Last New Year’s Day, I read a brave prediction on the death of opinion. Even the most self-absorbed practitioners of my noble, if insular, calling will have dimly perceived that we haven’t had the best of years. We aren’t dead yet, though.
So, in a spirit of public service, mindful of the season, and with all the solemn seriousness that befits discussions of the state of our opinion-generating industry, this New Year, I’ll suggest a few resolutions for us. First, whatever you’re up to, don’t get caught. It is clearly extremely inconvenient.
Not that you’ll be fired or anything. (The very idea!) But you’ll be required to defend yourself, and that cuts into your sleep schedule. Besides, what you think of as the most innocuous contacts can bring down on your head the judgment of the People.
Those outside Delhi just don’t seem to understand how difficult it is to hang up on influential callers who can be mean to you later. Have they never had girlfriends?In fact, just to be certain you don’t get caught, don’t use the phone. It is difficult to work out what a safe medium of communication is, though.
Phones are tapped by the income-tax department if they’re having a slow day at work, and the direct tax receipts for 2009-10 suggest they have no shortage of slow days. The home ministry, which never saw a technological innovation it didn’t want to control, is busy trying to decode BlackBerry Messenger.
You could try email, but if it’s at all interesting, Julian Assange might want to read it, and Julian Assange isn’t particularly scrupulous about how he gets what he wants. The old-fashioned method, writing a letter to give to your doctor to deliver, will just get him life imprisonment for sedition.
Probably best to use carrier pigeons.Or, of course, you could use the most confidential method of communication that the genius of man has yet developed, and tweet more. Tweeting, you can be assured, is the equivalent of speaking to the ether, a mystical communion between you and your computer that nobody would dare to overhear.
And even if someone were ill-mannered enough to actually read your tweets, why worry? There’s no chance of being misunderstood: people accustomed to pontificating over 10-minute monologues or 1,000 words have no trouble making themselves clear in 140 characters.
If you’re too old-world for new media, you could always go back to basics, and shout louder. You cannot go wrong by dialling up the volume, or pitching yourself shriller. The Great Indian Middle Class expects it. We can barely hear things now unless they’re Diwali-night loud.
Those of you who are forced to rely on the written word, do not despair: exaggeration is the volume button of print. Overstate your case, make impossible predictions, be provocative. Don’t worry, nobody will call you on it. Read, retweet, forget.And if you do get caught — claiming something that’s proved false later, or talking to someone you shouldn’t, or perhaps merely in plagiarism — don’t apologise.
That just keeps the story going, because the chances are you’re so unaccustomed to doing so that you’ll do it really badly. Besides, why should you? Does anyone ever own up to solemn predictions that haven’t materialised? If they did, then the ideas bazaar would be subject to a little market discipline, the quality would improve for consumers, and we can’t have that.
We like the bazaar as it is, thanks — though perhaps, as I said, we bazaaris could shout a little louder. Of course, sometimes you get caught, and sometimes you wind up apologising. If that’s the case, be creative about yourself. The weirder the excuse, the better. In fact, be creative in general.
Be creative about language: let your inspiration be Fatima Bhutto, who said, of Urdu’s response to American imperialism, that “it is not a language where we have words for computer, or wi-fi or text messaging. It’s not a language that automatically updates itself as others do, like Arabic or French.
So samraj is especially important because it literally means the raj of Uncle Sam.” There’s nothing you can call that sort of creativity but “opinion”. The ideas bazaar rewards creativity, if of the right sort. Nobody will take you seriously as a news or opinion peddler, for example, unless you write a novel.
Or, if you have greater power of invention than mere novelists, an impressionistic, anecdotal work of pop sociology. It doesn’t matter if it’s a coming-of-age story about a young small-town journalist discovering the rottenness of metropolitan India, or a return-to-the-motherland story about a young NRI journalist discovering the rottenness of metropolitan India.
We are a broadminded society, capable of dealing with variety. However, until we are certain your publisher values you enough to give us free booze at your book launch, we cannot think of you as a public intellectual. India is unique: journalists want to become novelists, and novelists want to become journalists — very effectively confusing the New York Times op-ed page.
And, finally, a very important caution: don’t be seditious. It isn’t clear what sedition is, but don’t do it anyway. You may have thought that it’s a low-cost way to get Guardian-reading tea-sippers in the West to like you and offer you a fellowship to a small New England liberal arts college, but it turns out we forgot to take it out of our lawbook when Nehru told us to, and the eternal truth about laws is that if they’re there, somebody will decide to enforce them.
No doubt we’ll eventually get round to living without them: New Zealand wound up repealing sedition laws after the Dunedin police, irritated beyond measure by a local bar-owner (who advertised, to match-happy local students, a competition in which the prize was a petrol-soaked couch), found they couldn’t get a conviction on “encouragement to arson” — and tried to get him on sedition instead.
Of course, our law-and-order institutions are above such underhanded methods, but just to be on the safe side, unless you want to turn into a burning sofa-bed, avoid seditiousness. Far better to say the commonplace, if very loudly. Resolve to make these changes, these seven in 2011, and we won’t go wrong. Though, as I said, even if we do go wrong, nobody will notice.