When a Mercedes Benz E Class stopped outside the gates of my house one evening, I thought the owner must have lost his way. But when the rear door opened and the sole passenger stepped out, I got a surprise, for it was my old friend Murthy, whom I'd last spoken to on the phone when he was locked down in Thiruvananthapuram. I was thrilled, because this was my first visitor since the lockdown began, and, besides, the Merc was a sight to behold!
Murthy made himself at home in my drawing room in a matter of minutes. He took the most comfortable seat, eased the cat off an ottoman so that he could put his feet up, got me to fetch him a large peg of his favourite whiskey (of which I had limited stocks, because it’s so expensive), turned on the TV with the sound off so he could watch the ticker tape of a news channel at the bottom of the screen, and persuaded my wife to start frying snacks.
When he had made himself truly comfortable, I asked him what brought him this way. "An inauguration," he replied. "A sort of temple."
“A temple!” I said, surprised, for I’d somehow got the impression that he was an agnostic.
“Not a temple, exactly,” he said, taking a large swig of my whiskey. “A monument to a leader. One of those fellows who turned a local community into a vote bank.”
“Why did you say temple, then?” I asked, irritated.
“Because that’s what it is,” he said, smiling in a way that set my teeth on edge. “You can’t go in there as you wish, there are lots of rules about it, like leaving your shoes outside, and being quiet and respectful inside, and saying the right words, and placing flowers on pictures, and so on, regardless of whether the person in question was a devil or a saint.”
I got his point and tried to shut him up, but getting a word in when Murthy is in full cry is like trying to stop an avalanche with a sheet of newspaper. “There are many types of temples,” he went on. “The oldest are to gods, even those that don’t permit pictures inside. The second are to events. Like a monument to Independence Day or Kargil Vijay Diwas or whatever. The third type are to people. Leaders, you know, people who won their followers freedom or land or dignity or whatever.
And the fourth type, those are to ideologies. Monuments to Marxism, or Socialism, or whatever ism comes to your mind.
“They all have these rules and rituals and special days and flowers and protocols...
“When you look at the people to whom temples are built... You know, they were human, after all. Marx and Gandhi and Lenin and Lincoln and Mandela, all had their failings, their grey areas. I’m not sure any of those wise people to whom we put up temples would agree that they deserved those temples.”
“And, you know, the thing is that ideological beliefs are no different from religious beliefs. Religion fellows say that god made these rules for you to obey if you want happiness in some future life. No trace of evidence for all this, mind you.
The ideology fellows say that society or countries or whatever must follow such-and-such rules to achieve happiness in this life. Again, very little evidence. Of course, they give you examples, of societies that followed those rules and progressed, and they give you measures of how to find out if your society is better than others, and so on, but when you examine it all you find the ideology fellows have no deep evidence, either.
“Which is why they quarrel all the time, just like the religion-wallahs. Like the communists and the capitalists, or rightists and leftists, or whatever. And sometimes it all gets mixed up, ideology and religion, like we’re beginning to see increasingly, and that’s really messy. But there’s one thing that all ideologies have in common...”
My wife entered the room at this point, bearing a tray of hot cheese fritters. I saw, for the first time, one of Murthy’s monologues interrupted. My wife didn’t even need a sheet of newspaper to stop the avalanche: all she needed was one look. She’s got this look, you see, like steel and ice all wrapped up in unspoken menace...
Well, Murthy lost the thread of his monologue, and kept quiet though most of dinner. He resumed only when it was about time for him to leave, and I was leading him to gate from where I’d be able to get another look at the exquisite Mercedes in which he’d arrived. After I’d looked at it gleaming in the lamplight — for night had come while Murthy was talking — I thought I’d ask him about the one thing that ideologies have in common.
“Oh, that,” he said airily, for he had regained his confidence. “It’s a very simple principle that they all follow.” My wife turned up to wish him goodbye and he dried up again. “Where was I?” he asked when she had nodded him a gracious goodbye and disappeared into the house.
“Something all ideologies follow,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s an easy way to find friends,” he said. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The chauffeur opened the car door for him, and he stepped in. Sitting inside, he grinned up at me, mischief in his eyes. “Only there’s a trick to it, you know.”
“What?” I asked, rising to the bait, as usual.
“It’s difficult, especially after this coronavirus business and WHO and so on,” he replied, “but you’ve got to know who your enemies are!”...