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Jest a minute

Why do silly little things work us into a froth? Why can't our response be restrained and sensible instead? I'm afraid both the government and the press have hugely over-reacted to a New Zealand television anchor's deliberate mispronunciation of Sheila Dikshit's name. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Mar 06, 2011 12:55 IST
Karan Thapar

Why do silly little things work us into a froth? Why can't our response be restrained and sensible instead? I'm afraid both the government and the press have hugely over-reacted to a New Zealand television anchor's deliberate mispronunciation of Sheila Dikshit's name.

I readily concede it was an infantile, tasteless and foolish joke. But that's all it was. It wasn't a declaration of war and it didn't demand the explosion of self-righteousness New Delhi responded with.

The truth is students of Delhi University have made jokes about Mrs Dikshit's surname for generations. She's well aware of this and I'm sure it's one reason for her incredible and undeniable popularity. People you make harmless jokes about are often people you like a lot.

I can recall Sheila-ji's namesake, JN Dixit, the former National Security Advisor, joking about his surname in public: "I've been blessed with a doubly mischievous name and I benefit from it each and every time!" I've no doubt Mrs Dikshit's attitude is very similar. That's why she has studiously avoided any comment on this incident.

In contrast, Mr SM Krishna's statement was way over the top. It betrayed an inability to recognise that this was a misfired joke. Don't we as a nation have a sense of humour? And even when the joke is against us and hurtful, can't we take it with a smile? Or, at least, ignore it? There's so much else the government has to worry about instead of getting its wretched knickers in a twist over the foolish utterances of a dim-witted Kiwi anchor.

For instance, should we not have emulated the British? Last week, the Duchess of Cornwall was India's guest for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. As a former colony, I would have thought we would know how to address her. Her formal title is Duchess of Cornwall but she can also be called Princess Camilla. But what did our papers and television channels do? They insisted on referring to her as Camilla Parker Bowles. But that's the name of the husband she divorced to marry Prince Charles. He too has remarried. So calling her Camilla Parker Bowles wasn't simply stupid but also discourteous.

Yet did the British complain? No. They knew this was done in ignorance and took it in their stride.

What possibly made the situation worse is that television channels worked themselves into a lather demanding the New Zealand anchor's sacking. It was a silly and pointless discussion because the outcome could not have affected Paul Henry's employment in any way. But, worse, this febrile one-upmanship blithely overlooked the racism we ourselves are guilty of.

Consider for a moment how we treat Africans. Indeed, how we refer to our own countrymen from the North-east as 'Chinkies'. In fact, on the day this happened, senior officials of the Ugandan CWG team met with a serious accident and demanded an apology which for hours wasn't forthcoming. But did anyone in India care?

I'm sorry but watching our government and press in a fit of moral indignation is an unedifying sight. Is our amour propre so fragile it can be easily offended? Is our self-esteem so low we can't take a jibe? Or is it that we just don't know how to laugh when the joke is on us?

It was a poor joke, no doubt — offensive, even — but it could have been better handled with a smile — even a smirk — rather than a call to arms.

The views expressed by the author are personal.