Astute batsmen often follow up a boundary with a single. Not Biplab Deb. Mr Deb has shot to fame in a short period of time by following up a boundary with a sixer. He began his innings as Tripura’s chief minister with a gem of a shot that scaled the boundaries of time, space and imagination — one that observed that the Internet and digital technology existed “lakhs of years ago in India”. The real-mythical nebula gets really obfuscated with his justifications about charioteer Sanjaya’s foresight and so on. Last week, he followed up the I-have-arrived shot with a most endearing compliment to former Miss World Aishwarya Rai and a not-so-generous remark about her successor: It seems Aishwarya Rai, light-eyed, fair-skinned and Hindu, represents Indian beauty more than Diana Hayden, dark-eyed, dark-skinned and Christian. The now-infamous remarks smack of the familiar discrimination of skin colour, eye colour, religion and gender.
As a young boy, I had found the magical characters in the Mahabharat fascinating, just explainable enough not to be totally over the top. Set in the Dwaparayuga but written in the Kaliyug (now synonymous with the decline of human values), the epic deftly deals with human frailties as real, explained as an inevitable cause of moral conflicts. Armed with the simplicity of Amar Chitra Katha comics and C. Rajagopalachari’s acclaimed version, I found some explanations to the godly figures: They were believable and tantalisingly out of reach of achievability. My parents and teachers kept things grounded to ensure I understood the difference between the story and the moral, the real and the mythical. As someone who grew up in different parts of India, I absorbed the diversity in languages, religions, skin colours, facial features and local values.
Cut to today’s public discourse, where morality is just as conflicted, but where politicians are pushing the envelope to cut the membranes between myth and reality. By claiming to represent their constituencies, our politicians attempt to merge the lines for us: Parables are no longer allegories but simply newly-interpreted truths. It’s important for any powerful myth-builder that building on myths already embedded within us is believable or achievable. Public memory may be short, but for a sceptic, it’s impossible to get over minor shocks of the “world’s first plastic surgery on Lord Ganesha” discourse by none other than our Prime Minister, on no less a platform than a science congress. Coming from someone powerful, the mainstreaming of such thought is impactful and bears deep meanings to millions of us. You want your skin colour to be fairer? Use the cream — most brands equate fairness with loveliness. It took us decades before mainstreaming the question: “Why should I be fairer?” Note that I am only talking about the question, not the practice. The practice of aspiration (and its promotion) will continue, as it is embedded in deeper values. If Hindu epics raised moral, sometimes uncomfortable, dilemmas, we have compulsively offered simplistic answers.
Playing on these myths is what representation is all about. Politicians, media and mythologies have always claimed to represent us, but have we questioned this representation enough? Public representation may be about availability of water and quality of roads, but it’s equally about values. If I were a popular political leader, would I increase the anxiety of your moral dilemmas by poking you to ask more questions, or would I simply offer answers to your moral dilemmas? Do parents think about how the spectator’s gaze is the perpetrator of our obsession with fair skin (represented so well in visual fiction and non-fiction), or are they more anxious to get our daughters married off? Do television news producers hire anchors to make valiant efforts to break myths and stereotypes, or would they rather hire pretty ones to “get the job done”? And as an adman famously said: “We’re not in the business of changing social morals.” This thought resonates with what Mr Deb said about the “beauty mafia”. The beauty and advertising industries may be the whipping boys of a larger problem, and I cite these examples to show what a momentous task it is for a business and its ad campaign to attempt difficult social questions — a trend that we are observing more these days. The very act of representing us may be also silencing our voice.
Much has been written and said about the power of representation of the voiceless. But the representative’s role has also, infrequently, been in focus. But many of us, steeped in religious beliefs, are ready to receive a public assertion of what we would like to offer as explanations and arguments. This public assertion takes on the voice of a representative of the voiceless — of the subaltern. The assertion promises to give voice to this subaltern. Right or wrong is no longer in question: the granting of articulation is more important. This articulating voice is the first form of agency, or the free will to act. Can we justify our beliefs to others? Sure, if someone powerful endorses them.
Rather than representing public values, our new public discourse seems to re-present our values — reinterpreted myths. This of course is a double-edged sword for the representative because of the dreaded credibility. Collective identity is a confusing mess, but it works on shared values. If you travel on Mumbai’s local trains, the conversations you hear around you are examples: “This government is useless”, “My daughter wants to be a model”, and “There is some meaning in what Biplab Deb is saying. Just listen to him properly.” These are not statements. They’re often questions for groupthink and endorsement. Publicly quotable answers make justification easier. Such groups exemplify the strands of us that politicians represent. Consider Mr Deb’s assertion. One thing I can guarantee: he sparked off a great discussion on the Virar fast local. Politicians’ claims and pseudo-claims to represent us may divide our opinions on what have been some of the biggest dilemmas. By doing so, they try to simplify our world for us. But then, democracy thrives on divided opinions....