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Sir, are you listening?

The phone rang horribly late at night but, for reasons I cannot fathom, I responded in an attentive mood. Normally the hour and tone of the conversation would undoubtedly have put me off, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2006 01:01 IST

The phone rang horribly late at night but, for reasons I cannot fathom, I responded in an attentive mood. Normally the hour and tone of the conversation would undoubtedly have put me off.

“I want to ask you a question,” the caller began but continued without pausing for a reply. “I’m a regular reader of your column and I notice that you are always criticising everything. Can’t you ever find anything to praise?”

The bold and blunt query took me aback. I wasn’t sure what to say largely because I was uncertain what had provoked this attack. But of one thing I was sure — I had been put in the dock and needed to defend myself. Banging the phone down might have ended the conversation — and there were moments when I wanted to do just that — but it wouldn’t have answered the question. And it certainly wouldn’t have dispelled the doubts that it arose out of.

“You write as if it’s clever to be critical,” the voice continued. It did give me its name but, alas, I can no longer remember. Perhaps my sense of shock drove it out of my mind. “Being critical is no doubt a popular or populist thing to do. But that’s just being negative. What about the things you admire? What about the actions you want to praise? Why not identify yourself by associating with them? Stand up for something. Don’t keep putting everything down.”

I started to defend myself and tried to assure the caller that I’m not a negative person but, after a bit, he cut me off. However, it wasn’t done rudely, more as if he knew what I had to say and was anxious to get on with his side of the conversation.

“I’ll tell you what,” the voice suddenly said. No longer did it sound agitated. A reflective calm seemed to have replaced the earlier impatience. “Let me give you a bit of advice. Why don’t you write about what you like about India? Give me three good reasons on a Sunday morning to feel happy and satisfied. Instead, you often leave me feeling the other way.”

I put the phone down somewhat perplexed but also in a strange way glad I’d had the conversation. To begin with, whilst not conceding the argument, perhaps the caller has a point. I reserve my right to be critical — even, if necessary, aggressive although not, I hope, offensive — but I accept that occasional appreciation and praise is essential. But more importantly, the conversation opened my eyes to something that’s often happened before but which I never really noticed or attempted to understand. Now that it had hit me straight across the face I couldn’t possibly avoid doing so.

When they want to, Indians have an amazing way of telling the truth. At the most surprising of moments they literally blurt it out. It’s said without artifice and without care for political correctness. Unvarnished it no doubt is but it’s also refreshingly unalloyed. And even if at times painful it’s almost always therapeutic. It makes up for all the Uriah Heepness and utter hypocrisy we are equally capable of.

In fact, no other country seems to have this incredible quality. The Brits are too phlegmatic, the French too loquacious, the Germans far too upright and the Italians simply muddle-headed. The Americans wouldn’t know enough and the Chinese races would be horrified at anything that approximates to the blunt truth. That’s not their way of doing things.

Only in our country do strangers march up to you — or ring late at night heedless of the hour — and tell you to your face what they think. Furthermore, they’re not a whit abashed by the fact their comment could be personal or it’s well past midnight or there are others standing by listening. They don’t even care if they end up making a spectacle of themselves. They do it because they feel they have to. The passion that moves them cannot be diffused by etiquette or politesse or even lack of opportunity. It just has to express itself.

So, this morning, I want to compliment my late night interlocutor for helping me appreciate a quality I had not properly thought of before. No doubt he did it unintentionally but he was, nevertheless, the necessary catalyst. It’s people like you, Sir, who shake up a man’s complacency and self-satisfaction. Your call did me a world of good.

First Published: Jan 01, 2006 01:01 IST