Should you dare to point out that he probably just woke up and cannot have been waiting that long, you are greeted with a scowl of such contempt, followed by an indignant "How is a man supposed to read the news... ". The tone of whose expression will, depending on how late the paper boy is, go from being righteous to indignant to injured to plain and simply pleading. In between these little outbursts, he will launch back into that pensive, purposeful stride in the vain hope that his beloved 'Hindu' will somehow materialise by sheer virtue of his loyal, heartfelt remonstrations . The quiet morning air is slightly heavier that day for the soft repetitive muttering of a disappointed man.
You have to understand however that it wasn't just my own family that held it in such high esteem as to allow their children to be deceived thus. It has probably been so for generations upon generations of proud madras- kaarange. It didn't matter who you were or where you came from, once you were settled in Madras, you read The Hindu. You may not have agreed with them all the time. Some may have thought they were a little too liberal and some convinced they were a tad conservative , but which ever way you leaned, you learnt to recognize very quickly that they were constant, by and large striving not to fall into those familiar pits of prejudice. All in all very solid and dependable dispensers of the news. So you read them. And let your children believe what they did.
Once I was old enough to care, I began to notice in my bi-annual travels to such 'journalistically distanced' places like Bangalore and Hyderabad, in my Uncle's house or the grandparents homestead that they didn't possess the good fortune of receiving this paragon of journalism into their homes. - I was positively shocked. "The Deccan what?? " I would ask in my cocky ignorance, quite sure that it couldn't possibly bear much merit. But since the deviance was observed only twice a year, I didn't think much of it once I was back home.
When I turned 14, my grandparents moved in with us for a certain length of time. For some reason that I do not recall, we started receiving 'The Indian Express' at home as well, probably at their request. One couldn't help but notice the glaring differences. To my mind, it occasioned the striking of reality´s blow - other newspapers did exist in madras and people apparently did subscribe to them.
Every 6 months thereafter, most faithfully, I would look to my dad to have what became a much repeated conversation thereafter about the circulation figures and market share and other sundry seemingly trivial details that served only to reaffirm my rather childlike faith that 'the hindu' was the best. Eventually when dad gently broke it to me that it was after all the 'The times of India' that was the largest selling English daily across India, I insisted with wide-eyed certainty that it must be that they didn't get 'The Hindu' and simply didn't know better.
Now the Indian Express is not a terrible paper, it isn't even a bad paper. But when you encountered such dogged loyalty, as the english-reading masses of Tamizh Nad who are bound to find any alternative ersatz, one must expect it to be consumed with the faint, bitter taste of disdain? And true to form for a long while, I refused to read it, wondering why anyone would spend time with a newspaper that wasted it's space on colourful pictures - what seemed to me at that time, a testimony of its need to capture readers that could not be attracted by the merit of it's content. This, my dear reader, was that glorious time that every madras-kaarar remembers nostalgically, when madras was not chennai, when it was a tucked away metropolis by day, asleep by 9:30 and up by 5, unaware of its own charm and still in possesion of a distinct, if slightly bourgeois identity. A time when an expensive coffee was to be had for 7 bucks at sangeetha and spencers didn't have stages, The time when the hindu was still black and white, wearing it's old, pre-revised,down to earth, I-am-substance avatar.
Albeit amusing initially, I was growing quite alarmed as to how many of us were actually taking to it. Were we becoming a lazy city, whose interest could barely be held by content that was becoming too intellectual for what had become our 30 second attention span? That's when it occurred to me that perhaps this whole newspaper business was mirroring the way the whole city was changing..
Why this scorn you may ask? I can only say that it comes from a deep love for the people and culture of a city I was born and raised in. Madras has changed so much. Too much. The roads are just as potholed and the politics haven't changed since the sixties.. But in the last three years - something has come upon us all. Is it part of some bigger trend - We ARE changing as a country but it is never so visceral as when you come back to your city every 6 months - the changes hit you like a bolt of 220 volts on a wet day.
I went back last Christmas only to find a variety of new 'reader-friendly' supplements and other assorted, suspiciously tabloid-esque additions to the usual. They are so reader friendly they might has well have 'Dumbed down for your reading pleasure' printed on the top. I don't know if you recall, on the 1st of January this year the Indian Express had a photo front cover , it was full page, a picture of people wet and a broken stage with a screaming headline about the Savera TRAGEDY. Everything about it reeked tabloid in it's style and coverage. That it was not about a scantily clad celebrity just about redeemed it, yet somehow seeming like only the next step. And I won't even bother talking about what the DC coverage of that was like. Give me a break, are you actually telling us, that it was the most important news you needed to proclaim to the masses. Or perhaps you will claim that you are re-defining the term 'front-page news' . The hindu's front page on the other hand seemed sober and staid in comparison - something about the prime minister's message and militants in kashmir and Gaza. Clearly, the Indian Express won, seeing as I remember their front cover.
One cannot deny that we are increasingly becoming consumed with sensationalism as a reading public but I think the onus is on journalists, editors and reporters to attempt some semblance of balance, consciously endeavour to put things in perspective and keep the bullshit to a minimum even if you cannot actively crusade against the whoring of the hand that feeds you..
Or is the error mine, in the presumption that newspapers are meant to inform and educate. The bottom line, I now see, is that they are businesses. They need to sell. And what doesn't evolve, will die I suppose, especially in a society that seems desperate to keep up with rapidly increasing numbers of yuppies, and newspapers cannot help but cater to them - and so it happened that we can only digest our news if a liberal dose of entertainment is thrown on to the plate as well. But for heaven's sake whatever happened to journalistic integrity? Or doesn't it have any place in the face of cut-throat competition and circulation figures?