Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The dating game

Today is 5/8, or 8/5, depending on the house style. There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought twice about this, but now that we’re awash in more commemorative dates than monsoon millimetres it’s a good idea to check that one is not overlooking a major national event. Everyone knows that the stodgy practice of calling bad news by its name ended five years ago. If it’s big enough news, you have to use the date instead. However, while the US has only the one catastrophe iconically named 9/11, we get our backsides blown to cinders with depressing regularity. Not only does this end up confusing those of us who have trouble with numbers, but nothing takes the punch out of a concept like overuse.

You may have noticed that the papers have been doggedly repeating terms like 13/12, 24/8, 29/10, 7/3 and 11/7, in the hope that they’ll catch on and become part of our political lexicon. (They refer, respectively, to the attack on Parliament, the Gateway of India bombs, the pre-Diwali Delhi blasts, the Varanasi bombs, and the train explosions in Mumbai—and don’t pretend you knew.)

But somehow none of our numbers, or indeed any numbers anywhere in the world, reverberate with quite the same deathly chill as 9/11. They sound like what they are: wannabes. And we have so many by now that most of us are a bit fuzzy on which is which (thank god that all stock exchange calamities are uniformly known as Black Monday). That’s apart from the technical glitches; in the US, dates are written month/day/year, while in India we write them day/month/year, except when we’re being copycats, which most of the time we enthusiastically are even if it means naming the most recent attack after a well-known chain of convenience stores. All in all, it’s not a nice way to honour the dead.

Put this trend together with the ongoing disaster of 24/7, also known as television news, which treats breaking wind as breaking news and generally makes mountains out of moles, and you end up only a hair’s breadth away from a farcical place in which we might, say, mark 29/3 as the day of the Fashion Week boob that distressed the very fabric of society, judging by the reams of analysis that ensued. Or celebrate 23/7 as the day that the little Prince emerged from his trauma in Haryana to find himself king of the airwaves and Rs 2 lakhs richer in a model village. (No doubt the next time he takes a walk he will find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and herds of unicorn prancing around the Fountain of Eternal Youth, their horns impaled with monogrammed napkins that read, “If you only say it loudly and long enough, it will be so”.)

Anyway, as I said, it’s safer to check what day has what particular event attached to it—though the truth is, everyone is more or less equally confused and therefore unlikely to challenge anything you say. You could probably wake up any morning, sneak into a tv studio, get on the air and announce a minute’s silence to remember the victims, and get away with it.
The only importance I can attach to today, besides Marilyn Monroe’s death anniversary and Independence Day in Burkina Faso, is purely personal: 5/8 marks the first instalment of this column. Whether or not the date assumes meaning for anyone else remains to be seen, but the benchmark is obvious: it will depend on how painful it turns out to be.

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