Thin-skinned in India

Some time today, the Mumbai High Court will hear a petition related to a book:

Use of the word ‘ghati’ in his book Breathless in Bombay has landed first-time author Murzban Shroff in trouble, with an activist claiming that it “lowers the reputation and image of Maharashtrians in the eyes of non-Maharashtrians”.

While 47-year-old Shroff, a Mumbai-born Parsi, maintains that the term is not aimed against any community, activist Vijay Mudras wants the government to seize all copies of the book, which he feels is a serious threat to communal harmony.

Here’s the WTF bit:

Mudras objected to certain dialogues that include the word ‘ghati’ in ‘This House of Mine’, one of the 14 stories in the book. The story revolves around occupants of a society who face an eviction notice from the housing board. One of the characters, named Olaf, repeatedly uses the word ‘ghatis’ to describe the Marathi-speaking people in the building.

In his complaint, Mudras alleged that the book could foment disharmony, feelings of hatred and ill will and demanded seizure of its copies. On the basis of his complaint, a metropolitan court had ordered a probe by NM Joshi Marg police, following which the case was registered against Shroff.

The book was published last year. And as author Murzban Shroff points out, more than 12 months have passed with no sign of any disharmony — hell, even those modern masters of faux outrage, the MNS, found nothing objectionable in the book [they have to find the book, first — though it was prominently displayed at the time of its launch, it has gradually drifted to the back shelves of city bookstores and, in some cases, vanished from those shelves altogether].

Why do courts, at a time when everyone from the PM on down is expressing concern over backlog of cases, waste their time with such nonsensical ‘issues’? Why does the legal machinery pander to every idiot concerned citizen who abrogates to himself the right to feel outrage, no matter how baseless, on behalf of the mass? And why are those who file such clearly baseless cases not punished for the colossal waste of our legal machinery? [The Metropolitan Court ordered the NM Marg police to probe? How exactly was the probe conducted, and what did it find that justified registering the case?]

And while on manufactured outrage, Shashi Tharoor has reportedly apologized for an innocent exercise of collegiate humor on his Twitter stream — hoping, thereby, to diffuse the snowballing ‘outrage’ within the Congress party over this:

@ShashiTharoor Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala,
will it be cattle class?
11:27 AM Sep 14th from TweetDeck in reply to ShashiTharoor

@KanchanGupta absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all
our holy cows!
11:47 AM Sep 14th from web in reply to KanchanGupta

Note that Shashi Tharoor didn’t volunteer the expression — he merely repeated the characterization Kanchan Gupta had given the economy class in our domestic airlines.

‘Will you travel in cattle class?’ ‘Yes I will travel in cattle class’.

Had the question been ‘Will you travel in economy class’, the answer would as likely have used the phrase ‘economy class’.

I didn’t see the journalists’ association getting upset over a senior member of the fraternity ‘denigrating’ the people who buy the newspapers that provide journalists with their livelihood, did you, and threatening to drum Gupta out of the profession?

The larger question, as Amit Varma points out, is: exactly who does the reference denigrate? Even prior to this exchange, Tharoor was spotted in cattle class economy class — so at the very least, he includes himself in the ‘cattle’ and denigrates himself along with the rest.

Semantics apart, Amit on his post [and in his appearance on Times Now last night] makes a point Tharoor has since made in his apology. Amit:

If it is derogatory to anyone, it is to the airlines that give their customers so little space, and not to the customers themselves. So whose sensitivity are we talking about here? Air India and Jet?


“It’s a silly expression but means no disrespect to economy class travellers, only to airlines for herding us in like cattle”.

None of this requires advanced degrees in linguistics to decipher, and that leads you to believe that Tharoor is getting this public rap on the knuckles not because of the use of the phrase “cattle class”, but because of the humorous twist at the end: “with the rest of the holy cows”.

The phrase was, or was interpreted in the notoriously humor-less echelons of the Congress Party to be, a reference to Pranab Mukherjee, who had earlier made a cake of himself by officiously ordering External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and Shashi Tharoor to vacate the five-star hotels they were staying in — and paying for out of their own pockets.

But more even than Pranab, Tharoor’s twit tweet stepped on the most sacrosanct toes of all: those of no less than Sonia Gandhi. Consider that Tharoor posted his little riff on the same day as this. Sonia travels economy, Tharoor talks of holy cows in economy, one plus one clicks in the ‘minds’, if you’ll permit the exaggeration, of the Jayanti Natrajans of this world — and lo, ‘outrage’ germinates in that fertile soil.

The impact of the holy cow Sonia Gandhi is best illustrated by this example. The MP had already paid for his business class ticket — what was the point in merely changing seats with some other passenger, just to show he was ‘flying economy’, too?

It reminds me of an incident from when, back in the day, AP chief minister NTR launched an austerity drive of his own. One day, local newspapers were full of pictures of a particular state minister arriving at the railway station, ostensibly getting into the train and settling down in his seat. Trouble was, next day the same newspapers carried the story of how, while the minister was traveling on official work from one city to the next, his car — and entourage — had traversed that same distance by road and was waiting for him at his destination. The minister’s innocent explanation: I needed my official car there to attend meetings and for other work, what is wrong with that?

I don’t blame the minister, do you? We have become a nation of gestures [consider this one, from the holy cow reigning high priestess of austerity], of tokenism — how was the poor fellow supposed to know? [Just like Bhiwandi MP Suresh Tawre, who thought all he had to do was switch seats to fulfill the ‘austerity’ requirement to the satisfaction of his holy cow boss.]

Question for Pranab, the party’s enforcer: How much of recent actions against colleagues in the External Affairs Ministry has to do with austerity and other shibboleths, and how much has it to do with the fact that when your boss, the Prime Minister, stumbled into deep doo-doo over the Sharm-e-Sharif statement relating to Pakistan, the External Affairs Minister didn’t save MMS by falling on the sword?

Update: The TimesNow debate on the Tharoor Tweet now up on India Uncut in video.