City City Bang Bang, Columns

The magazine in its prime

There are some pleasures that one can recall vividly but never quite recapture. Indeed, with the passage of time, the very idea that so much pleasures could possibly be derived from such actions seems by itself to be faintly ridiculous. One such forgotten pleasure is that of reading a new, unread issue of the magazine. Growing up, the sheer joy of getting one’s hands on a spanking new issue of one’s favourite magazines (or indeed virtually any magazine) is something that feels hard to reconcile in today’s times. It is not as if magazines are not read or that they give no pleasure whatsoever, but there is a prosaic matter-of-factness about them that is at odds with the feelings that they evoked once.

Getting to read the magazine one really wanted needed some work. One could, of course, subscribe to magazines, but in most middle-class homes, that was deemed to be far too expensive. A prominent exception was the Reader’s Digest, which had the mastered the art of collecting subscriptions, in part because of its persuasive promotions and freebies and in part because that was one magazine that was deemed to be a collectible. A sign of an educated household was to display a row of old Reader’s Digests in the showcase of one’s drawing room, something that came to one’s rescue on the frequent occasions when one had absolutely nothing to do to pass the time during the long summer holidays when time dripped slowly on the tin roof of our lives.

The most common way to get access to magazines was through some form of collective circulation. One common practice was to have a common office pool of magazines, which circulated from one person to another, usually in descending order of seniority. One waited one’s turn in the sequence of initials that got ticked off one by one. The other route was through the institution of the circulating library, the private sector equivalent of the public library. This institution catered strictly to popular tastes, and carried a collection of books and magazines that were capable of well, circulating. The arrival of a new issue was awaited eagerly, and one had to inveigle oneself in the good books of the owner so as to get access to it before it got into wider circulation.

When one thinks back about the pleasure one received from reading a magazine, one cannot help but be a bit perplexed as to what was it that engaged our attention so. What about it made it such a coveted read? Barring the copies of Sputnik, that seemed to enjoy a monopoly in waiting rooms across the country, virtually every magazine had an irresistible draw.

The newspaper, though very important, was not about the pleasure of reading. It had a functional role in our lives, structuring time officiously, and giving us the illusion that world had been perused and found in order. There were pleasurable parts to the newspaper, the sports section being one, and the crossword being another, but for most part, newspapers were a form of work. Magazines on the other were a compendium of interestingness, events presented with juice, opinions laced with perspective. The magazine narrativised time, making stories out of events. It had a beginning and an end, and there was an air of ceremony about reading it, often from cover to cover, advertising included.

Time that lay fallow outside crept in between the covers of the magazine, becoming more savoury in the process. In an era, where time was as yet not a commodity with a price tag, contriving the consumption of time was an act of luxury. Words caressed events that had already occurred, allowing us to savour them all over again. The cud was chewed slowly, and the juice that flowed was satisfying in the most. Reading magazines was a form of surrender. It had neither the urgency of a newspaper, nor the breathless absorption that squeezes out thought when one watches television. Unlike the internet today, where every moment spent reading this is a moment wasted in not reading that, there was nothing else that was hankering for our attention.

Magazines also made the world visual. While life around us in India was always suffused with colour, the printed word came to us in austere tones of dull grey. The visual excess in a magazine created a startling new world that bordered on fantasy. Issues of National Geographic or Life, for instance, seemed to test the outer bounds of the real through its exceptional photographs. The cover of the magazine spoke not only about its insides but also was a distillation of the outside, the world in a single picture.

The magazine lived in elastic time. Lacking the fixedness of a newspaper or the news on radio or television (on the hour), magazine reading needed time to stretch out more languidly. If newspapers rendered news erect and alert, magazines captured news while it kicked off its shoes and dawdled. The joy of coming across some international magazines was the ultimate luxury, for they seemed, in keeping with the fantasy image of the West, to be stuffed with a surfeit of consumption-worthy material, encased in an impossibly glossy exterior. Magazines like Time and Newsweek spoke with an authority that bordered on the religious, issuing certificates to events that endorsed their significance.

There were several Indian titles, across all categories of news, that thrived in the heydays of the magazine and are now distant memories. Many magazines continue to do extremely well and several regional language publications in particular, continue to carry great influence even today. But in a larger sense, the magazine today is only one of the many ways in which we access the news. The world is full of analyses, ‘takes’, perspectives and opinions as it is of gossip and shared stories of human magnificence and frailty; magazines are today but a footnote in the noise-making machinery of the times.

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