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The Art of Lying

Congratulations to you and your party for the thumping victory in Karnataka, writes Indrajit Hazra in an open letter to Dharmaputra Man-mohan.

columns Updated: May 11, 2013 23:23 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Dear Dharmaputra Man-mohan,

Before anything else, let me congratulate you and your party for the thumping victory in Karnataka. I’m sure it’s made you confirm one of two things: that neither your law minister nor your rail minister is a liar, or, even if either or both are liars, it doesn’t matter.

But the real reason I’m using this column to get in touch with you is that I wanted to tell you how delighted I am to find that both of us have been reading the same book. Well, unless you’ve been reading Oscar Wilde’s Miscellanies from where it’s quoted, I would think that sometime last fortnight you and I came across the same epigraph in John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth — “If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out” — and found truth in it.

Of course, it’s not just the thrill of our reading tastes converging like an asteroid collision that’s got me all excited. In any case, that alone would not fill up a Sunday column however many similes and adjectives I put like numerous clowns jammed into a red minivan. My intention is more serious. For I’d like to share with my readers what I and, now that I’m sure, also you already know: lying is not wrong.

As it’s been a hectic week and readers would mutiny by switching to the competition if I’m not village-idiot simple, I’ll now explain in ‘point’ style five reasons why lying is not only good but necessary for the greater good.

1) Lying for a good cause is always preferable to telling the truth for a wrong one. If someone shares a considerable part of his fortune with others less fortunate in the belief that this will make him go to heaven or have a better afterlife, that’s a lovely lie. ‘White lies’ have always been about being virtuous. If Yudhisthir’s lie to Dronacharya about the death of his beloved son Ashwatthama hastened the end of the Kurukshetra war, wasn’t it worth it? Answer: yes.

2) The dangers of self-righteousness — that sickness which makes one believe oneself to be above everyone else — are kept at bay by lying. The liar, however excellent his skills may be, knows that he is lying. That knowledge keeps him grounded, makes him aware that he is nowhere near perfect. Which is why lying is the ultimate act of humility.

3) In Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, the Fairy, after catching the boy-puppet lying by observing the rapid growth of his nose, tells him, “Lies, my boy, are known in a moment. There are two kinds of lies: lies with short legs and lies with long noses.” The Fairy is correct, but correct only insofar as she describes badly constructed and easily given away lies. A good lie is a work of art, what Mark Twain called the ‘Fourth Grace and the Tenth Muse’. When lies are locked into each other by the practised, intelligent mind, an impenetrable forest of fibs, a protective umbrella of untruths is created, which can be as beautiful as a Bohemian glass chandelier and as sturdy as truths. Lying not only requires intelligence, but also enhances it.

4) There’s something the experts call the ‘illusory truth effect’ — a lie that has been disproved but which continues to be treated as fact. However many times Sajjan Kumar and OJ Simpson are cleared of their alleged crimes, people already acquainted with the ‘facts’ of their guilt won’t ever come around to believing they are innocent, no matter what facts are brought before them. If someone believes you’ve had five drinks instead of two even if you’ve really had two (or maybe three), the only way a sense of justice will prevail is if you have five drinks (or maybe six) and lie by saying you’ve had two. The consequences (disbelief) remaining the same, lying provides a soothing sense of parity.

5) Lying can be an act of kindness. When a child shows you a picture he’s drawn, the chances of it being godawful are tremendously high. But you’d be a beast to tell him the bitter truth. Whole societies are kept aloft by ‘kind lies’ that say, ‘Tomorrow will be a better day’. Economies, religions and campaigns are run on the fabricated premise that ‘Your condition is blessed’ or that where you live is ‘Saare jahan se achha’. Even if some spoilsport stands up to point at the emperor not wearing clothes, no one will believe the truth. So it’s better to lie. One should just strive to lie better.

On this note, Manmohan-ji, I’ll sign off today, happy in the knowledge that we agree on one thing. The trick, of course, is to not be marked as a liar. After all, who would believe a liar when he’s lying? Lies can be impeccable and invincible only when it comes from an honest man.

Yours very sincerely,

Ravanputra Indrajit

First Published: May 11, 2013 23:16 IST