Saturday, November 11, 2006

We are never amused

It’s hard to single out one defining national characteristic for a country as vast and diverse as India. However, if I had to pick something truly pan-Indian that cuts across geography, gender, religion, class and occupation, it would have to be our totally humourless status-consciousness.

When Prince William and some friends were recently refused entry to a club class lounge on a ferry because the stewardess failed to recognise him, everyone involved just had a bit of a laugh, including the future king of England, who meekly took himself off to the cattle class bar. The ferry company, far from issuing a formal apology, pointed out quite rightly that if the man was going to travel incognito, he was going to experience a slice of ordinary life.

Things would have been so different had the Prince been one of ours. The stewardess would have known exactly who he was, she’d have thrown someone else out to make space, and she’d have fawned and hovered around him the whole time. If not, he’d have busted in saying ‘Do you know who I am?’, or maybe pulled a gun on her, and, having entered, called his father to fume about how he was snubbed; the stewardess would have been skewered and the company’s top management replaced; ingratiating politicos would have protested in the streets; somebody would have been transferred.

In India, any oversight, confrontation or criticism of public figures, especially if they rate a bust somewhere in the country, or a mention in a textbook, seems to be considered tantamount to insult. Any books, plays, sculptures, paintings, music, audiovisual works or embroidered cushion covers suggesting that they might be fallible are liable to be burned, banned, toppled, defaced, turned off or thrown out, as the case may be. We absolutely love to feel insulted on behalf of our luminaries; we have many sentiments, and they all hurt, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to hurt them.

A few days ago Sharad Pawar, union minister, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party and the president of the BCCI, was shown off the dais (no doubt with unseemly haste) by the victorious Australian cricket team at the Champions Trophy award ceremony; this, after one hapless player had said, ‘Hiya, buddy!’ while receiving his medallion. Unthinking Aussie exuberance might have remained just that, but that the media pounced on this fearful slight to our great civilisation. Was it a nudge or a push? Was it racist? Should they apologise?

Of all the donkeys debating this issue on television, I could muster sympathy only for the single four-footed specimen who also happened to be the only donkey not braying, despite being the only one who had real reason to because it had been painted in Australian colours by NCP members in Mumbai to protest Pawar’s ‘blasphemous’ humiliation. Pawar himself was the only chap who kept his head, and his dignity, brushing off the incident as a mere nothing.

All I can say is that in the outrage department we seem to be willing to work with very little. If you want a really good, old-fashioned insult to get exercised about, consider the case of the Persian ambassador at the court of Shah Jahan. Seventeenth-century diplomacy was an altogether more sophisticated battle of national wits. The entrance to the Emperor’s audience chamber was through a very low wicker gate, which forced any visitor to bow low into the exalted presence; the Persian ambassador, who was clearly chosen for his quick thinking, upheld the status of his own sovereign by entering through the aperture backwards. Now that’s worthy of a response.

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