Don’t be mistaken about making mistakes
In the wake of recent cock-ups, we must realise that the truth value of the phrase ‘error’ depends on who’s using it and for what. Pratik Kanjilal writes.india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:39 IST
What is the truth value of genuine human error? The logical portmanteau term could signify something that is mainly genuine, mainly human or mainly wrong. This conundrum has been on my mind ever since the home minister deployed it, along with his genuine human smile, to gloss over our second serious boo-boo in the 26/11 dialogue with Pakistan.
Since we all have attention deficit disorder these days, here’s a quick recap. First, the home ministry had mixed up the DNA samples of Ajmal Kasab which were sent to Pakistan. P Chidambaram dismissed it as a clerical error.
Now, the ministry has sent Pakistan a list of most-wanted terrorists, two of whom are actually not sought after, having been apprehended in India. About the same time, a team of sleuths airdashed to Copenhagen to collar Kim Davy, wanted in the Purulia arms drop case. Unfortunately, they were armed with a dud warrant.
Clerical error was easy to understand and forgive. Clerks are infamously good at creating error. I bet that even Hammurabi’s code contained clerical errors, causing generations of ancient criminals to lose their heads instead of their pinkies, and so on. Clerical error is plain bad.
But genuine human error, which causes us to seek men who are already found, sounds positively wholesome. The virtues of genuineness and humanity have ganged up to diminish the shame of error. Roll your own harmless variations, right off your tongue: Genuine human foreign policy. Genuine human civil engineering. Genuine human gadbad ice cream. Feels good, doesn’t it, now that the phrase is completely error-free?
But with error in the mix, it’s a double-edged phrase. Its truth value depends on who’s using it and for what. Consider this simple hypothetical sentence: ‘A home minister stepped in the way of a trader’s SUV and was run over.’ In this imaginary situation, the victim is no longer available for comment. But from the trader’s point of view, this is not genuine human error. It’s a big mistake.
Long, long ago, when India was unbranded by Tata Sons and Infosys, when the world still regarded it as a nation of struggling artisans and artistes, the ministry of culture committed a genuine human error. They sent a Tamil fiction writer and a playwright from the Northeast to the Festival of India. This was genuine and human. But the fiction writer was billed as a poet and the playwright as a fiction writer. This was an error.
Let’s name no names. It was a long time ago and it’s vulgar to embarrass the dramatis personae all over again. The Tamil fiction writer meekly protested that he had no poetry. “Write some!” barked a babu. “You’re a writer, dammit!” So the Tamil writer read his latest work to the august gathering. “Paa-po, raa-naa…” he went.
He couldn’t sleep that night. He woke up his roommate, the playwright in the guise of a writer. “I have sinned today and I need to confess,” he said. “So many famous people were in the audience, and they thought they were listening to sublime poetry from India. But what I read was the alphabet of my language.”
The playwright sprang out of bed. “You, too!” he whispered.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal