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Friday, September 30, 2011

A Heady Dose of Humour: Class continues to be an obsession in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Few individuals in public life can be as delightfully malicious as my friend, fellow Stephanian and sparring partner, Mani Shankar Aiyar — though this can’t be the reason why the president nominated him to the Rajya Sabha as a “man of letters”. As someone he dubbed the “Hampstead Hindu” permanently pitted against him, I can vouch for his erudition, puerility and devastating wit, the last two being inseparable. During the long waits before the TV cameras start rolling, we have often ended up discussing obscure themes. These have included the role of Sir Samuel Hoare (who?) in the Government of India Act of 1935 and whether it was Lord Halifax or Neville Chamberlain who mistook the butler for Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But conversations have also been laced with impish back-stabbing — and not merely directed at Arun Shourie, a fellow Stephanian he, to his own surprise, outscored in the final examinations many decades ago. On one occasion, Mani lit into a prickly and pompous Congress MP: “He imagines that God created wax to stuff into his ears.”

That’s Mani — the man with an anarchic gift of the gab.

At 70, an age when people become lofty and even spiritual, Mani has regressed into the halcyon days at St Stephen’s and Cambridge amid people with broadly common backgrounds and shared assumptions, the People Like Us. Some three weeks ago, after being confronted with a letter by the sports minister, Ajay Maken, charging him of waging war on Indian sports, being “obstructionist” and scuttling India’s bid for a future Asian Games, Mani shot his bolt. He retorted by feigning astonishment that a BA (Pass) from Hans Raj College could master the Queen’s English and be familiar with the term “dichotomous”.

Predictably, Mani’s assault on Maken and Hans Raj got many people’s backs up. Even Stephanians who shared Mani’s superior disdain for Pass course ‘locals’, ‘behenjis’ and institutions ‘across the road’, kept silent for fear of being exposed to charges of social snobbery and elitism — grave crimes against the inclusive dumbing down process. They chortled in private while reminiscing over a time when hostellers were referred to as ‘gentlemen in residence’ and when the annual IAS/IFS intake of Stephanians could make up at least two cricket teams.

To add to the farce, the principal of Hans Raj College clarified that Maken hadn’t actually read for a BA (Pass) but had graduated with a BSc (General) degree — a clarification that widened the smile on Mani’s face.

That Mani was being characteristically incorrigible is obvious. His real crime, however, was more heinous: he was guilty of flaunting his self-ordained superiority — something that in the unwritten club code is just not done. In the settled world of Nehruvian privilege where Mani blossomed, cleverness was always consciously concealed but privilege fiercely guarded in the guise of socialist egalitarianism. In my days at St Stephen’s, the worst abuse you could hurl at something — apart from being a bore — was to call him a ‘swot’ or ‘mug pot’. Life was something to be negotiated with natural brilliance and effortless ease — even if you discreetly burnt the midnight oil before the examinations. A well-honed sense of self-deprecation was what distinguished a gentleman from the players. To pass the social test, it helped to pose as a stuttering clod, even an archetypal upper-class twit, whose accomplishments were strictly limited to the school playing fields and courtships around the back gates of women’s colleges.

There was also a rule governing social put-downs: it had to be subtle and, preferably, laced with a touch of humour. The brilliant but raffish Tory MP, Alan Clark — the only man in recent times to speak in parliament after a generous overdose of claret at a convivial lunch — was once told of the wonderful furniture in the house of Michael Heseltine, a self-made politician. “The trouble with Michael,” he retorted nonchalantly, “is that he had to buy his own furniture.” To Clark, life was a basket of entitlements. It mirrored the words of the once popular Anglican hymn: “The rich man at his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high or lowly/ And ordered their estate.”

We can be outraged by Clark’s outrageous hauteur but few can deny its infuriating sharpness. Mani may have rightly been miffed by Maken’s letter, even believing he had been put up to it by higher powers. Maken is a “decent chap, I knew his uncle well”, he told me on a TV show. If that indeed was so, he may just as well have crafted an “Ode to a Hans Raj Boy”, borrowed the lines from Oliver Goldsmith and recited: “And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew/ That one small head could carry all he knew.” That would have been the less disagreeable Stephanian way.

A sharp repartee does not necessarily lead to an audience rolling in aisles; a few quiet chuckles from ‘those who know’ are always preferable. But there is always a problem with ‘in’ jokes: the quiet appreciation of the few are invariably overshadowed by the simmering anger of the great many that nurture the suspicion that they are being mocked by those who have rarely had it bad.

This point was driven home at a TV show Mani and I did in Miranda House, one of the best women’s colleges of Delhi University. The audience didn’t think that the competitive displays of Stephanian humour were very funny — not because they weren’t amusedper se but because the ‘in’ jokes from a bygone age also reeked of social privilege. They interpreted the closed world of overgrown schoolboys as evidence of social condescension. The students weren’t earnest radicals; they aspired to a society where opportunities were equal and not determined by glibness and social skills. In a crudely cricketing sort of way, their role model was M.S. Dhoni, the Ranchi boy who made good, not the Nawab of Pataudi from Winchester and Balliol College.

There is an important distinction between an elitism based on the pursuit of intellectual excellence and the snobbery centred on privilege acquired through an accident of birth. Unfortunately, they often converge — not merely at St Stephen’s but in Oxbridge colleges and American Ivy League colleges — and the results can be devastatingly off-putting.

The Indian elites, it has often been said, readily reconciled to British rule because, like their rulers, they too were obsessed by class and the trappings of hierarchy. Class was also injected into the DNA of the indigenous sahibs Macaulay sought to create. Why else would St Stephen’s have nurtured a Wodehouse Society, alas now defunct, devoted to the celebration of the indolent puerility of a Bertie Wooster, a Bingo Little and the newt-loving Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle? It is not that the students really believed that life was all about chucking bread rolls at the Drones Club and becoming engaged to the dreadful Honoria Glossop. It is just that this was an ambience they regarded as the nearest thing to living in a perfect world. To the outside world, this obsession was not merely bizarre, it was positively offensive.

Legend has it that one Stephanian stumbled on entering the room for his IAS interview. “What is it,” barked one of the interviewers. “It, Sir,” came the reply, “is a singular, neuter pronoun.” In today’s world he would have been failed for insolence.

India has changed; Mani hasn’t. Like in the rest of the Anglophone world, class continues to be an abiding obsession in India.

The Telegraph, September 30, 2011


HyperActiveX said...

Outstanding post!

"There is an important distinction between an elitism based on the pursuit of intellectual excellence and the snobbery centred on privilege acquired through an accident of birth."

To that I add: The main distinction being that exponents of the former category are keen to make that distinction, and those thrown by fate into the latter lot, not.

seadog4227 said...

The best treatment Funny Shankar Aiyar ever got was Amar Singh's boot in his pompous backside.
After his book on Hinduism, that is the very least that he deserves.

No Mist said...

in a world where grammar is mistaken for intelligence, people like Mani shine. for the rest of the world, the heroes are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Dhirubhai.

PS : I am not talking of the wealth, but of the innate superior intelligence. now isn't this something that comes "really" with birth/parents. not who the parents are, but what they are.

Maverick's Den said...

I was expecting for this post :) Very well articulated. Thank god not all Stephanians are Brown Sahebs with colonial hangover :)Unfortunately Elitists in our country has this peculiar attitude towards Desi English speakers If Indians mispronounce English it is gross, but if Italians, Germans or Polish mispronounce English it is cute! No offense to Stephanians but not very long ago man from Ralegoan Siddhi brought down elitist lot of this government on knees :)

atulwokhlu said...

Hi Swapan,

A wonderful article. I saw the TV program in question and liked that too. Indian politics so misses a genuine political wit. Everyone is so serious.


Anonymous said...

Please pardon me for being off topic.

My heart would not be able to rest in Peace if I do not defend Narendra Modi taking into consideration several facts & factors.

Every day , the monumental scale of corruption stories being unearthed in Tamil Nadu made me truly appreciate the person Narendra Modi whose integrity is beyond reproach.

It is Congress, DMK & Leftists that have always played communal politics.Equally shocking is the fact people knew YET voted for them calling them " secular":-((

Regarding cap versus shawl controversy.

It has always been lopsided with Indian muslims.They always insist upon the right to cling to their beliefs & they expect hindus to respect in the name of "secularism". Take for instance some Annadhana scheme where Indian muslims insisted they would accept the free food ( good quality made with asli ghee , sweets , rice , puris etc) given by Hindus provided they were "NOT SHOWN before LORD KRISHNA's ICON" before being distributed.

Is this not unpardonable atheism & fanaticism on the part of Indian Muslims ? As Ramana Bhagavan Himself snubbed such iconoclasts by pointing out:-

" Do we not bathe , feed , groom daily our mortal bodies that are but ashes to ashes & dust to dust? Why ridicule Pujas & Prasad Offerings to Consecrated Icons? Once Prana Prathishta is done The Prathima/Icon is inhered with Omnipotent Power & Glory".

One muslim argued with Bhagavan Ramana that his religion Islam prohibits worship of God with Form as God is formless.

Ramana Bhagavan silenced him thus:-

" If you are your body sporting a beard & cap after death why does not your body cry & object on being buried ?"

I have absolutely no problem drinking ZamZam water whereas Indian muslim friends recoil with horror at the sight of our Vibhuthi & Kumkum ( Sacred Ash). Recently some muslim eating a ladoo offered in Hindu Temple was asked by mullahs to do prayaschitta in India.

Gujarat riots were NOT engineered by Narendra Modi but were spontaneous unleashing of pent up anger of Hindus owing to such partisan communal appeasements of Congress & Leftists for decades.

Why have not the Muslim community questioned criminals like Teesta etc for incinerating Godhra Train? They NEVER take a look at their own acts & attitudes.

India as a nation OUGHT NOT to antagonise & alienate ISRAEL & AMERICA for the sake of winning votes of muslims. In this context dependence on petrol & felling down of trees can be curtailed by doing away with NANO cars of TATA.

Bottle in the Sea said...

Yeah, but what you allude too is very much there in your piece. My prescription for you: Spend less time with this M and more time with the other M, your old fried when he was in Delhi. Earthy, Indian, also full of humor but of the desi type! But for that you may need to get out of Delhi and sharpen your Hindi!

Also Dada, dont you detect a pattern in your columns? I can almost do a column generator algorithm! :-)

Anurag Choudhary said...

There is difference between how comments made by politicians and comments made by rest are perceived.When politicians make politically incorrect remarks it may not go down well with the people.We have seen how other Stephanian Shashi Tharoor got in trouble for his famous "cattle class" tweet.

Anonymous said...

I wish you'd discontinue debating MSA
on NDTV. He has a better modulated voice and is a gallery player. Since he HAS been a minister, he speaks on administrative and policy matters with seeming authority. Even though I vote for you always, I see that he scores higher on Politically Incorrect.

Why do you play this mug's game? Its a pre-determined hostile audience. Do you enjoy the suffering?

Gopu said...

If only Swapan would read Thorstien Veblen: all human societies are obsessed with class. Or Darwin: even insects do :-)

Does St Stephens have a Oscar Wilde society? Or one for Bhartrhari? None for Avvaiyar, I'm sure :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Swapan,

There is a quality Sir Mani of Snobbery on the Head you totally left out. That is sycophancy and selective criticism. Has he EVER commented on Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul Gandhi's educational background and grades? You have given him criticism for ``causing the worst embarrassments to his own party" in an NDTV show and probably others, but please drill down in the details of the people he criticises. That is where you find the devil.