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Travels with a donkey

Travels with a donkey

AS youngsters we saw this period play telecast by Doordarshan’s Amritsar station that satirised an investigation into a faulty construction. Some details are still stuck in the mind all these decades later. The characters in the play began by questioning the competence of the person who had designed the building, a palace or some such grand edifice, before moving to the overseer, then to the mason, and, through a process of elimination based on self-serving logic, to the contractor who had supplied the material used in construction.

The ending, if I remember correctly, had the inquiry commission blaming it all on the ‘lowest’ link in the chain, the guy who had the misfortune of transporting, on the back of a donkey, the earth used in making the bricks.

The play got a new lease of life in memory recently courtesy a neat little cameo played by a donkey in Hasilpur. The donkey made it to the headlines after it succumbed to the injections it was given under the watch of its master who says the beast was the sole guarantor of bread for his family.

According to the information provided, the owner who had a donkey cart, alleged that his working partner was killed after being given doses prescribed by a vet. He accused a local medicine shop of providing him with expired medicines, and later roughing him up as he went there to protest their gross negligence.

So many of us have waited all this time to get our trophy — this low-ranking cart operator and his dead donkey to blame for our pathetic standards.

He apparently took his case to those he thought could help him highlight the alleged callousness that he believed he had been subjected to. Ultimately, he turned to the most trusted media in what could possibly have been an attempt to settle scores rather than an effort to improve matters to ensure that no innocent donkey in this beloved land of us would ever suffer a similar fate.

This is routine, as in olden times when wayward men jilted by pretty outsiders could fall back on the affection of their sympathetic cousins in waiting in their biradari; the media as the last resort is there for the poor and the wronged to facilitate the venting of the spleen by the aggrieved. It sure does a good job of making loud noises and helping mourn the loss with befitting gloom and ceremony.

You can’t miss these correspondents. They sprout like mushrooms. They are also less complicated in their dealings with the newsmakers and bringers of news than your traditional local hack who was often ignored by the babus managing news desks in big cities. This new version of the district correspondent sure knows how to make his presence felt — by every now and then providing the national hookup with a story that will make a few news features and a few reports by the concerned NGO.

You could say the nose for sensational news was always there in the clean rural environs; perhaps then, the flashing coverage by television channels has sparked a greater search for the kind of stuff that has the power to leave the audience emotional. It is not just about the media but about the priorities of an entire society that does not take investigations about its behaviour and attitudes all that seriously. Like the cast in that Amritsar play, it conveniently finds a low-ranking clog in the scheme responsible for all the disasters that play out daily in our lives.

So many of us have waited all these long and sleepless nights and barren yet desperation-filled days to get our trophy — this low-ranking cart operator and his dead donkey to blame for our pathetic standards, habits and preferences. We have the presence of mind to use the reporting of the incident as an example — that has the narrator go on scandalously to address the fallen animal as ‘khoti’, at one place checking himself from uttering perhaps a journalistically more acceptable ‘gadhi’. We have declared the fall as the ultimate sign of our fallen standards. We have announced that we cannot fall any deeper.

A man losing his livelihood is not quite the news we are looking for? Or is it that it depends on who the man actually is and what mode of transport he uses and how big a cavalcade he travels in, before and after losing his job? After all, there are other jobless persons in this country who are found lecturing the masses about their indispensability and their right to return, through amendment and arm-twisting and confrontation when retirement at 70 appears to be such a viable option.

The donkey owner might not have kept the receipt which proved that he had bought his running mate, his deputy, for Rs80,000. And we don’t need a speech from him every afternoon for the next 15 days to prove that the dear departed meant the world to him.

But this is not why some of us might have found the story to be not funny or not a specimen telling us just how bad things are. There is a positive side to the media story. The media is about the only player the helpless in so many situations can turn to in their desperate moments. Even deep into the countryside where everything is supposed to run very slowly, the microphone and the camera, along with the mobile phone and perhaps the motorcycle, increasingly stand out as the harbingers of a new era. There are dangers in laughing them off or dismissing them as an embarrassment even in the most unusual situations.

Perhaps there is room for celebrating this tragic account about the man losing his livelihood and a beast losing its life at the hands of a cruel system — the human interest story that the head office keeps asking for. The use of the word ‘khoti’ did perhaps make sense. In the Punjabi saying about things moving in circles it is she which keeps ending up at the same spot.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2017

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