Of paying guests and wardrobe malfunctions

Last Updated: Mon, Jan 31, 2011 04:48 hrs

Shuttling between Calcutta and Delhi, I have made a discovery. There are airports, aeroplanes and flights galore, but no passengers. Not once have I heard that word cross any lips save those, perhaps, of innocents from the interior who are new to the wonders of air travel. For everyone else, there are only guests.

"Guests for Bhubaneswar!" fluted the red-uniformed young lady as we waited in a long line at Delhi’s new but already infamous Terminal 3 to check in. "Guests are reminded that the Varanasi flight has been delayed," a disembodied voice rippled through the gleaming halls. "Only First and Business class guests this way please," said the man in khaki, firmly pushing me away, while I wondered at this gradation of hospitality.

Inside the aircraft, Vijay Mallya’s booming voice added to confusion. He had instructed his staff, he said, to treat us like guests in his own house. Surely he meant "paying guests", that oxymoron that was invented to make genteel English ladies fallen on hard times feel better by hinting that the lodgers they were forced to take in for money could be passed off as guests? In India where gentility and sensitivity are of less concern, boarding houses masquerade as guest houses and lodgers as guests for tax reasons.

Euphemisms speak of insecurity, aspiration and an inability to face facts. Perhaps one of the best-known British examples comes from the Welfare State after the Second World War completed (almost!) the egalitarian process that the First World War had started, and lowly municipal rat-catchers craved a higher status.They were re-designated rodent operatives.

By officially abolishing the term "coolie", India’s self-important and class-conscious bureaucrats tried to achieve the same effect. But, alas!, it makes no difference to the poor man weighed down with luggage on railway platforms whether he is called coolie or porter providing he gets enough customers and fair payment.

Quentin Crisp, the English writer and raconteur who titled his memoirs, The Naked Civil Servant, called euphemisms "unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne". Thus, when Justin Timberlake tore Janet Jackson’s costume during a half-time performance at Super Bowl, he airily dismissed it as "wardrobe malfunction". The late prime minister, Chandra Sekhar, once called a parliamentarian he regarded as redundant as a "Stepney". Some euphemisms can be sophisticated, and I can’t decide whether I prefer Churchill’s "terminological inexactitude" or Peter Wright’s "economical with the truth", since popularised by the nickname, "Tony ‘Economical with the Truth’ Blair". Both are better than "misspoke" for a lie. Some like "challenged" are kindly meant though not very logical. Some – "wind" or "doing your business" — reflect orthodox distaste for bodily functions. But "naturist" is a nice word for a nudist. Shedding clothes is going back to nature.

The sad part about most euphemisms is that they are seldom inspired by an innocent desire to please. There is usually a commercial calculation. Those who are beguiled by an English garden flat often find themselves in a dark and dank basement. Far from being an inspired artist, the occupant of a studio tends to be an impecunious student in a bed-sitter, which is what a studio was before promotion. Recently, I saw "pre-owned", meaning plain second-hand, cars for sale in Gangtok.

Predictably, the deceitful world of statecraft bristles with the most euphemisms. Ethnic cleansing is the grim reminder of the massacres and population transfers we witnessed in the partition riots. Enhanced interrogation is what they did in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and possibly also do in Guantanamo Bay detainment facility where, too, prisoners of war become unlawful combatants. Even "detainment facility" throws dust - or is meant to - in one's eyes. At a less grim level, industrial action means a strike; working to rule is not working at all; tactical withdrawal stands for retreat; and revenue augmentation for higher taxes.

It's the same with travellers. I have not the least objection to being a passenger, providing announcements are audible, flights are on time and airlines don't charge exorbitant prices for inedible on-board food. I also find it galling when the check-in lady responds to my request for a Row 11 (slightly more leg room) seat with a sweet "Sorry, Sir, other guests have taken them!" Taken all six, I ask. "Yes Sir," she replies, "all six." Then I board the plane and find passengers, sorry, guests, in only three of the six seats. Mercifully, the air hostess doesn't mind when I move into one of the three empty seats. I am a guest after all.


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