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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 22, June 1, 2024

The Fantastic Marionette (WiP) | Papri Sen Sri Raman

Saturday 1 June 2024, by Papri Sri Raman

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If it was not for my friend Vlad who came up with this fantastic illustration as soon as I floated this idea of writing fantasy, perhaps this piece of imagination would not have seen the light of day.

At least three people in theatre let the ball drop two years ago when I began writing… they did not say they were afraid, they said my story was incomplete. Vlad got the idea after reading just a few paragraphs, knowing that in my country, a land of million kings, the kings always had jesters at their courts, this to offset the seriousness of the business of ruling. Vlad’s image haunted me. It was all hands and legs everywhere… as if there was so much hype that coherence was lost and anything was everything everywhere.
It was, of course, before political comedians like Dhruv Rathee started getting the kind of following they have today, 15 million and growing. In honour of the likes of Rathee, Kunal Kamra, Vir Das, Munawar Faruqui, and so many others, in jail and out, who must be acknowledged, it is time to air the story of yet another king.

THE KING WAS on the stage.

Alone.

The spotlight was always on him. Social distance was maintaining him.
He stood there holding his head in his hand. Wondering.

Wondering what had gone wrong.

In March 2023, just a year ago, his government had made a Rs 8000 crore allocation for the National Mission on Quantum Computing. The budget would enable the private sector to build data centre parks throughout the country. Data on y 1.4 billion people would need a lot of servers in a lot of parks. MNC Technology, Domestic, Advanced Engineering, Healthcare and Semi-conductor firms are now developing advanced Artificial Intelligence capabilities in India. The Indian Artificial Intelligence market is projected to reach $8 billion by 2025.

So where had he gone wrong, the Kinghead wondered.

The King-voice box, embedded in his throat, reminded him that he had to memorise his address to the summit being organised by MeitY, the ministry of EIT and NITIA.

Social distancing was not easy at all. He could not call in his secretaries and advisors. The Kinghead looked for the telephone. In the surrounding darkness, that was not easily spotted. He wished he could take out his mobile from his pocket as easily as Big B did in KBC and talk. At least to the two As, who were the only ones with deep pockets that could set up the server parks. He wanted to confirm an announcement. He wished the CPC was made in India and north China was here. Instead, things had gone horribly wrong… north of north India had become China.

King-voice: You need not be nervous. You made a brilliant speech just the other day. At the global virtual summit, Vaibhav, you said, ‘Through this gathering we sit to form our long-lasting association for empowering India and our planet’. You said, ‘these efforts will help create an ideal research ecosystem, merging tradition with modernity to create prosperity. These exchanges will certainly be useful and will also lead to useful collaborations in teaching and research’. You said, ‘India wants top-class scientific research to help our farmers’.

Kinghead: Farmers! Don’t talk about farmers. They only know how to squat on rail tracks and block roads. Don’t talk to me about farmers. Even the SAD betrayed us. And now, there is a Hariyanvi, storming the social media.

King-voice: Wheat stock has fallen below 100 lakh tonnes for the first time since 2018, standing at 97 lakh tonnes in March, with buffer stock at stands at 74.6 lakh tonnes for April. FCI rice stock stands at around 270 lakh tonnes. Farmers produced it.

Kinghead: Now I know why my prompt panel shows that the Global Hunger Index ranks India at 111 out of 125 countries? It indicates a ‘serious’ level of hunger, says the 2023 report. Even countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan fare better. According to FAO estimates in ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2020 report, 189.2 million people are undernourished in India. By this measure 14% of the population is undernourished in India. Also, 51.4% of women in reproductive age between 15 to 49 years are anaemic. Further, according to the report 34.7% of the children aged under five in India are stunted (too short for their age), while 20% suffer from wasting, meaning their weight is too low for their height’. The data does not appear to have improved much in the last four years, though we have rejected the latest report.

King-voice: Stop. Stop. Look, there should be consensus between you and I. We cannot be talking differently. We are one entity. We are a federal democracy, governing by consensus with advisors and a cabinet and a party with an ideology, voted in by the people. Can’t appear to be a one-man show with two voices.

Kinghead: That would be too much cacophony. All the peacocks in the garden would take flight.

King-voice: More than the cymbals and thalis that we beat to drive away the Corona?

Kinghead:
Don’t even name it. Remember what that ass from AAP said, ‘I have never supported lockdown’. Look how much peace it had brought even at the most dystopian moment for the nation. Almost as good as the Kedarnath caves. No one anywhere near me. All I have to do is stand under the spotlight and make pronouncement that come on my prompt panel. I like that.

King-voice: Are you suggesting you are a marionette? All you had to do is make all the bad policy decisions public and take the blame for the 100,842 deaths? And the ten million migrants? And about 21 million job losses that the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy has said, happened three years ago? About 53% businesses shut.

Kinghead: That oaf of a minister of state told parliament in a written reply that UP and Bihar were the worst-affected. What was the need for disclosure? Bihar at the time was going into elections, and we must always keep the spotlight away from UP.

King-voice: True. These rapes did not happen.

Kinghead: Look what Saamna said: ‘Ayodhya’s Goddess Sita must be worried.’ All betrayers. We have no friends.

King-voice: Fake news to malign your dispensation. Most things did not happen. Didn’t happen:

‘Output loss due to demonetisation of a little over Rs 1 lakh crore. The RBI annual report for 2017-18 had two additional statistics that damned demonetisation. ‘One, household savings held in the form of currency shot up, from an average of 1.12% of Gross National Disposable Income (GNDI) in the pre-DeMo five years to 2.8% of GNDI in 2017-18. In other words, savings in the form of currency multiplied 2.5 times, not quite the less-cash result the government had hoped for. Worse is the increase in financial liabilities. Liability went up by 83% from Rs 370,964 crore in 2016-17 to Rs 679,349 crore in 2017-18. Worst-hit were small entreprises.’

Kinghead: Did not happen. All lies.

King-voice: The shortfall in GST collection is ₹ 2.35 lakh crore for fiscal 2021, your government said. The total GST collection in the current fiscal till February stands at Rs 18.40 lakh crore. The Cess will have to be done away with and the repayment schedule of the Covid borrowing envisages payment of Rs 55,104 crore in 2025-26 and Rs 1.36 lakh crore in 2026-27, while no repayment has been scheduled in 2024-25.The interim budget has proposed as much as Rs 1.24 lakh crore collected as cess in 2024-25 to be used for repayment, leaving Rs 67,500 crore to be paid off in 2025-26.

Kinghead: Too much of complicated computation. Like the Census. Didn’t happen. …those are stories from an old hat. Don’t want any discussion or debate. Just imagine if all 1.4 billion people spoke at all times.

King-voice: You are truly scientific. But what are we going to do about the 300 million youth who are laughing at us on the internet?

Kinghead: We have the science to control it, don’t we?

King-voice: Don’t go that way. Remember Pegasus, the Israeli spyware? It was used on ministers, opposition leaders, political strategist and tacticians, journalists, activists, minority leaders, 

Supreme court judges, religious leaders, administrators like Election Commissioners and heads of Central Bureau of Investigation. As many as 50,000 phone numbers accessed by Pegasus was leaked to Forbidden Stories. Our government refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Kinghead: What about the IT cell? The Fake News company and all the sentences over terrorism?

King-voice: They don’t seem to be working. Social media has been hijacked in a major way. The early advantage we had in 2014 seems to have withered in the ten years.

Kinghead: As King I have talked of all my subjects, Muslims and Christians, urban Naxals, anti-nationals and ghuspets of all hues. I have cried hoarse about Pakistan and China. I have told mothers and wives, their ‘streedhan’, jewellery will be snatched. I have studiously avoided the economy, joblessness, hunger and healthcare. How to control the young men on social media? What more can I do?

King-voice: Talk about the Mars or the Moon, or the successful landing of the ‘Pushpak’, ISRO’s RLV technology demonstrator. The Pushpak Vimana may resonate with the constituency more than the Ram temple.
Kinghead: I am wondering about the impact of this temple. Siddhi Vinayaka and Balaji continue to top the popularity charts.

King-voice: Under our guidance, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has already begun the process of getting children who will grow to be loyal to the state. It has asked 8 State governments to ‘repatriate and restore’ all children from their care homes. That will be a lot of children.
Kinghead: Good, the Aadhar generation. Numbered.

King-voice: I have also been saying, what’s the need for organisations like CMIE? Like we don’t need Greenpeace and Amnesty. AI can put all figures on the public domain on the need-to-know basis.

Kinghead: Scientific. You agree, darkness all around is good, don’t you? The spotlight shines brighter. By definition, ethics, morals, rule of law, justice are all creatures of the sunlight. In darkness, what the cabinet and advisers and government and police are doing cannot be seen. What cannot be seen does not exist.

King-voice: You are fantastic.

Kinghead: What’s new? That now-turncoat CB called me Fantastic in 2014. (Fixes the head on the throat, looks at the empty theatre before him, waves and walks into the darkness.)

So, you see, even the Mahabharata had Vidura. The scholar, Shruti Sharma, writing in Dharaa says, ‘various ancient Sanskrit texts and epics. Maha Subhasita Samgraha, a compilation of Sanskrit proverbs and parables, is an exciting verse describing a whimsical conversation between god Shiva and goddess Parvati. Panchatantra is one of the best examples of Indian satire. Over time, satire has become a powerful tool for making fun of politics and pushing back against those in charge. This becomes clear when we look at how people used satire to criticise religious rules and hypocrisy, especially those who followed the Bhakti and Sufism traditions with the purpose of challenging the dominant norms set by the Brahmin class in society. Instead of just being funny, satire was used cleverly to question and change how things were.’

In the court of Vijayanagara ruled Tenali Raman (1480-1528), best friend of Raja Krishnadevraya. The witty Birbal ( 1528-1586) graced Akbar’s court and Gopal Bhar adorned the court of Raja Krishnachandra (1710–1783), the then-king of Nadia. Linguist and scholar Sukumar Sen has said Gopal Bhar is a fictitious character, never mind his popularity.

Perhaps subservience and satire go hand in hand, and Bengal is a classic example. It was Bengal, the richest subedari of the Mughals, that allowed the British to set foot in rich India. And it is Bengal that fostered the first armed struggles, and anti-colonial songs, poetry and theater. ‘Tagore was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Western opera when he wrote the dance opera Tasher Desh – a satirical portrayal of a society ruled by strict conventions and a veiled criticism of the society he lived in. Today, the Kingdom of cards is not an element of fantasy, but a reality embodied in today’s world; the city, society and the homes we belong to. The intertwined strands of the orthodox and the liberal and our society’s continuing failure to separate the two have created a dual discourse – a conflict between the real and fictional – the visible and invisible – the actual and the aspirational’, said artist Ali Akbar Mehta, curating an exhibition on the subject.

Another of Tagore’s work is Raktakarabi. ‘The royal ideal of the king of Yaksapuri is exploitation of the citizenry; he has an insatiable greed for money. The coolies of the gold mine get burnt in the fire of that greed. In the eyes of the king, the coolies are not human beings, they are mere tools for acquiring gold; they are only small parts of machines bearing the sign and number like 47a, 269f and so on. They do not have any value as human beings. Here, humanism and humanity are held by the shackles of machine. There is no expression of life at Yaksapuri. Nandini is a symbol of life’s complete expression, love and beauty. Under the spell of his greed, the king of Yaksapuri does not feel the touch of joy in Nandini; the ascetic does not feel it because of his craving for religious reform; the pundit does not get it due to his scholarly and slavish instincts….’ Protagonist ‘Ranjan is tied to the bond of machine. This machine delinks his love from his life; the poet believed that this was the characteristics of a mechanised life (Banglapeda)’. Applicable to corporate government.

In the home of the English language, they still believe it was Charlie Chaplin who demoralised Hitler. Sharma mentions The Hindu Punch, and says, ‘like its English counterpart, this magazine used satire to reflect everyday life, employing caricatures to depict Indian perspectives and positioning itself as a “foremost publication for promoting political awareness through humour”’. 

She also writes that the periodical, Harijan, ‘overseen by the venerable Mahatma Gandhi, regularly accommodated satirical compositions designed to lay bare prevailing social injustices, the dissembling conduct of the ruling establishment, and the imperative for transformative action.

In independent India, of course, we had R K Laxman and his exquisite Common Man. We also had his brother, the writer R K Narayan, whose Gods, Demons and Others is a classic funny interpretation of the Hindu pantheon from mythology. And we had artistes like Utpal Dutt.

Shibram Chakraborty (1903–1980) was an Indian writer whose best-known short stories and novels are renowned for their unique use of pun, alliteration, play of words and ironic humour. The political work, Moscow bonam Pondicheri (Moscow versus Pondicheri) and the play Jokhon Tara Kotha Bolbe (When They Will Speak) are among his best work. His autobiography, Eeshwar Prithibee Valobasa (God Earth Love) is also regarded as one of his best works. His most quotable quote is: To earn the freedom of a nation, a freedom fighter has to sacrifice his own freedom.


This is how the Marathi paper Sakal depicts the Headless King’s road show.

Technology has brought the word, the voice, the artist, the art of satire on a common platform with politics. The game of the 21st century is not over yet. That is why we call The Fantastic Marionette, a work in progress.

Illustration: Vald

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