A long-cultivated pact with silence broke early last week. The final straw was that it was perhaps the nth time “She”, a supposed chapter from Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, a recent book by journalist Sagarika Ghose, came by way of a forwarded email. This chapter, the forward claimed, appears in Ghose’s book, and describes in much detail the sexual escapades of former prime minister Indira Gandhi with M.O. Mathai, private secretary to her father Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
Inevitably, such forwards find their way to the junk box because these are outcomes of ignorance. But this was difficult to ignore. While ignorance of history can be forgiven, malicious intent and salaciousness embedded in ignorance could not. Rage followed and with it a torrent of expletives at the group it originated from—fortunately a bunch of friends who chose to ignore my tirade.
So what triggered the outrage?
• Indira Gandhi’s supposed sexual escapade theory has done the rounds for many years now and has existed on various groups and blogs for as long as the internet has been around.
• Conspiracy theorists have claimed forever it is part of a book by Mathai titled Reminiscences of the Nehru Age. But there is no evidence to suggest it stands to scrutiny.
• Worse still, these forwards now claim it is part of a chapter in Ghose’s book.
While I haven’t read the book yet, multiple versions of the sleazy story on Indira Gandhi have been doing the rounds over the years. That is why I thought it only appropriate I reach out to Ghose and ask what her thoughts and interpretation may be. After all, she is in the line of fire now and as things are, the story is being attributed to her on all forums. What does she make of the entire episode that seems to have gotten everyone’s attention?
Her answer on the phone was one that bordered on exasperation. How could she possibly defend what she did not write? Instead, she pointed to excerpts of what appears in the book, basis her research.
The sum and substance of what Ghose tried to convey over the phone was that she tried to authenticate if there was any merit to what exists in the public domain. She could not, and said so in as many words. But what is being circulated now is something that has acquired a life and legitimacy that rides on her back. Why and how did things come to such a pass?
A pertinent question indeed. Is it because the truth isn’t sexy or because some narratives are more compelling than the others?
Talking of truths versus narratives, consider another one that is as contemporary. Pretty much every sport aficionado in the world has their eyes on one man—Roger Federer. On Friday evening, commentators spoke breathlessly of how a man, biologically aged 36, pushed the boundaries of endurance to beat a more muscular and younger rival to get to the Wimbledon finals. Just when everyone assumes it is time he will call it a day, Federer defies the odds and pushes the boundaries, some more.
There is a lot that can be said of Leander Paes as well along the same lines. At 44, he is still a part of the Indian tennis contingent and is considered one of the best doubles and mixed doubles player to have ever dominated the game. But if all narratives are to be believed, both Federer and Paes are past their prime and ought to hang their racquets up.
But should they?
Sukhwant Basra, former national sports editor at the Hindustan Times and now a tennis coach, offered some pointers. He has seen Federer play at close quarters and is currently engaged with Paes to groom talent. Between Basra and Paes, they have had multiple conversations around the “past-his-prime” narrative.
Their consensus view is that the nature of tennis has changed significantly. Age is no longer a variable in tennis as popularly perceived. Advances in medical science and technology insist that if an athlete knows how to train smart, they can stay on top of their game for longer than we like to believe.
This is very different from the romantic notions of sport our minds love. In Federer’s case for instance, Basra points out reports have it his team uses the Matrix Rhythm Therapy (MRT). This allows them to map his body when it is at its optimum.
The premise here is that the body has a certain rhythm. When interrupted by strenuous activity, like a long game for instance, it tires out and the chances of injury go up. So, at the end of each game, they map what the muscles in his body look like as against what it was at its optimum. Armed with this insight, they then get down to work on just the right places that need to be restored.
This means, even micro traumas that may not trigger a response from the body in the form of pain, can be detected before it blows up into an injury. These are advances of the kind people like Paes understand as well and deploy among other things to their advantage. That is why people like Federer and Paes have lasted as long.
There are other nuances Basra pointed to on how the game has evolved. The evolution of the tennis racquet, for instance, has changed the nature of the game. Once upon a time, balls used across different surfaces were not uniform. But there are standards now. It allows players to practise for the kind of surface they intend to hit.
But these don’t make for good narratives. There are no heroics embedded here. Instead, these sound like clinical tales bereft of humans defying the odds. Be that as it may, it is a truth the game and the players have acknowledged—those who have kept pace and are on top of the pyramid.
As for sports critics and die-hard fans, they either don’t get it or choose to look the other way.
What continues to remain embedded in everyone’s mind is a man called Bjorn Born who retired at age 26, the tantrums of John McEnroe, the sheer talent and genius of Boris Becker and literature of the kind written way back in 2006 by David Foster Wallace that spoke of Roger Federer as religious experience. What can get more compelling than that?
“The specific thesis here,” Wallace famously wrote, “is that if you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a ‘bloody near-religious experience’”.
Again, it boils down to the fact that us humans love stories.
So, to go back to Ghose’s book, Indira Gandhi and her so-called escapades make a compelling story that gets our attention. This, despite Ghose's attempt to put it in no uncertain terms that Mathai’s story is unsubstantiated. Instead, she finds herself in a piquant spot. That which she tried to rubbish is being attributed to her.
As for Federer, his coming this far on the back of advances in sports medicine, is something no commentator, critic or fan wants to acknowledge. If that fact is acknowledged, the unspoken fear is that the narrative that surrounds him now may get lost and diminish his stature.
This well-documented phenomenon is called the “narrative fallacy” and has been the subject of much scrutiny by researchers from domains from the neurosciences and psychology to investing to artificial intelligence. People who have understood best for the longest time are those who understand the potential of a good narrative. Essentially, storytellers.
And the best story tellers right now are those in the media and investors who dabble with other people’s money on places like the stock markets and politicians. Artificial intelligence has cottoned on to the game and is catching up as well.
To understand how this works, leaf through the pages of any newspaper or magazine that documents the rise or fall of a legend, or a biography perhaps. Inevitably, successful plots that get the most attention follow familiar terrain. The central protagonist starts against the odds, dreams big, meets with failure, keeps at it, learns from the mistakes, finds a mentor, keeps at it, finally makes it to prime time and is now in philanthropy mode. Alternatively, they are to the manor born until they go philandering and squander it all away.
How much more linear can it get? But everyone loves it. Because the human mind craves the familiar.
Much the same can be said about those who trade in the markets on the back of other people’s money. There is no taking away from that the markets—whether it be in stocks, derivatives, bonds, currencies, or financial instrument of any kind—can look like exasperatingly complex instruments to most people. That is why there are as many talking heads on all forums that matter to offer advice on how to manage money and where to invest. But these instruments are such, even the so-called safe ones like debt, have risk embedded into it and are destined to fail at some point. When it does, some story needs to be told. That done, history finds ways to repeat itself, for one reason alone—an all too human craving for a familiar narrative, however flawed it be.
When looked at from a political prism, people want to believe conspiracies of all kinds. Because popular narrative has it that those in power are wretched people and conspire in all kinds of wretched activities that they may stay wedded to power. To that extent, the narrative that follows them must fit conspiracy theories in our mind. Indira Gandhi’s shenanigans fit that plot. All evidence on the table will be manipulated to fit the conspiracy—much to the exasperation of the researcher.
It is only fair then that you raise a question and ask, what is the point of the narrative fallacy and why am I getting into it here? For one simple reason. We live in an age where popular discourse holds the potential to consume the truth and hijack our minds. It is in our interest then to sift what comprises the popular narrative and get to the primary source. It is hard work. But it must be done. Else, be prepared to be victimized by untruths.
Basra put it eloquently. “Fans are fools and get emotional about their idols and want them to live up to some image of the past. But their idols have moved on from the past.” Implicit to this is that idol worship is for the idle. And the idle are condemned to extinction.
To that extent, Indira Gandhi and Roger Federer, people on whose backs this dispatch started, are being written about and talked about because there is romance in the narratives around them. Even if evidence exists that Indira Gandhi’s escapades is nothing but fiction, our minds do not want to buy it. Because that makes her boring. And the narrative of an ageing Federer who will take his place on Centre Court on Sunday, it is inevitable then that on Sunday evening, millions of eyes from all over the world will have their eyes glued to watch him take on the 28-year old Martin Cilic.
Minus these narratives, is it possible their characters would not come under as much scrutiny in death or in life?
Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
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