Gentlemen do not engage in public brawl; if they have a grievance to air, they write to the London Times. That was the British code. In a quintessential bourgeoisie society, it did, in fact, work. A letter in the Times would make a minister sit up, there would perhaps be a question or two in Parliament, things would move fast, the matter raised in the letter, despite sometimes bordering on the frivolous, would be attended to.
The Indian gentry, as could only be expected, inherited the code of the ruling nation. It is more than 60 years since the British left; the colonial hangover nonetheless refuses to disappear. In the decades immediately following Independence, the comfortably placed upper and middle classes, which included the self-styled intellectual set, assumed they were in charge of the polity. Some of them entered the civil services or the defence forces or belonged to the boxwallah tribe. A few turned to active politics and were either with the ruling party or with this or that opposition group. A considerable segment however remained outside these orbits. But they hated the idea of being left out of the processes of nation-building that were on in that phase. They loved to think big and small and often imagined to have the right solution to the grave issues facing the country. There were yet others with diverse social interests or of ideological persuasions nurturing an intense desire to express themselves in the public domain. For all of them, the British convention of unburdening one’s point of view in letters to newspaper editors became the accepted mode. A geographical distribution of the load of the letters that got written took place almost in the natural course. Gentlemen in the south — and occasionally ladies — would write to the stodgy Hindu owned by the Kasturi family. Those in the west wrote to The Times of India, managed by the Bennett Coleman group, which had already passed on to Indian hands. Letters from the northern region would crowd into the office of the Hindustan Times, owned by the Birlas and edited by the Mahatma’s son, Devdas Gandhi. For the East, the preferred destination was the Chowringhee Square address in Calcutta of the still-British-owned Statesman, slightly hoity-toity, but at least continuing to be jealous of the elegance of its language and grammar.
The habitué of the writing-letters-to-the-editor club are miffed to no end by the steady plebeianization of the entire lot of what were once described as national newspapers; these look more and more tabloid with every day and have ceased to be ambassadors of daily tidings from all over the country and the world. The intellectual community, in particular, is disconcerted; it is, it feels, beneath its dignity to have its contributions besmirched by being printed next to pictures of damsels in G-strings and money-crazy cricketers caught red-handed for spot-fixing — those pearls of wisdom deserve a better receptacle for display. It is now increasingly turning to the Economic and Political Weekly. A weekly publication with its limited circulation is not quite the same thing. Even so, the EPW has at least the imprimatur of respectability; it is supposed to be the leading social science journal coming out of Asia; it is, some say, the Economist of the emerging countries.
Is not there a huge misunderstanding at work? The culture of writing letters to the editor, a colonial curiosum, is sought to be grafted into the postcolonial soil. This country during all these post-Independence decades has, however, hardly been a prim, stable system in the grip of the bourgeoisie, whatever the illusion of the latter. Post-Emergency, post-Mandal Commission, post-Babri Masjid destruction, India is a most messy affair. It is worth considering how Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar has come to be accorded retrospective deification more than half a century after his death. Our current inheritance is a coarse, uncouth, relentlessly cynical terrain.
The coup de grâce has been afflicted by economic liberalization, setting at total disarray the parameters of the system. Illiteracy, for one, is fast replacing rational discourse. As long as one is reasonably acquainted with the lingo of the information technology universe, it is possible to get along famously, that is, make piles of money, with no need to surf in any other direction. Familiarity with art and literature has zero lucre-yielding prospect, unless one is savvy enough to climb the bandwagon of, for example, event management or public relations or the electronic media. To stay relevant, it may actually often be necessary to feign idiocy. Globalization-mongers detest history and are proud of their disdain for philosophy; so steer clear of these themes too. Culture is whatever is telescoped into pastilles dispensed by the gobblebox. Little tolerance is shown for news which does not concern one’s narrow sphere of interest. The demand schedule is king. The traditional newspapers have to convert themselves, for dear life, into tabloids. They have been forced to move away from hard news; gossip and visuals are enough.
The central message of globalization — make money whatever the means — has led to the inevitable consequence: indulgence in corrupt practice has turned into passport for social recognition. Since no stigma attaches any more to financial skulduggery, the news industry has taken to it as effortlessly as a duck takes to water. News can now be manufactured if the price is right. Space has to be found for such fabricated news.
All this is still only a slice of the total story. The around 8 per cent of the annual gross domestic product growth over the past 10 years or thereabouts has been inordinately skewed, with most of the income accruing cornered by the top 10 to 15 per cent of the community. They would not have known what to do with this money, how to spend it. They needed advice and counsel — and enticement. The media, electronic and print, have taken over that social responsibility. The newspapers-turned-tabloids accommodate gossip, innuendos and visuals, but much the major proportion of their space is intended for advertisements. Financial allocations for selling their wares and services are particularly generous in corporate bodies. The television channels are a collage of sales pitches for innumerable numbers of this or that attractive goody; so is the case with the print media. They have to flash sensational gossip, they have to accommodate paid news; above all, they must accept more and yet more ads which, even if indirectly, helps to boost GDP growth. Why waste so many column inches to print silly letters from cranks and fools when that space could be used to snare people into buying a new line of women’s lingeries or a technologically vastly advanced version of a particular brand of cell phone? The newspaper industry is no longer offering the welcome mat to aspiring letter writers.
Much of these swift-moving turns of events should not be, but are, beyond the grasp of the narrow community that insists on proclaiming itself as the intelligentsia. Its self-love enchants; its persistent habit of thinking no end of itself is a weakness deserving of pardon; after all, the members of this community mean no harm to their neighbours. Is it not, however, time for them to grow up? The print media are not interested in their thoughts. To be candid, nobody but they themselves read the letters they used to get printed. India is otherwise engaged, with no time to eavesdrop into the musings of fresh or veteran PhD-holders who love to pontificate. Nascent capitalism knows what is what.
Remember the story of the Texas hillbilly who struck oil under his land and was all of a sudden flush with money? At the end of a busy day in town, he stopped for a drink at a wayside inn, right next to the precincts of a newly set up university. He was curious to know what a university did and was told it produced PhDs and the innkeeper had the franchise from the university to sell the doctoral degrees. The hillbilly felt expansive and bought a PhD for himself by dishing out a thousand dollars. As an afterthought, he laid out on the table another thousand bucks and purchased a PhD for his horse as well. That is roughly the state of affairs in India as of this moment. The strange animals who die to write letters to the editor are altogether out of place here. On the other hand, one never knows, they too could easily imbibe the ethos of the free market economy and offer hard cash to newspaper editors to get their lofty thoughts published. If the price is right, the letters will be printed, which eventually will have nothing to do with the quality of their contents.