To be perfectly honest

Former US President Richard Nixon – ‘I am not a crook.’

I am always deeply suspicious of anyone who starts a sentence, particularly in answer to a question, any question, with the words, ‘To be perfectly honest with you…’ It matters not a whit what the question is. I have watched several eminent personalities resort to this reflex-induced, often irrelevant, for the most part dishonest, kick-off to their response. I suppose it is slightly better than the patronizing ‘I am so glad you asked me that question.’ Then there is the present-day abomination where almost anyone on television starts a sentence with the monosyllabic So. ‘Do you think inflation will be a problem in the near future?’ ‘So, let me be perfectly honest with you.’ You get the picture. This does not include Indian politicians at the very highest echelons because most of them prefer to converse in Hindi or some other vernacular of their preference. The local lingo does not quite possess an equivalent to ‘To be perfectly honest…’ Not literally, but metaphorically. Furthermore, most of our political top guns are never unduly worried about whether they are going to be scrupulously honest (ha ha) or, as some prefer to describe it, ‘economical with the truth.’ There are exceptions of course, even in political circles, but finding such gems of purest ray serene would be akin to hunting for a needle in a haystack.

Take Shashi Tharoor for instance, the silver-tongued Congressman, who speaks English as to the manner born, Oxbridge accent et al. Not that he went to Oxford or Cambridge, but he somehow developed his plummy, English accent while studying, debating and treading the boards in Calcutta. That helped him enormously at the United Nations and other august international bodies where doors opened for him the moment he sonorously intoned, ‘Good morning, Mr. Kofi Annan.’ He even gave a lecture at the Oxford Union (so he did go to Oxford after all, in a manner of speaking) and told the Brits off in no uncertain terms for their 200 odd years of misrule in India. However, if I have heard him say this once, I must have heard him several times. To the question, ‘Mr. Tharoor, how did you come to speak English with a pluperfect accent and in such an orotund a manner that even the English are floored?’ His answer? ‘I am so glad you asked me that question. To be perfectly honest with you, your question incorporating words like “orotund” and “pluperfect” leads me to the inescapable conclusion that you are having a spot of risible fun at my expense.’ That may not be a verbatim reproduction of the hypothetical question posed or the imagined answer proffered by the loquacious parliamentarian, but near enough. I’ll say this in his favour, he does not start his sentences with the semi-literate So.

One last, if contentious issue about our eloquent MP from Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram, if you want to be pedantic). I recently watched him on YouTube trying his hand at stand-up comedy and my sincere advice to him is to cease and desist. Just not his bag. I found his jokes contrived, flat and very unfunny. That he was reading these one-liners off handwritten notes made it only that much worse. He is much better off taking the strips off his political rivals with his Shakespearean flourishes and Wildean wit as his potent weapons. For one thing, his opponents don’t know what on earth he is saying which in itself is half the battle won. Only that they are being vaguely put down. Stick to your strengths, Shashi. As an incidental aside, dear reader, try saying Thiruvananthapuram slowly, provided you are sober, without tripping up around the fourth or fifth syllable. It is not easy if you do not belong to Kerala or the south of the Vindhyas. BJP’s cherubic and feisty spokesperson Sambit Patra tried it several times recently on television and came a cropper. He kept saying Thiruvanthpuram on numerous occasions without hitting the bull’s eye. I invite readers, even while ploughing through this blog, to closely compare Thiruvanthpuram with Thiruvananthapuram to spot the difference. The doughty Sambit Patra struggled manfully, unaware of his dysarthria. In similar fashion most of our news readers and north Indian politicians can never pronounce Karnataka. For inexplicable reasons, they will insist on pronouncing the name of the state as Karnatak. Ditto Keral for Kerala. Are they dyslexic or something? How would they take it if I pronounced Haryana as Haryaan?

To be perfectly honest, our Prime Minister set the ball rolling to send out friendly smoke signals to his fellow brethren in south India, Tamil Nadu in particular, when he quoted a line from poet and freedom fighter Subramanya Bharati, in Tamil, during the newly named Kartavya Path inauguration and the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose statue unveiling in New Delhi. As a Tamilian myself, I would give the PM full marks for effort and displaying great courage. However, as the complex Tamil syllables (for a Gujarati, that is) Parukulle nalla nadu, engal Bharata nadu (India is the greatest nation in the world) hesitantly escaped the PM’s lips, many of us might have been excused for feeling that discretion could have been the better part of valour. Aren’t there any great Gujarati poets? I can do no better than seek recourse in Hamlet’s words, Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. The Bard of Avon was the master of the mot juste.

My point being, what is there to be ‘perfectly honest’ about while making a simple and logical point. Let me now take another example, this from the world of management and business. ‘You must learn to think outside the box,’ is a phrase much favoured by business school students and their bosses in the corporate world, most of whom are also products of the same hallowed portals of management academia. As I had not graduated from a business school, I had problems with some of my better qualified colleagues and superiors in corporate life, who had the wood on me and kept asking me to think outside the box. Or square, if they wanted a bit of jargon variety. When this particular cliché was first thrown at me, my immediate response was, ‘To be perfectly honest, I am not sure I follow you. How do you mean outside the box? What box, which box?’ I was quite pungent with my reaction, which endeared me not one bit with my toffee-nosed colleagues. It was suggested to me that I might not climb very high in the corporate ladder, if I insisted on being ‘too clever by half.’ There’s another one, I thought. My response was a real zinger. I replied vaguely, ‘Ah well, what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts.’ The recipient of this remark had no clue what I was talking about, as I flounced out of the room in high dudgeon.

Clichés, when used sparingly, can help one make a telling point. However, more often than not, we tend to scatter them around like confetti, more to impress than to advance a serious case for its usage. I was once scolded by my history teacher in school for ‘taking one step forward and two steps back,’ and told that I will not make much progress in class.  At the time, I was happy just to put one foot in front of the other. I was 12 years old and I used to walk around the school grounds taking one step forward and retreating two steps back, wondering if that would throw some light on what my teacher meant by that strange admonition. In so doing, I discovered that I was standing at the same place and not making any progress in terms of moving forward. Then the meaning of the phrase hit me. Voila!

At the end of the day (that’s another favourite), my heart is heavy with whatever hearts are heavy with. To be perfectly honest, I concur with the homily that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and that you can’t go through life with your head buried in the sand. What’s more, no man is an island, necessity is the mother of invention and one should always let the shipwrecks of others be your seamark, so long as you remember that for things unknown there is no desire. Always keeping in mind that there are horses for courses, so long as you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and never forget that you can take a horse to the water trough but you can’t make the stubborn equine drink.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what on earth I am talking about any more, my head is all abuzz with aphorisms and other sayings we tend to come across and employ in our daily lives, oftentimes without even knowing what they mean. Nevertheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I take refuge once again in Shakespeare from ‘Measure for Measure,’ Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.

C’est tout.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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