Sunday, May 03, 2009

Whither Impudicus Gestures

Somewhere around the fag end of the sixth decade of your life, you, an-until-now-vacillating-member -on the cusp-of-two-generations, suddenly realize, that , notwithstanding the fact you are amazingly and blindingly young-in-mind, you are about to cross over somewhere....

You suddenly start attaching great nostalgic values to childhood things and values. This is particularly true when you think of gestures, their types , and the big hype.... While gestures in personal life, remain that way, possibly throughout life, tempered by a lifetime of living with like minded types, what is really worrisome is the public gesturing that happens today.

In my childhood, if you said "television", I wouldn't have known what to visualize. I had not seen one, did not know anyone who had one, and did not see the need for one. Yes, the country had celebrations, and prominent visitors. Things appeared in the papers, were avidly read. I remember, as a child of 8-9, returning one morning, from a visit to the Parvati hill temple near my home in Pune , only to see folks gathered on both sides of a road we needed to cross. There wasn't any alarming security stuff, but loitering in the middle of the road was being discouraged. Those who had work to do were being allowed to carry on, and no one was stopped.

Soon there was something like a siren sound, a bunch of motorcycles leading a procession, and an open car passed by with Pandit Nehru, and a largish man with a ruddy complexion and a fur hat, sitting next to him. They smiled, we smiled. They waved , we waved back. Some folks threw garlands and flowers are them , and succeeded in garlanding the spare wheel. But we had just see Khrushchev and Nehru going by, for a visit to the National Defence Academy....

Ever since visual media has become part of life, it is clear that there are some folks who are very good at what may be called mass public gesturing.

It isn't necessary to believe or even understand in the root of that gesture. You gesture because it looks nice on TV.
We have a lake that is slowly getting silted, thanks to indiscriminate construction around it, and effluents flowing into it. Parasitic plants have had a wild time propagating, and those living on the banks were worried. One summer, when the lake bed dried up, an effort was initiated to get going a volunteer group to clean the lake bed , of that dried parasitic plant vegetation. A few dedicated folks joined, a few more offered to land up with refreshments, and children who were shorter than the plant even distributed biscuits to the several uncles and aunties.

But by and large, most people smirked and drove on.

A few articles
appeared in the papers about the lake many who smirked earlier ,gave quotes, joined up in various organizations whch regularly get mentioned in the press, and organized a "protest chain". Hundreds of school children, in the noon day searing sun, were made to stand holding hands and sometimes banners, along the lake shore, as the organizer ladies, went buzzing around in vehicles, in crisp cottons, sunglasses, and attitude, as the television crew panned , and took interviews of the plinths and pillars of the movement. Everyone then went home, and the weary children trudged back, sweaty,tired and hungry, empty water bottles around their tired necks, avoiding the traffic rush, waiting to get home through it all.

The same thing happened when the country's first citizen was scheduled to come our way. Schools were let out. Even children from primary classes were involved. Every inch of the path had to be lined. With the future citizens holding banners and flags. Some children were so small they didn't know who was who. The first citizen came by 2 hours late, in a cavalcade of 15 cars, all with tinted glasses, and the children probably waved at the attending doctors' vehicle for all they knew. But the gesture was duly recorded, acknowledged and applauded where it mattered.

Currently, the most popular thing to do is to walk around with lighted candles. Some television folks made a TRP killing getting Page 3 types to mix with the masses carrying candles in front of the Taj, last November, which made for impressive visuals against the still smoking domes and turrets of the hotel, late in the evening. Everyone commented on how governance should improve, how security was bad, and how we must vote the culprits out. Folks looked suitably important. Then when the elections actually happened last week, 55% didn't vote because they preferred to be away on a weekend , or it was , oh-so-hot.

I don't ever remember doing these things in my childhood. Yes, we were aware of events; we sympathized with those who suffered; we worked behind the scenes collecting donations, and documentation. We visited flooded areas as part of our learning in school after the Pune 1961 floods. But there was no bunking and missing school, for holding hands in chains, banners and stuff, and least of all , there were no interviews. No one came to ask, no one talked, but everyone worked.

And there really wasn't any "show" involved.

Today, you need to
show your hand.

And, the ruling Congress Party chooses the upheld palm as its election symbol.

It probably couldn't afford to go deeper into detail. Like the fingers.

The thumb can support or anger the public. The thumb held up with a closed fist is supposed to be a supportive gesture. Twist that by 180 degrees, and its another name for booing or, failure. When Coca Cola was thrown out of India by the government in the 70's, the country never missed it because something called Thumbs Up immediately appeared on the scene to replace it. Same color, same bottle, similar taste, similar bad ingredients, and no one was surprised when Coca Cola types came back and the Thumbs Up types sold out to them for a neat profit. Today, there is an obnoxious guy on TV, selling some Dubai club deal to folks, and he darts into the screen with a smile and thumbs-up, and immediately probably loses a bunch of prospective clients with his over thumbing.

The index finger is probably more impressive. We have several statues of folks , national leaders, all standing and holding their hand up, with a raised finger. One of them wrote our constitution, the other was a brave freedom fighter of Bengal, and one of them is even a revered woman in a southern state. All of them pointing somewhere with their index fingers. The last statue mentioned was surreptitiously removed by civic authorities from its place on a Chennai beach, and resulted in a huge hue and cry due to the perceived insult to Southern Womanhood, by folks who should have known better.

Hundreds of cricket umpires, have secretly rejoiced in seeing the trauma on a batsman's face as they raised their index finger. Some raise the arm slowly, with an already unfurled finger, some unfurl it as it rises, and some simply shoot it up. Millions of cricket fans in India die a thousand deaths every time an umpire raises his index finger against Sachin Tendulkar.

The little finger
, certainly has its little uses. Mostly by little ones. When they raise their hand in kindergaarten and signify a need to visit the toilet. It is even sometimes used by older folks, to signal someone confidentially, that they are looking for the bathroom.

Specific to India, the little finger is also used , when held up and the closed wrist moved side ways and back, with an accusing look at someone in front, to say that there is to be no further communication between the two . This is called " being Katti" with someone. Children excel in its usage, particularly vis-a-vis mothers, combined with an angry red face, and accusing looks.

That leaves us with the ring finger and the middle finger. Both of which I used to think were completely harmless and innocent. Part of a graceful hand, that you saw, in an ad for nail varnish, or diamond rings, which unknown fingers gently slid on some one's ring finger in that hand. Or a bejewelled hand that curled and dipped one of these fingers into vermilion, before applying it to your forehead and wishing you well.

But this government, which has chosen the hand as its symbol, is obsessed. Normally everyone who votes gets a spot of indelible ink on their index finger , at the base of the nail. This time the government decreed, supposedly due to some other local interfering elections, that the indelible ink would now sit on the middle finger.

Its that problem of public gesturing again.

Fifty years ago, I would have gone home, tried to get the ink off with some reasonable effort, ignored any failure to do so, and got on with my life, like everyone else.

Today the print and electronic media are going to town over all those publicity hungry folks, posing and showing the middle finger and smiling , and never mind if you cant remember who you voted for. There are some conservative ,rural, powerful type politicians, not yet updated on gestures, who have been widely photographed with their even more conservative wives , holding up their finger prominently, showing the ink on their middle finger.

While one may Google and find out the significance, my young friend tells me that the gesture, is also a gesture of defiance, amongst the many many meanings defined , which cannot be put on a family type blog.

I am just trying to figure out who is defying who.......the government that pays more attention to fingers and dynastic politics, when rising prices, energy bills, and falling incomes and jobs should be the worrying factor; or the people, who have learned over the ages, that in a democracy you can throw out someone who doesn't perform or fibs, and this is their way of indicating, that they will do just that, when the time comes......


  1. No matter what country you live in, politics is the same. Apathy when it's time to vote, but if a TV camera is in sight the same people will line up, grin and wave enthusiastically.

    I read about your red fingers in a New York Times article this morning. I wondered if the idea for this came from the ink stained fingers used for voting in Iraq when they held their first election.

    Of course, we all know what the middle finger means when it's extended. It's not a compliment.

  2. Now Many people has little patience toread except things which can let you earn money. But visual media is compulsive you can not close your eyes, maximum you switch on to other channels. So visual media is now more attracting.

  3. Yes, today, 'gesturing', and that too, in a politically correct manner, is of paramount importnce.

    Candle-marches are preferred to voting, perhaps because they take place in the cool of night-time. To vote, one must go out in the afternoon sun!

  4. How right you's all about display, publiclity.
    During these candle light vigils, which have become 'trendy and cool', I wonder, what good would they do to exhibit your sorrow to those who have lost so much....
    We're living in an age of exhibitionism...where whatever your has to be publicised!

  5. I used to hate it when our Hindi Master would beckon us to his table by gesturing with his index finger.It inevitably meant punishment.but there are times when gestures are more vocal than words.

  6. A gesture often speaks louder than words. But in this case, the govt seems have put its foot-in-th-mouth by inking the middle finger. Wouldn't the little finger have done the job, given the pathetic condition of public toilets as well?