LAST month, young historian-and-writer Patrick French and I were thrown out of the plush bar of the Howard Hotel in London into the equally plush lobby by a hawk-eyed maitre d' whose voice was as evil as his smile. My blazer was fine, but hawkeye had spied the jeans. In the lobby, Patrick was embarrassed, and kept muttering. Curiously, I was less perturbed: this sort of thing had happened often enough back home, to both my friends and me. Wrong shoes, no tie, T-shirt without collar. Good Gymkhana kind of bandobast: divorced from reality and context,genuflecting to dumb form and shallow tradition.
The flow of unreason however does not limit itself to the fusty portals of the brown sahibs. It bubbles through Indian public life like soda fizz, singing in our nostrils and making us hop around foolishly. Last week, the Delhi government enforced the helmet on pillion riders, making its absence a traffic offence. They may as well have not bothered with the well-being and safety of their citizenry, considering everyone was busy cracking ways of carrying helmets under their armpits till a policeman was sighted. People were busy buying cheap crackpot topis which could somehow, in a messy argument, be passed off as safety headgear, even though they afforded none.
But worst of all there was a section of Sikhs raising a storm, asserting that their womenfolk would not conform to the order because religion forbade them from covering their head with anything but a dupatta. With characteristic common sense and elan, Khushwant Singh did challenge any granthi to show him which scripture dictated thus. But the obvious point no one seemed to engage with was that the helmet was there not to humble pillion riders but to keep their brains from spilling out in an accident. Ninety per cent of all road deaths are, after all, a result of head injuries. Of course, not to be outdone in the glorious tradition of unreason, the state government instead of trying to explain the decision to the agitating Sikhs promptly agreed to review it.
More amazing still was the drama unfolding in the Noida branch of the Delhi Public School. Confirming our status as a nation of lawyers and litigants since the time of Gandhi, Nehru & Co., the irate father of a class IV boy who had lost the junior school headboy elections took the school to court. Actually, the DPS board should have whupped the school for having crass elections for kids; the father should have cuffed his son for taking part; and someone should have laid one on the father for encouraging his son's junior school delusions.
But no, why dam the flow of unreason. Better to just dam the traffic, as the Delhi Police does routinely, putting up checkpost barriers during rush hours leading to labyrinthine jams and nil checking. Everyone mutters; no one does anything about it. So inured are we to unreason in our lives. Why are we willing to tolerate, and perpetrate, so much absurdity? Does it have something to do with our skewed notions of piety, the essentially docile and unquestioning nature of Indian childhoods. Our parents hand us down a set of beliefs, and we make our homes inside them. Even among the few who dare venture out to discover the larger world, most prefer to pretend they haven't. This is not about hiding the cigarette smoke and the booze bottle—though it is that too—it is more about dumbly acquiescing in outdated modes of belief and tradition. Nothing in our environment encourages us to rage, rage against the onslaught of unreason. Nothing encourages original positions, original ideas. Eventually, most things are reduced to a parody.
In the same week that the helmet and the schoolboy-politician were contributing to the flow of unreason, there was another little farce taking place in Aurobindo College, a South Delhi institution. Simply, the principal of the college had decided that jeans on women were inimical to education, and had passed an order debarring any girl wearing a denim pair from entering the campus. So much for the symbol of youth worldwide. Even if the benighted principal's worst nightmare that equates jeans with brimming sexuality is true, what's wrong with that? It's typical of the culture of fatuousness that we don't crack down on corruption, on inefficiency, on dirt, but we keep policing harmless couples in parks, and routine, natural expressions of sexuality in films and books.
It is this culture of unreason, tolerated and perpetrated, that produces the kind of weird statements E.K. Nayanar has been making about Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize winning novel. First he praised it; then in an extraordinary flow of unreason he calculated that she'd been given the prize because her novel was anti-communist. To anyone who knows the western publishing world, this is as absurd as saying Tagore got the Nobel Prize because the committee liked flowing beards. No one expects Nayanar to be an astute literary taster, but why can't he keep quiet. On the other hand, the first law of the culture of unreason decrees that no chance to add to the flow of humbug be passed up.
A friend of mine, Rahul Vohra, who does quaint things with culture in conjunction with Rajeev Sethi, escorted a French television crew to Calcutta recently. At the Taj Bengal, they went one evening to the exclusive bar lounge on the fifth floor for a drink, and were swiftly waved to a stop at the entrance. My friend thought his trademark kurta-pyjama was about to get him ejected: but wonders, no, the Frenchmen were wearing collarless T-shirts. They retreated to their rooms and returned with collared shirts over their sweatshirts and were saluted and welcomed. Later that night, the group went to Incognito, the hotel's night club. Once more they were waved to a halt. Finally, the kurta-pyjama's comeuppance was at hand. "Management rules," pleaded the manager, as my friend began to defend the kurta-pyjama.
"Do you play Baba Sehgal?" asked my friend.
"Yes, sir," said the manager happily.
"Do you play Daler Mahendi?"
"Yes, sir," beamed the manager.
"Lots of Hindi pop?" encouraged my friend.
"Lots, sir." Grinning.
"Then tell me, who's more absurd—you or me?"
As the manager blushed sheepishly and trendy youth jostled past, my friend peeled off his kurta, donned his French colleague's shirt over his pyjama, and sailed in.
The glorious flow of unreason.