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‘Cigarette chart’ and rural reports

Missionary William Carey’s “terrible (attempts) at converting people” to the Bhagalpur blindings, journalist and writer Ian Jack pondered over a whole range of topics at a discussion on the fifth day of the Kolkata Literary Meet.

Asked by moderator Sujata Sen, the director (east India) of British Council, how India had changed over the four decades that he had been reporting from here, the author of Mofussil Junction shared his “cigarette chart of India” — how you knew where you were in India, big city, metropolis, town or village, by what cigarette was available.

“The poor seem to be less poor,” the Scottish journalist and former editor of Granta added.

Journalist Swati Bhattacharjee spoke about how there has been a change in preferences and that though people did have more money, they were spending on material goods instead of on food.

Jack also dwelt on the changing image of India abroad, not just in terms of safety, which it has, but also in terms of India’s importance in the economy of the world, especially because of the Tatas.

Both speakers agreed that rural reporting is impossible without knowledge of the local context. They had one advice for journalists reporting from rural areas — try as much as you can to leave your city biases behind or, at least, try to identify them so that they don’t interfere with the report.