Searingly truthful tales

Have you noticed that as newspapers become increasingly colourful, the news within seems to be more black and white? There’s hardly any elbow room for the critically inclined journalist who refuses to serve you the news sunny-side-up, especially if it involves state-sponsored eggs. Annie Zaidi is one such journalist who would much rather sneak up on her story in sneakers than give her readers a blurry bird’s-eye-view from her window seat on the ‘King of Good Times’ airline. Reading Known Turf — bantering with bandits and other true tales, a compilation of Zaidi’s reportage and blog entries, is a non-stop ride through some pretty rough terrain. The only halts here are unannounced tea breaks, most of which you miss, out of fear of losing your seat.

You travel at break-neck speed from the surrendered bandits of Chambal to malnourishment in Madhya Pradesh; take a sharp turn towards the exploited and starving weavers in Benaras; slow down at the rise of Sufism, immigration fraud and human trafficking in Punjab, learning how these relate to a Dalit’s search for elusive freedom in a dispossessing democracy and finally amble towards the finish line with questions on identity, Hindutva-defined secularism and feminism.

Through it all, Zaidi is searingly critical of the state and its ‘policy of exclusion’ which, a social worker tells her, is when you deprive people of their natural rights and then start a welfare scheme to compensate. But she is also critical of her profession that is increasingly treating news as just another commodity with a short shelf life. Most importantly, unlike those in the corporate media, she is highly self-critical, constantly on the lookout for road signs that read — ‘Watch out! Ethical compromise ahead’
It is this that gives her words strength of feeling, understanding as well as an ironic humour. In a particularly poignant moment in the book, Zaidi finds herself hesitating to do yet another starvation story and is ashamed to realise she is measuring the urgency of the story against the numbers of the dead. ‘Was I selling starvation? But how else does one do this? How do we communicate stories of hunger if there are no compelling pictures of toddlers with protruding bellies and fading eyes?’ she wonders.

At moments like this the baggage gets heavier and one longs for a little unpacking. If media shorthand such as this contributes only to further desensitisation — rather than indignation — in society, then how do we break out of these stereotypes? How do we convey the humiliation of helplessness, the pain of powerlessness? How do we equip ourselves with the tools required to decode the language of the powerful, which the journalist Steven Poole so aptly refers to as ‘unspeak’ — those deliberately engineered phrases that smuggle in the sanitised point of view?

Zaidi’s own questions are deeply personal and often solitary quests. The book was written, she says, “in the hope that through these stories of reporting from the field, other people too could share in my understanding of me, my times and my country.” The directness of the prose will undoubtedly compel the reader to engage with it. But one does hope for a little more historical context in the journalist’s future journeys. This way we can accompany her not as passive passengers but as co-navigators.

 

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