The main role of the Readers’ Editor is to listen attentively to readers’ complaints. It is a self-regulatory mechanism to redress, to rectify errors and to ensure accuracy and fairness. Fairness is not about being just factually correct. It is about larger balance. Gender sensitivity is an integral part of being fair. If there is a problem with a report or an analysis in the newspaper, then the Readers’ Editor strives to correct them. But, what happens if a reader has a problem with the writing of the Readers’ Editor himself? Is there a mechanism to address this? Can he judge a complaint against himself in a fair and acceptable manner?
Last week, following my column, “Open House: dividends of listening,” I got a rap on my knuckles from Urvashi Butalia, writer, scholar and publisher. In an angry mail, she wrote: “Panneer, you know, I always read your column, one because you’re a friend, but also, and more, because I find all the issues you discuss — journalistic ethics, freedom of speech, morality, the readers’ responsibility, the responsibility of the editor and so on — of great interest. So I was following the whole bit about readers’ responses and the meeting you had with interest. But when I read your column about how the meeting had gone and the list of people you sought inspiration from on the subject of listening, I thought, oh no, not again, all men!! Panneer, why can’t you, not think that you must not, you cannot, in the 21st century, provide any kind of list that is so gender insensitive? Heard of George Eliot? Read her and see. Heard of Luisa Passerini? Read her and see.”
I must confess that Urvashi was right and I was wrong. It was a moment of gender-blindness. It strikes without fail when a writer becomes less vigilant. Insensitivity towards gender and caste is a product of multiple malaises. In an ideal situation, being alert and sensitive to these two crucial issues should come naturally to any writer or journalist. But social conditioning often produces a Pavlovian response, and it is imperative for any one who puts his pen to paper to guard against this trap.
Telling the story
Urvashi’s splendid book on Partition, The Other Side of Silence, is a phenomenal example of what good listening could accomplish. In its introduction, she argues the case for listening with a rare insight. She says: “The ‘history’ of Partition seemed to lie only in the political developments that had led up to it. These other aspects — what had happened to the millions of people who had to live through this time, what we might call the ‘human dimensions’ of this history — somehow seemed to have a ‘lesser’ status in it. Perhaps this was because they had to do with difficult things: loss and sharing, friendship and enmity, grief and joy, with a painful regret and nostalgia for loss of home, country and friends, and with an equally strong determination to create them afresh. These were difficult things to capture ‘factually’. Yet, could it really be that they had no place in the history of Partition? Why then did they live on so vividly in individual and collective memory?”
In fact, she explains the gendered aspect in even rendering the past. The Other Side of Silence is based on a series of interviews conducted on either side of the Indo-Pakistan border. In this process, Urvashi discovers the crucial difference between what rankles a woman more than a man. She wrote: “Is there such a thing, then, as a gendered telling of Partition? I learnt to recognise this in the way women located, almost immediately, this major event in the minor keys of their lives. From the women I learned about the minutiae of their lives, while for the most part men spoke of the relations between communities, the broad political realities. Seldom was there an occasion when a man being interviewed would speak of a child lost or killed, while for a woman there was no way in which she could omit such a reference.”
George Eliot had taken the act of listening to an inclusive ecology when she wrote the following lines in Daniel Deronda:
“Fairy folk a-listening
Hear the seed sprout in the spring,
And for music to their dance
Hear the hedgerows wake from trance,
Sap that trembles into buds
Sending little rhythmic floods
Of fairy sound in fairy ears.
Thus all beauty that appears
Has birth as sound to finer sense
And lighter-clad intelligence.”
Having acknowledged my inadvertence, let me assure you one thing. I, as the Readers’ Editor, am not above human frailties. But I am open to criticism. And, I shall make amends when there is a failing on my part.