At 6 pm on a Friday evening, the Secretariat Club in Cubbon Park is slowly coming to life like a Jaagran. It has been raining but the government- white tiles in the corridor are still clean. Bhajans are being sung in Kannada somewhere and there are men of various ages and shapes walking in and out of a room under a board that helpfully says Men’s Gym. Nobody seems to know which of the many halls is the venue for the Paranjoy Guha Thakurta talk on Journalism and Rationality.
A tall woman is pacing up and down the corridor, agitatedly punching numbers into her phone. Just beyond are two halls, and one of them is the source of the bhajans. Several portraits of Ganesha, Lakshmi and other divinities adorn the wall outside. In the other room, a bunch of people sitting in a circle are in conversation. It seems like they’ve been waiting for someone. The scene is rather like a riddling test of character where one must always choose the right room from two.
I am confused, and something about the tall woman’s agitation is beginning to make sense. I don’t think the talk is going to happen, she says on her phone. Nobody here seems to know anything. She waves at me and I walk towards her as she puts her phone back into the bag.
Are you here for the talk as well?
Yes, I say and wonder if she’s mad at me.
It’s not happening. Look around this place. No one knows anything.
A man turns up magically and asks us if we are here for the talk and I am only beginning to smile apologetically when she lets him have it. What is happeningggg ya?
I’m not the organiser. I’m just here to tell you that the talk will happen at C.M hall.
I lunge in the direction that he points to which has the circle of people sitting in plastic chairs. A familiar face smiles and I am convinced that the talk will really happen because the woman who smiled is a friend and a journalist. She takes me outside to tell me her version of the same chaos – how she and her colleagues were ushered into the bhajan room by a man who was convinced that they were going to write about it because they were journalists. How the usher had said yes yes him, when they asked him if the speaker would be coming soon and then pointed to an old man reading a newspaper. And how he left them with a dozen Kannada newspapers, telling them ‘the show’ would begin soon. They had run out soon after. I tell her my version as we join the others.
Twenty minutes later. A short, balding man walks in, accompanied by a posse. He is wearing an olive-green shirt with two pens in the front pocket, and he has the smile of a five-year-old who has just understood bribery. He introduces himself as Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and apologises even as his colleague goes about asking everyone if they are okay with waiting a couple more minutes since more people are coming.
The circle breaks, and we help with the chairs that are now being organised into rows. At 6:45 pm, we begin.
Guha Thakurta takes off his chappals, puts one leg over the other and addresses the fifteen people who have now assembled.
I’d like if you’d ask me questions, and we can begin there because what I’m about to say has things to do with what’s happening in the world and how the media is changing.
He doesn’t wait for the questions and continues, his left hand grasping the kada on his right.
Let’s look at what’s happening today. Look at the similarity between Modi and Trump. They both have the same disdain for media, he says and smiles at each of us. Sometimes, his smile is punishing in its steadiness. After he makes a point, he will look at you and smile for a minute- as if this is a conversation only between the two of you in a coffee shop and you will wonder if you should answer even though no question has been asked.
Patting his knees, he speaks next of the role of a traditional journalist. He mentions the Panama Papers and says how much reading is involved in order to understand a case like that. Thousands of pages are read in order to understand it, simplify it and then explain it in a thousand words to the people. Smile.
The most striking quality about Guha Thakurta is his ability to continue talking even in the midst of loud distractions. He has only just begun to speak of diversity in India and how this is barely reflected in the media when the room next door erupts in a loud ringing of bells.
When he pauses, we take a deep breath along with him, and then he continues. The 2014 election was like an American election and this was largely because of the media’s representation of two parties against each other, almost as if the other parties didn’t exist.
As he is concluding his point with a mention of RSS and its power today, a man with a large red tika on his forehead walked in holding a thaali with mangalaarti and agarbatti. He brushed the smoke from the thaali towards us, blessing us all gently. Eyes are rolled and as if he hasn’t just suppressed a chuckle, Guha Thakurta continues.
The Times of India is Asia’s biggest publisher today and it isn’t too different from Wipro and Infosys. At this point you must ask yourselves – are you the consumer or the citizen?
As he is saying this, he looks at me – his eyes squeezing into the face to manage that wide smile. I nod in gratitude.
Pointing to the difference between the media in India and America, Guha Thakurta mentions the steady status of print media here even as the two middle-aged women sitting next to me agree with him excitedly.
When the questions begin, Guha Thakurta stands up to switch on the fan even as his posse hurries to do it themselves. A man asks him about the future of free press, and Guha Thakurta mentions a short film he’d made about the illegal mining in Bellary and Anantpur for which money was crowd- sourced. Philanthropic organisations are supporting the media, he says, and mentions ‘The Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation’ which provides financial support to The Wire.
Man number two begins by saying that he has no question but some comments to make. He observes that since the talk is called ‘Science and Journalism’, he thinks that between the scientist and the journalist, the scientist has less integrity because the journalist has more moral consciousness about the impact of his work. I am curious about Guha Thakurta’s response. Because his smile began when the man mentioned integrity and it continued till he cleared his throat and said, well, thank you for saying that about us but I don’t think it’s true.
I don’t listen to the rest of the answer because I’m fishing my phone out of the bag to check my mail to confirm if the talk is really titled ‘Science and Journalism’
It isn’t. It is still Journalism and Rationality. All is well again but my doubts come back when a young boy who was stopping by every person and handing them a sheet to scribble in, comes to me. I look at the sheet. It is asking for our email ids if we are interested in attending more talks about science. My eyebrows change places but I quickly put my name and email ID down.
The mystery continues.
When man number three in the front row asks Guha Thakurta to comment on the rise of social media, he says social media is just filled with opinions. He is quick to say this, as if he’d been waiting all evening to say it. He has just mentioned trolls (who abuse and those who are paid to abuse) when an obnoxious group of moustachioed, loud men walk past the hall. They continue talking brazenly. At this, Guha Thakurta casts one last smile at all of us, before half –standing, and whole-heartedly thanking us all for coming.
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