Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 288 ( Champions are forever — the return of Tiger Woods)

Jottings - Slice of life - 288 ( Champions are forever — the return of Tiger Woods)
(Note to my readers: This essay is dedicated to my friend and colleague Vijay Shriram, who casually mentioned to me a few days ago that I should write about Tiger Woods, after his historic win in the Augusta Masters last week. Though I have been following Tiger woods incredible sporting journey for decades and sympathized with his personal life and fall from grace, I have never been a great enthusiast of the sport itself. A few years ago, I read Steven Pressfield's magnificent novel "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and was intrigued by his constant references to the Bhagavad Gita's exhortation that one must immerse oneself in action without yearning for the results. The caddie Bagger Vance speaks to his master (Junah) almost in the same language and cadence as Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. This book opened my eyes to the artistry of Golfing, and since then I have understood and appreciated the game better. I now see what can go through a Golfer's mind, when he stands with his club all alone on the golfing turf with a small white ball at his feet.
I conceived this essay during my drive back from office to home. I had to check a few facts, but beyond that, this piece was written as it emerged and took shape during my fifteen-minute ride. Thanks, Vijay for sowing the seed.)
Every sport has its mecca, and every sportsman aspires to perform at their sublime best on that hallowed ground. All other successes of a professional sportsman will pale in comparison, and a true champion will consider his sporting journey incomplete if that pilgrimage is not made, and victory not registered on that sacred spot. For tennis, it is the lush green lawns of the Wimbledon center court, for cricket, its the Oval grounds in London, for Baseball its Wrigley stadium in the Chicago, for Cycling its rugged and strenuous Tour de France cutting through the Pyrenees and Alps, for Athletics, it could be any of the Olympic venues , and for Golf there is no better theater in the world than the tough, alluring and ever-changing turf at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. For more than hundred years, the Augusta Masters ( or simply called the Masters) tournament has remained “the” title to win for a professional golfer. With all the sanctified traditions of the game held in trembling reverence there, and only the choicest players of the game extended an invitation to participate in the tournament, winning the Masters is the ultimate consummation of a Golfers existence and professional pride. To win the Master’s once is achievement enough, but to win it more than once is greatness in the sport bequeathed only to blessed few.
In the week of April 1997, the Augusta Masters witnessed something unique. A black young man, tall and focussed without seeming preoccupied, with eyes that gleamed with purpose, and face that bespoke supreme confidence, was making quite a mark on the turf. Golf has historically been a white man’s game, and Woods looked poised to break that pattern. Tiger Woods was playing in his first Masters tournament. He had come into Augusta Masters with a reputation as a young player who was deemed a natural — whatever that word means. However, the truth is Woods was playing the game since he was two years old. His Father, Earl Wood, a golfer himself and baseball player, spotted the little boy’s eyes light up when someone hit the golf ball. When Earl passed the club to young Woods for the first time at an age when kids cannot hold a toy securely in their hands, Woods held the gold club with a perfect grip in his nimble hands without any instructions. Then and there, Earl realized that his son had a special gift. Just as Williams sisters in tennis had their Father’s ambition backing their own prodigious talent, In Woods case, both Earl and his wife Tida resolved that they would sacrifice anything to make their young son the best player the game has ever seen. True to their resolve, Earl taught Woods the rudiments of the sport and became his official coach. By five Tiger Woods would swing the club with the expertise of a professional golfer, and by ten he was already the junior champion. Earl knew Tiger had come of age, when his young son, eleven years old, beat him on the golf course by more than 10 shots with effortless ease. Since then Earl has never won a golfing round against Tiger. Woods turned professional in 1996, at an incredible age of twenty, and within the same year amassed three professional championships - a unique achievement in itself. Coming into the Masters in 1997, he was not even in the reckoning for the last stages of the tournament, let alone winning it. But, as the game progressed, and thousands of spectators clad in golfing whites watched him play, they realized that something magical was unfolding on the course. Lay fans and stentorian critics stood transfixed at Wood’s “perfect swing”. A ram rod straight back that tilted and curved ever so slightly, the grip on the leather firm and resolute, the steady arms, the perfect arc of the club that did not quiver either in its descent or the ascent, the totality of the swing from start to finish that could have put a pendulum to shame for the sheer geometry of its trajectory, and the resounding impact of the club hitting the ball, sending it spiraling across its orbit for yards; and when the shot stood completed, the effortless body balance of Tiger woods as he stood nonchalantly tracing the flight of the ball to the desired hole - all of it was simply poetry and precision in motion. Woods won the 1997 Masters by twelve shots, beating the record of the other great champion Jack Nicklaus by nine shots set in 1965. The era of Tiger woods had begun.
In the next 13 years, Woods would establish a reign of an undisputed champion by winning thirteen major championships, and six professional titles and a Grand slam in between ( winning for major Golfing titles). He was in that zone of invincibility during those years. Years of grueling training under the tutelage of his father had perfected his swing, toned his body, and he was — so it seemed to those who watched him play - the perfect physical organism to have ever picked up the golfing club. Tiger’s ability to hit the ball 40 yards longer than most of his competitors, and to hit the ball with eerie accuracy each time, lifted the game to newer levels of excellence. Just as a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Steffi Graf transformed the game of tennis, Tiger’s technique and quality of golfing shots became the creed for younger players who got into the sport after him. Not many, however, know that to reach this level of excellence Woods displayed at the Masters in 1997, fifteen years of hard work and practice proceeded it. The common fallacy we entertain about great artists or sportsmen is that they are born great, and what they achieve in their area is something they are born to do. Nothing can be further to the truth. Yes, some people are born with a certain propensity, an inclination towards a specific sport or art; but rarely would you find such innate talent exploding into full-blown talent, unless there is adequate tutoring and committed practice. Earl - Wood, Tiger’s father, would make young Woods watch Golf swings for hours in his garage, and later on, Tiger himself would spend hours each day, alone, perfecting his swing. By the time, Woods was ready for the professional arena, he had reworked and reprogrammed his technique twice, chipped away at his weaknesses, until that weakness became his very strengths. Geoffrey Colvin, in his best selling book “Talent is overrated” makes his case on how champions ( including tiger woods) and great artists practice incessantly and obsessively, not on their strengths, but more on their weaknesses. The popular notion of mastering a technique is to work on one's strength, but that is not how champions think. Whats distinguishes a champion from a mediocre practitioner is that champions realize that their weaknesses have to be converted them into strength, and work on it feverishly and persistently. Tennis enthusiasts will remember that when Steffi Graf started her professional career, she possessed an ineffective and almost amateurish backhand. Her strength was the ominous forehand that could score winners to all parts of the court. But as she progressed in her career, one could see that her backhand was becoming stronger and a perfect fiddle to her power play. Hours of grueling and lonely practice to strengthen her backhand goes unnoticed in the popular imagination. But that is the secret of her success. The key idea is that what comes naturally to someone, needs minimal practice to retain and nurture, but what doesn’t, requires tremendous practice and dedicated effort. That is what champions like Tiger woods are good at doing. Alone, without the eyes of the world prying on them, they practice and practice hard on areas that need improvement. So when they come out to play, it all seems so effortless. This is an important life-lesson.
Golf in many ways is a different ball game from others. Here, one does not compete with opponents to wear them down as they do in tennis or football. The goal of golf is to hit the ball into a hole with a minimal number of shots. And to do that with every shot the golfer attempts to find that perfect swing and pace that can get the white ball as close as possible to the hole. The shots of the opponent do not affect one's score. Winning or losing a game of golf depends on how many strokes an individual player takes to reach the goal. In this respect, Golf is a lonely game. We compete only against ourselves. Standing in the golf course alone, with thousands of eyes watching from the sidelines, the golfer has to synchronize his mind and body into one being. And before the club hits the ball, the player has to gauge the lay of the turf, assess the spatial coordinates of the distance the ball has to travel, factor in the vagaries of weather, adjust to the velocity, direction and flow of wind ; and , all of this needs to be done in those brief moments when the golfer steadies himself at the tee and prepares his swing. In his brilliant novel “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, a novel about Golfing (which was adapted into a movie starring Will Smith) Steven Pressfield, the author, beautifully summarizes the art of golfing. He writes: “ Each one possesses, inside ourselves, one true Authentic swing that is our alone… Our task as golfers is simply to chip away all that is unauthentic, allowing our authentic swing to emerge in its purity..” It is the unanimous opinion of senior players, critiques, and admirers of the game of golf, that Tiger woods had found that authentic swing, and when he strode the golf courses across the world, he didn’t compete, but simply let-go and allowed the inner swing to take over. During the period between 1997 and 2008, his golden period, Woods could hit the golf ball on any course with a precision that was unbelievable as it was incredible. It seemed as though Woods was drawing upon some force deeper than mere Golfing technique.
We often want our champions to be flawless. But we forget they are human too. The year 2008 marks a turning point in Wood’s career. News of his infidelity and subsequent ugly divorce broke the pristine reputation of Tiger Woods in the minds of the people. The prodigy, the genius and well-behaved champion of Golf had erred - at least, that was the verdict of the tabloids, critics and fans. After the US Open victory in 2008, against the backdrop of deepening personal accusations, Woods succumbed to the pressure and lost his Midas touch on the golf course. The “authentic swing” became more belabored, conscious and began to waver. Fans watched him struggle to get the ball anywhere near a hole. It was as though — as one writer in the Newyorker magazine observed - Nijinsky, the great Russian ballet dancer had forgotten how to pirouette on his toes. Woods finished last in most of the tournaments he played. After years of working and pushing his strong spine to his advantage, his back started plaguing him. Four surgeries in quick succession further aggravated the poor form he was in. By 2015, the world of golf had almost forgotten the legend of Tiger Woods. He was just one more player on the field.
But great champions are never truly out, they raise the bar for themselves and for generations to come. When Roger Bannister broke the four-mile barrier, or Carl Lewis the 10 secs threshold, those were landmark moments in the history of Man’s physical abilities. In the same vein, when Tiger Woods won the 2019 Augusta Masters last week, and for the fourth time in his career, he pushed the bar for those who believed it is impossible for a former champion to make a comeback in Golf after a hiatus of ten years. And to win the Masters, the most prestigious and grueling of all of the championships, is the ultimate message to the golfing world, that the hero is firmly back. To understand the significance of Tiger wood’s achievement is not easy. Sporting is an unforgiving field. Age, athleticism, rhythm all of them diminish over time. Even the best of sportsmen have a window of performance beyond which their abilities begin to take a downward swing. And once an athlete has reached a peak, remained there for some time, the slide is bound to happen. A sensible champion will know when to quit, or at least when to stop playing at the highest levels. If that distress signal is ignored, then infamy awaits the deluded sportsman on the field sooner or later. In the last ten years, the game of golf has radically changed. The level of the game has increased. In such a milieu, for Tiger Woods to make a comeback and find his “authentic swing” once again is almost an impossible dream made true only by sheer grit, talent, and more importantly the passion to play the game. The history of sports and athletic have seen some remarkable comebacks in the past, and this win of Woods’s in the Masters will rank among the top. Woods is forty-three years now, not too old by golfing standards, and still has many more years of active golfing left. If this win is anything to go by, then the world will witness a second round of golfing excellence from this prodigy. His personal turmoils are buried, and what we see is a rejuvenated and self-assured Tiger woods - a mirror image of his former self. The stride is back, and so is the magical swing and the accuracy of the shot.
Over the last few days, there have been numerous tributes to Woods on his magnificent achievement. Barack Obama tweeted just after the win praising woods for his grit and determination despite the highs and lows; but the best tweet was by Magic Johnson, the great basketball star. He wrote, “ The roar of the tiger is back”. Yes, it is, and this time, we hope the roar will be heard for a long time to come.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 286 (“Man’s search for meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankl)

Jottings - Slice of life - 286 (“Man’s search for meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankl)
Last week, on my way back to Atlanta, a young man rushed into the flight, almost at the close of boarding gates, to occupy the seat next to me in the business class cabin. He looked flushed. In one hand, he was holding a thin book, and in the other, he was balancing a carry-on bag and a jacket. He quickly dropped his bag and jacket underneath the seat, sat down gasping for breath, turned to give me a quick nod, and opened the book in a hurry ( almost as if the boarding the flight was a distraction he could have done without) and continued reading. He didn’t give himself even a few minutes to settle down, adjust the air vent, or drink some water. It was obvious that the book he was possessively holding in his hands was irresistible, and he couldn’t wait to read the remaining pages.
It was then that I glanced at the title, and knew exactly what was going on. There are few books that can change the course of one's life if it happens to find you at the right juncture. And such books cannot be found; they find you. That is why deep thinkers, avid readers, and bibliophiles collect books by the dozen without thinking of when they shall be read. They know, someday, one of those books will speak to them in a voice that will answer a nagging question, an emotional conundrum, an existential enigma, or sometimes simply transform one's world view. The young man beside me was holding in his hand was one such slim volume - Viktor Frankl’s “ Man’s search for meaning”.
The role of Victor Frankl in the understanding of the Human mind, and in the field of psychotherapy is immense. I am not going to elaborate on it in this essay. But this little book “Man’s search for meaning” written in 1946, just after the war, describing Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps for six winters between 1941 and 1946, remains one of the most moving accounts of survival, faith, hope, meaning and restitution during that tragic period in human history. The original title of the book published in German was “Say 'Yes' to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”. In its English translation, the title was changed to “Man’s search for meaning”. The concentration camps were not prisons, they were temporary holding places for mass murder. What happened to millions of people in those camps was not just physical torture, but complete annihilation of spirit, of dignity, respect, and identity. Those five years of horror proved that Man’s pride in progress — both industrial and social - were mere myths, and beneath the veneer of rationality, there ran strong, virulent currents of bestiality and perversion waiting to overrun the flimsy structure of progress we were so proud of. The Holocaust was a turning point in civilization and a humbling experience too. We have not yet completely recovered from the shock of what happened within those gas chambers and filthy barracks. That is the reason whenever we observe symptoms of a totalitarian regime beginning to take shape, we become nervous and paranoid. Memories of the Holocaust come back, and our psyches cringe in shame and fear.
Dr. Frankl was a famous doctor even before the Nazi’s decided to purge the Jews. He was a jew in Austria, and by the end of 1930 established a third school of psychology alongside Freud’s and Jung’s. He called it Logotherapy - or the ability to find meaning in human lives, not as an abstract ideal, but something concrete and personal to the human being concerned. When the threat of an imminent Nazi purge was becoming a reality in 1941, thousands fled Germany by any means available. The American consulate formally offered Dr. Frankl a visa to the US, assuring immunity and professional freedom. But Dr. Frankl refused. He refused the offer because he couldn’t leave his aged parents behind and seek liberty for himself. In his preface to the book in 1991, Dr. Frankl describes how he was toying with the idea of leaving Austria or not and how a “a hint from heaven”, as he calls it, came from a piece of marble that lay casually on the dining table at home. That piece was from a synagogue that the Nazi’s had torn down. His father had recovered it from the debris because it contained a portion of one of the ten commandments “ Honor thy Father and Mother that thy days be long upon the land”. When Victor read that fragment, his mind was made up. He remained in Austria, knowing fully well what was in store for him.
When Dr. Frankl was taken a prisoner, and sent from one concentration camp to another, he was able to witness his own ideas and beliefs tested, challenged and forged in new ways. His principal question was this: what happens to a man when he is stripped away of everything he possessed — education, dignity, family, wealth, self-respect and importantly with no hope at all for the future? What does a man do in such a case? Is there anything at all that can give his life meaning and will to survive. Dr. Frankl asked and thought about these questions in the midst of the humiliating lives the prisoners were leading. Anytime, Dr. Frankl himself could have been gassed. There was no certainty about anything. Lives were held together by the thinnest of threads. The only unassailable part of living was the inner sense of worth and meaning each one possessed. The social context of the individual before they were deported to the concentration camps had no value whatsoever. The Nazis had stripped it away to the last shred, so what remained was only their own inner core, which none could touch. Many prisoners, Frankl noticed, died quickly not because of ill health, but because they simply lost the will and meaning to life. The victims would one day refuse to get up from their soiled beds, or eat, talk or co-operate — the complete depersonalization of a man. When an inmate reached this state, they would die within a week, simply wither away like an unwatered plant.
Dr. Frankl observed that many who survived the camps did so mostly by finding something to live for. In other words, finding a meaning that is very personal and can only be applicable to the individual. Dr. Frankl was working on a book when he was taken to the concentration camps. During the five years there, He found meaning in the thought that someday he would return and complete his work. Whenever he found some breathing space in the crowded camps, he jotted down his thoughts on scraps of soiled paper, which he later used to complete the book. He remembered his wife often. Thoughts of reuniting with her, and resuming the intimacy they shared kept him buoyant. Imagination is a great tool if used positively. This sense of re-directing the complete hopelessness of a situation into an inner channel filled with personal meaning summons the necessary energy to keep the body pulsating, and the Self to hold itself together. In the book, Dr, Frankl often quotes Frederick Nietzsche’s insightful comment “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how”. The important thing is to figure out the “why"-the meaning in one's existence - and the means to achieve the “why” will unfailingly appear. No meaning is trivial as long as we have and believe in one.
Some detractors did critique Dr. Frankl’s work that he accepted suffering the Germans so inhumanely inflicted, and advocated a philosophy of fatalism. That is a wrong reading of the book, and far from what Dr. Frankl meant. He strongly points that conditions leading to atrocities and suffering of any kind should be stopped; but when that becomes impossible, and people are thrown into a choiceness predicament such as the Jews found themselves in, then the only way to keep hope alive is to find an inner meaning. Otherwise, all hope is lost. That is a profound message. It needs to be pondered over.
Midway during my flight, my neighbor put the book down and pressed his eyes. It was a little moist and tired. I asked him” Do you like the book you are reading?”
He looked at me for a moment, as if I had asked the wrong question, and then answered:
“This book has opened my eyes. I bought this yesterday after work, and since then I haven’t been able to keep myself away from it. I almost missed the boarding announcement. For a long time, I have wondered how anyone could have survived the Holocaust, and if they did - How? Dr. Frankl’s little memoir has given answers, and a possible opening to change my way of life. From now on, this book will be the gift I will share with people close to me..”
I understood his answer. I felt the same way when I read it for the first time nearly a decade ago.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Jottings - Slice of Life -284 - ( The biopic on Modi - few thoughts)

Jottings - Slice of Life -284 - ( The biopic on Modi - few thoughts)
There couldn’t have been a better time for the release of the biopic on Prime minister Narendra Modi. Especially, with an upcoming general election that promises to be a touch and go for the BJP. Out of curiosity, I was reading the “Model code of conduct”, released by the Election commission of India, to check what the documents say about using “Art” to further one's position in an election campaign. After all, movies are a form of art, at least that’s how the ruling party would frame their case. So what does the document say about making a movie on the incumbent prime minister on the eve of a general election? The Code of conduct is silent about it. It has clauses on most other ways of unduly influencing the public such as: refraining from monopolizing public places, not causing any division by way religion, language or caste; not to hold meetings in front of opposition party offices or homes; not to use the Government machinery to campaign etc; but nowhere in the document are there restrictions on making a film, or dance drama, or song, or painting. The only caveat I could find that could be construed as a guideline for art is that propaganda material, created and used, shouldn’t be derogatory to other parties, and there is a cap on the amount of money that can be spent on creating such artifacts. Beyond these vague and general pointers, there is absolutely nothing in the code of conduct that prevents anybody from making a movie. To that extent, the matter is clear and unequivocal, and the BJP’s ploy of releasing a movie as a window to showcase Modi’s indisputable greatness is beyond legal contention.
Now there is a question of the spirit of following the “code of conduct”. Any constitutional document has two sides to it. One is the letter of the statutes and the other is the spirit behind it. I am not sure if the release of the movie “Narendra Modi” exemplifies the spirit. While there may be no statute that bars a party from making a movie; and the BJP may claim that the Congress has made movies in the past based on critical national events, I don’t think Prime Minister Modi needs such scaffolding. His personality and charisma in real life in more than sufficient to carry an election. By descending into tactics such as these, the BJP is only betraying a sense of vulnerability about its position and chances. That is unfortunate indeed. In India, nothing can sway the public more than movies. It is a known and proven fact. For some strange reason, when it comes to cinema, the line between fiction and fact is completely obliterated in India. Our heroes and heroines are allowed to live their reel life in real life. We consider their onscreen personas to be real and tangible. A hero can stop a train with his little finger, another can fly in the air to beat up hundreds. It makes no difference to us, and it doesn’t offend our sense of credibility. We acknowledge the superhuman quality of actors on screen without question. In such a milieu, a movie on Modi, projecting him to be in the same mold as Vivekananda, rising from poorest of circumstances to heights of success, recreating each step of Modi's journey in superhuman terms, is bound to have its effect on the gullible public ready to believe everything thrown at them. Add to this, the fact that all the “creative” artists involved in the project are staunch BJP supporters ( some card holding members), and the movie is blessed by the Prime minister himself by graciously allowing his poems to be used; and the President of the party finding time to release initial poster and other paraphernalia around the movie; and the first rushes of the movie as splashed on television and media exalting the Man Narendra Modi as quasi-spiritual leader heeding to an inner call to lead the country forward. It doesn’t need great intelligence and logic-splitting inference, to see that the timing of the release of this movie is an election stunt to scaffold the larger-than-life personality of Narendra Modi, and an attempt to ride the Modi wave for the second time. Not a bad ploy, if you ask me, considering it is done by the book with no legal violation of the code of conduct. But the spirit of it? Well, that’s another thing altogether.
Having said this much, I must also confess that the life of Narendra Modi is worth a biopic. I would definitely line up to watch it. Only a few prime ministers of Modern India have had the rise, tenacity, energy, drive, and phenomenal acceptance among all sections of the population as Modi has. The people of India love Modi, but whether the same can said of BJP - I don't know? My suspicion is that it has to be a “NO”. There is still a lurking suspicion about BJP’s overall agenda, but none about Modi. Modi looks steadfast in his commitment to the country. Detractors may say that Modi has risen from the ranks of radicalism, and ruled his native state like an autocrat. Agreed, but as a prime minister for the last five years, he has given India back its pride in the global arena, not so much in terms of evangelizing his party’s ideology, but reinstating the glory of India and the strength of its character, by his own impeccable demeanor and worth ethic. I still continue to hear the resounding voice of Modi, when he spoke a few years ago at the US Senate. There was pin drop silence and a sense of historic importance, as the august senate listened to the man speak with such fluency, conviction, and emotion.
Therefore, on the question, whether it is appropriate to release a biopic on the life of a sitting prime minister contesting his second term in a month’s time from now; I am clear - it is not. The film may not have violated any legal norms, but it certainly has stepped over the boundaries of the spirit in which those norms were written. But whether a movie on Modi is to be made at all; I am clear - it is.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Friday, April 5, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 282 ( When an English word causes trouble- the case of Shashi Tharoor’s tweet)

Jottings - Slice of life - 282 ( When an english word causes trouble- the case of Shashi Tharoor’s tweet)
The elections in India are around the corner. It is hard to believe that five years have passed since Narendra Modi assumed the reigns of the country, and most Indians were applauding the inauguration of a new chapter in Independent India. Five years is a reasonably long time for a party in power, and if one looks back at these years, it is difficult to feel euphoric. At the same time, there is definitely a sense that something has subtly changed for the better in the fabric of Indian society. At the very least, there is a new found confidence in the identity of the nation, which was conspicuously missing or persistently eroded in the previous era. This optimism is largely due to the magic of the Man Narendra Modi, his authoritative presence in global forums, and the powerful rhetoric of his public discourses. Whether the next five years belong to him or not is dependent on the people’s perception of the party he represents, and not so much on Modi himself.
Elections can evoke strange reactions and paranoia in political parties. I was deeply amused by the reaction of the BJP and ruling party CPI in Kerala, to an absolutely inoffensive tweet by Shashi Tharoor, one of the few remaining intellectuals in the political landscape of the country. It is a known fact that Shashi Tharoor’s command of the English language, and his penchant to clothe even ordinary thoughts in the most flowery sentences, is a distinctive trait of the man. He can’t help it. Schooled as he is the best traditions of the language, and his innate love for the beauty of words compels him to express his thoughts in words, phrases and sentences that most others will find difficult to conceive, let alone articulate. On a recent visit to the state capital of Kerala, Mr. Tharoor tweeted, (after visiting the fish market there): “Found a lot of enthusiasm at the fish market, even for a squeamish, vegetarian MP”. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong or derogatory about this tweet. While political opponents have attacked the tweet as derogatory and insulting to the Fishermen community; if I were Tharoor, I would have found the nearest wall to bang my head against, for having used a word that many cannot understand in context. Squeamish is an adjective, and if one cares to consult the dictionary, it means “ (of a person) easily made to feel sick, faint, or disgusted, especially by unpleasant images, such as the sight of blood”. Agreed, that the tonal quality of the word “Squeamish “ is little jarring to the ears and conveys a sense of irritation and disgust, but used in the context that Tharoor did, what he meant was “ The fishermen were enthusiastic around me, even though I don't eat fish or being anywhere near it”. Most vegetarians have this attitude. Nothing wrong with that. Mr. Tharoor is a strict vegetarian, he used the word “squeamish” to only emphasize his vegetarianism and to create the effect of a hyperbole. Now, what is a hyperbole? A Hyperbole in English is a sentence to exaggerate or amplify something. For instance, “His stomach is a bottomless pit”, or “She's as skinny as a toothpick.” The words “bottomless” and “toothpick” are not to be understood in its literal sense. They are meant to convey an exaggerated sense of what we mean. A “squeamish vegetarian”, as used by Tharoor, therefore indicates amplified sense of vegetarianism without any exception whatsoever. To infer that he abused or insulted the Fishermen is not only incorrect but comical.
Unfortunately, Tharoor found himself cornered. There is no way he could explain hyperboles to an audience who wouldn’t listen. Instead, he went on print and air offering reasons why he couldn’t have meant anything insulting, such as how everyone in his family ate fish except him, and that he had recommended the fishermen for a Nobel prize after their daring rescue efforts after the cyclone in 2017, etc. It is sad that Tharoor had to offer all these reasons and clarifications for having used a right word in the wrong context at a politically sensitive time, that was easily twisted by his opponents to score few political brownie points. However, some good can come of this too. It is a good lesson for intellectuals aspiring for political office in countries where English is not a mother tongue, to be careful about how they speak in public. Great orators and communicators keep their language simple and straight. Martin Luther King’s “ I have a dream..”, or Churchill’s “Blood, sweat and toil”, or Gandhi’s “Quit India” are simple sentences that evoke great significance. While the country needs men and women of the intellectual caliber of Shashi Tharoor, the reason they will never get an overwhelming mandate of the public is because of the barriers they erect for themselves, both in their language and the posturing. They have to be more grounded to make an impact.
This election promises more such distracting incidents. On one hand, we have the leader of the Congress, who revels in juvenile communication and incomplete facts; and he challenges Modi, who is one of the best communicators in the global political arena. And in between are the likes of Shashi Tharoor, whose good intentions and deep intellect are their own enemies.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala