The media couldn’t have had a more comfortable week of controversies - Rushdie, Nandy and Vishwaroopam.
The good news for those suffering from the Salman Rushdie-interviews fatigue inflicted on us by newspapers, news channels and websites, is that in the week ahead you can hope for a change of frames – not sure if that brings any relief. Although a four-hour press conference followed by a press release for all media houses would have been in sync with the narcissistic flourishes evident in his memoir Joseph Anton, television channels, newspapers and Deepa Mehta would have missed sure shot air-time/column-inch grabbing stuff. With Midnight’s Children having arrived on multiplex screens, just hope that the promotion blitz for a rather mediocre cinematic effort comes to a halt, at least in the dailies you read and the news channels you watch.
Rushdie was one of the few frames which defined English news media’s centrestage last week, and in the way both mainstream and social media stand today, the frames are now not meant to fade away gently; they have to be “actively deleted” from public consumption space, the “unfollow” tab has to be tapped. Didn’t Charlie Brooker‘s recent piece in The Guardian identify “active deletion” as one of the two ways in which personalities/events would now be ejected from individual and public consumption, as he contextualised a possibility which Justin Bieber might face? The other possibility which Brooker talks about is, of course, the cult following of messianic proportions: “He makes billion more dollars, gains another 70 million followers, he designs uniforms for them and teaches them anthems. Gradually they seize control of the towns and cities”. Brooker sums up quite starkly: “I’m sorry. But those are the only two possible outcomes.”
They might not be the only two. History plays on a far more fertile ground of possibilities (and try finding a more cogent articulation of the possibilities of time than Karl Popper’s seminal work The Poverty of Historicism). However, making of a polarising rockstar of letters fits neatly into what writer Jeet Thayil would call “book journalism” in India. It’s a space populated by people who have to wear their “literary” inclinations once-a-year at events such as Jaipur Literature Festival (it’s amusing to see how defensive visitors have been in the pieces centred on the “relevance” of the event and carried by almost all major English dailies) or the arrival of free speech high-priest and the “magical realist” Justin Bieber on a ladykilling spree (Shobhaa De’s Mumbai Mirror column How to be a Chic this Sunday talks about Rushdie – Why women love him).
The writer as a spectacle takes its toll. The writer is reduced to a talking hack, recycling oneself through one’s own patented platitudes. For instance, Rushdie had this “I do not write like that (time when Midnight’s Children waswritten) any more” line for almost all interviews, and of course, this was just an addition to the regular offerings that all interviews ask him to make at the altar of free speech.
Interestingly, Rushdie’s “do not-write-like that-anymore” has not many takers, some have even hinted at the continuity in influences on his writing. If Midnight’s Children had its share of Marquez’s moments of magical realism, was Marquez really missing from Rushdie’s latest work, his memoir Joseph Anton? Perhaps not, if you go by what Manu Joseph observes in his piece Roger Federer in Shanghai (Open, November 17, 2012): “…the famed opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude – ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’. More writers than is evident are infected by the line. For instance, a closer look at the opening sentence of Salman Rushdie’s memoir reveals the source – ‘Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him…he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter…’”
But, the Rushdie frame would have been incomplete without dovetailing it with a liberal space – the state-control subtext. The West Bengal government obliged, the media frame on the Rushdie visit could very well convert the subtext into the leitmotif too.
Another frame was at a four-hour drive from “national” media headquarters. Though not surprising, it is interesting to note that Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) did not find coverage in any one of the major Hindi dailies which command the highest readership figures for Indian newspapers. Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, Hindustan, Amar Ujala, Jansatta and even Jaipur-based Rajasthan Patrika were not inclined to give JLF the column-inches with which English dailies were courting the conclave.
But was any one left with any doubt about what place this supposedly “blue Indian literary meet” had for Hindi writers and poets (or for that matter their counterparts in other Indian languages)? Are random flashes of Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, or an announcement that a Kannada writer U R Ananthamurthy has been shortlisted on the Man Booker International Prize 2013 list, enough to define the “Indian” canvas of an event marketed as India’s literary interface? How many interviews and sessions with non-English writers would be aired on news channels which perceive themselves as national news broadcasters? And more importantly, do we have people in such organisations who can claim to have an understanding of the non-English world of literary engagements? These are some of the questions which can also be explored with some other relevant aspects that I had addressed in my piece Branding Sarswati, published earlier on this site (February 7 ,2012).
For the people who grow book lovers every January, in January, the takeaway has often been a controversy which somehow has a news value with varying degrees for English, Hindi and regional media. Social scientist Ashis Nandy’s remarks provided that moment this time. Ironically, it also provided journalists, who have never read his works and feel challenged by the originality of his insights and analysis, a chance to sound intelligent by presenting the “context” of his remarks. That hides the ugly truth that most journalists are as gullible as their readers and viewers when it comes to interpreting (or misinterpreting) ideas demanding understanding of an intellectual context and originality of perspective.
The third frame, same theme – free speech pitted against state control. The theatre shifts down south to Tamil Nadu, and as the row seems to have ended, hope this week newspapers and channels freezethe Vishwaroopam frame.
In times when we don’t know how the media landscape would evolve with ever-changing contours, there are still some settled patterns of how English media has convenient frames of engagement with some chosen events, developments and personalities. For all its frenzied fuming in defence of liberal space, it could not have asked for a more comfortable week – a rerun of exercising its liberal vocal chords and a revisit to its favourite turf – an event as a spectacle and chasing the personality cult. Hope it has a less comfortable week ahead, less convenient frames to deal with.
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