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Bartering Silver for Gold

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Prescriptions for restraint from the ancient Indian literature for leaders in headlong love with the microphone.

Congratulating George Bush for keeping his second inauguration speech short and sweet, the Times of India (21.01.05, Delhi) has reminded us of the tragedy concerning one of his illustrious predecessors, William Henry Harrison: “On March 4, 1841, undeterred by a raging snowstorm, Harrison held forth. His words – nearly 10,000 of them – flowed for close to two hours (it probably seemed even longer to the audience, who must have been frozen to the bone). Harrison rather injudiciously did not bother with an overcoat, hat or gloves throughout the address. A month later, he was dead of pneumonia.”

And that makes this writer reflect on the Indian scene.

It was sometime in the sixties that the sun set over the golden era of speech-making by Indian politicians, the era that had commenced during our freedom-struggle, had risen to a nation-wide crescendo during the late forties and the early fifties and only then had begun to show signs of decline.

Numerically we have far more political speakers today in the 21st century than ever before, but the time when the orator could go on for a full three hours with a conscience as clear as his throat, is past. It was easy, prior to 1947, to keep the audience charmed with harangues bitterly critical of a foreign rule; conjuring up visions of freedom. Once freedom had been accomplished, promises of a happy tomorrow helped the speaker retain his gusto, though it was growing weaker by the day – into the fifties.

Then arose the unforeseen obligation, on the part of the speakers belonging to the party in power, to defend their commissions and omissions – by no means a comfortable exercise. The once roaring voices were resigned to cooing – but like the koels with cracking voices at the fag end of the spring. Those in the opposition stole their thunder, but the thunder itself was losing its trenchancy, because the ears of the audience were growing thicker.

Both old veterans and new speakers have tried their best to restore the old glory of the gab – through their taking recourse to different dormant passions in their audience – linguistic, religious or communal – but only with varying degrees of ephemeral success. Political speakers who drew audience spontaneously are a fast vanishing species; today audiences have to be literally drawn by cavalcades of vehicles ranging from bullock carts to lorries, for almost all the speakers. Only occasionally it becomes a bit different if the speaker exudes some extra-political glamour. And of course the only glamour is film.

One who speaks a lot cannot help speaking a lot of nonsense or at least much that is superfluous. If the speaker is a minister, even his casual remarks are suspected to be terribly important. At times the minister himself could feel amazed at discovering, courtesy media reports and comments, that he meant so much. There is of course no question of his admitting to the truth that he only spoke much and really did not mean much. He tries to be chary. That results in the evolution of “doublespeak” or gobbledygook, pompous words and phrases that help the speaker avoid the consequence of a plain, factual or truthful utterance. Thus, as William Lambodin lists in his revealing compilation, Doublespeak Dictionary, “Air Support” is used in place of bombing and “Appreciate” for understand (Lambodin quotes a Pentagon official who said, “I appreciate the loss of American lives in Vietnam.”) The process currently holds good in relation to an empire of political vocabulary.

Why do we speak so much? Apart from the law of the basic urge for expression inherent in nature, the human being, according to a great mystic, loves to blabber on because he is the first creature to be able to talk. Like a child fascinated by its first toy, the human being handles his power of speech with abandon. (The politician – of Indian brand in particular – perhaps represents humanity’s second childhood.)

A retired Western journalist told this author, “Since listening to Krishna Menon’s Marathon speech at the U.N. – undoubtedly he symbolised a certain Indian trait through its extreme exercise – I have never stopped wondering about the secret of the Indian zeal for speech-making. At the same time I am intrigued by the fact that several celebrated Indians refrained from uttering a single word one full day every week, observing Maun. It seems to be a love-hate relationship with speech.”

Silence was greatly valued in ancient India for two reasons, pragmatic and spiritual. The less one spoke, the less one betrayed one’s ignorance. “In a gathering, a fool (well-dressed) looked dignified as long as he kept his mouth shut,” says a Sanskrit epigram. So far as silence as a spiritual discipline is concerned, its value was enumerated in an example of extreme restraint, in a story from the Buddhist lore:

A little prince never spoke. The anxious king announced a huge reward for anyone who could make him speak.

One noon, while the prince sat in meditation in the royal garden, a bird tittered overhead and his bodyguard hit it with a stone. The bird fell down and struggled to take off flapping its wounded wings. The prince picked it up, fondled it and while leaving it at a safe space, muttered, “Poor thing, why did you speak?”

The bodyguard leaped up with joy. He ran to the king. “The prince has spoken, my lord!” he exclaimed. The king and his court made a beeline for the garden, but the prince, as ever, sat ensconced in his silence! “Is it true that you spoke, my son?” the king asked entreatingly, but the prince made no reply. “Behead this liar!” shouted the angry king pointing his finger at the prince’s bodyguard.

At frantic appeals from the horrified bodyguard, the prince merely said, “Poor fellow, why did you speak?”

That saved the bodyguard, but that was also the only time the king and his courtiers heard the prince speak, for he left the palace soon thereafter.

To keep absolutely silent is difficult, but it is far more difficult to control one’s speech. Asked by a young admirer to give a formula for success in life, Einstein is believed to have said, “If A stands for success, then A equals to X plus Y plus Z, X symbolising work and Y play.”

“But, sir, what does Z represent?” asked the young man. “That, my boy, is keeping your mouth shut!” answered the great man.

It is impossible to exaggerate the benefit that will be theirs and the country’s if our leaders spoke less. That would give them far more opportunity to work, give the crowds less opportunity for breaking away from their works, save the police and administration hours of illusory duty, save space in newspaper for better utilisation and avoid numerous cases of misunderstanding, explanations and unholy exchanges. Last but not the least, the restraint will save language itself a lot of violence; there will be far less devaluation in the meaning of words.

A character in Solokov’s Don trilogy, an untiring speaker, prefaced his speech every time by telling  his audience that a good word was a piece of silver, until one day a victim reminded him that since silence was golden he  could very well exchange his  silver for gold! But the ultimate deterrent to the vain enthusiasm of speakers has been provided by the Indian folklore:

A budding scholar, on his maiden speech in the courtyard of a temple found his audience growing thinner and thinner as he went on with his exposition of the systems of philosophy deeper into the night, but his spirit was not quite dampened because at least one old woman sat gazing at him, nodding and shedding tears. At last the scholar concluded his speech and congratulated the solitary listener for her great interest in lofty issues.

And then spoke the grandma, caressing the scholar’s goatee beard, “My child, I understood nothing of what you chattered on. But when you swayed your tiny beard to the left and to the right while speaking, you reminded me of my pet goat which was lost. How exactly like you it used to move its beard while chewing the chaff! My memory was stirred!”

It will do our speakers immense good to meditate on the story for a moment every time before launching their orations.

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)