it."

Then follows the true tale of Bant Singh ,"who was in hospital (PGI, Chandigarh) minus three limbs because he wanted his daughter's rapists to go to jail." The author met him in the trauma ward of the PGI and noted,
"At the end of the day, having filed my story and putting my notes aside, I had written a diary entry ... 'How does one react...look at the bandages ... Or do you look away, into his eyes? ... talk of the incident in detail ... leave as soon as you have the information you need because ...because what can one say any way?... And what do you do when a man minus three limbs in a government hospital's trauma ward begins to sing?"

The author is told by Dr Promod Kumar, director of Institute of Development and Communication that, "Bant singh case was actually part of a longer, more subtle resurgence of Dalits.' The author quotes social scientists,
"Punjab had class and religious conflict.The next big thing was pipped to be caste conflict..the state has one of the highest proportions of Dalit population: about 28.3 per cent (but own less than 2.3 per cent of land) ... in 1991,the scheduled castes accounted for 52% of the state's poverty statstics, more than a decade later, this had gone up to 62 percent (page 99) ..."

The essay titled, 'I'm Getting Out' is an anecdotal account of the youth of Punjab for their 'foreign land' craze. They don't mind adopting any method in pursuit of their 'dream', never mind cheating by agents. The young women are not behind - they become victims, in words of author, of 'marriage method.' BS Ramuwalia is quoted, "It is big business...racket is worth at least Rs 10,000 crores." The chapter titled, 'Prone to Bonding' narrates tales of bonded labourers in the neighborhood of Ludhiana kept by the landlords for petty loans. According to Dr Manjit Singh, a Sociologist, 58% of Dalit households were caught in debt traps, 'families had worked without any wages for as long as twenty years.' In contrast is narrated the tale of blatant loot of Rs 286 crore (Page 115) by Panjab's 'political who is who' invoking waiver of loans of the Panjab State Industrial Development Corporation (PSIDC),
"Here were people who went about in fancy cars ... It wasn't that they could not repay their debts. They just wouldn't. Yet, their houses weren't locked up and they did not have to go looking for community land so they could relieve themseves."

The realm of faith and religion is analysed with a rare detachment and depth in the three chapters of the section V of the book. The author explains how,
"Sufism caught at my soul the way no mainstream religion ever had ... essence of Sufism was an open door policy and a witty, defiant attitude to people who try to gain monopolies on redemtion and divinity ... The first serenade was poetic. Kabir ... Mira Bai ... Bulle Shah ... Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's voice ... Rabbi's, 'Bulla ki jaana main kaun? - I do not know who I am ..."

The growing popularity of Sufi tradition, particularly among the Dalits has been substantiated with reference to the author's discussions with a variety of sources including veteran revolutionary Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga. The chapter 'The Influential Truth' provides an informative account of Dera Saha Sauda in Sirsa,
"Watching Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh in action on the day of the jaam-e-insaan ceremony, I had thought this was as close to conversion as one could get, if you didn't want to formally renounce the religion your parents were born into."

The author points out that,
"Personally, I think that people have the right change religion like they change houses..."

The author further observes, quoting Prof. Sewa Singh of Kapurthala,
"The (Sikh) clergy is not worried about small Sufi deras ... The real threat comes from these new deras headed by either Hindus or Sikhs. Their followers are often from oppressed castes and are mostly poor ... orthodox clergy is so worried about appropriation of the symbols of their own identity ... Sacha Sauda chief's name ... Baba Ashutosh's beard! .. Piara Singh Bhaniarawala's Bhavsagar Granth ..."
The two essays in VI section with headings 'What Do You Fear?' and 'Something that Passes for Honest' contain the author's soul searching reflections on the tradition of 'devotion and openness' in the family of her mother. She expresses her deeply touching perceptions of shrinking spaces of values of accommodation, compassion and decency in the paradox of 'divisions' and 'consumerism' driven emerging society of India, asking, "question of 'what' in religious or caste terms." She makes a poignant confession,
"A lot of it has to do with being a Muslim, of course. I doubt I'd have resented the question so much if I hadn't felt defensive, if it hadn't made apparent to me that being a Muslim was not such good thing..."

The author describes, in touching poetic details, how her maternal grandfather passed away on 6 December 2004, the day of "the demolition of the Babri Mosque," eighteen years ago. One of the last literary tasks Padam Shri Ali Jawad Zaidi was engaged in, in spite of having lost his eye sight in later years, was the painstaking editing of the various original editions of Ramayana in Urdu, by Muslim and Hindu writers! The picture of maternal grandmother, a pious Syed Muslim and professed vegetarian too, also comes vividly alive. In the wake of Gujarat riots, the author posed herself the heartbreaking question, 'whether I belonged here, in this country.' The answer was provided by her weather wisened woman friend who calmly pointed out that,
"perhaps I should think about where else I could belong ... I thought about it and came to the conclusion that there was nowhere else ... A motherland ... like your own mother ... cannot backtrack on the option of being your mother..."

The last section of the book takes the reader back to plight of Bant Singh and his raped daughter, Baljit Kaur and enlarges the issue as a nation wide curse where, "as a woman, it is easy to become a victim." The gruesome tales of female foeticide are even sought to be explained by a well-to-do gentleman from Haryana as, "People have a right to make a choice." The author digs deeper into the cultural notion that
"you must give up a daughter completely, retain no claim upon her, economically or emotionally ... the boy brings home the bread ... a bride who will provide other services ... The girl is a drain on resources ... And people in India will go on saying that investing in the girl is like watering the neighbour's garden"

The author further points out that,
"there is more behind foeticide than women not being around for their parents. And much of that is rooted in 'culture'...So,though parents resent having to bring up a child only to lose her, they are also anxious to let their girls go..."

The chapter 'The Top One Per cent' analyses complex issues of the marital and family kind for the well educated, professional and independent minded women of the 21st century India. The essay 'Real Power' puts forward interesting explanations why women don't receive the just remunerations for their work and how the example of the ban in Maharashtra on dancing in bars, "did not recognise their right to use their bodies and their skills to their own advantage." The chapter 'Too Much Interest' strikes a few hopeful notes in women empowerment citing instances in Uttarakhand. The last essay 'And So It Goes On' conducts, as if an open heart surgery operation of the victims, with the author putting herself on the operation table for surgeon-readers. The most shameful affliction of Indian male, is euphemistically called 'eve teasing'. She makes a sad confession,
"over the years, I learnt that that harassment on the streets is inevitable ... Each time I left the house, an invisible snake of suspicion came winding down from shoulder to back and I stiffened with apprehension."

She concludes saying,
"Now, I find myself forced to acknowledge that it might remain a way of life; that I will never be able to relax in a bus or train or street or park ... I also saw what I had to do ... Keep confronting ... Don't let the fear take over."

I can say that going through Known Turf has been a very revealingly enlightening experience for me in terms of 'a dialogue of generations.' I was indeed so uniquely privileged to have discourses on the eternal and currently passing problems of humanity with the author's poet-prophet grandfather in Iran on the eve of Islamic Revolution. The author, with her maiden book and still shy look, has invited comparison among others with Arundhati Roy - I would like her to be linked to the lineage of Qurratulan Haidar also, the narrator of epic tales spanning civilizations, combining her professionalism of a 21st century journalist and a proud hertage of visionary poets from the sacred soil of her ancestors from Azamgarh and Allahabad. How strange that during her travels in Panjab, "Saadi Annie ...intelligent kurhi (Page87)" mostly interacted with the persons whom I had also 'discovered' around the same time after my return from duties across the globe for more than three decades!