It’s time I quit being a panellist

How is a panel a conversation when everyone is sitting there thinking ‘is there never going to be an end to this blather’?

Published - September 08, 2018 04:07 pm IST

 ‘It might be a good idea to ask what a panel is.’

‘It might be a good idea to ask what a panel is.’

Long ago, when the world was much younger, I sat in the audience and watched as panels discussed subjects as varied as ‘Abstract Expressionism in India’ and ‘Whither Democracy’. I remember thinking that I could do a better job than most of the people on the panel, though there were notable exceptions, speakers who drove a truck through my shibboleths. But even then, I would be thinking: No, let him speak, don’t ask that idiot to respond. But a good moderator does exactly that: she must keep the conversation flowing and this often means silencing the sensible to let the idiot have his say.

I digress. I was saying this simply: I desperately wanted to be part of the expatiators rather than the expectorated upon.

In the course of time, I found myself an expectorator/ expatiator. I found myself being called to speak on subjects as varied as ‘The Role of the Vamp in the Ecosystem of Bollywood’ and ‘The State of the Nation’s Mental Health’. I found that I liked being treated as an expert. I liked having my opinion sought. I liked being able to subvert a question and answer with a crowd-pleasing aperçu.

But afterwards there was always a feeling of let down. I never felt I had said what I should but I was often told that I had said too much and not let others speak enough. My friends would console me with, “I thought you made a great deal of sense” and “Of course, you do speak a lot but it is all very valuable.”

At this point it might be a good idea to ask what a panel is. It is supposed to be a staged conversation. Before a panel, the moderator will inevitably say, “You know, this is just a conversation and we should all simply chat to each other.” Everyone nods companionably at this little bit of social hypocrisy. Because if it were a conversation really, just a conversation, why are we all a little tense and expectant? Why are we here at all, rehearsing what we are going to say and sizing each other up? But because we have nodded, and we have allowed ourselves this space and time of preparation, this green room moment, there is some element of camaraderie in the air though one is often thinking, ‘How did I get myself into this position where I am supposed to be in conversation with these jokers? Next time, I’m going to ask the organisers who else...’

Odd staging

And then there is the size of the panel. There was once a literary festival in a hill-station in Maharashtra. The stage was not a large one; it could have held three chairs in a row. There was a panel with eight speakers on it and then a writer waved at the moderator from the audience. She had been asked to be on this panel as well, she said.

The chairs were in a deep V-shape and this was deepened and she was fitted on to it. The moderator smiled weakly and said that since they had an hour and had nine speakers, perhaps each person could speak for five minutes and that would leave a little time for questions.

The row of chairs — the V is rare — gives the lie to the idea of a conversation. It is almost as odd as the staging of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, everyone on one side of the table so the viewers get to see all the faces. No one eats supper like that, certainly not in a group of 13. And no one has a conversation sitting in a row and facing an audience.

Pause for a moment now and think about the notion of a conversation. It is actually one of the high points of civilisation that we can sit down and talk about things that matter, abstract things like art and politics, that we can exchange ideas and notions. If everyone keeps their temper and no one dominates ( mea culpa ), then a conversation can be a lovely thing and we can all learn from it. But what if one person rants and raves ( mea culpa again), what if tempers are lost over trivial matters (ditto, and what matter is not eventually trivial?)?

How is a panel a conversation if everyone is sitting there thinking, ‘I have a story that can top his if only he will shut his blasted mouth and let me speak. What is that moderator doing anyway? Is there never going to be any end to this man’s blather?’

Now consider the role of the moderator. The best kind of moderator is the one who has some kind of association with the subject at hand and some awareness of the work of the persons who are supposed to be in conversation. S/he does not have to have read all the books but she must at least have addressed some queries to the Gooracle, the Oracle of Google. This does not always happen.

Wrong Rodriguez

Or it happens in such a hurry that the academic Guillermo Rodriguez who wrote the magnificent When Mirrors are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetics is introduced as a Mexican-American television personality who rose to fame while working as a security guard. That Guillermo is the first who turns up on Google. Rodriguez’ wife who has studied classical dance in India was giggling happily in the audience but I can imagine the offence some might have taken to this kind of mistake.

I wish I could now say that I’m done, I’m not doing any more panels. Certainly, I think it is time for me to step back and make way for some young man in the audience who is thinking he could do a much better job than I could. But I’m already committed to some and I can’t think of a way of wriggling out now.

Nora Ephron, in her wonderful book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections , says: “There is an entire population of panellists today, mostly guys, who make a living in some way or another but whose true career consists of appearing at conferences like this. Some of these panellists are players and some are merely journalists but for a brief moment, the panel equalizes them all.

“The panellists perform in front of audiences that include ordinary people but the real performances are for one another... The panellists’ job is to put into perspective whatever conventional wisdom happens to apply at the moment and to validate it.”

That sounds like the job from hell. And really, it is a hell to which we have admitted ourselves.

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

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