On September 21, 1995, several parts of the country claimed witness to what was apparently a religious miracle – the imbibing of milk by idols of Ganesha and, to a lesser degree, Shiva and Parvati. In what was probably post-liberalisation India’s most widespread rumour to date, thousands of devotees queued up outside temples both within and outside the country to make their offerings to the idols. Word probably went out from New Delhi (as with all rumour, there was no firm identification of its origin) and quickly spread to Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta, Thiruvananthapuram and Ahmedabad, among others. The scientific explanation for the phenomenon seemed to have few takers as the throngs outside temples grew through the day.
The frenzy spread even to shrines as far removed as Long Island, London and Hong Kong. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, however, the rumour suddenly died out and by September 23, it had come to be widely regarded as just another urban aberration.
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This Comment seeks to review the media coverage of, and participation in, this event, laying particular emphasis on its twin traits of anonymity and transitivity. It also examines the peculiar relationship between the media, news, and rumour. At no point is the word ‘rumour’ used derogatively. While appreciating the role of rumour as an informal mode of communication, the Comment seeks to contextualize the role of the media as rumour-monger in the urban sphere. The “phenomenon” itself was trashed widely, both at its inception and at its height, by the scientific community. Surface tension and capillary action were revealed as being the mundane physics behind the working of the “miracle”. What is much more fascinating than the arguments about the authenticity of the phenomenon, however, is its immense scale and speed.
Veena Das surmises that the essential grammatical feature of rumour is that it is conceived to be spread. She points out the importance of rumour as a social discourse as stemming from its enunciative and performative aspects. In rumour, words are transformed from being merely a medium of communication to being instruments of action, taking on a perlocutionary force where the very act of saying something is an action.
The acoustic, rather than graphic, realization of rumour enhances this functional immediacy, according to Guha. He sees rumour, like Levi-Strauss, as an autonomous type of popular discourse which lies between the two poles of tale and myth, but which shares their common feature of ambiguity. Guha differentiates rumour from “news” by (i) the identifiability of the source, which does not exist in a rumour, and (ii) the distinction between the communicator and the audience. No such distinction in rumours which are passed on “from teller to hearer who himself becomes teller” – an instance of absolute transitivity. Encoding and decoding of rumour becomes collapsed, unlike news, at each point of its relay. Guha also says that anonymity gives rumour its openness, and transitivity gives it its freedom. Being of unknown origin, rumour is not impaled on a given meaning for good in the same way as a discourse with a pedigree often is.
But the general anonymity and transitivity of rumour do not by themselves explain the sheer momentum of transmission of the Ganesha Miracle . This is perhaps better understood by examining the role of the media in “reporting”, and thereby participating in, the transmission of rumour. Due to its easy reproducibility, some journalists based their reports on their own experiments. The Times of India, for instance, carried a story on the 22nd of September entitled “Experiments conducted to unravel the mystery”, which said that a spoonful of water held against the spout of an ordinary jug had also disappeared. The report was quick to admit, though, that it did not “question what happened in the various temples”.
Other newspapers took an even more sceptical view of the proceedings, with The Pioneer actually publishing a photograph of a spout emerging from the back of a temple from which milk poured into a bucket. However, certain newspapers in Britain couldn’t seem to get enough of the “milk miracle”. “In 24 hours, 10,000 saw it drink”, reported The London Times on its front page. “I gazed in awe,” confessed the reporter from the tabloid The Daily Star; while his rival from The Sun “gawped in disbelief”.
The visual appeal of the phenomenon also earned it several TV news hours. Doordarshan, in keeping with its avowed “educative” goals, provided an ocular debunking of the miracle on the very same day, with telling footage of a shoe-smith feeding milk to his tripod, organised by scientists from the CSIR (Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research). Other major television channels and programmes, however, adopted a more ambivalent stance towards the “milk-drinking wonder” in their coverage.
Undoubtedly the media was not the only, or even the primary, disseminator of news (“news”?) of the miracle. Networks of communication mobilised included long-distance telephones and the then-rudimentary e-mail services, which were crucial in the information reaching the large expat population in Britain as quickly as it did. However the role of the media in lending credence to the rumour, especially visually, should not be underestimated. Guha speaks of how rumour separates prophecies from other linguistic messages by attributing to them an authoritativeness derived from the elevated status of their speakers and hence bestows on them the significance of truth – essentially textualizing them and making them distinguishable from other non-texts. Much the same process occurs when the mass media take on the task of “reporting” an unverified (and seemingly un-verifiable) story.
Print and television journalists are exceedingly careful in reporting unverified rumours, especially when the coverage could inflame communal or sectarian passions, or create “unnecessary” panic (as in the case of the Monkeyman). However the Ganesha Miracle, in a manner very uncharacteristic of rumour, was a celebratory rumour – one that was putative proof of divine existence and intervention in human affairs. The conventional restraint that the media exhibited seemed, hence, to make way for celebration of the occurrence of the Event. (After all, it’s not everyday that you can report that you fed a God.) For some, therefore, “objective and fair” journalism didn’t stand a chance before good old-fashioned religious fervour.
The perlocutionary aspect of rumour that Das speaks of then acquires new meaning in this context of media-endorsed rumour. Even when newspapers or television channels actively sought to debunk the rumour, they still talked about it, effectively endowing it with a degree of importance and credibility. The very mention of the rumour by the authoritative voices of print and broadcast media was hence perlocutionary in nature, becoming an act of giving the rumour the currency (and in the case of television, the visibility) that it demanded.
The distinction drawn by Guha between “news” and rumour, resting on the anonymity and transitivity of rumour, is then open to question. The media in reporting a rumour (in whatever manner – concurring or dissenting) does not automatically become the “source” of the news. Neither does it always become accountable for the accuracy of the rumour itself. The anonymity of the rumour does not necessarily cease with its reportage by the media. The transitivity, while undergoing a slight alteration, does not completely end either. The media, by virtue of its normative role as news-analyst, might perform a slightly more significant mediative role than the conventional “hearer-teller” of a rumour, but this per se does not do away with the transitivity.
“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” Guha quotes Barthes to substantiate his argument that rumour cannot and should not be likened to news. To this, I cite Rikee Verma, a journalist from The Times newspaper, who wrote on the day : “Being a religious person, I first went to the upstairs bedroom . . . and placed a spoonful of milk against a photograph of Ganesh and was astonished to find within seconds that the spoon was half empty. I checked to make sure that the glass frame of the photograph was not wet. It was dry. I could not believe what I was seeing. This was clearly a message from the gods saying: ‘We are here, here’s the proof.’ ”
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