Monday, 30 January 2012



Veteran journalist-author Mrinal Pande shares her views on social issues that loom large in the small towns and villages of India through a collection of her reportage in the book, The Other Country. She elaborates her ideas to Biswadip Mitra

At times there are questions about whether India knows about Bharat. Beyond the shine of the shopping malls, multiplexes and brand new housing societies, and away from the smiling faces of middle-class and upper middle-class Indians that we often see in the advertisements, there is a country in the abyss that has been suffocating with poverty, unemployment, and no access to quality education and health services. Still, the people there aspire to have a better life, just like those living in the bigger cities. It is these people and their lives in small towns and villages of Bharat, that is at the centre of acclaimed journalist-author Mrinal Pande's recent book, The Other Country: Dispatches from the Mofussil.

In this compilation of essays, Pande shows how the Hindi- English language divide in the country impacts literature and media. And in the process, the people on two sides of the divide seem trying to cross over: citizens of Bharat want their share of India; citizens of India want to take a peek into Bharat through films like Peepli Live and Omkara. “Those films were appreciated largely by urban audiences for their fresh themes and refreshing music, but I nurse some doubts about such films bridging the real distance between rural and urban lives,” opines Pande when asked whether we may see a Great Indian Societal Swap in the future, or whether India and Bharat can merge at some point. “Even the Hindi speaking urbanites or children from Kulak families studying in Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University, or in Allahabad, tend to use such films largely as fodder for their polemics to put down 'Angreziwallahs' or to offer clich├ęd arguments upholding the rights of the 'Sarvhaaraa varg' and 'Shoshit grameen', and justify violent uprisings and the rise of people's armies,” she adds. “Real social meltdown of boundaries will occur only when linguistic, economic and socio-political boundary walls come down simultaneously. Even then a few small silos will remain.”

Pande touches upon the question of caste and the languages in the essay, The Strange Case of India's Official Languages. She mentions how English language, considered as a tool for socio-economic elevation by many in this country, is revered as a goddess and worshipped as 'English Devi' by some Dalit activists in Uttar Pradesh. But can the Devi counter the scourge of caste discrimination? Pande doesn't think so. “English Devi unthinkingly reaffirms racism, class divisions and actually upholds caste instead of fighting it. That is the pity,” she says.“Those who worship at her altar “will soon find that at the time of granting really good jobs, this Devi discriminates between those who belong to old school tie network , and those whose vernacular speaking parents could afford nothing more than some dubious private 'English medium' school for their offspring.”

The politics of 'majority' and 'minority' and other identities have an important bearing in this country. Pande, like any sensible person, denounces the ugly nature of such 'identity politics,' and the way often people are hounded because of their identities — religious, linguistic and the rest. I ask her about the causes behind it. Pande says, “Regional xenophobia was guaranteed when independent India chose to demarcate the boundaries of its States on the basis of the regional language spoken by the majority.” And with the national parties becoming weaker and 'coalition politics' becoming the norm, “such xenophobia will be fuelled more and more by political parties and supported by the local media for cheap popularity.” Pande believes that this will be curbed only if economic growth becomes a nationwide phenomena and Indian languages become the highways to small town and rural markets. “Tamil anti-Hindi xenophobia has subsided in direct proportion to its growth, while anti-Bhaiyya xenophobia has surfaced in Maharashtra, as its economy has lost its previous sheen.”

English-language media's role in India, especially their disconnect with the 'other' India is referred to in Pande's essays. I wonder why most of the editors fail to bridge the gap. “Other editors are perhaps less keen to plumb the depths that may be displeasing and may not even yield enough ad revenues or TRPs. They prefer to please a largely urban middle-class readership that are dear to the metro-based ad agencies and TV channels,” Pande explains.

Does she foresee bigger media groups ever taking themselves closer to the rural masses? Pande says that “unless the rural markets become the hub and begin to sell all kinds of fast and not so fast moving goods, the big media houses will put their money where mouth is.” Big media groups, she says, “are now corporate entities with more loyalty for their share holders and less for the reader or viewer.”

We veer towards the journalists who want to 'make money' and has no respect for professional honesty. Can there be any antidote to the corruption in media, if the society remains corrupt? How can journalists, many of whom come from lower middle-class or middle class families, stay immune to the glitz of 'high-end' lifestyle? “The media fraternity comes from the same social pool as the rest of middle-class India. We cannot expect their lives and longings to be very different from their counterparts' in other professions. In fact, given their great clout for playing things up or down in political and corporate circles, there will be many more offering them attractive bribes to buy their support,” Pande admits. “So they will need to be more straight laced than other professionals to stay on the long and narrow.”

Among other important issues, Pande's essays portray the state of women in this country. From risk of abortion by quacks in villages, to the women in the small towns who take up arms to protect themselves and their land, to the child marriage, Pande's reportage are blunt and accurate. And they show that despite all the talk of 'women's empowerment', the reality is bleak. What is the way forward for women in India, rural and urban? “Women's empowerment is a subject made to order for the smart new media. It has exciting potential for emotive visuals and frivolous one liners, and great room in the margin for titillating double entendres by wise guys. Yet you do not empower women or any other marginalised group by granting them media space, announcing aid packages , distributing awards or organising one-day leadership training camps,” she replies.

“Power is something each weak group must gather slowly, organically. Each step forward creates backlashes for them as they move towards reasonable employment, equal salaries, quality education, good health and a positive self image,” she adds. “Once they acquire power through a long and genuine struggle they acquire a self confidence, capacity to earn and save money and that gives them strong muscles and resilience.”

Education is “only one dimension” in women's empowerment. Without socio-economic muscle, “it gets nowhere, or else rich States with high educational rates for women, like Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, would not have such an abysmal record in female infanticide and various crimes against women,” Pande tells before signing off.