Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Left, Right and Centre: or, Jerry Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aya

On 14 July, a day after the latest violent attack in the city of Bombay, NDTV put together a panel to discuss the issues flowing out of this occurrence. One of the guests invited to participate in this discussion was Jerry Pinto. Jerry Pinto is an articulate voice from Bombay, a litterateur and journalist. When he was invited to join the discussion however, Jerry Pinto exploded and he let the host and the other participants have it.

Why did Jerry Pinto get annoyed? Unfortunately for us, in losing his poise, Mr. Pinto seemed to have lost the opportunity to make calmer and more collected an argument. However, because he lost control and let his emotions run loose, it seems his breaking from the script, allowed us to understand a couple of issues regarding the manner in which the latest attacks on Bombay are being responded to.

Initially fazed by his outburst, Nidhi Razdan, the host of the show eventually ventured to try and gain control of the situation. ‘Tell us how you feel!’ she cooed, ‘what is going through your mind.’ Tell us how he feels? But surely madam, he was telling us exactly how he felt! He was telling us that he felt awful, that the city he was a part of had been attacked, and that the manner in which NDTV sought to deal with the issue was to merely harvest the grief, he called it a ‘camera rape’, of those who had lost friends or family for the benefit of its TRPs.

What seemed to enrage Mr. Pinto further however, was the fact that while it was Bombay that had been attacked, it had taken all of 31 minutes for the host of the show to invite a Bombay voice into the discussion. And when this Bombay voice was summoned into the discussion, it was not to ask for an independent opinion to be articulated, but for this Bombay voice (that of Jerry Pinto) to perform the usual monkey-trick of responding to that cliché ‘the resilient spirit of Bombay’.

But in her response to Mr. Pinto’s further fusillade, Ms. Nidhi Razdan, provided a further demonstration of the manner in which NDTV is part of a larger system that harvests grief and other sentiments born from vulnerability, for its centralizing purposes.

Mr. Pinto’s first couple of responses to the invitation to join the discussion was to ask why the issue had become something that would be discussed by ‘Delhi people will talk about, in Delhi, as if it had nothing to do with Bombay.’ As with his remark discussed earlier, this was part of a demand that Bombay, and its citizens, be addressed, and asked to participate more meaningfully in responding to the blasts. There was sentient life, Mr. Pinto was suggesting, outside of Delhi. Through the blasts, this life had been temporarily deprived of agency, and what NDTV was doing by engaging with citizens of the city so superficially was to add to the sense of helplessness. To this thread of thought, Mr. Razdan, responded ‘But, Mr. Pinto, don’t get upset, Mumbai is a part of India, and so we are all upset’. And later ‘Mumbai is a part of India, and that is why people in Delhi will talk about it’.

Ms. Razdan has internalized nationalist logics so completely that it appears she did not realize how infuriating, and at the same time painfully hilarious, her trite formulations were. Thus she glibly compared the violence and disturbances in Kashmir (‘the State of Jammu and Kashmir’ as she so touchingly put it) to the violence and disturbance in Bombay. Indian nationalism has so effectively tailored her vision that she is unable to see the radically differences that both cause and attend upon the violence in these two radically different spaces. She also failed to see that one of the central points that Mr. Pinto was making is that just because it is an Indian city, it does not allow for persons in Delhi, to hijack the issue and determine the contours of the response to the incident.

If Mr. Pinto was speaking from his heart, then the panel in Delhi was ‘discussing it as if nothing had ever happened’, or discussing the matter ‘in abstractions’. What was being discussed in the NDTV studio was the imperial Indian response to the occurrence in Bombay. In that studio in Delhi, the trauma and emotions of the people in Bombay, were being harvested by NDTV, and through the public policy comments by the members of the panel, converted into a ‘national issue’ and the path that India would now have to take. Interestingly, in the course of this national policy discussion, it fell to just one person, Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer, to point out that the possible culprits could also be Col. Purohit, thus disrupting the Hindu nationalist rhetoric that had until then quite calmly held sway.

While Mr. Aiyer remained the sole sensible, balanced voice in the discussion, had there been more sentient voices from Bombay perhaps the response would have been more appropriate to the moment. How does one reach out to a city that is both hurting and afraid? Perhaps that option would have allowed us a route out of the clichés that both Ms. Razdan, and subsequently a dramatically drenched Barkha Dutt offered the viewer.

There is much that is deeply disturbing about NDTV (and other similarly placed TV news channels in India). The least troublesome is the fact that they harvest and manipulate the emotions of viewers for the sake of their TRPs, and to create a jingoist nationalist audience that is unable to do more than bay for blood in name of the greater glory of India.

More bothersome however is the fact that NDTV seems consistently unable to respond to the more complex thoughts that are presented to it in the voices that it sometimes brings into the studios. NDTV has its own little script, one that is based on the interests and aspirations of a small group of middle-class nationalists in Delhi. Indeed, this class can well be said to be the inheritors of the multi-ethnic, pluri-religious 'nationalist class' that effectively determined 'national' agendas in the first few decades of Indian independence. It is their narrow and self-serving agenda that largely determines the manner in which an issue will be responded to, and this is the perspective that they force everyone else to internalize, limiting scope for any divergent thinking in this large, complex and diverse country. What this group and NDTV does not seem to realize however, is that Jerry Pinto's outburst, was only a sign of the times. There is a very genuine fatigue with the manner in which 'Delhiwallas', a code-word for this group of self-obsessed elites from all parts of the country, divert and demand attention and all manner of resources to their narrow, limited interests.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 20 July 2011)

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