The memoirs of a former journalist who is using the Wikileaks context to settle old scores
Once upon an election, the ruling party was bullying and booth-capturing recklessly. I was there. I saw it. Outside one booth, three Tata Sumos drove away at mad speeds, their screeching, spinning wheels blowing dust into my eyes in a scene straight out of the Tamil movies. I walked into the booth to find it had been ransacked minutes earlier. I saw weeping government officials and ballots with the stamp over the rising sun scattered everywhere. Other reporters saw similar scenes. Reporters received complaints of cash and biriyani(!) being distributed to voters. The management of the newspaper I worked for chose to run the Election Commission’s claims that the elections had been without incident, rather than accounts from several reporters who had seen the captured booths and heard from voters who had been offered bribes. Two days later, when almost all other media (barring the usual suspects) had run outraged stories about the brazenness of the booth capturing, hesitantly, The Hindu followed suit. Today, they announce to us that cash for votes is a way of political life in Tamil Nadu. Yeah, thanks, we know that already. Too bad you couldn’t believe your lowly brown-skinned reporters who told you all about it. A white man sends off a cable about it to his masters and then it becomes news? Really?
The ways of power are mysterious. Now, The Hindu is releasing the WikiLeaks India cables to the world. Now, we know what many people in Tamil Nadu had been yelling about – that the Government of India was in cahoots with the Government of Sri Lanka to turn attention away from the bloodbath to wipe out the LTTE – was true. Now, in fact, we know that our worst fears and suspicions about institutions are often true. And now, I write about how I grew disenchanted with the newspaper I grew up with, the paper that framed my worldview, ruined my prose and beat any interest in journalism out of me.
Once I discovered that bottled water could have cyanide or shit or worse in it. This was when the Chennai Corporation was on a spree of taking water samples and blacklisting bottled water brands because they claimed the samples were unfit for consumption. So. I visited several private water-bottling facilities in the outer suburbs of the city. Several brands can get their water bottled from the same plant. I saw workers on the same premises segregating bottles after they had been sealed and pasting the stickers of different brands on them. All these plants had laboratories to test samples of the water they are bottling, to comply with regulations. Samples had tested positive for everything from cyanide compounds to faecal matter. They have recorded these cheerfully, I have no clue why – possibly because inspection officials can be bribed – and shown them to me equally cheerfully – possibly confident that a stupid woman would not understand what these record notebooks had to say.
I started drinking tap water from that day. I’m still alive.
I went to the government Bureau of Indian Standards lab to understand the process of water testing. They walked me through the steps involved in testing water samples.
I visited the Chennai Corporation lab where they claimed to be testing the water. My school’s chemistry lab was better equipped. This place did not have a functioning refrigerator to store samples at low temperatures (a crucial part of the testing process). They showed me some grimy test tubes when I asked to see samples of the water that were being tested. The claims about testing water were clearly false. The moral of the story: None of them are clean – neither the bottlers nor the people claiming to be testing it. The article I wrote shuttled between the internal censors for more than a week. Then it was quietly rewritten for unreadability and pubished.
The Hindu is a good employer. They take care of their employees – practically free healthcare, heavily subsidized canteen food and all that jazz. I was a bad journalist. I did not know how to stay in the good books of the powers-that-be. I did not know how to impress the right people. Most of my stories about civic problems in the suburbs, the rites of the transgendered, the farmers markets in Thiruvallur and such-like trivia did not make the first three pages of the paper. Most importantly, I did not know how to cosy up to government officials – vital if I want to be able to milk them for stories later. I treated all of them like they had some communicable terminal illness. The Chennai Corporation Commissioner is a smooth operator who knows how to keep journalists and politicians happy. I pride myself on the fact that he yelled at me once when I was working on the water purification story. That is among the few moments in my journalistic career when I felt I was doing something right.
I wish I could say that I walked out of office in rage over some incident of internal censorship and never went back. The reason I actually quit was far more trivial. A few months later, salaries were raised across the board since the management wanted to hire ACJ graduates, who were all being offered much higher starting pay by other organisations. My salary raise still did not equal the pay that freshers were being offered, though I had been working for this newspaper for three years. I am an ACJ graduate myself (oh, the exquisite irony of it all) I fought to get the raise. Then I quit. There was high drama and exchange of memos and self-righteous letters because I refused to serve the notice period for resignation. Each time I cross that office I feel a thrill of joy that I no longer work there.
Cue next flashback: The first story I wrote for The Hindu was about the idle Braille press at the Government School for the Blind, Poonmallee. With the only government Braille press in Tamil Nadu out of action, none of the high school visually challenged students in the state would have individual textbooks for their board exams. The internal censor who decided which stories should be run from the city sat on this article for a week. He finally reluctantly allowed it to be published in one of the inside pages, buried between two ads. The headline was a quote from a government official. This was my first intimation that my employer (or his intermediaries) did not like stories that rocked the Establishment’s boat. I thought this only applied to the government. I was wrong.
The students of an engineering college were up in arms when it became clear that their sprouted-overnight college did not have AICTE approval or any of the infrastructure that a college should have. I wrote an article quoting some of their claims. The next morning I was stunned to see an article replete with smooth-talking quotes from the management of the same college without a single student voice. I had only written an article about the students’ accusations (biased supporter of the oppressed that I am). The above-mentioned censor had done the re-writing and run the story. It was whispered that he could get anybody a seat in any engineering college because he was friendly with most of their managements. No-one made these accusations in public. We did not rock the Establishment. No, sir.
I don’t know if any of the work I did as a journalist ever helped ‘change the world’. I know I made things worse for the wrong people once. I went to a village on the banks of Cooum upstream – two hours away from Chennai. The magnificent river bed of this seasonal river is a sight to be seen. Comparing it with the sewer that runs through the city is heartbreak. The women in this village were protesting against arrack being sold on the banks of the river. They posed hesitantly for a picture after I told them that it would add power to their claims. The next day I heard from a panchayat official that the women had been threatened with violence by the police for having dared to complain to the press. No, they didn’t want to complain about the coercion. Resistance can be beaten out of us very simply in a day. Or it could take a little longer. For me, at The Hindu, it took about three years.
I continue to be perplexed about why a newspaper that will publish Sainath should choose to dance over a tightrope when it came to the Tamil Nadu government. In spite of everything, I still read The Hindu and am happy they have published the WikiLeaks India cables. But I have been inside once. And seen that chess games are in progress all the time. Who the sacrificial pawns and who the knights are this time, and this close to the elections, is difficult to tell. The ways of power are truly mysterious.
Malarvizhi Jayanth is Editor, Tulika Publishers.