The Arnab monologues17 min read . Updated: 04 Nov 2017, 11:23 PM IST
Pointers to contemporary politics, the kinds of critics, media narratives and why writing is a bad idea
This dispatch is being attempted on the back of notes exchanged last weekend with my former colleague and friend Manu Joseph. “Oftentimes, all a writer has to do is simply describe what he sees and the story tells itself," he told me. “It can be both amusing and insightful."
Now, most of us who are familiar with Manu’s body of work know he is a terrific writer with three best-selling books to his credit. He is a columnist for Mint as well. The both of us were in Bengaluru over the weekend to attend the Bangalore Literature Festival. He was there as a speaker at the grand finale last Sunday on a very controversial theme: “How do you define nationalism?" I’ll come to that debate and the characters there in a little while.
It didn’t occur to me until way after hearing Manu’s insight that I was in a sweet spot.
On the one hand, I was among an audience that would get to listen to some stars that included formidable public intellectuals like Ramchandra Guha (who opened the proceedings), Nitin Pai (who co-founded the Takshashila Institution), cricketers like Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, policy makers of consequence like Y.V. Reddy (former governor of the Reserve Bank of India), fiery writers in Indian languages like Perumal Murugan, and the glamourous actor-turned-writer Twinkle Khanna.
Then, on the other hand, I was offered the privilege to moderate a discussion by an all-star panel around the narrative that is Aadhaar—a now controversial project that was originally thought up to create a unique identity for 1.3 billion Indians. It has now gotten the world’s attention and is under much scrutiny as well. On stage with me were Jairam Ramesh, a member of Parliament and author of multiple books, Arun Maira, now a full time writer and former member of the Planning Commission, and Sanjay Jain, chief innovation officer at IIM Ahmedabad. In an earlier avatar, Jain was part of the core team that worked on creating the infrastructure for Aadhaar.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know Manu was right. I don’t have much to do here except describe the various kinds of creatures I saw off stage, on stage, behind the stage, and describe them. This story will tell itself.
Creature #1: the politician
Kanhaiya Kumar and Jairam Ramesh had the audiences—me included — eating out their hands. The former, a student leader, is perceived by some as having political ambitions. Manu was on stage with him as one of the speakers trying to define what may the idea of nationalism be.
Jairam Ramesh is somebody whom I have been trying to reach out to for a while so I may engage in a conversation to understand what his stated position on Aadhaar is. For various reasons, though, we haven’t had a chance to meet. My understanding was that while he started out as a votary of the idea of a universal identity, he now belongs to the camp opposed to it. Why did his stated position change is something that remains unclear to me. That is why I was delighted to share the stage with him; it offered a chance to ask him point-blank about where he stands.
Back to Kanhaiya Kumar. On stage at the finale on Sunday evening were people of all kinds, including Makarand Paranjape (a teacher from JNU), Manu Joseph, and Suketu Mehta, another globally acclaimed writer. Paranjape is a teacher, author and, in the public domain, is known as someone who leans to the “right wing". All of them were there to articulate their views on where to draw the thin line that separates nationalism and jingoism.
Each speaker was given five minutes to make their opening remarks. Paranjape opened with a measured tone on a scholarly note. By the time the mike reached Kanhaiya Kumar, he had heard pretty much everyone speak, Manu and Mehta included.
I watched with much fascination as Kanhaiya Kumar gently asked the moderator if he could stand up to make his opening remarks. Everybody had made their points while seated. Initially, the moderator politely declined. But Kanhaiya’s “humble" demeanour, amplified by his simple kurta and frayed trousers, conveyed to the audience an impression that he was the “outsider", the kind who inevitably gets “left out". That was his calling card.
He addressed everyone on stage as “sir" to drive home the point that he is indeed the “outsider". I thought I could see the audience members’ heads stop working as Kanhaiya started to speak and their hearts go into overdrive—mine included. All of us shouted that he be allowed to stand up to speak. Kanhaiya got what he wanted.
He made his opening remarks in broken English as opposed to the urbane language deployed by everyone else on stage. Those remarks in English sounded like prepared ones. He then apologized to the audience and told everyone his native tongue isn’t English and that he grew up in the hinterlands of Bihar. So, Hindi is the language he is most comfortable in and asked for permission to speak in Hindi.
In South India, Hindi is an imposition. But coming as an “earnest plea" from a young boy, our hearts went out to him. “Yes, yes!" we screamed.
That was the only opening he needed. My colleague Ramnath, who doesn’t understand Hindi, stood in awe of all that Kanhaiya Kumar said. I admit I was taken in too and tweeted about it while he spoke. “My idea of nationalism does not include imposing Hindi on everyone," he said in chaste Hindi. I don’t know how many people understood all of what he said.
Unlike everyone else, he wasn’t speaking to a script, but unleashing rebuttals to those whom he didn’t agree with, most of which were directed at Paranjape. To do that, he was deploying rhetoric, not logic. The nuances were all lost. For instance, “If you think I lean to the Left, yes, I lean to the left, because I am among those who got left out."
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know he said nothing of consequence. But we applauded wildly as he went on a monologue that lasted all of 12 minutes—way past the mandated brief. Clearly, he was in political career-launch mode. I wonder how far he may go!
I would have loved to talk with him. I ran into him later in the evening. We were staying at the hotel and on the same floor. It was time to exchange pleasantries. But he seemed tired and reluctant to engage. When I told him, though, that I write for a good part of my living, I thought I could see his demeanor change to suggest he may be amenable to conversing. I cannot be too sure. It is entirely possible I may have imagined the change. But gut feel told me there is a supremely confident politician in the making here. I shared my contact details with a companion the Supreme Court has mandated must accompany him at all times. He didn’t share his details. But I wait in the hope he may touch base sometime. I like listening to stories of all kinds.
It was much the same thing with Jairam Ramesh. I was naïve to imagine I could corner him. Just when I thought I had bowled a googly at him on stage about how the Congress party, which he represents, was in power when Aadhaar was thought up and first deployed, and that his voice as a critic now comes across as rather grating and politically-motivated, it didn’t take him much thinking to fend the googly off with a straight bat. “It’s a great idea. But badly implemented," he said, to much applause.
In response to a question from someone in the audience on whether they ought to get themselves an Aadhaar number and link everything to it as is now being mandated, he got away by saying that the law must be obeyed. But to oppose anything you do not agree with is part of the fundamental fabric of a democracy. The flourish with which he said it had me flustered and the audience on his side.
And I don’t know when and how he slipped in that his position changes as his role changes. This was a line I had heard from another member of Parliament while researching the project. Ramesh’s stated position went unchallenged and unanswered. I felt compelled to ask everyone to applaud for him.
Like I articulated last week, you don’t get to be politician by being stupid, but because you are smarter than everyone else.
Creature #2: the critics
Most people at literary fests are the genuinely curious kinds who want to know more about the world. These form the quiet majority. They are keen to listen to people talk, engage in conversations with others, participate in events, buy books, engage in banter with assorted people, try out all kinds of food, and pick some trinkets with much gusto at events the organizers put together after much thought.
It is the vocal minority, though, which gets written about. These are the critics and regulars at all lit fests and are a peculiar breed. There are some traits that bind them.
• They carry an impression of themselves—that they are created of a different mud as opposed to the “masses" who frequent cinema halls to watch Shah Rukh Khan serenade his love interests in the Bollywood version of Switzerland.
• They also imagine themselves as more intelligent than everybody else because they are professional critics often employed at a media house. So, they think it incumbent to criticize everything.
• These creatures get invited to events like these and are put up at plush places. They talk well, look good, and carry a certain demeanor. And, for all practical purposes, they “travel in a pack". But the serious critics are often ignored and work in mofussil places.
• Funnier still is that, unlike the Shah Rukh Khan fan who will pay hard-earned money to watch a movie first day first show, this vocal minority pays nothing for anything. But their criticism is taken seriously. “The rooms at Cannes last week were so much more better than the crap ones here," for instance.
That is why I assumed I’d be up against a “hostile audience" because by all accounts, they have decided that Aadhaar is evil. Why, I wondered, and poked around a bit. Some interesting nuggets emerged.
Take the media critic for instance. This creature is of two kinds—the uninformed and the idiot. The uninformed exists because it hasn’t done its homework and lucked out to get to where it is.
The idiot exists because it can scream from the rooftops, but lacks substance. That is the tragedy with both Indian liberals and those on the right wing. Push them hard and they cannot defend their position beyond 500 words in print. But their decibel levels are high on television they are parasites to boot. Their existence is incumbent on real critics who do the hard work and offer feedback from the ground. Idiots don’t have the muscle to do the hard work. So, they wait until the homework is done by real reporters who go to the field to find out what may the deficiencies be and file meticulous reports.
Idiots then pick and choose what can cause the most impact, craft it to suit their interests, and bomb the place with it. All else is ignored conveniently. When questioned, they have a standard question to throw: who funds you?
Popular narratives on most media platforms are shaped by either the uninformed or the idiot.
So, as a moderator of a panel discussion on Aadhaar, my job was to place a complex theme into perspective. And through all the time I was there, I was asked by various people what I think of Project Aadhaar because I had a “Speaker" tag on my neck and many knew I am there as a moderator.
Just that I may place the conversation into perspective, I had to state it in as many words on a public forum—that I think to provide a unique identity to over a billion people is a staggering accomplishment. And to completely diss the project is stupid. I could see a few angry faces in the front grunt in disagreement and yell that I shut up. This was stuff they didn’t want to hear. It doesn’t fit the narratives that the uninformed and the idiots believe in.
Some media outlets and social media handles reported the next morning that I was heckled by a packed audience. This was in contrast to what I could see from stage. I thought I could see an audience keen to listen to different perspectives. Because, until then, the only narrative most people have been told is that Aadhaar is a dystopian idea and intended to hijack their lives.
But because local media reports had it that I was heckled, I thought I’d check with a few friends who were in the audience. They told me the only dissonant notes were by some angry voices in the front. Darned right I was. The larger audience wanted to listen in to the multiple perspectives. But if it got reported, it would hijack the contemporary narrative now controlled by a vocal minority.
Manu thought the audience was a receptive one as well. That is why my initial irritation gave way to much amusement when my colleague Ramnath reminded me of a quote by Oscar Wilde. “There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."
This is not to suggest I have no biases. “Why," I argued in my head, “does Twinkle Khanna have to be at a lit fest? What is her claim to fame? Is it because she is pretty? What were the organizers thinking? Or smoking? And why is she always surrounded by people who want selfies with her?" I always maintained her book sold as many copies as it did because she is pretty and was a popular actor.
Another part of me confronted myself, though, and said that it is a terribly unfair thing to suggest. I haven’t read her book and arrived at a conclusion based on some assumptions—not the truth. I haven’t met her or made any attempt to meet her either. But later in the evening, over dinner, Manu told me that he has met her while on an assignment and thinks of her as an intelligent and beautiful woman.
But the media can shape popular narrative and informed opinions are hard to come by. To that extent, I suspect I am the kind of liberal who give liberals a bad name.
It was driven home harder still when I walked over to the table where Makarand Paranjape was having a quiet drink. He asked me my name. And then went on to tell me the historical significance of its origins and why I ought to be happy to possess it. When I told him I am not a practicing Catholic, he went on to offer me a brief treatise on the history of Catholicism and asked me some tough questions on why I gave up my faith. So much for all narratives of him being called a right winger. If he is on the right wing, give me a right winger like him any day, as opposed to a shallow liberal.
The other nugget that came my way is that there are “paid critics" who are “professional socialites". After having spent two decades in journalism, it was only last weekend that I discovered this species exists and that there is a reason they get invited to these dos. They have large followings on social medias platforms and columns as well in popular newspapers—usually tabloids or on Page 3.
A tweet from them or a line insidiously implying a brand is a good one can get their accounts credited with as much as Rs5 lakh. In much the same way, they can destroy a carefully crafted reputation as well with a single line. They must be humoured and kept in the good books.
Now I know why one of them has me blocked on Twitter. I’d called him a few names on Twitter in a fit of anger after reading some rather ridiculous tweets on his timeline. The other is a creature always in the news, has answers to everybody’s problems, knows all the gossip, and I don’t bother to read. But the missus thinks of her as somebody worth emulating. All said, both live a nice, “cheap" life of the kind I envy. Incidentally, both have no affiliations. Their only affiliation lies with the colour of money.
Creature #3: the writers
Everybody wants to write a book. The Bangalore Literature Festival was full of writers. Authors were being looked at in awe. Some people asked me what is it that I do for a living. When told I spend a good part of my time writing, I was often told how they have this idea for a book in their mind and if I can offer any pointers on how may they go about it.
Manu and I were catching up after a long while and the both of us laughed at how miserable a writer’s life is. It is hard work and the return on investment (ROI) is terribly low. If you may need perspective, allow me to offer some unsolicited advice on why you ought not to write a book.
• Good books aren’t whipped out of thin air. But it took Manu’s most recent book, a thin volume if size is a metric, three years to complete. We didn’t get into each other’s personal financials. But he and I know writing is lonely, takes awfully long, nobody outside the business understands why does it take as long to write one, and why we expend so much time on what pays as little as it does.
• Then there are the perverted economics of it all. In India, a book that can sell 5,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Assuming each book is priced at Rs500, a best-selling writer can hope to earn Rs2.5 lakh in royalties from the publisher—that is assuming he manages to negotiate royalties in the region of 10% for each copy sold. This too may be set off against the advance paid by a publisher.
• Reality is, thousands of books are written each year. Not all are priced at Rs500, royalties at 10% don’t kick in from the first copy sold, and only a handful make it to the bestseller list.
So why do you write? The both of us agreed on that the only reason we continue to write is because we love to write. And that the time spent in writing is the only time we feel pure and sacred. I suspect it may be the kind of moment the spiritually-inclined may feel when in prayer.
When reality kicks in, though, we know the only reason we can write is because there are other streams that allow us to carry on with life. Until then, we continue to delude ourselves to believe the law of averages may tilt in our favour and that what we write may someday make us rich and famous.
So how do you get to be a full-time writer? My friend Ramnath again pointed me to a passage from Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book Anti-Fragile. “There is a tradition with French and other European literary writers to look for a sinecure, say, the anxiety-free profession of civil servant, with few intellectual demands and high job security, the kind of low-risk job that ceases to exist when you leave the office, then spend their spare time writing, free to write whatever they want, under their own standards. There is a shockingly small number of academics among French authors."
“American writers, on the other hand, tend to become members of the media or academics, which makes them prisoners of a system and corrupts their writing, and, in the case of research academics, makes them live under continuous anxiety, pressures, and indeed, severe bastardization of the soul."
My observations can go on and on. But I must stop. Because, as a speaker at the festival cheekily told Ramnath and me backstage before getting onstage, “Current discourses now sound like the Arnab Monologues."
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