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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 31 New Delhi July 25, 2015

Stray Thoughts after Pradyot’s Death: Lal salaam!

Sunday 26 July 2015

by Manjula Lal

The following is a piece written for Mainstream after journalist Pradyot Lal’s sudden demise by his wife, also a well-known journalist who is a Consulting Editor of Tehelka.

Can the state of a nation be seen through the prism of an individual’s life? Or, to put it more bluntly, can a philosophical postmortem pinpoint socio-economic causes for an untimely death? It may seem a bit presumptuous, especially since Delh-based Pradyot Lal, 58, was no leading light in his chosen field, just a talented journalist who was never able to rise to his bursting potential. All the blame need not be laid at other doors—it could also be due to his own lack of self-marketing ability, the ability to flatter authority, or his unreliable ways. But the legitimacy of such an exercise can be sought, if at all it is needed, from the concept of subaltern history, a narrative of the marginalised and oppressed rather than kings, queens and other overrated powers-that-be.

When Pradyot was asked to explain why he liked somebody, he often said: “He’s a working class person.” If we could all admire struggle instead of success, honesty instead of wealth, naivete instead of cleverness, we could head for socialist nirvana instead of capitalist hell, and his ashes could bob happily down the Ganga.

When society mourns the death of a person not yet of retirement age, it also mourns other lives not lived well enough, nor long enough, despite a sovereign nation’s promises to its citizenry after centuries of subjugation. The outpouring of tributes on social media celebrated my husand’s sensitivity, his willingness to help and mentor, his phenomenal memory, his photogenic self, his steadfast belief in socialism, his endearing hero worship of Hindi film icons. Very few spoke of his alcoholism, his inability to get his due from editors, his neglect of domestic responsibilities. As his wife, perhaps, I was the one most concerned about the latter. But as students of history, we also know that from Mirza Ghalib to Mahatma Gandhi, geniuses develop their public persona at the cost of their personal lives. Also, that awesome creativity often goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse and destructive narcissism. Those who hitch their wagons to such stars may suffer but they also bask in the reflected glory. Would I have been happier with a mediocre bore? Unlikely.

Those who express distress about Pradyot never getting a decent salary nor a respectable mainstream job—he shone on maverick platforms like Blitz and Tehelka—also know the reasons. We the press, paid a subsistence wage (by and large) that does not afford even a middle-class lifestyle, live on our wits, always expecting the next job to rescue us from debt and penury. Editors perched on top of the heap never bother to run a meritocracy, despite yelling blue murder about favouritism and parochialism among politicians, bureaucrats and even the judiciary. Although in Delhi and Mumbai, a talented person could make it big despite having no ‘connections’, that person was rare. Editorials were written about justice and fair play, but the binoculars were never turned around to look into newsrooms—in matters like favoured beats, field trips, foreign junkets and promotions, a loner from UP didn’t have much of a chance. The atmosphere was further vitiated when managements started replacing upright editors respected by their fraternity with those willing to serve corporate interests.

So what’s a beleagured journalist to do except head for the Press Club and drown his sorrows in drink? In a male-dominated society, wives complaining about their husbands drinking too much are dismissed as whiners. In the heady, smoky atmosphere of the Club where stories are exchanged with gusto, testosterone is high, what thought is spared for an under-10 child waiting anxiously for papa to come home? For our generation, absentee fathers and forbidding patriarchs were the norm and we allowed the culture of neglect and lack of respect for childhood to flow seamlessly into the next. Journalist fathers didn’t come home and play with the children or chat with the wife. Could Press Club veterans bother about sissy magazine features imploring working parents to give quality time to progeny? That scenario paled in importance when contrasted with the adrenaline rush of being in the thick of a nation’s controversies, on first-name terms with VVIPs.

Does this picture of gender inequality befit educated families in the 21st century? Sadly, education has very little to do with it. All working journalists have seen editors humi-liating talented people to hide their own inferiority complex and inadequacies. It is as if they have never read a single article on their own editorial page about leadership skills, EQ, manpower management or human resource development, let alone gender issues. Most editors still scoff at the idea of sexual harassment committees mandated under Visakha guidelines. They never intervene if a youngster is known to be going down the road to ruin, via drugs, alcohol or promiscuity. Do they even know they are leading a team, not just preserving their own perks and position?

We do need strong doses of feminism and meritocracy in our lives, if only to allow Indian talent—well rewarded in other parts of the world—to flower. It was inexpressibly sad to hear Pradyot described as ‘the youngest of six brothers’. Why were his two sisters, with their own considerable accomplishments outside the home (not that good housekeeping doesn’t matter), suddenly invisible? Surely it would not have hurt to say ‘the youngest of eight children’. Can we still berate labourers for saying they have two boys when they actually have three girls too? In my lifetime, can we please get a grip on the message that the UNDP is still trying to get across to India: that a country cannot progress unless it gives women equality.

So yes, an individual’s life can be a prism for the state of a nation. If we have the sensitivty to mourn the passing of such a person—and hundreds are doing so—we should also mourn the state of our society.

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