Of course everyone wanted long juicy stories about Sushil Kumar and his incredible win. They would have liked it better if Kumar had been from a real live slum, or was at least on the run from a psychopathic slave master who wanted to gouge out his eyes. Nonetheless, Kumar (happily) is poor enough to have earned the title ‘the REAL Slumdog Millionaire’, a sobriquet Kumar must have found very flattering, as any one of us would, I’m sure. Actually, my calculations showed that Kumar earned more than Rs 26 a day, so was not REALLY poor at all, a fact I kept to myself to not let down my editors who were very excited about the whole thing. I almost lost my job the night that Slumdog Millionaire won its Oscar. So, when the KBC story popped up, I promised myself to be extra careful.
The night SDM (this abbreviation thing really is great fun once you get the hang of it) won the Oscar, my newsroom woke me up from a very sweet sleep, content with a job well done. My story on the movie, complete with deep and original socio-economic analysis of the popularity of American-style game shows in India, had been filed and approved. This was to be the main magazine story of the next day, and I had included a side bar on the multi-faceted realities of life in a Mumbai slum, beyond the easy stereotypes. When the phone rang at around 2 am, I thought there must have been some disaster in my family, and I jerked awake, my heart beating. “Are you there?” asked a young sounding someone, “hello?” Gee, it’s the newsroom.
It’s the middle of the night. What’s up?
“We just need to know: what’s the price of a child slave in India?”
“We are adding text to your story, spicing it up a bit. Your copy is great, don’t worry, but we just want to add some juice. We have a great idea! We are making a chart with the prices of children slaves in third world countries. What would you say approximately is the price of one where you live?”
Hold on a minute, I will go ask at the corner child slave shop. Oh, darn, it’s past midnight, they are closed. Sorry.
“Okay, but can you find out somehow?”
Well, look, it’s been so long since the last time I bought one, I’m sure the price has gone way up. (Ironically, someone I knew had just done a story on this for a women’s magazine in Europe and it would have been easy to get the information from her, but I was not going to cooperate with this cheap drivel). I hung up the phone.
A moment later, it rang again.
What do you want? I pretty much shrieked into the phone.
“Listen, we need your help on this,” says a voice I would recognise anywhere, at any moment—the assistant to the senior foreign editor—“Please get us the info.” I’m afraid I vented more fiercely than was appropriate on the shallow and sensationalistic thinking that drives mainstream media. Years of frustration poured out of me, all the times I had tried to report in a profound and present way, especially on social issues, only to be undermined by editors who think in two-tone and are sure their readers do as well (this was back in the days I really, really cared what readers in my country thought about India, and set out to single-handedly destroy all misconceptions).
If you want a serious story on child trafficking, say so, and I will get it. So I said, and hung up. A few minutes later, I called back to apologise to this actually very decent, sweet and helpful man, who listened quietly, and said it was okay. But in the morning, a mortifying email was in my box from my senior editor, with an official call to order. ‘Aren’t you the one in the land of Shanti Shanti?’ he ended, to soften the blow.
I knew they would want something about Kumar, but I was surprised by how long a story they wanted. I was basically forced to use every detail available: the Rs 500 spent on new clothes, the Laxmi-ness of Kumar’s new wife, the fear expressed by Kumar’s brother that their dad might (God forbid) get a heart attack and perish from all the excitement. “Now that would make for a GREAT story!” said an acquaintance, a foreign correspondent for a très respectable publication. I held my tongue. Shanti, Shanti.