Reading the Newspaper: Various Traditions Meeting in Contemporary India

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As a one-time ten-year old paperboy, I still love getting my hands stained with the ink of newspapers. More than that, I enjoy reading papers to get a sense of local events and local interpretation of national or international happenings.

I’m not the only one in India who loves to read the paper. In 2010, there were 82,237 registered newspapers; in 2015, there were 105,443 registered newspapers. Even with the increase of internet usage, Indians love to sit and read about the news.

Some of the news may be a bit bizarre. On the front page of The Times of India, February 26th, I find the following “Rabbit Scare for Plane to Delhi”: “A Delhi-bound SpiceJet flight aborted its take-off from Ahmedabad at the last minute on Friday after an IndiGo flight got stuck on the runway because of a herd of rabbits.” Have you ever read about a dangerous “herd of rabbits”? Finding this article as a front-page newsworthy item is unique in my many years of reading newspapers!

As national newspapers, The Telegraph and The Times of India cover this period of Indian elections. In India, a “Democratic Tradition” is alive and well. Various states are electing leaders; various states are electing candidates for Parliament. Prime Minister Modi’s own future is at stake in these various elections. Because the elections do not all occur on one fixed day, but are scheduled over the course of several weeks, I read numerous articles describing past as well as future elections.

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Here are the titles of several leading articles:

“Alliance on lips, eye on Mumbai crown” This article has two sub-articles: “BJP, Sena locked in Mayor Race” and “Victory Message to Heartland.”

“Blue Flags make Azam See Red: Samajwadi Veteran threatens to Leave Stage at Sign of Minority Support for BSP”

“Congress Mulls Reasons for Defeats”

“PM Border Warning and Gaffe”

 

Like other newspapers, The Telegraph and The Times of India have a Business Section. These sections shout “Pragmatic Entrepreneurial Tradition” loud and clear.

“Strict Terms Hold Up Treaty with EU”

“StanChart in Profit but Skips Dividend”

As a lover of ice cream, I noticed this brief note: “Haagen-Dazs: Calcutta, Feb 24th: New York based ice-cream maker Haagen-Dazs has opened its first store in Calcutta, which is also the first in the east and the 17th in the country.”

Sometimes in these articles and certainly in other articles, I find a spirit akin to good investigative journalism. Because of this desire to get beyond the surface, I can call this the “Critical Tradition.”

 

The Telegraph has the following article:

“Developer in Fraud Net”

“Cops Treat Rape Victim as Accused: Ex-Judge”

The attitude of these articles is questioning. It is as though the reporter is saying: “How do you expect me to believe the explanation for these events? Why were these events never disclosed? What has happened to the people causing these things to happen?”

If I could read a Kolkata newspaper written in Bengali 200 years ago, I know that there is a new type of section as compared to that paper years ago. In The Telegraph, I find all sorts of advertisements and reports about the entertainment world. I will call this India’s “Romantic Tradition. “I suspect that as revenue from newspaper subscription has dropped that the newspapers have turned to advertisements to recoup the loss income.

 

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Here are some:

“Style that Makes You Smile: Renowned Designer Collection TASSELS Sarees”

“Touch the Cloud with the World at Your Feet: Megh Mani”

“Unmatched Luxury at Unmatched Prices: Megh Mani”

“Dove: Ria got Softer, Smoother and Glowing Skin in just 7 Days”

In The Times of India, I find an “Entertainment” section like one in Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Like Hollywood’s Oscar ceremonies, India is holding its own award ceremonies. Held in the Science City Auditorium Kolkata celebrated “Best of Bengali Cinema Honored!” The Times of India headlined.

I find one section that I don’t find in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: the match-making page. To help readers move quickly to the appropriate boxes, the paper has even color coded the boxes, blue for women and red for men.

There is one final set of articles although they are not prominent in a national newspaper such as The Times of India. There are articles about individuals or practices of some type of traditional or reformist Hinduism.

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Here is one example:

“Prayer for Partho before Cremation”

Reading the paper keeps before me three obvious features of contemporary India. There is no one voice of India. Like Americans, Indians find themselves shaped by all sorts of traditions.

There is India’s “Democratic Tradition”, inheriting the ideals of democracy, justice, and freedom. For all the rightful criticism of the British imperialist project, Indians have embraced this better part of the British project. There is India’s “Pragmatic Entrepeneurial Tradition.” Although we hear about Tata Steel and Reliance Industries, there are literally millions of pragmatic thinking Indians who are their own entrepreneurs. There is India’s “Criticism Tradition.” While that phrase may be a mouthful and while I’m certainly not suggesting that classical India has not had its own indigenous criticizing traditions, criticism has aligned in academic circles with western style Marxism to legitimate that natural doubting reaction. It is a regular industry to uncover hidden motives and causes of various occurrences to determine who “really” benefits materially or politically. There is the Indian “Romantic Tradition.” In a repressive society, individuals want to be able to live more feely. This freedom may be found in their leisure through entertainment or in their personal relationships. There is a desire to be more expressive of one’s own feelings in these areas of life. Finally, there is the wide spectrum of religious India still deeply attached to the “Traditions of Traditional or Reformist Hinduism.”

The second general comment is that the newspaper articles and advertisements are merely one expression of these traditions. Even though I’m not a sociologist of morality, I can easily detect some of the individuals, organizations, and practices linked to these traditions.

The “Democratic Tradition” is linked to the thousands of candidates who run for office, millions of individuals who manage governmental political operations as well as party operations, and the hundreds of millions who listen to politicians and vote. In 2014, India had 1,600 political parties, 935,000 polling stations, and over 800 million eligible voters.

India’s “Pragmatic Entrepreneurial Tradition” is maintained by the business and entrepreneurial Traditions are linked to the 85% of Indians who run their own business. Business Today claims that in addition to the 48 million registered small businesses (the USA has 23 million), there are several hundred million more “shadow” businesses which are not registered and do not pay tax.

India’s “Criticism Tradition” is sustained by the education industry. It is also sustained by the organized protest movements, from the Communist inspired but dwindling Naxalites to the “numerous organizations attacking sex trafficing.

The “Romantic Tradition” is sustained by all sorts of leisure and entertainment. Indywood is thriving with approximately 1500-2000 films made each year. Surprising to me, the famous “Bollywood” only produces 43% of the film; more films are made in southern India states such as Tamil Nadu. Statistics show that more than 140 million Indians now travel within their own country to see India’s tourist sites and not simply to visit family. Like China, India has a growing internal travel consumer market.

The many Indian newspapers both illustrate and transmit these traditions with their own characteristic values.

My third general comment is that these “traditions” that I’ve labeled are not watertight compartments. Most of us in the United States and India are not purists. Like the welders in small welding stalls which repair small problems from broken handlebars to tuk-tuk cables, most of us weld our experiences and ideas together. I love the way that Varmas writes: “The mistake one should never make is to accept the amiable Indian as a monolith. He is a most well-adjusted split personality, capable of living simultaneously and effortlessly on two mutually opposed planes.” (Varmas, 143) Besides dissenting with the sexist language “he,” I would suggest that the Indian lives on more than two planes! Still, the phrase “well-adjusted split personality” seems wonderfully apt!

India, if not unique, is distinctive in contemporary life. China, unlike India, destroyed its traditions as illustrated by Mao’s attacks on the “Four Olds.” China’s recent permission to Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians to reestablish their traditions may be due to commercial interests more than any tolerance from Beijing. Europe, unlike India, has allowed much of its traditions to erode. The United States, unlike India, is still adolescent in terms of whether its traditions can develop for centuries and withstand the inevitable challenges which will come. India and its multiple traditions, if not unique, is distinct.

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