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Sunday, June 20, 1999
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Living with myths

By Manohar Malgonkar

CHLOROPHYLL — Remember it at all? If you don’t, you must be under the votingage. For those who are older it was, for many years, a factor of daily life.

What on earth was chlorophyll? It was a major breakthrough in science, or so it was projected: a secret of nature discovered by highly qualified research scholars working in famous laboratories; an ingredient contained in green grass and leaves which possessed a magic quality of eradicating smells. If you brushed your teeth with a toothpaste containing an adequate quantity of it, your mouth would keep smelling fresh and sweet till the next time you brushed your teeth with the same toothpaste.
Before the ‘discovery’ of chlorophyll, toothpastes were either white—- in token of purity —- or pink —- indicating that they were laced with cleansing chemicals. Now they had to go green, because green, after all, was the colour of grass and leaves which were the source of chlorophyll. You could munch on garlic pods as though they were peanuts or chain-smoke Dindigul cigars and have no scruples about doing a cheek-to-cheek tango with the girl of your dreams. The green stuff in your toothpaste made sure that you did not exhale whiffs of either garlic or tabacco. The consequence was that no sane person would risk using a toothpaste not fortified with chlorophyll.
So whatever happened to it?—-where has it gone? Well, the fact is that it hasn’t gone anywhere at all; it is still very much there where it was supposed to be, in the green of the grass and leaves. But as far as its smell-eradicating properties were concerned, it wasn’t ever there; it was a concept created by some Rambos of the advertising fraternity as a sure-fire sales pitch on the principle that with aggressive advertising, you could sell even ice-making machines to Eskimos living in igloos.
After all nature was fresh and sweet—-yes? And what was the colour of nature—-green?—-yes?. So make a green-coloured toothpaste, add some particles of an extract from green vegetation as a safeguard against a case for fraudulent advertising and mount an advertising campaign on the scale of the Normandy landing. How could it go wrong?
It didn’t. The wave lasted for more than a decade. It began to recede when rival toothpaste-makers jumped on the gravy-train and after that there was no percentage left in it any more. By then people had begun to ask awkward questions. Why do cattle who eat green stuff all day long have mouths that smell?—-and:
Why reeks the goat on yonder hill?
When he feeds all day on chlorophyll?
Oh, well. After all it is the job of ad-men to make us buy things by persuading us that they’re worth buying. Chlorophyll was no more a fraud or a racket than hundreds of beauty products which are in the market which, too, claim miraculous properties: lotions to retard the aging process; to make oily skins drier, or dry skins moist; make hair grow on onion-bald heads; change the colour of Dravidian-dark skins into pigment-less pale pink. It is just that this one caught on like wild fire. The arm-twisters of the advertising companies are not to blame for the fads that the gullible public falls for.
Why, fast-talking lawyers are just as aggressive in their own field of arm-twisting. A recent advertisement in Forbes magazine highlighted their capabilities. It showed a photograph of a human lung X-ray, under a caption: ‘no doctor can find evidence of a damaged lung from this photograph. But a lawyer will.’
This capability was made evident in the case against the manufacturers of silicon breast implants. After hundreds of thousands of women had availed themselves of these devices, authorities in America passed orders forbidding their use on the grounds that the device had not been sufficiently tested.
And this order itself seems to have given an opportunity to the commandos of the legal profession-the injury-lawyers-to round up “hundreds of thousands of women in a class-action suit” for damages from the ill-effects caused by their breast implants and argued the case so convincingly as to have induced the trial judge to “instruct the makers of such devices to pay out the largest class-action settlement in history: Four and a quarter billion dollars” Not enough, argued the ‘victims’ and to settle its part of their claim, one of these manufacturers, Dow-Corning, forked out an additional 3.2 billion dollars.
While all these suits were being contested in the courts, the research organizations of various Governments as well as of private institutions with impeccable credentials such as the Mayo Clinic and the Harvard Medical Centre in America had been carrying out independent research into the possibility of the damaging effects of breast implants. As many as twenty of these studies are now complete and have reached the same conclusion: There is little or no reason to believe that breast implants cause diseases of any kind.
Meanwhile, of course, those seven billion dollars forked out by the manufacturers of breast implants have, as it were, been absorbed by the economy. Meaning that they have been irrecoverably spent by those who had signed up for the class action and by their lawyers who had proved their case in a court of law “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
O.K. For making us buy a toothpaste said to contain a chemical which would rid our mouths of foul smells, we can point a finger at manipulative ad-men, and for making the manufacturers of breast implants shell out those billions of dollars for non-existent damages we can blame—-or applaud—-injury lawyers. But who sold us psychoanalysis?—-what the Americans call head-shrinking? No one. We ourselves ran after it and adopted it as a cure-all for our mental worries. Whatever we did, or did not do, was never our fault, but of some trauma that lay buried deep in our sub-conscious. That was its general premise. So the cure lay in unburdening yourself of the problem by identifying it—-and the man—-or woman—-who would guide you through the process was your shrink.
The rich and the famous, film stars and authors, playwrights and artists, kept the shrinks in business. I remember as a young man being spellbound by a film called Spellbound, directed by the master of mystery films, Alfred Hitchcok. The handsome, six-foot-tall, strapping, all-American hero was tormented and on the verge of insanity when that clever-clever psychoanalyst took him in hand and got him to talk-talk-talk. And, lo and behold! It turned out that the problem lay in something that had happened in his childhood—-a brother or a schoolmate had plunged to death during some horseplay. But of course, once the problem had been identified—-well, pinpointed—-it melted away. Talk-talk-talk, just babble away, to someone you paid good money to just to listen, was the cure.
As the ancient Romans went to Delphi to seek advice from the oracle, as our own political leaders, business tycoons, sports and film stars consult gurus, so did the creative people of America—-novelists, playwrights, painters, singers—-as also the glamorous people—-film and stage stars, went for their sessions with their shrinks, asking such inane questions as: “Why do I find it difficult to finish a book I’m working on?”
Which was precisely the question asked by quite a successful writer called Adam Gopnik, of his New York shrink, who, Gopnik tells us, was “touchy, prejudiced, opinionated, impatient, often bored, usually high-handed, and brutally bigoted.” And these attributes somehow qualified him as one of the most sought after shrinks of his time. Gopnik himself went to him twice a week for forty-five-minute sessions, for six years!—-and paid by the minute just to be allowed to lie down on the sofa and talk about his problems to the doctor who, Gopnik reveals, was inclined to doze off while listening, and tended to come out with some blindingly fatuous maxims.
The latest thinking on psychoanalysis is summed up in the words of one of its most vociferous detractors who is Gopniks own sister. In a letter to The New York Review she says: “There is nothing to be said in defence of psychonalysis that couldn’t also be said in defence of magic and astrology.”
Or of our godmen!

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