Rarest of rare

‘Gallows for Kasab’ screamed the headlines recently and, ever since the pronouncement of that penalty on May 6, newspapers and television channels have been consumed by intense — often inflammatory — discussions, for and against capital punishment.
A phrase that emerges from the influx of information on this emotive issue is ‘rarest of rare’! The harshest sentence that a court in our country can award is reserved for cases that belong to this unique category. Thus, ‘death by hanging’ is handed down only when an offence is so heinous (the tandoor murder, for example) that even a seemingly endless stint in prison is considered insufficient retribution.

‘Rarest of rare’ has an impressive ring to it, but it is tautological. Tautology (from Greek for ‘same saying’) is the unnecessary repetition of words or ideas, as in the sentence, “I myself personally saw her”, when ‘I saw her’ would suffice or — at the most — ‘I myself saw her’. Returning to the timeworn expression, of which we are likely to tire before Kasab stops seizing the spotlight, ‘rarest’ is the superlative form of the adjective ‘rare’. As such, it does not require what follows it. ‘Of rare’ is understood, just as in “The prettiest of pretty flowers from the garden adorned her home”, ‘pretty’ is redundant. Clearly, the flowers indoors are the ‘prettiest’ in comparison with others of their kind which —while undoubtedly attractive — are no match for those within the house.
If I strike a jarring note by speaking of the beauty of creation in the same breath as an epitome of evil who has been dubbed — among other uncomplimentary epithets — ‘a killing machine’, my next analogy may seem even more incongruous. Wondering why ‘rarest of the rare’ sounded familiar, I was struck by the realisation that something ungrammatically similar to it is often heard in connection with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who selflessly served a suffering section of society, ‘the poorest of the poor’.
Tautology again! It would appear that if the English language is to accurately define deeds as dastardly as those committed on 26/11, and adequately describe people living in a state of dire distress, it must break free of linguistic limitations. Interestingly, while ‘rarest of rare’ certainly applies to the devilishly inhuman crimes of Ajmal Kasab, the phrase also aptly sums up that angel of mercy — Mother Teresa.

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