From infancy we listen to others talk even as we learn to speak our mother tongue and other familiar languages. If they make sense of words, we are gratified and join the give and take of languages, fortifying and enriching our vocabularies. What begins as casual conversation becomes a pleasing pastime, a hobby and a road to celebrity for a few eloquent orators and debaters, TV anchors and experts. They perhaps collect quotes they can trot out aptly, golden words, embellishments to their own persona.
I recall a sally by a queen of England who had to demote a courtier she had favoured, and when he complained, replied curtly: “He that is down need fear no fall.” It is attributed to John Bunyan who wrote A Pilgrim’s Progress, but the remark is proverbial, a motto for the real aam aadmi.
Our languages too have anecdotes of cutting rejoinders, some literary, to show that conversation spiced with wit can always enliven discourses. Tamil lore tells of a princess who preferred a young poet to the old court laureate. When the raja tries to win her with a song by the senior poet, she counters with a rhyme, “My chamber is double-bolted for his song.”
Scholars of Indian lore could collect such felicities of riposte, as English and American readers have. Smart repartees are saved for posterity by hearsay, legend and memoirs. As a junior diplomat I noted two repartees by Asian leaders. Both are historically telling, though poles apart: Gandhi and Zhou Enlai. In 1931, when the British Raj was alive and kicking, despite the Civil Disobedience movement, Gandhiji was visiting London for parleys. A correspondent asked him what he thought of Western civilization. Back came the answer: “I think it would be a good idea.” In 1968, Enlai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution. He replied, “It is too early to tell.” This story, with its germ of historical sagacity, is probably apocryphal, but still a myth worth its longevity.
This anecdote about Winston Churchill sounds authentic, though rude. Lady Astor was an American who married a British lord and became the first woman MP in the House of Commons. There was some tiff between the her and Churchill. At a dinner, Lady Nancy told him, “If I were married to you, I would poison your drink,” and he ungallantly replied, “If so, I would take it.”
Better credence is given to some famous repartees; incidentally, the word, French in origin, is pronounced “repartay”, but our Yinglish serves well. Mark Twain is said to have defined it as “something we think of 24 hours too late”. I cite Oscar Wilde, famed for his wit, who praised a clever comment by another writer: “I wish I had said that.” His friend, the artist Whistler, shot back: “You will, Oscar, you will.” It is like a tennis champion serving an intended ace, only to be stunned by a back hand drive down the line.
But most sallies in the allies will be pseudonymous and even fictional. I end with a limerick about a man who married three wives at a time. When asked, “Why the third?” he said, “One’s absurd/And bigamy, sir, is a crime.” If readers have quotable repartees, please bring them on. They will hearten us in this unpredictable year.