essay

The Power of Nonsense

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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Bullshit as a cultural force

The melancholic cow, who crosses the street like an Indian and may transmit good fortune to those who touch her, is probably the most researched animal in the country. In many sprawling places, scientists who are somewhat infatuated with the sacred beast, are trying to prove that almost everything it does brings benefits to humans. That is why at four every morning in a Nagpur cowshed, volunteers stand with bottles waiting for the cows to pass urine. This is part of an institute’s ten-year-long research, worth about Rs 3 crore, that aims to prove that cow’s urine can cure cancer, arthritis and renal failure.

Bhanwarlal Kothari, who heads Rajasthan Gau Seva Sangh, a cow fan club, claims that if cowdung is smeared on a wall, it can block nuclear radiation. “We asked Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to test it. We are waiting for them to get back to us.” Professor Madan Mohan Bajaj from the Delhi University’s department of physics and astrophysics has spent over 15 years investigating the effects of animal slaughter on earthquakes, air crashes and other disasters. “I have noticed that immediately after any festival, when a lot of cows are killed, there is very strong seismic activity around the world.”

Evidently, there is a lot of effort that is going on to prove that the great ancient Indians somehow knew that the cow was a very special animal and in their wisdom bestowed upon it an eternal celestial status (as opposed to a Dalit complaint that Brahmins loved the cow simply because it was white, and not the buffalo which was black).

The consecration of the cow, which is not merely a consequence of religion but also Indian nationalism, is the least significant effect of a vastly powerful but underrated and much maligned cultural force called bullshit. Bullshit is all around us. It is on the hoardings, in the speeches of the most powerful men, the prose of honest women, the analyses of the brightest investment bankers, and even the proverbs of your mother.

Nonsense is a relentless force which is far more influential than sense. It is the indestructible power of nonsense that has ensured that you have read at least once, “Rekha is an enigma” (this actually means she almost never grants interviews to journalists). And it is the same force which is the reason why, despite all the films and serials you have seen, you may find it hard to meet a single person in Mumbai who uses the word ‘apun’.

The first spasm of hysteria around India’s mythical software power, too, was partly created by this quaint force that was understood so well by the late Dewang Mehta, former head of Nasscom, a pressure group for software companies. He knew that journalists wanted stories and to strengthen their stories they needed figures that they could attribute to an organisation. Nasscom was an organisation, and all Dewang Mehta now needed was statistics. And he always somehow found them. Stunned by the kind of data and numerical estimations Mehta could give out, a friend and I decided to test him by creating a question that could not have an answer. So, on the sidelines of a press conference, we asked him, “In three years time, by what percentage will the cost of Chinese outsourcing undercut Indian outsourcing?” He answered immediately, in the middle of opening a door, “36 per cent.”

A few years ago, at the Ad Asia summit in Jaipur, Kumar Mangalam Birla said in the middle of an India-is-so-great speech that one-third of Nasa is occupied by his countrymen. He was a victim of a type of speechwriters who google for material. Or, he was yet another recipient of those patriotic chain mails that will eternally crawl through the Internet, listing out the seeming achievements of Indians, almost all of them untrue, like how this many Indians are doctors in America, that many are scientists, and how Sanskrit is the best language for computer coding.

In the middle of all this, if a sardar somewhere uses a washing machine to make lassi, we will point to him and say with flared nostrils of appreciation, “jugaad”.

But the most enduring myth is that something called the freedom movement got India freedom, that the Second World War and the impoverishment of Britain had nothing to do with it, that it was just a coincidence that without Gandhi and other sepia barristers Sri Lanka still got its independence in 1948, and soon African colonies too broke free. We would like to believe in the enchanting influence of Gandhigiri as the single absolute force that drove away the whites who probably went muttering, ‘bloody Indians’, an expression that was enthusiastically attributed to Englishmen by innumerable Hindi films. Interestingly, the American bodyguards of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who tried to control a mob in a Mumbai school during the shoot of the film A Mighty Heart, have been sued by the slighted mob for calling them, ‘bloody Indians’. “Hum ko ‘bloody Indians’ bola”. Try to imagine the situation. Some American bodyguards, none of whom is named Bob Christo, calling curious Indian onlookers, ‘bloody Indians’. Unlikely. But those guards will face charges for insulting the nation if they ever return to India.

Bullshit does not always need the medium of nationalism or other strong emotions to travel far and wide. Sometimes a phrase, an expression which means nothing really, becomes a tradition. Like for instance, after the November terror attacks in Mumbai, when almost every politician including the Prime Minister complimented the city for its “resilience”, they did not have to know what they were talking about. They were merely following the political etiquette of calling a city resilient after it has been blasted by terrorists. All over the world, it seems, important people attach no value to the words that come out of their mouth. Because they have a profitable disrespect for a world that is so easy to fool. Just five days before Lehman Brothers went bust, its CEO Richard Fuld actually said, “We are on the right track to put these last two quarters behind us.”

A few months ago, a public relations firm hired by a young actress seriously considered approaching cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni so that a romantic link-up could be manufactured between the two and the news leaked to the media. “They didn’t go ahead with the plan for some reason,” an executive of another PR firm says, “But this is routine. All those snippets you see in the papers, most of them are total rubbish or half truths that come from the PRs. We know what the media likes, and we provide it. It is an unspoken mutual arrangement. The only fool is the reader and the chap who watches news channels. Or, maybe even he knows it is all a farce and everybody is just having fun. In fact, even fresh inexperienced actors who hire us ask if they should go to a night club and pick up a fight or do something like that which will get them attention.”

Pritish Nandy, journalist politician and film producer, describes a certain kind of films as, “poop films”, whose production budget is vastly exaggerated in the off-the-record interviews given to journalists. “These films are called blockbusters before they are even released. You will hear strange news, like say that an actor jumped off a building during the shoot and nothing happened to him. You will hear that the hero is getting paid so many crores. Then you will hear that the film is a big hit even if the halls are going empty. Then the guys who made the film vanish until they reappear with their next film.”

It must not be presumed that the common man is an innocent victim stranded in the middle of all this deceit. In all probability, he is part of the game, he is willing to be had because reality is something like an Assamese film—water boils, lugubrious woman combs her hair, then everybody dies. So the beauty of nonsense is that, in a way, there are no victims. And that is the beauty of Indian film awards too. It is more entertaining for the general population to accept the farce than question the process.

In an earlier interview, producer Manoj Desai told me, almost casually, about the time when his film Khuda Gawah bagged seven Filmfare awards. “It should have won nine. But I could not purchase the other two awards. Someone highly placed in Filmfare told me that Amitabh and Sridevi would get the awards if some pending bills in the Centaur Hotel could be taken care of.” After this story was published in Outlook, there was no reaction at all. Not a single call, not a single letter from any reader. Nobody cared, or everybody except the reporter knew it already. It was a flop story.

For a particular kind of people who are in the pursuit of intelligence, the most moronic moment in cinema arrived towards the end of a Karan Johar film (which starts with the letter K), when Kajol began to sing the national anthem and people in the audience rose to stand in attention. But Karan Johar is in reality a far more naive master of nonsense than the gentlemen who made what used to be called art films. In the past, actor Naseeruddin Shah has spoken about how some art films were made—“sign me up, borrow funds from NFDC claiming to make realistic cinema, use indoor shots to save money, producer and I split the remaining cash”.

There are times, however, when the film industry has claimed it has been wronged by the ethereal forces of nonsense. About two years ago, Ram Gopal Varma had to shelve a film called Nimmi, a story about a girl who is lost in a jungle. Powerful animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi, who read the script did not approve of the villain of the film—a tiger. According to a person associated with the production of the film, she told him, “You guys are creative, why don’t you write another story.” (She denied this episode when I called to verify but she confirmed that she will not tolerate a tiger as villain.) The fear of Maneka Gandhi is so intense in the industry that several period film proposals have been reconsidered because such films are not possible without the use of horses. Shah Rukh Khan still seethes with rage when reminded about how Gandhi had asked him why he used so many pigeons in Paheli. With his new visual effects lab and the ability to create animals through software, he says triumphantly, “Now with technology she won’t have any problems. We can make animals, beat animals and even eat animals.”

The economic might of pure rubbish becomes apparent when we consider that a sizeable portion of the Rs 1,300-crore television news business comes from covering the story a Kuni Lal who predicted the exact time of his own death (TV crews waited outside his house for the moment which passed without his demise), or the stories of scores of people who have had past-life experiences, or a car that traveled in Delhi without a driver (one channel had a panel discussion in which a member discussed the science of invisibility), or the discovery of a giant human face on a Martian mountain (a channel began to claim that life has been discovered and beamed a passionate ticker, ‘Kab hoga jung’), or the endearing tale of one Gajraj who claimed to have met the god of death, Yamraj due to a clerical error on the part of Yamraj’s office. Gajraj even recalled that when the death god realised that the wrong man had been brought to him, he scolded his attendant, “Ullu ke patthey, yeh kisko uttha laaye ho?” All this, on primetime national news channels.
Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, says, “We cannot run away from the fact that today entertainment is a powerful part of our lives, and news has become that. But I am not among the people who say there is no choice. I believe serious journalism matters. The farcical side of television news will eventually die once people see through it.”

But the greatest impact of nonsense in modern cultural transaction has come in the form of political correctness. So, Obama is not Black, he is Afro-American; an actress is “an actor”; a prostitute is a sex worker; a housewife is a homemaker; and if you do not believe in global warming, the beautiful liberals have said explicitly, you are an idiot. Do you have the right any more to suspect global warming? Are you allowed to say that global warming is a natural geological phenomenon, that even back in 1912 when the Titanic sank, glaciers were melting faster than they should? Can you say this today and hope to secure the love and respect of any of those beautiful girls in FabIndia salwars?

In some schools in England where gender equality is taken very seriously, the parable of Three Wise Men has transformed into Three Wise Women, and baby Jesus in the crib is a baby girl. Also, today the best desk editors anywhere in the civilised world are under pressure not to use the pronoun ‘he’ as a neutral reference to God (the devil may be referred to as ‘he’). And ‘man’ cannot be used anymore to refer to humans.

This is a moronic pretense of modernity because, as historian Jacques Barzun has explained in his book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, the word ‘man’, like many other words, has two meanings. One is male, and the other is human. In fact, the most demeaning word in the English language is ‘woman’ because, from an etymological point of view, it refers to someone whose existence is defined by a relationship with a man. Also, it is astounding that when there have been so many brilliant women writers who have created remarkable prose about women, the feminist slogan that has stood out is: ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. Popularised by feminist Gloria Steinem, the slogan not only reeks of a certain literary impoverishment, but is also not factual as evident from the lives of almost all the women we know, including Gloria Steinem who in the year 2000, at the age of 66, to the resounding gasps of impressionable girls, married David Bale, the father of Batman, Christian Bale.

Why are there so many things in the world, so many statements, so many concepts that have no meaning at all? How is it that suddenly there are no Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorists? They are all now, once again, from that vintage Lashkar-e-Toiba. Why is it that sometimes when you read a Booker prize-winning author, you do not see why it is so highly regarded? What is happening in this world? Why is it so easy to fool people? Why is there so much nonsense all around?

Probably because we are not as smart as dogs think we are.