picture of M. Visvesveraya the great engineer who thought character building and dam building were similar activities. He would have broken the heart of our contractors, who would have laughed to hear that he carried two fountain pens, one strictly for the office, the other for personal use. The other delightful foil for him was the customs officer who has just been nabbed by the CBI for corruption. Someshwar Mishra also believed in character building. In fact he was arrested soon after be administered the oath of honesty to new customs officers. Mishra is part of a virus sweeping India, a malaise called dishonesty.
Is dishonesty a fault, or a cultural trait?
Earlier, politicians had to respect honesty even if they were personally dishonest. That hypocrisy was necessary because a sense of the norm had to sustained. But what this did was hide the tensions one lives. In fact, to many, dishonesty is a survival tactic. A young man goes out for a date and lies to his parents who are circa 19th century. A housewife lies about the budget to save some money from her alcoholic husband. You lie at office as a form of resistance against your boss. Dishonesty is too wide a word and covers too much. But the real dishonesty is the way we lie to ourselves. Men lie to themselves as to how they feel about women. The great Indian family is held by the glue of dishonesty. The British made hypocrisy a national trait but Indians made dishonesty into an art form. We lie to ourselves because there are too many selves to confront.
Corruption is a pathology, but dishonesty is something polluting. It marks our everydayness. I lie therefore I am. It is difficult to be honest about dishonesty. I see it as outside me. Every politician, bureaucrat, parent, school principal does. We must begin by seeing it as a part of ourselves that we find so difficult to construct. Our identity crisis comes not from nationhood, caste, religion but from constructing our personal self.
Part of our tragedy is that our models of life are too exemplary. Gandhi’s one temptation to lie is the stuff of history. Visvesveraya’s honesty is like an alien public act, a governmental performance. He writes about honesty as if it is a policy document. Dishonesty is not about a public self, it is personal, intimate and this we (males in particular) find difficult to confront. How do we confess that few of us have grown up? How do we tell our children about bribes we paid, or our acts of cowardice? We lie to sustain the unbearable self. But when we lie, we can live with the everydayness of our self.
Dishonesty begins with excuses, postponements. It is a rubric for the messiness of what India is. The best thing to do is to portray it on our flag, confess it in our diaries. Confronting, it without condemning it, would be an interesting start. It would make us less inventive but maybe we need to invent other directions. Dishonesty should not be seen as interesting fiction but as something boring, glaring, huge, everyday like socialist realism. Then may be something new, unexpected might happen. Not that economics will change but our relations to our children and the women in our lives might. It could be the most liberating thing we could look forward too. Maybe we should try it in homeopathic doses. The impact might be allopathic. We have nothing to lose but our current selves.