Understanding how fiction and fact work in our lives

For the devout Indian, money is ‘Maya’, the great illusion. Indeed, for them, the whole world is Maya, a fundamental concept notable in the Advaita school of Indian philosophy. The reaction of the materialists is facile to show that we are not practical people and the real world is alien to us. To the doubting Thomases, the virtual world is here to be seen, and they are spending more and more time in the virtual reality. We have millions of gods and goddesses representing myriad forms and sentiments, but only one for money, Goddess Lakshmi. Clearly, pursuit of wealth is not a desirable calling and burdened as one goddess would be to bring prosperity to over a billion people, we remain largely poor, mostly in poverty but passive and content with our ordained lot which often means not getting two meals a day. We have tried, and tried really hard, oscillating between poverty reduction and poverty alleviation in our 70-plus years of governance endeavour, but prosperity is still a distant goal. Yet, the promises made by our political contestants are a part of this abiding fiction and continue to enchant voters in every election. We all live in hope.

The world’s biggest bank has no actual cash. It has Bitcoins for its currency whose value keeps multiplying like the stock exchange variations. The largest taxi company owns no vehicles anywhere. It is Uber. The most popular media owner creates no content. It is the Facebook. AliBaba, world’s most famous retailer has no inventory, and the largest accommodation provider, AirBnB, has no real estate. Can fiction really be stranger than fact? Visual sighting is not any more evidence of fact as we are collectively moving into virtual space to experience all manner of joys, making friends and relationships, sensing our commercial give and take and the list is not over yet. Yes, trade and commerce are flourishing through virtual reality, and at the same time, the billion plus dollar valuations are in the zone of hard reality.

Money in physical form is passé. Plastic is the best way to continue the fiction of wealth and ability to spend. Its only big disadvantage is lack of anonymity, so vital for the big earners whose prime interest in anonymity is to protect their incomes from state scrutiny and taxes. But the world of commerce is creative enough to satisfy every customer need. The financial wizards of our times invented shell companies, numbered accounts and trust holdings of all kinds, for fictions to abound. Indian commerce is inventive too, it has benami holdings where the wealth belonged to the fictional owner in name but intended for the real McCoy. Once more, reality is indeed fiction.

Facts have truly lost their sanctity as there is nobody to own them, while fiction spreads like wildfire. Politics and economics ignite figments of imagination as nothing else does. The rupee loses value against the dollar, and the cause is “global factors”. Another sage of the government tells us ‘nothing to panic’, the real ‘value of the rupee is indeed 68-70’. In any case, says an economic pundit, a depreciated rupee is good for our exports. Really? Give us some more similar droll and we will be wondering why we are still struggling to emerge from the latter half of the third world. How about some facts, hard facts which bear resemblance to reality and truth. Not this make-believe world where we like fantasies that are compatible with our own interests.

The elasticity of fiction is its greatest asset. It has none of the hazards of stated truths or evidenced facts. Stretch fiction in any way, it responds with its plausibility intact, even to the point of being bizarre, yet acquires a following. No wonder facts are getting crucified in every domain. Every passing day makes the bizarre look plausible. Whether it’s a meeting between an alleged fugitive and a minister, or if the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort were built on a temple, or if plastic surgery prevailed as a practice in our ancient times, we are called to test our incredulity on a daily basis. Political play across the world indeed appears as a dialogue of fictions and factions. Truth has become the epitome of Maya, the great illusion.

The writer is former director of the Habitat Centre. Views are personal.

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