Updated: March 3, 2012 20:39 IST

No holds barred

Meena Menon
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The Other Country, Dispatches from the Mofussil, Mrinal Pande, Penguin Books, 2011, Rs. 350.
The Other Country, Dispatches from the Mofussil, Mrinal Pande, Penguin Books, 2011, Rs. 350.

A rich fund of stories nuanced with language and style that exposes the real India…

There is little that journalist and writer Mrinal Pande has left out in her “dispatches from the mofussil”. There is a rich fund of stories from “Little India” and Pande spares no one — not the media, not the well-heeled hosts of populist talk shows, or the chauvinistic regional parties drumming up hysteria or the people who refuse to debate Kashmir. Everything is laid bare for the reader and nuanced with her language and style which makes you forget she is using the same “Queen's English” that she is so critical about from the start along with the appalling lack of understanding of other languages by the urban educated. 

She takes on the story of Pinky, whose harelip surgery and success was made into a film “Smile Pinky”, but about whom the world forgot a little later. She writes on paid news, the aftermath of the explosion of global advertising and how little it has to offer to the poor and especially young people in rural areas, often faced with the onslaught of ads selling designer ware and the prospect of never being able to buy them.  “Private capital that has arrived in small towns, riding piggy back on the Hindi dailies, has only constructed shining sanctuaries for the rich.”

The ultimate big question in this age of the Cyber Kalki is who pays for hard news, the life blood of the freedom of opinion, she asks. Few as is evident. She is scathing about glitzy literary festivals, linguistic racism and Aishwarya Rai's marriage to a “variety of holy trees” but writes engagingly about women who carry guns in Uttar Pradesh or those who cannot afford a safe abortion in India. 

The story of Prabha Devi who became a barber after her husband died in Indi village, Tehri, gives you a look into the soul of women on the edge of survival, and with the touching Ode to Dashrath Manjhi, the man who carved a three km road through a hillside for 22 years, Pande gives new meaning to an abiding love story.

In context

She puts into context the popularity of the all-pervasive shamans and quacks including a man who converts mineral water into a cure and explains it to the complete lack of sensitive and inadequate medical care.

She also tears into the obsession for gotra and Hindu astrology of which Ms. Rai and the family she married into are a prime example. Her story of the monkeys taking over Delhi, specially the Mehrauli police station and getting drunk on the stash of liquor there, is hilarious, though on a more serious note the Delhi deputy mayor lost his life after he was pushed off from a balcony by the simians. But what speaks a lot for the might of the police force is that in the end, she writes that they can only pray to Hanuman for help, as human assistance was unavailable. She castigates the lack of informed debate on Kashmir and also the regional politics in Mumbai on which the Congress is silent.

Pande engages the reader with a simple example that can go on to represent the full horror of the story. For instance she speaks of the much vaunted National Highway Development Programme but tells you that driving the last 26 km to Bareilly on National highway 74 can still take seven to 12 hours, or even more on a bad day.

Comfortable read

Her stories and her writing must come as a breath of fresh air to those inured to reading newspapers, few of which represent any of the realities a large majority in this country live through. She explodes the bubble of comfort that news is wrapped in, paid or otherwise, and gives you the lowdown on a variety of themes in an uncompromising language.

She is equally at ease writing short sketches of musicians like Begum Akhtar, Gangubai Hangal or her former music teacher Dipali Nag or about caste politics, unhappy women, education, the craving for size zero or drunken monkeys. More power to her pen!

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