The tale that the media’s coverage of Bihar’s cycle girl tells
Media

The tale that the media’s coverage of Bihar’s cycle girl tells

Many stories are waiting to be told without asking the victim to pose for her signature frame of suffering. Jyoti Kumari knows it as much as the media does.

By Anand Vardhan

Published on :

It did finally come as if to complete a ritual. The photograph in Patna’s morning papers showed Mohan Paswan, father of Jyoti Kumari, in a lemon yellow t-shirt holding the contract paper for a film on the cycle girl’s story by Vinod Kapri. A representative of the director had visited Sirhulli village in Darbhanga district, Bihar, on May 27 to get the contract signed. They, of course, couldn’t beat the speed at which the Bhojpuri pop industry makes lyrical statements on current developments. Bhojpuri songs in praise of Jyoti’s grit, one even extolling her as the modern-day Shravan Kumar, are already out, and there is even a Hindi song.

Jyoti, 15, pedalled her purple bicycle, her injured father riding pillion, for around 1,200 km from Gurugram in Haryana to her village in Darbhanga.

They have been answering phone calls from across India, and giving interviews to the media, including international outlets like the New York Times and the BBC. High-profile visits to her village continue, sometimes at risk to their health and safety. On May 27, for instance, Madan Sahni, Bihar’s food and consumer protection minister, visited her village with a huge crowd that showed scant regard for social distancing norms. Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan has demanded a national award for Jyoti while the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav has offered to bear the cost of her education.

Offers to help her in some way or the other are pouring in from across the country. Closer home, the district administration has got her enrolled in class 9 at the Pindaruch High School again. She had dropped out of school after completing class 8 last year, a decision attributed to the economic hardship of her family. The village ward member Nagendra Pawsan has promptly got a toilet built at her house under a government scheme. Moreover, she has been offered help to pursue careers as diverse as medicine, engineering, administrative services, and sports.

Impressed by her stamina and cycling prowess, the Cycling Federation of India has invited Jyoti for a trial. After initial reluctance, she has expressed willingness to go for the trial even though she says she will prioritise studies. There have been offers of help from public figures as well and even regional filmstars.

Befuddled by so many offers of help, Jyoti’s father told BBC, “I have one girl, how many places can I send her to? All are saying that they would ensure a job and house for her but how many places can my daughter go to?”

The BBC report focuses on how Jyoti’s village now resembles the site of a media circus like that shown in the 2010 satirical film Peepli Live. That’s an inevitability in the ripple-effect world of Indian media, where the urge to outdo the rival outlets push media houses to squeeze every bit of a potential social drama. Back in 2006, in the wake of the Prince fall-and-rescue coverage in Haryana, the sociologist Shiv Visvanathan had called it “page one-and-half story”, a story stuck between a real event (hence, deserving page one) but presented with the granular and irrelevant details of an unfolding social drama (of page 3).

However, in the race for reporting different facets of an important human interest story, the media haven’t been attentive to some details. Even with these details, Jyoti’s story is a remarkable tale of grit and initiative in this time of hardship that the lockdown has brought for a large section of migrant workers.

Alternatively, it’s also seen as a shameful episode in the failure to ensure smooth movement of migrants back home. Different interpretations of her journey have divided opinion on social media. Either way, the arduous task accomplished by Jyoti is undisputable. But the scale of it – as presented by various news media platforms – has been questioned.

According to a report published by Gaon Connection, a media platform focused on covering rural India, there were obvious inconsistencies in what Jyoti and her father told news outlets such as Dainik Bhaskar, BBC Hindi and Outlook (or how these outlets presented it) and what they told Gaon Connection on video. These inconsistencies are mainly about whether they used other means of transport in their journey, how many days they took to reach their village, and the distance covered each day. The report brings out some clear differences in what they said to different media platforms.

After initial confusion over inconsistent statements by the father and daughter, the question about their use of other means of transport seems to have been settled. In a PTI report, carried by different news outlets on May 24, Mohan was quoted as saying, “We managed to hitch rides on trucks and tractors for stretches across Uttar Pradesh.”

Though it doesn’t take anything away from Jyoti’s arduous feat, the detail that the journey wasn’t covered entirely on cycle is important. But numerous media reports, especially the initial ones, missed it.

Inconsistencies about the distance covered each day and the eventual duration of the journey are still there. The New York Times, for instance, mentions that Jyoti pedaled around 100 miles, or about 160 km, a day.

But the Gaon Connection cites a report by the Outlook magazine in which Jyoti is quoted as saying she would “cycle 30-40 km per day and at a few places truck drivers gave them lifts”. The difference between the two reports is so wide it seems that they are talking about different journeys.

Coming back to Mohan’s bemusement at the problem of plenty, one may ask: can such concentration of attention and invocation of social conscience for one hapless victim of, or gritty fighter against, circumstances be spread to many more people bearing the brunt of uncertainty that the pandemic has brought? There are many tales waiting to be told without asking the victim to pose for her signature frame of suffering. Jyoti knows it, as much as TV news channels do.

The quest for the defining image of the migrant crisis could be seen in some of the faultlines in the media’s coverage of Jyoti’s cycle journey. In a crisis of this scale, they wouldn’t be short of such defining images. Despite that, Jyoti’s tale gives a sense of desperate movement that’s the zeitgeist of the migrant workers moving home. In 2007, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar had started a scheme of gifting girls passing class 8 a bicycle each. It raised girls’ enrolment in school drastically. Ironically, Jyoti had to drop out after passing class 8. A year later, she had another journey to make on a bicycle.

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