Newsmakers

Interview with Margaret Mascarenhas, consulting editor, columnist, novelist

The Page Three mentality is a recent phenomenon and a pernicious one

saysMargaret Mascarenhas,consulting editor, columnist, novelist

margaret-mascerenhasWhat are the challenges faced by Indian writing in English today?
Well, I can't answer this question for anyone else specifically, and my own challenges may well be challenges faced by many writers all over the world, whether Indian or not. My primary challenge lies in finding time to write fiction in between writing columns, teaching creative writing and completing editing jobs, all of which bring in the real money so far. Secondly, there is the challenge of being 'typecast', if you will.

I am presently working on two novels - one set in Venezuela, the other set in California, France and Palestine. I was recently told by my editor at Penguin-India that they probably wouldn't be able to carry either of these, since the main character is not Indian. (Why should Indian writers be compelled to write about Indians or India???) Thirdly - and this is particularly true for Indian writers published by branches of mainstream Western publishing houses (Penguin, Harper Collins, etc) - very little marketing is done for my work by my publishing house.

From the beginning, I have been expected to handle most of that myself. And since I find the business of selling most tedious and distasteful, I haven't done much of it.

How would you rate Indian writing on a scale of one to ten in terms of credibility and quality?
I'm not at all comfortable with categorising and generalising 'Indian writing'. I think each writer has to be taken on his or her own merit.

Despite writing and journalism in Indian languages coming of age, the English-language media and books in the country continue to dominate its vernacular cousins. What's your view on this?
This needs to change. I empathise strongly with those writing in the vernacular and endorse the view that publishers and private trusts should be doing more to bring this literary wealth higher visibility.

Some observers contend that liberalisation and consumerism have led to the trivialisation of journalism and writing in the country, to the triumph of puff over 'real' issues. Does this charge hold water and, if so, what does this development portend?
Well, as long as I've been in the business, which is almost 20 years, there has been a large body of trivia journalism available to the Indian reading public. So, no, I don't think it has to do with liberalisation. However, there is a more overt (as opposed to the earlier covert) advertorial content in much of the print media today. And I think this has to do with socio-cultural changes which include a higher level of consumerism.

The Page Three mentality, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and a pernicious one, a kind of perennial insider back-slapping that will carry on unless people get over themselves and start caring about issues greater than themselves. It would be naïve to imagine that this will actually occur. Page Three is here to stay.

What do you make of 'celebrity journalism' of the kind indulged in by writers like Arundhati Roy and others?
If by 'celebrity journalism' you refer merely to the fact of a publicly recognised figure using his/her writing to influence public opinion, I do not think there is anything new or extraordinary about this. And let's take into account that it is journalists who make someone into a 'celebrity'. I very much doubt Arundhati Roy thinks of herself as 'a celebrity'.

Is the space for print journalism and books being eroded by the expansion of the television medium and the growing power of the Internet?
On the contrary, the space has expanded. There are more books being sold and more availability of books today than ever before. In addition, both television and the Internet have provided more opportunities for writers.

What's your stand on foreign direct investment in mainstream Indian print publications, and what's the reason for the sharp divide on this issue?
I am not in favour of foreign conglomerates influencing the Indian news media. I believe it will result in press freedom in India becoming even more restricted than it already is. But I also think it will nevertheless occur, because business concerns will, as usual, take precedence over the moral imperative. I think the divide has primarily to do with money versus national pride.

How bad is the problem of media publications pandering to their business and political interests. Can this be countered and, if so, how?
This is a serious problem worldwide. I'm afraid I don't see any way to counter it, other than the traditional one, which is the alternative press. And that is a risky and difficult road to take; look what happened to Tarun Tejpal.

Is there merit in the contention that Indian writers and journalists cannot - should not - operate by the rules of the West (the truth above all else) when it comes to issues such as communal clashes or while writing about aspects as it is?
First of all, is 'the truth above all else' a rule exclusive to the West? I don't think so. However, I do believe that the truth is a clear imperative in journalism everywhere. The role of the journalist is to inform and shed light on an issue or an event, not to opine or obscure.

You have been a writer for a long time. Do you still get a buzz from it?
Absolutely. There is nothing else I'd rather be doing.

Which Indian writers do you rate as world class and why?
If you mean by 'world class' that they are able to transcend in their writing international and cultural boundaries, and have an ability to raise universal consciousness, there are quite a few. Tagore, Naipaul and Rushdie are three off the top of my head, although of course there are others who have been, are, or will be.

Where do you see Indian writing in English 25 years down the road?
I'm not a fortune-teller, but I believe we will see, as we have in Indian painting, a departure from obsession either with the West (positive or negative) or with self, and a coming-of-age over the next 25 years. I think this will happen with those writing in English as well as those writing in the vernacular.

Mascarenhas is a consulting editor, columnist and novelist, the author of the best-selling novel, Skin, Penguin India's first fiction title of 2001. She was the assistant editor of Marg Publications before she became the managing editor of Mega-city. Later she worked as a features stringer for Reuters (Asia); contributing writer/interviewer for Sunday magazine (now defunct), Fundacao Oriente Magazine, India Today, The Times of India; book editor and Supreme Court petition editor for the Other India Press (affiliated to an environmental NGO known as Goa Foundation); writer and editor for a number of individuals (fiction and non-fiction).

She continues as a book editor for The Other India Press. She used to be weekly columnist for Gomantak Times. She is an occasional contributor to other domestic and international publications, as well as net publications (India Today, Verve, The Navhind Times, Femina, Goa Today, Outlook, The Times of India and Herald). She also conducts a number of creative writing workshops, during the year.

She is an American citizen who grew up in Venezuela, went to college in the US and currently divides her time between Goa and California. She is working on her new book, Passion Fruit. She can be contacted atmasc@goatelecom.com

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