Why Japanese Encephalitis is Not a Sexy Story
Kiran Kumari had been sick for more than a week. Now, lying on her back in a sweltering, overcrowded hospital ward, the skinny 11-year-old with the copper-streaked hair had lapsed into unconsciousness and could no longer breathe on her own. So her father was breathing for her.Sitting on the edge of her thin mattress, his face a taut mask of exhaustion, the destitute farmworker rhythmically squeezed a football-sized plastic ventilator with his callused hands, forcing air into her lungs with every pump.Such life-saving duties are normally left to professionals, but in this case, there were not enough to go around. Over the last two months, hospitals in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh have been overwhelmed by Japanese encephalitis, a viral infection that has sickened more than 2,000 children and killed nearly 600, making it one of the deadliest outbreaks of the disease on record in India.
And how he ends it:
Despite their exhaustion, Kumari's parents and sister kept substituting for each other on the ventilator, refusing to give up hope. It was no use. On Thursday morning, they and their daughter were nowhere to be found, and another sick child had taken her bed.
A doctor said the girl had died at 5:15 a.m.
(No, that won't do, you must read the whole of it.)
Why do you never find a story written so grippingly in an Indian paper or magazine? All you will find are official releases converted into five single-sentence paragraphs.
At the most you will find an Express frontpage story like this one, but even this is too racy.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Indian print journalists don't seem to be very fond of a craft called narrative journalism, which, by the way, is the reason for Reader's Digest's undying popularity. Mark Kramer of the prestigious Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism describes it as "journalism that doesn't assume the reader is a robot, that acknowledges the reader knows lots and feels and snickers and gets wild." Narrative, he says:
denotes writing with (A) set scenes, (B) characters, (C) action that unfolds over time, (D) the interpretable voice of a teller -- a narrator with a somewhat discernable personality -- and (E) some sense of relationship to the reader, viewer or listener, which, all arrayed, (F) lead the audience toward a point, realization or destination.
Lancaster's story above may not exactly be the best example of the craft, but it employs those techniques.
Secondly, Aman tells me that these great Western papers have sub-editors on the desk who are a thousand times more skilled than our deskies who consider "subbing" a drudgery. Their sub-eds turn around a copy so skillfully that even the reporter who filed it cannot recognise it.
Now try telling Jain & Jain that doing something like this could increase the time their readers spend 'reading' the Slimes of India.
[PS: Googling for this post made me discover this amazing e-zine!]