Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tweets and Taunts

The twittering facebook generation has come down like a ton of bricks on our poor humourless politicians for picking on Shashi Tharoor and his innocent 'cattle class' tweet. Given that most Indians lack the ability to laugh at themselves, why pick on the politicians who are just a mirror of our own selves? Despite that, I am afraid, knowing Tharoor as I do, I find it very difficult to sympathise with him.

Tharoor was a year senior to me in college. He would wander around with a band of hangers-on who, one day in my early days in college, kidnapped me and took me to the presence of the master. After some desultory 'tough' questioning to pretend that he was ragging me, Tharoor turned on the charm and his winning smile, introduced himself and asked me to vote for him in the coming college elections. As a trembling nervous fresher, terrified at the thought of what might befall me if I refused, I hurriedly agreed and was let off with some gracious patronising words. I didn't vote for him (I no longer remember why -- there wasn't much to choose between the various candidates) but he swept the elections with his ever ready wit and perfect turn of phrase for every occasion. In fact Stephen's then (and presumably now) was full of people who could discourse at length but without content, on any topic in the famous Mukherjee memorial debates and elsewhere in debating competitions in the country, where they usually swept the awards precisely for this ability -- form without content. Another 'great' debater was Ramu Damodaran who went on to become P. V. Narasimha Rao's Private Secretary when Rao was the PM. (While on this business of name-dropping, Amitav Ghosh was in my batch, Ram Guha a year later and Upamanyu Chatterji I think was the same batch -- not that I knew any of them personally being a lowly 'science-type'; and now it's too late to pretend to be on first name terms with them!)

Tharoor's felicity with the English language (and fluency in French) stood him in perfect stead in his years in the UN, where you are supposed to look good, speak well and interminably, be diplomatic and never upset the apple cart. I do not recall any particularly distinguished service record in any of the hotspots of the world in all his years as UN High Commissioner of Refugees. It allowed him to write a few books, fiction and non-fiction, which saw a modicum of success. Consequently, he was more visible in various literary festivals and authors' workshops than in any UN relief operations anywhere. However, what might pass muster in the halls and corridors of St. Stephen's College and literary gatherings, and even produce accolades, are not necessarily appropriate emanating from a Minister in the Government of India. Wisecracks are fine in their place and indeed 'cattle class' is more pejorative about the airlines which treat their passengers like cattle than about the class themselves, but it is surely obvious that what is fine for an ordinary member of the public self-consciously proud of his ready wit, is not necessarily fine as a Minister's public pronouncement, (albeit only on Twitter), more so in a overly sensitive self-important country like ours. If Shashi Tharoor still hasn't figured this one out, what's he doing in that position?

Update: Soutik Biswas on BBC refers to Tharoor's tweets as "harmless, constipated takes on cricket, traffic jams in Delhi, Patrick Swayze, Roger Federer...unexceptional, unexciting and largely irrelevant". Exactly.


AmOK said...

Flippancy, not brevity, is the soul of wit. You were sixteen, he was seventeen, someone older and wiser, telling you what to do in the upcoming election. Those were the days -- and so moving on ..

Yes, as a minister he has no business referring to the "cattle class" travel, he needs to be much more circumspect in his tweets. Travelling "with the green economy of divine bovinity while supporting bovine divinity" could be better, yet still dangerous. You pounced on him pretty quick, OLO!

Obama made a number of such gaffe's and will probably make a few more -- like his reference to the "Special Olympics". Maybe Tharoor is just aping the West?

Rahul Basu said...

I wouldn't mind his Twittering -- but it's not clear that he is doing anything else!! He made some vague remarks during the Indo-Pak joint declaration (that had got M M Singh into trouble) and there too he made some gaffes. I suspect he is too busy always trying to come up with cute one-liners to think too much before letting forth...

Come come, I think your President has substantially more sense...

AmOK said...

Quite so, quite so. The barrage of witticisms do leave the ordinary minds reeling.

Since you are missing Ramu Damodaran I thought you would enjoy this clip. Important-sounding stuff dressed in a fabulous accent. A bit like string theory really, not Tweets and Taunts but Tantu's Tweets.

Rahul Basu said...

Jeez! He's also landed up at the UN! Amazing how these smooth talking ponderously vacuous characters all gravitate to the UN. Is it any wonder that the UN is not able to provide solutions to any of the conflict zones in the world? A British accent and verbal felicity are hardly enough to get veteran warring factions to the negotiating table.

Kapil said...

Perhaps the following article is relevant here.

"But I Was Just Joking!" Humor as a Shield
. The article (written
by a comedian) explains why this is a not a valid defense for a crude

Rahul Basu said...

Well, in this case it was not so much a case of a crude remark (I still think 'cattle class' is fine as a reflection on the airlines rather than people) but this whole class of people trying to trivialise issues with one liners. It shows a lamentable lack of depth.

AmOK's little clip illustrates this point rather well - yet another distinguished Stephanian with a zeal for the vacuous sentence.