Anyone who has ever attended, in any capacity, a panel discussion or a book launch or talk in Delhi has had to pay an awful price, even when the event is free, which it mostly is because we live in one of the most culturally subsidised cities in the world. (Pay attention, America, those warming strategic ties are just the thin edge of our evil Socialist wedge). It’s like rolling up at the highway toll booth: Did you think this sort of pleasant ride was for free? As illuminating as the speakers or presentation might be, you have to gird your loins for the most dreaded part of the evening: the question and answer session.
Audiences in this city, who ardently believe in free speech unless it hurts their many sentiments, take this constitutional liberty to mean: ‘I have so very much to say, and I’m going to say it whether or not it’s relevant to the stuff you’ve been saying for the last hour, which I paid close attention to except for the bits when my bootlegger/wife/long-lost classmate was on the phone’. A request from the moderator such as “Please restrict yourself to one question” is very much like the sound of one hand clapping. The first question thereafter is typically: “Madam, I will ask only three small questions.” In more acute cases, the offender bulldozes right through Madam’s protests with: “My first question has four parts.”
For a while I thought that this style was the preserve of the greybeards at the very pleasant old age home known as the India International Centre, but soon discovered that the relatively younger folks at the India Habitat Centre are no better. They spend fifteen minutes whipping their arms in the air like tarpaulins in a gale and, when finally called upon, are liable to say, “I don’t have a question. I have an observation.” The observation in question is usually a recitation of their resume, followed by a species of harangue that may or may not be identifiable as a thought, and will almost certainly not be related to whatever event was scheduled in the room.
One of the worst offenders is the motor mouth. This person will be moved to rise from his or her seat to declare, “I have a question and an observation,” before launching into their unabridged life history, and having got that off their chest, they will leave the room. Then there’s the random shouter, the splenetic chap who thinks a book launch is the best place to air some personal peeve when everyone knows the best place to do that is in a newspaper column. For example at the recent launch of a book authored by an American, a gentleman stood up and shouted, “America is not a holy cow, you know! If there was oil in Afghanistan it would be a whole different story!” Quite apart from the fact that it really was a whole different story from the one that had just unfolded, he needn’t have shouted; it was only a very little room.
Still, I suppose that if we did the sensible thing and just fitted every audience member with a remote-controlled electronic gag, everyone would start bitching and moaning about democracy and freedom of speech and how their fundamental rights were being infringed and all that liberal nonsense. What they don’t realise is that I’m not one of those tin pot dictators. I’ve thought this through. We’d only press the ‘Silence’ button (or the emergency ‘Detonate’ button) if an audience poll, by a show of hands, showed majority support.