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Gladwell’s “Talking To Strangers” is strange talk

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

It was Friday morning. 11.30 a.m. Early 1990s. Justice Prabha Shankar Mishra presiding, with a brother Judge in tow, in the large and spacious fourth court hall of Madras High Court. In a Habeas Corpus petition initiated by concerned parents of a girl alleging that their minor daughter was kidnapped and being forcibly drawn into marriage with a boy, the police had traced the girl and produced her in Court.

The parents were in attendance. Justice Mishra asked his fellow judge to query, in the vernacular. The girl started sobbing and denied that she was a minor. She said she was in love with her neighbour’s son and they had decided to get married. She informed the judges’ that her parents and the boy’s, both, were opposed to it.

The Judges told her that there was no evidence on her age as yet. If she was a minor then she cannot have it her way. The Court needed time to verify her age from documentary proof or medical examination- which may take time, and hence she had to wait before she took the plunge.

In the meanwhile, Justice Mishra said that they were inclined to send the girl with her parents, where she belonged. The girl asked the Judges not to do so, as she feared violence, (honour killing was not in vogue freely then, as now) as both parents’ were against the marriage.

Justice Mishra conversed with his brother Judge and said, “We are truly shocked that this young girl should even think so ill of her parents who had come to court, concerned with her welfare. Maternal instincts have not hardened so much, that a Tamilian mother would conspire against her own daughter’s well being. We feel the girl should be with her parents for a week, until we get clinching proof on her age status.”

Justice Mishra then turned to Mr. S. Sampathkumaar, a senior advocate of respect, with a pious look, in his panchakatcham veshti, and white turban and asked for his advice on this tricky time lag. Sampathkumaar responded, “Mi Lords, you are placed in an unenviable position. The girl is young and looks a minor. I appreciate your reverence for maternal instincts and Tamilian cultural moorings. Honestly, my only concern is- Your lordships’ decision either way, would be dicey and hope the court does not live to regret it. This is Kaliyugam and we may need to err on the side of caution”.

Cleverly, Sampathkumaar avoided making the choice. The litigants were total strangers. He was in no position to judge them on their words and appearances. Justice Mishra and his brother Judge let the girl go with her parents for a week or more.

Alas, within two weeks, reports came in that the girl was badly mauled and permanently disabled from an attack by unidentified assailants, on her way to a temple, with her mother. When the court was put on notice, Bench called Sampathkumaar in, as well. Mishra, “Mr. Sampathkumaar, how could this happen in Tamil Nadu. Where did we go wrong? Are we to feel guilty for sending the girl to her parents, where she belonged? We are shocked beyond disbelief?” Sampathkumaar said, “Mi Lords, in hindsight, it may be easy to take the right call. Day in day out, this court is making decisions as any court is bound to. It is all done in good faith. It is impossible for any of us, in your position, to have decided differently. Your Lordships would recall that I was myself a hypocrite in not giving a straightforward answer. I was happy that I did not have to decide. Factuallz and legally, the court cannot be held responsible for the tragic turn of events. It is singularly regrettable that matters have come to such a pass that we cannot even imagine.”

Upon reading the 2019 work of Malcolm Gladwell (MG), Talking to Strangers (Allen Lane, 387 Pages, Rs.799/-), memories of the above episode came flooding to one’s mind. The Judges were confronted by strangers. As they were and are on a daily basis. They have to trust their instincts. Exposure and experience comes in handy. But even their conscience calls could go awesomely awry.

MG cites the instance of Patrick Dale Walker, who the Judge claimed “showed remorse after he tried to shoot his ex-girl friend and failed when the trigger jammed”, was enlarged on bail, and four months later killed her. So many questions. But no readymade answers. MG is bewildered at the ‘inability of otherwise intelligent and dedicated people to understand when they are being deceived…And the puzzle is that group who were deceived are the ones you’d expect not to be.” MG goes on, “We have CIA officers who cannot make sense of their spies, Judges who cannot make senses of their defendants, and prime ministers who cannot make sense of their adversaries…They struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty. They struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent. It’s a mess,” he muses.

MG zeroes in on the only explanation for this mysterious inability. “We have a default to truth: Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest”. And then he adds for clarity, “You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them”. And then he adds enigma to mystery “the distinction between some doubts and enough doubts is crucial”. Though he identifies characters like Harry Markopolos, who saw Bernie Madoff the international Ponzi fraud for what he was, a decade earlier than the regulators realised late, MG cannot say when ‘some becomes enough’.

Six years it has taken for MG to get back to writing, after his bestsellers’ The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw and David and Goliath, but it has been worth its weight in gold. In between, he indulged in Podcast with Revisionist History, which influence has invaded the Audio version of this book. The story telling of MG is riveting and the characters Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar, Sylvia Path, Queen of Cuba Ana Montes, and a host of others come alive, in ‘Gladwellian style, which has spawned a new genre as Ernest Hemingway’s short, simple, pithy sentences once did’ as a more qualified reviewer puts it.

The redeeming lifeline thrown by MG is “The advantage to human being lies in assuming that strangers are truthful.” He quotes Prof. Tim Levine, “The trade-off between truth-default and the risk of deception is a great deal for us. What we get in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social co ordination. It may sound callous, but the price of giving up that strategy is much higher.” Gladwell has inked a serious issue but with no readymade solutions, in a book of unputdownable genre. To let us breathe easy, here is the clincher from Gladwell, “We default to truth- even when that decision carries terrible risks- because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise”.

(Author- Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court
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