The difference between clarity and confusion is often found on the flipside of a phrase. Watching the sudden resurrection of grand coalitions on the eve of our great democratic pentadactyl festival, a General Election, I was reminded of a charming ditty by William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965), a little-known Harvard graduate who might have been even less known had he not written these lines:
Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.
Change the last words from “go away” to “come my way” and it might serve as a common anthem for all alliances.
The smiley photographs of the 26-party INDIA, rebranded from UPA, and the 38-party NDA could not quite curtain their hunt for those who weren’t there upon the stair. There was only a fleeting phantom from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha; that’s over 60 seats in Lok Sabha. Chandrababu Naidu, Jagan Reddy, K Chandrashekar Rao and Naveen Patnaik were otherwise occupied. Patnaik, the lifetime chief minister of Odisha, could not care a toss; Delhi normally comes to him. One assumes that Naidu and Reddy are still in the bargain store. Telangana’s Rao has decided that an escalator is better than a staircase. An escalator moves in only one direction. A staircase has the dubious propensity of carrying passengers in both directions at the same time. Sukhbir Badal from Punjab was another chap elsewhere. Perhaps he is on a well-deserved holiday. The major star missing from the credits was, of course, the redoubtable Mayawati. The lady, having heard the same legend a dozen times, now does her own bookkeeping, keeps her own counsel and sticks to her own route map.
The Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury was there but not quite there. He displayed the candour of a man with little to lose. He announced that there was no chance of unity with Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, but the two parties could be partners in Delhi. Power makes strange bedfellows, etc. It’s been done before, by everyone in this game of atonal musical chairs. Which reminds me of the British drama king Noël Coward. Asked about the secret of good acting, he replied: “Say your lines and don’t trip over the furniture.” That’s the mantra: don’t trip over inherited furniture in that cluttered space called Alliance Hall.
Delhi, headquarters of pundits and pessimists, loves nothing better than a running commentary on the decline and fall of empire. An Edward Gibbon sits in every café, three chapters of a masterpiece singing in the head, waiting for the Big Crash as publishers bustle around with advance payments. Gossip is the currency of instant history. Every Delhi pundit has heard from a close friend that X is livid in Jaipur while Y has been marginalised in Bhopal, so if Z is not appeased in Lucknow, then A will face consequences in Delhi. QED. The most amazing aspect of gossip is its ability to repeat itself ad infinitum and still spark attention.
The second staple of Delhi conversation is traffic, a source of dynamic breast-beating. Every July and August the capital’s roads are clogged in jam or stranded in water because the omnipotent builders of 21st-century Delhi forgot that a river runs through the city. The good news is that a traffic crawl is the best time to read. Shut the noise from your mind and a good book evolves into a library, throwing up tidbits that can become surprisingly useful.
Whenever a Delhiwallah learns that you spend half or more of your time in Goa, the initial reaction is muttered envy disguised as praise. This is generally followed by the slightly snooty: “But what do you do in Goa?” I found the perfect answer in a collection of letters written by that superb linguistic stylist Raymond Chandler, a British oil executive who had the good fortune to lose his job during the Great Depression. In 1932, at age of 44, he switched to fiction and reinvented the American crime thriller with classics like The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. The secret of his art? The scene was better than the plot, reflecting his belief that the best thriller was one which would enthral even if you lost the ending.
Answering a question about what he was doing in Lake Tahoe, a prime California holiday spot, Chandler said all that needs to be said about Goa: “There was nothing to do, and I did it.”
Rains are seasonal; politics is perpetual. Gossip has been the spice and servant of power in capital cities through recorded history. Some 2,300 years ago, our very own Kautilya used its sinuous influence as war strategy. At a common level, stories were spun through planted customers in taverns; in the more rarefied space occupied by the ruling class Kautilya employed astrologers.
Gossip is timeless, heedless, and groundless in more senses than one. Homer called it the messenger of Zeus, king of competitive Greek gods. The Roman poet Virgil likened it to a winged monster with an open eye under every feather, a tongue that never fell silent, and an ear which never closed. The lawyer-scholar-orator Cicero, exiled for his role in the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, asked a friend in Rome to keep him abreast of all gossip. One day the exile learnt of the latest rumour in Rome, that Cicero had been murdered. The patrician should not have smiled. A little later, soldiers loyal to his enemy Mark Antony turned up and killed him. I don’t know who records famous last words in such cases but Cicero apparently died with an elegant aphorism on his lips: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try and kill me properly.”
Moral of the story. Ignore gossip, but don’t ignore the peril.
The dispatch of a spurious bon mot is surely one of the acknowledged duties of a diarist.
For the first time in a decade, I went to a theatre to watch a film. Since even those completely unaware of the existence of Sanskrit now believe, after hearing the movie’s dialogue, that the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, quoted a memorable line from the Bhagavad Gita upon seeing the nuclear mushroom cloud—“I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”—it becomes my duty to note that what he actually said was, “Well, it worked.”
More prosaic, a breath of relief than a gasp of philosophy. The reaction of the audience at that historic moment was human rather than heroic; a few cried, a few laughed, most were silent. Oppenheimer did repeat the immortal line, but later. As afterthoughts go, it could not have been bettered.
As for the three-hour film: gripping. Who would have thought that a collage biopic of a tortured scientist in search of meaning in the throes of destruction, of future peace amidst barbaric war, of a route map through the deep state, the military state, the political state and his own fragile state, could become a Hollywood hit that could fill a cinema as easily in a Goan mall as in Paris and Pittsburgh? The people I truly salute are the financiers. They must be prophetic gamblers. Thank you.
(This article first appeared in the Open magazine. MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj)