Wednesday, December 24, 2014

.Suresh and I - I

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called Borges and I in which he wrote about the public and the private Borges. The public Borges is the one to whom things happen, who is in the news, in a list of professors or figures in some biographical entry. The private Borges likes ' hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces,  etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson'. Although the public Borges shares these likes, he is more put-on. Although, little by little, the private Borges will fade away and the public Borges will live on.

In many ways,I also have such public and private faces as a result of my stroke. I have been saddled with various characteristics by various people after my stroke depending on how they interpret my blinks  and because of certain characteristics I have as a result of my stroke.I think there are many versions of me floating around. I had mentioned earlier about various misunderstandings.

Sometimes when I  seem interested in watching a particular scene or song in a program that the nurse is watching, she will instantly conclude that I am a big fan of that particular actor. For eg.,  I  once kept laughing over those parts of the lyric that I could understand in a Vijay song. The nurse instantly concluded I was huge Vijay fan.  She told the physiotherapist about it.He unfortunately turned out to be a Vijay fan and started quizzing me about his movies. Since I have seen only one movie of his, the physiotherapist soon concluded that the nurse was exaggerating somewhat. I have been a fan of several actors in this way..

Sometimes, when the nurse will be watching some program and I will be lying quietly thinking of something, she  will suddenly say, 'Isn't that guy married to someone in Coimbatore? His wife owns a flat in ...'.I don't know how she got the impression that I am interested in such information because she would never have seen me watch these programs.

My expression at these times would be similar to that of Lord Emsworth when he is disturbed by a pesky relative while he is contentedly contemplating the potato munching skills of his prized pig The Empress of Blandings as she prepares to compete in the  "Fat Pigs" class at the local Shropshire Agricultural Show. I am sure you will agree with me that it is impolite to disturb a man who is enjoying the sight of his pet pig fattening itself.

I will often be told "You look handsome!" or "You look like a model!" etc., things that I was never told before my stroke! P.G. Wodehouse said in Uneasy Money, 'At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later  seventies.' Considering my demeanour before my stroke, seventies would have been considered rather optimistic.

It seems that people are accustomed to making such flattering remarks to handicapped people ostensibly to improve their morale. Some time back I watched the Tamil movie Anbe Sivam. In it the character played by Kamal Hasan meets with a terrible accident in which he suffers grevios injuries. When he recovers, he has a grotesque face with protruding teeth, has lost the use of one hand and walks with a pronounced limp. When the nun who had nursed him back to health meets him after a long while, she says, 'Doesn't he look handsome!'

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Morcha organiser'

In this interview, when Ashis Nandy talked about media consultants moulding the image of politicians so that it is the way the public wants them to be,  I was reminded of a character in the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This character had throat trouble and said that he had got it by working in 'morcha producion'. This job involved making up slogans, hiring crowds, and producing rallies or demonstrations for different political parties.He had gone into this job after being a proofreader for many years. He explains the intricacies of his job:
'Writing speeches, designing banners -all that was easy. With years of proofreading under  my belt, I knew exactly the blather and bluster favoured by professional politicians. My modus operandi was simple. I made up three lists: Candidate's Accomplishments, (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendos, and lies) and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was - a brand new speech. I was a real hit with my clients.' 
'My difficulties lay in the final phase, out on the street. You see, I had spent my working life in an office, in silence, and my throat was unexcercised. Now suddenly I was yelling instructions, shouting slogans, exhorting the crowds to repeat after me. It became too much. Much too much for my underused larynx.'
When asked why he didn't let the rented crowd do the yelling for him, he said that he couldn't break out of his old habit of doing everything himself. He says:
I could not leave it to the rented crowd to do the shouting.  after all, the success of a demonstration is measured in decibels. Clever slogans and smart banners alone will not do it. So I felt I must lead by example, employ my voice enthusiastically, volley and thunder, beseech the heavens, curse the forces of evil, shriek the praises of the benefactor - bellow and clamour and cry and cheer till victory was mine!'
I had not heard the term 'morcha production' before reading this book. Perhaps the folks involved in morcha production have more respectable, corporatised designations now like media consultant or member of the communication cell or, in these days of popularity of the war metaphor, he or she may be a member of the 'war room'.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - III

Remember the third slogan of the Party in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four? IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.That appears to be the new mantra. People may not know the difference between an Assembly and General election, they may not be able to locate a major Indian city on a map (eg. for Ahmedabad, there may be guesses like, 'Is it in Orissa, Bihar, Punjab...?), may not know that Sherlock Holmes is a character and not an author...(I am talking of graduates.) One Std. XII boy was asked in a TV program whether he had ever heard the name 'Charles Darwin' and the answer was 'No'.

I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! People will keep asking me what diet I am on to get a fair skin. The simple explanation never seems to occur to them that I don't roam in the sun collecting sunburns, dust and grime. A Tamil song says, 'Black is my favorite colour', but nobody else seems to say so. The level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries out, 'My life will be ruined!' Methinks the lady protests too much.

Many well-heeled people seem to be divorced from reality. It is as if uncomfortable facts like infant mortality, chronic hunger, female foeticide, etc don't exist. I once saw a program about e-commerce. One speaker said that the worst punishment you can give to a teen these days is to impose a 'no-screen day' on them. Apparently this means that they can't access any social media that day. That is the worst punishment? Really? And how many kids are there like that?

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes that 63% of American adults think dinosaurs lived with humans, half don't know that the Earth goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it, that some of his students in his undergraduate classes at Cornell don't know that the Sun is star. Bemoaning the preponderance of pseudoscience and psychic explanations on TV, Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted world:
In American polls in the early 1990s,two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the "information superhighway" was; 42% didn't know where Japan is; and 38% were ignorant of the term "holocaust". But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbit, and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99% had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a  boy.The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.
Don't worry, America. India will catch up soon. I know that a science tuition teacher didn't know that stars produce their own light. Now she knows! Children here are not taught to think.  By the time they are in about Std VIII or Std. IX, they stop playing. They will be running from tuition to tuition memorising the same things over and over again thus strengthening their sphexishness or uncomprehending competence.  I get the uncomfortable image of kids in madrassas memorising verses from the Koran.The only difference seems to be that they are not memorising a religious book.

Sturgeon's law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them. A type of Gresham's law works in acquiring information with the bad driving out the good. People actually seem to think that the bromides that glamorous models coo like 'It doesn't matter where you come from as long as you believe in yourself' is true. The are seduced into believing that life is like an Amitabh Bachchan movie.

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'ĂȘtre of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialisation of life. I am willing to sell my soul.' People who should know better buy into the catchy statements of politicians who follow a strategy explained by Obama in this article:
 “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
 For eg. the BJP is very good in coining catchy slogans like 'Minimum government maximum governance', 'zero defect, zero efffect', etc., but translating them into reality is a complex, long drawn out process filled with false starts and disappointments. Or take the obvious idea that improving and widening roads will reduce traffic snarls. Only that, it is not so obvious due to what economists call 'induced demand'. But people easily buy into these statements without appreciating their complexities.

PS: I was pleasantly surprised to see these videos of Ramachandra Guha which had longish discussions with a young audience. The audience had read books and thought about issues beyond the narrow confines of their careers.