Nirmal Shekar

The intruder issue: what it tells us about ourselves

It was as if India had already won a gold medal before the Opening Ceremony of the London Games was over. For two full days and more, one person and her audacious presence at the Olympic stadium drew the attention of news-consumers in a nation of more than one billion people — a nation that is yet to win more than a solitary gold medal in any single Olympics.

But Madhura Nagendra, an attractive young post-graduate student from Bangalore, accomplished more than any Indian athlete — in terms of keeping the media’s attention on her — without a single jump or sprint or anything that a sportsperson might do to try and win the most coveted prize in sport.

No evil intentions

And what did she do? Well, there are conflicting reports as to what brought the young lady her 15 minutes of fame. But this much is clear: she had no evil intentions and her presence among the Indian contingent during the march-past could hardly be termed a security threat to the athletes.

Apparently, she was selected by the director of the Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle, for a dance performance and was also told to accompany the Indian contingent to the ground. Like an usher joining the genuine ticket-holders to an opera, the young woman sneaked into the parade.

The earth didn’t shake. Nobody was killed. She did not attempt to wrestle her companion Sushil Kumar, India’s flag-bearer, to the ground. Nor did she carry any suspicious backpack that would have drawn the attention of the security staff. In a sea of yellow, she was a lovely woman in red and blue.

Unnecessary hype

While Madhura did not belong there, and it was a serious transgression on her part — or perhaps a misunderstanding, for she might have believed that to “accompany” meant that she had to do the entire round with the contingent — the way the media went ballistic about the event tells us a lot about ourselves and the age in which we live.

Perhaps the media — and many of us individually — appear to be so much on edge these days because of frequent terrorism-related events and we cannot anymore treat a trivial, harmless breach of protocol for what it is.

We see red — in this case, literally — when there is no cause for alarm. What was striking was the stunning banality of the whole thing. In another age, one without 24/7 television, Facebook and Twitter, most people might have had a hearty laugh over the whole affair with a cup of coffee or a pint of lager.

But not in this day and age. It took all of 0.15 seconds on Google search to find 68,000 results for Madhura. I wonder if even India’s first medallist in this Olympics, Gagan Narang, will get to embrace this much fame in such a short time.

What does the ‘intruder’ story tell us about ourselves? Surely, very little in positive terms. What modern technology has done to us in the media landscape is to turn us into trivia-loving robots without any sense of proportion.

Whether the media alone are responsible for this is debatable. It is a vicious cycle. We are constantly fed trash that the media believe we’d lap up gleefully time and again, without any nuanced understanding of the events. And this has led to a point where we do not seem to know what is important and significant, and what is not.

Drought, poverty, homelessness, unemployment and climate change — issues that might well determine the fate of our species in the medium to long term — are no more than a blip in our consciousness, compared to our appetite for Madhura-type stories.

Dominant yearning

Give us something that we can chew on right now, seems to be the dominant yearning. In a way, we might well have attained a Buddha-type enlightenment. For the past and the future don’t seem to exist. We live in the now, for instant gratification. And the media as well as the social networks come in rather handy.

It is as if, everyday life, for most of us, is so boring and colourless that we find it impossible not to partake in such ‘sensational’ offerings from the media. In an age of ephemera, these luxuriously superficial things bring us some succour in our mundane lives.

The point about all this is simple: when truth — which is that the Madhura issue is a non-issue — gets in the way of a good story, we have to simply brush it aside.

Who cares if Indian cities and towns are turning out to be among the most unsafe places for young women? A few years ago, Robert Procter, science historian at Stanford, wrote about agnotology, which is nothing but the cultural production of ignorance.

There is plenty of it in India today. Agnotology is en vogue in our world of crass commerce and shrill, soul-shattering information-overload.

Albert Camus, the great existential philosopher and writer, often said that it was the quality of experience and not the quantity that mattered. But in our 24/7-Facebook-Twitter world, such an elevation of consciousness — especially when it comes to consumption of ‘news’ — appears next to impossible. Our experiences are the lens through which we view life. And Madhura-type experiences created by sections of the media that were clearly over the top hardly help in being fair to our own refined consciousness.

But then, why should truth be fair?

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 6:19:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/the-intruder-issue-what-it-tells-us-about-ourselves/article3705181.ece

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