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Crusaders, not paragons

Malavika Sangghvi  |  Mumbai 

If nuance were a colour would it be grey?

I ask this as I watch my generation grapple with the and what constitutes right and wrong.

The cases of Kiran Bedi’s airline “fudge”, Arvind Kejriwal’s outstanding dues to his employers and Prashant Bhushan’s have convulsed more than TV debates.

Ordinary people are confused about what is right and wrong and, with our hyperactive media, each day’s offerings brings forth news of icons with feet of clay.

It’s a scenario we’re all too familiar with: a crusader takes on the rich and powerful, his campaign gains momentum, his movement gains ground — and then as if his adversaries have gathered their forces even as they run for cover, the tables are turned and his reputation is besmirched with an allegation which dismays his supporters, delights his critics and which he has to spend all his time explaining.

That’s when nuance and scale are ignored and the issue gets murky and the debate gets shrill: the crusader is not a paragon of virtue, but on what scale does his misdemeanor compare with the issue he is campaigning for? Does his transgression take away from the urgency and relevance of the issue he is agitating against? Do we believe that issues can only be raised by those who themselves have never transgressed? Is such a demand realistic? Would that not result in a paralysis of inquiry? Is there anyone who is untouched by wrongdoing? Is the notion at all possible?

Each and every one of us has had to rub up against Life, and that’s not a pretty thing. Along the way we respond, transact, engage as best we can, on many occasions in ways that may not stand up to the scrutiny of the harsh spotlight of other people’s judgment.

And other people’s judgments come along with other people’s baggage. And biases. Which is why we have courts of law to decide what is culpable or not, what is censurable or not and what is punishable with six years in after being denied bail.

Which is why someone like grappled with Truth daily and co-opted a nation into his struggle. His greatness did not come from the fact that he had never sinned; his greatness came from the fact that he recognised that he had, and he was unafraid to admit it to himself or the world. His greatness came from the fact that he realised how human and fragile he was and he looked inward with an unblinking eye.

TV debates, dinner party conversations and the like often miss out on the fact that we are much more complex than the one-dimensional issues of what is right and what is wrong. That these questions cannot be answered or resolved without deep introspection, a sense of genuine self-inquiry and an understanding that Life is not black-and-white but shades of grey.

As each day more and more of the very people who have represented virtue are themselves shown up for not having an unblemished record, I am reminded of what the poet Rumi said: ‘“Beyond the rightness or wrongness of things there is a field, I'll meet you there.”

Perhaps the time has come to readmit nuance into our lives. To admit that without it we cannot address the issue of what is right and wrong. Perhaps in shades of grey is where we exist.

Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer  

First Published: Sat, November 12 2011. 00:25 IST