I write this far from the billowy comforts of my armchair. So apologies if my prose seems a bit wobbly and my reasoning rubbery. Not finding any firm ground to sit on as I write this, I have hired someone to sit on his face. My role model for the purpose is, of course, Narayan Pargaien, the sacked journalist of the local Uttarakhand television channel, News Express, who had filed a report on the devastating floods last fortnight while perched on a man’s shoulders.
Not being a Columbia School of Journalism alumnus, he’s now the poster boy of rotten journalism after he reported from a hostile terrain in the best way possible under budgetary constraints: without getting wet.
Of all the pieces-to-camera aired from Uttarakhand, it’s the image of the camera slowly zooming into the conjoined figures of Pargaien holding a microphone on top of another man standing in flood waters with a row of decrepit hovels behind them that has grabbed our attention.
The report stated facts about the unfolding tragedy. But it also made us physically aware of the conditions there. Looking at the two, one instinctively felt the dire need to avoid stepping into ‘the muck’.
The outrage that broke out across urbane India like pimples on a fat teenager’s face was predictable and valid. After all, the sight of a man carrying another man on his shoulders in filthy waters can be as horrible as — for those who get to see with the eyes of an ‘outsider’ — seeing passengers on a hand-pulled rickshaw being transported by a scrawny man. Or a child delivering goods twice his weight from the kirana shop.
Or a maid made to sit at the corner of a restaurant table tending to the ‘family kid’ while others dine. Or other visible forms of human resource exploitation we have such an intimate relationship with here in India.
Speaking to the media website newslaundry.com, non-Pulitzer Prize-winning Pargaien stated, “People are talking about us (sic) being inhuman and wrong but we were actually helping some of the victims there.” Sadly for Pargaien, he was not being the Gonzo journalist that he should have become by making himself an integral part of the story. What he betrayed was utter naiveté, a stupidity in not gauging how dastardly he looked mounted on another man serving as a coolie.
“The report was supposed to be telecast only with footage of me chest-up,” Pargaien intoned to newslaundry.com. “This was entirely the cameraman’s fault, who tried to sabotage my career by shooting from that distance and angle and releasing the video.”
Pargaien’s defence is comic, even as it is set in something deeply disturbing and tragic. And yet, he is not wrong. What if the channel had aired the spot report without ever showing the man carrying him on his shoulders? Have other reporters also been engaging in such acts of ‘jugaad’ but smart enough to not showcase the ‘exploitative’ bits? What about non-journalists hiring shoulders?
Reports have described Pargaien’s anonymous carrier as “wobbling under his weight”. I’ve seen the footage a few times. Out of the 25-odd seconds you see the man, he doesn’t ‘wobble’ once. He can be seen shifting his ground as he stands waist-deep in the water with his arms crossed and fingers clasped below Pargaien’s knees. But even if he was wobbling, is that the sign of a man’s rights being violated?
It didn’t help Pargaien one bit when he explained with straight-faced candour that his carrier “wanted to show me some respect, as it was the first time someone of my level had visited his house”. If a literal snapshot of Feudal India 2013 was not bad enough, such footnotes drove Pargaien into the moral pit. But Pargaien is still well within his right to be confused. News Express did not think the report unfit to be aired and indeed aired it. The channel pulled off the clip from its website only after it had become a YouTube ‘sensation’.
Do viewers of local channels beyond the gaze of media Grand Inquisitors shudder when unpixellated corpses are regularly shown, or noxious criminal acts are aired on a loop? Remember the local Assamese channel that showed a girl being molested by a group of men outside a Gauhati bar that was picked up and aired by national television not too long ago?
How forgivable is it when reporters are seen thrusting mikes into the faces of disoriented members of families who have just lost a loved one and are asked “How do you feel?” When a national channel recently showed a reporter coaxing a grieving father of a murdered student to play the violin ‘in remembrance’ of his son, the reporter may as well have perched herself on his frail shoulders.
Narayan Pargaien’s action on camera was unsavoury. But it has embarrassed a nation that gets aghast only when unsavoury bits of regular life in 2013 India — utilising child labour, exploiting low-cost labour, making hay when the sun shines on others’ miseries — are brought into a formal frame.
This, of course, doesn’t mean all this is all right. They are deeply wrong and should shame us whether witnessed on or off TV. It just means that I’m glad I’m a print journalist and can now relieve the good man under me on whose face I’ve been sitting all this while and give him a well-deserved baksheesh.