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Updated: July 29, 2013 00:40 IST

The inadvertence trap

A. S. Panneerselvan
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A.S. Panneerselvan.
The Hindu A.S. Panneerselvan.

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?

Gender insensitive

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.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Open House: dividends of listeningJuly 22, 2013

Thanks for openly sharing and the course-correction of being "gender-blind"
Panneer Sir! You model openness, the willingness to learn from each other and from
our mistakes, and how we can have meaningful and respectful dialogue. A refreshing
departure from the cacophony that transpires daily on our TV news channels in the
name of debate and showcasing divergent perspectives.

from:  Preeti Shekar
Posted on: Jul 30, 2013 at 00:46 IST

Only secure men can accept their mistakes when identified by a woman.
This post was a good read. Loved the lovely poem and the views on
human dimensions of history.
Last year I was researching the famous Nanavati story (the last jury
case. 1959 murder story). I had then visited Times and State
Department's archives. At first when I got to lay hands on accounts of
history I felt like I've struck a pot of gold while digging out for
information on a crime story. I was enthralled by the mere sight of
those pages, and I touched them like they were a delicate newborn
baby. There was an uncontrollable urge to dig deeper. As usual, I did
pay my curiosity its due and ended up browsing through some newspapers
of the early 50s. My observation was similar to that of Urvashi's.
Much was written about political events and very less about inter-
personal relationships and traumas. Owing to that walk down the
history lane I can say I agree with Urvashi.

from:  Shilpa Kadam
Posted on: Jul 29, 2013 at 19:15 IST

I appreciate your openness in trying to accept shortcomings and
rectifying them with due care. I request you to constantly engage with
the readers in a similar fashion of open forum, like you have started at
Chennai. I am eagerly waiting for the " The Hindu Open Forum " in
Hyderabad. Best wishes

from:  K.A.R.Reddy
Posted on: Jul 29, 2013 at 18:50 IST

Kudos to Panneerselvan and Urvashi for making us ponder on the rankles of a woman! No doubt, our patriarchal society leads to this Pavlovian response. We have to change from within!

from:  Shagun Maheshwari
Posted on: Jul 29, 2013 at 14:59 IST

It shows your humility of high standards and congratulations for
the same. The issue @ hand could better be viewed as one of human failings,
instead of treating it as 'Gender' oriented. After all,Men and Women have by the
very upbringing have their own way of giving vent to their feelings, emotions,
etc.

from:  T. R. Kothandaraman
Posted on: Jul 29, 2013 at 03:14 IST
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