Book Review by Debraj Mookerjee
Title: The Free Voice – On Democracy, Culture and the Nation
Author: Ravish Kumar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger; 2019
Ravish Kumar is India’s most widely-discussed TV journalist. You either hate him, or you love him. There is no in-between. To say he is a polemicist is an understatement – he takes sides without apology. But here is the thing. In an India that is increasingly tilting to the right, with the mainstream media marking time to the drumroll of a muscular Hindu nationalist rhetoric, his voice stands apart, speaking for those cringing in corners, or daring to love and resist and protest. His latest work, The Free Voice — On Democracy, Culture and the Nation (translated from the Hindi ‘Bolna Hi Hai’, by Chitra Padmanabhan, Anurag Basnet and Ravi Singh) presents a more sustained exploration of such themes. The book was first published in 2018. The revised edition crucially accounts for the re-election of Mr Narendra Modi as second time Prime Minister in 2019.
Kumar is a Magsaysay Award winner for 2019, and his citation says that Kumar’s ‘Prime Time’ programme “deals with real-life, under-reported problems of ordinary people.” The citation adds, “If you have become the voice of the people, you are a journalist.” Yes, you guessed right, Ravish Kumar is a bit of a romantic, a small-town boy from the dustbowl state of Bihar who though his Hindi journalism (he’s bilingual, having studied in a missionary school) has made his mark in the national, even international landscape.
Kumar is essentially a writer at heart, quick to quote poetry, and able to make both the extraordinary look ordinary and the ordinary look extraordinary. His 2015 novel (in Hindi) Ishq Mein Shahar Hona (English translated version, somewhat clumsily titled, A City Happens in Love) explores with charming irony the travails of love and its expression within the landscape of Delhi, where morality and social mores threaten to sweep off pleasure and privacy from public places. Unfortunately, there is nothing poetic in his outpouring in The Free Voice – it is the portrait of a dystopian present and a cataclysmic future.
Kumar’s non-fictional venture is an attempt to both place on record the deterioration in India’s public culture and debate that has been ushered in by the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and also a cry of personal anguish against what he considers the tacit compliance of the parallel pillars of the state before an unforgiving government. Scan the index page and you get the drift of things. Chapter 3: ‘The National Project for Instilling Fear’. Chapter 9: ‘Today, Freedom from Fear is Freedom from the Mainstream Media’. But there is hope also, stemming perhaps from the romantic trapped inside Kumar the poet and the writer. The final (Chapter 11; twelve chapters would have added a nice epic touch to the book, but alas) chapter reads ‘Let’s Treat Ourselves to an Ice Cream this Independence Day’, wherein he writes, while advocating all the hard work we need to put in to remain a Republic, “Independence day is yours …We may eat an ice cream … also buy some sweets and distribute them among those less fortunate than ourselves. That which is good and right for us has come to us because of the dream of that India which (the) numerous generations … have woven together like a beautiful sweater. The sweater whose soft warmth makes our hearts large and generous.” The translation is clearly tacky, but we need to make allowances.
This shard of hope that ends the book is also indicative of a certain position Kumar takes. He’s Managing Editor of NDTV India, India’s premiere (arguably) Hindi channel. His is a voice of authority. His commitment to the national project therefore is strong. He is part of the system, as it were, but of a political persuasion that is liberal, leaning a little to the left, and Gandhian in conception. It is from this location, and with such a voice, that he is opposing, and opposing with sharp vehemence, the politics of the Hindu right.
Kumar is not alone in his fight. He is one of the torch bearers, and the torch he carries shines bright, but from social media to the streets, from universities to activists, there is a counter voice to the majoritarian push towards the mainstreaming of sectarian politics. Important voices of the same social class and category are lining up on either side. In a sense therefore both majoritarianism, as it were, and dissent have been mainstreamed. Kumar, in the midst of mainstream media channels that unabashedly spew the government’s position on events, is the counter voice who questions the conscription of the free media. And he too is ‘mainstream’.
To read the book, which suffers only in the quality of its translation (Kumar is fluid and elegant when heard in Hindi; there are sentence constructions in the book, however, that are rather awkward), is to get a peek at the undercurrents currently flowing through the Indian polity. Of course, he is polemical, as already stated. He recreates the ‘Crystal Night’ of 1938 Nazi Germany to draw a parallel between the persecution of Jews and what is happening in India today. It’s an analogy that only one who’s very angry would use. His cry of anguish seeks to arouse public consciousness and almost urges it into political participation, “There is a lot that we just don’t question, a lot that we just don’t see.” He quotes from a Pew survey to assert that “support for autocratic rule is higher in India than in any other nation surveyed”, which for him runs the danger “of a strong elected leader being created, and running parallel to it is a script for military rule.”
Ravish Kumar clearly has an agenda. At that level of influence, you would have one. But that agenda includes the reporting news about sections of society that are routinely ignored by other mainstream media houses. When it comes to marginal voices, like that of tribals and students and smaller communities and their concerns, Kumar is known to do painstaking research and present documentary-like capsules on, and around, them. Which brings us back to the title of the book —The Free Voice. The use of the definite article suggests he takes his own voice seriously, because he believes his is ‘the’ free voice in the larger Indian landscape. In a sense it actually is, because no other voice within mainstream TV media today in India has the courage to ask the government of the day the questions he courageously asks every night at nine on ‘Prime Time’.
Read The Free Voice if you want a flashcard introduction into what’s going on within the heart of contemporary India.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!