Reviewed by ASIF ANWAR ALIG
Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary, by Ajith Pillai, Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt. Ltd., Gurgaon, Year2014, 300pp, Indian Rupeese395, Soft.
ournalism is frequently questioned for hollowness and lack of ethics. This scenario is everywhere but Asian countries especially Indian continent remains in the limelight due to obfuscated journalistic integrity. Such ethical cacophony raises finger on the spirit of media which otherwise remained an art. Seasoned journalist Ajith Pillai records media’s ethical largesse from its resurgence in the eighties during golden period of the fourth estate.
Identifying media’s downfall in the last few decades Pillai sums in Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary the untold stories that couldn’t appear or got trimmed to suit to the anecdotal ordeals of respective publications. They prove nostalgic for the journalist fraternity through overviewing the good old days of journalism which projected its ethics as an art. It also exposes the appalling scene of media under present-day corporate identities—thus it peeps into its irresolute culture and traditions.
Scenarios which Pillai brings before the readers are reporters bearing in mind the ethical mission to file reports through even forgetting ‘self.’ Decades ago, the culture of gathering information from multiple sources was not possible in the absence of Internet like we do now in the comfort of home or office. From media’s resurrection to downfalls this book is the collection of reports on the prime interest to every aspiring journalist today. Media persons learn about their elder peers who encountered the draconian complications before media’s boom in the wake of Internet’s arrival and the developments in communication sector.
Stimulating off the record reports became author’s memories during that period. They are now in the book shape. He enlivens those glorious days of reporting as journalistic clamors. Journalism was an acid test while reporting a real role playing in that period unlike today’s omnipresent sources for exploitation. By summing the reports which once remained off the record this book is a treasure of knowledge on the issues of national and international interest in the eighties and nineties. They still motivate new generation journalists to analyze how media virtuously remained a strong medium of social uplift—as a credible pathfinder.
Ironically, today’s media is questioned for its incredibility and biasness, laments Pillai. He exposes the plights which this medium besmirched over the years. Corporatization of media helped it grow in the leaps and bounds but equally did it bring ethical degradation. Only selected media houses can now claim to sustain the spirit of journalism with their free speech.
He raises question on why objective reporting shrunk so fast. His assignments in Mumbai (then Bombay) in the eighties to report gang wars, communal riots and the misconceptions of celebrated writer Sir V.S Naipaul about the city based goons falsely identifying to be Muslims without crosschecking realities amongst others are cherished recounts. The story of Tamil gangsters ruling the Mumbai underworld for years equally remind of perpetual commotions.
As author practically spent several years of his career in Mumbai, this book finds ample room to recount the interesting reports from India’s financial capital. Reports on the deadliest bomb blasts to communal riots in the city were noteworthy investigations. He included social interest reports from India that were catchy headlines prior to television’s boom. Daring to criticize the weaker media ethics, Pillai adds a section on journalistic intrigues—nexus which earned bad name for this profession in the late eighties. Stories from Kashmir deserve applaud for the arduous war reporting and filing stories from war zone in the highly difficult circumstances. Covering human interest stories in the weeklies to keep them nonperishable until the issues hit the stand, he describes media’s primary challenges thorough this book.
Capital quest of Pillai after joining a Delhi based weekly publication includes interesting off the record stories from corporate to government influences on media to favoritism besides countless politicized mayhem. His reporting of the popular Radia Tapes which aggravated many big names in business and media circles through its trap remains worth reading stories.
He points out the risks which are part and parcels of reports’ lives. Troubles and pressures which ordinary journalists face to keep the publications in the leading places are inspirational. He has brought true picture of the Opinion Poll gimmicks in this book from their nasty roles to mobilization of voters in the Indian elections to several other exposes.
Publications like Outlook magazine began a trend of ‘silly opinion polls’ on social tendencies. As sarcasms such typical opinion polls which Vinod Mehta led weekly carried impressed the readers who peeped into the lives of common masses. Speaking the stories of heights of hypocrisy those opinion polls exposed several browbeating social tantrums.
This book has resilient message for the future journalists that with overall support from a daring editor like late Vinod Mehta, one could always love to work in journalism to enjoy the pleasure of pains they encounter while reporting stories. They can definitely create hallmarks.
It also has finest reports on the Sri Lankan War which didn’t appear in original shape in the publications then. Reports on Eelam and Indian government’s imprecise Sri Lankan policies causing worse situations remind the future generations to remain abreast of what went wrong during the island nation’s war torn decades to charlatan role of monstrous neighbor—India.
Off and on many finest unreported reports sums in this book to make it a good collection of satirical but true account of the myopic Indian policies on the neighborhood countries.
Stories on corruption in many Indian states with the special mention of this practice in Bihar during Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rule of more than a decade to India’s southern metropolis Chennai coming into limelight for unusual reason of kidney racketing—once denoted as Kidney Capital—are worthy reports from previous decades. His worst experience of losing purse in Goa and forced to manage as penniless reporter until favored by an unexpected peer to many other stories make the book true count of a journalist’s life for new generation to look back and observe how their seniors maintained that sense of respect in this profession.
Author’s meeting with the soul behind India’s White Revolution Dr. Verghese Kurien is one of the mesmeric records in this book. He shares how their one on one changed a reporter’s perspective towards the life of a visionary entrepreneur as a change master. Rest stories from this reporter’s diary are great materials to study the chaos with interest. They are comments on the society as facts that failed to appear in the publications while they actually happened.