The King Who Loved Himself

To be a narcissist is no mean task.

Once upon a time there was a king who loved himself to distraction morning, noon and night – 24/7 as they say these days – seven days a week, 365 days a year. He preferred leap years because he gained an extra day for self-adulation. To be a narcissist is no mean task, it takes a lot of hard work, and he justifiably gained the reputation of being an immensely hard-working ruler.

Somehow Raja saheb had convinced everybody that his act of self-love was an austere act of fakiree –asceticism – that he was undertaking for his subjects. Despite the fact that he was unencumbered by what one would call an emotional life, he managed to convey to them that his very existence was for them – he was that good a communicator.

The king had an unerring knack for zeroing in on the deep anxieties of his subjects and dovetailing them with ‘larger’ issues of loyalty to the kingdom – in other words, him. At the same time he directed the subjects’ attention towards other aspirants to the throne, declaring that they were entirely responsible for the subjects’ woes. He ensured that the pretenders who roamed around sulkily could never touch him. As he periodically told his subjects, he was them and they were him.

In return, many of his subjects made him the object of their adoration. They saw him as he saw himself – an epochal man who stood head and shoulders above everybody else. People refused to believe that he was a ruthless ruler who did not trust anyone; who had no qualms about neutralising anyone who might ask even the most innocuous question or make some casual remark. Since everything was about him, it stood to reason that every comment, remark alluded to him.

Once a courtier mentioned that the sky was overcast. That was the last statement he ever made because he was never found. His only belonging which mysteriously reached his family were his jootis caked in mud, overcast as it were.

From that day onwards nobody in the kingdom used that word. The minute a subject formed an ‘o’ shape with her lips, she found an angry member of the royal guard telling her to be careful about the word she was going to pronounce.

Fawning chroniclers at Raja saheb’s court warbled that he was a swayambhu (self-manifested), the itihasa of the kingdom – its past, present and future. Once a court balladeer offered the original thought that the king needed no guru, he was his own role model. People were thrilled the way the raja coyly smiled, turned his head to one side and nodded, as if overcome with humility. Of course, he knew he was on camera and that every projection mattered.

We all know Samson’s source of strength was his hair. In the case of our Raja saheb, it was his image. The television camera was his lifeblood. As a wise man once said, the camera is the most powerful sun of our universe today. No one knew better than the king the hard work he put in for close to 20 hours daily, changing clothes to come before the camera, show his best profile, take credit for and announce every single achievement notched up by subjects toiling for years. His subjects needed to see his image, he said. In fact, he dedicated his image to the subjects so that they could feel patriotic towards their king who was the kingdom.

If there was a drought, he was on camera shedding tears for the farmers, attired in immaculate clothes, his humungously expensive watch shining like a diamond, his state of the art spectacles no doubt allowing him to see the plight of his subjects better. ‘See, you have reduced me to tears, my heart is so soft I am afraid it will break this instant,’ he would say. His fans would marvel, ‘what a saint, what a saint!’

From time to time he would plan events where he would ‘spontaneously’ come upon a woman whose life was an endless loop of drudgery and exclaim, ‘Is this what we have reduced our women to? Forgive me mother, I am your son. Let me wash your feet today.’ Of course, the courtiers would have ensured that her feet were washed at least ten times (not the rest of the body, too much work) so that the king did not soil his hands while washing her feet, enacting a gesture that was deeply embedded in the collective memory.

But even the most cunning communicator does not always have absolute control over his body language, and the haughty set of shoulder and the lack of any emotion on his face that day told its own story to those who looked hard.

Then there was the time when his vaigyaniks achieved a breakthrough on a new generation of sudarshan chakra that destroyed the enemy’s satellites. They had been working on it for a long time, much before our royal became the king. But he was convinced that the breakthrough was entirely due to him.

That was the day which had no night – Raja saheb was before the cameras for 24 hours, beaming from ear to ear saying that what could not be accomplished earlier had been accomplished by him; the kingdom was safe from external enemies. Striking an ominous note, he said he would now concentrate on internal enemies, for their attacks on him were attacks on his subjects.

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It was a time when the kingdom was facing its third successive drought. Stories of distress had been filtering into the capital – an old kisan preferred to die by his hand than see his family reduced to a subhuman status; another farmer jumped into a river with his small son strapped to his chest; one decided to hang himself. The number of widows swelled.

The king came on camera and broke down. He wailed that their distress was his distress but that was that. Among the subjects from village ‘A’ who looked on that day were some women whose husbands, farmers, had committed suicide (names withheld to protect the identity of the persons concerned). Somehow the king’s statement did not affect them the way it used to earlier. They were thinking about the visitor who had come to their village from the neighbouring kingdom with some startling news – she had told them that in her kingdom drought was seen as a sign of the king’s failure to protect his subjects. It was the king’s rajdharma to help his subjects. Something had stirred inside them then.  

For the first time, therefore, when Raja saheb scrunched up his face, as if in agony, it left the women unmoved. It was as if there was a tear in the universe the king had created through his myth-making enterprise, and the women saw reality for what it was. They acknowledged the king’s spell for what it was – an exercise in self-love, out of sync with their everyday concerns.  

It is not easy to admit that one has been completely under someone’s spell, even if that someone happens to be a king. Like an underground river finding its way to the surface, stories started circulating of people having intense experiences. A group of farmers realised that being together and discussing their concerns gave them greater strength than the king’s televised flourishes did. Somewhere else a group of youngsters looked up at the sun and declared that it outshone the television camera. And as it often happens, an outspoken 14-year-old exclaimed in a gathering – ‘but the king only talks about himself, nothing else!’

It is not that the scales have fallen from the eyes of each subject. There are people and people. Many subjects still feel he is ‘the one’, others like his style. And still others say he makes them forget they are small. Some do admit there are kingly role models around the world who are not as self-obsessed and actually utter pronouns other than ‘I’, but they can’t see such personages in their midst.

Never mind. Some women from village ‘A’ have told me that there is a growing ripple of skepticism about the king who loved himself and became his own image. They await the day the ripple will turn into a riptide.

Chitra Padmanabhan is a journalist and translator.