As an experiment I have decided to watch every single news video during a given 24-hour news cycle on the leading Indian channel NDTV. The actual experiment will take place sometime in the near future but in the interim I am carrying out several dry runs. One such dry run is going on as I write this blog.
The overriding feeling that one gets watching everything is that life in India is an unending frenzy of contentiousness. I am watching videos in no particular order. The first one I picked this morning was a brief interview by NDTV’s lead and omnipresent anchor Barkha Dutt with a popular poet-cum-standup comic turned politician called Dr. Kumar Vishwas. The primary reason why Dr. Vihswas is under severe media glare is because he has decided to contest the upcoming parliamentary election from the constituency of Amethi, a bastion of India’s most admired and derided political family of the Gandhis. Rahul Gandhi, who could become India’s Prime Minister should his Congress Party win big (unlikely), is being challenged by Dr. Vishwas on every claim on behalf of the newly formed Aam Admi Party ( AAP-Ordinary People’s Party). That is the background to this story.
Over the years in his avatar as a comic, Dr. Vishwas has said things which pander to coarse, sexist and racist impulses that often dominate such audiences. Some of those utterances are now coming back to bite his behind. One in particular is about nurses from the southern Indian state of Kerala. The bit that he is shown doing on a video is unambiguously sexist and racist. It is deep friend in bigotry that runs the length and breadth of India when it comes to skin color. People from Kerala tend to have a darker complexion than those from Northern India. The skin color is nothing more than a fact of nature and has no bearing on anything whatsoever. And yet it is at the heart of the kind of bigotry that infects both public and private discourses in India.
In this particular material Dr. Vishwas talks about how earlier when men who were hospitalized used to feel assured because of the nurses from Kerala, whom he describes as “kali-pili” meaning “black and yellow”. I don’t quite get the relevance of “pili” other than being used as a term of derision. The ostensibly humorous point he is making by implication is that since these nurses were of a darker complexion, they were not attractive which in turn would inspire “sisterly” feelings in male patients. In case there was any doubt about what he really meant he compounds it by saying that these days even nurses are from North India and therefore, by implication, lighter complexioned and hence more attractive. He jokes that when they take a male patient’s pulse, it races. The audience, consisting of mainly Hindi-speaking North Indians, loves this.
One can perhaps argue that this is just a throwaway bit as part of a standup routine in which one must not read profound sociocultural prejudice. May be so but when you consider the fact that versions of this prejudice run deep in Indian society you are forced to think of the larger malaise. Now that as a politician Dr. Vishwas presumes to unseat Gandhi, whom he calls a “Yuvraj” or a prince, he is open to all sorts of scrutiny. He has apologized but simultaneously contextualized his remarks as part of a passing comic routine. For the next few months India will see such sideshows in large numbers because of the election season and especially because the AAP members seek to upend status quos everywhere.
Thinking about how much verbiage I had to expend in order to explain a short news video I shudder to think the lengths I will have to go to to explain everything I watch in a 24-hour cycle. There are videos of a suspected suicide death by a prominent politician’s wife, India’s Home Minister calling Delhi’s Chief Minister “mad”, a 20-year-old gang-raped tied to a tree, a huge movie star explaining his political troubles, bald men complaining about a joke by Gandhi that involves selling combs to them and a well-known renunciate slapping a television journalist for asking a political question. The list goes on.
I am not sure when I might do this experiment because I need to find enough time to do so. Hopefully, it will be soon.