In my happy schooldays in India, when verbal disagreements threatened to escalate into violence and physical confrontation — which would mean thrown punches, torn shirts and a tumble in the mud with the entire playground rushing like beach bums running from a tsunami — “going on mothers” was considered the worst provocation.
It meant using the word which accused one’s protagonist of maternal incest, the ‘M’ word which the American ghetto seems to have adopted and translated from the centuries old Hindustani word. (OK, that was just a shot at amateur etymology. The US probably arrived at its mother-abuse independently, but a little nationalist boasting never hurt nobody!)
Imprecations against one’s mother had to be defended. There were colourful Marathi variations on the theme involving the God Hanuman and several originally-minted insults about another’s mother’s morals, attributes and vocation, local to our school and streets. The sin was universally considered cardinal — one didn’t ‘go on mothers’.
In the past two weeks a debate about press freedom has been initiated by the Daily Mail, a national newspaper which attacked the Labour party leader’s late father Ralph Miliband.
Ed Miliband’s father Ralph Miliband was an academic and a Marxist. The Mail published a shameful article on te latter under the headline “The Man Who Hated Britain”. It was a clear case of ‘going on fathers’ and Ed Miliband, with admirable reflex loyalty and the restraint which being British and having an elevated political position forces on him, didn’t lurk outside the offices of the Mail and punch the editor in the face when he emerged but demanded a right to reply in the same paper.
Ed was furious. He appeared on TV and accused the Mail of deliberately lying — as though one could lie unwittingly. I was with him. (Let the newspapers of the world note that if any of them publish an article saying that the late Lt Col, Jamshed Dhondy hated India, not being the leader of any political party, I will send the ‘boys’ out and will myself be there right behind them).
Ralph Miliband was a Jewish refugee from Belgium who came to Britain to escape the Nazis. He was a Marxist thinker of the Trotskyist persuasion. His ideology led him to republicanism, to criticising the institutions of the elite which perpetrated class distinctions and snobbery, to critiques of the capitalist past and neo-capitalist present of Britain.
Ralph was also an outspoken supporter of trade unions and was in favour, however remote the possibility, of a proletarian revolution in the UK.
There are millions of Britons who hold a combination of opinions similar to those of Ralph Miliband. I myself would by and large agree, with a few exceptions.
I wouldn’t, for instance, demand the abolition of the Monarchy, though I am in favour of occasionally chopping one of their heads off to remind them who is boss.
My thus favouring Royalty has nothing to do with admiring the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister’s shapely and famous posterior — which I don’t — but everything to do with not wanting some jackanapes such as Michael Gove, the present Education Secretary to be nominated ‘President’ of the country.
Then again, I am in favour of trades unions and of abolishing elitist schools and universities (with the exception of course of Cambridge which has produced some civilisation-altering science and many fine writers and persuasive columnists).
The Daily Mail found some diary piece Ralph had written when he was 16 and a young lad in Britain in which he said that he found the English to be rather suspicious of foreigners. This rag of a newspaper found material in this youthful and truthful observation to justify its headline.
The Mail’s effort was directed at propagating the nonsense that the Labour leader, owing to the inevitable influence of his father, was a crypto-communist.
Ed replied saying his father had sought refuge in this country, was grateful for its protection and had served as an officer in the Royal Navy in World War II.
Ironies multiplied as the controversies took shape. Ed’s opponents at the polls, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, leaders of rival parties, weighed in on his side saying he was completely justified in rebutting accusations against his father.
Others pointed out that it was the Daily Mail and its proprietor Lord Rothermere who had supported Hitler and the Nazis before the war began. If anyone had sought to betray Britain, it was the Mail’s owners.
The Mail didn’t apologise to Ed. Instead it published an article standing by its earlier stance. The article was aimed at the pig-ignorant and considerably large section of Britons who probably believe that Lenin was a founder member of The Beatles. The Mail’s articles argued that Ralph Miliband was self-evidently an advocate of a Stalinist dictatorship in Britain, complete with repressive gulags.
Unfortunately for the Mail there is now an all-party commission contemplating how to control the excesses of the British press without curtailing its freedom. Ed is party to this formulation which will become law. The Mail may live to regret ‘going on fathers’.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal