Leonardo da Vinci was an extremely talented man of wide versatility. Other than famously and fortuitously puzzling generations with the enigma of a Mrs Giocondo, okay Lisa Gherardini, his Mona, he excelled in architecture and drawing, painting and sculpting, astronomy and mathematics, science and engineering, music and literature, anatomy and botany, geology and cartography, writing and history... Phew if you will.
Had he lived 500 years after his time, and was born in Sutiakati of Pirojpur instead of Anchiano in Tuscany, the almost all-knowing Leonardo would have been a great catch for our TV talk shows on any night, but not perfect. To attain the perfect ujjalata, he would also have to master, among others, the cause of depleting inland fish stock, Shakib Al Hasan’s failure to bat right-handed, the Iftar delicacies of Old Dhaka, and Bangalee’s urge to scale two-metre high road dividers in broad daylight.
Programme producers thrive on such Leos, who can instantly and confidently opine on any topic on earth, and a host who does not blink an eye at any spectacular material or bewildering statistics placed on the table. Viewers are too relaxed at home to grasp the moment of untruth. More than contributing to building the morality of the nation or educating the mass, most talk shows serve to fill airtime at a minimum fuss and cost; short commercial breaks are the icing on the cake for the channels.
A phone invitation from the channel (sometimes barely two hours before going on air because someone “regretted”) is not a matter to ruminate; the topic to be discussed is of the essence. And the night’s topic is about Indian elections. The invitee had visited Taj Mahal three years ago, his neighbour is a Gujarati IT consultant, and he can speak (he thinks) Hindi. Who is more qualified, eh?
Other than politics, which is everyone’s natural forte in Bangladesh, the esteemed guests, who sleep late, appear learned, patriotic, and anti-establishment (but carefully never anti-government), are casual and reckless with facts and numbers. Perhaps they know few are listening and hardly anyone will verify what they say using Google, when there are better things to do. For instance, the population of Bangladesh increases by one crore every few months on our talk shows. Then again, had they been studying demographics, they would hardly have the time to chatter on TV almost seven days a week. Some of them have made so many electronic appearances that it is possible viewers know their entire wardrobe.
Talk show, as the name suggests, is about showing, and we love talking. A first invitation to a show means one has graduated in the University of Television and the channel recognises the link between one’s profession and the subject of discussion. A second call means the producer, the cameraperson, the lighting technician and the sound engineer liked what they saw and heard the first time, and would one like to carry on? A third request to appear elevates one to the status of an expert, and one can now deviate from his field of studies and experience, and venture as far as penguins in Alaska and debris in outer space. After 10 appearances, a talk show guest is a celebrity but only to night owls. He can then afford to muchki-smile live on camera when his fellow rooky guests are talking sense.
I have marvelled at midnight at the dexterity of guests, who have an answer to every situation on earth, however grave or trivial. From averting escalation of US-Iran hostility to photographing the Northern Lights in Norway, they have the capacity to persuade North Korea to stop missile tests, and a specific strategy that Congress should adopt to remain a formidable force in Indian politics. The same guys are ever so articulate about the impact of Tangail saree on world fashion and the timeless art of preparing Kacchi Biriyani, but this time without any oil. Ah-ha! They are unstoppable.
To pump their narcissistic paunch, such “celebrities” will send an SMS to inform F&F and a growing number of foes that he would be on TV that evening on such and such programme, and repeats would follow late night and the following morning. “Tonight 10.30 on Heerak Raja TV, I will be there.” Wow! Incidentally, I have never ever received such a vainglorious text message from any of my friends from the opposite sex. I refrain from identifying them as girlfriends, lest that becomes a matter of nighty discussion under lights and camera, and a fool-dani on the table.
That said, talk shows can be useful but only if the discussion is among persons with appropriate comprehension and expertise. Beating around the bush should be an occasional tactic to avoid an embarrassing question, not a regular evidence of one’s shallowness.
Any self-respecting professional should decline or adopt the civility to propose the name of another expert if the night’s topic is not totally within his grasp. For example, a connoisseur of Rabindranath Tagore’s work should not light-heartedly partake in a serious discussion on Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam because such deliberation can feed the nation with garbage and misinformation, especially when authorities on the national poet are available aplenty.
Tuning in to Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, NHK, and Sky... you will rarely see the same guest on a discussion panel over a year or even two. They don’t have the time. Knowledgeable people are supposed to be busy, working, researching, spending time with family and holidaying.
For the sake of informing suitably our next generation, invitees to talk shows should readily say “No” to any parley that is not within their complete understanding by education and/or professional experience. Let the real experts occupy the screen. By broadening the network, let more learned discussants take part on a wide range of themes. Let the quilt of information be sewn with a myriad of patches to make learning all-encompassing and inclusive, as opposed to restrictive.
Let me conclude with a famous Persian proverb, attributed also to Confucius, and Chinese and Sanskrit scholars:
“He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, is a fool ... shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not, is ignorant ... teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows, is asleep ... wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows, is a wise man ... follow him.”
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.