August 04, 2020
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Delhi Diary

The interrogation of Murdoch and son shows that the questioning can be rigorous, pointed, aggressive—and yet civilised and sober

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Delhi Diary

Enraged Metropolis

Mumbai’s agony and anguish, which expresses itself in rage and fury, is understandable, even justifiable. The city feels uniquely cursed. It is a victim of its own success. The perpetrators of the all-too-frequent attacks have twin objectives. The prime objective is to force a communal war on a metropolis where Hindu-Muslim relations are always on a short fuse. Sane people in both communities try and build bridges which at the very least attempt to prevent a free-for-all. It is too early to say they are fighting a losing battle. Certainly, they seem to be on the backfoot as hotheads gain ascendancy. The tipping point may not have been reached but we seem pretty close to it.

The second objective is to disrupt commerce. What galls the terrorists is Mumbai’s continuing and galloping prosperity despite mounting civic and social woes, and despite periodic bursts of RDX (or ammonium nitrate). Hindus and Muslims may not eat in each other’s homes, but they do business together. You won’t find a better example of this cooperation than in Zaveri Bazaar, a favourite target of the jehadis.

Mumbai today is an angry city. Angry with journos, angry with politicians, angry with the police, angry with the babus. The anger is exacerbated, if that is possible, by political parties who in the guise of bringing balm bring divisive politics. Our rulers spout noble sentiments, but there is always a sting in the tail. The BJP accuses the Congress of votebank politics, the Congress accuses the BJP of saffron terror. How many times have you heard our netas say, terrorism has no religion, no caste, no creed?

And, at the first available opportunity, they attach a particular religion to terrorism. The infamous SMS—‘All Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims’—is a classic instance.
On TV debates, the anchors anxiously and persistently enquire, ‘So, what is the solution?’ As if anyone has a solution. I certainly don’t, except zero tolerance for terrorism. See, I am also mouthing cliches.

Opera House Memories

Opera House, the scene of one of the blasts, was a stone’s throw away from my tiny flat in Nana Chowk. I am not sure if the cinema hall still exists (it was perhaps the oldest in the city and in a state of advanced decay) but I’ve spent many pleasant nights watching bad Hindi movies at the theatre.

Some outstanding eateries dotted Opera House, with the sizzling roadside pao-bhaji worthy of three Michelin stars. The cinema ticket had usually to be bought on the black market and in the late ’70s I became quite adept at haggling with the touts. Patience, of course, was critical. Half an hour before opening time the going rate was sky-high. However, if one waited for the first bell to ring, the tout holding several tickets would be left with a few unsold. That was the time to strike a bargain.

The tout followed a strict code of ethics. Frequently, he would not have change for a hundred rupee note. He would take your money, disappear into a bylane and emerge two minutes later with the change. I had heard rumours of touts vanishing with the buyer’s cash. It never happened to me. In the City of Gold, black marketeers were honest and scrupulous.

Murdoch in the Dock

What an extraordinary piece of television theatre. Rupert Murdoch’s inquisition at the hands of British parliamentarians has many lessons for our media and democracy. The heart of the NoTW was the newsroom where scoop-obsessed editors relentlessly pushed their reporters to provide regular sex-crime-celebrity exclusives. The ends justified the means. All the phone-tampering, the hiring of private detectives and police-bribing can be traced to this imperative. Our continuously exploding print and television media needs to understand that while ‘breaking news’ sells, it has to be professionally obtained.

The other lesson concerns transparency. We are often told by our rulers that televising parliamentary committee meetings would mean shouting and chaos, with MPs playing to the galleries. The interrogation of Murdoch and son shows that the questioning can be rigorous, pointed, aggressive—and yet civilised and sober. If you ask me, I would say Rupert Murdoch was lying through his teeth. He came across as a media moghul who was blissfully ignorant of what was going on in his own newspapers. I simply don’t believe it. Phillip Knightley, who worked for the Sunday Times, told me that Murdoch was so hands-on that he sometimes suggested which story should go on which page. That was the level of his engagement.

Major Pile

On the subject of Murdoch’s papers, the former British prime minister, John Major, once rang up the editor of the Sun, Piers Morgan, asking how his paper was planning to cover a certain issue concerning him. “Prime Minister, I have a bucket of shit on my table. Tomorrow morning I am going to pour it all over your head,” replied Mr Morgan.

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