December 13, 2019
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The Claws Don't Show

She's there, but not quite up close and definitely not personal

The Claws Don't Show
Tribhuvan Tiwari
The Claws Don't Show
Among The Chatterati—The Diary Of A Page Three Hack
By Kanika Gahlaut
Penguin India Rs 200, Pages:236
It’s silly to think that gossip doesn’t matter. Gossip is the bedrock of rumour and rumour can lead to revelation that can fuel change in a free society. The whispered conversation in the corridor, the unexpected telephone call, the unseen camera.... Think of Watergate and Clintongate, think of the Tehelka tapes, think of Nehru and the Mountbattens, think of Eliza Doolittle being passed off as a princess at the ball. Some of the most enduring stories of all time start as gossip. Gossip, especially social gossip, has a hoary lineage. From Samuel Pepys and the Duc de Saint Simon down to Louella Parsons, Nigel Dempster, Tina Brown and Liz Smith—some of the most-read, highest-paid and widely-believed writers are, or were, purveyors of what they saw and heard last night. Many of the most prominent media titles in the West—Paris Match, Hello, Tatler and W—subsist chiefly on a diet of social and celebrity gossip.

Film gossip has always had an established market in India but social gossip, in the bad old socialist days, had limited media sanction. Two developments changed the rules: satellite television forced newspapers to reinvent themselves and economic reforms allowed people to flaunt it if they felt like it—the transition from the rickety Ambassador to the Opel Astra, from Solan No. 1 to Johnnie Walker Swing, from Lakme to Lancome dictated a new world of parties as promotions—the social event dressed for the media kill. If the PTPs (Page Three People) didn’t exist they would have to be invented to fit the media’s 3F formula—food, fashion and fornication. It was inevitable that Stardust would lose its shine and metropolitan India would become one big banquet hall lined with wall-to-wall event managers. Ministries, embassies, art galleries and the fashion frat—everyone now needs a PR or press agent.

In 1970s New York pop artist Andy Warhol—with his polaroid camera and repetitive images of consumerism—declared that "Everyone can be famous for 15 minutes". It follows that the first casualties of the post-modern world are privacy and discrimination. Everyone can now go to the party—prince, Puppie and the six degrees of social trash in between. In the Page Three world, anyone can be Cinderella for three seconds.

Although Kanika Gahlaut in Among the Chatterati touches on some of these points, she cannot establish a sound framework for her subject. Without context, the subtexts fail her. Taking a Page Three whirl with the gossip columnist of The Indian Express is about as thrilling as a stroll in a Toys ‘R’ Us store. She seems a nice young woman who has blamelessly been directed to the wrong desk. Here she is discovering that bar girls sometimes get shot, that boys sometimes sleep with boys and that her publisher won’t be miffed if she uses the f*** word.

Among the high points of her career is an amiable chat with Feroze Gandhi in Pilibhit ("A nice-looking chikna...and very upper class"). There is some kerfuffle about looking for Salman Rushdie and Chelsea Clinton but Gahlaut never got up close. Sex and class are staples of good gossip but this book is in dire need of transfusions. Her one commentary on class—a visit to Jessica Lall’s home after her murder—reveals more about Kanika Gahlaut than Jessica. Lacking the surgical skill of a scandal-mongerer, Gahlaut thinly disguises many of the names although the key to the gossip-writer’s art is to name names yet avoid libel. The fug of coy mistiness that envelopes Among the Chatterati gives the impression of a) settling personal scores and b) of not being invited to the party.

Realising her limitations, Gahlaut attempts an imaginative leap to write in a Bridget Jones’ Diary style. This ends in rantings against her boss (called In Charge though he could be Raj). The only endearing moments are of honest self-admission: "I don’t know why God sent me here in the first place."

In Tina Brown’s Life As a Party or Dempster’s Loose Talk, gossip is used to create a brilliant social portrait of Thatcherite Britain. Among the most memorable pieces are of victims of Page Three society. For Gahlaut an ideal subject would have been Natasha Singh. After all, people are known to jump off buildings from time to time but they don’t end up as cover stories. But Gahlaut is a gossip writer who can’t see its point.

Rumour broke out one morning at the court of Louis XIV that the all-powerful, glamorous and oversexed monarch of France, whose minutest action was scrutinised, had accomplished a remarkable feat. The lord of the bedchamber came rushing out of the royal apartment to announce that the King had performed superbly during the night, no less than 12 times. A courtier, lolling in the corridor, cocked an eyebrow to ask: "With one partner or with 12?" The messenger bowed low and replied: "Change, Sire, is the greatest aphrodisiac."

If Gahlaut and her ilk are to thrive in the gossip industry, they need to change, and desperately.

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