“If you ever get a taste of power, you’ll know how difficult it is to balance competing interests”

Book review: That’s News To Me by Manjula Lal

In the Acknowldgements she calls it ‘negative’ style fiction. But I call it ‘real fiction’. When you do something for close to four decades, it’s probably the only thing you know as well as the back of your hands. And that’s what this book is all about.

Manjula Lal has spent her entire life in and out of media houses. I don’t think she has missed out on major ones in the country at least, besides the fact she’s been editing books for that long too.

For people like me, who know her through her work, she’s someone who comes with impeccable English. She does not shirk from expressing her scepticism and that’s why I like her style. She is among the earlier breed of editors who don’t fiddle with the writer’s style, they simply enhance the write-up.

Among the few who look at things as they stand, Manjula has fleshed out the characters really well. Manush is probably manushya (in Hindi it means human being) and that’s what he does throughout the book — goes through his life like a human being. He’s an editor, a good journalist and, of course, had all kinds of relationship troubles. Could be just an ordinary guy, but then this is the kind who’s always searching for work and that’s what happens to him too. There’s sex, there’s drama, there’s pain, there’s sleazy characters and there’s the eternal Hindi-English war, which is why it has all the masala for a commercial thriller.

In crafting out a simple novel, Manjula has brought out all situations that happen in a media office and perhaps in other offices too. People wear masks, their offices wear masks and bylines and picture sizes are so important. The world of publishing is about the number of pages, the size of the picture and how that material can be used for gain. And then there’s the world of cut-throats where talent is constantly cut down. The docile and the mediocre sit and take decisions; the genius is on a roller coaster ride because no on wants their light to fall upon the paper. Their impactful words and style gets them into trouble with the ordinary ones too often. That’s classic office politics and in the powerful world of media, this is even more powerful. There are shady deals, shady tracks and egoistic bosses and then there are the capitalists. The ideals lie in the books and those books are probably lost now.

Manjula has touched upon all this like a master editor that she is, built scene after scene, tracing the footsteps of the powerful and the mighty and the fallen through the life of the protagonist Manush.

Manush is lucky enough to land grand positions but always tends to lose them. He works and he tends to lose work because he works. Then there are hindi-belt editors who enter into the more classy world of English magazines to feel important. There are the bloodsuckers hiding behind the mask of friendly souls. They fleece international junkets, work on communal riots using young interns, promote deals under the table to further their interests and then there are bosses who fire because their material gains are compromised with real stories.

Right from the grand front office to disputed buildings and powerful men promoting their interests to journalists looking to pocket money and freebies, the book goes through every layer that rests in the corridors of power or should I say corridors of lost ideologies.

Manjula has moved between the world of Delhi-Noida-Gurgaon which most urban readers can relate to and the phrases are what most office-goers can connect to.

“The talented lot went about their work without bothering too much about their bosses.” Clichéd but true!

Websites are ‘airy-fairy’, Hindi newspapers have ‘thousands of readers’. The ‘Queen’s language’ is a powerful tool to flaunt around. And Urdu is a language known to few, so the man at the helm takes advantage by writing fluff. Ministers are blackmailed and scoops are dug out from random informers. Millenials don’t think much of soft porn, reshuffling content to suit current trends is okay. The soul of the eastern world lies in the banks of the western world. And that’s what websites feed on and this is why it’s okay to let the US-based gun mafia gain ground in India by writing stories that promote the interests of people who wish to make money from warfare.

Despite these harsh truths, the end does boil down to finding a good relationship and normalising life. Even as Manush faces the predicament of losing ground at work, he thinks “If he and Avantika reconciled, he would be purged of the guilt that was making him miserable.”

Read the book if you are new to journalism, read it if you want to get into journalism, or read it because you want to learn good English and forget the SMS coding that seems to have taken over our world. Or read it because it takes just two hours to finish and it’s so well constructed that you feel like you are in well-edited movie.

Available: Amazon, Flipkart and other book sites; Price: INR 275, $9.99, Publisher: Readomania; Pages: 222

India-based journalist, photographer and videographer, worked with Outlook Traveller, Swagat and written for patriot.in. Mail: ambicagulati@gmail.com