On a recent edition of Newshour, Arnab Goswami, the patron saint of prime time histrionics was having a field day. An invitee to his durbar of derangement, Dr. Tasleem Ahmed Rehmani (President, Muslim Political Council of India) was looking to avoid a tricky question when Goswami went for the jugular, literally looking down at Rehmani from the central screen slot. (All the other panellists seemed to huddle around him, from their respective screen slots) "Mr Rehmani, I am not going to let you dodge this one, not on Times Now and certainly not on Newshour." This to me was a near-perfect encapsulation of how far things have slid, as far as India's TV media is concerned.
One might wonder why I choose to attach such significance to what may very well have been just another exercise in pulpit-pounding from the indefatigable Goswami. The thing is, Goswami was convinced that his words had the weight necessary for such a monomaniacal statement. That his show was bigger was than the news it broadcast, the panellists it invited, perhaps even the people lapping it up eagerly after a hearty dinner. Tales from Shining and Sinking India has been written by Akash Banerjee, who's been a reporter at Times Now, among other places, which explains the foreword written by Goswami, editor on some of the stories discussed here. The book suffers from quite a few of the same diseases as Goswami's brand of reportage; shrillness over sanity, an inexplicable lack of pertinent substance, incurable self-aggrandizement and an air of perpetual climax which no doubt makes for riveting TV.
Take the first of the stories Banerjee chooses to deconstruct here. Lal Salaam is supposed to be an account of his 'Travels in Maoistan'. But if you're hoping to gain a fresh perspective on this treacherously tricky topic, you'll be sorely disappointed. Banerjee almost skates over the entire Salwa Judum issue in a brief, perfunctory paragraph. There's a hurried sequence where he narrowly escapes getting hurt by an IED. Brigadier (retired) B.K. Ponwar, the director of CTJW (Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare) College in Kanker, has been profiled by several writers, including Arundhati Roy, who memorably dubbed him 'the Rumpelstiltskin of the jungle'. He's nothing if not a complex, complicated, fascinating man. Banerjee has a tough act to follow here, admittedly, but it appears that he is not even interested in those aspects of Ponwar's character which do not fall in line with the angle he's pursuing. Unfortunately, this means there is very little here that has not been covered previously by writers far more accomplished than Banerjee. Banerjee's cliché-heavy, oddly constipated prose does not make things any easier. "The retired army man had single-handedly set up this institute in the middle of nowhere to train men in the art of jungle warfare. In the initial years, ironically, the conditions at the CTJW College were quite 'wild'- no building, no fencing and no electricity. But what Brig. Ponwar lacked in resources, he more than made up with his resolve." For a far more satisfactory report on Ponwar and his college, Banerjee would do well to read Garima Jain's Tehelka piece on Ponwar, The Lawrence of Kanker.
There is very little here that has not been covered previously by writers far more accomplished than Banerjee. His cliché-heavy, oddly constipated prose does not make things any easier.
Dropcap OnThe rest of the chapters scarcely fare any better; whether it's Pralay (apocalypse in Hindi; even the chapter names sound like something out of a scrolling marquee on Aaj Tak) which covers the flood-affected areas of Bihar, or Aatank (terror) which is a slipshod account of the 26/11 terror attacks. In the latter chapter in particular, the author indulges in some idle pea-shooting at the government's expense, saying that they had "failed to understand the pattern of information flow". He then coolly changes tack, leaving the enigma unsolved like a cliff-hanger on a soap opera; which, by the way, is precisely the kind of effect news channels go for these days. Banerjee's infrequent attempts at taking a firm stance are either embarrassingly uninformed or plain wishful. Like when he expresses his optimism about Mamta Banerjee's tenure as Chief Minister of West Bengal in Poriborton, saying, "I was not the only journalist celebrating Didi's victory; for Mamta Banerjee coming to power could signal the revival of journalism, an institution that had become supine and submissive over the last three decades in West Bengal." As we now know, Mamta Banerjee likes journalists (and free speech in general) almost as much as vampires like sunlight.
Perhaps Tales From Shining and Sinking India had the right idea; to bring a behind-the-scenes perspective to some of the biggest stories handled by the television media in recent times. And in doing so, presenting by proxy a recent socio-political history of both the 'shining' and 'sinking' portions of the country. But Banerjee's dogged refusal to get into the nitty-gritty of why Goswami or he himself chose to pursue a particular story closes the door firmly on the first objective. The author's own authorial naiveté buries any hopes of achieving the second.