Praying to the Neon Gods we Made

Siddharth Bhatia / DNA

Mumbai, Aug 7: When Princess Diana died in a car accident in Paris, the British Royal family was in a dilemma about granting her a state funeral. She was not a member of the family any longer, having divorced Prince Charles and as a mere citizen did not qualify for the honour. But such was her popularity that not giving her a state funeral because of stuffy protocol issues would have angered the public.

This conflict has been well captured in the film The Queen in which Tony Blair tries to persuade the monarch to follow the public mood and not stand on precedent. As we know, the people’s princess did get a grand state funeral even if the Windsors kept up a stiff upper lip and suffered in silence.

A smaller parallel to this story played out in India last week when the Punjab government decided to grant a state funeral to young Ishmeet Singh, the talented singer who died in a drowning accident in the Maldives. Singh was not a politician
or a distinguished army man or a holder of public office; his claim to fame was that he won a singing contest on television and became an instant household name in the state and beyond. He had a humble, friendly persona apart from a good singing voice and his victory made his fellow Punjabis proud.

His death came in mysterious circumstances. He was far away from home in another country and reportedly dived into a swimming pool though he did not know how to swim. The post-mortem has said the cause of death was an accident; his family suspects murder. All of which lends an aura of mystery to the whole affair and further enhances his mystique; young, popular people dying in the prime of their lives is always the stuff of legends.

Yet, does it entitle him to a state funeral? What are the regulations and protocol for the same? The government of Punjab, when questioned claimed there were no rules as such; it was done out of “courtesy” and presumably at the discretion of the chief minister. In this case, young Singh’s victory in the reality show and subsequent popularity would have tipped the balance. But then, there are many Punjabis who have done noteworthy things in their lives; would they be entitled to such an honour?

My guess is probably not. Singh’s feat was not merely creditable on its own; it was achieved in the mass media, in full public view. His progress on the reality show was followed step by step by audiences around the country and there is little doubt that he got a lot of votes from Punjab. The short point is that he had become a visible face in the public eye in a competition that ended just a few months ago; the afterglow was still very strong.

The Akali Dal would have recognised the main chance when news of his death came in. Politicians always look for a way to connect sympathetically with the public and this was one such opportunity. Delhi’s Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee, which manages religious and educational institutions in the Delhi area, reportedly declared a day off for all its schools in memory of the young man.

Now to another funeral. A few weeks ago, Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, one of India’s finest soldiers, a highly decorated man and a distinguished figure in public life, passed away. His state funeral was a low-key affair and no senior minister attended it. The ostensible reason was that the protocol book did not mention the correct procedure for the funeral of a Field Marshall; it went only up to the rank of a General! Clearly, politicians and bureaucrats are flexible only when they want to be.

Looked at together, the two instances tell us about the nature of fame, celebrityhood and achievement. Maneckshaw probably meant little to anybody younger than 30 and since a vast majority of the Indian population is in that range, that means most Indians would not have heard of him. Even in Punjab, where many families have someone in the Army (and where Maneckshaw was born and grew up) Maneckshaw would be so day-before-yesterday while Singh is here and now.

The mass media, that permeates every home in the land, has created not only new celebrities but also changed the very notion of what it means to be an achiever. The armed forces have zero cache; a television soap actor or a reality show winner are better known and arguably more liked and respected.

This fame is transient of course. It is quite possible that young Singh would have become a huge star but it is equally likely that he would have faded into oblivion, like many other reality show winners. What is important is that he was an instantly recognisable name right now.

None of this takes away from young Singh’s talent; his death is definitely a tragedy, as young death always is. But it is useful to recognise that this episode marks an interesting turning point in our media-saturated, hyper-unreal society which wants a steady supply of heroes and neon gods at whose altar it will pray.


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