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Friday, August 13, 2010

Fresh ideas, fresh writing

Has anyone noticed the vibrant quality of writing in the incomparable Tehelka? And also in the newish Open and in the relaunched Caravan?

The latest issue (August 14) of TEHELKA is full of gems waiting to be discovered. Take the cover story on Omar Abdullah (Page 28). Begin with the headline:

A man. A mess. A map. Omar Abdullah plots a way out for Kashmir

That incisive headline leads us to an intro that makes us want to read the whole article:

HALF A glance, and Omar Abdullah knows what he needs to fix. He is on the banks of the Sindhu, 40 km from Srinagar, about to begin a mass contact campaign. There’s no way a stone hurled by a human can reach him here from Srinagar. A stone from God, maybe. For the moment, God does nothing like that. But Omar still doesn’t like what he sees. There are 300 people waiting for him under a canvas tent. They are barricaded by a concertina wire. Omar’s sofa is on a dais 30 feet from the nearest listener. It creates an ‘us and them’ scene. This is terrible; it’s the very heart of the matter in Kashmir. Instantly, Omar knows he has to do something. The wire is dragged away and Omar’s sofa is brought closer to the crowd. When he settles down, Omar is six feet away. He has sort of closed the gap. There’s a murmur of approval from the gathering.

And here's a description of Omar Abdullah from later in the article:

Omar, the son, is the opposite. He isn’t spontaneous at all. It would appear that he lacks emotion. This makes it difficult for him to connect with people. He seems to have difficulty reaching out and warming people up. Only with his closest circle of friends, is he known to have let go and had a good time. Omar’s life outside Jammu and Kashmir also makes it tough for him to trust people he doesn’t know. His style of administration thus gets impersonal. While the best governors need to be impersonal to do a good job, Kashmir makes it complex for Omar. He is modern and secular, and is good at giving directions, which he expects to be implemented. He is appropriate and correct. These are his assets.

Now for the conclusion:

What we are seeing of Omar is just the first stage of what he thinks will be a long time in Jammu and Kashmir. It took a series of meetings, not always pleasant, in the Abdullah household before Omar’s career was moved from hotel management to politics. It was a Rajiv Gandhi moment, the difference being that Omar’s wife agreed to his career shift. This is the youngest chief minister of India’s most sensitive state. He might make more mistakes, like anyone else. It could also mean he is chipping away at his weaknesses. In today’s Kashmir, that is one story worth following.

Vijay Simha, deputy editor of Tehelka, spent four days with Abdullah in order to write this profile. Think about the questions he must have asked, the meticulous notes he must have made, the relationships he must have forged with all his interviewees before he could sit down to file his story. Please note that this is not a "feel-good" profile; Simha gives us both the positives and negatives of the Kashmir chief minister's personality. At the same time he also makes us think about the Kashmir imbroglio. It's first-class reporting all the way.

There is also an illuminating profile by Zahid Rafiq of Masarat Alam, the man seen by many as the face of the current protests in Srinagar. You don't have to agree with Alam's views, but you will have to agree that this is a fine piece of reporting and writing by Rafiq. (First Year Commitscions: The phrase nom de guerre is used in the seventh paragraph — meaning?)

On Page 51, Assistant Editor Nisha Susan has written a thoughtful commentary on the ugly Rahul-Mahajan-beating-up-his-wife-again episode. Here's an excerpt:

Television commentators (still tingling from Rakhi Ka Swayamvar) marvelled at how the Swayamvar franchise gave Mahajan the trappings of an eligible bachelor. At how 16,000 women applied. At the millions who watched the show. Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega managed the proverbial making of a silk purse out of a pig’s snout. But the analysts seemed to have missed the point. Rahul with the porcine cast to his face was watched by the country because he reeked of ineligibility. The producers showed remarkable shrewdness in retaining the sham of mehendi, shiny tassels and genda phool while catering to our desire for schadenfreude — our pleasure in other’s suffering. Rahul made girls jump through hoops because he could. We watch because we can. We wallow in the many colours of humiliation that reality television offers us — as happily as we gawk at car crashes, as intently as we would watch public hangings.

This is clearly the work of a superior writer. And don't we just love it? (First Year Commitscions: See how Susan uses schadenfreude, the word we discussed in class last week.)

Aastha Atray Banan gives us another enjoyable piece: a profile of Rani Mukherjee on Page 49. Banan goes to meet the star at her home in Mumbai to find out if she has turned into a recluse, as rumour would have it. Here's an excerpt:

At 32, she looks better than she ever has. Yoga has made her slender. Dressed in a short skirt and minimal makeup, she retains a regal air. Lauren Bacall once said, “I am not a has-been. I am a will-be.” Rani would approve of Bacall’s style. It is unlikely she has read the quote though. She doesn’t read, she says. Unlike several young ladies who manufacture reputations as frenetic readers and think that Jane Austen was a Victorian and Omair Ahmed is a medieval poet, Rani says flatly that she does not read. "I don’t read much — I have an allergy to the smell of books. Really."

This is an interview you want to read from beginning to end, not only because of the subject but also because the writing is so sharp. And knowledgeable.

Then there is this acerbic review by Gaurav Jain of Tishani Doshi's new book, The Pleasure Seekers. Jain is harsh in his critiquing, and the headline ("So this is where poetry goes to die") and the standfirst ("Tishani Doshi has sunk a basic family saga in her kingdom of twee, says GAURAV JAIN. That leaves the blurbs") make that clear to us. But it's Jain's writing skills that help us to understand why reading this book would be a waste of time: He has strong opinions and articulates them well. Here's an excerpt:

Everywhere else ... Doshi seems mainly interested in being cute. Her precious narrator sounds like PG Wodehouse’s mushy Madeline Bassett, who believed that stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a wee fairy blows its nose, a baby is born. Doshi writes like a phoren ma’m delighted at her grasp of exotic India: a young girl on the back of her father’s bicycle is “a princess being guided by a troubadour”....

(First Year Commitscions: Look at the unusual words in this review: twee; overweening; pedantic curlicues; sylvan; fey. Going by this evidence, not only is Jain frighteningly well-read [the term used by Tarun Tejpal to describe his staff in the interview we watched in class recently], but so, apparently, are the Tehelka readers. Your thoughts?)

And finally, in the "Personal Histories" section, there's a heart-rending piece by Tehelka's 24-year-old correspondent Nishita Jha about the night she "lost" her father. If you have shared a special bond with your parent you are sure to be moved by this first-person account.

The Tehelka website is also home to a fascinating and inspirational and touching story — "Irom And The Iron In India’s Soul", the saga of one Manipuri woman's epic fast for justice in her home state. Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury pulls out all stops to tell you why "Irom Sharmila's story should be part of universal folklore". Read it and weep.

NOW HERE are a couple of examples of the quality of writing in OPEN: "The World Cup of kabaddi" and a critique of the Harry Potter books. Also, there's this must-read by Gauri Dange in the issue of August 7. A must-read for two reasons. One, if you have aspirations to write and publish a book in India, Dange's article will come as an eye-opener. Two, the top-notch writing. Here's an excerpt:
      And so I decided that I wouldn’t do joyless and sterile anymore. Friends advised me to show my new book to other publishing houses, where “things are different”. I did take a stab at that, but when I saw early signs of the same torpor laced with smugness, I decided to go it alone. I formed Omo Books with a partner, to publish and distribute this book and future work. At least I had signed myself out of another round of absurdity and non sequiturs.

      (First Year Commitscions: Look at the use of the phrase non sequiturs. Didn't we discuss it in class this week?)
      • Photos courtesy: Tehelka, Open

        1 comment:

        1. Great to know good writing is flourishing and there are talented writers out there who can make you think, argue and debate. May the tribe grow. The print media and the Internet require good journalism and even better journalists. I loved the different styles and approach. But what struck me most was that some favoured the short over the long ( eg At 32, she looks better than she ever has. Yoga has made her slender. Dressed in a short skirt and minimal makeup, she retains a regal air.) Crisp and to the point like one was writing for the Web. So much information is so little space and written in far less time. With attention span being so short, it made arresting reading.
          I'm getting hooked to the Reading room. Wish there had been one when I started out.

          For students out there wanting to be reporters, allow me to quote longtime BusinessWekk reporter late Chris Wells. Here's what he said: "Writing can be even worse: the lead that remains hopelessly limp, the vital transition that remains hopelessly abrupt, the organizational structure that remains hopelessly jumbled. For solace, I often recall the comic strip of Snoopy sitting on his doghouse laboriously typing out “It was a dark and stormy night” and finally muttering, “Good writing is hard work.” Snoopy’s observation is particularly applicable to reporters, who have much less time to conjure up a better way of saying “dark and stormy.” Patrick

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