By Swapan Dasgupta
Few individuals in public life can be as delightfully malicious as my friend, fellow Stephanian and sparring partner, Mani Shankar Aiyar — though this can’t be the reason why the president nominated him to the Rajya Sabha as a “man of letters”. As someone he dubbed the “Hampstead Hindu” permanently pitted against him, I can vouch for his erudition, puerility and devastating wit, the last two being inseparable. During the long waits before the TV cameras start rolling, we have often ended up discussing obscure themes. These have included the role of Sir Samuel Hoare (who?) in the Government of India Act of 1935 and whether it was Lord Halifax or Neville Chamberlain who mistook the butler for Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But conversations have also been laced with impish back-stabbing — and not merely directed at Arun Shourie, a fellow Stephanian he, to his own surprise, outscored in the final examinations many decades ago. On one occasion, Mani lit into a prickly and pompous Congress MP: “He imagines that God created wax to stuff into his ears.”
That’s Mani — the man with an anarchic gift of the gab.
At 70, an age when people become lofty and even spiritual, Mani has regressed into the halcyon days at St Stephen’s and Cambridge amid people with broadly common backgrounds and shared assumptions, the People Like Us. Some three weeks ago, after being confronted with a letter by the sports minister, Ajay Maken, charging him of waging war on Indian sports, being “obstructionist” and scuttling India’s bid for a future Asian Games, Mani shot his bolt. He retorted by feigning astonishment that a BA (Pass) from Hans Raj College could master the Queen’s English and be familiar with the term “dichotomous”.
Predictably, Mani’s assault on Maken and Hans Raj got many people’s backs up. Even Stephanians who shared Mani’s superior disdain for Pass course ‘locals’, ‘behenjis’ and institutions ‘across the road’, kept silent for fear of being exposed to charges of social snobbery and elitism — grave crimes against the inclusive dumbing down process. They chortled in private while reminiscing over a time when hostellers were referred to as ‘gentlemen in residence’ and when the annual IAS/IFS intake of Stephanians could make up at least two cricket teams.
To add to the farce, the principal of Hans Raj College clarified that Maken hadn’t actually read for a BA (Pass) but had graduated with a BSc (General) degree — a clarification that widened the smile on Mani’s face.
That Mani was being characteristically incorrigible is obvious. His real crime, however, was more heinous: he was guilty of flaunting his self-ordained superiority — something that in the unwritten club code is just not done. In the settled world of Nehruvian privilege where Mani blossomed, cleverness was always consciously concealed but privilege fiercely guarded in the guise of socialist egalitarianism. In my days at St Stephen’s, the worst abuse you could hurl at something — apart from being a bore — was to call him a ‘swot’ or ‘mug pot’. Life was something to be negotiated with natural brilliance and effortless ease — even if you discreetly burnt the midnight oil before the examinations. A well-honed sense of self-deprecation was what distinguished a gentleman from the players. To pass the social test, it helped to pose as a stuttering clod, even an archetypal upper-class twit, whose accomplishments were strictly limited to the school playing fields and courtships around the back gates of women’s colleges.
There was also a rule governing social put-downs: it had to be subtle and, preferably, laced with a touch of humour. The brilliant but raffish Tory MP, Alan Clark — the only man in recent times to speak in parliament after a generous overdose of claret at a convivial lunch — was once told of the wonderful furniture in the house of Michael Heseltine, a self-made politician. “The trouble with Michael,” he retorted nonchalantly, “is that he had to buy his own furniture.” To Clark, life was a basket of entitlements. It mirrored the words of the once popular Anglican hymn: “The rich man at his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high or lowly/ And ordered their estate.”
We can be outraged by Clark’s outrageous hauteur but few can deny its infuriating sharpness. Mani may have rightly been miffed by Maken’s letter, even believing he had been put up to it by higher powers. Maken is a “decent chap, I knew his uncle well”, he told me on a TV show. If that indeed was so, he may just as well have crafted an “Ode to a Hans Raj Boy”, borrowed the lines from Oliver Goldsmith and recited: “And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew/ That one small head could carry all he knew.” That would have been the less disagreeable Stephanian way.
A sharp repartee does not necessarily lead to an audience rolling in aisles; a few quiet chuckles from ‘those who know’ are always preferable. But there is always a problem with ‘in’ jokes: the quiet appreciation of the few are invariably overshadowed by the simmering anger of the great many that nurture the suspicion that they are being mocked by those who have rarely had it bad.
This point was driven home at a TV show Mani and I did in Miranda House, one of the best women’s colleges of Delhi University. The audience didn’t think that the competitive displays of Stephanian humour were very funny — not because they weren’t amusedper se but because the ‘in’ jokes from a bygone age also reeked of social privilege. They interpreted the closed world of overgrown schoolboys as evidence of social condescension. The students weren’t earnest radicals; they aspired to a society where opportunities were equal and not determined by glibness and social skills. In a crudely cricketing sort of way, their role model was M.S. Dhoni, the Ranchi boy who made good, not the Nawab of Pataudi from Winchester and Balliol College.
There is an important distinction between an elitism based on the pursuit of intellectual excellence and the snobbery centred on privilege acquired through an accident of birth. Unfortunately, they often converge — not merely at St Stephen’s but in Oxbridge colleges and American Ivy League colleges — and the results can be devastatingly off-putting.
The Indian elites, it has often been said, readily reconciled to British rule because, like their rulers, they too were obsessed by class and the trappings of hierarchy. Class was also injected into the DNA of the indigenous sahibs Macaulay sought to create. Why else would St Stephen’s have nurtured a Wodehouse Society, alas now defunct, devoted to the celebration of the indolent puerility of a Bertie Wooster, a Bingo Little and the newt-loving Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle? It is not that the students really believed that life was all about chucking bread rolls at the Drones Club and becoming engaged to the dreadful Honoria Glossop. It is just that this was an ambience they regarded as the nearest thing to living in a perfect world. To the outside world, this obsession was not merely bizarre, it was positively offensive.
Legend has it that one Stephanian stumbled on entering the room for his IAS interview. “What is it,” barked one of the interviewers. “It, Sir,” came the reply, “is a singular, neuter pronoun.” In today’s world he would have been failed for insolence.
India has changed; Mani hasn’t. Like in the rest of the Anglophone world, class continues to be an abiding obsession in India.