June 06, 2020
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Have You Heard This One? Of Course, You Have!

We need bores as much as we need the interesting types. And they are everywhere, in every field, from politics to cricket.

Have You Heard This One? Of Course, You Have!

First the critical question. How do you define a bore? To misquote William Shakespeare, let me count the ways. They (bores) come in all shapes and sizes, in all colours, in all heights, in all parts of the globe (Eskimos, someone once noted, are the most boring people on the planet), and in a bewildering and copious variety. So, don’t be surprised if I suggest that bores are difficult, indeed impossible to define with precision. If one is lucky (unlucky?) as I have been, you can have the privilege of meeting quite a few. For me, it has been an education.

Privilege? Yes, because if you frequently encounter the tedious, then you begin to appreciate the value of the interesting. Or the ‘other’. In fact, the value of the ‘other’ is in direct proportion to the value of the bore. The more bores you come across, the more you are likely to esteem the opposite breed.

Bores may put you to sleep but they are necessary. They make our universe a safe place to inhabit since they are invariably risk-averse, prudent, don’t like to rock the boat, exude an air of safety. Interesting people may be interesting, may keep you wide awake, may be scintillating conversationalists; alas, they are risk-prone. In short, they are dangerous. If a country is blessed/cursed with an abundance of the interesting, that country is likely to be unstable. From Napoleon to Narendra Modi, the pantheon is unvarying. These individuals are a journalist’s dream but they can be a historian’s nightmare.

From the above, one might deduce that bores are generally nail-biting, nervous introverts who weary you with their dullness and their somnolence. And when they say something, it will generally be banal. They don’t make demands on one’s attention or intelligence. It doesn’t matter where you run into them—an airport, bar, train—you can be sure they won’t interfere with the book you are keen to finish.

Unfortunately, the other kind also exists. The extrovert bore. He or she is excessively garrulous, and like the Ancient Mariner desperate for an audience. The extrovert bore pretends he knows a great deal about everything under the sun, from cabbages to kings. Sadly, the knowledge is third-hand. The exuberant bore, unlike the quiet bore, is persistent, won’t let you go until you have heard his full tale, which is usually over-long and complicated. If I had to choose between spending time with an introvert bore or an extrovert bore, I would unhesitatingly pick the former.

Where do bores live? Where can you be sure to find them? In India, they are over-represented in politics and in public life. I better be careful here because I still have a few friends left among the netas. Thus, while many names from contemporary politics come to mind, I’ll avoid naming them. Discretion is, after all, the better part of valour.

The 24-carat bore’s lieutenants will tell you conspiratorially, “If you meet him privately, he is very interesting....”

No one, least of all a politician, enjoys being called a bore. They don’t mind being criticised but to be dubbed a bore is unacceptable. Sometimes, when the individual concerned is a transparent, 24-carat bore and the whole country is aware of the fact, his lieutenants will tell you conspiratorially, “If you meet him privately, he is very interesting.” We are, therefore, asked to believe that the person has hidden reserves of humour and originality and charm, all of which are kept well-concealed and revealed only to a select few.

Again, the politician-bore is indispensable to the health of party-baazi. He keeps the government and the Opposition going. The politician-bore is generally a “safe pair of hands” (in other words he is not gaffe-prone), follows orders, stays firmly within the bounds of his mandate, and is generally liked by his colleagues since he challenges nobody. The competence of the ministerial bore is average. It is important to make this point because the reader may assume that such an individual is a complete dud. That would be a disservice to the creature under discussion. The ministerial bore is mediocre, passable—the kind of student who, as it were, passes exams every year without ever excelling.

The opposite of the politician bore is rarer to find, but the genre is not yet extinct. For good reason. In our republic, at least, such a maverick does not prosper. He is brought down by his own brilliance, his over-confidence, his craving to be a star. And by the jealousy of his teammates.

The burning ambition to be a star leads to quick ministerial demotion and wild fluctuations in career graph. Mani Shankar Aiyar is a prime example. Jairam Ramesh is another (although he is going through a good patch currently), Shashi Tharoor comes to mind, as does the late Pramod Mahajan. Anand Sharma, who is unlikely to hold anyone spellbound, by contrast has plodded his way up the greasy pole without anyone noticing it. He has risen without trace. There is a moral in this somewhere.

In cricket too, bores are essential. The Wall was a quintessential bore as a batsman. However, only an alert statistician will tell you how many Tests and one-dayers Rahul Dravid helped India to win by being boring. Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Graeme Smith are other bores who have served their countries magnificently precisely because they never set the stands on fire. Once upon a time India specialised in producing serial bores. Just think back. Chandu Borde, Vijay Hazare, Bapu Nadkarni, Vijay Manjrekar have put thousands of spectators to sleep. Nevertheless, who can deny their fabulous contribution to Indian cricket.

Currently, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Clarke, Hashim Amla constitute the ‘other’. It will be fascinating to see how long they last and what entertainment they provide. Two of the players named above are as volatile on the field as they are off it. Sehwag and Pietersen make for good copy which makes up for their lack of consistency. Sehwag is already walking into the sunset. His time is up.

The opposite of the political bore is rare, but not extinct. He is brought down by his own brilliance, over-confidence....

Some bores specialise in inflicting a particular strain of boredom. There is the guy who fancies himself as an incorrigible wit. To acquire this singular art, he mugs up joke books or preserves old copies of the Reader’s Digest. Khushwant Singh has done this country many favours by writing countless indispensable books. Unfortunately, he has also produced about a dozen joke books—mostly a compilation of what his readers send him. They are uniformly unfunny. Alas, thousands of his fans have memorised these, and at the drop of a hat will repeat their awful contents. It is a good tip to remember: any person who knows too many jokes is generally woefully lacking in humour. Beware the fool who catches you unawares and asks, “Have you heard this one?” Of course, you have!

Another kind of bore to run a mile from is the one who claims he has a juicy piece of gossip or the latest yarn heard in the Central Hall of Parliament. Without prompting, he will in great detail reveal his nugget. The only problem is that he is repeating something he heard from the person he is relating it to. Not only is that cheeky, but he is also claiming authorship for something he has stolen. If I am in a bad mood and wish to be discourteous, I remind the offending person who the joke/piece of gossip belongs to. His reply is a bland, “Sorry”.

Finally, there is the bore with a bad memory. One’s face falls as he gets ready to repeat the anecdote or the incident he has told you umpteen times before. Because he is telling his tale with such gusto and enthusiasm, the listener does not have the heart to tell him to shut up.

These days in the capital, a new kind of bore has emerged: the name-dropper. Now, name-dropping is a delicate art, it has to be done subtly. “I was at a party talking to Ratan Tata when Sunil Mittal tapped me on the shoulder and told me Chidambaram was looking for me” is the crass kind of name-dropping. The more sophisticated kind is, “I had a brief opportunity to talk to Nelson Mandela....”

One last generalisation. Bores are more often than not self-obsessed. They need to constantly prove they amount to something, when the plain fact is that actually they don’t.

Am I a bore? In my Diary column, I go on about Editor and many other trivial matters which I assume make for compelling reading. I leave the verdict in your hands!

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