Pin drop silence: a press conference with Jayalalithaa

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J Jayalalithaa, politician from Tamilnadu, referred to as *puratchi thalaivi* or *Amma*

It was in May 2001.

I was a reporter with The New Indian Express then.

The Assembly election results had just been called overwhelmingly in favour of the AIADMK. My Chief of Bureau T.N.Gopalan shouted out in Tamil that afternoon: “Dei Karthiiii, nee Poes Garden poyaa”. (டேய் கார்த்தீ, நீ போயஸ் கார்டன் போயா translates to “Hey Karthik, head to Poes Garden.”)

I had never been a political correspondent up until that time. I would dabble with it a little later but eventually decide political reporting is not for me.

But getting back to the story, I was excited and anxious at the same time. I was to meet the enigmatic Puratchi Thalaivi in person but had little clue about how it would go.

I was also scared about how I will have to take notes. I had heard stories from other journalists about her command over the language – both English and Tamil.

So I reached Poes Garden and was in a huddle with many other jounrnalists, waiting to be called in to a small visitors’ room. My heart was pounding and my palms sweaty as I clutched on to the note book. Those who have worked for New Indian Express will immediately recall that notebook.

Then the call came. Within seconds there must have been close 50 of us stuck in that one room. In front of us a small coffee table and behind that a comfortable single seater sofa.

My heart was pounding. There was a bit of a commotion rising in the room. Let me also tell you that this was around the time when we were grudgingly accepting the fact that TV news crews will be in the same room as us. It took a bit getting used to not one but usually three people from each TV news station. Same space, more people, and these guys knew how to hustle.

And then she entered.

There was again a bit of commotion as many of my peers were quick to congratulate her. “Congratulations madam,” a senior journalist, who used to work for one of the news agencies said.

Those words still ring in my ears as I write this. His thick nasal Malayalee accent made me jump a bit as I sat confused whether or not to join the chorus congratulating the Puratchi Thalaiavi. I did not. It just felt weird.

J started reading out a statement she had prepared out of a print out. She began in Tamil: “Makkal Theerpe Magesan Theerpu”. (மக்கள் தீர்ப்பே மகேசன் தீர்ப்பு)

I was scribbling into my notepad and kept wondering how the heck would I translate that into English.

Within minutes, J read out the same statement in English. “People’s verdict is tantamount to the Almighty’s verdict.”

Just as she was reading out the statement in English, there was a bit of a ruckus between a few of the TV crew members. Apparently one cameraman deemed it fit to disrupt the flow of speech to ensure he got his camera angle just right.

In a matter of seconds, her countenance changed. She stood up and pointed her right hand, her pointer finger directly at all of us. For a moment, I thought it was pointed directly at me.

“Why are all of you making this noise? Do you want me to continue or not?”

Every one of us froze.

The most damning silence I have ever experienced in my life came to effect.

A few seconds later, she appeared to compose herself. The senior peer from my right intervened.

“Madam, they are new. Please accept my apologies on all our behalf.”

This time I did not mind his accent at all.

She then read out the remainder of her statement. Then the floor opened up for questions.

I had forgotten all questions I had written down and memorised before the press conference. It appeared like I was not alone. None of the journalists seemed to have any question.

And then she laughed. “What are you guys even doing here? How come none of your ask any questions?”

Once again the elderly gentleman came to our rescue.

“Madam, everyone in Tamilnadu calls you Amma. Why Tamilnadu alone? Everyone in India and elsewhere who knows you calls you Amma? Can you tell us how this makes you feel?”

Hitler’s speech

I have enjoyed my stay in Germany – in 2005, 2008 and 2009 – and I long to go back to that country, especially to Berlin.

Not just because of the European comforts the city offers or the great friends I made there, but mainly because Berlin to me was my open university. And by open university, I mean a place where I learnt so much just by keeping my eyes, my ears and my mind open.

I would just wander around the city by myself just soaking in the history and the culture the place offered.

It helped that most Germans I met on the streets almost steadfastly refused to speak English. And even if they did it was with that thick German accent that after a point I stopped bothering anyone.

I would just randomly walk to a place and read whatever little English description of the place was available. And the rest of the story, I would just stand and imagine in my mind.

During my various visits and my formulaic rumination, I thought I had pretty much figured out everything I needed to understand about people and politics.

But one question intrigued me always.

In all those Goebbels produced videos I saw Hitler addressing tens of thousands of people, this question chased me. All I could see in those videos were people reacting spectacularly to Hitler’s full-bodied orations.

Hitler had an overbearing body language that marked all his speeches. Even though I never understood a word, or for that matter these were silent videos, I would always see him raising his hands and sometimes his whole body would shake as if that energy he was externalising was what was rousing the crowds.

The crowds would behave as if they were on cue. It was almost like a dance.

Hitler would extend his arm, as if he was reaching out to an invisible connection, and the crowds would be delirious as their own connection to some energy was switched on.

One day when I knew I could no longer decipher this by myself, I asked one of my close friends.

“Just what the heck was he talking that made the crowds go crazy?”

“Rubbish,” she said. “Total and utter rubbish. People have tried to translate it literally but it is complete nonsense.”

That’s when it struck me.

Grand orations that fuel hatred and seek to divide people do not have any substance that will help it pass the test of time.

Hitler is gone but his methods remain.

Left or Right?

cropped-img_3808.jpgFor several years now, I have wondered which political view I subscribe to.

I would like to think of myself as a progressive liberal, because I find myself agreeing with writers of such political disposition. I have always found brilliant the Left smugness. My idols though are not India.

I love Jon Stewart, the American talk show host, whose Left smug was awesome because it was backed by solid research. I love Robert Reich because he talks of topics like income inequality with such passion that I have wondered why don’t we have such public personalities here. Among the humourists too, I loved the Left of centrists. (I don’t think many in the Right of centre have much of a sense of humour.)

Most journalists I admire are left leaning. I think it just makes for better journalism somehow, because by and large the liberals question the status quo. Somehow, it is sexier as a viewpoint.

But before I go on a hyperbole, let me clarify that any ideology stretched to the extremes is no good. The extreme Left is as dangerous as the extreme Right. I don’t just say this hypothetically.

I have traveled a little in my life, thankfully. If you keep your eyes wide open, travelling through Berlin and through Cambodia, you will know that history has shown that in such places the extreme Left ideology had the same pitfalls as the extreme Right.

Now I would like to position myself as maybe a moderate Leftist, where I think many views worth pursuing lie. That said, I think there are views within the moderate Right that are worth welcoming too.

One of the grudges that my Right leaning friends have with the other side is that sometimes Left ideology is dimissive of historical contexts. This applies extraordinarily to the Indian example because there is definitive proof that this geographic region was thriving culturally and scientifically much before the Western Civilization as we know it came to be.

There are enough examples of movements now in recent decades where people are going back to traditional wisdom backed by scientific proof.

There is no question that any Indian should not take pride in what was. (There is a programme in EPIC TV “Made in India” that I strongly recommend.) The only question is to what degree one should take pride over such things, and to what effect.

A lot of trolling and counter-trolling seems to happen in a space where many like me – I am candid to admit that my political views are still a work in progress – are coming up against people who are so sure of their political leanings.

In many ways, instead of me finding out where my moorings truly lie, I am being defined constantly by what I oppose.

I just have to construct a small logic on why I think BJP is not good for India, almost immediately some friends tag me a “secular liberal”.

I think there can be a better way to go about this. I would allow all my friends to encourage selecting their political associations not based on who they oppose but more by virtue of what they find reasonable.

Luckily, I had helpful people who pointed me towards the literature that made sensible reading, the columnists who made sense and the humourists who made me laugh.

I have said this before. I do not want to be pigeon holed to one ideology. I have asked my Right wing friends who keep arguing with me, to point me towards columnists who good Right wing commentators who speak about in a moderately palatable tone. Most of the times, what I get instead are viral rants. Silly questions about “where were they when this happened” “what were they doing when they were killed”. It is evident most of these things do not do much more than provoke and mobilise.

I just am past a stage where I allow people to do that to me. I am at a stage where I want to question back, and engage in conversations.

In my opinion, there is a need for a moderate Left movement in India. People like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are capturing the imagination of youngsters in US and UK.

And for the youngsters too, I would say it is time they started expressing their political views, even on fora like Facebook or Twitter. It might be trivialised by many as “paper campaign” or “benign protest” but the more anyone starts writing, the better chances for self-motivation to be able to step out and express on the ground.

It is time to acknowledge that all of us are political. Whether or not we like it. If you are not willing to take control of your own politics, someone else will. Most probably, someone else has already.