Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fiction is much more appealing than sordid facts

Fiction is much more appealing than sordid facts
By M J Akbar

Charity, all too often, is a form of sycophancy. The rich give not because they feel for the poor but because they need something from God in an immediate transactional basis. They buy divine favour with donations. Sometimes such worship is less immaculate.

There was the odious case last year of fatcats queuing up to hand out dole to Kalawati, the widow of a Vidarbha farmer, because her poverty had been cited by Rahul Gandhi in a speech in the Lok Sabha. One hopes that Rahul Gandhi was as unimpressed as divinity for hypocrisy.

There is national schizophrenia and media dyslexia at the quixotic elevation of Indian poverty in Anglo-America. The Indian well-fed have perfected their formula: they exploit poverty when they can [witness how they generally behave towards domestic servants, mostly children] and keep a safe distance when they cannot. The English-speaking Mumbaikar finds it so much more pleasant to see Dharavi through Hobowood (what else would you call a partnership of Hollywood and Bollywood?) than stop at the great slum on the way to the airport. Fiction is so much more palatable than fact. It comes dressed in A R Rahman’s music.

Indifference is the respectable fact of contempt. The rich don’t quite understand why there is so much fuss about calling a child a ‘slumdog’, possibly because they treat their dogs better than they treat slum children. Is there a movie waiting to be made titled ‘The Capitalist Kutta of Malabar Hill’? One thinks not.

There was no antidote to the plague of puns on ‘dog’ that devastated the front pages of newspapers after the Oscars. You could see the agony on the face of the English language as it was tortured beyond reason, but that is minor price extracted by editorial creativity. The hype had only one explanation: we love the idea of winning even if it is through surrogates.

Mohammad Azharuddin, the ‘dogstar’, was welcomed on his return from Hollywood with a nation’s garlands at the airport and a candlelight dinner at home. The candles were a necessity, not a romantic affectation. This was life at the base camp: Edmund Hillary can’t live on the peak of Everest forever. The poor are very sensible. Fate is consistent, for them, not fickle; it does not promise fortune. Azharuddin’s parents clearly refused to invest the wages of passing glamour on upward mobility that might become unsustainable. Azharuddin ate with a satisfaction that he could not have felt for hamburgers.

The slum story of the year has appeared on the inside pages of the print medium. According to the Indian Statistical Institute’s survey of the country’s 575 districts, urban poverty was bleakest in Mumbai, the city that was being advertised as the future Shanghai. It added that the number of people living below the poverty line had risen — repeat, risen — by 20% in the last five years. Murshidabad, once capital of Nawab Siraj ud Daulah, described by an astonished Clive as richer than London when he saw it for the first time, is now the poorest district in the country, with 1.47% of people below the poverty line.

In a separate report, the United Nations World Food Programme says that the largest concentration of hunger in the world is in India: 230 million, or 27% of the world total. Fifty percent of child deaths are due to hunger. Nearly 43% of children under five are underweight, as compared to only 28% for sub-Saharan Africa. And, 70% of children under five are anaemic, a figure that has risen by six per cent in the last six years.

Television, that lightning rod of middle-class values, which screamed itself into a stupor over the Oscars, ignored these reports completely. They were not even awarded the courtesy of a crawler, the line of letters that trots by on news channels below the aggressive self-importance of the screen. No anchor had a question as to how numbers below the poverty line have risen by 20% in the last five years when every minister of the Union of India has proclaimed that the era of dross has given way to the age of gold.

But such facts are not televisual news. They don’t dance to the rhythm of music. Who shall dare tell the bloated that hunger is the ultimate siege within?

Appeared in Times of India - March 1, 2009


Baharul said...

Respected M J Akbar Sb:

Still remembering our chance meeting in Delhi last week. Since my university days in Aligrah, you are my writers' "Indian Idol". I was thrilled to see you again after so many years.

Toady I read the article "Fiction is much more ..." in Sunday TOI. I think your column will bring some sense of reality against the torrential publicity and paid campaigns of Congress party much like "India Shining" of 2004.

Thank you once again for the straight forward expression of facts as usual and giving us this chance to bring these issues to the forefront of the political debates where an "all's well" make believe situation prevails riding on economic growth figures and statistics. I am personally getting this article translated in local languages and serve as an eye opener to the local public who might not reach your writing through national media like TOI. Please alert me about copyright issues.


Baharul Islam
Guwahati (Assam)
Cell 094350-72356
Email :

Number Cruncher said...

The portmanteau status of the term ‘slumdog’ is so powerful that it can bring to the forefront two images to the mind - that of a slum (depends on the slums you have been exposed to) and a neutral dog (learnt in LKG). Then quickly the mind can transfer the despicability of the slums on the neutral picture of the dog and give the dog a status of canine ilk of the lowest form with rashes and rabies. And when this insult is addressed to an individual this base imagery gets extrapolated on the target provoking him to come up with something more insulting to depreciate the opponents image lower than that of his newly acquired image in order to feel better about himself. While this transaction persists, the word acquires fresh meaning at every point getting baser by the day and hitting a point of no return that it automatically co joins with another word close enough to emerge with a new stature.

Corinne Rodrigues said...

Sir - I've always respected and admired your integrity and your writing. I'm very pleased to have found your blog!

Just wondering why you have a "Advani For PM" advertisement on your blog?