How to Get Away with Any Kind of Reporting in India

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What follows is a response, partly visceral, to NYT’s piece How To Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India by its India bureau chief Ellen Barry, this week.

It isn’t a personal attack on Ellen Barry. The piece is very well written and would hold for me as a sample of impactful writing,  It is also not meant to be an emotive response charged with nationalistic pride, which is likely to condemn such critical reports about law and order, enforcement of law etc in India. Instead, this is about trying to understand power dynamics that come into affect when foreign correspondents take liberty to report in such critical undertone selectively and from only certain parts of the world. Where, one needs to ask, does this tone disappear when the same media outfits report from their own countries or from economic superpowers like the United States. Any chance that what happened in Charlottesville could have been reported in the same seemingly cold detail, daring and assertive in tone as the piece from India? My guess is – no! Of course, NYT wouldn’t let that get through when it is goes against powerful governments or when it steps on any of its benefactor’s feet (for instance, does anyone recall any criticism about billionaire Carlos Slim and majority stakeholder in NYT, published by NYT?).  If they did report with uniform and impartial standards, Charlottesville event would look something like this. To clarify again, focus of this piece is international power relationships and role of media within the web of these relationships. It is not us vs. them even in the faintest implication.

This applies to foreign correspondents in India, particularly from influential media houses based in US and Europe, who live and operate under the impression that they represent free, fair and independent press and its values. This is self-delusion. Self-righteous groups of foreign correspondent tend to suffer this as a chronic ailment. If this was indeed true about their conduct, headline as this – How To Get Away With Murder in Small-Town Indiaor similar in its provocativeness should have emerged from several other parts of the world where the correspondent herself or their newspaper’s bureau is working from. Why, in this case didn’t we see such an allegedly bold reporting from Moscow when Ellen Barry was a correspondent there? Is it because there were no murders in small-town Russia? It would be laughable to suggest that.

It was interesting to see Barry’s tweet being shared so many times and Indian journalists hailing that as a fine piece of reporting from India. I ask them, will they ever be able to write a piece like this as a correspondent anywhere in Western Europe or US?

In short, a part of my argument is similar to what Barry reports as a quote from a conversation with the police constable, in the article –

“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’”

It must be acknowledged that Barry reports this in fairness. Also, that this is what Barry herself might end up doing even with all her good intentions. With NYT’s readership, does the author have any idea how this piece shapes opinion about India for its readers outside of the country, when, the same or much heinous acts are being committed in several different societies across the word, which, are not being reported for a variety of reasons. The erasure of such reports from other parts is what I allege as being unfair. Some journalists may pounce as soon as this argument is made, by arguing that a journalist’s job is to report stories and that is that. In my opinion, the job is half-done (and should be condemned), if it conveniently maintains silence when the same happens elsewhere in the world. What then, the media presents is an incomplete view of the world, to put it mildly.

Reading Barry’s piece doesn’t hurt my pride in being Indian. It frustrates me to see this variety of reporting only from a world where the correspondents can get away with it! An average citizen like the police constable that Barry speaks to, can see these dynamics, and understand them well too. Don’t take that for him being naive enough to tell you the truth, only because of your exceptional investigative journalism skills.

On a slightly different note, Binyawanga’s stunning piece How to Write About Africa comes to mind. Makes a remarkable read for what writing on Africa looks like and native authors’ view on it.

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A four year story

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Sumavanam School

Madanapalle

This is a relationship that began with a term paper and turned into what seems to be a life long association with a duo who have helped an ignorant mind understand the fine print that life sometimes comes with and which some fail to grasp. Rode down to meet a couple who founded a school for kids in villages around Madanapalle over thirty five years back. The school shut down this year – no teachers to be had in this village. The city-dwelling find it too distant and remote to live on this farm cum school. The village-dwelling aren’t quite making it to higher education. So that rings in the closure.

Meanwhile, the couple lives on, amidst their farm, a dog, shut classrooms, late May rains and a stunning landscape. We share lunch, plenty of conversations and memories of years gone by. Every little instance from their past comes with a hook into the present. Their lives run like a constant background process in my head to score my life against and sometimes compare if I will ever experience the satisfaction and the sense of compose that comes from having lived for an idea. On that noon in Sumavanam I could only admire and feel a bit struck by the life these two chose to live and the sense of quiet that prevails in their minds and on the farm.

Far from it, I continue to dwell in my chaos and clutter.

Pace of things around

 

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In the distant horizon was a bullock-cart rolling away. On the straight road this distance was over a kilometer. Pace was on my mind this evening – of things around, of me running and of Scott’s during Sparthathlon. I was trying to think what a pace of 7 min per mile takes after having done 130 miles of a 160 mile race. It is clearly beyond me at the moment.

A flock of parrots sped past flying low. I counted ten of them. It was a marvelous site when in their high speed flight the group which flew in formation of an arrow head, split every so swiftly, negotiating a neem tree ahead on their flight path. Then they grouped as easily, all the while maintaining their pace. What a sight, it was!

By this time I was closing in on the bullock cart. Almost all the men driving these carts are old. There is hardly a young man or woman that I have seen driving bullock carts in these several years that I have seen them in different regions. Is it that a cart’s pace can no longer hold the young? Almost all of them are on some form of automobile. Perhaps, only the old timers can be at ease and be okay to move at that pace of bullock-carts. By now, I had crossed the cart which was about a kilometer ahead of me on the straight road. In the next few minutes I cross two more of them.

I thought of my slowed down Grandpa because this week they tried a new bone implant in his leg and removed it, for his bones have gone too weak for this. A railway man, who once used to walk down the length of entire freight rakes of fifty-four wagons, everyday. At ninety, he is slowed such that several minutes pass before he manages to muster strength to put one foot ahead of the other. Life has slowed down phenomenally for him. These days, his children and grandchildren often run out of patience with his pace.

On the return lap, a high speed train sped through the landscape knifing that space where the green of fields met the blue of horizon. Again a thrilling sight, unlike any other in the world. May be I am a biased to these Indian landscapes. But even those Dutch trains, rolling across the scenic landscapes of Harlem, on ward to Rotterdam, didn’t  appear as lovely. There was something sterile about them. May be it is the thrill of locomotive horn from a distance and the anticipation that it builds up on the level crossings where people and traffic wait for the speeding train.

Different paces were noted in a magnified sense on this evening’s run. Paces registered with a heightened sense of awareness almost anew.

And then, I began fretting over Ladakh Marathon next month where I might not be able to sustain any respectable pace at 4500 meter altitude. Four weeks to go. Hope I manage to put in enough number of runs before that. To Ladakh this season!