Let’s skip over our resolutions, planners and habit trackers, straight to the good stuff. Do you know any liar-faces? You may ask what a liar-face is. You may ask this if you didn’t grow up in Bangalore East, knowing even without any particular knowledge of Tamil that a liar-moonji when said affectionately to your face is praise for your excellent story, and when said sharply and behind your back, is an indictment of your character. Once a liar-moonji, always a liar-moonji and so on. So back to my question, do you know any liar-faces?
Over the last couple of weeks, just about the only thing that has gotten me out of my despondent “oh here is 2021, the Remix Version” feeling was the story of what seems to be a good-looking liar-face. Hilaria Baldwin is a 30-something yoga instructor and actor Alec Baldwin’s wife. She has a podcast about motherhood and posts a lot of pictures of her five young children, who have lovely Spanish names. This last detail is relevant because recently Hilaria was outed as someone pretending to be a delightful, recent immigrant from Spain (who didn’t even know who Alec Baldwin was when she met him) when she was plain old Hillary, a descendent of several generations of Boston upperclass folks. Having been outed, Hilaria/Hillary is cycling backwards explaining poorly why she said she came to America to attend university or was on a cooking show visibly fumbling for the word cucumber, doing a brisk impression of Penélope Cruz in Woman On Top (and not Penélope Cruz in Volver). According to news reports, Hilaria is supposedly part of a cohort of American grifters pretending to be people of colour, often for decades, for self-advancement. This is a particularly American variety of liar-moonji but it is not like we don’t have our own self-made types.
When I was in college, the Bengaluru theatre scene was enlivened by the arrival of a teenage genius able to get massive corporate sponsorship for his adaptations of American plays. He was interviewed in papers and talked languidly about which golden-haired Americans he had met at Hollywood parties and which silver-haired Americans’ blessings he had for his adaptations. He fascinated me but then he was replaced in my fascination by a multi-city liar-moonji.
One summer night in 2010, several of my friends met each other for the first time at Delhi’s India Gate. They were from all over the country but what they had in common were close encounters with a young man I will call Satya. Satya had variously posed with all of us as the editor of a city magazine, the editor of an international academic journal, middle management at Coca-Cola, a crime reporter, the director of Prithvi Theatre, an ethnomusicologist, a documentary film-maker and a student of Mallikarjun Mansur (some years after Mansur had died). In Satya’s case, plain self-advancement never seemed to be the motivation and there were so many holes in his plots, it only ever gave us the giggles.
Satya was more like the incorrigible plagiarists writer and editor Anne Fadiman wrote about—the kind who sort of want to get caught—and less like a certain other compulsive liar I met around then who plagiarised one of my poems and got very self-righteous about how he barely knew me (oh yeah, then who sat in my house making alu dum and complaining about my lack of masalas while reading my poems on my computer, I want to know).
Early exposure to fantasists should have made me a resilient veteran in these matters. But in recent times new categories of liar-moonjis have astonished me. Reading about racial imposters like Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug and C.V. Vitolo Haddad is fascinating, of course. But what shook me is a close encounter with someone who faked a tumour. She was in treatment, she said. She apologised for the smell of puke in the bathroom (there was none). She was tired, she was grateful and so on. It’s after meeting her that I discovered that faking terminal illnesses like cancer, particularly online, is A Thing.
Two years ago, Dan Mallory, best-selling author of the cut-paste novel The Woman In The Window, was comprehensively outed by The New Yorker as having faked cancer for years. Mallory seems to have lied about many things on his CV and seems to have misunderstood how much you can pad your work experience.
My encounter with the cancer faker startled me in a way that other liars hadn’t. Is there no line, no line at all? According to the brains that have studied the liar-moonji phenomenon or the Munchausen by Internet phenomenon, compulsive liars want to control other people’s reactions. And they just can’t seem to stop.
Most of us are at the other end—we assume that what people are telling us is true, especially when they tell us looking us in the eye that they have no reason to lie. Why would anyone lie about illness or why would anyone lie about the efficacy of a vaccine? Lying is so much more effortful for most of us, so we think to ourselves, sure, why would anyone lie? And despite having grown up in a country where everyone in power lies through their teeth without any consequences, we continue to believe. Because to distrust everyone, to fact-check everyone, to suspect someone is faking tuberculosis, to wonder about where our GST (goods and services tax) has actually gone is worse than dying. Much better to focus on the grift with a little bit of glitter on top and giggle about liar-faces. Do you know any good ones?
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.