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The Indian media
Essay : India, journalism, newspapers, media, celebrity, books, reviews, ideas
Saturday, July 02, 2005 20:45 GMT

This article was first published in Tehelka.

A few months ago, a book I wrote was released in the British Commonwealth (which of course includes India) and the US. Not having published a book before, I didn’t know what to expect of this sudden appearance-in-public, nor of my own feelings about it. The book had demanded more than three years of intense focus – sitting alone with my laptop for weeks and months on end, wandering aimlessly, wondering how to write about the world I found myself in, finding breakthroughs in newspaper articles or overheard conversations, asking friends to read, listening to their dissatisfactions, wandering aimlessly again, deleting, re-writing – before I arrived at something broadly satisfying, called a necessary halt to the otherwise eternal process of trying to perfect it, and submitted it to the publishers. There was some brief post-natal depression, but it is surprising how quickly you can forget about something you have spent three years on; and by the time the book suddenly arrived on other people’s agendas, some eighteen months later, it was a fairly hazy memory.

At the same time, it is a satisfying thing to produce a work, and see it attain its final form; it is good to celebrate the completion of something, even eighteen months after the fact; and of course, more than anything, it is fascinating to see how other people will respond to all the things that gripped your mind for so long – all the questions of politics and the workings of the world, all the situations of human intensity, all the innovations you have tried to make in the sphere of literature itself. So as the time drew near for the book to come out, a moment I had considered as a mere formality, I began to get unexpectedly aroused by what might happen.

This book was written in Delhi after I moved here from New York slightly more than four years ago. It owed a lot to Delhi’s vibrant intellectual climate, and to the experience of confronting all the new things of a vast, Protean city I had never lived in before. Delhi therefore seemed like the book’s home, and I was particularly intrigued to see how an Indian readership would respond to it. Clearly, the first place to look for such a response was in the pages of the newspapers.

Over time, a small number of reviews appeared. Attentive and well-written, they were at the same time introspective and unambitious. For the most part, they remained at the level of the literary, speaking of the various pleasures and displeasures of the reading experience, and devoting their discussion to issues of literary language and form. They seemed to approach literature as private pleasure rather than as a part of the more general, extra-literary conversations of the world. This was somewhat disappointing since I had conceived this book as a pointed intervention into such conversations.

If you examine the cramped, ghetto-like environs that newspaper editors provide for book reviews, however, all this is not surprising. It is difficult, in a review of less than eight hundred words, to do much more than simply describe a book, and book reviews in Indian newspapers are often much shorter than that. The most extensive space allotted to book reviews in a mainstream newspaper is the Asian Age’s Sunday book section which is a cut-and-paste job from the New York Times and Spectator – with the emphasis on “cut”. In order to fit these articles into their new, straitened quarters, the “editors” run the paragraphs together, cut out the connecting words and phrases (“of course,” “unfortunately”, “however”) and then pluck out whole sentences and paragraphs for good measure.

But if you look at precisely how these cuts are made, you realise that good book reviewers are confronted not merely with a lack of space in Indian newspapers but, more defeatingly, with a highly reductive conception of how books should be talked about: one that is baldly consumerist and quite inhospitable to the finer aspects of the reviewer’s craft. A recent New York Times review of two novels on the subject of women and sexuality in the Muslim world said:

Both books deliver their ostensibly shocking subject matter with good-natured pragmatism. Their characters are not much interested in the politics of the veil, or in Islam and gender or in anything else that might appear on a cultural studies syllabus.

In the version of the same article that appeared in the Asian Age, this became:

Both books deliver their shocking subject matter with good-natured pragmatism. Their characters are not much interested in the in Islam and gender [sic].

The cuts change the meaning significantly. “Ostensibly shocking subject matter” is very different from “shocking subject matter,” and to reduce the former to the latter is to remove a crucial nuance in the reviewer’s discussion, even if it makes the book sound more racy. And of course the second sentence, which tries to evoke a wider context of thought about women in Islam is slashed, in the Asian Age’s impatient hands, into pure babble – although possibly, once again, babble that serves to de-intellectualise the discussion and make it more immediate and sexy. Later in the same New York Times piece, we read:

Satrapi's previous books, ''Persepolis'' and ''Persepolis 2,'' make up a comic-book autobiography of the author's Iranian childhood that effortlessly overturns such prejudices. Composed in intense, sparkling black and white -- each strip looks like a set of fiercely charming little woodcuts -- they transport the reader straight back to the craving days of reading ''Tintin.'' Satrapi's drawing genuinely animates her writing in a way that makes her, in this translation by Anjali Singh, a delight to read.
''Embroideries'' is a more modest book than its predecessors, but it is just as appealing.

In my Sunday newspaper, this passage appeared thus:

Satrapi's drawing genuinely animates her writing in a way that makes her, a delight to read. ''Embroideries'' is a modest book, but it is just as appealing [sic].

What Embroideries is just as appealing as, readers of the Asian Age could not know, for the newspaper determinedly cuts out material that is not pure “information” about the single object under consideration. Subjective words such as “amusing” or “touching” are axed if too numerous, and essayistic flourishes are brutally pruned (resulting often in pure absurdity); but most vulnerable of all to the knife are reviewers’ attempts to describe a book’s connections to other things – previous works by the same author, works by other authors, or indeed other things entirely (in the quoted review, for instance, the Asian Age chose to strike out a comparison between Satrapi’s graphic novel form and cinema). In sum, the universe of the Asian Age book section is a harsh and atomistic one in comparison to that of the New York Times: it is a place where attempts to make connections and meaning are cut away to leave what is, as far as possible, raw product description, lists of discrete “features” uncluttered by ideas.

It is predictable that such an ethos would create a besieged mentality amongst those Indian journalists who genuinely love and wish to celebrate literature. It is not surprising if they choose to speak about books as pure aesthetic experience, as a kind of guilty, sensuous refuge from a journalism that is so brutally pragmatic and market-driven. If they do not often try to speak about a book in the world, it is because this is not the editorial conception of their task: they are not asked to describe a vision, or a set of ideas that connects to other sets of ideas, but simply to describe the experience that can be obtained for Rs 395.

And even when reviewers approach their task with greater ambitions than this, the other pages of the newspaper act with single-minded intent to cut books and their ideas back down to size.

In addition to the sparse smattering of reviews of my book came a veritable deluge of phone calls from journalists wishing to write what they called “profiles”. The interest of this second category of journalists was not in “literature” but in “personality”. They wrote for columns with stomach-churning titles like “Celebtalk” and they came to my house to note down a few snatched words that could then be patched together in a collage of more or less incoherent stereotypical catch-phrases crowned with a photograph. One sensed among them a panic of speed, the terrible anxiety of having to feed the newspaper’s insatiable hunger for new and different kinds of celebrity; and they were often hilariously unprepared. I had one exchange with a journalist who possessed only two items of information about me – the fact that I had written a book, and my mobile telephone number – and who had to extract from me, during the course of a twenty-minute phone conversation, various other items essential to her article (whose deadline was approaching in the next two hours) – such as the title of the book, the nature of its contents, and my name. The pieces that finally appeared in the newspapers were so mangled and improvised that they frequently bordered on the bizarre. Here are some extracts from an interview that appeared in the Kolkata city section of the Times of India:

Every writer has a few characteristic traits in his writing. What is your forte?
Yeah. I agree with you. If you go through my novel you will find that it is an investigative expose. But I have tried not to write it as a crime investigation report. I have tried to delve into the human virtues of people from different parts of the world.

Why did you make the international launch of this novel in India?
Though I live in Britain, I have my roots in India. It was just normal for me to do the launch at a place where I could share it with my near and dear ones.

Your novel deals with different locales and cross cultures. Did it mean extensive travelling or browsing the Internet?
Both. Actually I consider myself to be a fundamentalist. [...]

So utterly removed was this from the actual conversation I had had with this journalist that I read it with genuine intrigue. I was surprised to find myself falling into the journalist’s weary jargon where people do not “read” novels but merely “go through” them; I was startled to discover that my book was an “investigative expose” (“exposé”?) ; and my entire sense of self was thrown into confusion with the news that I considered myself to be a “fundamentalist” (where the **** did he get that from?).

The second of these answers, on the other hand, is not surprising at all, though it is complete fabrication; for such pat talk about “roots” is the entirely predictable currency of these kind of pieces. The fundamental story these columns are trying to tell is one of the dynamic, self-assertive nation as allegorised by the individual Indian “celebrity.” The very first thing you have to do in such interviews, therefore, is to “confess” that you are Indian, even if you are not – otherwise the entire logic of the interview breaks down. “Why do you deny you are Indian?” several journalists asked me. “I am not denying anything,” I replied. “I’m just not pretending to be what I’m not. I hold a British passport, I grew up in England, I speak no Indian languages and I did not live in India until I was nearly thirty years old. I live here now and my work is greatly influenced by being here; but I cannot claim to be an Indian writer.” But such talk poses real problems for columns that must be about Indian writing, or Indian celebrity. So while a couple of journalists respond melodramatically by writing about the “outsider”, while a couple more continue to mutter in a dark, Stalinist kind of way that this man “denies” he is Indian, most just ignore any complications of this kind and go ahead as they had always planned. At the core of the tale of aggressive “success” that they are going to write, they plant the tender kernel of national belonging. Hence cloying rhymes like “near and dear ones”.

What kind of individual will symbolise this nation in its era of markets and world takeover, its era of buying French pharmaceutical firms and judging Cannes and building global IT centres and sleeping with Liz Hurley? Certainly not the dreamy, thinking type. Not the kind of person who sits alone in a room for years on end wrestling with an entirely cerebral, poetic project. My conversations with the writers of “profiles” therefore had little to do with the book I had written, which was the ostensible reason they had any interest in me in the first place. They asked questions, instead, about what means I had employed to secure a publishing contract, and what it was like, now, to revel in publicity. The fact that I had spent three years forging a four hundred-page communication with the world was not relevant; now I had to tell the real story, which was the one of my own ambition, calculation and endeavour. The book was just my “product”, my means to an end. Its existence in the market proved that I had the necessary balls to seize a little bit of the media universe for myself, and now was my chance to explain how I had acquired such balls, and how wonderful it felt to possess them. As far as these columnists were concerned, it seemed, the persona of the “thinking individual” is just a front for something else. Deep down, people are interested only in acquisition, in getting more of everything, and every kind of accomplishment can therefore be boiled down to another article about how another lucky person “made it”. So, while newspapers and radio stations in the UK and US were wanting to have interviews about what a literature of globalization would look like, or how one can write successfully about ethics in a seemingly post-moral world, Indian columnists wanted me to spill the beans about my staggering personal ambition, the enormous pay-offs I had received, and all the glorious rewards of fame and success. (If my irony is not apparent, I should state clearly that none of this is actually true to my experience.)

Since serious artists and intellectuals make their name, generally, as a result of the cogency of their vision of the issues of politics, philosophy and aesthetics that face a given society – one would expect, on the face of it, that the purpose of seeking interviews with such people for a newspaper would be to inject those ideas in an interesting and provocative way into social debate. But, with a very few exceptions, there is no serious social debate in the mainstream Indian press, and this is not its purpose in speaking to such people. The press already has its Idea – the celebration of the grand pantheon of Indian power and money – and it is not looking for new ones. Artists and intellectuals are called upon not to offer critique or alternative visions but to sidle in compliantly amongst the lowest rungs of this same pantheon and so to boost its size and glory. For anything else, Indian newspapers currently do not even possess the language. This can be seen at its most extreme in Indian press coverage of contemporary art, which never even makes an attempt to talk about the questions raised by this most daring and radical of areas of contemporary creativity; all it can do instead is to quote sale prices and gloat nationalistically, if ignorantly, over the slowly rising value of Indian art on the international markets.

Any trip to Eastern Europe or Latin America will demonstrate that this whole situation is monotonously widespread in the world, especially in places where the recent euphoria of global markets has made the rightness of wealth banally self-evident, and where the ubiquity of poverty lends it all an additional erotic thrill. But the problem is that India is truly growing into a global superpower – while the delusional excesses of page 3 can make you believe that this is merely a country of the superrich, there is actually something behind the circus’s maniacal energy – and the press will have to abandon these infantile obsessions, so unnerving in a giant, if the rise of this country’s influence is to be accompanied by any significant reflection as to what it means.

First of all this implies that newspapers should try to think of people as thinking, not merely acquisitive, individuals. Of course writers and artists and academics, like anyone else, wish to earn money for their work; of course they possess all the same frailties of ego and ambition as everyone else – but their work cannot be reduced simply to this. A true intellectual culture – even just a literate culture – depends on the circulation of these people’s ideas as ideas and not as just more success stories. Virtually the only people whose ideas are expounded seriously and in detail at present are politicians and leading businessmen; and this is a woefully inadequate basis for us to think critically and creatively about the very grave issues that face us. Everyone else is an unthinking, crass, acquisitive machine: every last architect, theatre director, jewellery maker or political activist answers the same ten trite questions in much-edited five-word sentences, appears under the same soul-destroying rubric of “celebrity,” and spouts the same joy at India’s rising and the new possibilities for self-aggrandizement that it offers. (While it is wearying that every individual comes across as the kind of greedy, opportunity-optimising economist’s freak that is the newspapers’ dominant conception of the human being, it is truly terrifying to think of such a creature magnified several hundred million times and turned into an oil-guzzling, market-craving, globe-striding nation-monster, utterly uninterested in fine sentiment or ethical detail.)

Secondly, the Indian press might try to take seriously its own stories of global coming-of-age, and to abandon its childish parochialism. While India’s nascent imperialism is having real effects on daily life all over the world, and not necessarily welcome or positive ones, the “outside” is still spoken about in the press with a weird mixture of guilt, envy and superiority that seems to turn the national boundaries into a wall too high for the imagination or the intellect to scale. The outside is exotic and sexy and full of shopping; the outside doesn’t take enough notice of India; the outside is nice but not Indian enough; the outside is getting filled up with rich Indians! – the poverty and relentless egocentrism of such perspectives on the world is just not adequate for an honest consideration of this country’s place in it at the present time. We need discussions about the world that do not have to make room for an orgasm or a brain haemorrhage every time a foreign place name is mentioned. Rather than trying to establish the Indian credentials of everyone who speaks in the press, no matter how forced they might seem, journalists need to be able to write about ideas for their own inherent interest, wherever they happen to originate. This inability to properly consider the foreigner as foreigner – not as a melodramatic fact, but just in the sense that a person can come from somewhere else and still be just a normal person – is an extremely disquieting phenomenon when projected into the future. Just take seriously the present-future-fantasy of today’s Bollywood films – which have moved on a lot from the films of the 70s, with their quaint, hesitant foreign forays – in which the whole of the world has been colonised by wealthy, attractive “NRIs” and everyone else belongs to an admiring, imitative slave class...