Friday, March 21, 2014

Ode to Indian erotica's first author

If there was a memory of my growing up that I would like to hark back to, it had to be my first tryst with erotica, in the Irving Wallace novel The Second Lady. The novel, which was about the sexual escapades of a Russian doppelganger of the First Lady of the US as she manages to get intimate with the President in order to extricate war-time secrets from him for the KGB, had me revulsed and excited.

An “emotional-fork-in-the-road” moment confronted me as I finished reading it. I gave the sentiment considerable thought before proceeding to devour all of Wallace’s books, in addition to those by Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. I soon started grading authors on the basis of the e-quotient in their works. Wallace was lurid, so was Robbins; Sheldon and Clancy were measured and graphic; Archer the archetypal British prude; Puzo the neophyte American; Steele the eternal bore; and Grisham the American misfit.

However, a nagging sentiment persisted in me: the source of the literature was invariably the West. If we Indians needed to satiate our carnal literary instincts, there wasn’t a ‘Swadeshi’ in our midst whom we could look up to. Even if it was a compelling or a charged atmosphere, the treatment was like in our movies: cut to the image of two flowers. For instance, in R K Narayan’s The Guide, the romantic interlude between the protagonist, Raju, and his muse, Rosie, a Bharatanatyam dancer, gets summarized in a blasé sentence. And – forgive the cliché – this, in the land of the Kama Sutra and the bold sculptures of Ajantha and Ellora. It was as if we were incapable of documenting our emotions. Doubtless a disturbing sentiment.

That was until I came across Train to Pakistan, authored by a certain Khushwant Singh– I was wary that the author was Indian; however, I chose to read it, my confidence stemming from having read his joke books, which had a liberal dose of A-jokes, earlier.

It was a gut-feeling that would serve me right.

Here was a book authored by an Indian that did not treat itself as elitist and was not set in a flashy background, it laid bare every human emotion conceivable: love, familial ties, religious tensions, sacrifice, with eroticism inter-twining them. Nevertheless, I found it to be a gripping book. Unputdownable.

I then made a mental note to finish all of his works, which would prove to be a mixed-bag of sorts. While I shall not hear the nightingale, and to a lesser extent, Delhi, made for good reading, I could not even recall the titles of his other books, for so shockingly terrible were they. I realised that you could be better off reading his newspaper columns.

He made, I think, the flashing of Indian-authored books in public a style statement. If you were reading a KS book at a bus-stop, it meant you were someone apart from the crowd, the Indian yuppie with a mind of your own. You knew what was the Indian 'cool', and not conform to its Western equivalent. Also, let us not forget that he, a Sikh, had played a vital role in popularising the Santa-Banta jokes, through the famed KS joke books.

The chronicler in me also suggests that I offer him a salute, for perhaps being the first post-Independence author to have the gall to go descriptive, (remember, he did what every author of his time wouldn’t be caught dead doing) paving the way for Amitav Ghosh, Shobha De and the like.

Miss you, KS; you’d forever be as famous as your namesake contraceptive.

** Corrected for grammatical errors!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

To sting or not, that is the question!

The reactions to media sting operations over time can be a barometer of their relevance. Consider this: In 2001, when Tehelka conducted one such operation on the BJP leader Bangaru Laxman by offering him a bribe; when caught, he was forced to step down as party secretary and was eventually sidelined. Such was the resultant embarrassment to the BJP that, as admitted by Laxman himself in an interview to The Indian Express, it consigned him forever to its margins. Circa 2014, two sting operations conducted in different parts of the nation under similar circumstances seemed to yield little result: while the one conducted by the news website on candidates of the Aam Aadmi Party, including Kumar Vishwas and Shazia Ilmi, showed them seeking cash donations in exchange for favours, the party firmly stood by them and discredited the operation. “Why not conduct this on BJP and Congress members?” asked one party member. Down south in Karnataka, when the Kannada news channel TV-9 attempted an encore on state energy minister D K Shivakumar of the Congress, the politico had them arrested and even filed a defamation suit against the media outlet. The journalists claimed they were assaulted and molested (one of whom was a woman) but if at all those from their fraternity had expressed outrage to the minister’s alleged ham-handed ways, it was least visible. (Remember, we journalists can be as cacophonous, if not more, as our politicians.)

What went wrong in between? Was it the omnipresent Indian thick-skinned mentality? Or, with the process becoming dime a dozen, has the Fourth Estate itself been complicit in reducing its effectivity?
It can be safely assumed that the success rate of media sting operations, in terms of corrective actions that it spurred, has dwindled. For every sting operation that attained success, such as turning the wheels of justice in the Jessica Lal murder trial (the protagonists being Star TV, Tehelka) or the NDTV sting in the hit-and-run case involving Sanjeev Nanda, there are countless examples where, after the initial uproar and frayed tempers, the dust simply settled down (case in point: the not-so-recent Cobrapost sting on 11 MPs).

Legal chinks in this regard could be a reason.

It may be pertinent to note that the phenomenon, although perfectly legal, does not have a law that recognises its validity or stipulates regulations that it will need to follow.

The legal perception becomes further nebulous when the fact that there are no guidelines to specify as to what comprises legal and illegal entrapment, is taken into account – that is, whether the giving of the bribe was entirely initiated by the scribe or whether the illegality was already on its set course and would have taken place whether the journalist videographed it or not. Here comes the caveat: while courts do not recognize illegal entrapment as evidence, wrongdoers have the avenue to seek a way out by claiming that they were coerced into committing the crime.

While the absence of a law means that journalists conducting the operation become sitting ducks to defamation suits, they can take heart at the fact that they cannot be charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, while offering a bribe to a politician during a sting operation.

Above all, the sentiment that stings are employed only to boost TRP ratings is impossible to miss. Its portrayal in popular culture – where it has been synonymous with getting the high and mighty in a ‘compromising’ position on camera – too hasn’t helped. How can anyone forget the Nityananda episode, in what can be described as one of India’s shameful incidents of public voyeurism, when Sun TV along with other channels chose to air his escapade with actress Ranjitha, round the clock?

All this lends the perception that sting operations need to be done away with for good. However, let us not forget that during an instance when the courts were confounded to no end, it was a sting operation that was able to secure the conviction of certain mass-murderers. Remember, here was a trial where no amount of interrogation, investigation or documentation failed to yield any result.  

It was then left to the footage of the sting operation by Tehelka that helped the long arm of the law in catching up with a horde of influential Gujarat unit BJP leaders, including Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani, for their complicity in the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots case.
Law or not, guidelines by the Press Council of India and National Broadcast Standards Authority in this regard are unequivocal when it comes to necessitating a sting operation: public interest.

Just ask the Zee News editors who were entrapped in a ‘reverse sting’ by the Jindal Group for seeking a Rs150 crore bribe to soft-pedal coverage on the group's alleged involvement in the coal scam.

Necessary evil? Certainly.

Reference – Press Laws Guide: Sting Operations,

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The 'new generation' and political mouthpieces among Tamil Nadu TV channels

Logos of the leading Tamil TV
news channels Puthiya Thalaimurai (top)
and Sun News

Of late, TV news channels, and not sitcoms, seem to have become a source of comic relief. Not that this is a new phenomenon, but it has been rather pronounced of late. The other day I decided to tune in to a Tamil TV news channel and boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

The channel was running a talk show, receiving grievance calls from public who had yarns of woe to relate, especially those relating to governance (in particular its deficiencies). One such caller said how sewage percolating into water supply lines in the suburbs of Chennai was proving to be a health hazard. It was the charade that followed that would prove to be a bounty of mirth.

The caller then nearly choked on his tears, as the talk-show host listened on intently, asserting that this would not have happened if Kalaignar (DMK chief M Karunanidhi, to the uninitiated) was the chief minister. The host perked up when the caller identified himself, recognised him as someone having called before to report similar issues, while mollifying him. Once the call ended, she solicited the views of a representative from the DMK, who was present in the studio. The conversation ended with the two agreeing that only a return of the DMK in Tamil Nadu would help bring back it long-lost glory.

Mind you, this was neither a satire nor a spoof, but a show running at noon in Kalaignar TV (remember Kanimozhi, 2G scandal, Shahid Balwa, kickbacks?) Another story that was doing the rounds was a crime report on the alleged involvement of an AIADMK functionary in a bank robbery backed by the accounts of a few persons (who seemed elated at facing the cameras). A news item on Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa claiming that the report on war crimes against his government was fabricated got relegated to the background. Of utmost importance to the channel’s agenda is the ‘Kalaignar Kaditham’, or the Kalaignar’s letters – daily press releases from the party, in which its patriarch offers commentary on anything under the sun. Reading out the letters verbatim is usually the primary news item in its bulletins.

It wasn’t that Kalaignar TV’s counterparts were exactly covering themselves with glory. Jaya Plus of the Jaya Network – the very organization that the CM had once claimed that had nothing to do with her – was incessantly bombarding viewers with footage and visuals of her electoral campaign in south Tamil Nadu. The choicest quotes from her campaign speeches were aired with uncanny regularity. Sample this: “The Congress party has betrayed the nation and its teeming masses for the last ten years; by being in cahoots with them, the DMK too, has been party to this heinous act. Every vote for the party of MGR would be reparation for such a grave crime,” she thundered, as the camera cut to a massive gathering breaking out in raptures. Other vital details such as the number of bouquets presented to her on the occasion and the composition of flowers in them were integral to the bulletin. This was interspersed with advertorials on how Amma’s progressive schemes had resulted in the upliftment of the masses.
Kalaignar News -- for, by and of the DMK

Unsurprisingly, Sun News, from Sun Network owned by Kalanidhi Maran, often dubbed the desi Rupert Murdoch, toed a line similar to that of Kalaignar’s, except that references to the AIADMK received minimal coverage.

It was as if the mouthpieces of either party – Murasoli of the DMK and Namathu MGR of the AIADMK – made an on-screen transformation. In short, if you were following Jaya Plus, you were presented with the impression that utopia must have taken birth in Tamil Nadu; channels owing allegiance to the DMK would have painted the picture that an incident in Greek mythology, opening of Pandora’s box – and thereby letting out of all misery – actually took place in Tamil Nadu under an AIADMK regime. Behold Janus, your reincarnation could not have been ever impressive.

Although these are the among the Big Tamil news channels, there are a horde of other minor channels that are equally partisan – from Captain TV run by A Vijaykanth’s DMDK; Vasanth TV that serves as the propaganda channel of the Indian National Congress; and Lotus TV, with unquestioned allegiance to NaMo and BJP.

When you sense that the bulletins in good-old DD’s Podhigai seem sedate, palatable and non-partisan in contrast, you know that you are:
a) inebriated
b) high on methamphetamine,
c) sloshed and on a high
d) or plainly out of options.

The biggest casualty is, of course, objectivity, depriving viewers of unbiased news coverage. A solution could be watching the bulletins with contrasting versions before arriving at equilibrium, but who really has the time for this complex dissection?

The defibrillator to these aspirations among the public may lie in the emergence of a news channel in the recent past. A news channel that has the backing of a prominent industrialist group, Puthiya Thalaimurai (literally “new generation”) has been scripting a new chapter in the journalism scene here, or so feels this writer. Bucking the trend of backing any of the state’s political outifts, PT’s reportage, which has by far been like the Swiss, comes across like a whiff of fresh air in the surcharged political atmosphere of the state.
The melange of channels that swear allegiance to 'Amma'

The channel dishes out programmes that have been conceived with a dash of innovation: from hard-hitting documentaries on contemporary social issues to personality development programmes for youngsters and shows that trace the history of traditional dishes/ food-grains in addition to the regular news bulletins, the channel led to more than mere twitching of eyebrows.
Perhaps the public were yearning for something like this. For how else can one explain the channel's meteoric rise to the top of TRP ratings, inside a year, as ET reported it.

Incumbent leader Sun News had a crashlanding of sorts for it was the undisputed leader for a good 11 years, since its launch. Sun News had another bitter pill to swallow: It slid to the third position in television ratings, with even Jaya Plus, once always the distant second, edging past it.

While the PT’s coverage may have been relatively spotless, the same cannot be said of its backers – the SRM Group, which has its presence in various sectors – from transport to education and industry. The SRM Group of Institutions, TN’s Wal-mart of educational courses, is known for charging steep fees. The group was, early last year, the subject of IT raids for alleged tax evasion.

Not many outside the state (or even within) may know of the IJK – a political party floated by the vice-chancellor of SRM University, T R Pachamuthu (which could perhaps merit an entry in Ripley’s believe it or not). The IJK is a constituent of the BJP’s rag-tag coalition of motley parties that also comprises the DMDK, PMK and MDMK. Although the IJK (and the BJP) does not have a record to speak of here, one would never know how the equations would change if at all it becomes an established player. 

Would the PT too tread the path of its contemporaries? Would its famous objectivity take a backseat then? Your guess is as good as mine.
Until then, sit back and savour its decent news coverage.