September 7, 2007


'Why does Indian journalism constrain itself?' (Lindsay Pereira, May 24, 2007, The Rediff Special)

You wouldn't -- irrespective of whether you are an American citizen or not -- want to sit down to dinner with Changez. You would find him polite to a fault, of course, and possibly even enjoy having him guide you through the streets of Lahore for a while. But, sitting down to a meal with him would be a whole other issue. He would manage, rather glibly, to figure out where you came from, or what your purpose in his city was. He would bring with him a quiet sense of menace. And he could possibly cause you harm, even while explaining the rationale behind the act.

Sole protagonist of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- the follow up to his vibrant, edgy, 2000 debut Moth Smoke -- Changez is not the world's greatest dinner companion. A meal with his creator, on the other hand, would be very nice indeed. To engage Mohsin Hamid in conversation is fabulous, because he comes across as a writer who really cares about his craft, and is more than happy to engage in a discussion about it.

Also Read: An American Passage to India

We sit across each other, in the lobby of Mumbai's Taj President, oblivious of a steady stream of guests, porters, bellhops and the usual bunch of people who appear to spend their lives in hotel lobbies, with no apparent purpose before them. This is Hamid's first trip to Mumbai, and it can't have begun in the best circumstances considering he spent a few hours registering himself at a police station -- an unpleasant task made mandatory in a world now full of suspicious neighbours. [...]

As our conversation moves towards a close, I ask him about the function of journalism in Pakistan, and whether, like India, it has no real tradition of critical evaluation, as far as anything written in English is concerned. "Pakistani book reviews are certainly no better informed than Indian ones," he informs me. "But I have been reviewed all over the world, and most reviews are just like ours. Most reviewers have no idea of historical context; they don't deploy particularly sophisticated analysis, and they jump to early conclusions that are absurd. Often, one is a beneficiary of this, because what comes out is a poorly thought-out review that is glowingly positive, and can be put on the back of one's paperback."

He adds that it is a rare review that teaches either the author or reader, giving both some insight into the novel. "Most reviews are a bit like film reviews -- thumbs up or thumbs down," he smiles.

Interestingly, speaking about journalism in general, Hamid believes the press in Pakistan is more critical of the government. Indian journalism, he says, has a soft touch. I point out that this is ironic, considering Pakistan isn't exactly a model democracy. "Exactly," Hamid replied, "and maybe that is why it is like this. It's interesting that given the greater freedom Indian journalism enjoys, it constrains itself. The 'India Shining' thing struck me as having resonances of the American model. When the war first began there, for a long time before Iraq became a quagmire, the US press pretty much said 'Go, America!' and abandoned its critical role."

Such rigid conformity is one of the great gifts of democracy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 7, 2007 12:00 AM
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