Saturday, August 27, 2005

The truth about lies
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghIN a Lahore High Court judgement delivered in 1924, two English judges expressed the opinion that all Punjabis were liars. For 81 years, no Punjabi took umbrage over the uncharitable obiter dictum. Suddenly this year they are up in arms and want the outrageous slur on their character to be expunged from the judgement. However, there was something in the Punjabi character which impelled the learned judges to record their unkind opinion in a judgement which could be cited as a precedent for times to come. They were deliberating on the veracity of dying depositions made by a Punjabi victim of murderous assault.

It is usually assumed that when a person is on the verge of death and due to meet his Maker, he does not tell a lie. That the judges opined did not hold good for Punjabis. If the victim was stabbed five times by one person, he was inclined to settle his scores by naming five of the enemy faction as his killers. As a result, lawyers for the defence were able to punch holes in his dying declaration and all the accused went scot-free.

My experience bears testimony in favour of the judgement. I had a Punjabi tenant who converted to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. However, he preferred to maintain his Hindu name and identity when in India and a Muslim name when serving in Muslim countries. He was a compulsive liar. In India, he swore on the Bhagavadgita to tell the truth, in Muslim countries he swore by the Koran to tell the truth. He lost out everywhere and was sacked from one job after another when asked to produce his passport. He was forced to admit he had two with two different identities.

My grievance against the Lahore High Court judgement is that it singles out Punjabis as inveterate liars and says nothing about other Indians. Are others less prone to lying than us Punjabis? I donít think so. As soon as any of us is put on oath, he takes it as a challenge of wits. If he tells a lie, he wins; and if he tells the truth, he loses.

With us Indians, perjury is no great crime. It takes brains to invent lies; any fool can tell this truth. Unfortunately, to get away with a lie you also have to have a good memory and remember what you said earlier. Mendacam Memorem Esse Oportere ó a liar needs a good memory, wrote Quintilian. The Psalms support this dictum. "I said in my haste, all men are liars." One has to practise the art of lying for many years to become an accomplished liar. Mark Twain in his Advice to Youth wrote: "Some authorities hold that the young ought not to lie at all. That, of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still, I cannot go quite as far as that, I do maintain and believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art and continued practice shall give them that confidence, elegance and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable."

We have a very laidback attitude towards lying. At the worst, liar is warned that he will be pecked by a black crow. What is a mere peck?

Jhoot boley kavvaa kaatey

Kaaley kuvvay say dario;

Main maikay chalee jaaongee

Tum deykhtey rahio

One who lies will be bitten by a crow

Beware of the crow that is black;

Iíll leave you and return to my parentsí home

You just watch and see, Iíll never come back.

Cellphone epidemic

For over 30 years I have had a signboard beside my door bell reading. "Do not ring the bell unless you are expected." Its effect has been disappointing. Couriers who usually come in the afternoon when I am snoozing, ignore it and ring the bell. There are others who think the notice is not meant for them. They also do not pay heed to my servantís remonstrances that unless they have prior appointment, I will not see them.

They push him aside and stride in unabashed. With some I am too timid to protest, to some I give a tongue-lashing. There are others, mostly ladies, who donít bother to enter by the front door but by the rear entrance past the kitchen. My cook and his assistant know them and think have a permanent visa to invade my privacy. I give them a gentle tick off before I talk to them. They make their visits short.

Now I am up against a new kind of menace which has assumed epidemic proportions. So I will be putting up another signboard, on the mantel piece of my sitting room. "Please switch off your cellphones before you say hello." I have been driven to this because no sooner ladies like Malavika Singh, Kamana Prasad, Reeta Verma and others bustle in, cellphones in their handbags begin to ring. They take them out and pace around the room like caged tigresses while I wait impatiently for them to stop. Meanwhile till I put the board, I just tell them, "Kindly leave your cellphones by the entrance door and be sure to take them away when you leave."

A few years ago cellphones were a status symbol. If you had one in your pocket, you were a somebody. Now every aira-ghaira has one: it has become as common as a wrist watch. Wherever you go, by bus, taxi, train or plane, you will meet people armed with cellphones. Even my cleanerís 17-year-old daughter has one. She places it reverently on my table while she scrubs the floors. It has a loud musical ring which she can hear from a long distance. She immediately drops her broom or wet duster, picks up her precious toy and runs to a distant corner so that I cannot hear what she is saying. In short, not having a cellphone makes you a fossil of bygone days. I was given one by my friend Nanak Kohli. I was never able to operate it. I passed it on to my daughter. A few months later, when she was getting her flat whitewashed, one of the workmen walked off with it. I was vastly relieved.

No one can deny that cellphones are a valuable invention, particularly in times of emergency. If you are suddenly taken ill and need medical attention, you can ring up your doctor or a hospital to send you an ambulance.

But we being a nation of chatterboxes, carry our cellphones everywhere we go, be it to the cinema, theatre, dance recital or a reception. And they ring at the most awkward of moments when you are surrounded by people. Many a time while travelling by train, I hear people sitting close by dial number after number only to say "Hellow ji, kee haal chaal hai?" If I could, I would confiscate their instruments and throw them out of the train.

Life insurance

In our university building, the lift was notorious for trapping both professors and students between floors. Pleas from students and teachers for repair went unheeded until the students learned that the vice-chancellor was to visit a lecture-room on the top floor. The vice-chancellor was met by a printed notice on the lift door: "Flight insurance for this lift on sale in hall on the top floor.

(Contributed by Reetan Ganguly, Tezpur)