Circus maximus

IN Media Practice | 27/08/2004

A recent poll conducted by liveDaily claimed two-thirds of Americans support televised executions. Little wonder that a US federal appeals court had to intervene and uphold the state`s right to ban videotaping inside Missouri`s execution chamber.

Back home, one wished some of our channels were allowed to cover the execution live. At least, motion pictures couldn’t have done more damage to the viewers’ sensitivity than what creative efforts to compensate for the absence of footage, did. Channels conjured up animation graphics _ something you struggle to keep your kids away from _ recreating the rape and murder and, later, depicting the hanging procedure for hungry eyeballs. News anchors repeatedly asked correspondents, dripping with early morning drizzle outside the prison wall, how Dhananjoy was feeling on his way to the gallows. Some unfazed correspondents even played psychic and legitimised such crudity by attempting dumb guesses. In true Sriharikota style, most channels gave viewers an excited countdown to the scheduled execution. One wonders why we were spared the customary fireworks at the zero hour.

How does he act then? It must be easy/

For him. Anything is easy for a hangman.../

Nata tied himself in knots. Never in his life was he given such a long rope. The media wanted its plot complete. The dignified silence of Hetal Parekh’s family cut short its options. For the revenge tragedy, Dhananjoy’s folks offered the tragic bit all right. But the news sop demanded its instrument of justice. Nata didn’t have a choice. Plunged into shoes too huge to fill in, he was first inflated to an anti-hero, and then invariably morphed into a sad jester.

At one go, Nata was expected to dish out three vital elements for the daily bulletin drama _ the macabre, the comic and the tragic. The last bit Nata had introduced himself. He badly needed a job in the family. But even the greatest of performers would find it more than challenging to juggle successfully with three emotions so distinct as these. Nata was just a hangman.

His ultimate challenge was to dodge the tag of a greedy, soulless villain. In a live phone-in Bengali TV show hosted by Suman Chatterjee (Bengal’s Bob Dylan, for the uninitiated), he literally sang his heart out: (Very loosely translated) What will be, will be… please don’t blame me…/

I disagree with Carl Sandburg. It was not easy for Nata Mullik _ not as easy as pulling the lever _ to handle so much of media attention.

I feel the chaos, nourishing and expelling me from myself…/

"I didn`t rejoice in his death but for the first time I did feel safe…" No one can miss the point Debbie Morris  _ rape victim on whose case the Sean Penn (Robert Lee Willie) and Susan Sarandon movie Dead Man Walking was based _ made after Willie was convicted. Elizabeth Harvey, mother of Faith Colleen Hathaway _ the other rape victim in the movie _ passionately advocates death penalty: "If you don`t want to be executed then don`t commit the crime. It`s that simple. You can decide whether you commit that crime or not but a victim can never decide whether they are a victim or not."

Ever since she met Robert Willie, Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon in the movie) has been campaigning against capital punishment:  "When people are given alternatives to the death penalty _ where they are assured that a person will stay in prison for life _ support for the death penalty radically drops. I know that the desire for safety and being protected from real dangerous people is something that drives really good decent people about the death penalty. It`s not that people want to be vengeful or to kill people. They want to be safe from them."

Whatever stand you take, compelling feelings, all. But the impromptu debate at home involved brute jingoism and two fast-swelling crowds _ barring a handful of sane inDIViduals whose voices got lost in the chaos _ taking up pro and anti-death penalty stances on sentimental grounds. On the one hand you had elements from the radical Left and the confused intelligentsia  _ defanged and frustrated in Buddha’s Bengal _ who easily identified capital punishment as a sexy symbol of the establishment that can be opposed for ego satisfaction without risking the ire of the state machinery. Locking horns with them were the pseudo-moral official Left and the custodians of the middle class _ increasingly insecure and unified in the urban ghettos of Kolkata _ who did not mind baying for blood in the name of securing the honour and dignity of bhadramahila. The resulting chaos was deafening but it could still have been worse if Mahashweta Devi had decided to take on Bengal’s first lady in a public debate. Fortunately, she was probably too disgusted and tired to care./

…Forgot if we ourselves had done/

A great or little thing, /

And watched with gaze of dull amaze/

The man who had to swing.

Given half a chance, I won’t read Oscar Wilde. Not anymore. But a young poet from Calcutta reminded me of The Ballad of Reading Goal. Granted, Dhananjoy had raped and killed, he asked me over phone, but how can we so casually judge him without ever bothering to look at ourselves? This was a day before the man had to swing.

Dhananjoy waited for 14 years. Mumia Abu-Jamal waited for 18 years for execution after killing a Philadelphia police officer. He wrote two books _ Live From Death Row (1995) and Death Blossoms (1997) _ from behind the bars to tell his side of the story. Dhananjoy only repeated three words _ I am innocent _ for 14 years. Was he really innocent? We will never know. But each of us passed our judgments on him long before the Supreme Court or the President of India did. Worst, we wrote his last days the way each of us liked.

A week back, I had called up my cousin only to discover how Victor Hugo was suddenly in demand and how erudite Bengalis were busy mugging up arguments from The Last Days Of A Condemned Man. A colleague in a Bengali news channel went hysterical describing how he was summoned by his neighbourhood kids to settle their debate over which Bhagat Singh movie had the most authentic execution scene. My old aunt, who misses me round the year, called up to ask why I was not flying down to Calcutta to cover such a momentous event.

Last weekend, walking out the newsroom, I wasn’t too keen to look through the noose. "Done," the cops said. "Filed," the correspondent mailed. "Splash," the editor decreed. The desk sized it up, cribbed a bit for its length, and slapped it on page one. I glanced at the headline and fired the page to the press. I was getting impatient for a smoke.

The man wouldn’t make news anymore. I lit up. Let Hugo be damned. I smoke. They killed a dead man.

"Ah! nevertheless, it is horrible!"


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