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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Jan 2020  The Indian dictionary of acceptable phrases

The Indian dictionary of acceptable phrases

The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India
Published : Jan 10, 2020, 12:14 am IST
Updated : Jan 10, 2020, 2:19 am IST

We have reached the stage in our democracy where a lamp is called a chair, a stool a shirt and a tubelight the sun.

Ektaa Kapoor has long argued that her wildly popular soaps are not fantasy but reality with the odd cobra thrown in.
 Ektaa Kapoor has long argued that her wildly popular soaps are not fantasy but reality with the odd cobra thrown in.

The most humanising aspect of the surreal prime-time attack on JNU was the hooligans, having been escorted out by the police, trying to find an auto-rickshaw on the main road. It looked like that some had been left high and dry by their masters. At the very least, a nice mid-sized getaway vehicle could have been provided. Since the attackers were ostensibly Lefties and Commies, attacking fellow anti-nationals, a Nano would have actually lent substance to the story.

Post-JNU’s Bloody Sunday, I’ve become convinced that Khan Market could be the next chosen site of attack. After all, it’s where the tukde-tukde gang originates from. It could be mere paranoia but I’m steering clear of Khan Market for decades to come.

We have reached the stage in our democracy where a lamp is called a chair, a stool a shirt and a tubelight the sun. Language has lost all meaning. Words don’t refer to external or internal realities anymore but circle like albatrosses in a self-referential whorl. China can learn from India – unlike China, India has allowed words to fly pretty much unfettered. The ruling regime in India realised long back that once you have rendered language impotent, you have nothing to fear from it. The volley of word-soup is reminiscent at times of late-stage Alzheimer’s, at others, of Jimi Hendrix and his wall-of-sound style of guitar playing.

The Indian state was a lamb to begin with; it turned into a tiger, and is now a full-fledged man-eater. In wildlife preservation jargon, the state has turned rogue. It’s devouring its own. It’s fomenting trouble where none exists and going out of its way to create unrest. At a time when fuel prices are going through roof, those in power seem to have enough drums to spare.

Except that’s not what people think and believe. The people who voted in the government see it as doing an excellent job. What confounds the rational-minded, in the response of the people, is the supreme lack of empathy. Empathy is a difficult concept to explore, especially in a society where language has lost meaning, and where the government promotes the view that half the population that didn’t vote for it are its sworn enemies.

The empathetic question can be framed thus: are you not moved by images and reports of fellow Indians being lynched, killed, maimed, bloodied, their skulls smashed on national TV? Does something somewhere not stir your conscience, even if you are not a bleeding heart or a classic Twitter liberal? The answer from the BJP-leaning Indian voter is a resounding “no”.

There are several reasons for this. For one, never forget that ours is a society that has always dealt in deathly cliché. Clichés fill the gaps in our thought where reasoning is supposed to lay root. The Indian finds thinking a thought through a tremendous strain. The gap is filled with astrology and entertainment. But, more importantly, the gap is filled with clichés that are sufficient for communication. One phrase often used in WhatsApp groups is: “My way, high way.” It’s in the bank of Indian phrases and is put to use in multiple situations. On trains the cliché is: “I have two sons, both married, doing well...” and so on. If we look at cricket, “We want sixer” served us well for decades. So did “East or West, India is best.”

Into this mix throw in some new Hindu Right slogans, they too become part of the cliché and are very effective. They will remain effective for decades. So when asked why she didn’t feel any empathy for the poor Muslim in UP or hapless lecturers and students of universities, the Indian will say: “Desh ke gaddaron ko/ Goli maaro saalo ko.” This will suffice for brutality after brutality, just like “We want sixer” survived World Cup defeat after World Cup defeat. The tendency of Indians to sink into everyday cliché (like “good morning” messages on WhatsApp) significantly impairs their ability to extricate themselves from the political morass.

In addition to the linguistic cliché, the lack of empathy in the average Indian can also be traced back to the Great Indian Family. Indians hardly divorce, which means that families remain the foci where individual dramas are played out, not between individuals but between roles: son vs daughter, father vs son, mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law, elder brother vs younger brother, choti bahu vs badi bahu. Ektaa Kapoor has long argued that her wildly popular soaps are not fantasy but reality with the odd cobra thrown in.

There is a lot of cruelty in the Indian family, which one sees close-up. Children, for instance, exist, in the initial years, purely as punching bags. Men and women, across class and generation, across big city and small town, across NSEW, have told me how they were beaten to pulp by their parents, who used everything that came to hand: clothes hangers, chappals, rubber pipes. Just this inures one to violence. It’s an everyday occurrence. There was a famous chat show that Anupam Kher hosted with five-year-olds as guests, called Say Na Something to Anupam Uncle. On this show, the kids were always asked by Anupam Uncle in fake babytalk: “Tumhe ghal mein kaun zyada maalta hai, Mammi ki Papa?” and everyone would giggle.

Which brings me to a more essential point about the Indian family: the goons we see, armed with iron rods, live with and return to the Indian family when the job is done. These are not lone wolves, or gangs of lads living in shared accommodation. Everyone in India is married at a young age. The perpetrator of violence, the masked vandal, emerges from the cruelty of the Indian family, heads out in a lad’s gang with the blessings of his mother, and returns home for dinner, to the family’s bosom. In many ways, the Hindu Undivided Family is the progenitor of violence. It’s immune to violence on others because it’s seen so much casual violence within.

These days when I ask a fellow Indian — in a shop, on public transport — “Hey, the BJP is great, but don’t you think they’ve gone too far”, and he replies: “Na Maowad, na Naxalwad, sabse upar rashtravad,” I calmly reply, “Well, yaar, well”, East UP cliche for “Good on you, man,” and just get on with it.

Tags: democracy, ekta kapoor