22 April, 2024


The Story Of Nuancing The News: Part I

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

We met for a virtual one. My drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram and I had not been to our regular water hole – the famous pub in Bridgetown, England — for over three months now. There was a lot of news to catch up, but the most disturbing of it all was the withdrawal from a repository, an episode of Fawlty Towers. No infectious virus, no amount of daily lies of politicians, none of the frustration at seeing senior scientists appear on television in their “whose bread I eat, his song I sing” mode would annoy me more than pulling an episode of this masterpiece.

Yes, there is history. The history of discovery. The perception of the world by a graduate student in Bridgetown three and a half decades ago. That polite words can be used to insult. To deny. To discriminate. That there is a difference between the superficial and the subtle. Gestures, tokens and symbols being attacked, as it is happening right now, target the superficial. Substance, either as cause or as solution, is subtle. Attacking the former, is a distraction from the more substantive latter. 

So it was in the bubble of Bridgetown I was delighted to be invited to a formal dinner. A wine and dine occasion to meet fellow students and staff, who had to be referred to as fellows but they really aren’t yours. They are allowed to walk on the grass and you aren’t: The Fellow is not your fellow. 

The invitation said “dress: black tie”. I owned two neckties then, one had horizontal red stripes and the other, vertical red stripes. Neither was black. So I purchased a tie, black in colour. A whole evening of embarrassment then followed, of a room full of people partying and me attending a funeral: Your tie is not the right tie.

Words have to be understood in context.

Being inside the bubble of Bridgetown was necessary to pursue scholarship. It was also a place of sanctuary, for it was just a few months ago I had to act superman, saving my life by jumping off a second floor balcony during state-sponsored riots back in Sri Lanka. But how does one maintain one’s sanity in the interior of the bubble with all its peculiar customs? 

Hooray. There was television: Fawlty Towers, ‘Alo ‘Alo and Yes Minister for humour, and, to understand the rest of society, yes, da da da da dan dan dan… the ever addictive Eastenders. I could jump out of the bubble, laugh at the interior and then – ungratefully, you might say — jump back inside for scholarship and sanctuary.

So in our virtual pub, we discussed why the Fawlty Towers episode was pulled. The character Major Berkeley uses offensive language to accurately describe people with different shades of skin colour. Basil himself is deeply offensive to the German guests. Those who enjoyed the programme were seen to be LUTA (laughing until tummy ached). [Author’s note: the acronym LMAO had not been invented in 1985, and would have been inappropriate anyway.]

“Was I wrong to have enjoyed watching Fawlty Towers, machan (buddy)?” I asked, “given the use of certain words. Rude, racist and offensive.”

“Of course such language is not very nice,” Thevaram explained, “but there is a difference, a big difference, between an office memo giving you a list of words you can use, and an art form.

“Comedy demands intelligence to appreciate. It places you in the context being portrayed, invites you to live it and appreciate how silly and wrong the portrayed behavior is. Makes you reflect and think you ought not to be like that. And makes you laugh at, and dismiss, the behavior. You are not laughing at the target of the rude word, instead, you are given the opportunity to laugh at the character using the word. 

“If you miss that, and see only the words, you are stuck with office memos. Carefully drafted within organizations by a committee of Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity, approved by several layers above them, printed in glossy brochures with awards given by organizations to each other for having the right policies, issuing the right statements and so on.

“You really have to see the difference between the superficial and the substance machan,” he suggested. Between words and their meanings. Meanings that spring out only in context.” 

He took an example to illustrate his point.

“Think of ‘Alo ‘Alo, where Edith, the wife, catches Rene’ in a compromising position with Yvette, the waitress. “What are you doing with that servant girl in your arms?” asks the angry wife. How does Renee’ respond? “You, stupid woman…,” he says before finding a silly excuse. That is rude language. Rude words. 

“Now compare how Sir Humphrey Appleby reacts to Dorothy Wainwright, the political advisor: “Dear Lady,” he says. That is polite language. Polite words. 

“But when taken in context, machan, the words don’t matter. The message does. The semantics, the intent, the difference between a cheating husband wanting to quickly get out of a difficult situation, and the manipulative power-hungry bureaucrat, is not to be found in the words, but in the context of those words. 

“By the way, in your workplace also machan, you will be well advised not to say ‘stupid woman’ to anyone; but ‘dear lady’ may be acceptable,” he reminded me. Just in case.

Much of what he said about substance rhymed well with my experience. I have taught popular courses in three public institutions over three and a half decades in my job. But I am well aware that I serve a very narrow section of the society. My customers are largely homogeneous in colour and better off than median in their purchasing power. And the probability someone from the East End square coming on my class is infinitesimally small, if not identically zero. 

I raised my glass so it was visible via the WebCam. “Cheers”. “Cheers,” Thevaram responded and took me through an even simpler example. 

Machan, when I go past a pub on a Saturday evening,” Thevaram asked me, “say a gentleman from there shouts: ‘Ado PakistanMinusStan, go back to Tamil Nadu, you kallathoni (illegal immigrant), that’s where you belong’, what should be foremost in my thought? 

“Is it the differential in skin colour, or the oft misquoted Aryan Dravidian genetic lineages, or the relationship between the gentleman’s use of the word PakistanMinusStan and residuals of colonialist thinking? 

“No, none of that” he said, answering his own question.  

“Really,” I expressed surprise. My friend is educated. He is well read. He is competent in causal reasoning. He should know where racism springs from. He should know how history in the school curriculum is selective. He should know of systematic biases in media reports. He should know systematic economic exploitations, when successful, are portrayed as superior talent of the exploiter and the stupidity of the exploited. 

And he should know it is not too uncommon to theorize that the intellect of some versus stupidity others measured in a particular way, or even the differential probability of death when the neck is squeezed, are inherited traits encoded in one’s genome. I was annoyed he would not challenge such sophisticated explanations when they manifest in the way he had just witnessed.

“What then do you care about?” I asked in annoyance. 

“What I care about, when someone shouts PakistanMinusStan at me, is if I can run faster than that bloke. Nothing else matters. It is as simple as that.”  

“But when things are subtle, machan,” Thevaram calmly explained after another sip from his glass, “like the raised eyebrows of a boss when you put an alternate view at a meeting, which is then followed by a polite response thanking you for the ‘helpful comment’, but the semantics of what you said is not even parsed, and you know the probability of it being taken on board is zero, you will struggle. You will suffer. You will order a large glass of wine in the bar that evening. You will not sleep that night.” 

“Struggle? Suffer? Large glass? Loss of sleep?” I needed clarification.

“You will struggle, machan, to decouple the causes. What correlates more with the raised eyebrow you noticed in that fraction of a second: Is it your low-ranking position in the food chain, or is it the melanin secretion by the cells of your skin?” 

“If there are only two possible reasons,” I tried to be helpful, “surely, collecting enough data and identifying the real cause should not be difficult for you. After all, analyzing data and making inferences is what you do for a living, is it not?”

“No. No individual can do enough experiments on this, by collecting independent and identically distributed samples,” he said, catching me off-guard with a technical term. 

“Your immediate perception may well be one of the two causes, and because that will disturb you so much, you will look for, and easily find, data to support an alternative. You will form a hypothesis — a comforting explanation — that will secure your position within the bubble, necessary for your pursuit of scholarship and sanctuary, and you will look for data to conform it. Not contradict it. 

“Failing that, you will appeal to the most parsimonious of all causes explaining the world around you. Incompetence. And evidence of that is so easy to find.”

There ended our free 40-minute zoom time of virtual drinking session, noting the difference between what is superficial and what is substance, and that anger at the former is a distraction from challenging the latter.  


To be continued… (probably)

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Latest comments

  • 8

    What a brilliant essay this is. So subtle, so nuanced, so timely and so true!!! Professor Niranjan should consider publishing a book of these gems.

    Loved the anecdote about the black tie. Been there myself amongst such vacuous snobs, and acutely felt the “raised eyebrow.”

    Seems like Cambridge, for all its vaunted splendour, has learnt nothing since that genius Ramanujan dared to darken its portals in the 1990-s.

    • 6

      The author doesn’t take kindly to being called Niranjan. That’s his first name (though written second). Prof. Mahesan, if you please.
      Language is a funny thing. It changes within a generation. The word “negro” (which means “black”, in Spanish) was once perfectly acceptable. Even Martin Luther King called himself a Negro.But the word is a big No-No now, along with “mongoloid”, ” deaf” or “blind”.
      Yes, I think Prof. M is in the wrong trade. He should be writing books. Or is he already doing that?

    • 2

      Ramanujan was born December 22, 1887, passed away at the prime age of 32 on April 26, 1920.

      • 3

        Thanks Nathan, that was a typo on my part. Ramanujan was in Cambridge in the 1910 or so.

        And thanks OC for the helpful tip about Prof Mahesan’s name.

        • 4

          The conventions are explained here:

          Though many have adopted different styles when settling elsewhere, converting to Christianity or when joining schools that were run by missionaries, I believe in this author’s case, Easton Scott got it right: i.e. MN known as “Professor N” formally and “hey/ado/machan N” informally. “M” is used when filling a form which asks for two identifiers, and to get the right order one has to “M” under given name / Christian name and “N” under surname/ family name. Then the order of names as appearing in the tax form matches what is in the passport.

          • 5

            Thanks, Singar A. Velan.
            How trivial, subtle, informative, entertaining, and good-natured.
            I don’t think that we will ever solve our “post-Colonial” problems. There the problem is not with us, I seem to be saying, but with the Brits who colonised us..
            Never mind all that. It is better that we insult some whites, rather than us browns destroy one another.
            The link you gave us was most interesting, but it led to another:
            And so on. old codger is the guy who started of this healthy conversation – but where are the comments on the story itself? Too subtle and esoteric for most of us, I guess.
            Thanks, Prof. Mahesan Niranjan (that’s what Editor, Uvindu K) has implied that we should call the author who probably won’t bother with any of this. The paucity of comments may indicate that good writing is such that it can communicate, even if imperfectly comprehended.

            • 4

              Dear Sinhala_Man,
              I wonder if what I am about to say will put to rest the confusion we have on ‘the name’ of the author.
              In Tamil Hindu culture there is no tradition of a family name.
              A father (F) name the child (C) at birth. If the child is a male, he goes as FC, and if a female, she goes as CF.
              This difference is not a discrepancy, but a distinction.
              Our culture takes a female to be always dependent on a male.
              On her father before marriage; on her husband after marriage.
              It is safe to think that the father of the author was a Mahesan, who named his son Niranjan.

          • 0

            Interesting piece there. On the same subject, why is it that in Tamil Nadu (and Kerala) some people have village names affixed, but local Tamils don’t?

            • 2

              I am not aware of this. In significant numbers using local village names, or the odd kallathoni settler putting on a new style: Suresh von Chunnakam ?
              [ If in large numbers, that might well have influenced Sinhala “-ge” style of
              VillegeGe or VillegeAarachchiGe?? Or even place names as surnames, which is not uncommon in Sinhala — Dereniyagala, Udawatta etc… But I am in guessing territory. ]
              With Tamils, names like Kathirkamanathan, Thirukketheeswaran, though have place names embedded in them, are somewhat different I think. Place –> God –> Person.
              There are recent stylish adoption of place names: Mallaiyuran (from the village Mallakam, I’d guess), Kasi Ananthan (made to look like from Kasi — the place where sanyasi’s go, but I think it is just initials strung together) etc.

              • 0

                OC is probably talking about names like Sillaiyur Selvarajan, Sirkali Govindarajan, et al. I think it is just the names that have come to define them in public, especially for musicians and TV/Radio personalities, but not there in official names, even in TN/Kerala.

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