Tall Claims – The Statue of Irony

Seems like only yesterday that statues had gone out of fashion. Suddenly, they’re back, looming over us to dominate our conversations. The most recent one to ignite a controversy is, without argument, that of one of the tallest leaders of our time. Yet, it’s equally arguable what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel might have thought of the colossal monstrosity built in his likeness with ₹2,300 crore worth of public money and supposedly fashioned from 5,000 tons of farmers’ iron implements. More so, that this towering monument to brazen kleptocracy had to be erected in Gujarat, the democratic state that this architect of post-Independence India wove together from sundry squabbling princely ones. The Statue of Unity should really answer to the name of Statue of Irony. The pun is merely incidental.

The majority of the world’s tallest statues have been built in this century, underscoring not only our dizzy advances in engineering but also our unbearable anxiety to compensate for our retrogression and moral decrepitude as a race. On the global list, 25 of the tallest statues are in India and many are of deities like Shiva and Hanuman. Only China has more, most of them Buddhas.

Walk along Chennai’s Marina Beach or Tank Bund in Hyderabad and you are kept company by larger-than-life reminders of people whose exemplary life-lessons we have guiltlessly forgotten. For that very reason, in every city and town we have a Gandhi statue.

This obsession with statue building is not unexpected in a nation ruled by hit-and-run netas. Our astute leaders, aware that their legacy of modest achievements may not survive them, have outdone themselves in their zeal to leave an enduring mark.

A decade ago, Mayawati became the first chief minister of an Indian state to unveil a statue of herself in her own lifetime. This in addition to using taxpayer money to adorn nearly every town square in Uttar Pradesh with statues not only of her political mentor Kanshi Ram, but also of elephants, the symbol of her Bahujan Samaj Party. Interestingly, in the flesh, these animals have long been extinct in the state (except whenever, to the relief of wildlife census-takers, they amble into Dudhwa National Park from neighbouring Nepal).

Psychologists understand the megalomania of statue-building to be an act of territoriality, as steeped in patriarchy as it is in patriotism. An alpha-male thing comparable, for want of better examples, to a dog erecting a massive lamppost for the pleasure of spraying it without opposition. Or to Donald Trump’s small-minded fantasy of building his Mexican Wall.

Statues are easy targets of public ire. Their defacing and razing bring greater satisfaction to vandals and rioters than the long-drawn-out, labour-intensive, low-emotional-payoff mission of obliterating the reviled legacies they represent. The televised beheading of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad was a sinister prelude to a manhunt that ended years later with the dictator’s execution in 2006. When the BJP wrested Communist-ruled Tripura this year, the punch-drunk victors felled a statue of Lenin in a symbolic assertion of changes to come. Yet, the more things changed, the more they have remained the same. Wrath in death, to paraphrase Shakespeare, has just turned into envy afterwards.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, deadly accurate with the ball in his day, pitched it right in the block-hole when he quipped about India being run by “small men in big offices.” With his 56-inch chest puffed out like a territorial pigeon, our own Great Leader must probably dream of a day when his own statue towers even higher over the land.

Let it be known that only pigeons care for statues.

An edited (and suitably emasculated) version of this post appeared in The Man magazine, November 2018

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