Last week, as the television news channels on both sides of the border turned the Bombay tragedy first into ‘patriot games’ and then into ‘ratings wars’, I ended up contributing to the hysteria in two TV studios. One in Delhi, and one here in Karachi.
I am one of those sad journalists who have managed to survive in the profession without succumbing to the charms of television news. Some of us still hang on to that outdated notion that a notebook and a ball-pen are all the gadgets that a journalist needs to get to the heart of a story. Whenever I have to face a TV camera, I squirm and mumble and promise myself never to do it again.
Then why did I do it twice in two days? It must have been a seasonal bout of vanity, because I actually hoped that I might have something to add to the debate. Because what I was watching on the TV screens had a macabre disconnect with what the anchor persons were saying. On the one hand, horrifying pictures of people caught in a prolonged certain-death situation, and on the other, shrill voices demanding more and immediate violence, and their Pakistani counterparts responding with the chorus of ‘They did it to themselves.’
I kept asking myself: why aren’t these people sad? Why aren’t they mourning?
So I was quite nervous as I was whisked off to a TV station in Noida. I was told in vague terms that I’ll be talking about the current situation between India and Pakistan. The producer who received me at the station told me the topic: Should India attack targets in Pakistan? I asked if I could go out for a smoke. I was hoping to do a runner but then realised I’ll never find my way out of Noida and will probably get arrested for having a Punjabi accent.
An SMS poll was already underway when the programme started and 90 per cent respondents wanted India to go ahead with these strikes. By the time the programme ended 91 per cent wanted these attacks. I have no idea how I might have contributed to this rousing demand for a televised war because I only mumbled some basic facts: yes, there are lawless areas in Pakistan but these areas were not Muzaffarabad or Muridke as the presenter seemed to suggest.
At one point frustrated at my failure to stop the war rhetoric, I said that people of Pakistan have gotten over their ‘India obsession’ but India hasn’t. That again is a fact I know first hand. In my own village in central Punjab, which was the centre of India-bashing till a decade ago, nobody talks about India as Enemy No. 1. In fact nobody talks about India.
It’s not that we have converted to some form of Gandhi-ism; it’s just that we are faced with far bigger problems ranging from local Taliban to 12-hour power cuts. Who has the time? But there is something about television formats that by the time you get to mention your village, the anchor person has moved on to that retired general who always wants to give you four strategic options.
On my way back from the TV station, I did what all old-school travelling reporters do. I asked the cab driver if India should attack Pakistan. He seemed startled by my rude suggestion. “But we don’t even know yet who has done it.” It seemed driving all those journalists to the TV station he had picked up some basic journalistic training. And then with a healthy cynicism, probably mixed with an urge to please a guest, he said: “Maybe your people have done it, maybe our people have done it, who knows?”
When I got back to Karachi the next day, I was asked for a repeat performance — on a very popular prime-time show on a very popular channel. Still reeling from the previous night’s experience, I asked a friend what I should say. He told me to say the same things I said in India the night before. I was surprised at my own response: “I said those things because I was in India.”
The Pakistani presenter asked me what it was like being in India. I said inane things about how normal it seemed, how there were traffic jams. There was no hostility. None at all. I tried to make a word-play on an Urdu expression — a favourite with our presenters — ghum-o-ghussa (sadness and anger). I said people were sad and the media were angry, very angry.
I pointed out that the Pakistan media were also very angry. This, of course, I was told, was a reaction to the Indian media’s anger. I managed to slip in that while the governments seemed quite cautious with their words, TV presenters were gagging for war. All this while a ticker was running on the monitor: “Pakistan Army’s high command meets to deliberate India’s junooni behaviour.” I wondered if somebody had actually seen the meeting’s agenda and whether it says: “How to tackle India’s junoon”.
There was a question about whether India is increasingly looking for military solutions. I rolled out an emphatic and wishful ‘No!’ on behalf of the Indian people conveniently ignoring the SMS poll. I said that there is an emerging middle class in India that wants new accessories like pilot-less drones. This pleased the presenter. To dilute the effect I rolled out a cliché about five year olds begging on the streets of Karachi as well as Delhi. My time was up.
I think the problem with TV is that it doesn’t allow for mourning unless it’s of the variety observed by photogenic people with candles and facebook accounts. With pen and paper, or even with a laptop, between typing one sentence and struggling to write another you can let out a sigh of desperation and admit to yourself that you don’t know what the hell is going on. You have no idea if there will be a solution in your life time.
Try saying that to an anchor-person.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes