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Nudging the Urge for Knowledge


Harsh Sethi

MULLAH OMAR AND ROBESPIERRE: ESSAYS IN THE POLITICS OF IDEAS
By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr.
Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2005, pp. 162, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 6 June 2006

Despite its phenomenal growth and diversification in the last decade, Indian media, both print and television, remains an inadequate and flawed vehicle for the communication of serious ideas. Most analysts disparagingly refer to the dumbing down of the media, the unhealthy growth of a page 3 culture, an obsession with titilatory gossip and the ever-present three Fs – films, fashion and food. Marketing whiz-kids seem convinced that packaging is all, that serious content puts off potential readers and viewers. Why, Pritish Nandy, the enfant terrible of Indian media, in the days he was editing the Sunday Observor (since closed down), even scrapped the editorial page, claiming that it was the least-read section of the paper. Distressingly for the high-minded, few noticed and even fewer objected.   Take, however, the contra trend. Sham Lal, without doubt the most erudite editor that the English language Indian media has produced, for decades wrote a column exclusively devoted to books and ideas as the lead edit article. That, for anyone browsing through The Times of India, today appears pre-history. Less remarked on is the fact that ever since the late seventies, leading intellectuals have been contributing regularly to most newspapers, oftentimes to the detriment of their other work. And the contributions of scholars, from an Andre Betteille (occasional) to a Pratap Bhanu Mehta (prolific) are avidly followed and discussed. Present-day journalists too are far more qualified than they were in the past. The negative assessment of our media nevertheless persists.   So what is one to make of Parsa Venka-teshwar Rao Jr.’s grouse that ‘going by the high decibel level and low quality of public debates in India, it is evident that there is a short supply of ideas.’ Is the problem with our intellectual class, that they ‘have shown themselves to be averse to either generating new ideas or reaching out to ideas out there and informing the people about them’? Or is it that contributing to informed debate through a serious engagement with the core presuppositions informing political and policy choices does not fit into the preconceived package of media as a saleable product? Being polite or modest, he sidesteps the uneasy feeling shared by most editors that far too many of our ‘intellectuals’, within and without the media, churn out unreadable copy – one reason why the ‘ideas’ they seek to promote fail to generate reader enthusiasm. Of course, there are exceptions.   Parsa’s effort ...


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