Which sensible person can ever ignore the irresistible charm of a useless fact? Formal western dinner table seating, in which a woman is placed between two men, was invented during the Crusades on the very sound principle that the presence of a lady was essential to ensure good manners among men. No Latin poet was born in Rome. Puerto Ricans cure a hangover by rubbing a lemon under their arms, while Casanova had an equally useful need for them, which, alas, cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper. The Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova had an on-court grunt during Wimbledon in 2005 that was measured at 101.2 decibels, which is louder than a macho motorcycle.
Does such knowledge, which I picked up at random from travel reading, serve any purpose? This question has the faint aura of pomposity, in addition to being hopelessly puritan. The beauty of knowledge lies in its catholic breadth. How do we know what is necessary unless we know what we do not know?
Indians never learn the truth about India from media, much as media might like to believe otherwise. They are never sure whether a fact offered by media is without distortion. They learn about politics and power from one another.
Every scientist must be as curious as a philosopher. “Low” curiosity, of which I have provided some splendid examples, is as engaging as “high” curiosity, and often more practical in its worth. I bet you really do want to know what precisely Casanova did with lemons.
Curiosity, in my measured view, never killed any cat. If the cat died it was only because it jumped to conclusions. [As a phrase, the last one is particularly neat.] Enquiry into the unknown is the start of any adventure. Nothing venture, nothing gain. It is true that for every Columbus who lost his way to find a glorious new world, there are dozens who ended up at the bottom of an ocean. So what? Failure is only an incentive for the next generation. That’s progress.
If old Christopher Columbus had a fault, it was that he opened up the way for the transfer of Europe’s diseases to a people who had never known anything as fatal as smallpox, or pox, because they had the sense to limit human need to the bounty of nature. Discovery becomes a curse when it fuels aggression and exploitation, both of which give full expression to man’s infinite capacity for cruelty. Who knows what the many missions, including India’s, will find on Mars, but it would be terrible folly if we sought to convert Mars into another Earth. If we ever find Martians, we will discover a derogatory word for them, and then launch a genocide to steal their minerals. Private American companies have already begun offering investors a speculative piece of Mars.
The true charm of curiosity lies in tidbits. There is no race more inquisitive than the Indian, which is why no train or bus journey on the subcontinent is ever silent. Conversation is the stimulant of the masses. Communication with a stranger is a sign of good behaviour, quite unlike Britain, for instance, where it would be considered intrusive.
Indians never learn the truth about India from media, much as media might like to believe otherwise. They are never sure whether a fact offered by media is without distortion. They know that truth, in any case, is much larger than fact, and they learn about politics and power from one another, through the chat between strangers in a train compartment, or on a bus seat, which they then circulate through the teashop or the office. A stranger has no vested interest. India had social media long before technology blinked its way into our palms. Every Indian face is a book. Every Indian voice is a twitter.
Indians, therefore, do not make up their minds only in anticipation of a poll. They enjoy opinion for the sake of opinion, and as a tool of empowerment. They judge the powerful with thorough due diligence. They take their time, for they have plenty of it. But once they have made up their mind, they do not change it easily, or ever, until judgement day, which is the day of elections.
They love the structure of democracy, with its marvellous bookends: free speech holding up one side of space, and free will closing the other. They know that the day of judgement is a fundamental right; it can neither be deferred nor aborted. They do not need torch-lit processions every week, or rallies in a maidan. There will come a day on which their volcanic rage can explode, and be replaced by fresh investment in hope.
Democracy is karma come to life. For one day the Indian becomes god of his world. What more could he want? Politicians’ nerves get shot while waiting for election results. Media gets frantic. Government bites its nails. But a voter is never curious about the result. There is no reason to be. The voter knows the result long before an election.