Kids Corner


The Hollow Men





We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Ala
s! … (T.S. Elliot)

The recent revelations of the creative genius of Bill “Big Mouth” O’Reilly of Fox News notoriety, and the similar scandal over Brian Williams of NBC which preceded it, have merely brought to the fore stuff that has remained stored in my memory as layers stacked one on top of the other, for much of my life.

'Beware, it’s all illusion', our scriptures warn us.

Real life, I have learned through the decades, has proved it to be true beyond my wildest imaginings.  

One of the first books I came across when introduced to the world of reading by Brother Johnson in Grade Seven was called “The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk.“ I was ten years old.

It was about George Dupre, a World War II hero feted by the Allies around the world once the hostilities ended and his story of extreme heroism in the face of torture and deprivation by the Nazis became public.

The book did two things for me, both of which have served me well during the 55 years that have followed.

First, because it was masterfully written, it helped to entrench my addiction to books and gave rise to an insatiable hunger for a regular supply of good books to read.

That hunger led me to the second.

I had enjoyed Quentin Reynolds’ telling of Dupre’s story so much that when I was scouring through book stores in Calcutta’s New Market a few years later, I searched for more by him. And in the process, I came across another fascinating book, a book of essays by American legal eagle, Louis Nizer. There was a chapter in it about Reynolds and Dupre which brought a life-transforming revelation to my teenage mind.

Nizer described how it was discovered quite by chance by another Canadian -- Dupre himself was a Montrealer -- that Dupre had bamboozled the world by making up the entire story of his daring feats in France. He had never even stepped off the shores of Canada during the War! And Reynolds, a journalist of impeccable reputation and unquestionable integrity, had not only been conned by the man but had unwittingly helped to turn him into a world-wide hero.

It was the beginning of a lesson I learnt then, mercifully early, that little that we see or hear or read about in this world can withstand close scrutiny; that we need to be discerning in what we believe, what we follow, what we allow to guide our choices, our thoughts, our actions.

*   *   *   *   *

A few years later, having moved to Canada with my family, I was dazzled by the daily morning ten-minute debate broadcast on a local Toronto radio station, between two extraordinarily bright and articulate journalists: Pierre Berton and Gordon Sinclair.

The latter, though not as deep and insightful as his debating partner, was the more colourful character. Always in the news, making loud and bombastic claims about one thing or the other. Like many of his ilk, he had learnt the power of volume in the media and its ability to drown truth and substance: an art-form to be practised to perfection a few decades later by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck …!

Intrigued by Sinclair‘s public persona, I was hooked when I discovered that he had begun his journalistic career in  British India and had written several books on his time there. I dug them out from the local library and pored through them hungrily.

And quickly discovered, to my utter consternation, that many of the facts he threw into his reporting from or about India simply didn’t jive. That is, if he’d actually been there and claimed what he said he’d seen and done, he couldn’t possibly have made those mistakes and omissions in his writing.

I raised my concerns with some people in the know. They listened carefully, accepted my findings, but still snickered and pooh-poohed at my desire to bring them to the fore. “Everybody knows,” they said, “that Sinclair doesn’t feel he needs to be ever limited by facts or the truth. It’s already widely accepted that he makes up things as he goes along, as and when it is to his convenience.”

That’s it. That’s all the reaction I could garner.

*   *   *   *   * 

It’s around this time that there was a world-wide revival of a name long forgotten. The energy came from both Canada and Britain.

It was over a fascinating larger-than-life character who had wowed the western world in the early decades of the 20th century as a charismatic author and lecturer who came to be hailed as the ‘Apostle of the Wilderness.’

As a Native Ojibwe from the northern Canadian wilderness, he was not only exotic but also inspiring as an environmentalist at a time when ’tree-hugging’ had yet to become a fad.

He died in 1938.

And then, belatedly, came the great revelation.

Grey Owl -- the only name by which he was known until then -- was neither a Canadian nor an Ojibwe nor a Native aboriginal by any stretch of the imagination. He was actually born Archibald Stanfeld Belaney in Hastings, United Kingdom, and had faked a Native Canadian identity to feed into the western world’s insatiable hunger for exotica in the post Great War years, especially with respect to anything about 'Red Indians'.

The facts did not come out until way past his death in Prince Albert, Canada.

Today, embarrassed by his fraud -- or rather, by their own gullibility -- the West has let his name slowly slide into the shadows. We as human beings don’t like being reminded of our stupidities and prefer to sweep them under the rug.

*   *   *   *   *

And then there’s Farley Mowat, Canada’s answer to Jack London and the cry of the wild.

He was another journalist who made his name as a writer and environmentalist, and became an iconic figure through his brilliant writings about his adventures in the remote and brutally raw and untouched North ... and a carefully cultivated image of a colourful recluse who shied away from the madding crowd.

A few years ago, it came to light that much of what he claimed to be personal encounters with nature and its many creatures, were but figments of his imagination, and had actually never happened. The lure of his books had been that they were true-life adventures, not fiction.

Now, we were being told, at least some of it was fiction, that Mowat had simply made it up.

Slowly but surely, he was retired from public view, and his books relegated to dark corners. He was but a shadow of his past glory when he died last year, quietly and unsung. 

*   *   *   *   *

These are but a few of the many names that pop up like spams on my mental screen, when I read about the latest crop of hollow men.

Did you catch the story last week -- not overly covered by the Indian media, of course -- that some enterprising investigative reporters have been digging into the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s past. And they just can’t find ANY evidence of his ever being a tea-vendor, as he so colourfully claims.

It appears that this bit of myth-making may have been the brain-child of one of the 'America-returned' MBAs who’ve been guiding his rise to power.

Does it matter, some of you may ask.

Well, does it matter that our icons and our leaders lie about the very fundamentals of their lives and then ask us to trust them with our very lives?

I suggest that the tales of O’Reilly and Williams and Modi are but a tip of the iceberg, and a warning to us that we are surrounded by subterfuges, obfuscations and half-truths.

Does it matter that Modi abandoned his wife shortly after he married her and has since, for decades now, insisted that she live alone, undivorced, but in the Hindu tradition of a life-long hell otherwise reserved for widows … living with little more sustenance than the glow of being married to him? While every morning he lectures the country he rules as its prime minister, telling people to treat their women respectfully, to live truthfully, to be good citizens …

It’s not just a handful who strut about in this way. And it's not just politicians and journalists and news-men. It's our  academics and scientists too, and bankers and lawyers, religious shepherds and philosophers, businessmen and entrepreneurs, sportsmen and entertainers, intellectuals and historians … and our governments, our law-makers, our judges, our police. The CNN? No one seems to be free of the affliction any more.

Shucks, let’s not forget Hollywood and its many clones, because they shape our cultural hearts, minds and souls, and give legitimacy to the rest of the rot.

*   *   *   *   *

T.S. Elliot concludes his poem -- whose opening lines I quoted at the outset of this piece -- with the following terse observation:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.   

[P.S. The first three lines of this verse are not a typo or a stutter …]

February 24, 2015

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