Sad stories, bleeding hearts and Indian media

The year 1991 was quite an eventful one for India. Often hailed as the birth of India 2.0, it defined a new economic direction where in for the first time it was acknowledged that after all a few babus need not be so awfully powerful to decide every aspect of our petty lives; break away from the past indeed. During the same time another interesting development was unfolding in Calcutta. When Roland Joffé wanted to film the novel City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, protests broke out. Even the minister for cultural affairs during that period Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, did not let the opportunity pass in pronouncing the book to be “an insult to every Indian,”. Finally when the script was approved by the Govt. of West Bengal, the main protagonist , the Polish priest, was removed1. Seventeen years later when Danny Boyle made Slumdog Millionare, none other than the Biggest icon of Hindi films, Amitabh Bachchan aired similar, although much toned down views about the content of the movie. There were again protests by the slum dwellers’ welfare groups, although this time only from certain pockets of Mumbai, apart from the ultra-sensitive religulous who are ever eager, for different reasons2. Two of the biggest cities in the nation, two kinds of protests against what was rightly or wrongly perceived as the commercial exploitation of the poverty stricken images from the nation.

On careful dissection, we see three issues common to both events. The fact that poverty and wide abuse of justice was (and is) present in its ugliest forms in India, that we get insecure and get into one of those obsessive compulsive nationalist moods challenging the intentions of the story teller, especially if the person happens to be a foreigner, and most importantly the question of what constitutes an acceptable portrayal of the Indian reality and what does not.

The pornography of poverty has always been an issue beginning from the early days of independence, if not earlier. There was a time when the western image and imaginations about India were limited at best to the In the Bazaars of Hyderabad by Sarojini Naidu. Even then, news reporting and the reality inspired fictional narratives did find space for bringing both the starkness and contrasts, and the hues and colorfulness of the Indian reality. Of course, as always there were dominant stereotypes in both the content and perspectives. Acting perhaps as the zeitgeist or as opportunists, there was always an underlying (and some times mythical) ‘aam admi‘ perspective for every story which appeared in the media or even fictions before the 90′s era.

The liberalization of economy not only changed the way we dealt with the economy but also irreversibly changed the perspective on what constitutes a worthy story, especially in the mass media. One argument about this phenomena is that, in a way shedding crocodile tears and prescribing unworkable and rhetorical solutions changed to a more realist approach to addressing the issues. On the other hand there is a compelling argument that the predominant narrative style has evolved to deliberately paint a glossy or at least an acceptably moderate story by carefully omitting or ‘de-signifying’ vast areas of the reality canvas. I would like to call the former “it is the poverty of imagination” argument and later “the whole isn’t close to sum of many parts” argument.

Let us see the main thesis of these two arguments:

“It is the poverty of imagination” argument

'Sad Stories' shouldn’t play spoil sport and confuse general public into missing the bigger picture. In fact, attributing a major chunk of news columns to the life styles and issues entirely pertaining to the affluent minority, too are market driven. In a way they too, like Bollywood films, are selling dreams, argues the 'Poverty of Imagination' camp. Image Credit: Flickr@ Deepankar Raj

Post liberalization India has seen tremendous growth in economy and living standards of many a (some may argue almost all) sections of the Indian society. The places where a huge change is not visible too are changing for good, but at a lower pace. There is no greater good in portraying a dismal image of the nation against the background of such a great awakening. Therefore the stories of severe poverty, denial of justice to sections lower than middle class or socially marginalized sections etc. even if true, shouldn’t play a spoil sport and confuse general public into missing the bigger picture. In fact, attributing a major chunk of news columns to the life styles and issues entirely pertaining to the affluent minority, too are market driven. In a way they too, like Bollywood films, are selling dreams. The purpose of a storyteller (as a news reporter or as a writer) is entirely limited to remain honest in his /her narration. There is no professionalism in playing an ‘activist’. Markets can effectively solve issues, given its time. In short, there is no more poverty than poverty of imagination.

“The whole isn’t close to the sum of many parts” argument

It is true that the upward mobility of the middle class and the upper class have had a quantum leap after liberalization of the economy. Certain sections of the lower class too have benefited. But the disparity in the rates of these changes between the classes and within the classes are creating islands in the already fragmented social fabric. In addition, the effect of policies on agricultural sector have been disastrous to say the least. If the unprecedented increase in the farmer suicides and distress migration3 (as against opportunity driven migration) are not taken as warning bells, we are heading towards a pressure cooker situation. It is unethical for any narrator to not see or avoid these huge fringes and fissures in a misplaced enthusiasm to report success stories alone. It is unwise to wish away the existence of such aspects and worse not reporting them at all. The argument can be put as the whole story of the nation isn’t even close to the sum of the economic buoyancy of a few classes or sections, glued together with the belief in trickle down and omitting the unpleasant as outliers.

Most of the story telling about the Indian reality comes as a shade of grey, a mix of both schools of thoughts. Generally speaking, Gurucharan Das and Jagdish Bhagwati could be taken as the representatives of the former school with the largest selling English newspaper in the world and its financial daily as its main proponents while P. Sainath is one of the staunchest and visible campaigner for the second school with Frontine as the most popular mainstream media going by it. This is apart from the huge list of reality inspired fiction writers who stand on both sides and many a times assume a shade of grey. Through this article I would like to defend 'whole is not even close to the sum of many parts' argument and towards that end, let me also address the major criticisms to this school of reporting.

People at large like to hear cheerful stories. The huge majority of us are not sadists and the sad story is basically a narrative about a condition of pain- physical or emotional – suffered by individuals, well known or otherwise. And this is where we have to put things into perspective. If the purpose of a narrative is limited to generating a certain experience that readers value, there is no reason to describe media as the fourth estate in democracy. In any society, the role of reality narrators goes beyond pleasuring the readers; they need to enable them to ask critical questions and selective display of facts should be treated as an abomination. Any aspect of the Indian reality has a sad story associated and telling it is never undermining the silver lining, but empowering the reader to address it. To put in other words, there is an element of activism in every story well-reported.

The denial out of pride

The intolerance towards any negative stories on the Indian reality comes quite often than not, they from narrow nationalist and even other sectarian considerations. This was visible both in Calcutta (1991) and in Mumbai (2008). Even if we discount for certain false stereotypes and the presence of a European prejudice, the wide spread of open protests came from a misplaced sense of pride in our identities. In many a cases this kind of intolerance has created wrong precedence by protesting for wrong reasons even when there are obvious misrepresentation of facts.

Shoot the messenger

A distinct phenomena of attacking the messenger has emerged from certain quarters if not proliferated into the entire media and publishing establishments. This new trend while maintain the first kind of argument, does not go a long way into attacking the content and even if it does, nothing beyond the periphery, but shifts the goal post by trying to establish that the intention of the writer is merely to earn a few brownie points and nothing more. A favourite usage among this circle is bleeding heart journalism and more recently it has been crowned as the fraudulent concern for issues4.

In all fairness it has to be acknowledged that there is a serious mismatch when an investment banker or a wannabe, is puking his/her moral angst against the capitalist exploitation and getting away with it. But the comparisons and contrasts with such extremes, and that too every time, is again another kind of rhetoric which is basically designed to evade the story and its implications. If undue adulation to a hero is detrimental to the quality and content of writing, so much more worse is self-adulation. The hallmark of the ‘shoot the messenger’ trend-setters are a misguided generalization on other’s intention based on one’s own ideological perimeters. Its logical extreme even goes to a verdict with implications that the decent writer ought to write only so much and on so and so topics, and anything beyond has to be a crooked or misplaced agenda5.

What constitutes the bigger picture?

The standard argument of the 'it is the poverty of imagination' school is to let markets function and withdraw from the system. For this reason, they often consciously abstain from reporting sad stories and even pro actively kill them, for a public outrage would mean government interference. The only allowable sad stories are the ones concerning the middle class whose solution too should eventually lead to more withdrawal. And as per their thesis, any government interference into market (in real terms wherever it is not beneficial to them) would produce inefficient outcomes. A debate about the absolute merit or demerit of the government interventions is not intended due to the lack of space, therefore I do not intend to make comment on their positions as such. But I would definitely like to point out the outcome of their stands, the first and foremost of which is that the canvas of narration shrinks considerably. The immediate second outcome is that style of narration focuses on desensitizing readers on the implication of a tragedy and this would imply shredding the details. On the other hand, even details irrelevant by an reasonable standard get more space in the 'happy stories' and the ones about the bold and the beautiful. Since this has already happened in our mass media and in general narratives on Indian reality, we should ask the question whether any bigger picture is visible by shrinking the coverage of issues and omitting the details?

The compromised reporting is not just limited to poverty and resource access where the guiding rule is market, but also other kind of tragedies emerging from social situations. Let us take two recent cases about the sad stories. The recent book Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation by Meera Menon6 and the latest television chat show hosted by Aamir Khan, Satyamev Jayate. We are sure to find different reactions from people. An average reader cum television viewer, who was not a victim of the Mumbai riots, might like or in the worst case be indifferent about the second one, while probably be critical or indifferent at best about the first case. This person could belong to any social class, could be female, male or the third gender, might be located at anywhere in India and might follow any or no religion. This person could be well intentioned in believing that such memoirs might keep the hatred alive and therefore not desirable. This raise questions about our own insecurities. And precisely this why it is essential that sad stories should be reported. In the case of the T.V. chat show, except for the perpetrators of injustice there is nothing much to be uncomfortable about and not to mention that the attempt is to be congratulated. But a general uneasiness towards Meera Menon's book comes from our own hidden guilt which most of us do not like to admit. A lesson to be learned from the post World War II German experience is that the way to uproot racial prejudice is not by keeping silent about it but by talking and discussing more about it. We have to tell the sad story even if it is inconvenient and unpleasant, because as a society our future depends on how we handle it.

The biggest game played in public minds in designifying the 'sad stories' are not by the chauvinists on the rails of denial or shooters of the messenger but by the tacticians who put into practice the good old advertisement slogan- if you cannot convince them, confuse them. It is a fine mixture of raising the temperature through addressing the pride, disputing the figures (often mischievously) stitched together with a fine verbal debauchery which leads to the 'it is the poverty of imagination' argument. Many a times, this has proved effective due to the carelessness of the narrator by unintelligent reporting. Take the case of Arundhati Roy, a fine writer if quality of the prose is a yardstick, but her excessive use of hyperboles often does the reverse effect on any intelligent reader.

The story of the ‘sad story’

In the modern entertainment industry both the melancholy and jolly humour have their own markets. It is true that sometimes the scriptwriters stretch them to absurd levels like the unbelievably stupid saas bahu soaps in the Indian television and the T.V. prank play programmes. But wouldn’t it be atrocious to deny Oscar to Titanic for the tragic end? In a similar vein, why should there be an uneasiness on content pertaining to tragic elements in news and reality inspired works?

Sensationalism, a major byproduct of market driven competition, has been largely responsible in changing the language and style of narration. But it has come to a point that any genuine attempt to report a ‘sad story’ is accused to be sensationalist. It has to be recognized that balanced narrative is not the one artificially supplemented with the happy and sad elements of the reality, but honestly and meticulously analyzed from different angles and reported in its true colours. Life is not always happy and reporting its sadness doesn’t make it less happy either. It is not about whining or begging for alms, but just being transparent enough to the rays of reality. The only rule is that we do not need to present it unduly sad, than what it already is. The sense and sensibility should never be sacrificed to gain sensitivity.