All the news unfit to print

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Exif_JPEG_420In 2001, famous Hindi editor Mrinal Pande wrote out a thinly disguised autobiographical book My Own Witness. For the first time, it offered a look inside a popular TV channel, writing with disdain of the puffed up English journalists who gave short shrift to their Hindi channel counterparts. A year later came Kanika Gahlaut’s Among the Chatterati: The Diary of a Page Three Hack, a humorous take on reporting on high society and the election campaigns of high profile candidates like Naina Balsavar and Varun Gandhi. This gave birth to a whole new genre where journalists parodied their own bosses and workplaces, like Prabhat Shunglu’s Newsroom Live (2012), that captured the “shenanigans of the newsroom and its illicit relationship with power corridors and corporate sharks.” This summer comes Manjula Lal’s That’s News to Me: A Presswallah’s Journey that takes satire and droll humour to a whole new level. Here the protagonist Manush is also a promiscuous rake, allowing a generous sprinkling of masala in a plot full of surprising twists and unexpected turns. The three-saga tale is set in Noida, New Delhi, and Gurgaon, symbolising the feudal past, the professional present and the farcical future of journalism.

Extract
Govil had chosen Chaturjee precisely because he had been told the man was not the typical intellectual editor spouting ideals like secularism and socialism which made no sense to a businessman. Chaturjee didn’t talk of liberalspaces and freedom of expression, although Govil was vaguely aware they were concepts he should hone up on in case the government of the day tried to clamp down on the press in general and his little empire in particular, and he was approached for sound bytes by TV channels. All he wanted from Capital Times was that in times when his other businesses ran into trouble, the government wouldn’t dare finger you too muchhometownbecause you had a platform to shout back from. He didn’t really care what they were putting out as long as it spelt good business—more circulation, more advertisements.

That Govil had decided to venture out of his family business, jewellery, was a secret well known to nosy journalists putting away peg after peg at the Press Club as if tomorrow was going to be a dry day. They didn’t know he was venturing into riskier areas, especially land-grabs.

As soon as Chaturjee entered the room, Govil got up and shook his hand. He was still at the stage of being polite to editors, a practice most owners gradually wearied of, as realisation dawned that journalists didn’t return the compliment. He little knew that as the nation developed the evils of the corporate world need more and more spin to be digestible to the public at large, and journalists were the spin doctors who could put a gloss on shady business deals. 

‘I wanted to tell you,’ said Govil after ordering tea, ‘that you should have tighter control over the stories your reporters are doing.’

Chaturjee knew this generalisation was unwarranted: the owner probably wanted to talk about one reporter or one story that had hurt someone out there.

‘Has there been some mistake?’ he asked. ‘Wrong facts?’

Govil dropped the pretence of talking principles. ‘Not wrong facts, wrong target. Your Prabhakar wrote about gram panchayat land being illegally encroached on. In Madhya Pradesh.’

Chaturjee was blank. He had been on leave at the time. He said he would have to find the report and read it. He knew that the reporter, Prabhakar, often felt homesick for his home town, 30 km from Nagpur. This place, soaked in Hindu philosophy, was only 100 km from Ralegan Siddhi, where Anna Hazare had built an idyllic village. It was right in the Hindi heartland, untouched by the invaders from the north, the British from the east, the traders from the western ports of Madras and Bombay. He loved his Mahabharat and Ramayan and, at home, was a mama’s boy, reveling in superstitions, rituals, astrological charts, the fragrance of the agarbatti his mother lit every day. In cosmopolitan Delhi, he often felt homesick, and this was when he dug up some story idea from back home and begged Manush or Chaturjee to send him there. He must have prevailed upon Manush in Chaturjee’s absence.

Govil already had the clipping on the table. He handed it over. Chaturjee read it as well as he could without glasses.

‘Okay, what’s the problem? He’s talked to the Gram Pradhan, the district magistrate.’

‘Obviously they will talk,’ Govil said. ‘They’ll talk and talk. What else is there to do in the village? But why didn’t your reporter talk to the company setting up the cold storage? What about their side of the story?’

Chaturjee squinted at the clipping. It says here ‘repeated attempts to contact the cold storage owner failed.’ That means he did try.

‘He tried? That’s all? If he couldn’t get through, he shouldn’t have printed a one-sided story,’ Govil was still trying to hide his own personal anguish about the story.

Chaturjee only shrugged, ‘If we don’t get a rejoinder, we go ahead. Otherwise no story will ever get done. That’s how we work.’

Govil sat back and contemplated him. The tea being served gave both of them some breathing space.

 This was the juncture at which Chaturjee could have brought up the matter of night transport. The journalists had asked him to request the management not to go on with the system of hiring cabs to take staff home after the night shift. The cab drivers were on duty 24 hours and were hauled out of bed at any hour, however wee when a cab was called. In the earlier system, the newspaper maintained a fleet of cars and the drivers were full-time employees, with rights like eight-hour shifts, leave, and provident fund. Govil had shifted to the new system, succumbing to a transporter friend’s sales pitch. It was extremely unsafe for the staff to go home with drivers who could fall asleep at the driving wheel.

But Chaturjee chickened out. They didn’t call him SoB for nothing. He didn’t want Govil to think he was on the workers’ side. He had to be on the side of the management, especially where cost-cutting was concerned. Otherwise, why would the company pay his house rent and give him a chauffeur–driven car? He couldn’t have dreamed of such perks when he started his career. And he had risen to the top not by showing spine but by avoiding controversies.

After a bit of inconsequential chatter, Chaturjee got up. Govil knew the conversation was inconclusive, but let him go. He would make his point in some other way. After all, he was the piper who called the tune.

Lying on the floor of her one-room flat with the laptop propped up on a cushion on the floor, Shweta emailed Chaturjee the list of stories she proposed doing. She then keyed in what she had learnt that day—it had seemed too college-ish to take notes while the professor talked, and anyway what he was saying was so memorable she couldn’t have forgotten it.

TNTE

The story told by the professor unfolded thus: during the course of his research in rural indebtedness—yes, it was as old as the hills, and people like him had asked the government to tackle it first before everything else—the professor had searched for some farmers to take for case studies. Since the budget was low, he decided to look for examples on the outskirts of Delhi, and later venture further afield into Gurgaon and Noida. Right behind the university, he was told, some half-hearted farming was being done. So, one day he asked his research assistant to come in at 4 pm and they had driven for just two km on a dirt track off the tarred road when a modest, rundown homestead hove into view, a few goats and a cow giving a clear indication that this was a farmhouse of the original sort and not of the elite variety. And sitting in the courtyard, demarcated by only a barbed wire over which a creeper was growing, was an old couple—he, turbaned, straggly-bearded and she, cutting vegetables on That’s News To Me | 115 the floor, sporting the bush-shirt lehenga combine that was so Jat. They eyed him with the same lack of curiosity as they did the government officials who ventured into the area with their dubious questionnaires, their lack of interest in human issues and their refusal to provide any services unless palms were greased.

When the good professor explained his research, they nodded acquiescence and got a boy to bring out a couple of tin chairs as a gracious concession to the sedentary elite in its search for knowledge. While the student filled up the questionnaire, converting the minutiae of a human being’s life into deadly boring empirical data, the professor wandered around a bit, and found mustard fields swaying in the wind— not as far as eye could see, but only a good 1,000 metres or so (he was too citified to tell an acre from a bigha). He had to retreat hastily when a well-fed mongrel found its blissful solitude disturbed by the suspicious-smelling stranger. 

Then tea was served by a barely-in-her-teens girl with her head modestly covered. The two older gentlemen started exchanging pleasantries, ignoring the research assistant whose surreptitious glances at his watch were clear indications that he was worried about missing the last (direct) bus home. The farmer admitted that his younger son had no interest in farming, and was working as a gym instructor in the DDA sports complex nearby—a blessing, really, because most of the young men he knew were just lounging around the house or getting into trouble on Delhi’s streets, driving around in cars bought with the compensation money their parents got. When some Nepali labourers were available, some farming got done, but the boys knew little about climate and soil conditions in Delhi or about vegetation and were only doing the hard labour till they moved on to something better in life. In the Lal Dora areas, he pointed out, the government had bought huge swathes of land to build institutions like IIT Delhi, UGC, this and that Commission, this or that research institute. But it had run out of ideas and pointless missions and didn’t want to acquire more land. Developers, of course, were interested in buying his land, marking out small plots and building multi-storeys or farmhouses. But the government wasn’t allowing it, probably just because the government didn’t want to allow anything not already dreamt up by a town planner. He asked his learned acquaintance, mostly rhetorically: Couldn’t any solution be found?

Now the professor’s heart was racing. He was due to retire and had been agonising about where he would settle afterwards. He had thought about going back to Aligarh, where the ancestral mansion no doubt had a crumbling room or two for him, but his settling there was really a remote possibility. He hadn’t visited the place in twenty years and was completely cut off from the concerns of his community, not even marking his presence for births, deaths, and marriages. There was something heady about living the ideals of Jawaharlal Nehru, but it cut you off from your roots, and this you discovered only when the hurly-burly of your professional life was done. The college had turned many people away from their roots, but the alternative world they moved into was really only an ivory tower. The new generation did not really have much use for the ideals that won the nation its independence—it wanted new, shiny things, not intellectual discourse. Even he, though he had imagined some sort of genteel retirement, was not really headed that way after he divorced his wife and faced social ostracism. So the thought of building a modest cottage plonk in the middle of waving mustard seeds was suddenly idyllic. The farmer had heard this before and had once even been told by friends that he could have taken such a proposal to KP Singh, the tycoon who built Gurgaon and expect not only a hearing but a generous offer. Singh even belonged to his caste. But the humiliation that might possibly be heaped upon him by officious underlings while seeking such an appointment never got him off the cot and unto a DTC bus. He preferred to sit there with his wife and daughter, favourite dog always within summoning distance, gazing into the sunset and hoping all his problems would go away. The way men do, generally.

The professor didn’t get a nod, but he did get a half-nod. The farmer wanted to sell the whole thing off, illegally, that too in cash. He could think of no good reason to get entangled with government clerkdom, any more than officious sidekicks of tycoons. So his proposal was—get a man who will buy my 15 acres for Rs 2 crore. ‘I know he’ll sell it for much more than that. But I will retain a 200-square yard plot on the edge of the settlement, preferably this very spot. I’ll put my thumb impression on as many papers as you like.’ He had already thought it out properly, probably discussed it with some city slickers to get a handle on the implications.

The open air meeting was ended hastily by the usual imposers of curfew in India—mosquitoes, who were by now swarming over their heads like airplanes kept hovering by a berserk air traffic controller. The professor was so excited by his idea that he could not help discuss it with the assistant. But the boy was sulking because he would have to change buses three times to reach Rohini, where he lived, and was in no mood for more ivory tower talk. When he finished his dissertation, he intended to try for a bank probationary officer’s job, where he would deal with real things like money, not airy ideas which had no currency outside the arboreal wonderland that was his college campus. His other batch mates were planning to take the civil services exams. This was an open secret, but each batch hid this mission from the grey eminences who were controlling their destinies by dint of being dispensers of degrees.