Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2018 > The Cruelty of Metaphors

Mainstream, VOL LVI No 17 New Delhi April 14, 2018

The Cruelty of Metaphors

Saturday 14 April 2018, by Badri Raina

Metaphors are cruel things, never easy to deploy. It will have to be said that the genius of deploying metaphors after all distinguishes a Shakespeare from an Amit Shah.

When Macbeth intones the sad, self-reflexive words, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent/Only vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself and falls on the other”, he knows exactly what he means: as he vaults on to the horse of intent, his overreaching ambition overshoots the back of the horse and he falls in failure on the other side of the horse.

Alas, when just the other day Shri Amit Shah in a thundering speech of lowly invective likened the sweeping force of Modiji to a flood, he was hardly aware of the disservice he was doing to the honourable Prime Minister. Floods are indeed mighty, but they are mightily destructive, not creative or constructive. In effect, if Modiji has been a flood, he can only have drowned and destroyed all that came in his way—fields of grain, hutments of the indigent, precious foliage, work opportunities, community services, roads, transport, and economic activity of every kind, leaving only those safe who can wait out the tide in resourceful ways.

Thus where Shri Shah may have intended to laud the irresistible power and sway of Shri Modi, his insufficient attention to the problematic nature of the metaphor ended up producing exactly the opposite meaning. Given Shri Shah’s devotion to Shri Modi, this could hardly have been a Freudian slip, rather a genuine lack of realisation of how language can be unforgiving. Unforgiving because Shri Shah may be understood to have actually, although inadvertently, encapsulated in his unfortunate metaphor all the criticisms that Modiji’s detractors have been articulating about the nature of his extraordinary clout.

Likewise, Shri Shah’s characterisation of oppositional elements as dogs, bitches, snakes, mongooses—characterisations which he has subsequently clarified to have meant the yoking together of incompatible categories—seems clearly to have defeated his intent. After all, Nature provides more dignified species that are often equally at odds with one another but looked upon, nonetheless, as objects of great beauty and awe. Alas, this may not be said of the species Shri Shah chose to identify as his opponents. For example, it is monkeys who are most adept at climbing heights when danger threatens; had he likened his adversaries to monkeys, he might at least have been understood to have used a simile far less painful to human ears; but monkeys are venerated in the world of cultural nationalism as offspring of the gods themselves. Which is why, may be, Shri Shah chose not to think of monkeys. But the species he did pick upon may end up not finding favour even with many of Shri Shah’s own cultured camp, although they may not say so out in the open.


as a Kashmiri Brahmin, though, I feel obliged to stand up for the snake. Do please recall that in Kashmiri Trika Shaivism, our most venerated deity/god is Lord Shiva; and the snake has pride of place around Shankar’s all-consuming throat. Kashmiri Brahmins may well feel violated that whereas Shri Shah spares the Vaishnavite monkey, he drags down the Shaivite serpent to levels of abusive lowliness.

Altogether, an episode that demonstrates yet again how treacherous words can be, and why great writers are venerated for suiting words with incomparable sentience to the purposes they have in mind.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted