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The Letter



The post office in Pallavur never had its own building. I have not figured out why, perhaps nobody would sell land to the postal department. Anyway, right from my childhood, I have seen it as a transient affair, first it was somewhere near the lower primary school, then it moved to houses across the temple and later to the larger home near Company Babu’s homestead. These homes did not afford the post office a sense of formality and the officers operated through modified windows and from behind closed doors. As soon as its door opened, there would be people trooping in, and the meeting of these souls in waiting increased the clamor in the small anteroom of that ad-hoc post office.

As you can imagine, the PO dealt with monetary objects such as money orders and stamps, postal orders and hundis. Well, the last word would not be understood by many and I may even be accused of talking about one’s posterior, but let me hasten and explain – the hundi has nothing to do with any posterior, it was a monetary instrument, like an IOU, payable on a certain date. The kitchen counter was where the post man stamped the letters (again stamping is affixing the letter with a black circular ink seal over the stamp, showing the origin location and date) with loud thumps. They were originally muffled when he had the cloth pad underneath, but the cloth pad had become ragged and the jute inside had become muslin thin, so the muffling effect was long lost. The ink was still jet black and solid, at least in the beginning of the month and then got dimmer as the days passed by and the stocks declined. The post man explained to me once that some months had so much letter traffic, especially during the wedding months when many cards were mailed, that the erratic ink supply from the head post office made life difficult for him, he added ‘you people have no idea about the difficulties we have in the post office, once I had to steal my wife’s kanmashi to tide over a period of crisis’ (kanmashi is kajal).

Ah! I am drifting, as most old timers do, so let me cut to the chase and get to the story I have to tell you today, of course it has something to do with letters in post. Most of the villagers know it, but since many of you are not, you may find it original and amusing. This took place many years ago and both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story are no more, so you have no choice but to believe what I have to say.

Madhavan Nair, the big burly man with a lot of hair all over, the ex-military man is the protagonist. He was some character, and even I who have travelled long and far have found his stories fascinating. His stories, or shall I say exploits during the 2nd World war, the Indo China war and the Pakistan wars are stuff for the legends. Most people would agree that he was prone to exaggerating a lot, even though they did not have the guts to question him or disprove his words, they just agreed if only to provide salubrious company, for he did dole out small quantities of military ration issue Hercules rum to his favored and regular listeners, while his wife Deviamma provided freshly fried ‘touchings’, to enliven the occasion.

Temple pond
His morning bath at the temple pond (when he was on a furlough – that is) was an occasion, my cousin Mani told me, many a young woman of the village did not miss! He explained to me that the sight of him applying copious amounts of gingelly oil on his body excited some of them. I did not believe Mani though, he was probably envious, though Madhavan Nair was rumored to have many ‘affairs’ of the physical kind all over the countryside.

Nair, I will call him so from now on, did have about him this inspiring aura, perhaps due to his military airs and absolute confidence. He was always at the forefront when some kind of leadership was needed in the region, be it a temple matter or some dispute which needed resolution. He was around to take care of snakes and wild animals, he would come rushing if a fire had to be put out. A popular man indeed. He retired after the 71 war and was a regular at Pallavur where Deviamma had her home. His booming voice was as always optimistic and sure, his bearing ramrod straight. But his hair had become snow white and if you observed carefully, you could see him drop the pose and start to slouch in relaxation, perhaps which is age catching up.

I would always meet him at the post office where I went to pick up the letters as it was an occasion to meet many of my village friends. Now you may ask me why went to the PO, well, it had always been a custom since my uncle set it, to get the letters fresh from the post, since he had little faith in the post man who would start his rounds, traverse all the distance to Kumaramputtur, Thaloor and then finally come to our house to drop off the mail there. By the time he reached it was well past 3PM and it would be bang in the middle of my uncle’s siesta, something he did not want to be disturbed. So we, when we were kids, had to make the trip and pick it up from the window as soon as they were stamped. And as I said before, half the village had representation at the PO with just the same intent. And, as the waiting kids played around, the elders in waiting gossiped.

Nair got a good amount of mail, which some onlookers muttered were from his many paramours, some from remote places. He said he had a number of dealings all over the country, he got letters from the military offices, insurance agencies, book dealers, solicitors, temple committees and what not. Not a day passed without him picking up at least two postal objects from the counter.

It is time to introduce our antagonist, Chettiar - a Tamilian with a pleasant countenance. Now Kuppuswamy Chettiar is a rarity in our Nair village, for he does not stay at the thara (You see, the Chakkathara is the quarter in a Nair desam where the Tamil chakkans or vanaiyars lived), he has his large home close to the temple. I don’t really know how he managed to do that, but Mani tells me there is a long story behind it and has promised to give me the details if I get him a carton of Dunhill cigarettes the next time. His Malayalam was laced with Tamil, and this genial person was well respected in our village. Though he and his family came for all occasions and happenings in Pallavur, they were mostly reserved. Perhaps Chettiar and the generation which followed him were a wee bit self-conscious due to their lack of formal education unlike others who had college going children.

This happened a few years ago, and if I remember right, it was the year when Mohanettan, the fellow who fell in love with that Aravancheri girl was getting picked up by the police. I was at the post office, having arrived there at 945AM, soon to be joined by Nair. We were talking about Indira Gandhi and the way she handled the Pakistanis and Americans during the war. Oh! I forgot to mention, Nair has a cousin working in some top department close to the PM’s office in Delhi, so he is privy to all kinds of information and I also forgot to mention, Nair retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, so he was much more than a simple soldier in the ranks. I was flabbergasted when Nair told me about the exchanges between Nixon, Kissinger and Indira Gandhi and was ruminating on the temerity of Nixon when we saw Chettiar coming up the staircase (the post office was upstairs, the Brahmin home owners lived below – I don’t know how they lived through the thumping stamping sessions!).

Both Nair and I were taken aback, we had never seen Chettiar at the post office. But well, he was there, so as I expected Nair popped the question if Chettiar was expecting a letter. The glum looking Chettiar said that he was hoping to get a letter from his son who had drifted to Madras looking for a job (I remembered the discussion between my uncle and Chettiar the other day, Chettiar’s son was planning to go to some relative’s outfit at the Thambu Chetty street making some spice powers, and ask for a job). That was a fortnight ago and Chettiar’s son Alagappan had gone silent, not a peep since he left and the poor man was worried. I imagined how it would have been exacerbated by his wife Komathi, who doted on Alagappan. But well, the postman loudly announced that there was nothing for Chettiar and the forlorn old man slunk away each time, bent and tired.

For some weeks we saw the same scene, a disappointed Chettiar. The troubled family had not received any information from his son. Eventually we heard that Chettiar’s son was safe, the information reached Chettiar through my aunt in Madras who came for the Vilakku. The boy had not written because he knew his parents could not read.  He located my aunt at Washermanpet (mint) after a month and sent word through her that all was well and that he did find a job paying Rs350 p.m.

So much so on that, I thought, but the matter never ended there. A week later, we saw Chettiar making a laborious climb up the post office stairs again. This time he did not go to the post office counter or mention about expecting any letter.

I still cannot believe the conversation that ensued.

He came up to Nair and said in his sing song Tamil Malayalam – ‘Nair, You get so many letters every day. I have a proposition, give me one of those letters and I will pay you Rs 5/- for it’. Nair was taken aback, not knowing how to reply. After some thought he finally said ‘yes, take any one of my letters’.

The post man who was furiously stamping the letters did not hear all this, not did the post master. Nobody offered any additional suggestions, and I was bemused about the whole thing to say the least, for I had a brain freeze at that very instant.

The post man called out for Nair and gave him a sheaf of letters, perhaps five or six.  Chettiar stretched his hand out and picked one of them, an unmarked envelope without any senders details – just a cream colored postal cover as you know it ,and gave Nair Rs 5/-. Chettiar walked away with the letter, not turning back even once.

Nair was at a loss for words, not believing what he had done. He looked at the letters in his hand and then at me, back and forth a few times, then he shrugged his shoulders and went home, the letter matter forgotten, maybe he had more pressing things to do. I was also busy with other matters. The Mohanettan mystery was just heating up and turning out to be an amazing story. You the reader, should read it as well, if you have not, after you have finished this one.

Anyway I had to go back after my annual holiday and so I picked up the threads of the story again only after I returned to Pallavur the following year. I met Nair at the post office and he looked disturbed. I asked him what the matter was. He explained that after a few days following his giving that letter to Chettiar, he had met Chettiar for a wedding at the temple.

He casually asked Chettiar about the letter. He asked who it was from and Chettiar politely told him that he would not answer him as the letter belonged to him. He asked Chettiar if it was something important and Chettiar gave him the same answer and left. Nair was perplexed at first, troubled with doubt and later quite infuriated. Now remember that there was absolutely no bad feelings between these two blokes, no reason for any kind of antagonism, no history of any issues between them or their families, it was just the letter.

A week later he went to Chettiar’s house, since the matter had stirred up all kinds of emotions in his mind and he could not simply let it rest. He demanded that Chettiar tell him about the contents of his, i.e. Madhavan Nair’s letter at the very least or better still, hand over the letter. Chettiar was polite and calm, he said he would not as the letter was well and truly his and he had paid for it in front of witnesses. It was a deal and executed as contracted. He would not waver - a deal is a deal, it had been done and dusted.

Nair was livid by now, all red and trembling, he stood up tall and ramrod straight as though he was in front of his troops at a parade ground and growled – Here is your Rs5/- take it back and give me my letter. But then, my friends, you don’t know Chettiar, he would not be cowed, the old man looked away and asked Nair to leave. Nair tried to offer more money, but Chettiar was adamant.

Nair could not, try as he may, understand the terrible predicament he had got himself into. He could not eat, sleep or drink with any amount of joy. In fact he could spend any wakeful moment without the thought of that letter flitting past. He finally asked my uncle, who as well respected in the village, to intervene. My uncle called Chettiar home and asked him why he could not divulge the contents to Nair.

Chettiar said that the contents were not necessarily important to him personally, and that he had not opened it yet or checked what it was, for he could not read. But he was not going to get into any discussions on his lack of education or whatever, the letter was his. My uncle tried to reason over and again, but Chettiar would not budge and my uncle understood that Chettiar was well within his rights in his stand.

Even after knowing from my uncle that Chettiar had not opened his letter, Nair could not find peace. Whether it was due to this or a lifestyle full of excesses, Nair fell ill and was under the weather for a while.

A year had passed and I was back home. I heard that Nair was quite ill and dropped in at his home to check if there was something I could do. Nair had some lung infection from which he was taking a long time to recover and looked very weak. No longer could I see the military bearing, it was a shell of the man I knew all these years. He talked little, and even my nudges at getting him to talk about his war years had no effect. He would not even tell me about the letter when asked, he said forget it, I don’t care about that letter or that idiot Chettiar.

Down the road, Chettiar, I heard, was on his death bed. Komathi was understandably distraught and Alagappan had come rushing from Madras. When I went to the Chettiar home, they were hospitable as always, Komathiamma gave me a tumbler of coffee and some thengapal thenguzhal, while his son Alagappan gave me a tin of rasam powder, a product of the firm he was working for. Chettiar looked like one on his deathbed would, weary and bone tired, eyes closed and face gaunt. A couple of days later, he passed away, peacefully.

The next day, after the cremation ceremonies, Mani and I were sitting on the front steps and chatting away, trying to make some sense of the Mohanettan affair, when Alagappan came. He said ‘I heard that this letter had been a problem matter between Appa and Nair, can you please return this to Nair’?

The letter was unopened, just as it was when Chettiar plucked it from the sheaf of letters Nair once held in his hand.

I rushed to Nair’s house and told him the news of Chettiar’s passing and Alagappan’s gesture. Then I reached into my pocket, pulled out the letter and gave it to Nair. Nair’s eyes and mouth quivered, he looked at the cover, flipped it and looked at the smudged postal stamp, but could not make out where it had come from. He ripped open the corner and pulled out the content, a single sheet of cyclostyled paper.

It was a solicitation from a temple in Trichur. They had wanted a generous donation from interested patrons for the upcoming festival.I will never forget the emotions that flitted past Nair’s face. It showed incredulousness, amazement, shame and finally a lot of sadness. He rolled the letter into a ball and flung it into the far recesses of his bedroom, and muttered – of all things, a temple solicitation!

I did not remain there, and I left. Other matters kept me busy and soon it was time to leave abroad and the mystery concerning Mohanettan had been solved, finally.

Glad tidings could be observed when I came next. Nair had recovered and had become his usual self, in fact he had become a benefactor for the Chettiar family. He had using his army connections found a good job for Alagappan at the Army canteen in Bangalore, but with a condition, that he would bring him a case of rum each time he came on vacation.

Nair caught up with me though, at the temple and asked me “I still don’t understand one thing, why did Chettiar hold on to that letter, why did he not give it back to me, in fact why did he buy that letter from me in the first place and why did I, like an idiot ever sell it to him”?

I looked at Nair and shrugged – ‘beats me’ I said.

What do you think??

Notes
Some things happen for no particular reason. I was trying to figure out what to write and I was researching Somerset Maugham for another article. In his diary (A writer’s Notebook) I found the following passage which is the reason why I wrote this story.

Did I do any justice? You tell me.

Quote
A week or two ago someone related an incident to me with the suggestion that I should write a story on it, and since then I have been thinking it over. I don't see what to do. The incident is as follows. Two young fellows were working on a tea plantation in the hills and the mail had to be fetched from a good way off so that they only got it at rather long intervals. One of the young fellows, let us call him A., used to get a lot of letters by every mail, ten or twelve and sometimes more, but the other, B., never got one. He used to watch A. enviously as he took his bundle and started to read, he hankered to have a letter, just one letter, and one day, when they were expecting the mail, he said to A.: "Look here, you always have a packet of letters and I never get any. I'll give you five pounds if you'll let me have one of yours." "Right-ho," said A. and when the mail came in he handed B. his letters and said to him: "Take whichever you like." B. gave him a five-pound note, looked over the letters, chose one and returned the rest. In the evening, when they were having a whisky and soda after dinner, A. asked casually: "By the way, what was that letter about?" "I'm not going to tell you," said B. A., somewhat taken aback said: "Well, who was it from?" "That's my business," answered B. They had a bit of an argument, but B. stood on his rights and refused to say anything about the letter that he had bought. A. began to fret, and as the weeks went by he did all he could to persuade B. to let him see the letter. B. continued to refuse.
At length A., anxious, worried, curious, felt he couldn't bear it any longer, so he went to B. and said: "Look here, here's your five pounds, let me have my letter back again." "Not on your life," said B. "I bought and paid for it, it's my letter and I'm not going to give it up."
That's all. I suppose if I belonged to the modern school of story writers, I should write it just as it is and leave it. It goes against the grain with me. I want a story to have form, and I don't see how you can give it that unless you can bring it to a conclusion that leaves no legitimate room for questioning. But even if you could bring yourself to leave the reader up in the air you don't want to leave yourself up in the air with him. ...
Unquote

It is not that I do not have a hypothesis – When Chettiar came to the post office every day for two weeks, looking desperately for a token of communication from his son, he developed a deep appreciation for the medium of communication, the letter, knowing how much the receipt of one could effect a person. If he had received a simple post card from his son, he and Komathi would have been at peace. At the same time, he was seeing a person who got so many and did not seem to appreciate their value. So it could have been his simple way of teaching a Nair a lesson!

But then why did I not add this conclusion to the story? Human behavior is incredibly complex and whatever people may say, you cannot box a person into a situation and decide how he would react in a given situation. For me Chettiar and Nair were equals, perhaps Chettiar was one up…

For those who want to check out the Mohanettan story click this link


Horse trading and Politics



This brief study started as I was reviewing Portuguese interventions into horse trading during the 16th to 18th Century in South India. While it was somewhat slow going, I noticed that horse trading was starting to get a bad rap. We all know that over time it got linked to politics and voting, so I thought, why not check back see how that reputation came about and how politicians got likened to horse traders?

Some years ago, we studied the introduction of camels in long distance trade and how they became ships of the desert. Then we saw how ships took over from the camels, plying across watery seas.  But for personal conveyance, the horse held its place as numero uno until the second decade of the 20th century, which as you can see, gave it a steady run of some 4000-5000 years at the top!

The good horses were from somewhat distant places and we had Turkic, Arabian and Persian horses, just to name a popular few. Originally they were brought into N India overland and sold in Bazars. But it was with the advent of ships that they started getting sold in large numbers in S India. The cost involved in breeding them and shipping them over large distances increased the risk of maiming, disease and rapid fall in profits. With no insurance, the horse trader had to figure out how best to cover his risks and get a maximum return on his investment. One way was to ensure that the selling price had ample margins, covering the prospect of some losses in numbers due the aforementioned factors. But you know how it is, human beings, at least many of them are avaricious and desire larger and larger profits. Selling pepper, silk, porcelain, produce and so on was based on volume, but the horse was at that time the priciest of them all. 

How would you attach a cost, a price or value to a product? If you went silk carpet shopping in Turkey, the crafty salesman, without your knowing it, will tug at your heartstrings skillfully. He will narrate Bollywood like sad stories of how 5 or 6 poor women and their destitute children spent over two years making that very special carpet for you, with their own hands, with skill, a lot of love and many a sweaty day (usually there is a picture on the wall he can point to, to illustrate his tale). He would tell this all with a forlorn expression and soon you (e.g. from US) calculate in your mind. Two years, four people working @5$ per hour meant $4,000 for the item and you wait with bated breath for the salesman to tell you the price. He has done the same, after determining where you were from (to determine the labor rate per hour) and says- My friend, we have spent over $3,000 in making it, but we want it to find a good home, a loving home, like yours and so, I have a special price $2,000. You know it is a relatively good deal but have to get the better of the third world salesman, after all, you are clever and educated, so you say, no chance! I will pay you not more than $1,000. Tea is brought in, the bargaining goes on for another half hour and hands are shaken at $1,500. The deal is made, the carpet is wrapped, delivered and you walk away smugly thinking about how you killed the deal! For the salesman, well, his cost was perhaps $100, his selling target perhaps $500, so he mutters after pocketing his commission – those stupid yabancis ( foreigners), they will believe anything!

Now what do you learn from this? That you are actually talking value and valuating the object to be purchased. The seller attaches value with a story, the buyer attaches value based on relative cost. What if money was not involved and it was a barter? You have come with a cartload of wheat. So just imagine the scene of you talking about the value of wheat with the person who is attaching a value scale to carpets. The scene must have been fascinating, surely! Today everything is pegged to common currency and relative value has little meaning. Barter, trade has given way to purchase and commodities have been created with fixed prices.

But then, we were discussing horses and trying to get to the origins of dishonesty. The first large scale horse exports from Arabia were made to 16th Century India. Both the Mughals in North India and the Vijayanagar kings in the South were large scale purchasers needing thousands of horses for their many wars and desires to conquer and hold on to large kingdoms. The supplies came from Arabia and Persia and the Arabs brought them in their sailing ships, returning home with spices and other produce. Were they the ones who brought dishonesty into the trade or was it the Portuguese?

Let us assume that in the beginning the valuation was somewhat honest and the buyer was satisfied with his purchases. We can see that risk was covered by the purchaser and the Vijayanagara king paid even for the dead, diseased or lost horses. Sources mention that the trader had to produce at least a tail to make his claim and this was made good (did some traders start delivering more tails and less horses? Perhaps!). As the Portuguese arrived and established their naval might, they saw the potential for quick profits and claimed a monopoly on the horse trade after conquering Goa and other Konkan ports, where these animals were landed. They unilaterally set the purchase and selling prices.  The Arab trader who brought in the horses was neither compensated for his risk nor was he able to achieve his earlier profits. And perhaps that is how dishonesty in the horse trade, started. The middle man, the lazy Portuguese who deserved nothing, had to be cheated, that was a revenge of sorts, I suppose. This developed into a highly skilled system over the next two hundred years.

The North Indian market on the other hand was dominated by Afghan and Turkic horses, delivered through overland routes and sold during fairs or large ‘mela’s’ in the Rajasthan area. It is said that the large volume medium quality horses went to various military units of the kings on pre-agreed prices, while the best and the worst were sold in fairs at negotiated prices. Prices fluctuated based on fodder prices and the situation on the routes of travel. If there was war on the way, prices and risk naturally increased.

So to summarize, prices varied wildly in the medieval times and every tom dick and harry, or their Hindu/Muslim/Arab name equivalents wanted to profit off the poor mute horse. The perceived value of the quadruped in each region swung wildly (400 to a 1000 Rs per horse) depending on the horse trader’s wile and so a mobile experienced horse-trader was in a powerful position vis-a-vis the local consumer. As a result, horse-traders had a particularly bad reputation, augmented by their fast and loose wandering life. Their mere presence could constitute a serious threat to law and order, as is evidenced in many recorded cases in India. We also note that the itinerant horse trader developed his own culture. They had their own esoteric language, a mixture of various local dialects combined with special jargon and an extensive code of manual signs, exchanged during the actual bargaining at the fair, mostly concealed beneath a handkerchief. Tricky business, for sure, while it lasted. After World War I the advent of mechanized vehicles shifted the focus of the trade, Arabian mares and stallions became the fancy of sportsmen and breeders, and were no longer transported in great numbers to India.

At the end of it all, the horse trader ended up as a shady character, having cohorts, speaking strange languages and being generally of an unsavory nature. This reputation spread to Europe, perhaps as the banjaras or iterant traders of Rajasthan drifted to become the Romas or Gypsies. The guile in their practice was exhilarating perhaps, for horse traders everywhere stared adopting such tricks, soon there was no honest horse trader. This quote explains it all - I am neither a horse-dealer nor an Arab. He was old Aaron, the horse-trader, who had been so dishonest that thieves, even, were reluctant to deal with him (By the way, did you know that the word ‘gyp’ or cheat came from the word Gypsy? ).

While horses were owned and used only by real high society in decan and up North, it became very common in Europe and America as an individual’s means of travel. So the skillful and tricky horse trader was one you had to deal with, if you wanted to buy a horse which had by now become a commodity. Over time, he not only became a master bargainer, hard to beat, but also a cheat. He could palm off a sick and dying animal to you as a healthy prancing mare waiting for your care. The horse unlike the dog, was one which was bought and sold several times during its lifetime and thus became an animal whose physical power and appearance carried economic value.

19th century America for example was a period when a man was judged by his horse and his wife, they had to be fine creatures for a man to project his power. You were an idiot if you didn’t know a thing about horses and conversely, the more you knew of horses, the better knowledge you had of women! And thus started the competitions between the man who wanted the horse and the man who sold the horse. It even turned out to be a game, if you could be the better of the other. Because the buyer and seller needed to know the animal and its care, it had great importance in the male domain. Nevertheless, the situation resulted in the horse trade becoming more skilled, and involved doctoring a horse and its defects, all aspects which naturally affected its value. I am not going to bore you with statistics or long-winded theories and studies, but I will tell you of some of those astounding malpractices they had in Europe and America.


A horse for sale would be underfed before the sale so that they breathe easier and look healthy, their nostrils may be plugged to stop whistles (sign of a winded horse), their muscles may be pumped up (with air under the skin, not with stuff like botox), their oft switching tails may be paralyzed (by hanging weights for many hours before the sale), their tail may be lifted up (a good young horse has a perky tail) by shoving a piece of ginger or other irritants up their arse, or cocaine injected into a lame leg to remove lameness. Some had sawed gums sore to stop its cribbing, or others had teeth done (bishoping or dental forgery) to reduce age. Then there was the practice of taking a weeping widow along to impress on the neediness of the sale and they even saw the practice of selling a moon-blind horse at dusk. Ah! Well, the tricks of the trade are many and you, the buyer would never know till you brought the horse home and a day or two had passed. The iterant horse trader would be long gone and you, poorer by many a hundred dollars!

It is not surprising that this very same practices spread to the selling of cars and thus car salesmen also got a bap rap. Afterall, the car did take over from the horse and until some 15 years ago, a car was also sold and repurchased many times before its condemnation and final disposal in a junkyard. And as time went by, what was once dishonest now became in common parlance ‘sales talk’.

I still recall, in the 70’s and 80’s in India, joining the sales department of a firm was kind of unsavory and parents did not encourage it. They suggested you join R&D or engineering departments and sales was meant for the loose talking and untrustworthy smarties (What if I said I started with a sales job?). But if you look today, things have changed and everybody wants to join the M&S department because that is where you get exposure, you get better rewarded for your work, where you get to see the world, enjoy life and where you can quickly rise through the ranks! Do salesman today use any tricks akin to horse trading? Well, you decide.

Getting back to hose trading, America started to accept such practices in the late 19th century in a more positive light, even though they had a lower ethical standard. Perhaps after all, profit is what you need. And thus such techniques crept into days to day activities, including politics as the ever valuable vote became a commodity.

So how did politicians get compared to horse traders, was it because they never delivered what they promised? Perhaps! As you know, the term horse trading actually came from the practice of people buying, selling and trading horses. In such a transaction, the seller would try to hide as many of the horses faults, make many a false claim in order to drive the price of the horse up to maximize his profit. The buyer, on the other hand, would be busy trying to drive the price of the horse down by trying to find all its faults, real or not. So much so that in those time, if you saw something unbelievable and somewhat dishonest you would equate it to the well-known horse trade! Thus it was actually in the 19th century that the association of these two occurred. Let’s now see how horse trading in politics is defined.

Per the Macmillan English Dictionary, it means difficult and sometimes dishonest discussions between people who are trying to reach an agreement. In political parlance, it implies any long-drawn-out negotiation characterized by hard bargaining and compromises. It frequently takes place in democratic institutions like legislative bodies when a parliamentarian or legislator supports some Bill or trust vote in exchange for support for one of his initiatives for another Bill or legislation. But Collins states - When negotiation or bargaining is forceful and shows clever and careful judgment, you can describe it as horse-trading. Cambridge puts it as - unofficial discussion in which people make agreements that provide both sides with advantages. So it all boils down to a lot of discussion, promises and bargaining to reach a political result. As defined today, a lot of horse-trading is usually required to reach compromise in the political arena, and it is considered a zero-sum game where the parties usually extract a gain at the expense of the taxpayer.

As it came to stay in politics, Theodore Roosevelt, so rightly remarked: “In politics, we have to do a great many things that we ought not to do” and Lyndon Johnson who was so adept at political deal-making had his machinations named irreverently as “the Johnson Treatments”.

It differs in India though where it is mostly a quid pro quo in material terms and like a bribe to get votes/representatives for majority, even enticing people of other parties to join you in exchange for financial compensation or perks, that is horse trading. Horse-trading is usually done when the assembly is hung after an election. In order to gain the majority required to form a government, political parties try to pull in members from other parties. The luring game turns lurid at times as we saw recently in Maharashtra. Thus, this method is mostly disapproved. As they explain, horse trading is not illegal constitutionally, but well the practice is looked down upon as it involves rewarding members who switch parties with benefits. In 2002 a Hindu article said - In our country this word (horse-trading) is normally associated with politics. Whenever a government falls, a lot of horse-trading goes on before another government is formed. If you think this is because some of our politicians look like horses, then you are being terribly unfair, especially to the horses!

Nowadays horse trading has evolved to what is known as resort politics – Whatever could that be?
Well, parties quarantine or lock up their representatives in resorts, protecting them from the opposing party who tries to contact them and lure them with incentives, as a senior politician explained “You build a wall around your legislators so that the other party doesn’t encroach on them.” We can also see that within no time, today’s Indian politician, who is now a valuable commodity ends up as incredibly wealthy individuals. These are the potential ‘aaya ram gaya ram’ potentials, and if you did not know what that term means, go back to 1967 political defections where one Gaya Ram changed political parties cyclically three times in a fortnight, demonstrating his opportune flexibility! An anti-defection law was passed, but a counter method called Operation Kamala was quickly discovered and put into effect, and now has been superseded by Kamala 2.0! Bluff and chicane (cheat) once the indispensable tricks of trade with horse-dealers are these days the exact skills sets needed in the arena of politics where as you will all agree, honesty is no longer a requirement to become a great statesman.

And so, Politics, as politicians put it has become an art involving shrewd bargaining, horse trading, appeasement, back scratching, quid pro quo, patronage and lobbying, just to name a mere few. But then again, as Gustav Von Hertzen mentions succinctly in his book ‘The challenge of democracy’ one may despise politicians, but the parliament and the politicians reflect the moral level of the electorate.

Maybe we should get our esteemed Shashi Tharoor (Note: I like him, he is a jolly chap actually and would make a good PM!) to comment on all this. He would perhaps tighten his upper lip and mutter that that this is all just a proclivity to dickering around and tending towards a moral reprobate.


Pic - Horse trader picture – courtesy Alex Snyder, political horse trading - bolanvoice