To start a column on April 1st, All Fools’ Day — and that too an eponymous column — must seem a somewhat ill-considered venture. After all, the date has associations with careless revelry, practical jokes and leg-pulling, not the sort of intellectual fare the Hindu normally likes to offer its readers over their Sunday idlis. So before I introduce this column to a readership that I hope will soon merit the adjective “regular”, I had better get its starting date out of the way.

April Fool’s Day is a probably a legacy of the Roman Cerealia, a festival held annually at the start of April in honour of Mother Earth, embodied in the goddess Ceres, the protectress of agriculture and of the fruits of the earth. Roman mythology tells the tale of how Ceres’ daughter Prosperina was cavorting about the Elysian fields, filling her lap with daffodils, when Pluto abducted her and took her off to Hades. Ceres, hearing the echo of Prosperina’s screams, went in search of her voice, but it turned out to be a fool’s errand. Hence, the story goes, the festival in honour of Ceres is also a day for fools. This has always struck me as a rather sad tale to justify a fun-filled celebration, but then mythology always explains less than history: a better explanation is that 25 March used to be New Year’s Day in the old Julian calendar, so 1 April was traditionally the day the New Year’s festivities ended — one’s last chance, in other words, to play the fool.

Playing the fool is itself no laughing matter. The word “fool” comes from the Latin “follis” which actually meant a bellows, and “fool” developed semantically to connote a windbag and a fatuous person, finally transmuting into today’s meaning of “idiot”. There is the further implication of someone light and insubstantial, not to be taken seriously, which is why the Brits in India invented that delicious dessert, “mango fool”, implying it was a simple, far-from-rich pudding, a mere “trifle” (another dessert implying the same characteristics).

But does that all mean that this column is destined, from the inauspicious date of its birth, to be trivial, insubstantial, even fatuous? Well, yes, sometimes. But most of the time it will strive to edify as well as entertain, refusing to let a mere accident of the Gregorian calendar mark it for life. When Napoleon Buonaparte was told by a gypsy palm-reader that he had no Fate line, he took out a knife and sliced it across his open palm, saying, as the blood welled, “I make my own Fate”. So, despite the stars under which it is born, will this column.

And what will we talk about in this space? The Editors have been kind enough to grant your eponymous columnist that most dangerous of all licences — the license to be himself. My world is a complicated one, and I hope to reflect some of its complexities in this column. I am both an Indian writer and a United Nations official, and though you will hear from me in the former capacity, the latter will not entirely be absent. I will share my thoughts with you on the world I see around me and some of the problems I come across, the books I read and the people I meet, the issues I care about and sometimes, quite simply, ideas I find diverting.

In my writings over the years, in a wide variety of publications but most particularly in five books (four of which are still in print, if the Editors will permit me this commercial), I have tried to explicate a vision of our country as fundamentally a pluralist state, one whose pluralism emerges from its geography, is reflected in its history, confirmed by its ethnography and sustained by its democracy. In my last book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, which President Clinton was kind enough to cite in his address to Parliament last year, I argued that the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. We all have multiple identities in India; we are all minorities here. I am simultaneously Keralite (my parents both hail from villages in Palakkad district), Malayali (but though I speak a colloquial Malayalam, I am that rarity, a Malayali illiterate), Hindu (by the religious faith into which I was born and of which I am proud, but in a way quite different from the Hindutva brigades), Nair (by a caste affiliation I do not flaunt but cannot disown), Calcuttan (as a result of my schooling and by marriage), Stephanian (because of my education at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College) and now an NRI (as a result of my UN posting in New York). Each of these identities, while affiliating me to a group with the same label, sets me apart from others; but even within each group, few would share the other identities I also claim, and so I find myself again in a minority within each minority. I believe most Indians share this condition to a greater or lesser extent. Our heterogeneity is definitional.

So this is the background from which I will write. I will try to be straight with you, as the Americans like to say, and in turn I hope you will engage with me. I would like nothing better than for this column to become an extended and amicable conversation, informed and sometimes impassioned but never insipid, about things that matter both to me and to the reflective readers of this distinguished newspaper. I’ll be back in a fortnight.

Source: Indian Express