The dictionary has lost yet another battle against meaning. I refer, forlorn, to a new answer to an old question. The increasingly prevalent response to “How are you?” has become “I’m good”. This is illogical. “Good” is a moral proposition, whereas the question is about something more mundane, wellbeing. Language, it is true, is in constant flux, but change should at the very least be justified by necessity. What is wrong with “I’m well”? “I’m good” doesn’t even have the advantage of brevity. I gather that this restructuring of terminology began in some American television programme. God might have done a great deal to save the English queen, but he has not extended his mercy to the Queen’s English.
Confession: I joined the forces of change last week when my grandson, aged four-and-a-half and on a visit to Delhi with his parents, replied “I’m good” when asked the familiar traditional question by a guest. There is a non-negotiable rule at home. Our grandson cannot ever be wrong.
Every democracy needs an aristocracy of ideas. This week, Parliament’s attention was concentrated on that splendid document, our Constitution. This work of collective genius is the Magna Carta of the coming millennium because it sets the only course that can offer security and prosperity for reborn nations. If the challenge of the 20th century was the end of colonisation, then the challenge before the postcolonial world is what to do with nationalism. Modern nations understand what nation means; modernity is more difficult. Our Constitution is a template of modernity, based on four fundamental principles: individual liberty; faith equality; gender equality; and economic equity. Nations that have compromised with any of these basic rights, and particularly those who believe in the supremacy of a single religion as an article of constitutional faith, are visibly tottering, if not sinking into irreversible civil strife. India’s secularism is indigenous, and more powerful than similar commitments by older democracies. We have, uniquely, “audible secularism”. India is the only country in the world where dawn is preceded by the aazan, and followed by the music of temple bells, recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib and pealing of church bells. You cannot hear the aazan in London, Washington, Moscow or Beijing.
Lives that rewrite history are often shaped by some deep memory of pain.
At the time when Mahatma Gandhi was being thrown out of a train in South Africa, Babasaheb Ambedkar, the principal, though not the only architect of our Constitution, suffered similar anguish.
He along with an elder brother and cousin had gone by train to meet his father, Ramji Sakpal, who was posted in a village in Maharashtra. A letter sent ahead had been lost in transit, and his father was not on the platform to receive them. The three boys hired a bullock cart. But when the cart-owner realised they were Dalits, he asked them to get out. There is a plaque in South Africa to remind us of Gandhi’s anguish. In India we build monuments to greatness. Perhaps we should create a memorial to pain. A statue is mere puffery. Pain is a mirror.
The dreaded marriage season is back in Delhi. One has nothing against marriage. On consideration it seems a pretty reasonable idea. Marriage is like democracy: The wooing and winning exhilarates, the tough bit comes later. The high point, a marriage ceremony, may be bliss to the wedded but can be dreadful for the environment. We live in the silence of a gated community in Gurgaon; alas, our noise comes from Delhi, only a few yards away. The decibels of a next-door marriage venue, blasted through songs of a certain type, begin to scream as spirits rise with spirited consumption. The law has a curfew hour, but every law slips through grease. Marriage is a licence in more ways than one. India must be the only place where those getting married send suitable gifts — to officials, who deliberately turn a deaf ear to public nuisance.
Let the last word on public morality belong to a lady who has just passed away in Britain. Cynthia Payne became an instant celebrity in 1978 when the police arrested over 50 men, including “an MP, accountants, solicitors, barristers and businessmen”, along with a dozen women, all in various stages of undress. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison for running what the British law authorities, traditional masters of understatement, described as “a disorderly house”. Despite enormous pressure to reveal the names of her larger base of clients, Madam Cyn (as she was quickly dubbed by an eager press) never ratted. When asked, on her release, why, she gave a formidable answer: Her morals might be a little loose, but her ethics were impeccable.