Monday, December 13, 2010

An ode to the Lal

It was probably not a coincidence that around the end of October, a couple of weeks before Professor Purushottam Lal passed away, I entered a bookshop in the Bangalore International airport and picked up a collection of short stories compiled by Khushwant Singh. In it was a half-fable-like, half-spoofy, wholly childlike story by the professor. I could spare the five minutes needed to read it. I smiled all through and remembered sitting in the great man's legendary study and listening to him talk about literature.
It was 2004. Having quit IT a year ago, I had managed to wrap up a half-baked novel and a collection of short stories that, I was certain, would send tremors through the publishing world. I called this collection Wiser After. Unfortunately, nobody in Delhi shared my optimism for this work. And then someone told me about Writers' Workshop. I found out the details and mailed my manuscript to WW. I didn't know that the name I wrote on the envelope (Prof P Lal) was an institution in Kolkata and, therefore, the address (162/92, Lake Gardens) was a landmark.
Less than a week later, my phone rang. On the other end was the professor himself. He introduced himself and raved about Wiser After.
'Such wonderful ideas. So sparkling. So fresh!'
That did it. Within a week, I was in Kolkata, the only Indian city that values writers more than software professionals. In fact, a family of Ghoshes in Tollygunge agreed to have me as a paying guest for a month despite not knowing me. 'Only because you're a writer,' Mr Ghosh told me, wagging his forefinger. I stayed the month because I surmised that it'd take me that much time to polish my manuscript under Prof Lal's guidance.
In the very first meeting, the professor plainly detailed out the vanity publishing model he operated. I'd have to pay for publishing the books. Production costs were high, thanks to a traditional method of printing the books and the Sambhalpuri sari cloth that was used as a cover. I didn't mind it one bit. I was certain that Simon & Schuster, Picador, Doubleday or some equally big publisher would want to acquire the rights of Wiser After.
In the meanwhile, in addition to making modifications to my stories, I visited Prof Lal, at least thrice a week, and soaked in the stimulating environment of his study. I heard him give anecdotal references to great names.
1) For instance, a young Vikram Seth had sat in that very study and discussed his seminal book of poems titled Mappings. He had reportedly even lamented the fact that no publisher seemed interested in publishing his work. Indeed, not just Seth, but other big names such as Kamala Das, Jayanta Mahapatra etc had begun their writing careers with Writers' Workshop.
2) Shashi Deshpande, Ruskin Bond, Nissim Ezekiel, Jatin Das, Siddharth Kak, Jug Suraiya, Sasthi Bratha, A. K. Ramanujam, Pritish Nandy etc have been published by WW. All accounted for, WW must have given a jump-start to at least 3000 new writers and poets, considering that it has published at least 3500 titles.
3) At least two Nobel laureates - Pearl S Buck and Gunter Grass - had visited that same study. Other notable visitors included R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Choudhuri and many others that the professor must have failed to mention.

The professor also spoke about other things.
a) He was always willing to talk about a mammoth project he had undertaken along with Nandini Nopany. What was this project about? An attempt to transcreate (not translate, mind you; the professor despised this word) the Mahabharata shloka-by-shloka. The work was being brought out one fascicule at a time. And by the time I arrived in Kolkata, he was transcreating the preparations for the Kurukshetra war. All the Sundays I was in Kolkata, I made it a point to attend his public reading of the transcreations at the Sanskriti Sagar Library in Ballygunge. A faithful audience awoke early enough each Sunday to hear him read and annotate his work.
b) On two separate occasions, he mentioned that he was conferred the Padma Shree not because he was a teacher-poet-transcreator-publisher-calligrapher of substance but because an influential woman - the daughter of a well-known freedom fighter - was infatuated by him.
She had good reason to be. The lanky Purushottam Lal must have been a sight to behold in his youth. His unmistakable Punjabi looks would have stood out in the Bengali landscape that was his home. You will read obituaries written by students who were mesmerized by his voice and passion, his ability to conjure metaphors at will and his in-depth knowledge of English poetry. My own most vivid visual memory of him: his fingers. Bony, long, slender and expressive. They pivoted his hands and his emotions. They flipped forward to make a point. They seemed to be crafting ideas into paper boats and prodding them to assume the right shape.

More than anything, the professor told me not to lose heart. To always pursue this difficult life of stringing words together to make a story.
I returned to Bangalore, sold Wiser After to many gullible and kind-hearted friends, friends of friends and acquaintances and somehow managed to break even. By the end of 2004, I realized how inept Wiser After really was. The ideas were still promising, but my execution of those ideas had been terribly clumsy. I had gone ahead with publishing it only because I desperately wanted to see my name in print. By mid-2005, I couldn't pick up the book without wincing. It was a lifelong lesson in humility. Never again would I love my own words so much that I'd miss noticing their glaring flaws.

Another, equally important, lesson stayed. This lesson was derived from the gushing words of encouragement Prof Lal gave me. They - those words - told me that some day in the future, more people would spot the talent languishing underneath my current lack of skills. All I had to do was to keep writing, whip myself daily, awake to the scars of yesterday and go on. Because if I do it for enough number of years, I'll whip myself less and write more.
Today, I feel as if I'm standing on the cusp of a new beginning. And this day probably would not have been possible had I not met Prof P Lal. Thank you, sir. For what it is worth, you made a mark in my life.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The murky compulsions of Indian media

I have a theory. A rather speculative one. Haven't been able to shake it off, so here goes.
Imagine yourself as a 20-something journalist in New Delhi in the early 90s. Life's a constant adrenalin rush. There's a story breaking every day (the 90s belong to a slower era). You're positioned inches away from the epicentre of it all. And slowly, but surely, news goes electronic. Not many of your colleagues have the face or the confidence to be in front of a camera. You have both, so it's time to shine.
Once you've got the basics right, it's time to formulate a lasting ideology. How do you read the landscape? Well, the Babri Masjid has come down, so you certainly know which party you do NOT like. So that's the BJP out of the way. Your journalistic instincts are sufficiently honed to warn you about the Janata Dal - it's a ragtag aggregation of questionable characters, never meant to last. As for the regional parties, well, you find yourself pondering over the promises offered by Mamta Banerjee, Karunanidhi, Jayaalalithaa, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bal Thackarey, Deve Gowda, Sharad Pawar, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Shibu Soren et al (some of these currently belong to the JD). This is a pantheon that inspires despair.
That leaves the Left - whom you're willing to romance from the sidelines, thanks to your Left-leaning alma mater - and the Congress. Yes, the Congress. Finally, here's a party that has survived and will continue to survive. Besides, the dynamic duo of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh are ushering in sweeping reforms. The tide is changing. Businesses are ready with a palette of bright colours. India is getting a makeover. All's well.
In a manner of speaking. Because, frankly, if the debate is reduced to "Secularism versus Capitalism," then there must be only one clear winner. As a journalist, you decide that you must try and understand the rhetoric and pragmatism offered by this "sole national, secular party." In order to believe in this phrase, you blank out the pogram conducted against the Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. You were too young then and that Sikhening thing happened ages ago. No point holding on to old grudges. You'll still fire salvos at the Congress - after all you're young and idealistic - but you see it as a mild favourite.
So you go easy on Bofors and play up the Srikrishna Commission report. No harm done. You have the best interests of the nation in mind.
And so it begins. A tilt. A wee bit of tilt. Is there a quid pro quo involved? Not at all. Just a thumping tricolour inside your chest, goading you to do the right thing.

If you've been a journalist for even one day - if you have ever filed a single story - you will know what it takes to bury your own emotions and file a factual report of events. Quite often, it's like arbitrating against your firstborn, in favour of the neighbour's scamp. You must confront yourself, steel your mind, and speak the truth. Well, let's not go as far as the truth. You must at least tell the world what seems to have happened. But these are testing times. The world and India are changing. The country deserves better than the truth. So you must make up your own mind (and the news) as you go along. You are, after all, the barometer of the 90s and the new millennia. Let's keep this in mind and continue our theory.

Midway into the 90s, the worst case scenario comes true. The Congress is vanquished in the polls. The JD assumes power. Over the next three years, 4 JD Prime Ministers attempt to hold the steering wheel. Needless to say, each of them give India a bumpy ride and crash into the shoulder.
Then you see the REAL worst case scenario unfolding. The BJP comes to power. The corridors of South Block lose their allure. But you're a seasoned journalist by now and you will do what it takes to sniff out news and offer it to your growing audience. Mercifully, a war comes to your rescue. The sight of a uniform gives you orgiastic pleasure, so you have a field day covering the perils and romance of a conflict. For the first time ever, your countrymen get a feel of the trenches. Thanks to you. You're now an overnight sensation. Everything you've done before pales in comparison. You realise that you've redefined the news capsule merely by highlighting the drama behind dramatic moments. You've stumbled upon the magic formula. People don't want staid news. They want an exciting commentary on current affairs. A choreographed chronicle that offers a peep behind iron curtains. Generations of newspeople will be inspired by your model. In fact, those generations are already crawling out of the woodwork. The media is growing like never before. Money is pouring in. Choices are being offered to viewers and readers.
You spend the next few years consolidating, understanding unfamiliar market forces. In between, the BJP government at the centre keeps you entertained with scams and comedy. And when Ahmedabad happens, you feel justifiably disgusted. Ahmedabad was intolerable, just as New Delhi in 1984 was. Yet, you now throw your weight firmly behind the Congress.
You're also experiencing changes in your personal life. You can now afford a couple of penthouses in prestigious Delhi pincodes. You travel business class (if not in the Prime Minister's entourage). You've made it. Moneyed pleasures are cloying. You feel a vague urge to unearth newer dimensions to success.
In this backdrop, the national elections deliver the best possible verdict. The BJP is defeated and the Congress comes back to power. It's time for over-the-top celebrations. Fellow journalists, select businesses and sundry actors of the capital are popping open the champagne. You feel compelled to join in the revelry, never mind that the nation will interpret your beaming face. What's not to celebrate? Finally, here's a party worth worshipping. It's headed by a queen who refuses the crown, has been galvanised by a prince with an alleged Midas touch and the new government will now be headed by the most trustworthy Indian (only the final part of this statement is true, you know that, but what the hell!).
From now on, you can enjoy unlimited insider scoops. You yourself are an insider. You haven't noticed it, but over the years, the anti-fascist content of your reports have decidedly become pro-Congress. Your slide in position has been glacial - an imperciptible movement in slow-motion - but those who now matter have noticed it. You no longer allow people with opposing opinions to have their say in your shows. You will be rewarded. With high civilian honours, plenty of political gossip and incessant opportunities to interview the Who's Who. Your channel will certainly air its share of Exclusive News. Again, thanks to you. By now, your idealism doesn't recognise you (it languishes in fusty memorabilia in your closet where, without your knowledge, skeletons have crept in).
What you've also conveniently forgotten is that two disparate demons were challenging India in the 90s. The fascism of the religious right was just one of them. The other, equally lethal demon, was the market fundamentalism of the financial right. That's right. Ultra-capitalism. The theory that markets will self-regulate and the government must exercise no control whatsoever over businesses. Do you know why you blocked out this development? The fact that your own financial success depended on it. Your media house relies on these businesses to thrive. Over the years, you've been part of your media house's think-tank and you've accepted that some targets are never meant to be shot at. Sure, you can aim at and bring down any political lightweight at any time. That's always fun. You can't be touched while doing so. But the businesses - they're now sacred. They must not be touched because, well, the tricolour is still thumping inside your chest. Good things are being done to India by these businesses. If they need to cut corners in the process, then you must understand. You now have the maturity to understand.
That's why, when the Congress won itself another election and alliance partners proved to be a pain in the proverbial butt, you decided that there was no harm in playing the middle fiddle. For one, you were helping the "sole national, secular party" meet a crucial objective. For another, you were helping businesses take India to the next level.
How you wish you knew your conversations were being recorded! You wouldn't have sounded like confiding a crush to a high-school friend. You'd have invented a code worthy of an espionage thriller, so that the middle fiddle sounded like the middle ground. Yes, the middle ground. The spot you were obliged to occupy as a journalist.

Journalism is a difficult profession. Of all the professional roles I've played in my life, being a journalist has been the most difficult. And the only way to hold on to your sanity - and pursue the, shall we say, truth - is to operate on the premise that every belief you hold MIGHT be wrong. The news is never about you, your convictions, your take on life. It's about facts. If you have the heart of a humanitarian and the mind of a robot, there's an outside chance that you will be a good journalist. Unfortunately, few in the Indian media currently fit the bill.