Thursday, November 3, 2011

Icons can be without glamour too

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated November 3, 2011)


For days after Apple founder Steve Jobs died the media was full of stories of his life, his struggles, his dramatic rise, ignominious fall and a yet again spectacular rise. Both the electronic and print journalism latched on to the demise as the ‘breaking story’, digging up little known facts — if there were still any of the very public Jobs — for its consumers. At the end of the week after he passed away, television watchers and newspaper readers in the country had been fed so much adulatory material that they almost believed he was god of the present times. Even those who had never heard of Apple — there are millions of them in the country — were suitably educated about the way he had changed the world through his gadgets. So, after all this, if you still do not know Steve Jobs and how he revolutionised the globe, something is terribly wrong with you.

There is no denying the fact that Jobs was a genius and in his own way he did bring about a huge difference in the lives of people across the world through his iPhones, iPods, iPads and Mac computers. But to place him on a pedestal — as his over-enthusiastic admirers and some media commentators have — along with the likes of Thomas Edison, is something that would have embarrassed even the cocky Jobs. Next, we will have him on equal footing with Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin! There is a sense of proportion to everything, and when that is disturbed we end up with a grotesque image that does justice neither to the protagonist nor to the sensibilities of those who engage in idolatry. In India, particularly, the over-glorification of the Apple genius is sickening because he has impacted the nation and its one billion plus people in a very fractional manner. How many people use his technological wonders here? And what changes have those gadgets brought to the lives of ordinary Indians struggling for the most basic amenities of life?

The print media was so occupied with the deification of Jobs that it barely had space to inform readers that a truly great revolutionary, Wilson Greatbatch, had passed away. Greatbatch invented the pacemaker which over the decades gave a fresh lease of life to millions of people in the world and opened a new window for further research in medical science. The facility was available to all — from the rich to the less privileged. Yet, Greatbatch died a relatively quiet death. In a nation like India that has a huge number of heart patients, surely the inventor of the pacemaker should rank far ahead of Jobs.

Closer home, days after Jobs died, noted Hindi writer and satirist par excellence Shrilal Shukla (Shukl, as it is pronounced in Hindi) passed away. Some papers grudgingly devoted a few centimetres of news space to the event, but none, barring a handful of Hindi publications, gave him the attention that he so richly deserved. Although he wrote in Hindi, Shukla had transcended the language barrier and become a household name after his widely acclaimed novel Raag Darbari was adapted into a televisions serial. A scathing caricature of feudal exploitation in a typical Indian village, the book and the serial represent India as few others have done, with warts and all. All of the country connected with the story because it was so real, and its brilliantly carved-out characters -some devious, others funny and many pathetic — are to be found in any part of rural India. For the uninitiated so-called urbane Indian, Raag Darbari is an eye-opener and a valuable course in understanding Bharat. It showed up the chinks and what was needed to be done to address them. But for all that, the Jnanpith awardee simply stood no chance before Jobs when it came to media attention.

The power of glamour has always been overbearing, and it has always had the capacity to muzzle every other form of achievement. Let us remember the days of the untimely demise of Princess Diana. The international media went hysterical, almost as if a dozen heads of state had been assassinated in one fell swoop. For days until she was laid to rest and even after, BBC television had nothing else worthwhile to how its audiences across the world. Twenty fours a day we saw and heard men, women and children sobbing with wreaths in their hands, and glorious tributes being paid to her. (Celebrated writer VS Naipaul was moved to later comment that he was filled with shame and disgust at such public display of mourning for a princess.) Of course, there was none of the many controversies that she had been embroiled in following her differences with and virtual separation from her royal husband. For most Indians, she represented glamour more than substance, although she was reportedly involved with a few charitable activities here. In the end though, it was not her work but her dazzling persona, that winsome smile which fetched attention.

If there is any doubt on that score, compare it to the media coverage given to the death of Mother Teresa, who left for her heavenly abode a few days after the princess did. The BBC — and every other prominent media organisation here and abroad — was almost formal, carefully apportioning the pithiest possible space and time in the given circumstance, to her demise. Surely, Mother Teresa’s contribution, to India in particular where she lived and served, was far substantial than Princess Diana’s. Motivated as much by a sense of humanity as by religious zeal, she cared for the unfortunate human being that was discarded by society to die. Unlike in the case of Lady Diana, for whom charity was a means to appear ‘human’ to her admirers as she went about her almost other-worldly royal chores, Nobel laureate Mother Teresa had no point to prove. So, for a glamour-struck society she was no match for the princess.

Should we then conclude that, what moves us the most is what the media presents before us as the most ‘moving’? There is something to say for the impression, because we are indeed hugely carried away by what we see and read. The ‘what is not reported is not news’ maxim extends on other frontiers too. According to a study, more than 2.5 lakh farmers in the country committed suicide between 1995 and 2010. Since the shocking details are unlikely to make it to the ‘breaking news’ category or be sustained as a discussion point in the many television debates, most of us will consider the figures as just another of those aberrational ‘depressing’ statistics that an otherwise booming India occasionally throws up. The tears that flow down the eyes of unknown widowed women and orphaned children due to these suicides do not, after all, provide as much glamour as those shed in the memory of Princess Diana or Steve Jobs.

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