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May 17, 2009




Page: 9/35

Home > 2009 Issues > May 17, 2009

Media Watch

The politics of shoe fling

First it was Iraqi TV reporter Mumtazer al-Zaidi who created a storm by flinging both his shoes at the then US President George Bush at a press conference. Bush?s reflexes were remarkable: he ducked both the shoes with remarkable agility. Zaidi was clapped behind bars for three years, but in Iraq he became something of a local hero.

A few months later, a protestor in Cambridge took his tip from Zaidi and chucked a shoe at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He luckily missed his target, but he made news. A couple of weeks ago in India, a senior journalist Jarnail Singh flung a shoe at Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, apparently angry over the minister?s stand on Jagdish Tytler. And now we have another example of shoe-throwing, this time Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh as the target. Both Chidambaram and Dr Singh have told the police to let go the assailants. That is very gracious of them, but it is also setting up a bad example. Journalists are supposed to be civilised people whose job is to report on the good and the bad and the ugly with calculated detachedness. Any journalists who breaks the code deserves punishment, if not from the judiciary, certainly from the owners of the newspaper the reporter concerned works for. As The Indian Express (April 8) noted: ?Journalists are meant to embarrass authority by the force of their work, not their footwear.? Very rightly the paper said that in the case of Jarnail Singh he ?let down his profession when he expressed personal frustration at a press conference?.

What is even more shocking than Jarnail Singh?s behaviour is a Rs 2 lakh offer made to him by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) for ?eloquently expressing the pent-up anger of the Sikh community?. Some eloquence, that. The Indian Express thought that ?such gestures of reward pervert the parameters of political argument?.

Meanwhile, this columnist wishes to express his deep sense of sorrow at the passing away of an old friend, Santha Rama Ran, in New York on April 21. Santha was a wonderful human being. Eldest daughter of Benegal Rama Rau, ICS and Dhanvanti Rama Rau, Santha was born in the then Madras city but was largely brought up abroad and graduated from a famous American women?s college in the United States. But she was deeply attached to her motherland and in her times, notably in the fifties, sixties and seventies, she was the Indian face in America. She married an American, travelled extensively around the world and wrote fascinating travelogues. Her autobiography written at the comparatively young age of 38, entitled Gifts of Passage, as The New York Times wrote in an obituary, ?reads almost like a travelogue?. But it was her first book Home to India, shortly after she graduated from the famous Wellesley College in Massachusetts, that first pushed her into prominence and there were many litt?rateurs in India who were envious, even jealous of her, considering that she was just 22 when she made her literary debut. Her first marriage to Faubion Bowers ended in divorce. It was with Faubion that she first went on a travelling spree and were often referred to by friends as ?affluent vagabonds?.

She was heart-broken and returned to India sometime in the late 1960s and it was then that we had a happy friendship. But for all her love for India, her heart belonged to the West and she returned to New York where she was a regular writer for distinguished publications such as The New Yorker, Harper?s, Holiday and even The New York Times Magazine. Never aggressive, in its obituary The New York Times described her stories as ?written with stylish simplicity in the first person, were collected as books that read almost as autobiography?. Of her few works, two of the more appealing were about India, one of them entitled This is India (1953) was a tour through the Indian landscape and the Indian psyche and the other a Time-Life cookbook The Cooking of India. Interestingly, she wrote a play, an adaptation of Forster?s 1924 novel A Passage to India, which, to her great delight?and she did not hide it?was endorsed by Fortser himself, no mean achievement.

It played successfully on the West End in London and ended up with 109 performances on Broadway in 1962. That never went to Santha?s head and she was humble and sweet as ever. Actually, and that is even more to her credit, the director of the play David Lean used it, in the words of The New York Times ?as source material for his eponymous 1984 film?. Santha felt that she must do something for her motherland. When sometimes around 1956-58 Uday Shankar?s younger brother, and a greater celebrity, Ravi Shankar came to New York and played before an American audience, it was Santha who introduced him and his work to his eager audience who would not have known the difference between a veena and a sarod. When I was stationed in Washington as The Times of India?s correspondent she came specially to see me to tell me that she was remarrying, this time to one Gurdon Wattles, a legal officer at the United Nations, who died in 1995.

In Washington, she stayed with LK Jha who was our Ambassador and who knew her father since Jha also was a senior ICS officer. By then she seemed to have lost interest in writing. In the first place, writing about India was no longer a novelty. The United States was getting flooded with Indians in all walks of life and largely belonged to the upper middle class. India was no longer a mystery that needed to be explained to a younger generation. Perhaps she also felt happy and relaxed and felt no need to write. Almost overnight, as it were, she faded into the background and it came quite as a shock to learn from our newspapers that she is no more. Most of the English media dismissed the news in three or four short paragraphs. It is obvious that the new generation in charge of our dailies know little of Santha?s seminal contribution to Indo-American literature. The Hindu (April 26) alone reproduced what seemed in full the obituary written in The New York Times, by Bruce Weber. The Hindu cares. On March 6, it recorded the passing-away of V Balasubramaniam who led a compact editorial team in the formative years of Frontline magazine. Few readers of the journal would have known him. He was a self-effacing person, diligent and meticulous who was held in great admiration by his colleagues for his patience and eye for detail. Directors of films make news. Editors of journals are happy to stay in the background, wanting no glory.




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