June 10, 2006

Things we celebrate

Been thinking incoherent thoughts again, about ... well, things we celebrate, or find acceptable, versus things we don't. And why.

A year ago the press reported that Lakshmi Mittal was the world's third-richest man. There was much coverage about this, as there had been some years previously when Azim Premji was the world's second-richest man. Lots of fuss made, much pride in these Indian men.

As there should have been, of course. But as I wondered here last year, would we make a similar fuss if we found that the world's third-poorest man was also Indian? Would we congratulate him? Why or why not? This question I asked then intrigues me still: "Why should a list of the richest men be celebrated (or made at all), but a list of the poorest men not?"

And you can extend that kind of questioning in other directions.

One example: India and the West Indies play out a thrilling draw in a cricket Test. Immediately there are testy articles about how India should have won and it's so sad that Indian captain Rahul Dravid wasn't publicly sad enough himself about not having won.

Again, why? Why should the captain's feeling for his team and the game be judged this way? After all, suppose he was simply thrilled to be part of nail-biting entertainment, of such a closely-fought game. Why should he not express that? Why should we assume that for a captain in that situation, the necessary state of mind is sadness, and public sadness at that?

Another example: you decide to buy your friend Manish Chaddha's car. Since he's your friend, you mention to him that a small discount would be nice. And he obliges, taking Rs 50 off the agreed price of the car.

We've all done things like this, I'm sure. But suppose he mentions to you that since you're his friend, it would be nice if you gave him something more than the asking price. Would you oblige? Or would you suddenly say to yourself, who is this Manish Chaddha anyway?

Logically, I see no difference between you asking for a discount and your friend asking for a higher price, both feeding off your friendship. Yet which of these are you likely to hear during a car sale between friends? Which, to you, sounds more reasonable, more acceptable: what you ask or what Manish asks?

Last example: if you write about some aspects of India, you can bet somebody will up and say you're looking at the "dark underbelly", that you should "put a positive spin" on what you write and "focus on the good".

Fine advice, but why? Why are the "good" stories more acceptable than the "dark" ones? And turn those phrases around: do the people who write about some other aspects of India need to be told that they are looking at the "bright face", that they should "put a negative spin" on what they write and "focus on the bad"?

The truth is, there's no dearth of both sorts of stories, and both say things about this country that are equally valid, equally valuable, equally important. (Or not). Why should one kind of story get "a positive spin"?


I've gone off in different directions, sure. But are they related in any way? ("Maybe not" is an acceptable answer). And who is this Manish Chaddha anyway?


Tanuj said...

i like to think that people celebrate achievement of their aspirations.
- no one I know aspires to be the poorest person on earth. should a poor destitute be pleased to be part of your celebratory list? or would he be? probably not.
- similarly, cricket teams aspire to win. they'd much rather win 16 mathces in a row, than to participate in one thrilling match they lose. do i feel proud that the team i support wins - sure.
- and people usually like to end up with more money than less. (assuming most people are rational).

nothing wrong about writing about the dark underbelly, of course. i think of that as being unrelated to the above examples. if you feel strongly about the dark underbelly, you must write about it. however, a couple of things to think about or throw away:
- expect to hear protests if you write only about the dark underbelly. i mean i like rajma chawal, but i can't have it everyday. now imagine being forced to drink waterburys compound everyday.
- as i said, writing about the dark underbelly is admirable. however, if the dark underbelly writing is accompanied by or wrapped in (what is perceived to be) a guilt-inducing sermon or a pointing finger, it can be a little unsettling for some.


Anonymous said...

the problem is not just what you write, but how you write. the trouble with your writing is that you want to do the reader's thinking for him. you write as a lawyer making a case, and the reader not being a complete idiot, sees problems with your formulations. so, the issue is not that you write about the underbelly. the issue is that you write badly.

we all know there is endless poverty, corruption, injustice and so on. your job as a journalist is to not state the obvious.

wise donkey said...

human emotions perhaps have 3 tiers.
you dont get water - unhappy
you get water . one doesnt become happy and thankful, just merely satisfied.
what makes u celebrate and be happy, needs perhaps something more..

when it comes to the car, the money goes to the company, and if Manish Chaddha had been selling a MLM product, guess to how many of his friends he would hav sold the product, even when they wouldnt require it..or if Manish Chaddha is smart he would convince his friend to buy through even though his competitor gives a better deal..

but, i do believe that the "feel bad stories " have to be mentioned. (i disagree with the comment that journalists shouldnt state the obvious..so if a paper has nothing different to report on tsunami it can report on some celebrity's broken ankle??)

but instead of just talking about how bad it is, it would be useful, if its more proactive and mentions what a person can do.

there is no harm in packaging as long as the product integrity is not lost.

The readers dont like to feel guilty and useless..

Dilip D'Souza said...

Tanuj, thanks. Would I expect to hear protests if I write only about the sunny stories? Actually, this piece was partly prompted by someone who told me just that recently: that they wanted me to write for them, but only "positive" stories. I declined.

I also wrote this because when I write "positive" stories, or when I see such stories written by others, it never happens that someone writes in saying "Please put a negative spin on your stories" or some such. Yet every "negative" story always gets the "dark underbelly" or "positive spin" comment. Why?

Finally, I try never to induce some guilt in my readers, because I have no use for that (think I've said this before). But if I do it, I trust you will call me on it.

wise donkey said...

more than the good or bad, the mainstream media, besides the headline news, seems to have more trivial news..

on dravid, well u cant please all the people all the time..
perhaps the next captian should also be a good actor and the coach a good dialogue writer and the press conferences shouldnt be just about statements but have dialogues and tears or whatever is required..to express anger and sorrow

Rahul said...

My take - don't buy a car from your friend. (That applies to any expensive machine.)

barbarindian said...

We celebrated this:
Zarq dead, yippiee!!

barbarindian said...

By your logic some other things we should celebrate:

1) Death (should have been obvious)
2) Abortions
3) Divorce

You say that you refuse to write about positive things. Hypothetically, if you run out of negative things to write about, would you be jobless?

Rahul said...

Dilip -- do you have a line to Scott Adams? Today's Dilbert is on the same theme (the one-sidedness of "because you're my friend" or, in this case, "co-worker").

(posted this earlier, apparently didn't make it for some reason)

Water on lotus said...


There are 2 things to people not wanting to read 'negative' stories from you or anyone else:

1. It pricks the conscience. It makes that next Starbucks or beer less enjoyable. One can go on about how this should not be and why things should be kept unrelated, but hey, we are human. We hate the person who points out a problem and not the one who causes it in the first place (the later is harder to identify and is too abstract most of the time).

2. Unless you post a small follow-up on how one can help (it can be as simple as a one-liner), then your efforts have gone in vain for the most part. Especially when you write about individual cases that need attention, having a simple address or the contact info of that person is paramount. It really beats me how so many writers miss this. Of course, this is not always possible but an effort should be made to do this at all times. For example, there is this site 'goodnewsindia.com'. After every article, there is a follow-up info and I can give you scores of examples from within my friends who made use of the same and are making a real difference.

For example, you wrote a piece 'Night duty' on 'The other India' blog. I've been trying to find your email to contact you about sending some money but couldn't. So if you will please oblige and send an email to raghuveerm at yahoo dot com. After you do that, you may delete this paragraph...I did not know how else to contact you.

Remember who your target audience are - ordinary working professionals and not policy makers who can change things then and there. Giving the opportunity for readers to do something will mitigate frustrations AND help the needy. You may argue that people are doing it to soothe their own conscience but I do not subscribe to the theory of tainted money.

Please keep up the good work. We need bloggers like you.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, no line to Scott Adams, sorry! Wish I did. Did you know Adams does an excellent blog? He might even be a better writer than a cartoonist (did I say that?). If you're a tennis fan (and even if you're not), you'll enjoy this post he made.

But the cartoon is right on the money, and I say this having also been on the receiving end of some of those cookies.

Water on L: Let me tell you my problem about the followup line with an example. I was in Vidarbha in April, spent time with a young woman (well, this was one of several) whose husband committed suicide. She was sort of shell-shocked most of all, but also completely bewildered about what would happen to her now.

And I kept thinking I'd like to write something about her, put her address in at the end and have whichever reader is interested send her some money. I even got her address, asked if she had a bank account -- she didn't, so I urged her brother to open one in her name.

But since my return, I've been torn about this. Previous appeals like this that I've made have generated a few hundreds of thousands of rupees -- but to a school, or a NGO. Do I have the right to cause that kind of money to flood into this one household that's surrounded by several other equally poor households? What will it do to the dynamics in the village, among these people? I've seen first hand what misplaced handouts just like this did in TN after the tsunami, the resentments and hostility it generated. Whom have I helped if I am responsible for that happening here?

So I've not put up that woman's address and asked for contributions. Perhaps if I located a reliable NGO that's working in the area, that can be a route. But I think it would be irresponsible for me to put that one woman's address up publicly.

goodnewsindia -- and I applaud that effort -- is different, because it tells you about NGOs or groups to contribute to.

I have no use for inducing guilt in people, and I don't write to do that. I also don't assume that people contribute like this only to soothe their conscience.

Thank you for your thoughts. I truly appreciate them.

Water on lotus said...

You got me thinking, Dilip. There is truth in what you say. Not just the tsunami but even during Kargil, the huge donations people made altered family dynamics. It is a folly to assume that money can wipe away all problems. However, in most cases, money also provides an immediate answer. As to whether it can give cause other 'side-effects', the question is how far back do we need to think? And how much can we assume in cases where we do not have enough knowledge of the situation beyond what we read? Maybe it should be left to an individual on how s/he wants to proceed to address something. Having a follow-up provides that option.

Not for a second did I imply that you write to induce guilt. But no matter what, most readers take that message from any story that highlights poverty or likewise. So responses on the lines of 'don't show me the evil side of the world' should be expected (though not desirable). More importantly, it also leaves the reader in a lurch - am really sorry about this but where do I go from here, what do I do?

Is the columnist always obligated to provide an answer? Nope. But when it can be done, it should be.

In the example you gave, suppose you did put up the woman's address or had done some googling to look for an NGO - think of the positive impact. Otherwise, I read the column, feel miserable for enjoying my dinner and do nothing (it is not your fault that I feel this way but like I said, it is a natural emotion). At the very least, you could have concluded with 'if you want to help, then look for an NGO working in this area'.

Rahul said...

Dilip - yes I read Scott Adams' blog fairly regularly. Good fun, especially when he provokes the rightwingers.

Wateronlotus - I agree with Dilip that the goal is awareness, not arousing guilt or assuaging conscience. Your suggested closing line "if you want to help, then look for an NGO working in this area" seems too obvious to be stated. More important, I think, is to do what we can in our own backyards. For some of Dilip's readers, their backyard will happen to be what he's writing about. But the rest of us will find similar stories wherever we are.