Thursday, August 30, 2007

oft when on my couch i lie

Yes, I know that’s from Daffodils. And yes, it might just be totally out of context. Big woof.

Alright, let me explain what’s going on in my head, if that’s possible. See, yesterday I read a post on desicritics by Bhaskar Dasgupta about rage. He talked about this Kashmiri man that bloggers had identified from pictures who went to each and every rally with an Islamic slant to it to protest against any and everything. And in cyberspace, he talked about bloggers who also rant and rave about everyone and everything. They hate America. They hate the Middle East. They hate fundamentalists. They hate secularists. Industrialists and environmentalists in the same breath. You know that I mean.

Anyway, then there is that other kind of rage which I am trying to understand. The news has been filled with horrific scenes. Agra is burning. Bhagalpur saw a mob frenzy over a man stealing a gold chain. This, that, and everything in between. And I was wondering what makes people so worked up that they are ready to burn down their own city, kill complete strangers at the drop of a hat. I understand that when a truck killed four Muslim boys in a procession in Agra, it was tragic. The same way I understand that when a scooterist does not give you way when you’re impatient to get somewhere it’s bloody frustrating. But to give into mob violence or road rage is just absolutely alien to me.

Yes, there are reasons. In the case of Agra, if we move beyond unemployment, poverty and the frustrations of urbanisation, you still have to ask, how does groupthink lead you to this moment where you are ready to KILL someone? I was told by someone that they are pretty sure the incident in Agra was fuelled by Mulayam Singh supporters to show Mayawati’s handle on law and order in a bad light. So, order and life is up for grabs. Well, I suppose that’s nothing new to us right?

One of my favourite Angel episodes is set in the 60s where a girl blames Angel for a murder she committed. Because of the fear induced due to McCarthyism, people are quick to blame and the crowd gets so worked up, they hang Angel. But the moment they realise what they have done, they are ashamed and slowly slink away.

But then what we witness in India, the kind of violence that spills on the streets is immensely different. Right after I saw the footage of the policeman on a scooter dragging the gold-chain thief through the streets of Bihar, NDTV had their evening entertainment show, Night Out. And as they went through scenes of old Hindi movies (nostalgia surrounding old brother-sister Hindi movies) my dad pointed out that some of those scenes, where the good guy avenges his sister’s honour on the streets, well, it’s really no different from what we see in real life.

I read this article by Rajdeep Sardesai, actually I think it was a blog, where he says that we have become so damn complacent as a country – but it couldn’t have been like this even a little while ago. It’s as if once we got independence and had no gora boss over our heads, it was a free for all. And he’s right you know. This month we carried old Indian Express editorials and articles that were written around the time of independence as a tribute to 60 years of independence. There is so much hope, there is so much responsibility in those words – I mean, these people were crafting a nation for god’s sake. And they really did have the weight of the world on their shoulders because they were creating the law by which India would function. In fact, the article I was most impressed with was when the Express decided to stop production in 1942 because the British did not allow them to publish information about leaders (including Gandhi who was in jail). Ramnath Goenka said he rather not publish at all than publish crap and pretend the movement wasn’t happening. Do we have that kind of integrity now? Are we moving closer to standing up for justice?

Or maybe this is just a middle class dream. It never really existed for everyone. I mean, when Dr. Karan Singh came to the office for Idea Exchange, he said that in 1947, with independence, everyone really thought that caste would slowly become a thing of the past. As India became a free country, we would really be free from these shackles. And look now, 60 years later, and caste is as important, no probably even more since its gone from social to political and we’ve gone and bloody institunalised the damn thing. I’m not saying reservations are bad, what I’m saying is the dream that something like caste would not even be a factor in this country has been totally shattered.

And then you have pockets of this country that are so poor, so backward, that you wonder if we can ever make it out. Where was that volcano… yeah, Pompei? Damn, it’s too late. But anyway, the History Channel had this show about how the ruins had been discovered. The commentary was something like this – clearly this town was a ‘developing’ or ‘underdeveloped’ one because at the time there was no mechanism for sewage removal and the city stank. And my mother turned around and looked at me and said, he could be talking about our country. This, civilisations later.

This is what bugs me about the Left. While I understand that in theory what they stand for might be all very good but in practice how the hell can it ever work? They oppose the nuclear deal because they think our foreign policy will become subservient to the US? Well, goddamn it, but isn’t the point of having our foreign policy to be able to make a decision to actually consort with whoever we want? And so what’s the crime if we want a deal with the US? We chose to take technology that can help the country develop. You know, India has great reserves of thorium but we lack the technology to get it. But once we have it, man, even people like Mukesh Ambani say that watch me, I will set up 40 plants and generate power. But ONLY if I can get the damn technology.

I think it’s a poem by Philip Larkin – The Whitsun Weddings – where he talks about a train journey he took and watched the various people on the platforms. And one thing he says (and again, I’m not quite sure I’m referring to the right poem here!) always stuck with me. He talks about that train ride as a moment they all shared in time – he and this bunch of strangers – and how they all have different beginnings and different ends but this is a moment in time they just happened to share.

I guess we are all a bunch of strangers living in this country together, bound by what we see on the streets and on TV. But you know what -- it’s an experience we share together. So let’s not pretend it doesn’t matter.

Kyunki, there's a world out there

It may not be fashionable to say it, but the Hindi soap operas — Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, for instance — actually might be doing us some good. Now if you are like me and flip through channels, hear overly dramatic music and change — don’t. Cable TV might be succeeding where government policy didn’t. Changing the way Indian women see their world.

How exactly does that happen? First off, this isn’t new. Back in the days when the public service broadcaster — Doordarshan (DD) — was launched, one of the guiding thoughts behind it was that the media can actually be used as a tool for development. It’s a simple premise. The visual image leaves a lasting imprint in our minds. And especially for those who cannot read, television is an effective tool for communication. Wilbur Schramm, author of Mass Media and National Development, was the proponent of this — what we now term ‘development communication’.

Instead of the government forcing changes in lifestyle, the population would become aware of a need that was not satisfied by their present behaviour. And then they would borrow behaviour that would come closer to meeting those needs. And so based on soaps in Latin America, Hum Log was the first Indian soap to try out this concept, with a good measure of success.

Post-liberalisation, TV channels have been flourishing. Some 112 million households in India own a television. Of those, 61 per cent have cable or satellite service, according to the National Readership Studies Council, 2006. And the casual observer may think that the role of educating through entertainment has been relegated to DD alone. To its credit, DD is living up to its mandate. Health shows like Kalyani, and their positive effects on rural populations, have been documented by external agencies. And now, it appears, cable TV is not too far behind.

A new study by Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago has revealed that cable TV has had a distinctively helpful effect on women in rural India. Among their findings, conducted over a three-year period in five states (Bihar, Goa, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Delhi), is that gender attitudes have been positively affected. Women don’t think their husband beating them is as acceptable now, son preference has gone down, female school enrolment has gone up, and birth spacing has increased. Now, there may be other factors contributing to these changes, no doubt, but one thing is for certain. Soap operas are changing the way women see their role in society and in families, and TV has a part to play in it. And changing expectations is the first step to changing reality.

Examples. When Tulsi (of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) finds out her son raped a woman, she sides with the victim. In the end, she shoots her son. It may be a tad dramatic (we are talking about a soap opera, after all), but she stands up for what is right. In Saloni Ka Safar, a girl’s complexion is symbolic of the Indian bias against dark skin.

You are allowed to raise your eyebrow at this point. Really, you say, are those overdressed women in the prime-time Hindi soap opera world are changing rural India? Yes. And you know why? Because, for the majority of the country, television is the window to the world. And while the city folk may want to ape the lavish lifestyles of their on-screen heroes — some people partly blame the big fat Indian wedding phenomenon on these serials — rural women admire their independence. Think about it. At their basest levels, studies have shown that exposure to television in rural areas have had an effect on latrine building and fan usage. And even more amazing is a mother welcoming a girl child because she learnt on television that she too can grow up to be a powerful, independent woman. And that education is key, so she sends her daughter to school with her brothers.

But what is it about chiffon-clad city women in particular that appeals? Because underneath the make-up and diamonds, the problems are common. Rich yes, but the women of Indian soaps are deeply traditional. Some work, but many are full-time homemakers. The problems — inner wheelings and dealings of joint families — strike a chord. They go to the temple, hold havans, they even observe Karva Chauth. And millions all over the country cheer them on as they fight for a place of respect within the family.

That’s just it. A click of a button and they take a walk around the world to ease their troubled minds.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How the world sees US?

A search for answers opens Pandora's Box

The question — “why do they hate us?” — leaves Americans rather perplexed.

Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani author recently wrote an article where he described, for an American audience, how Lahore changed over time and became fundamentalist as a direct result of US foreign policy.

Nodding when asked if he had read the article, Amar Bakshi revealed that he was to be published along with Hamid in The Washington Post, except for a delayed deadline.
Bakshi, who left Delhi for Lahore, is involved in a very interesting project — one that he pitched to Newsweek International’s editor Fareed Zakaria, and is now in partly funded by The Washington Post too.

It involves him traveling around the world and finding out how people view America.
It is open-ended: there is no clear itinerary and no particular aspect (political, cultural, economic) to cover. He keeps a blog, and posts videos, which he updates as and when he finishes a leg of his journey.

So the question to ask is, how does the world see America? To get a clearer picture, Bakshi has shied away from talking about President Bush because then Bush bashing invariably overtakes the conversation. Instead, he has attempted to visit an assortment of characters.

In India, he has met a 62-year-old widowed politician in Kerala, who admires the independence of American women; a leader of the JKLF who believes the US has a definite role to play in ending the Kashmir conflict; the CEO of a clothing export company in Tamil Nadu, who is profiting from American consumerism; the leader of an anti-Coca Cola movement in Kerala who is agitating against ‘American Imperialism’; a professor at a madarsa in Maharashtra who is inspired by secular ideals stemming from American literature; a 9/11-loving original member of the terrorist outfit SIMI in Kerala... the list goes on.

His findings show there is nothing simple about the way the world sees the US. Especially in places affected by war, Bakshi muses; people don’t realise that if one young man dies, eighty people are affected. It’s not just his family, but extended family, co-workers, friends. The same goes when a big American company coming in affects the small farmer.

Within India itself, views differ widely. One of the more intriguing posts is about his meeting with several young men from the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind party in Calicut, Kerala. The anti-US talk is harsh, but as one of the members later tells him, “They try to talk big when they are all together,” and mischievously asks him what it is like to date an American woman. Pala Koya, the leader of the National Democratic Front in Kerala also sharply critiques the US. But as he tells Bakshi, “I’m not saying something I wouldn’t want the Americans to hear.”

And they sure are paying attention. Bakshi’s blog, How The World Sees America, is popular. The reactions his posts invite add immensely to the value of this project — how people react to a foreigner’ assessment of other people’ views about America. Lively debates arise on the website after Bakshi has written a post.

His article about the American girl in Mumbai once again raised the question of the subcontinental fetish of white skin. And the admission by an eminent journalist in Communist-run Kerela, that most people in the state only pay lip-service to the ideology of American cultural imperialism, is overtaken by debate over how Bakshi’s blog projects Kerela.

While the point of this entire project is to talk to individuals in order to string together a larger picture for an American audience, it is also serving as a mirror for other countries. Of what a foreigner, albeit of Indian origin, makes of people’s complex relationship with the US.

Bakshi’s stop in Pakistan will undoubtedly, provide much food for thought and fodder for debate. For everyone.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

One size doesn't fit all

Media strategists, like lobbyists, are either considered very good or scum. Especially when it comes to political media management. Because, after all, most of it is crisis handling. And when the press comes to ask you questions, and you have a team prepared to give it answers (not necessarily spin per se, but we are tiptoeing pretty close to that), THEN one wonders if that’s right. But then again, if you are a minister or a chief minister of a state, you really don’t have the time to sit and answer all questions and perhaps can’t remember every minute detail, and you need a team to help you.

Fair enough. This is definitely a song I have sung before.

But I always wondered that if you had the sophisticated kind of media management in India, as you do in the States, what would it look like? Well, this question was answered when I went for an Idea Exchange with Vasundhara Raje Scindia, chief minister, Rajasthan. First off – and I missed this because I came in late – people asked her if she thought her government did a bad job handling the Gujjar riots and she held up a copy of an Express edit and said “well, all the answers to what I should have done are in this edit” which gave my boss quite a shock (at the thoroughness of her PR team's research or perhaps that she reads our edits with such rapt attention) that he was stunned into silence for the next hour. But seriously, despite people telling me she was arrogant etc etc, I actually thought she did a good job of keeping the conversation firmly to the subject she wanted to discuss – development in Rajasthan. And I thought she had some pretty good ideas. She said that because the people didn’t trust the government, they had now been employing the services of NGOs – who people do trust – to put the plans out. The same innovative thinking in their insurance scheme that has a built in scholarship for 9-12 yr olds, and she said the centre had lifted this idea and used it in the aam aadmi scheme.

She’s articulate, she’s got the little press conferences do’s and don’ts all down – taking the reporters name to give that personal touch, although she does sound contrived. Total sound byte answers. But, impressive preparation.

The only problem is that I really associate India and democracy here as being a little – messy? You know, the same enthusiasm with which chairs are thrown about in parliament (something which is not restricted to India alone let me assure you) is what I associate with politicians talking to the press. They are themselves, for better or worse.

I’ve asked this question many times over. And let me clarify. A Mani Shanker Aiyer is articulate too. So is PC. As are many others. But they don’t sound like they are talking for print or TV. They just sound like they can express themselves in a clear, rational and smart manner. So then, is political media management necessary as the press mushrooms in this country or will it lead towards a media oriented democracy – which isn’t such a rosy option in the long run. Case and point, the US.

And that's been the reason the States got into trouble in the first place. The government did the agenda setting -- hello, Iraq -- and the press followed. And the people saw the headlines and soundbytes that the establishment kindly provided, and accepted it. So while Ms. Raje was right to say that she only wanted to talk about development, taken in a larger context [lets move beyond her because she only got me thinking on this line so no offence to her], but as a public figure if you only answer and talk about what you want, then after a point, the media will also get lazy and stop thinking for itself. And thats why people start putting themselves into these watertight camps, I'm liberal, I'm conservative.... and talk to those who agree with them. And like Jon Stewart said (in my all time favourite episode of the erstwhile 'debate' show on CNN - Crossfire) it is all political THEATRE.

Questions, questions and more questions. Grr. But democracy isn't meant to be the smoothest ride in the world now, it it?