Nation Current Affairs 31 Mar 2019 Shashi Tharoor' ...

Shashi Tharoor's squemishness and his rivals’ nervousness

Published Mar 31, 2019, 1:26 am IST
Updated Mar 31, 2019, 1:26 am IST
Tharoor means this as a personal attribute. The problem is that this word and the disposition it betokens, for better for worse, carry a class-bias.
UDF candidate Shashi Tharoor holds aloft tuna during a reception organised by fishermen community in Puthiyathura, Thiruvananthapuram, on Saturday. Tharoor had courted a major controversy over his tweet after visiting a fish market in capital.
 UDF candidate Shashi Tharoor holds aloft tuna during a reception organised by fishermen community in Puthiyathura, Thiruvananthapuram, on Saturday. Tharoor had courted a major controversy over his tweet after visiting a fish market in capital.

This is election season, when to be not normal is the new normal. We are required to be hypersensitive, rather than sensible. Quick to take offence, even if none exists. To deem that words are more important than deeds, posturing more significant than reality, and promises more meritorious than performance. Consequently, elections are cast in the mold of contests in controversies.

But not many of us are politicians. For us being to fair to each other is more important than some stray turns of speech. Understanding a person within the context is basic to charity; for meaning lies in the interaction of the text and the context. Elections come and go, but the courtesies of day-to-day life must remain. So, meaning must count more than linguistic vanity and verbal social affectation.


What did Shashi Tharoor tweet? Here are the exact words, “Found a lot of enthusiasm at the fish market even for a squeamishly vegetarian MP”. The sitting MP visited the fish market, held a lowly fish by its tail, making sure that the relevant part of its anatomy was insulated from his touch, by wrapping it with a piece of paper. So far, so good. But he didn’t stop there. He tweeted. How can it be otherwise? Is any action, especially of the political elite, real or complete in this age of the media without a tweet? The worth and significance of an action lies in its being known to at least a few million citizens.


The offensive word in the tweet was ‘squeamishly’. To be squeamish is to feel disgusted or to be sickened. The thing to note, if we want to respect the use of language and common sense, is that Tharoor means and uses this as a personal attribute. He claims himself to be a ‘squeamishly vegetarian MP’. This has three parts. First, he is a member of parliament. Second, this MP is a vegetarian. Third, this a step ahead of other vegetarians; he is ‘squeamishly’ vegetarian. The first question that arises, to a neutral umpire, is: does this constitute an insult to the fisherfolk of Kerala?


Absolutely not! It is impossible to construe this statement so out of its semantic and syntactical drift as to put the opprobrium of a fisherfolk-specific offence on it. The statement does not contain any reference, directly or indirectly to fishermen. Tharoor did not hold fishermen or fisherwomen by their tails wrapped in paper! The attribute of squeamishness is what he ascribes to himself. Also, he is not saying that he is squeamish about dealing with fisherfolk, not even fish! He is not even saying that he is squeamish only about touching fish with his naked hand. He is saying that he is by nature squeamishly vegetarian. That is to say, if the meaning is to be correctly derived, he is squeamish when it comes to anything that compromises his vegetarianism. He is, that is, instinctively vegetarian. It is in the marrow of his bones. In that sense, it should be an insult, if it is an insult, to all ingredients of non-vegetarianism and those associated with making non-vegetarianism possible. Fisherfolks are a p
art of this vast army of people insulted accidently by Tharoor. So, either the Tharoor detractors should retreat from their gleefully discovered grievance, or they should enlarge the ambit of grievance wider.


Still, there is a problem with Tharoor’s ‘squeamishness’. The problem is that this word and the disposition it betokens, for better for worse, carry a class-bias. Ordinary folks -vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian- are rarely squeamish. Sure, they have their likes and dislikes. But they are never squeamish. Historically, the elite social class has used all five senses as sites of social distinction. If you belong to the privileged class, you must mind even mild malodour, be fiercely punctilious about taste, keep a lot of things out of touch and be untouchable by many, and so on.


Squeamishness is a disposition indicative of this elitist posturing. If you are an authentic vegetarian there are four options open to you. First, avoid touching the fish. Second, hold a fish by its tail directly. Third, hold it by its tail, wrapping its in paper so that your fingers don’t stink all along the campaign trails. Fourth, hold a fish by its tail in whichever way you like and refrain from tweeting. No, Tharoor must tweet! And that is the key to the meaning of this event.

From his point of view, it is important for the nation to know that he is squeamish; for squeamishness exudes social elitism. That’s where the problem really lies; even through Tharoor’s detractors seem not to understand it.


Hence the second really offensive tweet to the effect that the Kerala political leaders are not well-versed enough in English to understand his tweets. The offence lies in the fact that this is nearly true in a sophisticated cultural sense! This is evident from the reactions that have come so far from that quarter.  But that is not what matters politically. The political offence lies in Tharoor’s underlying the political underprivilege of his rivals, so as to show himself off as their superior. His adversaries cannot understand aright even a few words he tweets. This may, or may not, be true; but it is quite beside the point. Rather than discredit his detractors with being substandard in English, he could have clarified his meaning and cleared the cobweb of misunderstandings.


That prospect would not occur to Tharoor -the tweeter of the famous cattle class and holy cow at the outset of his political innings in India- because of his swelling elitist bias. In this Shashi alone is not to be blamed. He knows, as all of us do, the vanity of Malayalees in respect of English.

To be really class in Kerala, you must not know Malayalam too well and, to establish that to be the case, you must speak Malayalam with a stilted accent and sprinkle each sentence with a few English words. English is a scintillating insignia of social distinction in Kerala. So is social vanity, the like of which makes Tharoor tweet his squeamishness about touching fish as a mark of distinction.  


‘But there is nothing fishy about this. It is only a meaty posturing of social elitism, shrewdly spiced up with an encoded appeal to vegetarians, who are a force to reckon with in the Trivandrum constituency. But for the fact that the BJP and the Left knows this to be true, Tharoor’s tweet would not have sired the present controversy that shows how infantile politicking is tending to be on account of both sides of the controversy.