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A few home truths

Owning up to falsehoods deserves admiration. For, if lying comes from cowardice, admitting to it takes courage. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: May 18, 2012 22:36 IST

There are lies and lies.

Some lies are celebrated in legend and in history.

They come from outright falsification and also from skillful doctoring of the truth.

Some lies that are told, are not told like lies. They are suggested, in the shadow of a concealed lie. Like in the announcement on the Mahabharata battlefield: 'Asvatthama is dead'. That is classic example of verbal manipulation.

The Greeks taking the Trojan Horse into Troy is another example, the work of lying through concealment.

Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello, weaves his little web of lies to roll out that imaginary tragedy, an example of both suppressing veracity, suggesting falsehood.

The three letter word, lie, therefore has many dimensions.

Hitler telling Neville Chamberlain that Germany would not attack Czechoslovakia, Kennedy and Gromyko not telling each other what they knew about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, LBJ not taking his nation and the world into confidence about the state of the war in Vietnam hover around the three letter word. And the names 'Chernobyl, 'Watergate', 'Chappaquiddick', 'Anna Anderson as Anastasia', 'OJ Simpson' all belong to that page.

If some lies are lies by suggestion, we also have lies by a kin of suggestion: Insinuation. These are hinted at. And they are the deadlier for doing that. Disguising the teller and the told completely, insinuated lies are also cloaked in deniability. 'I never said that! I was misunderstood!'

Insinuated lies allude, they imply. They are not said to one's face but to one's profile, not eye to eye but obliquely. In terms of sites of belonging, these belong to the walls that hear and corners that whisper and where, in India, the dribble of betel juice and tobacco spittle coagulates like in a fresco secco. Insinuations cannot be removed, they can only be over-painted.

Of these insinuated lies, examples are not so famous as they are familiar. We come across them routinely in society, at work; why, in ourselves. The charming and the beautiful, no less than the visibly gross and the scheming, slide down the ramp of untruth to soft landings in the listener's credulity.

Lies are often told because of such a thing as 'exigency'.

The temptation to trim the truth, to spice a narration, to exaggerate, embellish or dramatise a fact, and the desire to appear in better light than nature has invested us with, and of course, to make money or fame, leads to outright lies and to those which are not lies but, nonetheless, cousins of lies.

The need to cover one's mistakes, to escape responsibility, punishment and opprobrium leads us ever so often to misrepresent truth. These are lies of a complex kind. I was thinking of how glowing and lovely people can try to look as they befool the gullible.

How is such artistry to be described? How are they to be categorised?

In a subconscious response to these questions, my obsession with collective nouns took over. And the following came to mind - celebrated ones in inverted commas and those of my creation open:

'A charm of finches'
A denture of falsehoods.
'A murmuration of starlings'
A smile of deceptions.
'A stand of flamingos'.
A hoot of blues.
'A shrewdness of apes'.
'A prickle of porcupines'.
A quiver of suspicions.
A meringue of manoeuvres.
A hum of yarns.
A feint of pretentions.
A dodge of distractions.
A shiver of aspersions.
A snide of innuendos.
A shuffle of tricks.
An ace of darts.

Humour, now, is on notice. None may laugh without looking over one's shoulders, lest the laugh be thought derisive of a group or derogatory of a historic icon. Never mind that the icon may have laughed and not minded the joke at all.

A joke, we are told, must be strictly correct. It must be contextual. It must be constructive. In other words, it must be serious.

And it must tell the truth.

But can one not laugh at those common specimens of humanity among us who may be playing around with the truth?

Since the practitioners of lying have got to be laughing inside themselves for the effectiveness of their drama (until found out) they should not grudge these collective nouns at their expense :

Knee of jerks.
Shame of boshes.
Feign of toshes.
Cock of bulls.
Make of beliefs.
Counter of feits.
Hoax of dupers.
Illusion of true-sayers.
Delusion of falsifiers.
Dearness of fabrications.
Extravagance of cheapnesses.
Exorbitance of postures.
Wile of tricks.
Trick of wiles.
Ruse of bluffs.
One could go on. But one need not.

Lies have always been part of human intercourse, 'great' lies and petty ones. And it is not as if 'once liar always a liar' or a 'man of truth' never lies. Besides, the owning up to falsehoods by those concerned, whenever that owning-up takes place, deserves admiration. For, if lying comes from cowardice, admitting to it, even when inescapable, takes courage.

The problem is lies, public and private, are now being accepted as the standard. And they are undisguisedly ugly.

The late Prof Dharma Kumar told me of when, as a student in Cambridge in 1948, she heard EM Forster speak at a hurriedly-convened memorial meeting for Gandhi, who had just been slain. Dharma said she remembered that lecture for one remark. "Gandhi," said the novelist, "never lied".

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed by the author are personal