"We don't like to be disturbed. We don't feel for anyone or anything. We feel against things instead."
Through the Punjab night, every night, the train hurtles, carrying its grim cargo towards Bikaner. Death and hope are its passengers. Every night at 9:30, Train No. 339 starts from the nondescript railway station at Bathinda carrying its lost burden of cancer patients to the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Institute: farmers from the fertile plains where the Green Revolution began, bringing with it the rampant use of pesticides. It has a ghastly moniker: the Cancer Train. Last month, activist-actor Aamir Khan rode that train straight into the drawing rooms of India, its velocity provoking a debate about poison at our table, dying farmers and the cost of progress.
A word of explanation here. This article is not about Aamir or Satyamev Jayate. It is about India. It is about how much we have travelled through the decades, our minds lapping up the picture of an India created on TV screeens—the country we have come to believe is the real India. It is about the India of bahus and saases, of telemade crorepatis, of Indian idols (not Mahatma Gandhi or Ramanujan, but the ones chosen by has-been entertainers) and the pretend intellectuals corraled for prime time by high-decibel newscasters. It is about the media and journalism.
Aamir playing journalist when nobody else is? It is disturbing. Because the people on the screen are real. None would pass a screen test for Balika Vadhu. The cancer-doomed farmer; the woman whose face was eaten by her husband for daring to give birth to a baby girl; the victims of fake drugs; and wives abandoned for money. So what is new, isn’t happening all around us all the time?
Besides, these are not the kind of people urban India is used to seeing on television and certainly not those who gets TRPs. Ironically, they are from the same India where garishly dressed boys and girls take part in dancing and singing competitions, where village belles with faces smeared with cosmetics are at loggerheads with mothers-in-law wearing powdered wigs, and swamis-on-hire spout sponsored clichés on spiritual liberation. Somewhere along the line, the border between news and entertainment has faded: a kid trapped in a well is news that grips the nation as a macabre reality show while a cast of journalists, politicians and the odd writer heatedly arguing whether Anna Hazare should drink Pepsi while on fast acquires the comic aura of political burlesque.
Sadly, India noir is no longer about remembering, but laughter and forgetting. Sometime in early 1981, a journalist from the Indian Express bought a woman named Kamala from Shivpuri, a small village in Madhya Pradesh, for `2,300. The exposé that appeared between April and May that year shocked a nation that was yet to discover the joys of Dance India Dance. Kamala’s black and white photograph on the front page haunted an entire generation. Her stoic eyes gazed at an evil that still lives among us, preying on the poor and the helpless. Kamala provoked a collective gasp from the nation. We felt for Kamala. She disturbed us. These days, we do not like to be disturbed. It is because we do not feel for anyone or anything. We feel against things instead. We feel against corruption and take out candlelight marches. We feel against black money. We feel against rising prices. It is this negativity that most of the media feeds upon, lynching anyone and anything on screen and in newsprint without mercy or expertise. Yet, out there in the vast night of injustice, there are real people with real voices who form the unfolding biography of a nation. It’s time someone started writing it.