Baghon mein bahar hai, asks a voice from the crowd, playing back to Ravish Kumar the ironic – and now iconic -- question that he tossed at two mime artistes on his programme, Prime Time, while taking on the politics of censorship and intimidation last month. Ravish laughs and engages, over the next 40 minutes, in an easy, almost teasing way with the enthusiastic, largely young gathering, which includes budding Hindi journalists, at the recent Sahitya Aaj Tak festival in Delhi. The Hindi channel NDTV India’s star anchor will later tell me in an interview that he mistrusts the social whirl of Delhi, and likes to keep alive, if only in a theoretical sense, the idea that “I only came here to study and will be going back”. But, in this video clip , he seems to radiate empathy for an audience that clearly regards him as a role model, both for his courageous journalism and his personal journey from the obscurity of Motihari in Bihar to stardom in Delhi.
To his audience’s delight, Ravish also unveils his latest love story ( “laprek”, or laghu prem katha is a blossoming genre of short Hindi love stories pioneered by him) and it turns out to be a wry and elegant play on -- what else? – demonetization. Young lovers argue about "real" and "fake" love while grappling with a practical problem: how do you buy a birthday present for a lover with a 500-rupee note that is now "fake”? Ravish ends the story with a captivating last line: “Koi nahin, hamara pyaar samjho do hazaar” (Never mind, our love is like the new 2000 note).
In all his avatars – a part-time poet, an inveterate blogger with as many as 2000 pieces of writing to his name, and a full-time anchor negotiating the tight-rope walk of news television from Monday to Friday on his 9pm show -- this 42-year-old has a way of bending language to his will. He seems to glide with almost magical ease between lucid commentary and sparkling wordplay, between the earthy speech of the street and the rural tea-shop and sophisticated thrusts of irony that are all the more deadly for being delivered with a deadpan expression.
Even in a face to face conversation at a coffee shop near his office, he is effortlessly expressive, the metaphors rolling off his tongue, even as he claims in a mock-serious way that being profiled makes him as nervous as “a prospective groom being sized up for matrimony.” So, what is it about Bihar that it produces inspired wordsmiths like him and the student leader Kanhaiya Kumar? “I wouldn’t want sound parochial,” he begins, and then jumps in and answers the question at length, and with obvious zest. “When I was growing up, “ he says, among other things, “it was a very poor state, but it had a life. Even at teashops if you couldn’t talk to a certain standard, nobody would talk to you. Every society gives something to its people, and this is what Bihar gave us.”
Perhaps it’s his Bihari roots that have made him a risk-taker, willing to mount daring critiques of the media and the political establishment with bold experimentation. Even those who have never watched him know of two shows he has done, which have actually been subtitled by admirers in myriad Indian languages: the mime to protest censorship, which came after the government announced a 24-hour ban on NDTV India for alleged state security infringements in its news coverage ( the ban was later put on hold amid media protests and the matter is now in court), and his use of a dark screen and a sound track filled with the snarling voices from TV debates to deliver an indictment of the Arnab Goswami school of journalism.
I am expecting to learn , during this interview, how these shows were conceived and planned, having once heard from Satish Prakash, a Meerut-based Dalit activist and physics professor a fascinating account of how Ravish ( of whom he is a huge fan) once landed up at 6 am for a Mayawati rally that was to began at 12 noon so that he could “capture the modest way in her supporters arrive and fill up an empty field, and establish through interviews how different they are from regular party workers, even looking into their plastic bags to show how they had brought their own lunch”.
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But Ravish almost scoffs at the idea that he plans and says the mime was put together after barely 90 minutes of preparation with the artistes. “Look,”, he says, “I was a rotten student, I have had the privilege of having failed many times, so I don’t fear failure, if I get idea in a flash, I try it out.” What matters, he says, is to keep trying because, and this is a theme that he returns to often, “this model of ‘debate TV’ we are all stuck with is so limited.” Even, he stresses, when you use it –and he manifestly does -- for civilized discussion rather than a cockfight.
Since it’s already late afternoon, and he is chatting, in a far more unhurried way that I would have expected on a day when he has a programme to present ( he has “no idea” he maintains, what it will be about) I feel inclined to buy his story of being a nerveless improviser, even though I myself am beginning to feel slightly nervous on his behalf. He can be the way he is, he stresses, because of the level of freedom he enjoys. “Nobody asks me what I am going to do on a given day, I never follow a roster, never sign a register.” I’m struck by his deep affection for his employer, NDTV, at a time when the channel is embroiled in more than one controversy. “It may be a company for other people,” he says, “ but for me it’s a college…I have learnt everything here.”
The story of how he joined the channel as a sorter of fan mail in 1996, then became a translator, then began to edit teasers, has been told before, but he tells it to me in an especially evocative way, especially the bit when he got an email from Radhika Roy, the company’s co-founder and chairperson in the middle of the night saying he had been appointed a reporter. She wrote, he says, “ ‘I am really sorry, Ravish, I could not ask YOUR opinion.’ And then I couldn’t sleep all night.” Even more striking than his rise from the ranks, however, is the imperative he felt, at a critical point, to not rise in the conventional way, and steer his career away from the direction of “Lutyens’s journalism.” In a wickedly subversive essay with that title, skillfully translated into English by the writer Amitava Kumar, he not just deconstructs the circumscribed, rarefied world of Delhi-centric political journalism, which he encountered during an early stint as a parliamentary reporter, but reports on how relieved he was to escape from an setting in which, if he went off to do a story on, say, hunger from Hapur, his colleagues would look at him dubiously and “advise me to get serious about my work.”
He is clearly in a good place now because, perhaps, more than anything else he does on TV, it is his distinctive stories from the ground that Ravish-addicts look forward to. Reports – to single out just one -- like the one he did from Dadri, after Mohammed Akhlaq’s lynching, brilliantly evoking ,not just a crime, but an absence of remorse, through the preternatural calm of village streets, the signs of normalcy like Swacch Bharat slogans and photocopying shops, the shuttered faces and bland responses of villagers ( “I know these villages, I’ve grown up in one,” he said grimly, “600 out of 500 people you speak to will say they arrived after the incident”), and the selfie-taking proclivities of young men. Making his own outrage an actor in the story, he willed us, as he often does, to care.
In recent days, as the great convulsions set off by notebandi (demonetization) have swept the country, he has been ahead of the curve in reporting, from the alleys of Chandni Chowk, from a bank queue in Bulandshahr or from a thread factory in Ghaziabad, the calamitous effects of a cash crunch on the rural economy, on the urban poor, on lower-rung traders and businessmen, on women, on weddings among the lower middle class and the poor. He has, more incisively than his peers, interrogated the political slogans demonising the “rich” and extolling the “sacrifices” of the poor, and in a damning report that left no political party looking good, recalled the fervour of the last big anti corruption movement, over the Lok Pal, and asked: where did all that go?
It’s a telling sign of how connected he is to the ground that he cares as much for the micro-stories, coming back time and again, during our conversation, to one of the first stories he did after notebandi was announced, about how it had robbed women of their secret savings. “I became aware of the importance of this story when I received phonecalls from many distressed women,” he says. “These savings represented economic independence in a patriarchal society. No economist can understand their pain.”
When I ask why he never asks people whether they are “for” or “against” notebandi, as many other reporters do, he says, he says has little interest in “carrying out a referendum on the popularity of demonetization”. “The decision is a given,” he says, “will its popularity or otherwise, change the reality on the ground? Also, when you ask leading questions, people give you simplistic answers. What interests me, when I talk to them, is the “lekin” ( but) in their answers, yes it’s good, but…That’s what I want to explore.”
What you notice, when you watch him interviewing the migrant women labourers of Khoda, in the forgotten shadowlands of the National Capital region, queuing up at the State Bank of India branch -- the only bank in a place with a population of over one million -- for 12 hours and more, is how he steeps himself in the moment. He does not merely ask questions, he listens, and is attentive to cues that help him unpeel the next layer of the story; a story he does not allow to be hijacked, firmly shooing away the menfolk who want to speak for the women and the political lumpens who want to disrupt the shoot. As this space opens up, the women talk, one by one, and sometimes all together, like voices in a Greek tragedy, of the immediate crisis – no money -- but also of their lives. A low howl rises from the crowd as the ATM shuts shop. The women’s dismay, and Ravish’s – deepens as it turns out, despite the efforts of the TV crew to have it stay open, the bank too will shut soon. Of all the thousands of reports we have seen in recent days from bank queues there has been nothing quite like this one.