Sunday, March 29, 2015

Liar, liar, pants on fire. Hanging on a telephone wire.

That I shall leave this world unsung is, truth to tell, a blessing in disguise. Haven’t you noticed how Indian obit writers unabashedly indulge themselves in flights of fancy and plumb the depth of obsequity – apart from vandalizing the English language mercilessly − when it comes to doing their job without fear or favour? (In their midst, not even a single Saadat Hasan Manto, eh?) Their unspoken excuse is that hypocrisy as a tenet of (politically?) correct behaviour is allegedly a part and parcel of Indian “culture”. It stipulates that no evil shall be spoken of the dearly departed never mind even if the truth has to be bent backwards or stood on its head as the situation requires. Little white lies are to be preferred to the beam of white light the poor man or woman may be facing in the hereafter.

Before you point your accusatory finger at me for blithely following their exemplary example in titling this post, let me confess to a weakness for children’s ditties (simple words, uncomplicated rhyming, easy-to-memorize) over the more obfuscatingly worded verses of the idiosyncratic 19th-century poet. Mind you, this worthy was shunned by his envious and contemptuous contemporaries but posthumously hailed by latter-day critics as no less than a mystical visionary of the Romantic Age. I am thinking of the late and latterly lamented William Blake (1757-1827), Esquire, to wit. 

To put the records straight, this impudent versifier must have somehow got privy to the likelihood of his impending canonization in the annals of literature in the not too faraway future. To make sure it would come about, he cunningly decided to take recourse to an imagined version of Peter Roget’s “classed catalogue of words … of much use in literary composition” and launched his much celebrated poem, “The Liar” (1810), with a double-barreled fusillade of synonyms

“Deceiver, dissembler 

Your trousers are alight 

From what pole or gallows 

Shall they dangle in the night?”

Ah, the infinite riches of the English language! A word for every shade of meaning yielding a surfeit of synonyms in most cases. But what we think is its strength could well be harbouring the seeds of its weakness, making it an easy tool of deceit when wielded by deceivers, dissemblers, fibbers, fabulists, perjurers, fabricators, story tellers, tale weavers, poets, dissimulators, falsifiers, con artists, deluders, imposters, false witnesses, fablers, misleaders, equivocators, tricksters, conjurors, quacks, pretenders, swindlers, statisticians and assorted liars of every ilk.

The celebrated American humourist and author, Mark Twain (1835-1910), is credited with this oft-quoted witticism: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."  He, however, modestly declined authorship and pointed the finger at Disraeli (1804-1881). That itself turned out to be a posture. An essay on The University of York website on a Department of Mathematics page dealing with the various occurrences of “lies, damned …” avers, though not confidently, that its most likely source was Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911), a Liberal MP of the Victorian era, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Gladstone's second government and a Privy Council member whose extra-marital affairs ruined his political career. The Dilke wordings differ slightly, though: “fibs, lies, and statistics” in press reportage and “a fib, a lie, and statistics” in a verbal citing. Can you tell the truth from the lie?

Dr Samuel Johnson, the pioneer English lexicographer, once remarked: "Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement." The two swindlers in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” faithfully followed that dictum to spread the word that they wove the finest cloth with colours as delicate as the butterflies’ and the cloth itself as light as gossamer with patterns beautiful and unusually intricate. Moreover, they claimed a magical quality for their cloth: stupid or incompetent people could not see it. The reigning Emperor who was quite a vain fob and nearly everyone else in the kingdom was taken in by the “large promise”, i.e., the enormous lie. Finally, it took a child’s innocence to pierce the veil of the falsehood.

Lying, come to think of it, is more often than not a work-in-progress. Once you have started your career as a liar, you have got to keep at it telling more lies to cover up the original lie. A soap ad on the idiot box, for instance, makes the claim that the product can deal the new strains of virus “ordinary” soaps cannot tackle. To further enhance the credibility of this claim, accreditation by a London organization connected with public health awarded for the brand’s hygiene-education initiative about hand washing is touted as recognition of its improved wide-spectrum anti-virus action against newer strains.

Equally amusing are the truth-bending antics of toothpaste advertisers. Even if you brush your teeth twice a day, I am reasonably certain you gargle away nearly every trace of it from your mouth and teeth afterwards. So, unless the just brushed toothpaste’s foam defies the force of the gargle and resolutely clings to the teeth’s enamel or, better still, impregnates it and thus becomes a part of it, how can anyone in his right mind − and his tongue not firmly tucked in his cheek − claim with a straight face that the toothpaste keeps doing its good work in your mouth for 12 hours?

All this reminds me of Edgar Wallace’s Educated Evans stories about the exploits of a racing tout in the early part of the last century. Evans was apparently a character based on Wallace’s own experience as a tout before he turned a journalist. This irrepressible yarn-spinner laid claims to “inside information straight from the horse’s mouth” about fixed races. Many of these scams were quite bizarre and hard to believe unless you were a born victim.

“The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories,” opined Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). When denied the attention, do they resort to lies in order to get a hearing? From little white ones to big black ones? The former are harmless diversions. The latter are motivated by intent to deceive.
In a Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine comic strip episode (Mumbai Mirror, 28 
March 2015), Rat and Goat have the following existential chitchat:

Rat: I have a large brain and it’s been conclusively proven that those with larger brains are smarter than those with smaller brains.

Goat: That’s not true.

Rat: Yes, it is.

Goat: How do you know?

Rat: Because something is true whenever you say it has been conclusively proven.

Goat: That’s not how that works.

Rat: Hey, in an age where no one reads, it’s how that works.

(I don’t know about you but I agree with Rat about the power of “conclusively proven”; I have recently seen it being used in a TV ad of a leading tea brand  claiming to contain herbal ingredients capable of keeping the tea drinker healthy and productive. The only evidence offered in support of the claim is, yes, you got it right: “conclusively proven”.)

By the way, if you did not like the above ending, I have another up my sleeve in the illustrious tradition of the fabulous fibber, Groucho Marx.         

A priest and a rabbi along with a pair of flaming panties (oops, pants) walked into a bar… Still don’t like it? Too bad, bud.