The Annual Convention of India’s Celebrity Ghosts happened recently at the lavish Seventh Heaven Resort somewhere in the Milky Way. The fact that such an extraordinary gathering was taking place at all, became known to me through an Ouija board seance in which I decided to participate with some of my madcap friends who, I was convinced, were doing this for a lark, a throwback to our carefree, nostalgic boarding school days. Shades of Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five’ and their crazy capers. My lunatic pals went a step further. Having fixed a precise time in which to activate the planchette and contact our angelic forefathers and mothers, not in the biological sense, the time to meet was fixed at the witching hour, between 2 and 4 am. Although we treated the whole thing as one big joke, a couple of stiff drinks did help us face an uncertain prospect and wipe away our silly, scared-out-of-our-wits grins. And settle our rumbling stomachs. In order to please the invited ‘ghosts’, a plate of sumptuous chicken or veg biryani (depending on the intended angelic recipient’s dietary preference) was to be placed next to the planchette. That was the accepted practice. Purely as a symbolic gesture. Guess what? The plate was licked spotlessly clean when the housemaid arrived the next morning! As to ‘who ate the biryani,’ the maid was in indignant denial, and it wasn’t the resident cat either. Eerie.
While I was still sniggering, my mind doubtless clouded over by the intake of spirits and being in an inexplicably happy state, I suddenly found myself thrown violently into some other dimension. Just like that. One minute I was very much earth bound, the next minute I was transported to some nether world I was trying to come to grips with. When I came to, I could not believe what I saw. I materialized out of thin air and found myself gazing at the imposingly crafted iron gates of the Seventh Heaven Resort, the place awash with a sea of great and late Indians standing in groups enjoying their heavenly nectar, along with some toothsome starters. A silk banner proclaiming the ‘Annual Convention of Celebrity Ghosts – India Chapter’ was draped across the gates. I had, unknowingly, gatecrashed into this incredible get-together. It was time to get to work.
I spotted Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore straightaway and buttonholed him. ‘Tell me Rabi da, it’s all very well writing feelingly about the mind being without fear and knowledge being free. Have you any idea what it is like to get admission into a good school in India these days?’
‘Arre Babu moshai, don’t rub it in,’ said the great Bard stroking his flowing white beard. ‘I tried to push my great, great, great grandson into St. Xavier’s School in Kolkata last week. I paid a surprise visitation to the Principal’s office to put my two pice bit in. But before I could say anything, he saw my apparition and collapsed in a heap, dead as a door nail. For all I know, he might be amongst those present at this party. Khub kharab awastha.’ So saying he simply wafted off into the ether, muttering something unintelligible about ‘Keep me fully glad with nothing. Only take my hand in your hand.’-
I decided to keep my hands to myself, left the dead poet’s society and looked around for another prey, and hey presto, whom do I run into but Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. I sidled up and ingratiated myself to India’s first Prime Minister by adjusting the rose on his patented, eponymous jacket. ‘Good evening, Panditji,’ I hesitantly greeted. ‘You look spiffing in your Nehru jacket. But what is happening to the party you led with such pride and panache? I mean, Soniaji, Rahulji, Priyankaji – do you think they have the stomach for a real fight in the trenches? That too against Shah and Modi, with no one to turn to but the likes of Mamata, Mulayam, Akhilesh, Chandrababu and Stalin?’
‘Stalin?’ Panditji expostulated. ‘Surely, he died long before me. 1953, if I am not in error.’ I quickly put him right.
‘No, no Panditji, you misunderstand me. I am talking about the DMK leader, Karunanidhi’s son.’
‘Thank God for that’, cried the relieved former PM. ‘For a moment, I thought the Russian supremo had ghosted in here, uninvited. Incidentally, why should a leader from Tamil Nadu be called Stalin? Beats me.’
‘That’s Tamil Nadu, Panditji. Almost another country. They even have a cricketer named Washington, who plays for India. To get back to the Congress Party’s present parlous state, Panditji’ I said, steering the conversation back on track.
‘Don’t worry my fine, feathered friend, the Congress Party will survive and come back strongly,’ declared Panditji, motioning to a serving wraith for a refill. ‘I am sitting down after this party with Indira beti, Rajiv baba and Sanju baba and drawing up a master plan for all future elections. Narasimha Rao is also here, but I’ll keep him out, for the sake of domestic peace. And if you’ll pardon my quoting myself, “at the stroke of the midnight hour, India will awake……”’
I couldn’t take any more of that. I had had it ‘up to here’ with that midnight hour stuff since my school days. But I did have one more question for Nehruji. ‘Tell me Panditji, everyone is blaming you for heeding Lord Mountbatten’s ‘request’ not to annexe POK, which you could so easily have done. Instead, you ran to the UN for a solution. Has the UN ever solved anything? And now look at the pickle you have landed us in. And why did you give up the offer of a prestigious seat at the UN Security Council to replace China? Hindi-Chini bhai bhai? That Zhou Enlai pulled a real number on you! What were you thinking, Panditji, if you’ll pardon the cheek?’
Bristling, Nehruji riposted, ‘That’s two questions and I will not pardon the cheek. What is more, I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me and my progeny. What’s even more, Sheikh Abdullah is approaching this way and I wish to make myself scarce. So be off with you, you silly earth man.’
I know when I am beaten. Smartly avoiding Morarji Desai, who appeared to be sipping on a straw coloured cocktail of his own concoction, I spotted Bharat Ratna and Nobel Laureate for Physics Dr. C.V.Raman. The place was crawling with Nobel Laureates and Bharat Ratnas. Nursing a glass of masala buttermilk, as is his wont, he seemed lost in thought muttering to himself, ‘virtual and vibrational energy states, infrared absorption leading to the Stokes and Anti Stokes Raman scattering….’
I butted in. ‘Sorry to intrude on your flow, Raman Sir, but I couldn’t help noticing that there’s plenty of crackling static in India about Ramanujan. Biopics are being made, and the media can’t seem to get enough of him. Why are you being ignored?’
Dr. Raman was peeved. ‘Siva, Siva, you are a real Narada, aren’t you, my mischievous friend, whose credentials I haven’t the faintest notion of. Trying to sow discord between me and the estimable Ramanujan. By the by, is he here? I wish him well, and may he shine in Bollywood as well. You see, I have nothing against Ramanujan, other than the fact that he was obsessed with numbers and could dazzle everyone with his brilliant calculations. Like our recently joined colleague, Shakuntala Devi. There is also this Iyer Iyengar thing, which your simple, uncomplicated mind will not comprehend.’ So saying, he trailed off, humming Tyagaraja’s immortal classic in the raga Reetigowla, ‘Dvaitamu Sukhama, Advaitamu Sukhama.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was well versed in Carnatic music, and fully au fait with ‘this Iyer Iyengar thing.’ Luckily, I was saved from further musical snatches from The Trinity, when I spied with my little eye, former Indian cricket captain, the great Lala Amarnath raising a toast with Vijay Merchant, C.K. Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali. And as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi joined them, swirling a Glencairn glass of Balvenie, all the other celebrities surrounded them for selfies. Cricketers! Everyone wants a piece of them. And you could have knocked me down with a feather, when I looked at the selfie on Tiger Pataudi’s Samsung I10. I was not in the picture, though I know for a fact I was sitting right in front, at Panditji’s feet! That was scarily weird. As I was leaving the party wondering how to access the gravitational pull back to earth, I thought I heard Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s voice from a distance speaking on his mobile. ‘Howdy, Modi’, he seemed to be saying, though I couldn’t be sure.
I was almost past the magnificent gates of heaven when I beheld the Mahatma approaching slowly. And as if by divine intercession, all the drinks in everybody’s hands had turned to masala buttermilk. Pataudi was not best pleased. ‘Hey Ram’, sighed the Mahatma, and wearily sat down cross-legged and asked for a glass of goat’s milk, his favourite tipple. He then gestured to Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi, standing demurely in a corner, to come forward and render his favourite Meera bhajan, ‘Hari tum haro.’ Everyone else stood stock still.