Every student of mass communication these days seems to be familiar with the quote that journalism is literature in a hurry. I have my reservations on that score. If you call the work of the hack literature, you are implying that it has a fictional element, and that puts it well beyond the pale of the bare, unvarnished truth. This gives the member of the fourth estate the liberty to embellish on facts, and colour reports with his imagination, rendering the whole report as yellow as the liver of a die hard dipsomaniac. This is exactly what a great many of our tribe are doing at this very moment and we all know it is not because they have some frustrated literary ambitions, but because they have an axe to grind, or scores to settle.
However, this piece is not meant as a diatribe against journos who are low down on the morality scale. It is not for me to judge them, for I am frankly clueless about the pulls and pressures under which they operate. If they have fallen low, at least they have raised circulation sky-high, and at the end of the day, I suppose that is what matters.
Successful media persons have often been described as hard nosed. I feel being hard nosed is a singularly painful physical condition, as bad as a stiff neck, and does nothing for your looks. It also implies that you burrow your hardy nose like a pig’s snout through the slush of conjectures to get to the truth. This image is especially demeaning when it describes lady scribes, because if you think of it, both Barkha Dutt and Christiane Amanpour are doing fine without looking like they have unyielding noses, thank you.
Now we move on to columnists and columns. What really is expected of a columnist? Are readers looking for a specialist’s opinion on matters ranging from politics to the ethics of cloning? Are these scribblers expected to take a stand on an issue, and help the masses arrive at a consensus? Or is it his business to catch the passing moment and make sense of it? It is perhaps all of this and much more. As for this column, I only do what women do best – talk. It is a meandering, spontaneous conversation with all the men and women out there, most of whom I do not know and will never meet in this lifetime, but feel like friends who are waiting to listen and accept or disagree with what I have to tell them. In this, there is effort, of course, frantic hurry and a bit of literature as well. Memories are evoked, an atmosphere is created, different moods are played with, like riffs of a guitar or colours on an easel. There are twists and turns, pathos and comedy, characters stride past and a denouement is reached. When it is done, there is none of the specialist’s smugness about changing the world, but only the desperate hope it finds a resonance, creating, a feeling that, inspite of all our strife and our differences, we are fundamentally one.
Recently, I read a remarkable book -The Soloist by Steve Lopez, now made into a film starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Searching for material, he walks the streets of the city and comes across Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless African American tramp playing a two string violin at Skid Row. Lopez strikes up a friendship with him, and discovers Ayers has schizophrenia, which ended his stint at Juliard, one of the country’s most prestigious music institutes, and drove him to the streets.
Readers of the paper were hooked to this story of a gifted musician and his unravelling life. Letters and e-mails flooded in with words of encouragement and offers for help. Lopez was able to convince Nathaniel to settle into a facility and begin treatment. Lopez has put a very human face to serious mental health issues. His riveting story became a personal crusade for awareness and change.
Instead of looking for material in others, a British journalist whose name eludes my memory is a character who inhabits his own columns, getting roaringly drunk, swearing about unpaid taxes and a litigating ex-wife, letting it all hang out, without the slightest wish to redeem himself in the public eye. The public seems to love him, for he’s been going at it for years. On the other hand, we have the great Indian journalist Sham Lal, who wrote about everything for politics to art to cinema, without letting in a whiff about this personal life. It is a strange coincidence that great writers-ranging from Hemingway to Marquez-worked in newspapers. That may explain in part why, by virtue of being so close to the truths of life, they could bring authenticity to their literary efforts.
In the case of this humble penpusher, perhaps the reverse is true. Living as I do in a troubled hotspot of the world, where one is no stranger to the barbarity of man, and working in a newspaper which is where every telephone call is pregnant with the possibility of carrying bad tidings, there is an instinctive need to perhaps avoid the truth and create an illusion of peace, happiness and laughter. This escape route always leads to a magical town of the sixties and the seventies, where pony carts creaked along twisted rain slicked streets, and the soughing of pines was all you could hear on still, sunlit afternoons. Apple-cheeked school children aimed slingshots at sparrows and oars dipped on the tranquil lake. It was a town that dreamed as church bells tolled, a town on the edge of nowhere, a place that perhaps lives only in our collective consciousness, with a yearning for the lost innocence it embodies. Like Yeats isle of Inisfree, Shillong remains a haven so many of us long to escape to, and live a life that is simple and uncomplicated. Yes, this little town is a character who refuses to go away and arrives unbidden when I put pen to paper.
Another character who floats into my scribblings is a person I saw only once. In that lost childhood of the past, I faintly remember a dark, stooping man, with a grey beard and a loose kurta, thick lensed glasses magnifying his tired eyes. With a courtly flourish and shy tenderness, he took measurements for my frock, as I, an eight-year-old, stared at his sewing machine, the clothes folded on hangers, the shreds of material and shiny buttons strewn all across his untidy little shop. Days later, we went to get my dress. Only one slat of the wooden shutter was open and a man came from within, handing us the packet as he took in the slip. The tailor had hung himself the previous night in that very shop, and mine was one of the last garments he had stitched. For a long time, whenever I wore that brilliant pink frock, and touched its exquisite little frills, and marvelled how it fitted so perfectly, I remembered with an aching pain that gentle, silent man, and invented a thousand reasons as to why he gave up on life. He taught me for the first time that life was unpredictable and capricious, and people were inscrutable, unknowable and that great tragedies touched even the humblest people.
But not everyone is linked to sadness. My friend Sarita, not her real name, seems to be a fictitious character who just happened to actually exist. Her exploits made other achievements of our batchmates pale into significance. Today, almost three decades after we left school, we continue to jabber excitedly whenever her name is mentioned. It is not that she was exceptionally beautiful or glamorous. Nobody can accuse her of being intelligent, she barely scraped through the exams. Then why this lasting fascination? Well, Sarita had the bravado to give in to instinct, walk the wild side, while the rest of us were busy being strait-laced prudes. One fine day, I accompanied her from school to hand over a cheque to the Deputy Commissioner for the Chief Minister’s flood relief fund. On our way back, she browbeat me into going to the museum, and for a whole agonising hour, I paced outside while she bonded big time with her boyfriend within. I had never before, in my short life, seen a human being who was someone’s boyfriend and I stared shocked at him, as if he were an alien from outer space. Sarita continued using whatever brains she had in staging sensational escapades from school, and I have a sneaky feeling that our censure had more to do with pure, unalloyed envy than any ethical considerations. Some years down the line, I saw her with her husband, a prosperous looking man who was certainly not the boyfriend I had seen. Sarita did have brains after all. She chose money over heart, but all the respectability she has now will never silence the excited comments her name still evokes. As for the one who topped our class – well, we don’t even remember her name. Telling, isn’t it?
I also remember the aspiring singer, a minor Government official, who brought out a music album braving the full force of his antagonistic wife and offspring; the lonely orphan girl who leads a precarious existence in this vast, soulless city, fighting to earn a living without turning to callous relatives for help. Every time she brings us some piece she has written, it is as if she needs a vindication she exists. How can I forget, too, the weather beaten woman I met in a chance encounter, who waited for her dying husband’s ordeal to end with the rugged patience of an ancient tree? Let others write of issues, let the experts pontificate, but we do need to record the life of everyman, and find in their deeds and destinies all that is enduring and noble. As Terence said it so long ago: “I am human and everything human is of interest to me.”