By Swapan Dasgupta
Many years ago, during a very jolly and boisterous evening in a pub, an English friend told me a wonderful story. A newly-independent Third World country, it seems, had decided that it needed the English system of justice, particularly the trappings. The new Government got to work purchasing wigs and robes for the judges and barristers and instructing them in court procedure. After a year, it felt confident enough to invite a legal luminary from England to come and see the progress.
On witnessing a trial at the ‘native’ High Court, the English lawyer was very impressed. The conduct of the judges and barristers was exactly as the Inns of Court had prescribed. It was England transplanted into another continent.
When the hosts asked him for his views, the Englishman was ecstatic. “We couldn’t have done it better,” he admitted. “However, there is just one puzzling feature about your courts. Why do you often have a topless woman running through the court?”
The hosts were unfazed. “That’s part of English tradition,” one of them replied. “What is?” inquired the puzzled Englishman.
“We have often read in the papers about a titter running through the courtroom…”
Shashi Tharoor should be reassured that he is not the first person to have suffered as a result of what fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar once lamented was the editorial class’s “nodding acquaintance” with idiomatic English. Over the past week, ever since his by-now infamous reply to Kanchan Gupta’s innocuous Twitter query, I have heard truly colourful translations and interpretations of both “cattle class” and “holy cows”. It has been suggested in all seriousness that Tharoor’s aside was a snide reference to the Congress’s holy cow and holy calf who had just made well-publicised trips in cattle class. “He compared Madam to cattle,” was the indignant comment of a home-grown Congress loyalist who felt that politics should be a vernacular prerogative, not the fallback career of international babus.
India may well boast one of the largest concentrations of English-knowing people but there are serious occupational hazards in assuming that idiomatic usage, literary allusions, irony and sarcasm are not lost in translation. When Arun Jaitley described Manmohan Singh as a “night watchman PM” in the Rajya Sabha, a senior Minister demanded an apology; in his mind, the PM had been called a chowkidar! Again, for reasons I have never quite gauged, some Bengalis take violent umbrage to the word ‘nonsense’, much more than any four-letter word or doubts over parentage.
St Stephen’s College in the 1970s (when Tharoor and I were classmates there) resonated with clever one-liners, outrageous puns and the appreciation of PG Wodehouse. For the “gentlemen in residence” — Stephen’s-speak for hostellers — “time pass” lay in chuckling over Bertie Wooster’s thoughts on gainful employment: “I once knew a chap who had a job.” In the harsh world outside, this would be viewed as insensitivity born of privilege. For that indiscreet moment, Tharoor, otherwise quite focussed in his self-advancement, forgot that messaging on Twitter (a very public medium) isn’t quite the same as college debating repartee. The consequences of this Twitter message may well turn out to be worse than the offence — despite the PM’s gallant attempt to lighten the air.
The problem with Tharoor is that he didn’t know when to cut his losses. After the controversy of his 100-day stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel, he should have done what the more experienced SM Krishna did — effect a strategic retreat, keep quiet and let the media move on to the next story. Instead, there was, first, the “gym and privacy” excuse, followed by the sneering disdain for the larger austerity drive — the “chaat” meal in Bengali Market with an accompaniment of 20 TV cameras. Worse, he let his Officer on Special Duty run a proxy battle of defiance — from keeping a room at the same five-star hotel to taking on the formidable Jayanthi Natarajan on Twitter.
Tharoor should have realised that paratroopers are always suspect in the fiercely competitive world of politics. He should, ideally, have kept his personal publicity machine at a low key. He should have shunned releasing every novel debuting at a five-star venue; not sent unsolicited collations of his weekly Tweets to all and sundry; not made the official MEA spokesman redundant by speaking on every conceivable foreign policy issue for TV; not gloated over the fact that fellow Stephanians in the Foreign Service now had to pay courtesy calls on him; and most important, not taken his OSD to private dinners. Tharoor gave the impression of being, what Sunanda K Datta-Ray once called, “raucously arriviste”.
Those familiar with the labyrinthine byways of the Congress would have read the signals the day Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot — a man not known for saying anything — requested Tharoor’s resignation. It wasn’t Gehlot settling some personal score; it was the Congress establishment showing the precocious interloper his place. Tharoor may yet survive if he grovels and promises to behave himself in future. But after he returns from his West African sojourn it won’t be the same Tharoor.
India (or at least the Congress), in the immortal phrase of Sir Edwin Lutyens, now “expects every man to do his dhoti”.
Postscript: Newspaper readers have of late been barraged with extensive chunks from Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works, and in many instalments.
It reminds me of former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s aside on the publication of yet another book by Winston Churchill: “I hear that Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis.”