Observations

Glamourising the grind

If only it was so easy to do journalism: reveal people’s hypocrisies with ease and get away with it unscathed

JUL 17 -One of the good things about being a journalist is that your character often makes it to the movies. A nosy reporter treading a minefield of egos in the newsroom and upsetting or threatening the protagonists outside are everywhere to be found. The pen and the camera, it seems, is still mightier than the sword in the imagination of moviemakers. Journalists, of course, know better.

The latest addition to the list of movies that have a journalist among its main characters comes from Bollywood. In Dil Dhadakne Do—a dull peek into the unrelatable lives of extremely rich Indians—Farhan Akhtar plays a journalist stationed in Egypt. Sunny, his character in the movie, reads books in his cabin while on a luxurious cruise while the rest waste their time gossiping. And as if that was not enough to set him apart from the usual male Bollywood protagonist, he is a feminist.

“What gives men the right to think that they have the power to give ‘permission’ to women to do anything?” he asks. For a film industry habituated to selling the most regressive of roles for women, such dialogue definitely breaks new ground. But lest you forget, he is only doing what a journalist is supposed to do: ask difficult questions and inflict the comfortable.

If only it was so easy to do journalism: reveal people’s hypocrisies with ease and get away with it unscathed.

To expect Bollywood, which thrives on the notion that the audience come to the theatres to ‘escape’ reality, to do any better, however, would be stupidity. In any case, a well-dressed and widely travelled character, who is almost always a photographer (think Ranbir Kapoor in Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani) is not the staple Bollywood journalist. An interesting research on the popular portrayal of journalists in Bollywood over a 30-year period from 1981 to 2011 shows that the five most common stereotypes played journalists in the movies are romantic companions, glamour chasers, investigative superheroes, power magnates and brainless characters.

In Bollywood, being what it is, the focus is more on the singing, dancing and seduction skills of journalists. One must invest more time in chasing one’s love interest than in chasing stories. Reporting can wait, always. Sharukh Khan, an Air India Radio journalist, dancing dangerously atop a moving train in Dil Se is an example. Even so, lovers live. Investigative superheroes, on the other hand, are either ‘martyred’ or attain the pinnacle of popularity and power real-life journos can only dream of.

Of late, television scriptwriters in Mumbai have taken an interest in the lives of journalists too. In April this year, Sony aired a series called Reporters in which viewers get to see a decent number of female journalists in the TV newsroom. Who knew that Indian television could envision women stepping outside the chaukath of their houses and facing graver moral dilemmas than the kind one faces after adding excessive salt in the daal? That’s the only good thing about the series. The bad news is, Reporters is an extremely poor copy of the Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom.

In one of the early episodes of Reporters, the female protagonist tells her boss at an editorial meeting that she is disappointed that a man who once stood for fearless journalism has now sold out. Such abundance of drama would make anyone wish to be in the newsroom.  If only people went around risking their jobs by speaking the minds! Zoom out and here’s what happens in real editorial meetings: journalists drag themselves out of bed reluctantly to report on what they are working on to their seniors.  Then they leave the room muttering about the futility of it all, without fail. In case a reporter has a bout of idealism, she gets a gentle reminder about the difference between working in a private news company and writing fiction.

No wonder the take home message of a scathing review of Reporters in firstpost.com is: it’s better for TV producers “to stick to making something they are good at—emotional dramas which are a deadly mix of over acting and sexism—than pretending to be ‘hard-hitting’.” The biggest failure according to the review is that the makers of the series have not done any homework to depict the nuances of journalism. Given the long history of Indian journalism and the upheavals the media has seen, there should have been no dearth of inspiration.

Closer home, however, it seems as though moviemakers do not think that fictional journalism would be interesting enough to watch on the silver screen. After all, if media reports are anything to go by, the Nepali journalist has been stripped of any glamour that might still be synonymous with the profession elsewhere.  The portrayal of a Nepali journalist, as reported by other journalists on TV or in the newspapers, is that of person who does not get to either sleep well or eat enough on time. The resultant bad state of health is further compounded by the perennial lack of money. Reports on the sexism women journalists face in newsrooms filled with men and while out reporting are equally depressing. The other, more conspicuous reason could be: every other person in Nepal seems to ooze with the confidence of being able to do a better job as a journalist. The lack of respect journalists command in society could be another deterrent for their onscreen presence.

the-newsroom-dev-patel-character-poster-season-2

Even so, the protagonist of Rekha Thapa’s 2014 movie Himmatwali is also a man in the media. Guess where he works? Forget the daily grind of journalists working for Kantipur or The Kathmandu Post, Himal or Nepal or the Himalayan Times and the hundreds of FM stations all over the country plus the handful of television stations. They don’t offer all that action heroes are entitled to. Therefore, he works for Wikileaks in the US and has come to Nepal after killing a man there, hiding from American authorities.

Unbelievable you might say, but journalists definitely relish watching their onscreen versions now and then. Whether it be the ‘ideal’ journalism pursued by Emily Mortimer in the The Newsroom or Farhan Akhtar, who speaks up against patriarchy, they are all a good break from the mechanical rush to file stories. For people who have a more boring job in the newsroom of dotting other people’s i’s and crossing their t’s it could even serve as a much needed reminder that they too are part of the hypothetically ‘glamourous’ world of journalism.

Sense of an ending in Kathmandu #NepalEarthquake

With the recent devastation of the historic national heritages, I have developed a new sense of loss

The Laxminarayan Temple in front of the Garuda is no more.

The Laxminarayan Temple in front of the Garuda is no more.

KATHMANDU, APR 27 – This is undoubtedly the worst possible time to admit this. But given the times we are living in, there is no better time to acknowledge it.

I have always felt uneasy with the portrayal of the Kathmandu Durbar Square as the face of Kathmandu. Not that I have not spent innumerable mornings, afternoons and evenings loitering aimlessly at the Square. It is not as if I have not spent many hours sitting at the Maju Deval facing different directions depending on my mood either: facing the buildings behind when not in the mood to look at people, a different side not to disturb lovers or just staring ahead at the people, feeling the wind and watching life go by. On different steps of the Deval and the surrounding temples, I have met different friends to discuss different issues: a career, development, relationships and death, and unwillingly gulped down many cups of tea.

Still, my question has always remained: must we always justify our love of Kathmandu in relation to the cup of tea we sipped on the steps of the Laxmi Narayan temple? Does all writing about Kathmandu have to justify one’s love of the Durbar Square or situate itself in the alleys of Asan? What about the Kathmandu beyond the stretch of the stone-paved path from Juddha Salik to a temple called the small Pasupatinath? On other days, when discussion on Twitter inadvertently veered towards accusing ‘Kathmandu’ of not doing this or that, I have wondered what Kathmandu is. Is it a collection of white buildings inside Singha Durbar? Is it Baluwatar? Or is it the millions that live in tiny rented rooms in the city or migrants from elsewhere who now have a ghar in Kathmandu? Can the city be what it is by excluding any one of these?

The end of an era: Dharahara is no more.

The end of an era: Dharahara is no more.

But when I first saw Dharahara missing from the city’s landscape, I was very clear as to what Kathmandu is or was. (more…)

The earthquake in Kathmandu 2015

Mahesh Acharya had just finished speaking about the contentious constitutional issues. It was now turn to talk about the upcoming national convention of his party the Nepali Congress. The Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, who is also a Nepali Congress leader, was telling me how the rumours that the NC President and Prime Minister Koirala was seeking to elongate the constitution-writing process until after the party convention were baseless. Then, he said, “There’s an earthquake” and rushed towards the door. I did too. But just as I had scrambled out of the door, I don’t remember how, it began shaking like crazy. I reached the grass lawn outside, but lost balance. I rolled on the ground, something similar to a somersault, only that it was involuntary. What a weird situation to be in, I thought. To be taking an interview as a journalist and doing a somersault. It amused me. In retrospect, I must have been grinning while I rolled. Then there were aftershocks. Earthworms began to emerge from the soft grass. Walls nearby had collapsed. I couldn’t make a phone call. But I could tweet. https://twitter.com/drshn_/status/591850836575162369 Then, I realized that I simply had no idea about what I should do during an earthquake when out in the open! I remembered the public service announcements I had heard on the radio, particularly the one which used to be (don’t know if they still do) played quite frequently in the Hits FM.  None of the suggestions I knew of, like leave the lines open for people to contact each other or finding a corner to stand, hiding below a table dealt with the outdoors. I looked around me wondering if there was a certain position people were supposed to sit or crouch in. There were only five people in the lawn, me and a photographer with the Kantipur publications, Nimeshji, along with the minister, his wife and son.  I did what Nimeshji was doing, resting his elbow and knees on the grass. I realised how unprepared I was for the ‘big one’. All my life, ever since I have known that a great earthquake was due in Kathmandu, I have felt as though my life is one long wait for an earthquake. Over the years, I have indulged myself with the imagined repercussions of the earthquake in great detail. Kathmandu would be flattened. Ideally, I would be at home with all my family members. But when the earthquake did actually happen, I barely had the time to register what was happening. About 20 minutes later, I headed towards the door of the Ministerial  quarters where visitors are supposed to leave behind an identity card and they are given a visitor’s card to whichever minister’s house they are headed to. When I reach the door, the police at the gate again sent me back to get the visitor’s card I’d left behind. I had to go back and get it. The farce of it all, I thought. There is no certainty about life and what the police wants to do is to demonstrate his power or follow the rule apparently! Once out on the streets, it was clear that the only open spaces in Kathmandu for most people were its roads. Most of Kathmandu seemed to be intact while traveling on the main roads. Newer buildings survived, but those built before the 1900s (looked so) had either collapsed or were damaged partially. Thousands of people in Kathmandu had secured places for themselves in limited public spaces like in the middle of the roads, some grounds including the military parade ground that was opened to the public in central Kathmandu and in traffic island in the middle of the road. In the outskirts of the city, residents have gathered in small groups, away from their homes, to spend night. I am typing this from one of those shelters. In the case of my neighbourhood, we are spending the night under a tin shack which is under construction for a furniture shop. People are fearful of the very houses they would otherwise feel secure in. If this is what Kathmandu has been undergoing, one can only imagine the horrors people elsewhere in the country lived through. [The latest tremor I felt was about 10 minutes ago, at 11:30 pm, as I was rearranging the photos in the album below. Good night from the tin shack.] Here are some photos I took today:

Birgunj: a city of price-tags

It seems as though Birgunj is capable of putting a price tag on everything, including on the future of its girls

APR 17 – Birgunj, at first glance, looks as though it was built for business. A traveller does not need to know the history of the city to reach this conclusion. A short walk starting from the Ghantaghar through the Main Road—which changes its name at different points to Meena Bazaar, Mohan Market or Maisthan Chowk, Kalwar Market or Mahabirsthan and Adarshanagar—will suffice. This stretch and the side roads on both sides are filled with shops that sell just about everything. On a relatively quiet weekend, a pedestrian can find herself inhaling the smell of new clothes. But if Bhupi Sherchan were to write about Birjung now, he would perhaps slightly tweak his poem Mero Chowk, and say: “Birjung ma ke chaina sab thok cha, kewal grahak chaina” (Birgunj has everything but customers).

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Virtual is the new real

MAR 20 – A few days back, no sooner had I stepped inside a microbus in the evening, a picture of a brain displayed on a mobile phone caught my eye. From where my head was positioned, caught in between the arm of a woman in the front and a man at the back, the screen was unmissable. The brain which seemed to be a post in a stranger’s Facebook timeline resembled the insides of a walnut. The phone’s  owner, a young woman, was seated across a young man equally engrossed with this white-coloured phone.

Right above his head, a sticker pasted alongside Mahila/Apanga/Asakta 1, 2, 3 asked: Billions of rupees for leaders, what for the people? Smartphones, perhaps, I thought to myself.

It was an uneventful ride until it was time for the white-phone owner to get off.  As soon as he stepped out, he got into a verbal altercation with the conductor. Apparently, the latter pissed the man off by making a snide remark about his fiddling with the phone.

Kaslai hepeko?

Hepchas?

As is the case with such fights, it was difficult for me to establish who had actually disrespected whom. By then the passengers had already begun to take sides. “Why should a passenger engrossed with his phone be a problem unless he does not pay the fare?” one asked. “People need to kill time on a public vehicle some way or the other,” a woman added.

The man for whom the arguments were being made had long gone. At that very instant, it felt as though we (the people in the vehicle) had moved on too–to join our global tribe which, if need be, will fight tooth and nail for the right to stare at our screens as and when we wish to. It reminded me of something I binge-watched about a month or so ago and which has been bothering me ever since.

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Forced to survive

JAN 23 – The morning after the constitution was not promulgated within the stipulated time, for the second time, was like every other day. The remains of a dog crushed by a vehicle on the road to Pepsi-cola the night before stayed where it was. In Jadibuti, a man pushed his bicycle loaded with the dead body of a pig, mostly exposed. On the bridge connecting Kathmandu with Bhaktapur, buses plied and the Manohara flowed below, managing to fit in its ever-reducing width as people encroach its banks and grow vegetables and maize there. Then on the dusty road to the right of the Araniko Highway, two schoolboys returning from their karate classes observed that the cold had receded. At a nearby public tap, a child only inches taller than a 2.5 litre green—Mountain Dew—bottle was trying to lift it. The mother’s calls, to not touch the bottles, remained unheeded.

It was just another normal day.

The sky did not fall because the mythical constitution was not promulgated. Chairs, not people, became the only casualties on Tuesday. So this, according to some pundits on Twitter is a time to heave a sigh of relief. After all, people want a democratic and inclusive constitution, not a rushed exclusionary document. Well said. But this almost a decade-long political drama is not just about an inclusive document. It is as much about living in a bubble of perpetual transition.

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Telling her story

Nepali history must acknowledge women’s contributions to the country’s seminal political changes

Two lines are visible on her forehead, a gray shawl with a brown border covers her head as she holds close an SLR assault rifle, as if to keep it warm. Her face displays a slight awareness that she is being photographed while at the same time, it seems as though she’s lost in thought, elsewhere. She looks vulnerable. She looks empowered. Juna Rai, the girl in the picture by Sagar Shrestha, under the nom de guerre Comrade Chunauti during the Maoist insurgency, went on to become the face of the decade-long conflict in Nepal. As an ode to the photo, Uma, a 2013 Nepali movie based on the Maoist war, had Richa Sharma, an actress, on its poster imitating Juna.

The conflict, however, was never a war waged ‘exclusively’ to ensure women’s rights. While it did seek to liberate women from the chains of patriarchy, it was part of the greater emancipation of all oppressed groups. In 1996, when Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai submitted a 40-point list of demands to the government, only point 19 specifically referred to women. It read, “Patriarchal exploitation and discrimination against women should be stopped. Daughters should be allowed access to paternal property”. It was an ambitious goal. And the ‘people’s war’ in itself was touted as an opportunity for women to liberate themselves from the traditional burdens of household work and discrimination. Women, by joining the war, could ‘choose’ to be free.

The war is now long over. Comrade Chunauti is just Juna Rai—one among the 1,352 former Maoist combatants who were inducted into the Nepal Army in August 2013. Gun toting women who captured the imagination of a large section of Nepali society are now a thing of the past. And their narrative is easily overlooked in popular accounts of that era.

A conspiracy of silence

Take Sudheer Sharma’s bestselling book, Prayogshala. The book is described by the writer as “an effort to dissect the Maoists’ tumultuous relationship with the then monarchy and the Indian establishment”, and not a history of the Maoist war. The over-400 pages long book is gripping and reads like a political thriller. One glaring drawback being that it is overwhelmingly about males: journalists (Sharma included), politicians, party workers, spies, soldiers. Women come into the picture only when they are related to males. Sharma mentions that Sita Dahal advised her husband Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the Maoist party, on important matters. But readers only get to read of Sita’s advice to Dahal not to attend a meeting in the evening that would later be raided by the Indian police. Her advice on any other political matter does not find space.

When a reader like me looks for a female perspective in a definitive book like Prayogshala, it is because I am curious about the role of women in a key historical event like the Maoist conflict. Would the book have been any different if it were written by a woman? Would the list of interviewees and the writers of materials that have been extensively referenced include more women? Or was no woman ever part of any event that was worthy of mention in the book?

juna rai

 

(Sagar Shrestha, “Juna Rai, Bhojpur, 2006,” Himalayan Collections @ Yale, accessed January 1, 2015, http://himalayancollections.commons.yale.edu/items/show/1493)

Writing about another book, Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal (released months after Sharma’s book) by Prashant Jha, in The Kathmandu Post, Surabhi Pudasaini and Astha Sharma Pokhrel had this to say, “Jha finds himself unable to see women’s political practices with the empathy he brings to other struggles.”

Both books were written long after the war was over. Sharma’s book was released in September 2013 and Jha’s in June. By then, there was no dearth of writing by Maoist women, detailing their roles and experiences of the war nor was there a lack of writing by other women on women’s roles, or their absence, during the war, the transition to peace, and other political developments. Pidabhitrako aakrosh (2007) documents the experience of 79 Maoist women who worked in different capacities within the party during war. Kailash Rai, in her research article, ‘Sahasik Jibangatha: Maobadi Mahilaka Yuddha Sansmaran’, lists seven books by women on their war experiences, published between 2005/6 and mid-2012. The Akhil Nepal Mahila Sangh (Krantikari) also published a book titled Mahila Sahila Gatha in 2005, which provides a brief introduction of 947 Maoist women killed during the war, of whom 47 were tortured and repeatedly raped after arrest and then killed. Two among them were four and seven months pregnant.

In addition, there is an increasing number of research and news stories on women’s participation in the conflict and other political movements. So, their absence in popular documentation of political movements, in part, can be explained by the fact that history has a tendency to be ‘sexually selective’. As Ginette Castro writes in American Feminism: A Contemporary History, “In history, women have been the victims of a conspiracy of silence.”

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