They say truth triumphs. But how can anybody be so sure. After all, one gets to know of only those truths which have actually triumphed and not of those that perished, and there may have been plenty of these in human history. A touchingly beautiful tragedy, so well encapsulated in a Meitei folk song about a mountain orchid, Ingellei, which blossoms seasonally in the wilderness and dies without anybody getting to know of its captivating beauty or fragrance captures this enigma beautifully.
The legend of this flower is usually sung by maidens identifying the flower as another maiden, envying its unsung beauty, its serene tranquillity in isolation, spared of all the angst of the human world. The song goes “Mountain blossom Ingellei, / We envy you that you never had to become, / a fashion accessory adorning somebody’s hair.” (Chingda satpi Ingellei,/ Chinbidana kenkhiba,/ Ho kallak-ee, Ho Kallak-ee”). This quite interestingly, and brilliantly portrays a tragic human predicament of desiring life but also distressed by its harsh reality.
However, the flower itself sees things differently. In the first of two more stanzas that follow the first the flower replies. Her view is radically different from those of the maidens singing her praise: “I did not fall because I wanted to, / It was the wind which began blowing, / And I could not hold on, and that’s why I fell,” somewhat shifting the blame for her fate to the wind (Eina kenge kenbara, / Malangbana humbagi, / Ho kenbane, Ho kenbane).”
In the third stanza the wind replies, adding a new dimension to the unfolding drama. The tone is impersonal, levelling out all human aspirations and in one sweep confining them to a single but unavoidable universal destiny. It says, “I blew for that is what I am meant to do, / the flower had lived its life and had ripened, / that’s why it fell (Malangba eisu keidou de, / Leirangna leiman chanbana / Ho kenbane, Ho kenbane).
This is beautiful poetry indeed with few parallels in giving a picture of the human angst and existential dilemma. As is demonstrated here too, poetry has little to do with truth prevailing over untruth, for truth is also very much what one sees it to be so. This enigma, or tragedy as it were, is also very much part of life itself.
Consider the ore concrete cases of the Incas or Aztecs or other Native Americans, and all other other decimated and even exterminated races of the world? Did truth prevail for them? Or is truth a relative term? We have no answer to these questions, but looking at the way things are in Manipur today, it is easy to doubt there is any certainty about any positive, optimistic, answer that truth triumphs. Right and wrong, truth and untruth, today have become merely a matter of decree by those who hold the reins of power – the official state power as well as the power that flows out of the barrels of the guns of non-state challengers to state power.
Obviously, truth also has been reduced to a factor of liberalism (or the lack of it), which in the very fundamental sense is translated as the willingness to honestly investigate and introspect dissenting voices. In our situation, where authoritarianism has become the rule, dissenting voices are either reviled as reactionary, or else scorned as anti-national propaganda by those at the helm of the establishment. Nothing as a freedom to assess any given social situation independently exists.
History is proof that it has always been the intent of authoritarian states to prohibit dissent and in the process monopolise the definition of truth. In history, no other episode exemplifies this more than the gagging of Galileo of Galilee. Galileo, as all of us who can recall our high school science classes remember, confirmed the Copernican heliocentric model of the universe which went against Ptolomy’s geocentric conception of it, through observation using the telescope he invented. But the authoritarian Church of the time which built its idea of the cosmos around Ptolomy’ conception of it, saw Galileo’s interpretation as a challenge to its authority and threatened the scientist to retract his discovery on the pain of being declared a heretic and suffer death on the stake.
The inconvenient fact before all who believe in the strength of truth is, Galileo actually did what he was told and disowned what he discovered and believed in. It is another matter that an age of scientific liberalism was soon to descend on the Western world and Galileo’s discovery survived the discoverer who was not willing to give up his life for what he found out was the truth. Does this imply that truth is also a matter of personal conviction? This question is interesting and extremely relevant today with the emergence of the idea of “post-truth” which encourages scepticism of the definition of fact as what are perceived by the sensory organs, especially in the age of the digital media.
But it must be remembered that “post-truth” can easily warp to become what has been described as “alt truth” in hands of authoritarian power, and thus become frightening Orwellian, and truth becomes just a matter of what the those who assume authoritarian power say truth is.
The story would come across as strikingly familiar to many in Manipur who have seen over the decades how in certain cases even extracted confessional statements, regardless of whether made under duress or captivity, were treated as irrefutable proofs of guilt even to the extent of being punishable by summary execution.
It would also come across as uncannily familiar to those who have always held as an axiom that truth and goodness always prevails over untruth and dishonesty, and yet have witnessed before their very own eyes that the corrupt and unscrupulous have inherited the world. It may very well be that beyond the immediate world truth will ultimately prevail, but as economist John Maynard Keynes so famously put it, “in the long run we are all dead.”
In other words, if something doesn’t address immediate problems, it’s relevance is abstract and remote. Truth indeed is also about the present and not just of the distant future. Galileo’s truth may have come to be celebrated 400 years after it was first discovered, but should it not be a matter of concern that Galileo himself might have died a miserable death, had he not knowing cowered and lied to himself and the world? Should we also then be content with resigning to the complacent thought that fate will ultimately take care of the problems of our present? Does truth always triumph, or is it a question of what triumphs becoming the truth? These are disturbing question, but ones staring us straight in the face again in the present time.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author