Footnotes from the ledge

From the film 'The Sweet Smell of Success'

Years ago, a web portal I wrote for in the nascent stages of news and views on the Net in India, decided that it needed a footnote for its columnists. I was accustomed to ones that simply said I was “a freelance journalist” (I crack up when I read “independent columnist” – independent from what, of what, by what? Is that not to be taken for granted?) to the smart “refuses to sit on the fence” (it worked against me after 11 years of continuous writing of that column when I was told I was too independent and don’t take briefs!) to a phrase taken from my blog: “has a healthy disregard for objectivity”.

So, back to that e-portal. As some of you know, I could not imagine ‘writing’ for anything that did not scrunch in my hands. I did not even have a computer. One day, out of curiosity, I was at a friend’s office and casually mentioned this column. We reached the destination and as I scrolled down on my discovery trip, I reached that precious footnote. It was in red, italicised. It said that I, FV, was an “iconoclast”.

I froze. Images of me as Che Guevara flashed on several T-shirts. This was serious, and after a few seconds I was pretty much on the floor laughing, and ROFL was not yet known to us. From that vantage position where I had to look my iconoclastic best, I asked my friend whether he agreed with me that it was a stupid idea; he did. And made it sound more ominous: “It might appear as though you are saying it.”

This is the problem. It is more likely that publications decide. However, the newer lot ask you to send “two-three lines describing yourself”. I once wrote a horribly cheeky one and was told it did not go well with the content.

Sealing my fate!
When I became a serious op-ed addict during college, I recall reading pieces that were written with care for both language and thought. Some were ponderous, no doubt, but many were challenging. For me, this is the purpose of a good edit piece. There was space enough to explore ideas, and not the need to compress because there has to be place for ‘likes’, ‘share’, ‘send’. I understand this is the way to connect, but when some publications ask you to send SMSes to say whether you liked or did not like the column, it is a bit much. The writing becomes another product. Unfortunately, these days it often is.

But I did not know who those writers were. Celebrities and those from other fields had not taken over the business of holding forth on what they were doing. This does not work as ‘inside’ information or adds any authenticity, for they too are writing for an audience and have their own biases.

Do readers care about the qualifications of the columnist? It is a bubble theory. It looks good until you prick it. And the pricking is just giving it a good look-over.

However, mostly the footnote works as a promo for people in different professions. I had once taken a swipe at someone mentioning how his CV exceeded the word limit. It was, therefore, good to read on the ‘Self importance of names and titles’ in Pakistan’s Express Tribune as to how the whole description business has gone overboard. When I was writing for them, I had half a mind adding, “The writer has a degree in Vampirism from the University of Dracula”. (Incidentally, third-person descriptions are supposed to look objective; they make me feel schizophrenic.)

Quite a few publications have these long rambling bottomlines, and most of their columnists are so darned third-degreed, all from the best universities. A good university ideally teaches you to explore, not flaunt knowledge.

We never read any mention of a degree from Gujranwala or Chhatisgarh. Reveals our colonial mindset and, dare I say, adds weight to the publication's reputation. They could probably have a roll-call of Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard types, all with halos. If they can take global roundabouts and quote Greek mythology in Latin phrases with a slight nod to desi lingo, then chances are that more people will notice because snob and blob value go together. They are like the always-open KFC outlets.

The other peeve regarding "X is a former something or the other" reveals our absolute obeisance to the past. Instead of wondering why s/he even at the prime has been rendered redundant, it imbues the individual with the gravitas required of a know-it-all. Much like a divorce might make a discussion on marriage legitimate. If the 'formerhood' has been achieved after much toil, then it works like a tiger's head poking out of the wall.

Now, chances are that if the writer were not a "political economist" or some such and just another bloke with something to say, a piece questioning such self-importance would not have gone through the thinker's pose of editorial discretion.

PS: I posted the last three paras at the website with a footnote that said “~A former ET columnist with several degrees of separation”. It’s still awaiting moderation after hours! (Finally published after 12 hours.)

© Farzana Versey

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