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Sunil Sethi: Welcome to the Silly Season


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

April, said the poet, is the cruellest month but, in fact, it may be the most foolish. A strong touch of the sun has resulted in a rush of silly season stories, from the patently absurd to the downright bizarre. If you rewind the week gone by, you will see what I mean.
It began with listing the Congress Party's achievements during his (the sun here is stronger), which included "dividing Pakistan". Sacrificing rudimentary notions of history, even family history, in a bid to win the attention of the Hindi heartland, the party's Crown Prince's remarks evoked strong reaction from the Pakistani foreign office, which pounced, consternation touched with I-told-you-so glee. What could Rahul have meant? The party of his forebears was responsible for Partition in 1947, or for dismembering Pakistan in 1971, or both? It was a poor rewrite of history from someone poised to lead the family firm. Jawaharlal Nehru would have blanched and Indira Gandhi, acknowledged liberator of Bangladesh, would be turning in her grave.
Rahul Gandhi's foot-in-mouth reflex was followed by Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty's mouth-on-cheek clinch""one a case of instant revisionism, the other of spontaneous combustion. Both indicate rapidly changing tastes. Gere's smooch accompanied by a deep swing as seen in his film Let's Dance wasn't meant to offend, but it did. The Shiv Sainiks and allied Right-wing brigades were up in arms, threatening to burn down cinemas and attack Shilpa Shetty's property. Even liberals who believe that canoodling couples in public are just fine""and a social kiss is a form of sweetened handshake""found the act curious in the context. Gere and Shetty were addressing an audience of hundreds of truckers in their HIV educational campaign. Was their demonstration an endorsement of safe sexual practice? Or merely a safe bet to hit the high spots in the media?
Babubhai Katara, the MP from Gujarat, caught for spiriting illegal immigrants to the West, was in the game for no such publicity; he was just keeping his head down and surreptitiously running a dangerous racket for pelf. In the past MPs have been charged with a roster of crimes, from murder and extortion to provoking riots, robbing constituency funds, accepting bribes and even subletting their homes in Delhi; but in the annals of parliamentary history no such case has come to light. It is both brazen and bizarre. Katara clearly believed he could get away with it because he previously had. The case also shows up other fault lines: the desperation of a certain class to find a life overseas at whatever cost. And the carelessness of Indian immigration officials impressed by the immunity of official passports. For if it is proved that Babubhai Katara successfully smuggled passengers before he was caught, then New Delhi Customs will have a lot to answer for.
Filling the gaps between these strange happenings is a continuous murmur rising to a crescendo this weekend. This is the background burble of the wedding of the year. The oddest aspect of the Abhishek Bachchan-Aishwarya Rai nuptials is the high level of media and public interest, in reverse proportion to the amount of information or access available. From the beginning it has been made clear that the functions are strictly private affairs, not very large either, and restricted to the couple's close family and friends. Being families of professional performers, they know how to handle the media or how to lock it out. Every precaution has been taken to block unwanted attention""guests must leave their cell phones outside and there is strong security cover. No chance of a photo-op. Most facts are speculative or rumoured.
Yet, everyday and at all hours, the public is subjected to words and pictures that neither convey excitement nor information. It is a story without a story line. Like swimming in ether or pulling rabbits out of no hat.
Welcome to the stories of the silly season.

First Published: Sat, April 21 2007. 00:00 IST