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Reading between the lines

What do most newspaper-reading Indians relish, asks RUKUN ADVANI.

THE main reading matter of the day for most urban Indians comes in early morning from under the door. It consists of the following subjects: first, the petty political tyranny of elected leaders; second, the everyday despotism of the bureaucracy; third, the racketeering of the stock markets; fourth, the never- ending, always inconclusive and crashingly boring discussions between India and Pakistan; fifth, the fluctuations in the romantic lives of Bollywood stars and cricketing heroes; and sixth, sundry sports news, with the strong possibility that half the games described have been fixed before the players took to the field.

An overwhelming consensus has been reached by all of India's newspapers, magazines and television media networks that this monotony is what will please a whole nation as its reading material before it tootles off in the direction of the potty. A historian in the archives 50 years from now, reading the newspapers of say the past few years, could be forgiven for wondering if, instead of ploughing through the whole repetitive heap, it would make much difference to his general picture of India between 1996 and 2001 if he read just one or two.

All the news is about the misdeeds of people who either rule over us or are more powerful than the people reading the papers. Alternatively, it is about corruption and disaster of one kind or another: every few days the unfailing litany of political garbage is interrupted by some sufficiently horrific apocalypse which manages to temporarily disengage our minds from whether Jayalalithaa is a female reincarnation of Soviet Stalin or whether the local Stalin is only Jayalalithaa in trousers: an earthquake diverts us from such disgendered speculation, or a train goes through a hole in a bridge and offers us nightmares as a change from political evil. But if we hope that natural or man- made catastrophe will, for a short while, yield us some little relief from the overwhelming inanities of the thugs, politicians and gangsters whom we democratically put in place so that they loot us all equally (unlike the East India Company, which looted us selectively), we are wrong.

In India even news of devastation is taken over by the forgettable names of ministers who have "rushed to the trouble spot" and refused to resign, by the precise measliness of the sum assured by these khadi criminals to the "next of kin" of those who have perished, and by the names of "sitting judges" who will deliver the country a white paper or a judicial inquiry for which they will be paid until they retire and for which neither the country nor the government cares two hoots to start with.

Each newspaper story lasts perhaps three or four days, never more, and we forget all newspaper stories almost the moment we have finished reading them. If you think about it, a few months ago we were all being nationalistically exhorted by the media to hate Pervez Musharraf as the great betrayer of the Lahore Bus Diplomacy; now we are all being told to look benignly upon him for inviting Vajpayee to catch another bus. The cliched English in which all these newspaper stories and information are purveyed would seem to suggest, moreover, that the people who ruled the country for 200 years were some variety of Biharis, not Brits.

Yet we do not just put up with this trash day after day, we actually feel vaguely miffed if the newspaper does not come through the door in time, or if it is January 27 and there is no hope of it coming in at all. Why? There must be some completely illogical, irrational, unreasonable, Freudian, Jungian, Marxian, Darwinian, Nietzschean, Schopenhauerian, or ridiculous Wittgensteinian explanation for millions of people behaving like newsprint junkies and wanting to read certifiable garbage before breakfast each morning.

The psychoanalytic theory, soon to be confirmed by research in the human genome project, is that over the years the smell of low-grade newsprint stories has chromosomally imprinted itself into the muscles which control the release of Indian bowels, making them an indispensable antidote to constipation. Another notion is that, having worshipped the cow for centuries, the Indian majority has itself been transformed into a species of cud-chewing bovine, with newsprint being its version of cud.

There are other possible explanations. One of these is that since most Indians live in conditions of considerable everyday suffering themselves, they are not interested in being dished out, first thing each day, merely pathetic real-life stories of fellow-victims who have suffered exceptionally. Sainath's moving tales of the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the drought- stricken, we see, are only in the Sunday supplements. On a daily basis it seems altogether pleasanter to read about disasters as unusually large events that did not really result in victims or human suffering, and newspapers render their readers a sanitary service by writing about them as occasions for ministerial power parades.

A second explanation, from quite another angle, is that as everyday victims themselves, Indian newspaper-readers relish stories of disaster for revealing a degree of suffering even greater than their own: such stories make them feel they have had a stroke of good luck each day in having escaped both cataclysm and the crocodile tears of an ambulance-chasing mantri. And the peoples' obvious delight in newspaper stories of political corruption is explicable in a related manner: it holds out the hope of great future suffering for ministers when they are eventually nailed for corruption.

This hope is always belied by the obvious collusion of the Judiciary with the political and administrative classes, but newspaper-reading Indians cling to every straw and the hope of justice - even if it is only in the afterlife, or after Kaliyuga has ended - lingers eternal in our collective breast.

Whatever the explanation, when it comes to what we want to devour first thing every day, we want something meaty, something juicy, something exciting, something escapist, something which reveals a world beyond the daily grind of office, a universe made up of people more powerful than the one we inhabit - the world of Stalins and Jayalalithaas, of Souravs and Sachins, of wielders of batons and bats, of the suited and the booted. All this is much nicer to think about in a taxi or a train and gossip about during the lunch break than the woes of victims. The historian Sumit Sarkar argues, in an essay on Ramakrishma Paramahansa, that the Bengali saint exercised such a powerful appeal on the Bengali middle classes precisely because he managed to captivate his listeners - babus and clerks and harassed housewives - with a spiritual universe which seemed to transcend the oppressive boundaries within which they lived a routinised life of bread- earning drudgery. It might be stretching it rather to suggest that the escape offered by the media today corresponds in some ways with the one offered by Ramakrishna yesterday, but let us stretch it anyway and suggest it all the same: only historians fearfully qualify every statement lest their readers start thinking they possess imagination.

Other, more minor, ways of accounting for the success of generally atrocious newspapers are the inertia of settled habit, the need to look up advertisements, an addiction to cartoon strips and crosswords, the occasional evidence of intelligence in editorial pages and pull-out supplements, an altruistic commitment to maintaining the standard of life of one's kabadi- wallah, the possibility of using newspaper as fish-and-chips oil- blotter, the vague possibility of using newsprint as toilet paper, the greater potential of folding it up into a fly-swat, and finally the unaccountable human masochistic love for reading matter that is unredeemably bad.

Consider the following: would any man in his right mind actually pay out money these days to suffer the insult of having bad- quality paper shoved under his door day after day if he were not interested in R. K. Laxman, "Phantom", "Redeye", "Beetle Bailey", "Dennis the Menace", "Moose Miller", "Chubb & Chauncey" and the job ads? Would literate Indians pay for such paper now if they were not sometimes crossword-addicts, or as idly habituated for generations into clutching and folding stupidly large sheets of paper as to drinking coffee and tea? And as for getting one's little bit of daily masochistic pleasure, what could be easier than getting such a load of rubbish to read for as little as a rupee or two?

Rukun Advani is the author of Beethoven Among the Cows and runs Permanent Black, a publishing company in New Delhi.

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