#Jayalalithaa: Feared, hated, admired, deified. Never loved.

The year was 1982 and I was a rookie reporter out on one of my first assignments.  Jayalalithaa (then spelt with a single ‘a’) had been invited to meet the press at the Chennai (then Madras) Press Club. A couple of days earlier Chennai dailies had featured a photograph prominently on their front pages: it was of Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran sitting together and watching the Asian Games. The Chief Reporter of the daily I was interning at had asked me to attend the Press Club meet. He also told me to ask Jayalalithaa a specific question: What did she feel about the photograph of her and M G Ramachandran featured on the front pages of the newspapers?

I was excited about the assignment and, when I got the chance to ask a question, naively reeled off the one my Chief had ‘planted’ on me.  I don’t remember the answer Jayalalithaa  gave, but the question or the answer to it set off a flurry of ancillary questions from other hacks at the venue, which prompted the moderator to intervene and say, ‘She is our guest and I request you all to give her the respect due to a guest,’ or words to that effect.

The next morning, when I entered the newsroom, spread across the tables were several vernacular dailies, each with screaming headlines gloating over how a young reporter had taken on Jayalalithaa. The Chief welcomed me with a huge grin and an exuberant ‘Bravo!’ But a senior correspondent was on the phone explaining to someone on the other side, ‘She’s just an intern, very new to the job, you know …’ She looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘Whatever made you ask her such a question?’ I had obviously stirred up a hornet’s nest!  When I explained that it was the Chief’s idea, the correspondent looked daggers at him. He guffawed, mightily amused.  I was flummoxed. My senior then advised me to be more circumspect.

When I reached home that night, my mother was excited and agitated: she had been attending calls all day enquiring if there was someone at home who was working in a newspaper and asking to talk to that person!

As televisions beamed Jayalalithaa’s final journey yesterday, I was reminded of the intangible fear and the very tangible hatred that seemed to hang about in the newsroom that day in 1982. But yesterday there was only mass adulation on display including of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Rigid political divisions dissolved in a universal admiration of her indomitable spirit. Even the media embraced her.

Fear and hate were no longer relevant as the entity that provoked those emotions was no more; but love was absent: there was no family, no friend, none she could call her own: As in life, so in death, Jayalalithaa was towering but alone.

Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

What impacts decision-making?

No pollster – save a couple of isolated academics – would predict Donald Trump’s victory at the hustings.  The media gave the findings of the pollsters as much publicity as they could, and they also went all out to influence public opinion in favour of their choice for President. They made sure the public would recall instantly all the reasons why a Trump presidency would be disastrous: fear, anger and recoil was pumped up to hysterical levels to ensure Trump would not  have a smooth ride – or indeed any ride at all – to the White House.  The media, perhaps, did not give credence to Kahneman’s assertion (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow) that people are not as rational in their thinking as believed and their judgement is less influenced by emotions than by heuristics and biases.

But, do heuristics and biases inform our decisions to the degree that social scientists believe they do?  It is a simple rule of thumb that a person voting to have a good leader steering their country would choose experience in administration over inexperience in governance, a deliberate and considered speaker over a blustering ad hoc talker, a candidate with proven credentials in office, who had the backing of her party, over a maverick who had parachuted on to the political firmament with running battles against his own party bigwigs till voting day. A frenzied media – print and audiovisual – went all out to prejudice the public opinion against their representation of homeo horribilis. And yet, the will of the people seemed to have upended the consideration that heuristics and biases impact thought even more than emotions.

Recent upheavals in the polity of the US and India appear to be opening up uncharted avenues for research into the human psyche. Despite all that he has to his discredit the  American electorate have given a startling thumbs up to a Trump tenure. Despite all the difficulties that they have to personally undergo, the Indian public have voted overwhelmingly for the government’s demonetization initiative.

A title for Bill Clinton and the larger question of labels

 

Should he be first lad, first laddie or first dude? First husband, first gentleman or first mate? Mr. President or Governor Clinton? The question of finding a title for Bill Clinton, were Hillary Clinton to be elected President, has been the subject of much mirthful noise on social media platforms.

Whether or not Bill Clinton becomes the first male spouse of an incumbent President, we are suddenly confronted with the question of finding a neutral title. Truth be told, we have already been seized of this necessity. When women became the CEOs of companies, there was a scramble to find a substitute for the cumbersome ‘Chairwoman’ and Chairperson was agreed upon as a gender-neutral term. Actress is passé and authoress antiquated. It is all about actors and authors nowadays. For drivers and conductors, cooks, teachers and doctors, neuter-general terms have always been the norm. As has been the case for Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Taking advantage of the high profile discussion generated by the American election, I wonder if it is possible to settle for gender neuter terms for several categories: a beginning could be made with ‘partner’ or ‘spouse’ instead of husband and wife; ‘sibling’ instead of brother and sister; and ‘offspring’ instead of daughter or son.

#DonaldTrump, #NarendraModi and the Media

The so-called ‘Hindu’ Right’s fondness for them is not the only factor that Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have in common. They also share the mainstream media’s hatred. Hacks rip the remarks of these men out of context, view their words through deep yellow lenses, and go blue in the face trying to cause the maximum damage to their bête noires.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, ‘the puppy analogy’ as it came to be known was repeatedly thrown at the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. A Reuter’s interviewer asked Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, about the mob killing of scores of Muslims in his state in 2002 after the burning of a train carrying Hindu devotees:

 Do you regret what happened?, Modi was asked.

“…if we are driving a car.. even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad…” replied Modi (see more of the interview here).

The media and its minions pilloried Modi and his mindset, claiming he had compared Muslims to dogs. The interview was in English, but even on English television channels, anchors and panellists would deliberately translate his remark into the vernacular as the corresponding Hindi expletive ‘kutta ke bachcha’ is particularly provocative and damaging. Incidentally, soon after the #GujaratRiots, Modi had been asked about it by another anchor for an Indian channel. Modi’s response had been similar. But Modi had then used the analogy of a flower that gets crushed. (You can catch the 2004 interview with Shekhar Gupta for NDTV here)

Trump has, similarly, been derided today for ‘his unwillingness’ to ‘respect the integrity of the electoral process’ and for ‘challenging one of the pillars of American democracy’:

Trump was asked whether he would accept the electoral verdict, regardless of the outcome.

 Trump said “I will look at it at that time.”

 And then, after a lengthy explanation about the reasons why he thinks the election isn’t free and fair – corrupt media, crooked Hillary and all the rest – he was brought back to the topic.

  “…Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” asked Chris Wallace.

  Trump, in his characteristic, sardonic way, said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

It was a spontaneous attempt at irony, no more – for where is the question of not conceding? It is a non-sequitur.

In the second debate, a fortnight or so ago, Trump was torn to pieces for “threatening to jail Hillary”.

Hillary’s said, ‘… it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.’

Trump met the spiteful comment with a dry, ‘Because you’d be in jail.’

The drollness was lost on the media and the question of Hillary’s disappearing e-mails escaped scrutiny in the hullaballoo the media contrived to cause over just a bit of wit – probably unexpected, and therefore unacceptable?

To end with a #Trump-Modi comparison again, all those who are Modi haters, and therefore Trump haters as well, would be on the side of the media that is revelling in pouring scorn on Trump right now for his horrifying “lack of presidential temperament” in seeming to question the electoral process, one of the pillars of American democracy. Interestingly, their clique in India is the very same group that talks of Modi as “your” Prime Minister, refusing to concede that he is their Prime Minister too as he is the Prime Minister of all of India, elected by a popular mandate that they were not able to undermine despite their raucous clamour.

The #PakistanProblem: Taking recourse to Philosophy

 

Philosophy is a potent weapon in the arsenal of the optimist – some might even say the last resort of the diehard.  But for a citizen of a country that bears the burden of a Mahatma and is stuck with a fanatic neighbour that fabricates fairytales even for its history, Philosophy, perhaps, is a natural option.

Says Duryodhana, scion of the Kuru family, in the Mahabharatha, ‘I know what is right but I can’t seem to do it; I know what is wrong but can’t seem to give it up’.  Duryodhana had several qualities that could have made him the hero of the epic. But the quirk in his character immortalised him as the ignoble prince whose obduracy and single-minded pursuit of a flawed goal led to the annihilation of an entire race – almost.

How does one treat an entity like Duryodhana? Says Tiruvalluvar: ‘The good alone deserve affection is a refrain of the ignorant; it is the only tool to handle the wicked as well (araththirkkE anbu sArbenbar ariyAr; maraththirkkum adhE thuNai).’  We don’t know the context in which he wrote these words (Tirukkural: verse 75).  But peaceniks in India zealously follow this ideal and lecture the rest of India on the need to adopt this attitude towards Pakistan: Talk with them … keep talking … talks are the only way …, they say. But, as another Indian philosopher put it, generosity towards the undeserving can be called anything but virtue.

Passion vs Commitment

 

We often hear of people being passionate about something.  Not unoften, we also hear of people being committed to something. Is it better to be passionate about something or committed to something?

Passion is synonymous with fervour – a feverish excitement.  Commitment implies an emotion more sedate and steady; it is synonymous with dedication and a sense of responsibility. Passion connotes restlessness; commitment, dependability. Passion is a heightened feeling that seeks an outlet in activity external to the self. Commitment is a quiet force that impels the individual from within. Passion seeks fulfilment, whereas commitment is its own reward. One can be the architect and agent of one’s own happiness in the latter case, whereas in the former, satisfaction is contingent on  external factors.

Interestingly, despite their differences, it seems that commitment could metamorphose into passion, or one could be passionately committed to something. On the other hand, commitment to one cause can come in the way of passion for another vocation and passion for one thing can disrupt one’s commitment to something else.