Facts and Fiction – Creative Journalism and Real Consequences: Aparna Eswaran
Guest post by APARNA ESWARAN
Increasingly, a section of young unmarried Malayali women are choosing to leave the comforts and shackles of their homes in Kerala, to live independently in alien cities in an unapologetic pursuit of their particular dreams. The patriarchal society of Kerala negotiates this category of women with a strange ambivalence, and the Malayalam media tackles her in two convenient ways.
On the one hand, the financial fruits from these migrant women’s labour are considered essential and her becoming a part of the capitalist market, a benefit. Hence, media sells her as the ‘new age woman’ and makes her consumers of the same. On the other hand, her sexuality, which now ventures beyond the four walls of her home and by extension her community (Malayali), is perceived as a threat. Media helps devise newer ways of control on her by encouraging an account which portrays her as holders of loose moral ethics whose sexuality can be detrimental to the community and hence is to be feared and controlled.
To this category, which includes me and countless other women I know of my age, also belongs Aswathy Padmasenan, who is currently embroiled in a controversy regarding irregularities in her appointment as the Liaison Officer in Calicut University. This article is not a testimony to her innocence. Instead, this is written to reveal how language which banks on the above mentioned fears and notions was used as a potent instrument by the media in its hunt for sensationalism. This is an attempt to show how Aswathy was made to inhabit labels which were gender insensitive and also to assert that the media investigation had started on a note which denied Aswathy deserved fairness and impartiality.
The Young Woman in the Airport
On 30th of April, the Deshabhimani newspaper published an article written by C. Prajosh Kumar which addressed the pertinent issue of a possible favoritism by the Vice Chancellor (VC) in the appointment of the Liaison Officer in Calicut University. I am unqualified to comment on the issue and perhaps an enquiry in the right channels is to be sought. However, what unsettles me deeply in the article is how the author has decided, without any forethought, to mix his heightened sense of imagination with the facts. The news could have been brought out in myriad ways, and the way he chose is extremely problematic. In Prajosh’s article, Aswathy becomes the fictional ‘young woman in the airport” from the article’s title, whom the VC meets in the airport and grants the job of Liaison Officer after ‘being convinced of her talents and skills’.
I use the term fictional because in the photographic evidence that accompanies the article, there is no mention of an airport or a young woman’s talents and skills. What has happened is that the note provided as evidence, which the Vice Chancellor Dr Abdul Salam wrote to Pro-Vice Chancellor Hari Kumar, gets very imaginatively translated by Prajosh: while the note in its original states “I met the candidate at New Delhi during my trip to attend C.E.C (16-17 Nov). Please do the needful as discussed”, the translation reads as “On my trip to attend the CEC, I met her in the New Delhi airport. Please do the needful as discussed”. The article goes on to say that the V.C also mentions that he has “become convinced of the candidate’s talents and skills, and that the matter be put for consideration in the next syndicate meeting”. The addition of these colorful details is no accident or innocent error. The author well versed with the ways of this world knew how to get the necessary voyeuristic attention of the Malayalee reader: bring in a woman and add winks of sexual allusions.
It also helps that the candidate in question is in Delhi, her sexuality being far away from the taming grasp of the Malayalee, which makes her at once desirable as well as threatening to the reader. The message send was loud and clear; the ‘talents and skills’ of a young woman in Delhi, if not curbed and disciplined, will rob jobs from the rightful owners. I’ll leave to the judgment of this reader as to who constitutes the so called rightful owners of government jobs. Also the focus that the article assumes is extremely misleading. From what I gathered, the main issue here is the discrepancy in dates; the date of VC’s recommendation of the candidate (18 Nov 2011) being much before the date of the advertisement to the interview for the post ( 21 Dec 2011).However, Prajosh Kumar seems more interested in the fact that the job went to a young woman in Delhi, and much of his arguments is derived from the same.
So conveniently, Aswathy gets painted as a woman who sits in Delhi ‘without even having to sign the attendance ledger’ and who gets the university to put her salary in her bank account! The author is implying that Aswathy is getting some sort of favorable treatment which the other employers of Calicut University don’t receive. Which begs the question as to whether the author knew what the job profile of a liaison officer entails, and also whether he gave thought as to how Calicut University usually pays its other employees?
Also it was wrongly implied that Aswathy was holding simultaneously another job in Campfire Graphics, a post she resigned from before joining Calicut University; information that is immaterial considering her present job as the Liaison officer is part-time in nature.
These can’t be seen as mere factual errors of a shoddy reporting. Instead, I see the language that the author of the article resorted to, and the fiction which he presents in the garb of facts, as being extremely gender insensitive, which could potentially taint the woman’s integrity as well as her future career. Now if you think my worries are a little farfetched, let’s see how the social network users reacted to this controversy.
Sister of the Ice cream parlour girl
The news in Deshabhimani was widely circulated in the social network sites like Facebook and drew immediate enthusiastic replies. A majority of the responses, mainly from men, though not limited to them, played on the double meanings of a young woman’s ‘talents and skills’. There were tongue in cheek enquires as to how the VC must have become convinced of the candidates’ eligibility in an airport. Also the word ‘airport’ when translated into Malayalam is ‘Vimana Thavalam’. ‘Thavalam’ in Malayalam can be taken as meaning ‘shelter’ and also as FB users have taken it, as ‘a den’. Comments on FB have played on the word ‘thavalam’ to mean a kind of private sexual den which is removed from the much more public import of the word airport. Comments like “women who are unemployed should now contact the V.C in his ‘thavalam’” indicate the sexual connation of the word.
Another common trope found in the FB comments is an allusion to the infamous ‘Ice cream parlour’ sex scandal. The only commonality between the two cases being that one of the politicians embroiled in the scandal as well the Vice Chancellor of Calicut University in this case are both Muslims, and of course, that the main tainted subject in both cases, ironically, remains the woman. After the much publicized scandal, the word ‘ice cream’ and ‘ice cream parlour’ were used as double entendres in Malyalam to mean ‘illicit sex’ and ‘places to get illicit sex’ respectively. Aswathy, with the publication of the Deshabhimani article, was incarnated in the dirty channels of male imagination of the FB users as ‘the sister of the Ice cream parlor girl’. So a certain gentleman declares on the wall post as if revealing an important fact, ‘She must have fed the V.C. ice cream in the airport!’ Remarks like ‘Calicut University will soon turn into an ice cream parlour’ and ‘candidates now should stop registering in the employment exchange and in turn visit VCs in airports’ abound. It is clear that the message that Prajosh tried to convey has reached the right ears. Readers have gone ahead and assumed that favours of sexual nature have been exchanged in the non-existent airport for the job.
In his clarification to Aswathy’s letter to the editor published in Deshabhimani on 4th of May, Prajosh says that the mention of aero plane (not airport) was avoidable. For one, as explained above, the word airport which the author had originally used in his article has a much more sexual slur that the word which Prajosh claims as avoidable in his clarification; aero plane. Even otherwise, such an addition was not just avoidable but entirely unnecessary as well as unbecoming of proper media ethics because it is a blatant lie and a figment of his imagination. His play on her identity as a young woman from Delhi was justified as being just factual. But the commonsensical reader as well as the FB user recognizes the politics and the sexual slur of the language used.
The harm is done and it is huge. In a matter of days Aswathy Padmasenan, talented photographer, PhD student in Delhi University, and Liaison officer in Calicut University is transformed and reduced to ‘the sister of the Ice cream parlor girl’. The responsibility lies with a media person who decided to shun proper judgment in favour of immediate cheap sensationalism of his article, which perhaps otherwise had news worthy of report. The only other person responsible is the non discerning Malayali reader, quick to blame the woman and question her character.
As a Malayali reader, perhaps I can make a start by saying no to excessive creativity in my news; I’ll read fiction for that, thank you very much. What is required now is a proper apology from Mr. C. Prajosh Kumar. No; declaring that all you have done is to’ carry out the primary duty of a writer’ does not qualify as an apology. That is just male arrogance which was earlier displayed in his imaginative article to enforce his truth as the incontrovertible truth. What else could be done is that, when an enquiry in proper channels is conducted, it be ensured that Aswathy gets a deserved impartial hearing, for her side of the story. Perhaps public judgments on her can wait till then.