The Media Makes a Killing

by Anjali Purohit

The heaving bosoms, gyrating belly buttons, and thrusting pelvises of current music videos on television don't seem nearly as obscene as a boorish anchorman shoving a mike under the nose of an uneducated, meek village girl and asking her to profess publicly her choice between two men who, by a quirk of unfortunate circumstance, are both married to her.

The story is that of a young girl called Gudiya, almost a child, who was married to a soldier in the army. Barely ten days into their marriage, he was called off to war. He spent a few days at the border, and then disappeared and so was declared a deserter. When he did not return after a very long time, it was assumed that he was dead. Villagers felt that he had disgraced and dishonored the young bride and the family, and she went back to her father's house. Gudiya was then married to another man, she settled into her new life in his house, and soon she was expecting a child. Around this time, the two warring nations came to an agreement to exchange prisoners of war, and the soldier returned to his village. Once it became clear that he was a P.O.W., he was now a war hero, ready to claim all that was rightfully his, including his lost honor and his bride.

The television media loved the drama of this situation and decided to extort maximum mileage from it. This began in rounds of interviews and sound bytes, discussions and airings of opinions. They asked Gudiya with whom she chose to be, and she said quite clearly that the father of her child was her husband, that his home was her home, and that his family, who accepted her when the whole village scoffed at her for being a deserter's wife, was now her family, and she would never leave them. Like a cat that lashes out fang and claw in defense of her kittens against an overwhelmingly strong adversary, she was trying to protect the baby she was carrying.

That was the last time I saw Gudiya say anything so assertively in public. For after this valiant but ineffective outburst, she was silent. In the face of the finest cajoling skills of the highly sophisticated anchorman, she only mumbled and whispered that she accepted whatever the village elders decided. So what was decided?

Day after day, for perhaps a fortnight or more, this drama was sordidly played out to voyeuristic eyes on prime time television. You couldn't help but know the latest details and you couldn't avoid them. We were witness to the news channel organizing a live panchayat* telecast across the nation where members of the local villages had their say. We saw wise men and the village council ruling on their judgments by giving reasons and quoting precedents; meanwhile, spokespeople from women's rights groups asserted opinions on the shoulds and coulds of the matter, sundry relatives pronounced their preferences, and insensitive journalists dug out every personal feeling of the unresisting protagonists. Throughout the day there were teasers for the evening news, spots like, "Gudiya kya karegi? Dekhiye, aaj raat aath baje! Only on falana TV. Live and exclusive!" (What will Gudiya do? Find out, tonight, at eight o'clock!! Only on xyz TV. Live and exclusive!) Everyone got his or her backs up. Everyone postured. Everyone, except Gudiya. It became a matter of honor - of the man, the village, the clan. The soldier declared, I must have her back. I will have her back. She is mine. But the baby that she carries is not mine. So I will not keep the baby. Us bacche ka woh kuch bhi kare. (She may do whatever to dispose of that baby.)

The council decreed that she must go back to the soldier. All of the "socially-conscious" people made the usual noise, which turned out to be entirely ineffective in influencing the turn of events. Gudiya was returned to the soldier.

And then we heard of it no more. The story had been successfully wrapped up, all players milked dry. The TV executives were happy - viewer ratings had shot up phenomenally, beyond their expectations. Profits were made. Many sponsors found. Happy ending, right?

We were thankful that the daily torture had ended and put it behind us, just as one quickly tries to surmount a nasty bitter taste left in the mouth by something we were forced to bite into.

That was roughly a year or two ago. Then last week we heard that name again - Gudiya - and groaned. Not another exhibition of what should be a closed chapter. So now what was new? She had given birth to the child, had a stressful delivery, and never fully recovered. Distressed and anemic, Gudiya died last week. Rendered mute and dumb, the emptiness her death has left can be filled by just two words: If only.

If only we had left things alone, perhaps some blustering egos would not have felt the need to take up positions in order to prove points. If only we had not put everyone under the spotlight, perhaps the soldier may have chosen to quietly walk away and begin life anew elsewhere with someone else, leaving Gudiya and her baby safe from the crossfire of cynicism, commerce, self-righteousness, and conventional wisdom. If only the media had rated human sensitivity over profits, they would have realized that they were not truly capable of taking full responsibility for a poor helpless person and her circumstances. If only they understood that their role could just make matters worse, then, maybe, they might have just let it be.

I am reminded of a story I was told when I was young, about two little children who watch a sparrow build a nest high up on a cupboard. They think it is precariously perched and decide to lend a helping hand. Pieces of furniture are piled up to reach the nest, which they plan to make more secure and comfortable for the fledglings. The boy climbs up, the inevitable happens, and everything comes down, the nest and the eggs lying scattered and broken on the floor. At least these kids only wanted to help. But one cannot help suspecting insidious, monetary motives in this other case.

Now apparently, or so we are told, the soldier wants to keep the baby, and the second husband says that since he is the father of the child, he has a greater claim over him. Maybe we should have an audience poll: let's ask the viewers to text HUS1 for the soldier and HUS2 for the second husband. The one with the most votes gets to keep the kid. That way we not only get money from our sponsors but also commission from the phone companies, doubling our profits. Sadly, or thankfully, the baby is too young to be made to blow us a kiss, clasp his hands, and say, please, please vote for me.

While I was unable to watch all the details of this entire sordid saga since I found it distasteful and macabre, the information presented here is what I still could not avoid seeing as I surfed channels on television and from reports in the mainstream press. And this story gave rise to many questions - At what point are we crossing the line, where reportage becomes intervention and then staged "reality" in order to make sensational news? When the personal fate of people is beamed live into millions of homes across the nation, and the protagonists have to make decisions about their lives and communities in full glare of this attention, haven't we lost the status of mere spectators but instead become actors in the drama? Shouldn't the media be more sensitive to this effect and thus more cautious in its choice of subjects? And if it does choose to intervene, then is the media prepared to be responsible for the consequences of its broadcasts?

* A council of, nowadays elected, village elders, from a collective of five villages