lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Friday, August 04, 2006

And statistics

Lie: A very poor substitute for truth, but the only one discovered up to date.

Diplomacy: Lying in state.

In Enid Blyton's novels, characters would exclaim in horror, "oh, you wicked story teller!" I used to wonder, why not say that's a lie? Why the euphemism?

Of course, I didn't know what a euphemism was, in those days, but that is of no matter. The question remains. Why not call a liar a liar? How is making up something different from lying? How can you get away with concocting a different version of reality but get into trouble over a lie?

A lot depends on how morality is perceived, and in the early twentieth century ethos that Enid Blyton stories were set, lying was just not done. Of course, these were stories written for children, so a code of behaviour was being instilled indirectly.

In Westerns, calling a man a liar would lead to a shoot-out. It was a matter of honour. In the Wild West, where there was not much by way of law and order, questioning a man's word was a huge insult to his integrity.

How truthful we are is a matter of a personal code of conduct, not to be confused with social norms and what is regarded as moral. I am avoiding any mention of religious strictures. I am not talking about religious beliefs here, but ethics and morality, personal virtue and social mores.

We'd all like to adhere to utter truth all the time. In theory, at least. But in practice we twist facts, put a spin on facts, change versions of events, bend reality and say things that are not entirely true.

When I tell my son that his stuff has been sent, while the package is in fact sitting in front of me waiting for the trip to my couriers, I know I am twisting time and saying the event had already occurred. But I am not really lying, because the package will be sent, sooner or later, and what I am stating now as having already occurred will then become truth. I am just jumping ahead in time. That is how I'd justify the twisting of facts and reality. Like Saki says, a little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.

And we do this kind of thing all the time. Yes, we do. When we are being diplomatic, trying to avoid hurting someone's feelings or being noncommittal, we utter untruths, all the time. See? I am doing it. I call a lie an untruth. Veracity challenged, politically correct speech would have me type, because I can't bring myself to state flatly that we lie.

When you want to duck out of that boring dinner, the slight tickle in your throat will be blown up into raging flu. When you are having an interesting chat with a buddy online and a bore is pestering you, you plead a heavy workload to the bore. When you want to avoid a conversation, your cell-phone's reception or charge can be blamed as you ring off. The mail you haven't sent must have been swallowed by the cyber wormhole, because you know you sent it. You haven't really, but you can't say that, now, can you?

These little terminological inexactitudes may not bother us much, but in major matters it is always simpler to stick to truth. You need a good memory to sustain lies.

But telling the truth and being honest are different things. You can be honest and still avoid telling the entire literal truth.

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has a set of characters who are bound to be truthful, the Aes Sedai. They swear magically binding oaths, so everybody knows the Aes Sedai cannot lie. Jordan uses this universal belief that the Aes Sedai cannot lie as a plot device. But as this doesn't preclude misdirection, partial truths, twisting of facts or leaving out details, the Aes Sedai manage to get around the oath quite well. The truth they tell may not be the entire truth, whole truth or even the truth the listener hears.

In Indian legends we have Harischandra who gave up his kingdom, sold his wife and son into bondage, became a bonded slave himself all to keep his word. He was honoring the letter of his pledge, rather than the spirit, but that is a discussion for another day. Read about it here, but let me tell you, it is badly written and edited.

My favourite character in Mahabharata, Yudhishtira, always told the truth; unflinching and utter, literal truth, always. This came in very useful when he did have to prevaricate once. Drona laid down his arms because he believed the white lie Yudhishtira told.

The war was going badly for the Pandavas, his brothers lost their sons in gory battles, and Bhima did kill a war-elephant named Asvatthama. When Drona asked if it was true that his son Asvatthama was killed, Yudhishtira said, "Asvatthama is slain." He did add, "the elephant." But that went unheard.

Did Yudhishtira tell himself that this was just a little twisting of facts? He didn't have the luxury of such justification- his chariot, which until then always floated a few inches above the ground, settled on earth as he uttered that half-truth.

Most of us don't face such immediate consequences for our half-truths and white lies.



Blogger db said...

@ Lalita:

Time to "lie low" for a while ? ... Pun intended .. Lol !!

8:55 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

No, no, no!

Time to step forth bravely and venture more comment.

Pun appreciated muchly, though. :-)

11:16 pm  
Blogger db said...

muchly ??? ... Who coined that one ?

11:21 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Blame it on Rimi.


This seems to be a JU Department of English coinage. That stable is a dangerous hotbed. I tell you three times so write it into your memory banks and make it permanent.

Whattodo, we become parrots wonly!

11:49 pm  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

You made my day!!!

a reference to Saki and my most favourite scene from the Mahabharata - Yudhishtira's chariot's descent!! I still remember reading that one scene and having goosebumps. lol.

Saki, on the other-hand, i discovered in high-school. He and Roald Dahl gave vicious comedy, life. Kudos to them!!!

6:47 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Karthik- That was my favourite scene, too.

But I beg to differ on Dahl. He gave me creeps, still gives me creeps when I try to re-read and appreciate him, and will always give me creeps, I suppose.

10:34 am  
Blogger The Marauder's Map said...

I really worry about lies too. And I'm lying all the time. Like when I want to avoid boring press conferences but don't have the heart to tell earnest PR girls in dangerous tones "And why would I want to be there?" Or when I tell the boss the story's going fine really, when I haven't even spoken to one person.

And the way I get away with it makes me think I will also have a Yudhishthira-on-way-to-heaven kind of experience one of these days.

10:40 am  
Blogger Rimi said...

This propensity of Virogs to lie and get away with it is most disturbing. I thought I was Sole Queen of that realm. But no, you and Shrabonti (MM above) will have to come barraging right in. Nerve!

And all that about 'blame it on Rimi' - cheek!

And now that's we've purged the indignation from our systems...wt relevant post only, Lali. I'm bowing muchly in your direction :-) (waves cheerily at Prophet of Doom above)

1:10 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

MM- Sigh. We all bend truth. Fact of life. Let's say it greases social interaction to smooth functioning.

That is not say these inconsequential and tactful misinterpretations of truth are to be embraced with enthusiasm, mind you. We just do it, is all I am saying.

That we are aware we are doing it is important. We shouldn't lie to ourselves after all.

Rimi- What's it got to do with your zodiac sign, dear? And don't give yourself airs, we all do it; some of us better than others.

And yes, we noticed that. Ram, beware of this young lady. She is a bad influence. ;-)

2:36 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

"She is a bad influence", huh?

Don't give yourself airs? Be off or I'll kick you downstairs? Hmmm?

Irredeemably terrible jokes and quoting Caroll out-of-context enchant me so!

8:54 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Thought provoking post, as per spec. Much appreciated.

You write well, Lali. No, I tell a lie, you write *&%@#ing brilliantly.

10:07 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rimi- Would I even have come across of the usage muchly, were it not for you? I rest my case. (She made me do it, *whine whine* )

Ash- Thank you sir and much to the consternation of Rimi, we say again, thank you muchly.

10:35 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

Hm. Now I will wonder when you are being honest, when you are being truthful, when you are being frank.

Sheesh, to quote you, and again to quote you, the mind boggles.

11:39 pm  
Blogger Priya said...

All we need now are videotapes:P Oh Lilting One, do you always have to pick on such "touchy" topics? I live a life of lies, lies and more lies.;)

4:25 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- Child, desist from purloining my phrases. It is not seemly. :D

Priya- Let's say I am acting as conscience keeper to the world. ;-) I'll stick to fluffy stuff for a while, okay?

6:29 pm  

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