Until a couple of days back, the abiding image of Deepika Kumari was of a smiling, giggling young girl who seemingly didn't care that things were going anything but swimmingly at the London Olympics last year. Deepika, then just 17, had already established herself as one of the premier archers in the world, and stood a realistic chance of winning a medal at the Olympic Games. But neither she nor the Indian team lived up to expectation, crashing out in a blaze of errors after allowing nerves to have the final say.
It irked many that even as her campaign was coming apart, Deepika joked around with her teammates. Few were willing to concede that her behaviour stemmed from embarrassment and from having let herself, her team and her country down. She was hurting badly; the laughs and the giggles were a nervous manifestation of her inner turmoil. It wasn't as if she didn't have pride or commitment. And while it didn't necessarily make for very pleasant viewing, the perception that she didn't care that she had shot so badly couldn't have been farther from the truth.
Having laughed her way through defeat, Deepika last week was driven to tears after victory. They weren't tears of joy, mind you. Those tears stemmed from hurt of a different kind, triggered by the insensitivity of a media corps that, in its desperate desire for 'exclusive' interviews, showed utter, callous, complete disregard for a champion performer's wishes.
Deepika, Rimil Buruily and L Bombayla Devi returned to New Delhi early last Tuesday, having felled the mighty Koreans in the final of the archery World Cup in Poland on Sunday. Emotionally drained after a titanic struggle in the title clash and fatigued as they flew in from one time zone to another, they were to touch down in the national capital, attend a felicitation function and then fly out to Aurangabad for the national camp.
While top officials from the Archery Association of India were conspicuously absent when the team landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, mediapersons were out in full force, television cameras jostling for prime positions and reporters shoving mikes down the throats of the champion trio. This jamboree spilled over to the felicitation ceremony as well, at the end of which every news channel present wanted exclusive interviews with Deepika, clearly the star of the team.
Deepika pleaded with them, agreed to do a press conference, pointed out that she was short on time. All very reasonably. But no, the watchdogs of the society would have none of it. They wanted their exclusives. Hey, we are doing you a favour, you know. How dare you not talk to me? And to me? And to me, too?
It is no secret that the media is the bridge between the celebrity and the common man. The media, as is self-explanatory, is the medium through which champions interact with the public, expressing their views, talking about the challenges they had to overcome along the arduous path to success, the highs of victory and the dismaying lows of defeat. But that doesn't mean the media has the right to ride roughshod over anyone. We have a responsibility. Even in this so-called ultra-competitive world, we have no business jettisoning sensitivity, respect for others, and our human face. It's a message that is, often and extremely sadly, totally lost on a tribe hoist with its own petard.
Also in the last week, the Indian Under-23 cricket team returned home with the ACC Emerging Teams Cup, having felled arch rivals Pakistan in the final at Singapore. Again, the media converged to welcome the heroes, managing quotes from Suryakumar Yadav, the captain, and a couple of other players. Everyone loves a winner, of course. But media memory, like public memory, is so short that practically no one turned up to welcome the India A team, which had won a tri-nation tournament in South Africa but ended a reasonably successful tour with defeat in the final match of the tour, a four-day fixture, against South Africa A. After all, why would I want to talk to the vanquished, right?
Not so slowly and most undeniably, the media as an entity is moving towards dangerous ground. In its great desire to jump on the success bandwagon, it is beginning to develop false notions about its own place in the larger scheme of things. There is a certain sense of 'I have given you publicity, so I own you' that is creeping in, which does no one any credit at all. And in this quest for ownership, we spare no one - not the established superstar, and most certainly not the emerging talents that might go on to become the superstars of tomorrow.
Watching Deepika being hounded took me some 11 years back in time, to the scenes outside the old HAL airport in Bangalore. It was very early in the morning, 0400 hours or so, when Anil Kumble stepped out, his jaw wired, quite clearly bushed after the long haul from the Caribbean via London. His wife and mother had come to receive him, both of them in distress after having seen Kumble cop a blow from Mervyn Dillon that broke his jaw, but not his spirit as he came back on to bowl with his face swathed in bandages to trap Brian Lara leg before.
A colleague and I had gone, like many other reporters, to see if we could manage a quote or two out of him - yes, very insensitive, I agree - but as we saw the TV cameras converge upon him and the mikes shooting out towards his face, we positively blanched. One mike stopped perhaps a perilous inch away from his broken jaw, cameramen elbowed one another, reporters screamed out questions, almost angrily demanding replies. Kumble kept his cool - he had no energy left, either, to vent his emotions - and walked on, gingerly making his way through the horde to get into his car. It set us thinking - why can't we take no for an answer? Is it asking too much to respect the individual and let him be, especially given the circumstances? Is the rat race really worth giving up our values for?
This isn't intended to be a rant or a tirade against television, or TV journalists. Several reporters from news channels are very good friends and perform their duties with integrity, sincerity and commitment despite the outrageous demands from their superiors. But like with the auto rickshaw drivers, the majority tends to get tarred with the same brush as the competition-driven, demanding minority. As the fourth estate, it is our duty to reach our 'subject' - another insensitive term, that - and facilitate his connect with the layman. But it is also our duty to do so with a little bit of respect, without stepping on peoples' toes and without invading on their private space. Otherwise, we will end up with many more Deepikas, their moments of triumphal pride marred beyond repair.