Arundhati Roy has signed off from the Paresh Rawal fiasco by tweeting that she had to google him to find out who he was. This is obviously an exaggeration. Granted, Sir (yes, he’s Sir, consult his Twitter handle) came up the hard way from vernacular theatre and some of the roles he got were not much more memorable than Pahlaj Nihalani’s films, but Roy can’t have missed Maya Memsaab. Fake news originating from the right half of the internet has laid one of its stars (and an MP) so low that he can be dismissed with a sideswipe. Of course, the image of someone tied to a jeep is so obviously Klannish that he couldn’t have expected better.
The Wire has done a fine forensic job, tracing the fake story about Roy making certain statements while on a visit to Srinagar, which is apparently fictitious. Like all good fiction, though, the story was rooted in the real world (Roy’s forthcoming book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is fiction set in a historically accurate landscape). If Roy did visit Kashmir, she could jolly well say such things. The point, however, is that she didn’t.
But what’s really interesting is that the copy circulating in the right-wing gutter press on the internet–identical stories under different bylines–was of Pakistani origin. Apparently planted by the propaganda wing of an organisation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the story spread to perfectly respectable Pakistani TV channels but came to the notice of Indians via a nationalist website in Islamabad. That sparked off a riposte which appeared in Fair Observer in the US, which was picked up (and subsequently taken down) by Newslaundry here. By that time, it had also infected Indian TV, prompting Bhupendra Chaubey to host a debate in deadly earnest on whether Rawal’s proposal to tie Roy to a jeep as a human shield was legitimate. Interesting question. One may as legitimately ask if it is all right to go about torturing people who get on your nerves.
In this case, there was little damage because the target of the fake news is a prominent person (who should immediately appoint Rawal chief of publicity; literature Nobel guaranteed). But as the Jharkhand lynchings show, targets who are just ordinary people may be forced to pay with their lives for fake news which circulates on social media.
Early in the week, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams apologised for any role that the platform may have had in the election of Donald Trump, the first US president to polarise the nation. Trump had 30 million followers and now, the @POTUS handle has 17 million. “I thought once everyone could speak and freely and share information and ideas, the world was automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.”
Williams has bailed out of Twitter in favour of Medium, which is taking blogging into new terrain, including news analysis. But if he is embarrassed about Twitter’s possible role in the US elections, there are several other nations waiting in line for an apology. The first past the post hurry of television news and the internet has put paid to fact-checking, and stories ricochet across media before they can be vetted.
And then there are stories which die too quickly, like a Nasa scientist of Indian origin naming an off-world bug found only in the International Space Station Solibacillus kalamii–not for Soli Sorabjee but for APJ Abdul Kalam. The space bug, which is of terrestrial origin and has adapted to the void, joins the small family of places and things Venusian with names of Indian origin. Most are geographical features on Venus, named after Hindu deities like Lakshmi, Padma, Monoshi and so on. The mappers of Venus went multicultural after they ran out of names from the Greek and Latin classics. So Hindu deities rub shoulders with Lithuanians, Ossetians, Norse giantesses and the nurse who was the first target of the Salem witch hunt.
But here’s a little something to gladden the burgeoning tribe of confused nationalists: NPR’s Morning Edition has put up a short interview clip of Sonny Rollins titled ‘You can’t think and play at the same time’, in which the most moving jazz saxophonist ever speaks of how half a century of practising yoga modulates his thought and the music which flows from it. The year before the Beatles famously had a fling with Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh (and some interesting music resulted), Rollins quietly packed his sax and checked into another ashram in India, and stayed with yoga for ever. His new collection, Road Shows Volume 3, includes a track titled Patanjali. Confused nationalists need not celebrate prematurely. It is a tribute to the sage, not the instant noodle entrepreneur.