I grew up in India hearing about Mahatma Gandhi and when I think about myths it is his bald, bespectacled head that comes to mind. This is not to suggest that Gandhi, a bamboo staff in hand, stands at the mouth of the dark cave where all falsehood is stored. No, what I want to convey is my early sense that there are people and events that achieve a certain fictionality. Stories become attached to them. As a writer, this aspect of life is of great interest to me. What is even more fascinating is the way in which other stories take root in the shadow of the mythical figure. Here’s a fragment from a report that I read in a magazine about the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948. It is a story that is so good that I haven’t tried very hard to find out whether it is true or not; when I first read this account 15 or 20 years ago, I copied and pasted it in the pages of my writing journal:
But that was then. In the wake of the Trump presidency and, more generally, the emergence of social media as a breeding ground for all kinds of falsehoods, the writer in me stands challenged. Where is the truth? How to distinguish fiction from malicious and destructive fake news?
In India, with the rise of right-wing Hindu ideology and the dominance of Narendra Modi’s party at the center, it has become fairly routine to encounter lies about minorities. Such lies have had lethal consequences, especially for Muslims and Dalits (people belonging to lower castes, some of them still considered untouchable by their compatriots). Fake news circulated through doctored videos on WhatsApp and Facebook have led to lynchings and riots. In these circumstances, even the laughable attempts by state functionaries to share mythologies, extremely suspect ones at that, take on a very dangerous aspect. These myths function to remove any rational basis for truth; instead, they promote blind faith and a vulnerability to rumors. I began this piece by talking about Gandhi’s goat; let me end by another example from the animal kingdom. On his retirement from the Rajasthan High Court last year, a judge in India said that the peacock, the national bird, was “pious.” The judge described the peacock as a lifelong celibate creature. Instead of mating with the peahen, the learned judge said, the peacock sheds tears. The peahen gets pregnant by swallowing the tears of the peacock. It was for this divine reason that Lord Krishna wore a peacock’s feather on his head.