Dec 9, 2008

India - Mediated mayhem

Radha Sarma Hegde

As the image of the imposing dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel alongside the Gateway of India flashed on television screens, we were drawn into the violence as a media spectacle. From Chennai, I called friends and family in Mumbai as I flipped through channels, endlessly clicking my television remote. Compelling images, including those of the terrorist striding into the Chhatrapati Shivaji station, people hunkering down outside the two hotels, masked commandos sliding down from the helicopter into Nariman House, victory signs at the end of the siege, have been etched in our minds. The endless repetition of these images both documented the unfolding drama and scripted forms of public response to the attack. The reportage was sensationally titled for attention as “Mumbai Mayhem”, “India Hits Back”, “India’s 9/11” and so on.

The discourse gathered storm with blogs and text messages twittering across the globe. The first person accounts and instant relay of messages set the information machinery on overdrive. The public across the country was inducted into new modes of witnessing violence. The media lashed out its anger against the politicians. Calling for citizen action were Mumbai’s elite — businessmen, corporate leaders, media personalities, celebrities from Bollywood and sports stars.

Working in New York, I recall vividly the visual capture and screening of the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001. And now, it is clear that a particular form of televisual crisis documentation is being globally reproduced in the context of terror. The digital environment and its narratives also demonstrate that globalization is not flat by any chance but rather jagged and uneven. The early reports particularly in the Western media focused almost exclusively on the ‘foreigners’ and the fact that the terrorists were particularly targeting British and American citizens — a fact that since has been largely dispelled.

Familiar frames

Mumbaikars debated the devastation on their city, the financial hub of the country. Pushing the comparison to 9/11, some even made a strange call for a Guiliani type leadership to emerge! To the rest of the world, the narratives took a different slant. To the Western media, Mumbai seems to represent a city that is coming into a new cosmopolitan modernity, not one that has arrived. The CNN reporter Sara Sidner, as she braved the tense situation, declared that she could get “so incredibly close” to the building and this was something you would never see in the U.S., U.K. or as she put it “anywhere in Europe.” To which the anchor Costello mentioned with disbelief that “Indian officials even on the scene don’t quite know what they are doing.” It was, of course, a challenging situation where the rescue plans were being charted from minute to minute. However, I call attention more to the recognizable frames through which India comes into focus in the global media — chaos or exoticism. Speaking for India, as Larry King’s guest after the Mumbai attacks, was none other than Deepak Chopra who King introduced as the physician, philosopher and author of a recent book on Jesus. While Dr. Chopra made some provocative comments, it is his position as postmodern guru that sits well with the media to play the role of spokesperson for Mumbai and India.

In a digital and media saturated environment, it is surely a telling exercise to note who gets to speak for Mumbai and its cosmopolitan face.

Radha Sarma Hegde is on the faculty of the Department of Media,Culture and Communication at New York University

No comments: