Saturday, May 14, 2011

Truth About Lies

What Panna Lal says about himself is primarily driven by what he wishes to be taken for. He just can’t help assuming a stance. He always projects himself as a reasonable and generous person who never does anyone any harm. He is also given to embellishing his past with a liberal dose of lies.

In order to win the affections of his office colleague, Mishri Devi, he tells her that she is the sweetest woman he knows. When he meets another colleague, Barfi Devi, he tells her too that she is the sweetest woman he knows. He lies to sell, to win games, to make money, to get sympathy, and so on. Many of his social and business interactions involve trying to deceive the other person politely and spotting if he in turn is being deceived.

Governments tell lies. So do media, institutions and corporate houses. Employers lie with their employees and the other way round. Lies get compounded when an attempt is made to cover them up. The institution of marriage is based on lies. Panna Lal has to keep up the pretense that he is not attracted to anyone except his spouse. The legal profession has its foundation in lies.  In nature, a predator uses camouflage to attack the prey and the prey uses camouflage to avoid predation.

The Lie of a Truth

A few decades ago, wall clocks and watches were not very reliable as they had the tendency to be a little fast or a little slow. So, people used to set their timepieces every day by checking the time with the radio or the telephone department.

Jawahar Lal worked as a timekeeper in a mill and his job was to blow the siren to mark the beginning and the end of different work shifts. Every morning he checked the time with the telephone department and adjusted the mill clock. Then using it as his guide, he blew the siren all day long. This went on for years.

One day, in response to Jawahar Lal’s call, the person in the telephone department said, ‘I am Moti Lal and I have been telling you the time every day for the last ten years. I am going to retire today and tomorrow I won’t be here to tell you the time. I am curious to know who you are and why you want to know the time every day.’

Jawahar Lal replied, ‘My name is Jawahar Lal. I am a timekeeper in the mill across the road from your office. I adjust my clock after you tell me the time so that I can blow the siren at the right time.’

Moti Lal said, ‘Oh my God! I adjust my clock every day when I hear your siren.’

Moti Lal’s clock was Jawahar Lal’s truth and Jawahar Lal’s clock was Moti Lal’s truth. Both depended on each other for the correct time. Both were truth seekers. Both were happy that they had found the truth. But where is the truth?

People spend a lifetime holding on to a truth only to discover that it is a lie. There is the case of Hira Lal who spent several years studying Freud only to end up questioning his theories. The same Hira Lal chatted with a girl in Bangalore for three years only to learn that she was a man.

The Truth of a Lie

Hira Lal and Barfi Devi loved each other. Then something happened and Barfi Devi stopped meeting Hira Lal. Whenever he called her and asked her to meet him, she gave an excuse and politely cut short the conversation. Hira Lal felt very bad. He just could not visualize his life without Barfi Devi. He had no clue why she didn’t want to meet him.

One day he called her and said he could not live without her and desperately wanted to meet her. She replied that she was going to London by the midnight flight and would return after a year.

Hira Lal’s world came crashing down. Later he found out that Barfi Devi had not gone to London and was very much in town. He was mad at her for telling him a lie. That happened ten years ago. The other day when Hira Lal was mulling over this incident, it occurred to him that Barfi Devi did not after all tell a lie when he thought she did.

When she said she was going to London, it was factually untrue but ‘psychologically’ true. It was true in the sense that she did not want to meet him. Even though she didn’t go to the geographical London she did go to some London of her imagination where Hira Lal could not access her. In that sense she didn’t tell a lie.

A Blurred Distinction

The dominant view among theologians and philosophers in the seventeenth century was that the earth was stationary and the centre of the universe. Galileo’s idea that the sun was stationary and the earth revolved around it was condemned by the Catholic church as heretical as it was contrary to the Holy Scriptures.

Galileo was accordingly forced to recant his theory that the earth moved around the sun. After he did so, he is said to have muttered under his breath, ‘And yet it moves.’

There are moments when we are under pressure to deny the truth or pass off a lie as the truth. A lie becomes the truth and the truth becomes a lie. The distinction between the two gets blurred.

Riddle about Lies

There is a well-known riddle about a prisoner who has to guess whether his cap is black or white without taking it off. If he gets it right, he will be set free. If he is wrong, he will be shot.

He can ask one question from one of the two security guards standing next to him. He has been told that one guard always tells the truth while the other one always tells a lie. He does not know which one is the liar and which one is the truth-teller.

It is a difficult riddle but people eventually find the solution. The solution is found because of the certainty that one of the two security guards is a liar and the other one is a truth-teller.

The riddle of life is a lot tougher and a lot more exciting because there is no certainty when someone speaks the truth and when she tells a lie. Life has been designed in such a way that Mishri Devi doesn’t know what is in Panna Lal’s mind and Panna Lal doesn’t know what is in Mishri Devi’s mind. Both are free to choose when to speak the truth and when to tell a lie. No wonder they both play a complex game that involves pretending and then pretending that they are not pretending.

Lies and truths are inextricably woven in the fabric of life, adding to its mystery. Lies that we believe in are our truths and truths we don’t believe in are our lies. Truths can be carriers of lies and lies can be carriers of truths.

Many works of fiction truly represent the life of the author while most autobiographies are lies. People tell the truth when they chat anonymously. They quickly put on their masks when their identity is known.

To be upset by this fundamental ambiguity of life is contraction. To celebrate this ambiguity is decontraction. If we venerate the truth and condemn lies, we are not in sync with life.

Source : Excerpts from the book: The Fine Print of Life : How Panna Lal Found Happiness, Wisdom and Mishri Devi By P.S. Wasu.  (Pages 115 -120)
ISBN 9788172237516, 177 pages, Price Rs. 195
Published by HarperCollins Publishers India in 2009

For purchase links go to :


Wasu said...

Thanks Anitha for carrying the excerpts. I do remember you had written some excellent articles for some two years ago.

Anitha said...

Most welcome Wasu Sir. I read the full book and enjoyed it.