Print For All Seasons

For people who take cognizance of the world only through print.

A few paces from my room (house or home would be a misnomer) there is a small tea stall. It is run by Kailash, who is in his mid-50s and we both are Non-Resident Biharis (NRB) in the capital of the country (I am hesitant to call it a nation). The tea stall is basic in what it stores in three plastic containers – three types of biscuits from a local bakery. In what he serves, Kailash is cynically philosophical – kaam chalau time-pass chai (functional time pass tea). His stall is frequented by students (mostly Civil Services aspirants), auto rickshaw drivers and some construction workers. Kailash has known me for eight years and is sympathetic to me because he thinks I am struggling with unemployment. His idea of employment is a government job and he also doesn’t see me doing anything. On the only bench in his stall, you can find two newspapers – The Hindu and Dainik Bhaskar. The purpose is to give customers some add-ons in his humble set up, get some return value by selling them to the kabaddiwallah (junk dealer) and of course, Kailash also tests his Class Seven literacy on the Hindi paper (Dainik Bhaskar).

But there is a problem with his choice of newspapers. He has chosen them to suit only one segment of his customers, the Civil Services aspirants. He was missing something which is a regular fixture in the tea stalls, hair-cutting saloons, and other addas of Delhi’s downmarket localities. Kailash had not subscribed to Punjab Kesari. Recently he told me that on the demand of the auto rickshaw drivers who come to his shop, he had decided to add that paper to his ‘bench strength’. Most of these auto rickshaw drivers have access to cable television and watch city-centric news channels too. So here is a lesson from the lowest rung of media consumers in a Metro city which has a plethora of city-centric news channels – the print medium still holds.

 It’s not unusual to hear these auto rickshaw drivers chatting among themselves with the clinching information – Aisa hai ki CNG ke liye lambi line lagne wali hai, Punjab Kesari nahi padha kya? (There’s going to be a long line for CNG, haven’t you read it in Punjabi Kesari?) Hard to imagine them saying the same thing with the tail – Dilli Aaj Tak Mein Nahi Dekha Kya? (Haven’t you seen this on Dilli Aaj Tak?) There is a credibility (even sanctity) associated with the printed word which is entrenched in the literate imagination of this country, more so in the educated imagination.

There could be a number of explanations for this. Before explanations there is an argument that television and print are not mutually exclusive to media consumers, who see these merely as different avenues through which to receive news and views. The argument implies that the question is not of credibility, but of diversity. So any attempt at juxtaposition is viewed as far-fetched. Other arguments could be flexible reading, revisit value, handy mobility and other utilitarian advantages which papers offer. These arguments, like all arguments, are valid. But like all arguments, these are limited too. They don’t take note of some obvious elements in the popular imagination of television news space vis-à-vis print.

Interestingly, the credibility quotient of print media may have nothing to do with the news you watch on your television sets.  It has a raison d’ être of its own and might have something to do which what C Wright Mills would have loved to call the ‘sociological imagination’. There is something fundamental in the appeal of the printed word and it rings true for news media.  In the context of the emerging social configuration of print consumers, the appeal of the printed word could be broadly located in two groups.

The appeal that it is written and I can read it: The pull of newspapers as primary media has also been shaped by a huge group of literate media consumers that has emerged over the last few decades. Neo-literates have an unusual sense of fulfillment of knowing the world through the printed word, or you may call it ‘reading the world’. They see it as an instant incentive of their accomplishment with letters. This has led to a fresh wave of newspaper reading in the country as the literacy rates have climbed up in recent times. Robin Jeffrey has insightfully articulated and statistically analysed this phenomenon in his seminal work, India’s Newspaper Revolution (2000). One thing more, even for school drop-outs, the charm of the printed word rests in their efforts to test their literacy on printed pages (Kailash flaunts his literacy as he reads the paper aloud to his illiterate migrant friends).

The appeal that it informs, enlightens and lets me reflect on the news. For the educated, newspapers both continue to be the daily arbiter of discourse as they have the uninterrupted space for public intellectuals to articulate their views, and they give space for relaxed reflection that the frenzy of pugilistic television discussions and debates can’t. Obviously, the wide range of news coverage and possibility of consuming the opinion space through engaging writing has an appeal of its own. Thankfully, some eminent faces of Indian intelligentsia are still not talking heads in the cacophony of the idiot box (Pratap Bhanu Mehta is an honorable example).

But what is even more fundamental to the credibility of print is rooted in the cultural texture and the historical narrative. The instant respect for anything written, springs from the cultural conditioning in the country to show reverence for recording intellect through letters. The credible printed universe is somehow premised on the traditions of respecting things related to reading and writing. In a very vague sense, this implies anything related to skills that one acquires through the conventional rigours of education. This is juxtaposed against the visual imageries of television news, which at the end of the day fades as being merely a show. Unfortunately, the trivialisation and dramatisation of news on television has done nothing to dispel such stereotypes. In fact, news shows on your television sets have only reinforced such entrenched ideas in popular imagination.

There is something about how history has posited newspapers. Generations have grown viewing newspapers as recorded public space, and the imagination of the ‘public’ still has the notion of chhapp gaya  (has been published). Contrasting Andy Warhol’s warning about thirty seconds of fame in visual media, newspapers had a deepening presence in public imagination and to be noticed meant to be published. The intermingled evolution of   public recognition and newspapers in colonial times was beautifully narrated by Munshi Premchand in his short story Akhbaar Me Naam. Somehow the charm of recording the times through the printed permanence of tangible newsprint has persisted.

The techno-revolutions of our times are supposed to have made a paradigm shift in the information space with television and internet. However, history does not subscribe to such sweeping rhetorics of change. In an article, How Luther Went Viral published in The Economist, (December 17, 2011), Robert Darnton, a historian at Harvard University (who has specialised in the history of information sharing), has been quoted as saying, “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past – even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet.” The history and the present of newspapers stand as testimony to his argument.

Kailash spends his afternoons which are the low business hours for the stall, reading his Hindi daily. He has many issues with the reporting in the paper and shares them with me sometimes. I agree with him and tell him that there are many problems with the content of English dailies too. But then he philosophically sums up, ‘Phir bhi jo hai, yehi hai, padhna to hai hi.’ (This is what it is, have to read it). Perhaps he hinted at one more reason for the hold of print – reading newspapers as a habit, even an addiction. Last heard, he is getting Punjab Kesari at his stall and auto drivers are spending more time there. Are they ordering more tea too? Don’t know.

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