#Jayalalithaa: Feared, hated, admired, deified. Never loved.

The year was 1982 and I was a rookie reporter out on one of my first assignments.  Jayalalithaa (then spelt with a single ‘a’) had been invited to meet the press at the Chennai (then Madras) Press Club. A couple of days earlier Chennai dailies had featured a photograph prominently on their front pages: it was of Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran sitting together and watching the Asian Games. The Chief Reporter of the daily I was interning at had asked me to attend the Press Club meet. He also told me to ask Jayalalithaa a specific question: What did she feel about the photograph of her and M G Ramachandran featured on the front pages of the newspapers?

I was excited about the assignment and, when I got the chance to ask a question, naively reeled off the one my Chief had ‘planted’ on me.  I don’t remember the answer Jayalalithaa  gave, but the question or the answer to it set off a flurry of ancillary questions from other hacks at the venue, which prompted the moderator to intervene and say, ‘She is our guest and I request you all to give her the respect due to a guest,’ or words to that effect.

The next morning, when I entered the newsroom, spread across the tables were several vernacular dailies, each with screaming headlines gloating over how a young reporter had taken on Jayalalithaa. The Chief welcomed me with a huge grin and an exuberant ‘Bravo!’ But a senior correspondent was on the phone explaining to someone on the other side, ‘She’s just an intern, very new to the job, you know …’ She looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘Whatever made you ask her such a question?’ I had obviously stirred up a hornet’s nest!  When I explained that it was the Chief’s idea, the correspondent looked daggers at him. He guffawed, mightily amused.  I was flummoxed. My senior then advised me to be more circumspect.

When I reached home that night, my mother was excited and agitated: she had been attending calls all day enquiring if there was someone at home who was working in a newspaper and asking to talk to that person!

As televisions beamed Jayalalithaa’s final journey yesterday, I was reminded of the intangible fear and the very tangible hatred that seemed to hang about in the newsroom that day in 1982. But yesterday there was only mass adulation on display including of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Rigid political divisions dissolved in a universal admiration of her indomitable spirit. Even the media embraced her.

Fear and hate were no longer relevant as the entity that provoked those emotions was no more; but love was absent: there was no family, no friend, none she could call her own: As in life, so in death, Jayalalithaa was towering but alone.

Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

#DonaldTrump, #NarendraModi and the Media

The so-called ‘Hindu’ Right’s fondness for them is not the only factor that Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have in common. They also share the mainstream media’s hatred. Hacks rip the remarks of these men out of context, view their words through deep yellow lenses, and go blue in the face trying to cause the maximum damage to their bête noires.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, ‘the puppy analogy’ as it came to be known was repeatedly thrown at the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. A Reuter’s interviewer asked Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, about the mob killing of scores of Muslims in his state in 2002 after the burning of a train carrying Hindu devotees:

 Do you regret what happened?, Modi was asked.

“…if we are driving a car.. even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad…” replied Modi (see more of the interview here).

The media and its minions pilloried Modi and his mindset, claiming he had compared Muslims to dogs. The interview was in English, but even on English television channels, anchors and panellists would deliberately translate his remark into the vernacular as the corresponding Hindi expletive ‘kutta ke bachcha’ is particularly provocative and damaging. Incidentally, soon after the #GujaratRiots, Modi had been asked about it by another anchor for an Indian channel. Modi’s response had been similar. But Modi had then used the analogy of a flower that gets crushed. (You can catch the 2004 interview with Shekhar Gupta for NDTV here)

Trump has, similarly, been derided today for ‘his unwillingness’ to ‘respect the integrity of the electoral process’ and for ‘challenging one of the pillars of American democracy’:

Trump was asked whether he would accept the electoral verdict, regardless of the outcome.

 Trump said “I will look at it at that time.”

 And then, after a lengthy explanation about the reasons why he thinks the election isn’t free and fair – corrupt media, crooked Hillary and all the rest – he was brought back to the topic.

  “…Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” asked Chris Wallace.

  Trump, in his characteristic, sardonic way, said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

It was a spontaneous attempt at irony, no more – for where is the question of not conceding? It is a non-sequitur.

In the second debate, a fortnight or so ago, Trump was torn to pieces for “threatening to jail Hillary”.

Hillary’s said, ‘… it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.’

Trump met the spiteful comment with a dry, ‘Because you’d be in jail.’

The drollness was lost on the media and the question of Hillary’s disappearing e-mails escaped scrutiny in the hullaballoo the media contrived to cause over just a bit of wit – probably unexpected, and therefore unacceptable?

To end with a #Trump-Modi comparison again, all those who are Modi haters, and therefore Trump haters as well, would be on the side of the media that is revelling in pouring scorn on Trump right now for his horrifying “lack of presidential temperament” in seeming to question the electoral process, one of the pillars of American democracy. Interestingly, their clique in India is the very same group that talks of Modi as “your” Prime Minister, refusing to concede that he is their Prime Minister too as he is the Prime Minister of all of India, elected by a popular mandate that they were not able to undermine despite their raucous clamour.

#ModiMeetsThePress

 

The Prime Minister of India met the Press today. As always, on his own terms. He came. He spoke. He walked off or rather walked into the crowd of celebrity journalists, generously disbursed handshakes – hundreds of them, stuck a broad smile on his face for scores of selfies, spouted a few trademark one-liners, and went off without answering a single question. But none of the media anchors seemed to be complaining – not even the hard-boiled ones. Indeed, they had spent a couple of hours speculating over all the Ws and the H of the meeting. What was it all about? Why was it being held? Who were all invited and attending? And, how would it all end up! Well, to me it seemed it ended up with the media having egg on their face, but which they were loath to either see or wipe off. The last I heard, they were still going gaga over what a great guy Modi was, to have simply shaken their hands!!

Is this what the media in India has come to? Granted journalists in India are so starved of soundbytes from the powers that be they have forgotten what a true interaction with the press ought to be. Still it seems comical, even absurd, that 200+ hacks could wait 2 hours simply to get a handshake and a selfie with a PM, and to have tea and biscuits without him, even if the PM is the man for whom the clock never stops.