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Identified flying object

As I tie the laces of my heavy boots, I wonder how Manmohan Singh would have reacted to a flying shoe coming towards him. The way he’s handling the out-of-control AR Antulay, I have a feeling he’s got a boot fetish, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Dec 21, 2008 01:37 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Hurling a shoe at someone, according to the very well-shod BBC, is the worst insult that the Arab world can possibly conjure up. Another British cultural organisation, The Times, explained in a perfect Peter O’Toole-on-a-camel pitch: “Hitting someone with a shoe is considered the supreme insult in Iraq. It means that the target is even lower than the shoe, which is always on the ground and dirty.”

Well, I’ll be darned. For here I was thinking all this while that hurling things that either splatter or explode would be a bigger insult than chucking a shoe even in symbolically ripe West Asia. But no, it’s the flying shoe, apparently, that takes on and breaks hegemons.

My theory is that some smart Iraqi cookie must have told Martin or Marjorie or Basheer from Wembley on the Baghdad beat that the illegal occupation of Iraq has been finally avenged by Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi when he threw his pair of shoes at George W. Bush last week. On deciphering this culture-specific action, US troops have now no choice but to accept total defeat and return home in their socks. To inject even more value into this suddenly sprung symbolic act, the 28-year-old al-Zaidi, still in custody, has now been offered a bride by an Egyptian gentleman.

Hmm. Could shoe-throwers be the new techies, doctors and green-card holders in the marriage market in this part of town?

Now I don’t want to play Edward Said here — who had this curious knack of turning every utterance by a Westerner on its head. (‘Ah, but you see, that Orientalist saw the Taj Mahal only as the Taj Mahal. Ignorant, patronising fool!’) But what happens if the target of the travelling shoe is totally ignorant of the fact that he is being direly insulted by a fertile Arab mind? The very gravity of the insult is lost. As the very cultural-specific expression goes: it’s like throwing pearls at oysters.

I thought Bush showed incredible dexterity dodging not one, but two shoes that once cupped the feet of al-Zaidi. Like him or not, that immediately makes the 43rd President of the United States this year’s winner of the Ronald Reagan ‘Honey, I Didn’t Forget To Duck’ Award. Al-Zaidi was one-year-old when the 40th President of the US uttered, “Honey, I forgot to duck” to his wife from his emergency bed after being shot by John Hinckley Jr. (Shooting, not throwing shoes, is considered a bigger insult in countries like America.)

Unlike Bush in Baghdad, Naveen Patnaik in Bhubaneshwar (despite still being a New Yorker in Orissa then) didn’t miss the point being made when chappals were flung inside the Orissa Assembly in 2000. Technically, it was the mad scramble triggered by flying slippers belonging to opposition members reacting to a government-sanctioned mining lease that led to gentle Naveen’s foot being squashed under a table. It was, however, airborne footwear that drove home the message (‘Learn Oriya, Patnaik!’). But while al-Zaidi t-shirts are being sold next to Osama and Arafat ones on the Arab Street today, does anyone remember Congress legislator from Brajarajnagar, Anup Sai, whose chappal launched a dozen others in Orissa eight years ago?

Which goes to show that unlike in Iraq, hurling a shoe at someone in India isn’t really the ‘supreme insult’. In fact, to make things absolutely clear — especially to BBC and Times journalists looking for anthropological stories to file back home — in 2005, the BJP’s then vice-president Venkaiah Naidu stated that shoe-throwing or hitting people or their portraits with slippers “is not part of our culture” and “to throw chappals and rotten eggs at somebody.... will start a new trend and this is not a good thing”. He was reacting to agitations against comments made by actress Khushboo on pre-marital sex. Whether people had misunderstood her suggestion of putting table-tennis paddles — and not Hawaii chappals — to erotic use is still unclear.

But as I tie the laces of my heavy boots, I wonder how Manmohan Singh would have reacted to a flying shoe coming towards him. The way he’s handling the out-of-control AR Antulay, I have a feeling he’s got a boot fetish.