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MERRY OLD SOUL

To be a minister of coal must be a rare sort of honour. For a minister of coal to have his 68th birthday celebrations in a women’s college with a conference of poets must be rarer still. For that celebration to be graced by the victory of the national cricket team over its traditional rivals must be nothing short of a miracle. This is exactly what happened to the Union coal minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, in his hometown, Kanpur, recently. So, it is not surprising that this conjunction of happy events roused the minister to a spontaneous display of wit. Victories and wives age quickly, he said (with more gusto than this cursory paraphrase manages to convey), so both lose their fizz — maza — with time.

To his list of things that age quickly, the minister could well have added notions of what is, or is not, considered witty. What sounded like an elegant joke a couple of centuries ago sounds plain silly, and vaguely unsavoury, today. The conference of poets would have taken off in a delightfully unexpected direction if one of the poets, or college girls, had pointed out to the minister, perhaps in rhyming couplets, that men (including septuagenarian ministers of coal) do not escape the jaws of Time either — and this may be equally a cause for chagrin in their wives. And the matter would have ended there. The minister would have been put in his place, and would hopefully have thought twice before opening his mouth on his next birthday.

But the matter did not end there. Sexism, however mindless, has to be protested against by its sworn enemies. Angry public reactions, including vociferous objections within the Congress (of which the minister is a member), resulted in the party leadership demanding an “explanation” from the minister. The explanation of a banal remark cannot be any less banal; sure enough, the minister’s apology bordered on the farcical, suggesting doctoring of tapes and conspiracy. There were dharnas outside his home and effigies were burnt by some women’s groups, which have found his remarks “obscene”. The head of an NGO has filed a defamation case in a local court against the minister; this could land him in jail for upto a couple of years. Wikipedia has found the remarks sexist too — quite rightly, except that it has misspelt ‘sexist’ as ‘sexiest’, adding inadvertant hilarity to a situation that is already difficult to take very seriously.

Why should the nation waste its ire, and the courts their time, on something as nonsensically trivial as the coal minister’s outmoded sense of humour (if that is what it must be called)? Surely, feminism, more than any other form of activism, has worthier wrongs to protest against in this country than ministerial birthday blather.