Monday, May 29, 2017 | Last Update : 08:50 PM IST
“If a rolling stone gathers no moss And a magpie never builds a nest What of a heart that knows no rest And a rosary that counts the loss ”
Cleopatra ni Machchi
No one outside India and probably very few Indians could tell you who Gulzarilal Nanda was and what he did. So also, I am sometimes surprised while reading answers to obscure quizzes, to come across the name of an American President of whom I have never heard.
Winston Churchill and perhaps Margaret Thatcher, not to mention Pitt the Younger, are names which any British schoolchild, and perhaps even an Indian one, will recognise. Not so, I expect Margaret’s successor as Prime Minister John Major.
Mr Major is still relatively young and, now and then, ventures a publicised, political opinion. He must have been offered a peerage but declined it. He was a modest, intelligent Prime Minister, the son of a father who worked in the circus. Mr Major became an accountant and gave rise to the witticism that he was the only individual in history who ran away from the circus to become an accountant (instead of running away from accountancy to join etc.)
But this is not an obituary, so no more about him except to say that he was one of the recent British Prime Ministers to be caught up in the British obsession of to be or not to be a member of the European Union. The question, sometimes in a milder form of how much to integrate with the other states of Europe, has threatened on several occasions to tear the Conservative Party apart. There are some senior Tory politicians such a Kenneth Clark who believe in being part of the EU and going the further step of joining the monetary union, substituting the euro for pound sterling and signing up to more treaties for ever closer relations. There are others such as the former leader of the party Michael Howard and former Chancellor Nigel Lawson who want out; and still others, such as Prime Minister David Cameron who has been inners and outers at different times.
When Mr Major was Prime Minister he had, in July 1993, to take a decision on signing the Maastricht Treaty which would create the European Union and, for those countries who wanted to join it, the common currency. Twenty-two of his MPs declared their absolute opposition to the treaty. Mr Major cajoled, threatened and offered compromises and bribes, but the rebels were adamant. Their stubborn opposition and disruptive determination, which went so far as to fly dangerously-ill MPs from Scotland, hide them in the sick-rooms of the Commons and drag them in on stretchers when the vote was called, won them the Prime Minister’s lasting disapproval. He called them “bastards”.
His epithet was widely reported in the press. He didn’t mean to imply that any of the rebels were born out of wedlock. The word has, except in very primitive usage by primitive or religiously governed minds, lost that connotation altogether. Most children born in Britain today are born out of wedlock. Their parents haven’t sought the sanction of law or religion in order to conceive and give birth to babies.
I remember, when still an infant or early teenager, using the English word as an abusive expletive without knowing what it meant. The word was in our English-medium-school sometimes euphemised into “basket”, sometimes adjectivally qualified with a sanguine oath. (Okay, we said “bloody basket!”).
The word undoubtedly retains, as my online dictionary tells me, its original meaning. The dictionary goes on to list as “slang” the definition: “a vicious, despicable or thoroughly disliked person”.
Obviously this meaning, as does the Hindustani equivalent “harami”, derives from the birth of an individual without having religious sanction. Without the benediction of God or Allah for the union of your parents, you become “base”, haram, outside the moral frame.
My online, and for that matter my Greater Oxford, dictionary doesn’t specify when the second meaning came into vogue, but my literary ramblings give me a clue.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, two elder daughters of the king are greedy, capricious, hypocritical and cruel but they are not bastards. The villain of the play is the Duke of Gloucester’s son Edmund. We hear that he was born illegitimately and he knows it. He rebels and rails against the status that this bastardy gives him or deprives him of. He is bitter about his legitimate half-brother Edgar and his evil plots result in blinding his father and driving his brother into beggary and feigned madness.
Shakespeare gets Edmund in a soliloquy to question the term and why one meaning has generated the other. So for me that’s when the conflation of meanings begins to be enshrined in literature, though now that conflation has been eroded and for us a bastard is just someone who has wantonly slashed the tyres on your car or cheated you in some conniving way.
But back to the British Parliament. As Mr Major was, Mr Cameron finds himself presiding over a Tory Party and government implacably divided over Europe.
The Tory election manifesto promised the British electorate an in/out referendum on the EU after the government negotiated some new terms for Britain. The negotiations are over and the referendum is scheduled for June. Mr Cameron advocates staying in.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, MP for Uxbridge and extraordinary minister without portfolio in the government has declared that he is for a British exit, or Brexit as it has been labelled. So has Michael Gove, the justice secretary who is trusted by the population as a thinker and honest Joe.
It is no secret that Mr Johnson wants to succeed Mr Cameron as Prime Minister and he is taking a gamble. If the Brexit-wallahs win, he will certainly be seen as the natural successor. If not he has acquired the status of “bastard” and may have to accept the fate of Edmund in King Lear.