Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

By N.A. Bhatti

[Winner of the 1987 Best Column English and recipient of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) award presented by Benazir Bhutto]

The ‘forum’ of July 11 “carries a letter to the editor placed at the top of the column: Ban men’s finals as well.”  Signed “A Cynic,” the letter suggests that Pakistan Television should stop telecasting the Men’s Wimbledon Finals since their earlier telecast of the Women’s Tennis Finals had caused deleterious effects on our (meaning men’s, I take it) morality.  A tit for tat policy or, as the bureaucratic jargon goes, mutatis mutandis application of anti-obscenity laws.

“What is truth?” asked jesting Piiate, and did not wait for an answer.  “What is obscenity?” asked jesting journalists and wait for an answer that is not yet forthcoming even from those who have been shouting themselves hoarse over the issue.  Is obscenity an international problem or a purely Pakistani affair to be legislated on by our own law-makers?  Does the quantum of obscenity in any particular act or gesture vary in a particular action?  These and hundreds of similar doubts keep harassing the minds of thousands of law-abiding journalists like us who hate the very thought of being at the receiving end of a leather-braided lash wielded by a gorilla in short pants.

Although I don’t subscribe to the philosophy of the ancient Athenian sect of Cynics, I do second “A Cynic’s” proposal to ban not only telecasting the Men’s Wimbledon Finals but all such events that are liable to corrupt the morals of Pakistani women.  I support him to the hilt when he suggests that if PTV is allowed to get away with it, it could be an indication that our womenfolk are rather impassive and can withstand such attacks on the moral sense.  In fact, I am afraid that they have already been immunized to a great extent.  Permit me to produce evidence.

Ordinarily, a man scratching his crotch at a public function would be considered a badmash even if the poor fellow is suffering from scabies; and he may even risk being run into the cop shop if some Hudood specialist happens to be around.  But dress the same man in gleaming white cricketing rig, transport him to the cricket pitch in Old Stafford, Sharjah or wherever, and put a cricket ball into his hands.  Millions of excited viewers are glued to their TV sets watching their idol Umlaut Khan all set to demolish the opposition’s batsmen one by one thus winning one more feather in Pakistan’s cap.

Here he comes from the pavilion end with a look of cool determination, glancing about to see the fans who have been lucky to come all the way to watch their hero perform.  But say, what’s itching him?  I mean, literally.  It appears to be some kind of acute pruritus requiring immediate attention by a dermatologist.  He is rubbing the inside of his thigh with the cricket ball and he keeps it up until he is ready for the taxi-ing and take off.  The womenfolk scream with ecstasy as the bails go flying.  Every ball delivered is preceded by the same ritual that is nothing short of an obscene gesture.  Where are the cops?  The law-makers?  The fighters for feminine rights?  Cheering Umlaut Khan and probably waiting for the opportunity to mob him with autograph books.

Let’s switch over to the other TV channel.  Aha!  American Wrestling Championship!

“In this corner, ladies and gentlemen, the Delaware Dinosaur, two hundred and forty-five pounds of tungsten steel, and in this corner, folks, we have the Kentucky Killer, all of two hundred and sixty pounds of dynamite…” booms the character holding the mike.  The adversaries dance around for a few moments before getting locked into a tight embrace.  Soon there is a scene of two hundred and forty-five pounds of obscene flesh, bone and muscle, undistinguishable from another two hundred and sixty pounds of even more obscene flesh, bone and muscle: an obscene scene if there ever was.  All in the name of American culture, of course.  So why shouldn’t Pakistani womenfolk get thrilled as the Delaware Dinosaur and the Kentucky Killer proceed to bash the living hell out of each other?  I hope you get “A Cynic’s” point: don’t you?

All this is rather controversial and might inflame your tempers, so I think I’ll regale you with a true anecdote of half-a-century ago when I used to freelance for a newspaper, the Hong Kong Telegraph.  The idea is to show in what an awkward situation a journalist may find himself when dealing with the subject of obscenity.

My friend and I, both freshly out of the University, thought it fine to do some journalism to earn a bit on the side.  We used to snoop around the city as cub reporters, separately, of course, looking for news that may have escaped the attention of the regular news hounds.  One day I noticed that young Rodriguez was nowhere in evidence, and on inquires I learned that he was in a spot of trouble.  He had covered the inauguration of a school of Yoga started by a Hindu ascetic who had drifted into Hong Kong from Bombay and had given a public demonstration of his capabilities.  Sort of public relationing exercise before he started his school.  Not realizing that the word ‘navel’ was considered obscene then, Rodriguez had included in his write-up, the sentence:

“There, clad only in his scanty loin-cloth, sat Ramaswami, cross-legged, contemplating his navel.”

The Night Editor, a product of Victorian prudery, then the hallmark of decent English society, noticed the blunder and ordered the offensive word to be deleted.

“But the type has already been set, Sir.”

“I don’t care.  Get a chisel and cut it out.”

The order was faithfully complied with before the presses started to roll and the situation was saved.  Or was it?  The next morning the Hong Kong Telegraph contained an interesting feature about Yogi Ramaswami, by far the most interesting and eyebrow-raising part of it being the sentence:

“There, clad only in his scanty loin-cloth, sat Ramaswami, cross-legged, contemplating his ….”

The Editor, a most loyal and faithful subject of the late Queen Victoria, was (as she too would have been) definitely not amused and had the Night Editor along with Rodriguez on the editorial mat.  Naturally, sparks flew but all ended well.  However, I remember Rodriguez’s whispered remarks when we met later in the day:  “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!  What a bloody hell of a life for a journalist!”

I hoped the Editor hadn’t overheard him for the three more “obscenities” he had just uttered!

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