Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Gardeners don’t get old. They go to pot. Anonymous.
I come from a family that knew next to nothing about gardening. My earliest recollection of a private garden was one that fronted our bungalow in Kuala Lumpur, where my father was stationed with a reputed Indian commercial bank with branches in the Far East. It was a well-maintained lawn that served as a badminton court, and come to think of it, some flowering plants grew around the periphery of the patch. Not that we took much notice. We played badminton with our Chinese amah (housemaid), and a gardener would potter around during the day attending to the shrubbery with a watering can or strolling up and down with a lawnmower, and extinguishing the lives of a few snails and green fly, squirting them with patent mixtures. For the life of me, I cannot recall my parents talking in an informed way about roses, tulips, lilies, gerberas or peonies. Even the common-or-garden bougainvillea would have challenged them. Our garden just seemed to take care of itself.
A few decades later, I married into a family for whom gardening was an article of faith. In whichever city we happened to be located, the nearest horticultural centre would be identified and fortnightly or monthly visits were pretty much de rigueur. It was part of the job list. The boot of our car would be jam-packed with all manner of potted plants, branded manure, shears, spades, insecticide sprays and sundry other gardening implements. My wife would evince the same level of heightened excitement on her fresh botanical purchases, as I would on returning from a record store with an armful of LPs or CDs. This contrarian parallel can also be drawn when it came to owning pets. My family had no time for the furry animals. In fact, we grew up with a morbid fear of dogs. An aunt of mine, on visiting a dog loving family, famously clambered up on to the guest’s drawing room table and refused to alight till the frisky pooch was locked up in the bedroom. Whether she exclaimed ‘Eeeks’ (in Tamil) or not will remain a subject for speculation. The reverse was true for my wife’s family, who were dog lovers to the core. Making the switch, for me, was not easy but I did learn to love and be loved by our canine chums. Then again, periodic visits by my mother to stay with us were fraught with tension. Her distaste for our spaniel was made plain, and the doggie made no bones about his reciprocal hostility. Plants were a different matter.
With the efflux of time, I began to appreciate, even if it was at arm’s length, why people found gardening such a soul satisfying hobby. Not unlike those who go gaga about the thrills of cooking, so long as help was at hand to cut the vegetables and wash the dishes. Now that we have retired from active professional life, our terrace garden atop our apartment is my wife’s haven for peaceful solitude and contemplation. Potting new plants, re-potting old ones, knowing exactly how much water each plant needs and climatic conditions governing the same, looking for pesky insects and fungus that could be injurious to a plant’s health and dealing ruthlessly with them – all these form part of the amateur gardener’s stock-in-trade that ultimately leads to nirvana. In case you get the wrong notion that I was some species of static wall flower during these gardening activities spearheaded by my better half, let me hasten to add that I was no slouch with a helping hand, now and then. Like taking down dried or dead leaves from creepers and other tall plants and helping to move heavy pots, if the need arose. What’s more, to provide the right mood I could always sing a snatch from that old hit by Lynn Anderson, I beg your pardon / I never promised you a rose garden.
That said, I have to confess that I have never quite been able to get the hang of the art or science of watering the plant. On the odd occasion when my wife is out of town and leaves me with the onerous task of watering, I never seem to get it right. Either I stand guilty of overwatering or not watering nearly enough. Nor surprisingly, I tend to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, a democratic method of the same amount of water for all the plants, the theory being that I ought to get it right at least half the time. Judging the degree of moisture and adjusting the water level accordingly is a closed book to me. It is an inexact science and requires fine tuning on a daily basis. Net result, my wife returns to find more drooping plants than bright and cheerful ones. She has, in common with other successful gardeners, what is commonly referred to in the trade as ‘green fingers.’
There were many other household activities and chores I knew very little about and found myself, post marriage, having to take an active part in – they kept things from me. Changing a light bulb, for instance. It is incredible that I had never actually changed one in my family home. If a bulb went on the blink with a pop, it was Pop who changed the bulb. Simple as that. Forget about changing a fuse. Fuse? What is that? It was no different when confronted with a flat tyre. Just stood helplessly by the roadside pavement and allowed a couple of unscrupulous operators, who always appeared magically out of thin air, to do the needful and charge me an arm and a leg. Perhaps the most difficult chore I have faced is with respect to hanging a photo frame or a painting on the wall. The way I saw it, all that was required was to climb on to a stool, decide on a suitable height on the wall, hammer a nail in and hang the frame, and hey presto, Bob’s your uncle! The risk of a hammer blow on one of my delicate fingers was high, given that I was all thumbs. How little I knew. My wife would approach the same task, only she would be armed with the whole paraphernalia like white cement, spirit levels, an electric drill, a hammer, little chips of wood and a couple of other stuff I can’t remember. Several iterations later, the job was complete, though she would never be fully satisfied with the alignment of the frame with the rest of the wall, constantly squinting her eyes and muttering to herself. When my opinion was sought, I would unhesitatingly say, ‘It’s perfect.’ Let sleeping frames lie, was my motto.
Finally, to get back to where we started, viz. gardening, we were distinctly fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit several countries in Europe where the plant life and blossoming flowers were taken for granted by the locals. For us, however, the manicured gardens and the dazzling variety of flora simply took one’s breath away. Particular mention must be made of that green and pleasant land, England, where we were spoilt for choice when it came to wallowing in greenery. A trip to London invariably found us at Kew Gardens or some such botanical attraction, where my wife had her fill of what the poet Andrew Marvell described so beautifully, Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.
Our garden – my wife dedicates herself untiringly to its upkeep. I do admire nature’s beauty, but for me, it is too much like hard work. To quote Jerome K. Jerome from ‘Three Men in a Boat,’ I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
Those amongst you who are glued to a specific set of television news channels or read only a couple of newspapers that lean towards a particular side of the Indian political divide, will have frequently come across the term ‘the Lutyens lobby.’ The expression is usually employed in a distinctly pejorative manner, and on television, the anchor or the panellist on the debate will sport a somewhat superior and unpleasant smirk while delivering himself or herself of this nomenclature. To cut to the chase, let me attempt to describe how the name of a great British architect, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, has become an unfortunate metaphor for all the less endearing qualities of Nehruvian socialism, left of centre thinking and at this point in India’s political history, a somewhat wobbly place to be in. Especially if you belong to the Congress Party or you happen to be addressed by the surname of Gandhi without the Mahatma prefix. Not to speak of all the acolytes who speak on their behalf.
How and why has this come about, this strange name-association calumny? The reasons are not far to seek. Edwin Lutyens it was, who played an instrumental role in designing and building the modern city of New Delhi and its impressive edifices including the India Gate and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally christened Viceroy’s House. Thus, New Delhi also acquired the affectionate moniker of Lutyens’ Delhi. It should be mentioned, en passant, that Lutyens collaborated with another British architect, Sir Herbert Baker, in designing much of New Delhi. However, in public perception here in India, Baker appears to have been given short shrift and Lutyens has cornered all the glory, his name up in lights, though flickering and dimming in more recent times. Sir Christopher Wren has been widely celebrated as Britain’s greatest architect, but there are those who believe that Lutyens was not far behind, and fully deserved to rub shoulders on an equal footing, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, with the man who designed the wondrous and imposing St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Similarly, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier has enjoyed basking in the limelight for his contribution in designing the modern city of Chandigarh, but he has not quite achieved the fame (or notoriety) that Lutyens has, for entirely different reasons through no fault of his own.
To those in political and media circles who are presently dictating the agenda of the nation, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its allies and media channels who are openly sympathetic to the ruling dispensation, the Congress Party’s precipitous decline on the national scene has provided them with an ideal whipping boy. The typical perceived profile of a Lutyens product is a person who generally speaks faultless English, at times with an Italian accent, probably graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), refuses to recognize the rapidly changing political landscape, is forever bemoaning the lot of the poor and the underprivileged, but for the most part lives in comfort and at times, even opulence. That is an exaggerated image but that is how they have been projected and kept stewing between a rock and a hard place. They appear out of joint with the times. If and when the Indian National Congress does come out of the doldrums and returns to its former glory, which seems very far away at the moment, perhaps they will find a suitable title to crown their formidable opponents with. Till such an unlikely event actually fructifies, it is they who are being crowned and very painfully at that.
Idiomatically speaking, one can speculate that if Edwin Lutyens could witness the hullabaloo that is being made in India over his name, he would be turning in his grave. Even that would be factually and technically wrong because he was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium in London, and his ashes are buried in the crypt of Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral – a nice touch of irony. Why he was cremated and not buried, as is the standard western practice only an assiduous historian can enlighten us. Perhaps his long association with India made him partial to our customs. We can but hazard a guess.
In attempting to plumb the depths of our understanding of how a brilliant architect in life, finds himself the object of a political tease in death, I was driven to investigating if there are other examples of the Lutyens variety. Predictably, another British luminary’s name came to mind, that of Anthony Wedgwood ‘Tony’ Benn. A member of the Labour Party, he served as a Cabinet Minister during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tony Benn was widely seen as a key proponent of democratic socialism (sound familiar?) and Christian socialism. He was identified as a left-wing politician and the term ‘Bennite’ was ascribed to anyone who favoured left-wing politics. In a country which is widely regarded, particularly after Margaret Thatcher’s extreme right-wing stance, as capitalist America’s staunchest ally, a Bennite solution to any problem is frowned upon. The term has been satirised by many British commentators, scriptwriters and playwrights. The Benn example is not an exact parallel to the Lutyens scenario, but it does show how a person’s name, over time, becomes a descriptive adjective.
Yet another British politician, Conservative MP Norman Tebbit, advocated ‘the cricket test’, a controversial phrase he coined in 1990 with reference to the perceived lack of loyalty to the England cricket team among South Asian and Caribbean immigrants and their families. Tebbit suggested that those immigrants who support their native countries rather than England at international cricket matches ‘are not significantly integrated into the United Kingdom.’ This became known in popular parlance as the ‘Tebbit test.’ Ergo, if you raucously applaud the fall of an Indian wicket at Lord’s, you have passed the Tebbit test. Some years later, ironically, Chennai-born England captain Nasser Hussain, took up the Tebbit cry when he found venues at matches against India or Pakistan a noisy cauldron of overwhelming support for the opposition from the migrant community. With travel now becoming much easier and tourists from the sub-continent thronging the Oval and Lord’s, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between a visiting Indian tourist and a migrant Indian holding a British passport.
Morbid fear and revulsion of communism in the United States during the ‘40s and 50s led to McCarthyism, when innocent people were hounded for alleged subversion or treason, particularly when related to communism. The term drew its etymology from US Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who led the campaign against the ‘Red Scare’, characterised by political repression and a campaign spreading irrational fear of communist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents. McCarthy embarked on a foolhardy plan to root out communism altogether. Fortunately, the courts intervened and put a stop to this rabid movement, thus effectively ending McCarthyism. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hollywood gave us Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005,directed by George Clooney, a smartly produced black and white film on the travails of broadcast journalism during the draconian McCarthy era.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of a name morphing, this time into a verb, was when American Lorena Bobbitt, after suffering years of physical abuse by her husband John Wayne (no relation), decided to cut off his ‘John Thomas’ while he slept. This swift, if drastic, act of vengeance in 1993 came to be known as ‘bobbitisation.’ It appears that the bobbitised John Wayne acted in pornographic films, a vocation that would have been severely hampered due to the loss of his silly willy!
Those are just a few examples I elaborated upon where names acquire the halo of an adjective for everyday usage, inspired primarily by the fair name of Edwin Lutyens’ unfortunate descent in India to a byword and a hissing. There are many more in history who have achieved this distinction, creditably or dubiously. Sadistic (Marquis de Sade), Sapphic (Sappho), Pyrrhic (Pyrrhus of Epirus) Machiavellian (Niccolo Machiavelli), Elizabethan (Queen Elizabeth I), Victorian (Queen Victoria), Kafkaesque (Franz Kafka), Hippocrates (Hippocratic Oath), Charles Darwin (Darwinian), Sigmund Freud (Freudian), Charles Dickens (Dickensian) and more recently, Chairman Mao (Maoist) and Margaret Thatcher (Thatcherite). While the mood is upon us, we may as well include the terms Nehruvian and Gandhian to this impressive roll of honour.
You can liberally add to that list and have the time of your lives, but remember this. Next time somebody asks you if you belong to the infamous Lutyens’ Lobby, you can give a tart reply by saying, ‘I am not sure what you mean but you Sir, have clearly been drastically Modified.’ Who is to say that our present Prime Minister has not earned that distinction!
‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.’ Sylvia Plath
Those amongst you like me, who belong to the amateur writing fraternity, will be familiar with the dreaded ‘rejection slip.’ I am referring to the poor sap who toils night and day burning the midnight oil, thinking up crazy ideas for the opinion pages. Drafting, redrafting, crafting, polishing, honing and finally, sitting back and admiring his literary handiwork with smug satisfaction. ‘There, it’s done and dusted. Let me see any newspaper or magazine that won’t jump hoops and fall over backwards to publish this masterpiece.’ We amateur writers are not known for our modesty. Don’t be fooled by our casual affectation of shyness. When someone pats us on the back with a ‘well done, old chap, loved your piece on why birthdays are such a pain in the neck,’ we kind of simper, draw imaginary patterns on the carpet with our big toe and go, ‘thanks friend, it wasn’t exactly War and Peace, but it’s big of you to say so.’
Which is why many of us, aspiring Wodehouses or Vikram Seths, find it so unendurably difficult to entertain the publication’s rejection slip – a term I employ loosely because nowadays everything is done through the electronic mail, and no actual paper slip, pink or otherwise, passes hands. It set me thinking. I have been involved in this column-writing lark for the best part of twenty-five years and have had time to reflect on the different ways in which editors, sub-editors and other journo types swotting and slaving away in their beehive newspaper offices, go about assessing submissions from myriad wannabe writers like this one. Publishing a book is still a faraway twinkle in the eye. I have also been the recipient of numerous letters and mails telling me why my piece could not be entertained by the publication. Truth to tell, I have never really given much thought to these real or imagined slights. Every time I receive a ‘Sorry, no can do’ mail, I just stalk off and sulk for a few minutes, nursing my bruised ego and get back to work, feeling abjectly sorry for the magazine or newspaper that has just turned me down like a bedspread and missed out on a real peach.
I must stress here that I never felt sorry for myself. Like any other writer, I am way too immodest for that. My object of pity was always the poor publication. When you consider that James Joyce’s Dubliners, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and more recently, J.K.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were all rejected many times over by publishers before they saw the light (of day), then surely, all is not lost. There is also a stunning parallel in the glitzy world of pop music. The Beatles were first turned down by Decca Records in London before the Parlophone label picked them up. The rest is history. Seeing the monumental error of their ways, the chastised Decca lost no time in signing up The Rolling Stones, a band that is still raking in the shekels.
One of the earliest, and most memorable, letters of rejection I received came all the way from London. I was barely out of my teens when I made bold to post a messily typewritten article to that venerable satirical magazine, the now sadly defunct Punch – a weekly I devoured at the local British Council library in Calcutta. I had no expectation of any kind, not even a curt response. I had merely sent it off on a wing and a prayer, lavishing Rs.25/- on postage stamps. Not small beer in those days. One month later, lo and behold, I received a brief letter Par Avion, from one of Punch’s most brilliant columnists, Miles Kington, the man who famously said, ‘Knowledge is knowing that the tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’ All he said to me in his succinct missive was, ‘Interesting idea, but needs a bit more working. Keep trying.’ The note was handwritten and signed. I was thrilled to receive this in my dingy advertising agency office in power-starved Calcutta. We are talking early ‘70s here. It’s a souvenir I shall cherish, if the ink doesn’t fade to white.
That said, I thought it would be instructive to reflect on the different ways in which you, the writer and wide-eyed submitter of columns, is told by somebody in the newspaper office, nearly always faceless, that ‘this simply won’t do.’ That is assuming you receive any response at all. I have attempted to categorize them in different slots for a clearer understanding. Let me hasten to add that not everything I have offered has been met with a nolle prosequi. Not by a long shot. I have received as many acceptances as rejections. However, it goes without saying that the subject of failure and its inevitable post-mortem makes for far more entertaining copy, and perhaps, provides a few learnings as well. As the fellow said, ‘Failures are but stepping stones to success.’ After all, if you keep writing about how your piece was carried in such and such leading daily to wide acclaim, your reader is bound to be put off by what he or she will doubtless regard as mere braggadocio. On the other hand, when you pour your heart out and tell your reader how some highly regarded newspaper rejected your magnum opus, you invite sympathy and interest. Everyone identifies with failure. They are in simpatico, they feel good about you, and themselves. ‘He was rejected by The Times. Tsk tsk.’ So here we go. For your exclusive delectation, a typical list of reasons or non-reasons adduced by the media houses on why they could not carry your article.
‘Sorry, we are not able to take in your piece.’ Granted that brevity is the soul of wit, but surely, you can stretch yourself a wee bit and key in a few more words explaining why, instead of stating the bleeding obvious. The worst that can happen is that the lettering on your keys may wear out a bit more rapidly, but you can always put in a requisition for a new keypad.
‘Sorry. We have covered opinion pieces on cricket (or classical music) extensively.’ And you continue to do so. And it’s always the usual suspects you patronize. Why can’t you try a new face for a pleasant change? I am sound on punctuations and apostrophes, to say nothing of declensions and split-infinitives, which is more than I can say for most of your subs, judging by what I read every day. Not to put too fine a point on it, most of them can’t tell their its from their it’s. Or for that matter, their opposite from their apposite. One leading newspaper, till quite recently, did not even have a capital I in its digital library of fonts. The perpendicular pronoun, as Sir Humphrey Appleby from the Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister series so memorably dubs it, was always printed i in lower case by this widely read paper, even at the start of a sentence! Frankly, i was appalled. Good job reason has returned to its throne. The lost font has been found.
‘Sorry. We have changed our pagination.’ This hoary old chestnut is euphemistic for ‘we have reduced the number of pages, because we are running short of advertising to support more pages.’ If that be so, then I would sooner scan a cheerful piece or two on how to liven up our humdrum, pandemic-restricted lives, than to trawl through reams of copy on the endless travails that beset the common man. Not to speak of the add-on supplements which focus mostly on scantily clad wannabe actors and models, their dietary preferences, their exercise regimen and their pet pooches. Surely, space can be found to titillate the reader’s grey cells instead.
‘Sorry. We don’t do humour or satire.’ Incredibly, one publication actually said this to me. Sorry, but I am the one who is deeply sorry. Sorry that you do not possess an iota of ironic self-deprecation, a quality that elevates banal criticism to the level of artistic eloquence. Where the actual views expressed, whether you agree with them or not, become secondary to subserving the glory of the language. Oscar Wilde, who had a throwaway line for every occasion said, ‘Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.’
‘No sorry, no reply.’ Nothing puts the aspiring contributor more completely off his stroke than to receive absolutely no reply from the publication. Surely, we have moved beyond the age when we had to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope along with our submission if we sought a reply. If nothing else, the periodical, broadsheet or tabloid can extend the minimum courtesy of an email response. Like ‘Sorry.’ I once tried to be clever and wrote to the paper saying if I don’t hear from them within a week, I shall take my valued custom elsewhere. I might as well have been howling at the moon, for all the effect it had. Even The Beatles moaned about this lack of response, ‘This happened once before, I came to your door, no reply.’
‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’ Rock star Elton John certainly thought so, but our whiz kids in the editorial department don’t seem to have the slightest trouble strewing trite apologies about like Christmas confetti. I suppose we poor writers should take whatever crumbs of comfort we can scrape off the floor, whenever they deign to show a modicum of regret. I can only revert to Elton from the same song. ‘It’s sad, so sad, it’s a sad, sad situation.’
All said and done, if you’re one of those writers who finds the door slamming in your face on a regular basis, don’t lose heart. Start your own blog, instead. Like yours truly. It won’t pay for your keep but you can write what you want without a word limit hanging over your head, take pot shots at whoever you want, design the page exactly the way you like it and send it to as many people as you want, post it on your chosen social media platforms and you are on velvet. No tensions about sentences being hacked willy-nilly, or the slovenly misplacement of apostrophes. Finally, remember what the great science-fiction author Isaac Asimov said, ‘Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.’ If that was good enough for Asimov, it’s good enough for me.
As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world. Virginia Woolf.
I am raising one-and-a-half cheers for 41-year-old Priyanca Radhakrishnan. She is a New Zealander by citizenship, born in Chennai, Keralite by birth, Singaporean by early domicile and finally settled in the pleasant surrounds of Auckland. Why am I raising this tentative goblet in honour of Priyanca (that’s how she spells her name, by the by, with a ‘c’ as opposed to the more traditional ‘k’)? We can put that oddity down to one of those numerological-alphabetical superstitions. My daily newspaper tells me she is the first Indian-origin person to be inducted as a minister into the New Zealand cabinet by their Prime Minister, the estimable Jacinda Ardern, another brilliant card carrier for Women in Power. The report also states that Priyanca is a ‘minister outside the cabinet.’ I am not quite sure what that means precisely, but the Kiwis must have their own way of doing things. Presumably the young lady will perform her ministerial duties from an ante-chamber situated just outside the main cabinet room and work her way gradually into the main hall. She is young with time on her side. It is also possible that the main cabinet has too many ministers at the moment and fresh inductees will have to wait their turn prior to sitting at the high table. I don’t know really, just indulging in some fanciful guesswork. All I can say is, if that is the case, it’s a lot of ministers jostling for space in such a small country.
However, the purpose of this piece is not to comment on the size of the New Zealand cabinet. This latest appointment of a lady of Indian origin to a prestigious post in Kiwiland has put me in mind of the number of Indian-origin women who have and are continuing to make it big abroad. None bigger than Kamala Harris, the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate of the United States of America who may very well become Vice-President-elect by the time this missive is posted. Or not, if Trump has his way. I have already devoted an entire blog to Ms. Harris earlier and will refrain from expounding any further on her credentials. One must qualify that she is half Indian and half Jamaican, though for obvious reasons, her Indian Tamilian progeniture has received inordinate play here in India, including rituals and prayers at her ancestral village. We have so little to cheer about our own politicians. Still and all, it is something for a women-suppressed country like India to vicariously take heart from Kamala’s ongoing and, perhaps, impending success. If Kamala Harris does move into the West Wing after the results are in, frothy south Indian filter coffee will be in very short supply in Chennai and its environs – the beverage of choice for all manner of celebratory toasts.
Moving swiftly on, we come to Indira Nooyi, Chennai-born, who rose to the very pinnacle of corporate office in the US of A, as the head of Pepsico Worldwide. To be numero uno of a company like Pepsi (the soft drink brand and the conglomerate are the same to me) places you amongst the crème de la creme of corporate royalty where you rub shoulders with heads of state and every other description of bigwig movers and shakers you can possibly imagine. As an aside, since this piece is primarily about women of Indian origin, the fact that the likes of Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella also head up blue chip companies in the United States, adds a certain gravitas to the whole Indian diaspora conversation. I will need to write a separate piece if I were to start on ‘men of Indian origin’ making waves outside their homeland.
During the ongoing Covid19 pandemic, we have been highly impressed with the measured and analytical responses from Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the Geneva-based World Health Organization, who is also a qualified paediatrician. Science and a sense of inquiry runs in her veins. Her father, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan was deservedly known as the ‘Father of India’s Green Revolution.’ WHO was the target of a great deal of opprobrium recently from Donald Trump (that man, again) who decided he will not support the international body, alleging that it was under his bete noire, China’s thumb. That should hardly matter, now that he is almost certainly making way for the more moderate and accommodating Democrat Joe Biden. Indians, who have a nose for such things, will keep an eye peeled for, hopefully, increased bonhomie between the two bright ladies from Tamil Nadu, Kamala Harris and Soumya Swaminathan. Incidentally, Wikipedia informs us, in separate columns, that Swaminathan was born in Chennai and Kumbakonam. Somebody ought to tell them it can either be one or the other! Reminds me of my childhood days in Calcutta when anyone hailing from the south of the Vindhyas was collectively dubbed ‘Madrasi.’
More recently, Indian news channels have grown accustomed to seeing the native sapience and intelligence of Gita Gopinath, Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, shining through. Calcutta born, parents hailing from Kannur in Kerala, this brilliant young lady occupies a pivotal post at the influential IMF. Cogent and articulate, she never fails to impress the viewers every time she is posed a variety of probing questions by our television anchors. Of course, our anchors are mainly pre-occupied with India’s economic situation (if they are not being arrested for talking too much or too loudly) allied to political progress and Ms. Gopinath’s views on the same, whereas the IMF whiz is expected to take a more global view of matters, but that does not stop them from trying to get the young lady to say things which may or may not be politic, leave alone economic. It is to her credit that she refuses to be drawn in and carries herself with dignity and equanimity.
Priti Patel is the distinguished Secretary of State for Home Affairs in the Boris Johnson led British cabinet. Though she is London born and no more Indian in speech and manner than V.S. Naipaul is Trinidadian, her grandparents and parents came from Gujarat and finally settled in the United Kingdom via Uganda. There were a large number of Gujaratis holding British passports who fled Uganda under the tender ministrations of Idi Amin and flew to the UK, a mass migration that caused much consternation in Whitehall, giving birth to Enoch Powell’s brand of ‘the Rivers of Blood’ rhetoric. Priti Patel’s powerful presence in the British government and her strong personality that is so essential to handle the Home portfolio, can be put down to her ancestral Indian genetics. Whether she herself accepts that premise or not, we Indians are only too ready to take credit where it may or may not be due. Her equally powerful colleague, Chancellor of the Exchequer, the youthful Rishi Sunak adds more spice and dash to the Indian connection. Touted as a future British Prime Minister and like Priti Patel, born in the UK, his parents also migrated from East Africa. He is now even more firmly joined at the hip with India, thanks to his being married to the daughter of one of our pioneering IT czars, N.R. Narayana Murthy. Perhaps the much-married Boris Johnson, whose estranged second wife Marina Wheeler was half Punjabi, has a soft corner for anyone with an Indian orientation.
Other women with an Indian background who have made a name for themselves in spades and live abroad, include award-winning authors Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (The Mistress of Spices), as well as stunning model and latterly celebrity TV host and author of cookery books, again Chennai-born, Padma Lakshmi. (What is it about Chennai that it engenders such a fecundity of talent and brilliance?) All of them have garnered fame and fortune in their respective spheres. Incidentally, Kiran Desai is the daughter of the equally celebrated writer, Anita Desai. While Padma Lakshmi, not that she needs to, also basks in reflected glory in terms of public perception through her ex-husband, the highly decorated author, Sir Salman Rushdie, himself an Indophile and Mumbai born.
As I wind up this essay, I hasten to add that my choice of women (or men) of Indian origin who have carved a niche for themselves outside the shores of India, is by no means complete. Far from it. For every name I have selected, others could come up with half a dozen more candidates from other disciplines. My selection was random, as they suggested themselves to me off the top of my head, and the object was more to make a point about how the Indian mind and brain power is a much sought-after treasure across the world. I sometimes question if we in India, specifically the powers-that-be since Independence, have realized the value of this extraordinary asset and given our gentler citizens the unfettered freedom to express themselves without let or hindrance. Do I hear a stentorian, ‘What about Indira Gandhi?’ Dynastic succession, even if electorally mandated, will not count. Not in my books. I do concede that there have been a clutch of women in India who have left an indelible mark across many categories but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. A flight of swallows do not a summer make. With time, that will change.
I suggest to you, dear reader, that our time-honoured policy of protectionism and restriction, has often come in the way of more radiant flowers blooming in our own country; as opposed to their moving to far-off lands to realize the full value of their potential. As the poet Thomas Gray had it, ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness in the desert air.’ Today, our Prime Minister exhorts Indians from every nook and cranny of the globe to return home and contribute their considerable gene pool of talent for the betterment of our nation. A bit late in the day. We should have thought about this in 1947. In the words of Sir V.S. Naipaul, ‘After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.’
Bharat Mata Ki Jai!
Flight booking. Check. Hotel booking. Check. Car booking. Check. Music Academy season ticket. Check. All present and correct. That was last year.
It’s getting close to twenty-five years now and I don’t believe I have skipped the Chennai or Margazhi music season even once. Not that I spent the whole of December in the cultural capital amidst the carnival of Carnatic music and canteen camaraderie, but the latter half of December was my preferred time frame, when everything kind of boiled over, and the musicians were well and truly primed and warmed up for the final, climactic push. This is when the artists’ creative juices really flowed and the adrenalin rushed to reach its apogee. Rushing between sabhas, cross-referencing musicians and venues, keeping an eagle eye out for two of your favourite stars performing during the same time slot in different sabhas and craftily managing the complex logistics, catching up with old friends and relatives come down for the music and before you knew it, it was time to catch your flight or train back to wherever you came from. Time flies when you are having a good time. It was all one magical blur of Todi morphing into Kambhoji, Sudha Raghunathan’s soaring sancharas vying with Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s breath-taking kaarvais, raconteur Sriram V’s acerbic wit regaling audiences over a Sunday morning breakfast, swishing pattu podavais, spotless veshtis and always the coffee, endless tumblers of coffee permeating our olfactory senses. In short, in the immortal (if paraphrased) words of the late Tony Greig, ‘It’s all happening right here at the Music Academy.’
Sad to say, the good news has to be narrated in the past tense, your chronicler wearing a sporty pair of nostalgic tinted glasses, eyes moist with unshed tears. As any dispirited Carnatic aficionado will tell you, the music season this year is a non-season. A non-starter. We all know why. Covid19 has claimed its ultimate prized scalp, the feast of reason and flow of soul that is our beloved Season. Those of us coming into Chennai from other parts of the country or further afield from across the seas, are going through a sense of being left bereft – a hollow emotion that fans normally experience after the full season is over. The calm after the storm. To have to go through the anguish even before the season could commence is a bit thick what, as Bertie Wooster might put it.
Most musicians have attempted, gamely, to alleviate their fans’ deprivation by resorting to technology. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are choc-a-bloc with musical Zoom chats, songs being sung by artists and their students, stars posting snippets from their concerts over the years – in short there is no dearth of Carnatic music activity on a variety of digital platforms. In many cases, the musicians have even taken the help of slick producers to create mood films with the help of professional lighting, pleasant locales, sound management and smart computer graphics. It’s a reflection of the technological age we live in and perfectly understandable that every trick in the book is deployed to keep the musicians creatively occupied and their fans actively engaged with them over the hyperactive social media.
However, when all is said and done, it is not the real thing, is it? To illustrate,let me move briefly away from Carnatic music to sport. In recent months, we have witnessed a Grand Slam tennis tournament, the French Open, a succession of IPL T20 games played out in the Middle East and the Premier League football games – all being played to empty stadiums. Obviously, TV viewership would have grown exponentially, the now notorious TRP bandits having a field day. However, the feeling of watching sporting events which unfailingly find stadiums bursting at the seams, now conveying a ghostly emptiness was eerie, to say the least. To add insult to injury all these spectaculars featured doctored sounds of crowds chanting and cheering to add verisimilitude: a sloppy, shabby device that only exacerbated the sense of loss. A dozen over-excited faces projected on the screens gesticulating wildly every time a wicket fell or a ball was hit out of the park, was hardly an endearing novelty. A Nadal – Djokovic final played to empty stands? Now I’ve seen it all. But then, this is the new normal, to tout the oft-repeated cliché. I guess we should be grateful that we are at least getting to watch something worthwhile ‘live’ on our television sets.
Notwithstanding the aforementioned, it is instructive to take a close look at what multi-hued columnist and ardent music lover, G. Pramod Kumar has to say on the subject of crowd-less concerts in a recent article in The Hindu – ‘Digital is no longer an alternative, but a new performance and revenue paradigm. One that the Carnatic music establishment should have embraced much earlier, like elsewhere in the world.’ He then proceeds to draw a parallel with Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall, home of the legendary and venerated Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. and how they have coped with the pandemic through offering western classical music lovers a high-quality digital experience, one that has found favour with their clientele and proved to be a robust revenue model for the orchestra. Coming angrily from left field, contrarian superstar Sir Van Morrison wants the crowds back in full force, ‘The new normal is not normal. We were born to be free,’ wails the Irish blues shouter, somewhat naively, in his new anti-lockdown song.
It is in this context that the attempt being made by the Music Academy Madras to hold a limited number of concerts, time-abbreviated, to be digitally broadcast or telecast to their members free and to others on payment during the December season, holds out some promise for those who will be missing all the live action. Whether other organizations are doing something similar or not I am not privy to, but we can surely expect many more such initiatives. It will give the fans something to look forward to and for the artists, who must have been going stir crazy cooped up in the confines of their homes, to say nothing of the dent in their incomes, a chance to sit on stage and give full vent to their creative urges. As the pandemic shows stuttering signs of abatement, and let’s hope it’s not a false dawn, perhaps the Academy could consider a limited number of appropriately-distanced members to attend the concerts.
As a music lover, my own take is somewhat blasé on these innovations. While lauding the efforts of the Music Academy to try something different, forced by extreme circumstances, it is certainly no substitute for the amazing experience of sitting through a live concert. Any music lover who can distinguish a Kalyani from a Sankarabharanam will tell you that. The electricity, the frisson that runs through an audience as the artist essays a tremendous volley of swaras, returned with interest by the violinist and the percussionists can never be viscerally felt sitting in front of your desktop, laptop or even, for that matter, your giant LED television screen with surround sound. You can add to your enjoyment with cups of coffee, or something even stronger, being served to you while you relish the concert in home comfort. But you will sorely miss that octogenarian sitting next to you in the auditorium, who has seen it all and who will cynically go, ‘this boy is very good, but he is no GNB or Semmangudi.’ Or for that matter, the cute, precocious 8-year-old girl armed with a notebook and biro, who turns to you and plaintively asks, ‘Uncle, Uncle, what ragam is this?’ And you looking flustered and responding, ‘Why don’t you ask your Amma, dear?’ while Amma looks daggers at you.
Yes, we will all be missing our Season in our own different ways. However, the last word must go to one struggling artist who railed thus, ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I get to sing in the afternoon slots, and all these years I have never seen more than 30 people in the hall, all snoring and socially distanced.’ My heart bleeds for him.
Sorry, your password must contain a capital letter, two numbers, a symbol, an inspiring message, a spell, a gang sign, a hieroglyph, and the blood of a virgin. Anon.
Last time I checked, I was the custodian of something of the order of thirty-seven passwords, and counting. That would be around thirty-five more passwords than any man or woman possessed of above average intelligence, can reasonably be expected to commit to memory. It’s an absolute nightmare. I know, I know. You are about to bestow upon me a patronizing smile, and ask me why I don’t write them all down on a sheet of paper and cunningly hide it under my pillow, thus stymieing any would-be nocturnal password hunter with a sub-20 IQ. Or better still, secrete this precious sheet of password-scribed foolscap right on top of my work station, plumb spang in front of the desktop. Hidden in plain sight, as it were. By a strange inversion of logic, it would be such an obviously idiotic place to conceal anything that no one would dream of looking for it there. Except, of course, for the wife. Unless you don’t even want her to find it, in which case you are a fit case for the loony bin.
Honestly, not a day passes when I am not required to key in a password for a myriad number of important and often routine matters. Just to get into your internet on the computer or mobile phone for starters. Since this is an activity you perform virtually every day, the punching in of your precious password should not strain your faculties over much. The first thing you wish to do of a morning along with your steaming cup of tea or coffee, is to read the newspaper. As many of us are still wary of catching Covid from the newsprint, we have opted to take in the digital version. In fact, you have subscribed to the newspaper of your choice to appear on your computer screen. To open which, you are called upon to key in your username and password. The former is a breeze, the latter a giant headache. A quick aside. A smart aleck advised me, if I am keen on the real McCoy (the one with the smelly, newsprint ink), to give it the microwave treatment for 30 seconds to effectively destroy any virus that might or might not have attached itself to the Finnish imported newsprint. So, I did that. Unwisely. Unless you wish to have the edges of your favourite newspaper blackened and curled up at the edges, rapidly threatening an incendiary incident in your kitchen, you are well advised to steer clear of the microwave. Cup of tea or hot water, YES. Newspaper, NO.
The head scratching exercise for password recall now begins in right earnest. What was it? ‘67b&*duh5%’ or wait, wait, I tell a lie, it was ‘67c@*duh7#.’ Of course, you have written this down somewhere but damned if you can recall where you kept that blasted piece of paper. Your morning has already been effectively ruined by this password puzzle. Why couldn’t I have just devised a simple password like ‘dumbo1’? You couldn’t because your smart computer flashed a mocking ‘weak’ in response to ‘dumbo1.’ You then went for the complex numero / alphabetico option which your desktop heartily approved. ‘Very strong,’ it roared in assent. That’s how I dug a hole for myself. Of course, you have the option of saving your password on screen, but you then run the risk of any smartass nerd getting into the system and playing merry hell with it. Welcome to the digital world.
At times, sensing your discomfiture, the screen very shrewdly asks if you have forgotten your password. Have I ever? Anyhow, help is at hand. Get ready for the complex process of ‘changing your password.’ One thing bugs me. If my system was that smart, why does it not just tell me what the bally password is, as my aunt is wont to say. Oh no, nothing as straightforward as that will do. I will now be asked a number of inane questions like what my favourite colour is, what the name of my pet cocker-spaniel is, where my distinguishing birthmark is emblazoned, and so on. Enough to drive one batty. As for the requested revelation of my birthmark, where mine is situated cannot be revealed to anyone, never mind how distinguished or distinguishing it is!
Then there is the all-important internet banking system that most of us nowadays have perforce fallen prey to. Again, there is the username to be filled in, followed by the password and if you have managed to enter both these panels to everybody’s satisfaction, you have now entered the hallowed portals of your own savings bank account. You go into the page, constantly looking back over your shoulder, just in case your housemaid or your driver has shimmered into the room silently, Jeeves-like, on padded feet and are looking intently at the screen and getting a load of all your ill-gotten gains. Actually, in my case if such a situation were to eventuate, my domestic staff will only be horrified at the appalling state of my finances and will stop pestering me for a raise.
Getting back to internet banking, if I do get to the stage where I wish to transfer funds to a third party, I will then be asked to provide something called a profile password, which I had forgotten all about, though I know it is there. Stashed away somewhere in that elusive sheet of paper. As if all this was not maddening enough, just when I am about to transact the money transfer, my mobile phone will go ‘ping’ and I will be given a One Time Password (OTP), which I will have to punch in, in record time (‘Where is my effing mobile?’) because the OTP will expire in seven seconds flat or some such hair-raising time frame, else I will have to request for it to be resent. Incidentally, have you ever tried to scroll down your SMS message to decipher the precious OTP, while keeping the home page displayed on your mobile active? Again, with an impossible, Damocles sword deadline hanging over your head? Whoever designed this system has clearly read Dante’s Inferno.
I am aware that today’s IT generation kiddos can do all this in their sleep, but we senior citizens get the heebie-jeebies while going through the process. Finally, I am forever petrified about keying in that additional zero. I fret and I fume. Did I type in Rs.10000 or Rs.100000? In the days of yore, when we used our fountain pens to write out something called cheques, we could always tear it up if a mistake was detected. Now you have to watch your fingers, your keyboard and your screen like a hawk. One wrong move and you have made some undeserving sap a very rich man! Those with fat fingers, be ever mindful – they tend to overlap on the keys. Why can’t the algorithms or software, or whatever the heck it’s called, respond (prior to the completion of the transaction) with some timely warning like, ‘Are you sure you wish to splurge a lakh of rupees on this good-for-nothing wastrel?’ After that, you will always be doubly careful.
I think you get the point I am striving to make in my circumlocutory way. The password pestilence keeps bugging you all the livelong day when you visit Amazon, Flipkart, online service for anti-virus protection (not Covid but McAfee), Tatasky, credit card issues, mobile telephony, car rentals, travel bookings, dental appointments, Swiggy, Zomato – there simply is no end to it. Then again, being the smart one, I feel safe and secure. I have all my usernames and passwords, mushroomed to 42 since I commenced this column, ensconced, snug as a bug in a rug under my pillow. Perhaps I should consider slipping it into my pillow case. What care I if it makes a crackling sound each time I toss and turn in restless slumber? And snore. I am a sound sleeper, irretrievably lost in the Land of Nod but my sleep-deprived wife stares, ceiling-wards, wide-eyed. What’s more, my searches have provided me with the ultimate password solution through this anonymous quote – I changed my password everywhere to ‘incorrect.’ That way, when I forget it, it always reminds me, ‘Your password is ‘incorrect.’ On a more serious note, the words of celebrated American digital artist, Christopher-Stoll are salutary, Treat your password like a toothbrush. Don’t let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months.
Crikey, I must remember to order my Oral B Cavity Defense Soft Black toothbrush next time I visit Amazon.
The ongoing palaver over the ‘idli is boring’ statement by an English historian is, frankly, getting a bit tedious. There’s a whole army of self-righteous voices on mainstream and social media, particularly the latter (surprise, surprise) who have decided to take up cudgels on behalf of India’s favourite breakfast dish. Make that south India’s. Edward Anderson, the errant historian from the United Kingdom is the ‘culprit’ who is being held guilty of this unpardonable solecism. This is what Anderson, to give the devil its dubious due, is purported to have said, ‘Idli are (sic) the most boring things in the world.’ The fact that Anderson’s wife is from Kerala, where idlis go down a treat, as they do in Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka, adds a piquant touch to this storm in a filter-coffee cup.
Speaking of Kerala, our man from Thiruvananthapuram, the silver-tongued Congress Party MP Shashi Tharoor naturally had to stick his loquacious oar in, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. This puffed up gem from Tharoor went viral, ‘Civilisation is hard to acquire: the taste & refinement to appreciate idlis, enjoy cricket, or watch ottamthullal is not given to every mortal. Take pity on this poor man, for he may never know what life can be.’ As is his wont, the oratorical Tharoor delivered a mouthful there, prior to presumably bolting a mouthful of idli accompanied by a dollop of chutney. I had to look up ottamthullal, a traditional Kerala dance form. It is very like Tharoor to casually throw in an arcane reference, jolting the reader scurrying to the ubiquitous Google search. He could have said kathakali, for instance, which is more readily identifiable. The reference to enjoying cricket escaped me. Surely, the British gave us the game.
The fact is idli qua idli, can be a bit of a bore. In saying that, I run the risk of incurring widespread obloquy from my fellow south Indian gourmets or even, gourmands. By definition this white, round, spongy dumpling is tasteless. Well, almost. It is the spicy accompaniment of other condiments such as chilli powder (aka gunpowder) and oil or clarified butter (ghee), coconut chutney and sambhar that make the idli a delectable and wholesome dish. Anderson could wriggle out of his predicament by stating that he was referring to the idli, the whole idli and nothing but the idli. And he would have been right. The jury would have unanimously said ‘not guilty’ without having to retire to consider their verdict. As for those philistines who would insist on hyphenating the idli with mutton chops and the like, I shall give them the haughty ignore they richly deserve.
At the end of the day, what this idli brouhaha teaches us, once again, is that we Indians tend to be awfully thin-skinned if a foreigner says anything even mildly disparaging about us, even with his tongue firmly in cheek. Anderson being a Briton, belonging to a race known for its understated sense of humour, could quite easily be taking the mickey, to employ a Cockney colloquialism. He is probably laughing out of the other side of his mouth. Our response should have been equally calibrated and subtle. An ideal riposte would have been something on the lines of, ‘a tasty British dish is an oxymoron,’ or ‘I tasted haggis today, it tasted offal.’ That would be telling him! After all, if you eat tripe, you will talk tripe.
Take a near-fatal dose on rising, of course. But take a near-fatal dose the night before, in addition. Then numbness descends on numbness. Then you are two distances away from your reality. Martin Amis.
Celebrated author Martin Amis’ sage advice to those who are viewing an impending visit to the dentist, particularly if dental surgery of any description is involved, is not to be taken lightly. Valium. That is what he is referring to in advocating that near-fatal dose. Not unlike the poet John Keats’ drowsy numbness paining his sense, as though of hemlock he had drunk. It is abundantly clear that the coruscating writer (Amis, that is) of ‘the London trilogy,’ Money, London Fields and The Information, had got himself into a blue funk on the dreaded prospect of visiting his premolar extractor. At this juncture, gentle reader, do not be under the false impression, that I am mocking this literary icon for his apparent, lily-livered aspect in facing his pre-ordained sitting at the dental surgeon’s deceptively plush, pneumatically powered leatherette chair, with all the attendant trappings. After all, flowing from his own pen, it amounts to nothing less than a brave confessional. He can be pitied and empathized with rather than censured, but by no manner of means, made fun of. Let’s be brutally honest, none of us likes to hear those dreaded, hushed words from the receptionist at the dentist’s waiting room, ‘Doctor will see you now.’ ‘Who me? I am in no hurry. I am still reading this excellent article in the Reader’s Digest, Take care of your large intestine, and your small intestine will take care of itself. Let this comely, young lass go before me.’
Well done on the pretend chivalry, but no dice. The receptionist is having none of it. It’s your turn to face the music. As the bell tolls for thee, you shuffle into the dentist’s room with an unsteady gait, your sphincter muscles beginning to act strangely while you try in vain to put on your best, insouciant Alfred E. Neuman’s ‘what-me-worry?’ face. The reference is to the now-defunct Mad magazine mascot. Your dentist, with a saccharinely cheery female assistant in tow, is all bonhomie and good cheer. Like Santa Claus on one of his better mornings. If not actually chortling ‘Ho, Ho, Ho,’ he comes very close to it. ‘Good morning, good morning, lovely day we are having, aren’t we? And what did you think of last night’s game eh? I thought the Royal Challengers had blown it, but no, they pipped the Mumbai Indians to the post. A real nail biter. What’s with the glum face? It’s only a toothache.’ He went on in this hail-fellow-well-met vein for a couple of minutes, my orthodontist Dr. Gupta, for that was the worthy’s name, but all that small talk was not fooling me. I was contrastingly saturnine and mumbled a weak response and sat down on the dental chair, and before I could say ‘gingivitis’ the chair, apparently of its own volition, leaned back to an almost flat, just shy of 180-degree horizontal position. I was flying first class, and getting no joy out of it.
Meanwhile, Dr, Gupta was busy studying some X-rays, presumably of my gone-case dentures and kept making ominous, clucking sounds. Clearly, his diagnosis was more than just a toothache. After much frowning and peering into the black chasm that passed for my mouth, he declared, ‘I am afraid four of your upper back teeth have severe cavities but I can fix that with some drilling and filling. However, four other dentures will have to be extracted and replaced with false teeth. I’ll have to construct a bridge to hold your upper dentures in place, and your gums have been shot to pieces. Some minor surgery will be involved there, failing which you could walk straight into one of those Pepsodent commercials. You know, the guy with unbearable halitosis whom the girls shun and he doesn’t know why? Yes, my friend, you’ll be that sad sack with bad breath and even your best friends won’t tell you.’ As a related aside, I am always tickled pink whenever I come across that Sensodyne toothpaste commercial. The model bites into an ice-cream bar, writhes in pain and howls, ‘Ouch, sensitivity.’ I can think of at least a dozen unprintable expletives that sufferer could have screamed, but ‘Ouch, sensitivity’?
By now I was beginning to get really rattled. I was struggling to frame some kind of cutting retort to this avalanche of caustic criticism on the condition of my teeth and gums but Dr. Gupta had struck a rich vein of form and there was no stopping his flow. Not to forget that I was helplessly strapped to this luxury, swivel chair with only the nurse smiling at me in a fixed, plasticky manner, unable to move in any direction. I was also tongue tied and bemused but faked a casualness I did not feel, ‘Tell me Doc, what is the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist? It’s not a joke question.’ His response was swift. ‘Not much really. What’s in a name eh? A rose called by any other name etc. We do pretty much the same thing, only the orthodontist charges much more.’
So saying, the doctor droned on. ‘In fairness, I must let you know that all this will cost you and before I start any procedure, I must get your nod of approval.’ At which point he stared at the ceiling and went into a reflective reverie of calculation mutterings under his breath, which I could barely catch. The nurse officiously added her two-pice bit with staccato, conspiratorial exclamations like, ‘Doctor, don’t forget the follow-up consultations that will be required, at least six of them.’ Dr. Gupta was pleased. ‘Well done Reena, I almost forgot. Yes, if I take into account all the procedures, dental reconstruction, false teeth, bridges and crowns, Chinese implant imports naturally, and the consultation charges, I think we should come in at about a reasonable Rs.85,000/- give or take, and that’s excluding GST. Cheap at the price, I promise you. By the way, what have you been doing to your teeth? Didn’t your parents teach you anything about dental hygiene?’ I grumbled to myself that if it wasn’t for patients like me, he wouldn’t be swanning around in a BMW.
‘Let’s leave my parents out of this. As to your estimate, I am strapped to this chair Doc. I have no choice. By your own admission, your speculative, proforma estimate makes it plain that you are an orthodontist. Next time, I’ll be more careful and look for a dentist. Go ahead, do your worst. I am told you recently migrated from London, leaving a lucrative practice there to start your dental outfit here in India. Why?’
‘Our fees were fixed in the UK and patients were all on the National Health. There were limits to how much we could charge the patients. Mind you, I miss the pubs, feeding the ducks at St. James’s Park and the fish ‘n’ chips.’ My heart bled for him.
I was now in a black mood. ‘You mean here in India, you can fleece your patients dry, live in a luxury apartment, maintain a chauffeur driven BMW for yourself and a cute Alpha Romeo for the wife? All at my expense?’
‘Now, now Sir,’ proceeded the still genial dentist, ‘I know you’re in pain, but relax. Once this is over, you will feel like a new man.’ He then gave a silent nod to his nurse, who handed him a deceptively innocuous looking syringe, and the doctor asked me to say ‘Aaaah’ and uttered those immortal words, ‘Now this won’t hurt, you’ll just feel a slight prick in your gums, and then you’ll feel no more.’ Prescient words. Not only did I not feel any more, my lips had turned to blubber. I could sense spittle trickling down the sides of my mouth and could do precious little about it. Shades of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean at the dental surgery. Every now and then the doctor would ask me to expectorate into a Styrofoam cup placed by my side. All I had to do was turn my face towards the cup and a gooey amalgam of saliva, blood and phlegm drooled out of its own accord. All kinds of procedures were taking place inside my mouth, but I was blissfully innocent. After about thirty minutes of this, my dentist triumphantly declared, ‘That’s it. We are done for now. Clean him up, Reena.’ I could see Reena performing wiping motions at my oral area, but I felt absolutely nothing. For all I knew, she could have been wiping the dental halogen lamp just above me.
I had a final question before leaving the room. I wanted to ask him how long it will take for the anesthetic to wear off and whether there will be any pain thereafter. Instead, what came out of my mouth was, ‘Hwwllllngg wiittkkfss anspthook to weffoff amph wib I fib ang fcckkhing thoofake and pheng?’ Accompanied by a copious flow of dribble. Obviously, Dr. Gupta was used to this. No interpretation was required. Smilingly he replied, ‘A couple of hours at the most, and you will feel no pain. I have prescribed some painkillers, just in case. See you next week.’
Despite all my misgivings, and the big hole in my bank account thanks to this dental visit, I had to admit that Dr. Gupta knew his dental onions. I cannot swear to whether he is a dentist or an orthodontist but, in the famous (if paraphrased) words of the late British comic genius Tony Hancock, ‘By Cuspid, he is a fine dentist, once he got his teeth into it!’
A friendly fly on the wall has been privy to a number of recent interrogations that have been taking place in Mumbai in connection with the alleged Sushant Singh Rajput murder / suicide case (strike out whichever is not applicable), the Rhea Chakraborty angle along with her brother, the death of Disha Salian under mysterious circumstances followed by several other noteworthy names that have now surfaced. In fact, the murder investigation appears to have turned stone cold and the drug possession, consumption and peddling links have taken pride of place. We have the CBI, NCB, ED, the Police and who knows, perhaps even the FBI, CIA, MI5, ISI and KGB involved. I do not know the name of China’s primary dirty tricks department, but let’s bung them in as well, to show there’s no ill feeling. Anything is possible. After all, when it comes to drugs, the international cabal must be thoroughly looked into and is rife with exciting and ominous possibilities. From drug peddlers to terror networks is but one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind (with due apologies to Neil Armstrong).
Now to get back to my friend, the fly on the wall, we’ll call him Fred. Fred the Fly has a nice ring to it. Fred has been hanging around those dank walls of police stations and other investigative agencies for several years now, and what he does not know about sleuths and their methods can be written on a pinhead with a pneumatic drill, as I have heard it described. And believe me, those walls are very dank indeed, as well as damp and peeling rapidly. A crummy environment is a sine qua non for criminal face-to-face interactions. Atmospherics is crucial. Fred is an authority on dankness, to say nothing of dampness – the last word, if you must know. So I decided to buttonhole Fred in order to get the lowdown, the real down and dirty on the ongoing skullduggery. I requested him to buzz over to my club where flies can easily evade the membership committee and I did not have to sign him in as a guest. I ordered a beer and a nutty fruitcake, on which Fred (not one to miss a free treat) settled nicely, feasted well if not wisely and we were able to have an extended natter, with nary an interruption. I came straight to the point, without beating around the bush.
‘Right Fred, take a break from that nutty fruitcake will you? You are in danger of being smothered. I have some questions for you. What exactly did they ask Deepika Padukone? And what did she say?’
Fred brushed away a morsel of cake and replied, ‘I think one of those CBI nerds, or it might have been the NCB I can’t be sure, I was looking down from a high ceiling, was very keen to know if her backhand was as good as her father Prakash’s. All-England badminton champ in 1980, don’t you know?’
‘Listen Fred,’ I riposted, ‘I am not interested in Deepika’s backhand, or forehand, come to that. And I know all about Prakash’s exploits at the All-England. Stick to the subject matter, will you?’
Fred took another dive into the fruitcake and came up smilingly, ‘Look my friend, I am reporting the conversation verbatim. Can’t you see, the inspector was trying to put her at her ease with some casual small talk. Standard procedure. He had done his homework, or maybe he was a bit of a badminton freak. He could also have been angling for Prakash’s autograph, or even a selfie.’
‘Why not a selfie with Deepika? Get to the point, for God’s sake, Fred. You are wearing me down.’
‘I am coming to the point, just be patient. Can’t you get them to add a bit more chocolate sauce to this cake? It’s a bit dry. I like it sticky and sweet. All right, all right. Don’t get so nettled. The thing is, Deepika was refusing to play ball. They pushed her to explain words like “hash” and “brown stuff” found on her mobile phone chats, but she was equal to the task. The stunning starlet said she was sharing her breakfast menu with her socialite friends, hash browns being her favourite. I tell you, she’s a clever one.’
Truth to tell, I was beginning to get a bit nettled myself. ‘Listen Fred, I haven’t got all day. Let’s move on to this Sara Ali Khan babe. How did the NCB or CBI or ED or whichever alphabet soup was involved, get on with this scion of the famous Pataudi and Tagore family?’
Fred smiled through his nut crumbs and chocolate sauce. ‘What a combo, eh? The NCB chap was positively slobbering. “I would love to meet your Granny, Sharmilaji. I don’t know which was my favourite film of hers, Aradhana or Amar Prem. With Kaka Rajesh Khanna, they were just too good. That song in Amar Prem, sailing on the Hooghly under the Howrah Bridge, Chingari koi bhadke, aaahaahaa! Brilliant composition by Pancham.” Then this NCB bloke went on to tunelessly warble Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu from Aradhana.’
I could not believe what I was hearing. ‘Fred, you’re having me on, aren’t you? Stop joking and jerking me around. Next you’ll tell me Sara and this NCB hound danced around the office singing that Aradhana duet, Gun guna rahe hain bhanware, khil rahi hai kali kali. Get serious now and tell me all about the rubber truncheon and the third degree. I am sure Sara was in tears and begging for mercy.’
‘Anything but, my fine, feathered friend,’ retorted Fred, ‘au contraire, she was quick to spot the NCB guy’s weakness for celebrity spotting and hunting. She asked him if he knew about her Grandad’s cricketing exploits. You should have seen his face. He was the one in tears. Tears of joy. “Madam, Tiger Pataudi, my hero. With one eye and once with one leg, he hammered all those English and Aussie bowlers. What a handsome man! You have the same aquiline nose, Sara Madam.” The guy was beside himself. End of interview.’
I was more startled by Fred’s sudden infusion of French. Au contraire? Whatever next? ‘So that was Sara taken care of. What about this Shraddha Kapoor dame? What was her story? Come on Fred, so far I have got nothing from you but some stupid stuff on badminton, cricket and some Hindi film songs. You are a sorry excuse for a fly on the wall. More a fly in the ointment. What a waste of gooey chocolate cake?’
Fred was quick to take umbrage and remonstrate. ‘That is precisely my main grouse. The cake is simply not gooey enough. Where’s the chocolate sauce I ordered?’
‘Getting saucy, are we? Come on Fred. I am waiting. Give me the dope.’
‘Funny you should say that. That is exactly what the NCB honcho told Shraddha Kapoor. “Give me the dope.” Shraddha told him she had no dope on her and added, rather tartly, “I think we all know who the dope is round here.” That was telling him! That put the NCB chappie’s back up. “Listen young lady, just because you belong to the Kapoor clan and Raj Kapoor is your grandfather, don’t think you can throw your weight around.”‘
‘”I do not belong to the Raj Kapoor clan, you dolt. Nor to the Anil Kapoor brood. I am the proud daughter of the famous comic villain, Shakti Kapoor. Get your facts straight, before you accuse me of anything else.” Shraddha was livid. The NCB dolt was startled. “Daughter of Shakti Kapoor, my goodness! That guy was insufferable on screen. Now I am convinced you’ve been up to no good! I am sorry, I shan’t waste any more time on you. I will leave it to the Mumbai police to deal with you.” Shraddha left the room beaming. The Mumbai police will be putty in her hands.’
Fred the Fly looked exhausted after this latest revelation. He hopped on to the rim of my beer mug and quaffed a generous glug and hopped back to what remained of the gooey cake.
I needed to wrap the evening up. ‘Listen Fred, it’s time for your beddy-byes. Can you give me any last morsels of tidbits from whatever happened at the NCB’s den? What about Rakul Preet Singh? You left her out.’
Fred looked dead beat. The cake had taken its toll. ‘Never heard of her. Look, all I know is I saw some names and scribblings on the NCB ogre’s diary. My eyesight is not what it once was. Incipient cataract. For what it’s worth, I could make out stuff like KWAN, KJ, Kshitij, SK, SRK, AK 47 and all kinds of other rubbish I could not decode. So we’ll just have to leave it at that. There’s more gossip from Sandalwood regarding Sanjana and Ragini, but they are from south India, so they don’t count.’
So is Deepika from the south, but I let it go. Time was pressing. Instead, I persisted. ‘Was there any mention of Sushant Singh Rajput or Rhea Chakraborty or Disha Salian?’
Fred was quick to respond, ‘Look, that’s all old hat. No more newsworthy. Some television channels tried very hard to nail some actors. Now everyone is saying it was suicide, after all. What a bummer, eh? However, when the NCB chief came out to address the press, all he was willing to reveal was that he deeply appreciated the dress code all these hot-shot actresses adhered to. Sober pastel shades, matching masks, elegant kurtas and churidars were the order of the day. Saris would have been nice, but we must be grateful given what they have been accused of, that they did not turn up in hot pants and skimpy tops!’
So saying, Fred the Fly dived one last time into the chocolate cake, struggled to crawl out and collapsed under his own insupportable weight. A stiff, passing breeze blew him away. Fred was now one with the elements. His task was done. RIP.
Moral of the story – you cannot have your cake and eat it too!
The ongoing pandemic (is it ever going to end?) has allowed many housebound men, women, boys and girls to take up a long-lost hobby and give full vent to their latent talent. Incidentally, rarely do you get two anagrammatic words (latent and talent) in close juxtaposition. Call it serendipity, but I digress. Take me, for instance. I have been writing for many years now, but I had to steal time from my other preoccupations to put pen to paper, in a manner of speaking. What pen, what paper, I hear you smirkingly ask. Well, if you must be a literal-minded dolt, I cannot hold out much hope for you. Getting back to my keyboard, and no more silly interruptions please, there are many who are writing. Like the end of the world is nigh and there’s no tomorrow. Essays, articles, novels, novellas, fiction, non-fiction – you name it, they are writing it. Bully for them, I say, and I include myself in this self-congratulating indulgence aimed at the amateur scribes and scriveners. The latter, the scriveners I mean, get their kicks drafting interminably long legal documents and generally notarizing things, but they do write, and many of them do so with the good old quill and ink.
It takes all sorts. So, let us not be patronizing and instead, doff our hats to ‘the amateur writers of the world.’ I grant you most of our efforts go largely unread, except for a handful of close friends or relatives who take the trouble (‘Oh no, not another one!’) to rapidly scan through the piece, and state their preference to ‘like’ or plonk a throbbing heart on their social media timelines. At times some of you even ‘share’ it on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Hallelujah! Like ‘the great unwashed,’ we are ‘the great unread.’ Fair point. We can’t all be J.K.K. Rowlings or Salman Rushdies, but we appreciate, dear reader, the strenuous effort you put in to plough through our plodding effort. What’s more, many of you do respond and are lavish in your appreciation, which is greatly appreciated. Others remain stoically non-committal, and we hack writers will have to draw our own conclusions.
So much for the writing epidemic that is currently gripping the pandemic landscape. However, that is nothing compared with the singing bug that has afflicted a very large portion of the population. The number of people who have taken to social media, like a duck to water, to display their musical skills is beyond our imagination. Not a day passes without Facebook or Instagram being deluged with people of all ages and genders warbling from an inexhaustible musical repertoire of their choice. Canaries can take their correspondence course from these musical mavericks. From a random survey I would say Hindi film songs, in particular of the ‘50s to ‘70s vintage, take pride of place amongst our wannabe Mohammad Rafis, Lata Mangeshkars, Kishore Kumars and Asha Bhosles. This is closely followed by western pop songs with The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and their ilk leading the pack. Being a Tamilian, I also come across quite a few bathroom singers letting rip with old Sivaji Ganesan and MGR film hits, not to speak of the more recent compositions of Ilayaraja and A.R. Rehman. A very niche audience, namely devotees of Carnatic music, can have their fill with most leading performers posting songs from their recorded concerts, and in quite a few cases, the singers actually performing from the comfort of their homes while engaging in a live chat with their fans on the intricacies of this hoary art form.
It is, however, the amateur singer, who quite fancies her vocalizing skills that greatly interests me. The availability of karaoke to provide background music, gives the singer a sense of security and confidence. So off she goes, standing in her drawing room, or on her balcony and launches into something from Aradhana, Anand, Kala Bazaar or Hum Dono. There are even some who do live shows and take requests online. These ‘live soirees’ are advertised over social media well in advance so their devout fans can be in readiness with their listener’s choice! Smileys and floating hearts go berserk while the performer struts her stuff. Since all this is happening on the internet, at times the connection can go awry and the singer often goes into a virtual freeze in mid-song and when she returns, the song is almost over. These are but minor glitches, certainly not enough to deter our doughty, brave crooners who carry on regardless. ‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ said the Bard. Spot on, William. With social media enveloping us all hours of the day and night, we can have music while food is constantly available to us as aid to our enjoyment of the fare on offer. A quick explanatory note at this point is in order. I employ the term ‘she’ or ‘her’ out of a sense of chivalry and to avoid the tedium of mentioning both sexes every time. I assure you the ‘he’ and ‘him’ are very much in the fray. If anything, with knobs on. Nothing invidious intended.
Then there are the babies. When I say babies, I include any toddler between the age of a couple of months to a mature five-year-old. Our social media channels are choc-a-bloc with these ‘cho chweet’ kiddies crawling, frothy spittle forming moustaches around their upper lips, ‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ (Shakespeare again), pulling the poor pet dog’s tail, pulling the angry cat’s ears (the cat bares its claws and the baby is frantically pulled away), three-year old Dolly singing and lisping ‘Inky, pinky, ponky,’ four-year old Bunty delivering lethal karate chops, precocious fourteen year-old Sabrina outdoing Whitney Houston with her vocal range and finally, all those birthday celebrations, cake cutting, baby’s face smeared with gooey chocolate. Truly a feast of entertainment for us to watch over and over again, if you are into that sort of thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t find a single grainy, sepia-tinted, grease-smudged picture of any of my birthdays being celebrated before I was thirty years old. And even after that, when I am now well and truly long in the tooth, the mobile phone has captured some of these moments to drool over, most of which are delete-worthy. If you ask me, I am immensely happy mobile phones with their prying, ubiquitous cameras were not around when I was a toddler.
Let me now turn to this Zoom pestilence. Someone from your family or circle of friends will take the initiative to plan a Zoom party, whereby all of us, often as many as 30 people, are intimated in advance that on a particular date and time, we will get together over Zoom to celebrate one of our near and dear one’s birthday, anniversary or simply, chumma chumma, just like that. If you opt out of this visual jamboree, you will be viewed as a spoilsport, frowned upon and not be invited next time round (a blessing in disguise). And what actually transpires during these Zoom chats? At least two or three participants will have connectivity issues, which will take a while to set right. Then much hoo haa about ‘Where’s Shanta, where’s Ram, we are not starting without them.’ Dress code? We have to be properly attired for the occasion, though we are at home. ‘For God’s sake, you look like something the cat brought in. Go and shave.’ This, from the wife. While we are all waving frantically at each other, staring in glazed fixity at our computer screens with no idea of who has spotted whom, one person decides to take the lead, suggesting a singalong. ‘Mala, you sing, come on ya, don’t be such a fusspot.’
Mala will make a face and say she’ll start but others must join in. Depending on Mala’s choice of song, a few will mumble unintelligibly and inaudibly along with her, the others will watch stone faced, the mumbling chorus will suddenly stop mumbling, and Mala will stop abruptly and announce, ‘I am not singing anymore, let Rakesh sing that lovely Ghulam Ali ghazal he sang at Mummy’s 65th birthday.’ Meanwhile the Zoom group (30 of them, remember?) has managed to form its own sub-groups who are muttering sweet nothings to each other, a baby is propped up in front of the camera to universal acclaim and breathless exclamations. Invariably, there will be one or two cruising on a highway in their car, the engine sound drowning out whatever they are trying to say. Finally, a couple from Chicago will yawn, stretch and go, ‘Don’t know about you guys, but it’s way past our bedtime here. Good night folks.’ Black window on your screen where the Chicago twosome were. Another elderly couple, who had not opened their mouths throughout the affair, quietly disappear into the Kuala Lumpur night. Another black window. Next day we will get to know all about how stupid we were to quit at one in the morning ‘because Prema and Ravi enthralled us till midnight with their rib-tickling stand-up comedy routine. We nearly died laughing.’ With participants from five different countries and time zones, the question is whose midnight and whose one-in-the-morning?
In conclusion, let’s raise a toast to all amateur writers, singers and the Zoom zombies. These are tough times and we need to keep ourselves creatively occupied. Of course, one understands that you wish to share your literary and musical prowess with the rest of the world. By all means, do that. Only don’t get disheartened if the rest of the world is too preoccupied to take a blind bit of notice. As for all the Zoom zombies, go ahead and Zoom till you’re blue in the face. The technology is there, so why not use it? Just one caveat. I’ll sit this one out.