Priyanka, 22, who lost her job as a domestic help during the lockdown, leaves her home in Sangam Vihar, New Delhi, with her children and her husband, to go back to their village in Etah, Uttar Pradesh. May 16, 2020. Photograph by Renuka Puri, courtesy the Indian Express.
The mission statement is in italics
Raj Kamal Jha
The subject of the symposium is ‘de-professionalisation’ – the urge, as a creative practitioner, or, indeed, a practitioner of any kind, not to be identified with one genre or activity, and to be, in general, a critic of specialisation and a champion of dabbling.*
A champion of dabbling is who you are when you walk into a newsroom in The Year 2021 to be a professional journalist, a reporter, an editor, The Outsider who will get Inside Information. You walk the hospital wards to reveal the shortage of PPEs and masks, you plot the curve going up, the curve going down; you explain why a 19-year-old woman, raped and wounded, is hurriedly cremated by police against her parents’ wishes. You explain why farmers are protesting. You tell the story of a 15-year-old daughter cycling her father eight days, 1200 km in the lockdown. You follow a father who climbs a tree in a village to get the phone signal so that his children can access the internet and their online classes.
You do, you try to do, good journalism.
This means you ask a question of yourself every day: What can I do, what should I do, that anyone – or, more accurately – that most people outside the newsroom cannot or will not do?
There will be many answers to that question.
Let’s take only one: you try to be better at listening.
Because you need stories like fish need water, birds need sky, you listen to others. But before you do that, you need to convince them that you are interested in listening. Not just out of politeness but because this is who you are, story-teller, truth-seeker, fact-finder. This means you will give them a space where they can talk, where you sit across, not as an interrogator, but as a scribe with a pencil and a notebook.
You don’t curl your lip, you don’t raise an eyebrow, you don’t check your phone.
For they need to believe that when you sit down and take notes, you will not judge them, that you will be fair and accurate and attentive. That you will not interrupt them when they talk. They could have gone on social media and self-published or posted a selfie video but they have taken the time to sit down with you, they trust you to tell their story. You take this as your privilege. You fight your biases, confirmation bias, blind-spot bias, outcome bias, information bias, all those biases that are first hand, second nature.
You ask them questions not because you need a few paragraphs which have inverted commas, quote unquote, but because you have worked hard to come up with those questions and you, genuinely, wish to know the answers.
If they do not speak, you give them the comfort to speak. If they cannot speak, you find a voice that can speak for them. If they speak in a language you don’t understand, you find someone who can be an interpreter.
Or, if you are in a hurry, you use Google Translate.
And if they are more powerful than you, if they are bullies who have come to scare you, you listen to them, too, and then, if needed, you, politely but firmly, shut the door in their face. Because that’s what good journalism is also about.
Standing up and saying No – N in uppercase.
The word ‘dabbling’ is being used here partly ironically, of course, but also full on, to convey the force of what a serious writer or thinker might achieve when they consciously diverge from the genre or practice they’re most identified with and even respected for.
You may not be a serious writer or thinker, neither most identified nor even respected so when you consciously diverge from journalism to fiction, you move from newsroom to anteroom.
It’s a tiny room, there’s a study table and a couch against the wall which you use for a nap when you are tired. Overhead lights trigger your migraine so the blinds are always drawn.
There’s a person sitting in the corner of the room. She, sort of, lives here. Can be a he, too. You may choose. She watches every word you write, she listens to each word you say.
She is the one who tells you one or all of the following:
I may like you but I do not like what you have written.
Check your facts.
You are making a fool of yourself.
This needs a rewrite.
Think before you hit Send.
Google before you call something original.
This isn’t as good as you think it is.
This isn’t as terrible as you think it is.
Check your facts.
Behind her, sits a child.
She’s the one from that Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale where the swindlers fool the entire capital that they have woven magnificent clothes for The Emperor when they have done no such thing. Palace officials sustain the fiction by playing along and when The Emperor struts down, at the head of a royal procession, the crowd looks this way and that, no one wants to speak the unspeakable and it’s this child who says, Look, Look, The Emperor has no clothes.
This child has to remain by your side because she is the only one who will tug at your sleeve and tell you things you can’t see when brightness dazzles your eye.
Across from the woman and the child, in another corner of the anteroom, propped up against the wall, is a can of grey paint.
It’s a magical can, it fills up only when you use it, otherwise it dries up into something that has the look and feel of grey cement.
Hard to crack, pretty much useless.
This paint is precious because it’s in very short supply. It’s missing in all the dazzling colours on your smartphone, in the arguments on social media framed as vivid black and stark white.
Grey is the space in between, it’s the middle, it’s where most of us live most of the time. Grey is the colour of the screen when it’s switched off.
It’s a colour that lets you say: I don’t know.
It’s a colour that lets you stray, allows you to be dull, it lets you ask questions silly and irrelevant, marginal and stupid.
It gives you the courage to look at a newspaper from October 27, 2020, the day your city records 4,853 fresh Covid cases, the highest single-day spike since the pandemic began – taking the total infections in the city to 364,341 – and move your eyes left on the page to the report on a young woman who has been killed.
This is that page:
This is the first draft of the news report on the woman’s death that was filed for the web:
Faridabad: 20-year-old girl shot dead outside college
Written by Sakshi Dayal | Gurgaon | October 27, 2020 5:23:34 pm
A 20-year-old woman was shot dead outside her college in Haryana’s Faridabad district on Monday afternoon by two men. One of the accused identified as her school classmate was arrested. He had allegedly been harassing her for several months.
According to police, the incident occurred around 3 pm on Monday, outside Ballabgarh’s Aggarwal College, where the victim was a third-year B.Com student.
The woman had stepped out of her college after appearing for an exam, when the two men tried to drag her into a white car, at gunpoint.
When she resisted, they shot her with a pistol. She was rushed to a nearby private hospital but succumbed to her injuries during treatment.
In his complaint to police, the victim’s brother named her former classmate, alleging that he “used to harass her and shot her because he held a grudge.”
An FIR has been registered regarding the matter under Sections 302 (murder), and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Section 25 of the Arms Act, said police, adding that the main accused was “rounded-up” from Nuh on Monday night.
“Crime Branch arrested the main accused after a five-hour long operation that covered Faridabad, Palwal, and Nuh. He was arrested from Nuh. Further investigations are being conducted in the matter,” said Sube Singh, PRO of Faridabad Police.
Drench this newspaper page and these words with grey paint, leave them to dry, step out of the anteroom, let the woman and the child work their magic. The above is fact, the following is fiction:
Once upon a time
ONCE upon a time in this city so crowded that you couldn’t take more than a few steps without brushing against someone and it was only after midnight, when eyes close and dreams travel, that you could walk with your arms swinging free, hop, skip and jump with no one looking, there lived a girl called Sky.
An unusual name, no doubt, this English word for the upper atmosphere or expanse of space that constitutes an apparent great vault or arch over the earth (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2018), its Hindi version, Akash, Ambar, Gagan, more common as names of boys but this girl’s mother was a poet, sort of, and she liked the empty.
Things that spread, thin and limitless.
When she herself was a girl, the mother, her favourite thing to do was to sneak up the stairs, lie down on the terrace, the bricks and the cement quiet and solid while her parents raged a storm below, flinging things and thoughts at each other. She would press her palms against her ears to flood them with silence and then she would look up at the night-black sky to watch planes travel over her city and imagine they were flying from Australia to England.
During day, lunch break at school, she would slip away from her friends, lie down on the grass in a corner of the playground, the sound of other kids in the distance, a dragonfly buzzing in her ear, and she would watch hungry kites circle the field, drawn by the smell of tiffin uneaten, and what caught her eye was not the inky underside of their wings or their geometric paths of flight but the sky.
Unbroken blue, above and beyond.
She watched and the sun rose and the sun fell and the moon waxed and the moon waned and days became weeks became months became years and everything changed except the sky.
A day before she was admitted to hospital, her baby in its 38th week, the doctor who did the ultrasound told her, in a whisper – since by law enacted to prevent female foeticide, you cannot disclose the gender of the baby – that you are going to have a girl, I am telling you this, he said, because I don’t think you are the kind of mother who would hurt the baby just because she is a girl, to which she said, thank you Doctor, thank you for telling me, I am ready, I even have a name for her.
Tell me, the doctor said.
I will name her Sky, she said.
Are you sure, the doctor asked after a pause that lasted an awkward while, in my 27 years of practice, I haven’t heard anyone with a name like that, it’s a strange name for a child in a city like this, do you really want to draw attention to her? She heard the doctor and she smiled and she said like the sky is to earth, she will be forever mine and I will be hers, I have spent most of my life looking up at the sky and now I will get to hold her in my arms and take care of her and grow her up and the first time she asks me what her name means, I will tell her to tilt her head back and look up and see for herself what her name means, and wherever she is, howsoever old she may be, when she will look out of the window, from inside a train or plane, at home or work, she will be able to see herself, she will realise that she is looking into a mirror that stretches forever, big and blue and beautiful, and the doctor said that sounds like you have planned the whole thing, that’s wonderful, I wish you and Sky my very best.
I told you she was a poet, this mother.
So Sky came home, wrapped in a towel the colour of cloud, and day by day, night by night, in this crowded city, she began growing up, her eyes got dots of gleam, her unsteady legs found their weight, she started school, she did well in both play and study, the teachers all liked her as she learnt how to sing and dance and do math and art and at parent-teacher meetings they said she is equally good in both boy things and girl things which was a silly thing to say given this was an enlightened school and it was the 21st century but that didn’t matter as she turned 18, did very well in the Class XII Board exam so that she got enough marks to get admitted to a college to study Commerce, and she did very well in college, too, better than in school, she was elected Class Representative, and then one day one afternoon one evening one night, a bad thing happened to her.
A thing which happens to many young women in this city.
Two young men hurt Sky, they break her into a million pieces.
Each piece was different.
And, of course, I want to list all those pieces here, one by one, because I know her mother, I have seen her up close, but if I take two to three words to describe each, I will run out of paper and you don’t have the time to read the whole thing so let me list a few so you get an idea of what Sky scattered into when she fell and she broke.
A cloud, a blue wisp here, a white patch there.
A bird’s feather, white and grey, perhaps that of a pigeon.
A fragment from a comet long gone, carrying with it, a drop of rain, freshly fallen.
A sliver of starlight, a streak, visible only when it was pitch dark.
Some dust from the moon’s surface, cold and colourless, some rocks angular and geometric, like crystal.
A breath of chill that must have come from some place high above because it was absolutely clear and fresh.
Something that felt and looked like plastic but was harder, impregnable, perhaps debris from a dead satellite, now mere fragments in space orbiting until the end of time, maybe from Sputnik, Apollo 11, Challenger.
Or even Chandrayaan 2, our failed moon mission.
Bits and pieces plucked from the horizon into which this city soars, torn from buildings: a window with its pane broken; shards of glass, scraps of steel.
A clothesline strung over a rooftop.
Where a blue sari, washed and dry, pushed off the line by wind and gravity, crumples under the weight of its own folds.
The mother spreads all these pieces in front of her, like in a jigsaw.
She will spend a lifetime arranging them, lining them up, sometimes moistening the rough edges with her tears, sometimes waiting for them to get sodden with rain, matching zig with zag, gluing the broken pieces to put Sky together again, make her whole.
And one day she will realise that her own life is nearing its end and she won’t be even half done so all she can do is to tell herself that even if some of her child’s pieces remain missing and unmatched, it should be fine.
Because when she herself is gone, when she is with the stars, forever in the formless dark, she will need those empty spaces, they will be the few cracks for the light to pass so that she can look down and see, through them, as the night seeps away, the places where she once lived, Sky and she, mother and daughter, woman and girl, in this city so crowded and now so alone.
The idea and act of ‘de-professionalisation’ is really a critique of the construction of the writer, artist, or intellectual today — by publishers, by media, by festivals, by writers themselves.
* The sections in italics are verbatim from the mission statement sent to the author by Literary Activism editor Amit Chaudhuri for the second international symposium in the ‘literary activism’ series hosted by University of East Anglia, Centre for the Creative and Critical at Presidency University, and India International Centre, New Delhi, on January 8 and 9, 2016. Parts of this piece are adapted from the author’s talk. Image of newspaper page and the news report are courtesy The Indian Express.
Raj Kamal Jha is Chief Editor of The Indian Express which has won the International Press Institute’s India Award for Excellence in Journalism five times. For achievement in investigative journalism, Jha was awarded Journalist of The Year at the RedInk Awards by the Mumbai Press Club. He is the author of five novels; his most recent, The City and The Sea, won the Tata Literature Live Book of the Year (Fiction) in 2019 and the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020.