PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: As Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw showed, if you have to die, you must die somewhere in the vicinity of Delhi, so that the movers, shakers and brokers of the capital can easily assemble to “bid a tearful farewell”.
If you write a book, you must write do so somewhere between south and central Delhi, as Presidents (Abdul Kalam), former Union ministers (Lal Krishna Advani, Jaswant Singh), South Block mandarins (Pavan K. Varma, Vikas Swarup, Navtej Sarna, Nirupama Rao) have shown.
For, if you do, Jnanpith Award winning authors, Bollywood actors, starlets and lyricists will crawl out of the woodwork to read and recite your magnum opus. And the media, otherwise snapping like mad dogs at your feet, will gratefully roll over and allow itself to be given a nice little rub on its bloated underbelly.
Take the case of Kapil Sibal‘s ‘I Witness: Partial Observations‘ published by IndiaInk (Roli Books).
It’s a collection of 84 “poems”, mostly composed by the Union science and technology minister’s own admission “on the cellphone during long flights”.
It’s what you and I would call an SMS.
But looking at the red-carpet treatment the putative poet’s book has received from our supposedly “cynical media”, it would seem the greatest poems since the Bhakti movement have been penned on a Blackberry in the business class of British Airways before the babes brought in the booze.
# On NDTV 24×7, Sonia Singh assembles a half-hour show on the politician as poet.
# On CNBC-TV18, Karan Thapar, who otherwise eats politicians for dinner, actually looks lovingly into the eyes of the new prodigy on the block.
# In Outlook, there is a two-page profile of the “nano poet”, with the breathtaking line, “Bio-tech: scientific surgeon’s knife/ genetic investigator’s dream”.
# On NDTV 24×7, Shekhar Gupta does a full Walk the Talk with the “peripatetic poet”, and follows it up with a full-page of excerpts in The Indian Express.
On top of the specials, there is the routine too.
In Bangalore, The Times of India gleefully records the presence of actor Waheeda Rehman and Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw at the release.
In Delhi, The Hindustan Times grimly documents Sibal’s self-proclaimed “natural affinity for rhymes”.
Sure, the media’s duty is to shine the light on fresh new talent. Sure, as Sibal said in Bangalore: “We (politicians) too are sensitive. We too have feelings like any other ordinary mortals.” And sure, there is an element of surprise, if not an undercurrent of fun.
But where is the balance?
Do gems such as these qualify as poetry:
# A constitutional/guarantee?/No panacea/for inequality
# I never have understood/why so many of us/have to die
# TRPs of channels,/soap operas,/get hits for you./News that matters/serious content,/of limited value
# The Left has suffered for a lifetime now, of an ailment they can’t diagnose The symptom however that troubles them most is that they can’t see beyond their nose
Is this a book of poems, or the first book of SMSes?
Vijay Nambisan, a published poet, writes in The Hindu:
“Kapil Sibal is entirely justified in referring to these pieces as ‘partial observations’. But neither he, nor Shashi Tharoor on the back cover, nor even the more fulsome front inside-flap copy-writer, is justified in calling them poems.”
Maybe, if the media went about being so serious, it would be a very boring media. Maybe, there is a some laughs to be had out of all this just as we laugh at Lalu Prasad‘s chalisa. Maybe, this is just desserts for charming Mr Sibal, a fine lawyer with a fine sense of humour.
Maybe, it’s a publicity coup for his publishers. Maybe, it’s a small price to pay for editors and publishers who want to be on the right of Sibal. Just good PR, nothing lost in humouring a Union minister.
But would a fresh young poet in Delhi, especially one aged 60, get such play in our media? Would a fresh young poet in some other part of the country, get such play? Would an out-of-power politician get such play? Would an out-of-power, non-Delhi, non-English poet get it?
Above all, is this stuff even halfway good?
Or just page 3 pap?
As Indrajit Hazra wrote in a piece accompanying a “review” in the Hindustan Times:
From the shores of a droll ministry
comes outpourings from a head.
Now, if it wasn’t Kapil Sibal
we would have left them unread….
Sudha Murthy, the wife of the Infosys chief mentor, N.R. Narayana Murthy, recently complained to a wellknown short story writer that the media wasn’t taking enough note of her literary output.
“I have been writing short stories for 50 years and nobody is taking note of me. And here is a rich but bored housewife who is writing short stories as a hobby demanding it as a matter of right,” the short story writer told her son out of exasperation.
India’s celebrities, it now appears, are secretly hoping that their every fetish and fancy be recorded for posterity. Funnily, it seems, a celebrity-driven media is unquestioningly falling for it.
Photograph: Karnataka Photo News (digitally altered)