The hour of imagination

BY Raghu Karnad| IN Opinion | 11/09/2009
Increasingly, news events are characterized by the Hour of Imagination, the period in which the hyperbolic and the spectacular are possible, before drab facts force themselves onto the scene.
RAGHU KARNAD revisits the fantasies the media spun when YSR’s helicopter went missing. Pix: the Nallamala hills.

YS Rajashekar Reddy was lost in a helicopter over Kurnool district, and for twenty four hours his condition was a mystery. The eulogies were ready by the time his death was confirmed, the next morning, but he was not a simple subject for an overnight eulogy.


His death is enormously significant, but this does not mean his life was very interesting • at least, not obviously interesting in a way that the eulogists could work with. Middle-class medical college to district youth committee to Vidhan Sabha to state cabinet to Lok Sabha to Chief Minister: his political career was textbook, and exactly as gripping as one, without a whiff of sex, and no more than the usual reek of violence or dodgy dealings. He was no Modi, Maya or Mamata; why, he wasn¿t even as colourful as Chandrababu Naidu.

Fortunately, his death was spectacular.

To die in an aviation accident is a very suitable way for promising politicans to go (anybody named Kennedy; Netaji Bose, Sanjay Gandhi, Madhavrao Scindia and, also in Andhra, two-time Lok Sabha Speaker Ganti Balayogi). It provides headline pun-ops (I'm waiting for: "Without YSR at controls, Congress¿ soaring prospects in a tailspin", "¿The sky was, literally, the limit¿: Deputy CM"). If the aircraft is lost at sea, it invites the possibility of a secret survival. But most of all, an aviation accident provides a few breath-holding hours between the loss of contact and the proof of death, during which all speculation is valid, and the most awesome possible version of the story gets told.

In the present case, it went something like this: Naxals lie in wait in the Nagarjuna Sagar-Srisailam Reserve, a "Maoist hotbed" (IANS). With information about the CM¿s flight path, they mount an ambush from treetop positions along an elevated ridge. Taking down YSR would be the first in a series of critical strikes, which would include Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram. Alternatively, they will take YSR hostage (ET).

Unsteady in heavy rain and zero visibility, the ancient Bell 430 noses up to the ridge at a low speed. Using a tip from their copy of "Guerilla Air Defense: Anti-aircraft weapons and techniques for guerilla forces," the Maoists target the whizzing blades with light arms fire, which riccochets into the engine and the machinery of the helicopter (Mid-Day). The tail rotor is the first to fail and the chopper begins to torque wildly, like in the movies. But the experienced Capt SK Bhatia is able to manoevre it away from the ridge and land it spattering violently into the treetops.


Nallamala. The Black Hills. The passengers gather their wits and take off into the dense jungle. The Maoists are converging on the crash site, but in the downpour the CM and his companions are able to evade them. But in the darkness of the Nalamalla forests lurk greater threats: "What is known for sure," says the ToI darkly, "is that the forest is tiger territory."


Back in civilization, when radar- and radio-contact is lost, the state initiates search-and-rescue "on a war footing." It mobilizes commandos of the Army Southern Command, the Andhra police, the Forest Service, the CRPF, Sukhoi fighter jets and even the "primitive tribe of Chenchus, who hunt with bows and arrows" (ToI).


But plunging blindly through the 'tiger-infested Andhra jungle' (ToI), the man who, for his fierce and undisputed political nature, was known as the Tiger of  Cudappah, stumbles upon an actual tiger of Kurnool…


I don¿t meant to make light of this event, but imagine my crashing disappointment (no pun intended) when the debris of the helicopter was discovered 70 km east of Kurnool, not within the actual Tiger Reserve at all. It appears to have simply flown into the side of a hill. The forest in this area is not "dense jungle," but dry deciduous forest blending into scrub. The official tiger count in the Reserve is around 60, but there are probably half that number, so the CM was in greater danger of being mauled by a sloth bear, tripping over an Indian pangolin or being skewered by a nervous Chenchu.


Journalists are theoretically dependant on facts, but some newspapers really thrive on ambiguity. Observe their efforts to tiptoe around the National Security Advisor¿s early announcement that a Naxal attack had been ruled out (to be fair, the NSA did not address the question of tigers). Mid-Day, like a comic using one side of his mouth to contradict the other, ran a report on the NSA¿s statement followed by another on a "disturbing top-secret report available exclusively with MiD DAY (which) indicates otherwise." The "disturbing" report provides the best tactical detail about the insinuated Maoist attack on YSR¿s copter (light arms fire "to target the blade of the chopper," etc.) So if the Maoists of Kurnool didn¿t know before, they ought to know now.


Increasingly, news events are characterized -- and, to a significant extent, defined -- by the Hour of Imagination, the period in which the hyperbolic and the spectacular are possible, before drab facts force themselves onto the scene. Sometimes the Hour of Imagination lasts for weeks, and we can really get into a perverse fantasy of incest between Aarushi and her father. For many people, the imagined becomes the permanent account of how something went down (no pun intended) and undoubtedly many of the Andhra Congress cadre will remember YSR as a martyr of the battle against Naxalism.


All in all, in this case the Hour of Imagination was harmless, and really quite stimulating. Hyperactive TV and newspapers aren¿t going anywhere, so we need to learn to recognize when we¿re in the Hour of Imagination, and we should also probably learn to enjoy it. The ToI didn¿t actually come out and say that YSR was in danger from tigers, they just gestured (repeatedly) towards that realm, and allowed us to go there ourselves. Because that's the realm, of course, where we¿d prefer to be living.






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