REVIEW: Notes On The Margin

Book: Off The Record: Untold Stories From a Reporter’s Diary
Author: Ajith Pillai
Publisher: Hachette
Price: Rs 395

Whenever a journalist meets someone who is not part of the media, she or he is invariably accosted and asked to provide tidbits of information that are not supposed to be in the public domain. Journalists are expected to be repositories of facts that they cannot write or speak openly about, vignettes about the foibles and frailties of the high and the mighty, the rich and the infamous. Some journos readily acknowledge they know little beyond what they have already purveyed, while the more self-indulgent lot feel suitably flattered to part with salacious and sensational conjectures: “Oh, I have heard that so-and-so is sleeping with so-and-so but I haven’t actually peeped through the keyhole.”

Having thus satiated others’ curiosity for gossip, the smug and self-important scribe moves on, wallowing in her or his temporary delusions of grandeur. Not all journalists are, however, venal and corrupt. There are some who still firmly believe they have to report what they consider the truth to all who will read or listen to them. They don’t take themselves too seriously yet, at the same time, are convinced they have a duty to perform to their audiences and that they have certain obligations to society—to uphold democracy, to ensure transparency, to be adversarial towards those in positions of power and authority and, to recall the oft-quoted words of American writer Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

Ajith Pillai is an old-fashioned repor­ter who is half-a-century young. And his diary is highly recommended reading, not only for those who are part of the media in India but those who are not as well. His words are seemingly dry and without emotion, but they will bring tears to your eyes. His accounts appear dispassionate and disinterested but they are overloaded with passion. He is sometimes self-deprecating and dismissive. But his factual accounts are filled with concern for those who have lived on the margins, like child-prostitute Nasreen who had a tragic tryst with short-lived fame.

From throwing deep insight into the communal violence that rocked Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, with the serial bomb blasts following soon thereafter, Pillai’s notebook is filled with sensitive accounts of his meetings with the famous (Sunil Dutt on his son) and the notorious (Varadarajan Mudaliar). From his experiences with drunken drivers in Kashmir to unearthing the truth about Kargil with the help of the likes of Brigadier Surinder Singh, Pillai’s “stories behind the stories” throw new light on incidents and episodes (for instance, why Manmohan Singh never won an election). Many of these accounts deserve to be recorded for posterity by those who—unlike journalists—write second and third rough drafts of history.

At a time when spaces for investigative reporting in India and the world have shrunk because the business models of traditional media organisations have been disrupted by the Great Recession and the exponential expansion of the worldwide web, at a time when pressures continue to mount on journalists to burn CDs and not leather, when news-writers remain skilled stenographers, if not shallow storytellers, we need many more Ajith Pillais. Comrade, we know you can turn a phrase and make us smile at your witticisms. But when are you getting out of semi-retirement and hitting the dirty road as a reporter again?

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