Friday, 9 October 2009

The Human Detail

The Tsunami of 2004 did not affect me – I was fortunately nowhere near the troubled areas. Read about the incidents in the papers, of course. Neither did those affect me. Was I hardhearted, too self-centred to really care about something that hit the shores in places far from West Bengal? No friend or relative of mine lives in the South or the Andamans – so that may be a possible answer. For a long time, I grappled with the uneasy feeling that somewhere deep down there I was, inspite of my pretensions, a callous fellow who did not give two hoots about matters not touching his immediate circle of existence. The doubts were unquestionably helped by my feeble powers of self-understanding and introspection. The years rolled by, and the doubts were demoted to some of those hazy backbenches of the mind, only surfacing during stray incidents – a death of some casual acquaintance whom I did not really know, for example. That slight guilty feeling crept back for a few hours, asked a few troublesome questions, and then shut up.

The questions were not answered until about a month back. Verve ’09, NITD’s literary and youth fest, had a journalism workshop conducted by Dilip D’Souza. A name I recalled being faintly familiar with – not quite remembering the precise context of reference (and it wasn’t the Swades connect). Of the many important points about responsible journalism he made, there was one that really resonated with my ideas. And shooed away the uneasy feeling. The human detail. Conspicuous, yet elusive. There to be seen, yet woefully ignored. Hence the dryness and wooden quality of journalism in even widely respected publications. While figures, facts and statements can make good reports, they never touch the lay reader who has no stakes in the matter being described – including large-scale tragedies like the Tsunami. If journalism is really meant to stir us into action, and not merely inform, it has to strike where we are most vulnerable: the heart. A death toll of thousands boggles the eye and mind, but to the heart it remains a number.

If I consider the human detail to be the highlight of his discussion, it is because it applies as much to journalism as it does to literature and cinema. The best of both the fields are remembered chiefly for their storehouse of such little details giving deep insight into human nature. The most poignant moment about Indir Thakrun’s death in Ray’s Pather Panchali was such a small nugget: drained of all hope of reconciliation with Sarbajaya, and a contented twilight to her life, Apu and Durga’s pishi takes a last sip of water in her pet brass tumbler before stepping out of the house for the last time. Having quenched her thirst, she performs one of her numerous habits from the old days: watering the plant by her quarters which she had once lovingly sown. Even with death approaching her, the zest for life, the stimulus of organic growth, remained alive in that little-noticed act. And soon after, the inevitable happened. It is the persistence of those lingering strains of hope (speaking for mankind, in general, and Indir Thakrun specifically) in the face of tragedy and death that drives the significance and sadness of the incident home– just about three seconds on celluloid are enough to move the observant viewer. In that, and numerous other observations of the kind throughout, lies the film’s enduring greatness as a human document. So here’s the crucial point – why does this cinematic segment about one person’s death affect us, while a newsreport on the death of thousands not?

Mr. D’Souza, on his part, was a fascinating speaker. He had just the right mix of conviction and humility that gives opinions and arguments weight without overpowering the listener. And he kept his talk punctuated with fitting anecdotes. I’ll recall one or two.

An American reporter (as far as I recall, some lady) assigned the seemingly trivial, but delicate, job of covering a young soldier’s untimely death visited the family on funeral day. She chatted with some of those present and made note. But before leaving, she wrote down one thing to embellish her report. It ended up being the very cornerstone – the boy’s ma had put the lights on in his personal room, now empty. Over the switch there was a strip of duck-tape. The lights would never go out.

Then there was this fellow – whose name has unfortunately slipped my mind – who held a 9-to-5 job in some plush Delhi office. In 1999, he opened the papers one fine day. There was a cyclone in Orissa. In a jiffy, he wrote out a leave application for about a fortnight, headed straight for the station, bought a few essentials on the way, and caught the first train to Orissa. Mr. D’Souza happened to be in the cyclone-hit area during the time too. He met this gentleman from Delhi. The latter had devoted himself to relief-work with an urgency and concern somewhat unusual and unbelievable given his background. On being lightly asked about his inspiration, he simply made a casual reply. “Oh nothing, just wanted to check out how far I can go!” That, in a line, perhaps said something about man’s vulnerability and response to emotional motivation better than anything else.

On second thoughts, I made one slightly erroneous statement at the start. The Tsunami did affect me – the pictures did. Wittingly or unwittingly (depending on the lensman), some of those photos captured little visual details about the victims which connected with me. (Quite instinctively, too.) The words, sadly, did not. In most cases.

P.S.: About the part concerning the death of casual acquaintances: maybe those don’t sadden me much because I seldom identify the human detail underlining the tragedy (what with post-death conversations usually rolling towards the dry details of the last day – “you know, he ate just an hour before he died”). Or maybe, I’m plain hard-hearted after all!