The premiums are killing me

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman? Woody Allen.

By any yardstick, insurance is a sound concept, predicated on the principle that should any misfortune befall one, be it health, life, property, accident, theft, fire – in fact, pretty much anything that you possess which is valuable and vulnerable to damage or loss, can be insured and you can claim compensation. Provided, of course, that you have not been tardy with your annual premium payments. It must be conceded that getting some money back after losing a limb or two in a road accident or being charred beyond recognition in a fire is scarce comfort, but it is something, the raison d’être for taking out an insurance policy in the first place. Then again, be of good cheer. You are also liable to benefit by something called ‘no claim bonus’ whereby, if you have been a good boy (or girl) and paid your premiums without making any claim year on year, the value of your insurance increases by leaps, if not bounds. That, as I am sure all of you know, was a thumbnail sketch of the basic principles of insurance and why every right-thinking individual should buy into it. I am not even getting into the area of big-time, big bucks corporate insurance involving space travel, airlines, railways, maritime and the like.

Insurance can also be taken out against specific body parts that can affect a person’s livelihood. Take musicians, for instance. The likes of Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Tina Turner, Madonna and many others have insured their voices or their fingers (if one plays an instrument) for millions of dollars. Why, quite famously, country and western singer Dolly Parton insured her 40E breasts for a reported sum of $600,000. On the face of it, it would seem that Ms. Parton is more concerned about her décolletage than her singing voice. This (the insurance, not the décolletage) would apply equally to classical musicians and to top-of-the-line sportspersons who depend almost entirely on their hands and legs for their record-breaking performances. Similar information on celebrated Indian musicians, I have not been able to garner. Though it would not surprise me in the least if the likes of A.R. Rahman, Ilayaraja, the late Lata Mangeshkar and classical instrumentalists such as the late Pandit Ravishankar, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the late Lalgudi Jayaraman and others had taken out specific insurance policies for their body parts specifically involved in earning them their livelihood. The fact that quite a few of those I mentioned are ‘late’ is neither here nor there. This is over and above the normal health and life insurance policies that these individuals would have taken. Musicians can also be insured for ‘opportunity loss’ should their engagements be cancelled due to factors beyond their control, resulting in loss of income. Presumably athletics, tennis, football, boxing and other sports superstars would have also taken out similar policies. Lest I forget, add personal vehicles to that list. Given its limitless scope, I am not sure if film producers can insure their productions against flops at the box office, though I doubt very much that the insurance Scrooges will give them the time of day.

It is perfectly understandable that among the poorer classes, it is very difficult to convince people to part with meagre, hard-earned cash towards insurance, which they merely see as money going out of their pockets towards an eventuality that they do not or cannot visualize happening. A bird in the hand is worth two in the insurance bush is their philosophy. At a crude level, this point of view is quite understandable. We took out an accident insurance policy for our driver, who thought it was a sheer waste of money that could have been better employed by raising his salary. Tragically, he was involved in a fatal road accident and lost his life. We now hope the money his family would get from the insurance company would go some way towards alleviating their financial, if not mental, distress. Which brings me to the second part of the insurance dilemma, which is the process of actually getting the compensation and the hellish paperwork and torture involved in convincing the insurance monoliths that compensation delayed is compensation denied. The struggle to get things moving actually makes you wonder if it was all worth the while.

It is well known that the insurance business works on the principle that the greater the volume of clients insured, the theory of probability will ensure that the number of clients they need to shell out money to will be far less than the numbers actually insured. It is a fail-safe business model. Except when there are natural calamities or pandemics such as we have witnessed recently, when they have to dig deep into their resources, if not actually scraping the bottom of the barrel. More often than not, the attention given by insurance agents, the enthusiasm shown and promises made prior to completing an insurance sale, is directly in inverse proportion to the service one receives when one faces serious health or injury issues and makes legitimate claims on the companies.

The other oddity about personal insurance is that, from the quantum of premiums to cost of medical treatment, things get impossibly hard when you grow old which, ironically, is when you are most likely to need help. The form-filling alone can drive one up the wall. When you are young, fit and healthy with not a care in the world, the insurance agents will be all over you like a swarm of bees buzzing around a pot of honey. Everything is an absolute doddle. They will even take care of the form-filling. It’s when those creaky, arthritic joints start playing up that you come up against the odds. Information overload kicks in. KYC, PAN card, Aadhaar, bank pass book, driving licence, voter ID, present address, previous address, nominees – the list is never-ending, and you probably need to be insured against wrist damage owing to all the writing involved. What is more, since everything is expected to be done online these days, there is no question of a friendly face from the not-so-friendly insurance company to come home and help you; you are glued to your smart phone from morning till night – dial 1 for English, 4 for complaints, 6 for claims, 8 if you are dead and 9 if you wish to talk to ‘one of our representatives’ which may take some time as all of them are busy talking to someone else. Not clear who you should complain to if ‘4 for complaints’ doesn’t respond. You then hold on while they play Handel’s or Chopin’s Funeral March (souped up by A.R. Rahman) interspersed with repetitive commercial messages about the benefits of taking out an insurance policy with said company.

Now I do realize I may not be projecting an entirely fair picture of our friends from the world of insurance. Sweeping generalizations can be misleading and cynicism comes easily. That said, we have had some pleasant experiences, only over our mobile phones of course. But these have been few and far between. Nowadays you can count yourself lucky if you manage to even get a clear enough signal to follow what the person at the other end is saying. For the most part, even Kafka could not have written a more accurate account of the average Joe and his dealings with the world of insurance. The adjective Kafkaesque could very well have originated from the existential master’s reflections on his dealings with insurance companies, but that might just be my imagination working overtime. I am guilty of going walkabout here, so let me get back to the point. I’ll say this for our insurance friends. They leave absolutely nothing to chance. There is this ‘Act of God’ provision cunningly tucked away in very small print somewhere in their dossier, hidden craftily to ensure you miss it. Allow me to explain.

If your wee home gets washed away by flash floods that may be deemed an Act of God, you may or may not be entitled to cash in. Read the small print with a powerful magnifying glass. It is mystifying why the blame for natural disasters that cannot be properly accounted for should be laid at God’s door and whether the Almighty concurs with this train of thought, but it is what it is. On the other hand, if your home is destroyed by fire due to an unattended electrical fault, the insurance blokes might be reluctantly willing to cough up provided the ‘unattended’ part escapes their eagle eyes. It’s all about how you evaluate risk and the importance you attach to it.

In the final analysis, insurance is a bit like having to take a strong and bitter medicine. It is supposed to be good for you, but is awful to swallow. Here’s Sylvia Plath, acclaimed poet and the tragic author of The Bell Jar, who was clinically depressed and took her own life,on the subject – ‘My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust insurance salesmen.’

I rest my case.

With God on our side

Religious conflict dates back to The Crusades between 1096 and 1291

The words fill my head / And fall to the floor /That if God’s on our side /
He’ll stop the next war.
Bob Dylan.

This past week or so has witnessed members of leading political parties, not just leaning towards one political ideology or the other, as in left or right of centre (that’s old hat), but also implicitly or explicitly promoting one religious cause over another and going hammer and tongs at each other. So what else is new?  In so doing, words have been exchanged which, at best, can be described as incendiary. In India politics and religion are inextricably joined at the hip. Usually, such differences of opinion are expressed on our so-called television debates. These cacophonous exchanges can get incoherent, raucous and unpleasant, with the programme anchor making futile attempts to keep a lid on things and on an even keel; futile being the operative word. Oftentimes, the anchor himself or herself is the cause of the unseemly flare up.

However, things have never gotten completely out of hand, necessitating the party bosses to step in and take action against the errant loose cannons, namely, some of their garrulous spokespersons. That part of the script has now undergone a sea change as India’s ruling party has suspended two of its members for making utterances they would have been well-advised not to, over the airwaves. Or anywhere, for that matter. A couple of members from rival, opposition factions are also in the dock, presumably for retaliating in kind. Predictably, supporters of the ruling party claim that they were the ones retaliating under extreme provocation. Ultimately it all boils down to ‘your word against mine,’ or in the current Indian parlance, ‘tu tu mein mein.’ Whataboutery rules the day.  Notwithstanding, we are probably in for a long battle in the courts, and violent threats to life and limb, even beheading, being a constant refrain on the streets. In India, we regularly face such powder keg situations given how our politicians and populace react to religious tensions, each vying to take advantage of the fraught situation, and the latest cause of trouble has seen the ruling party take the extreme step of suspension. And not a moment too soon, many would aver.

A troubling sidebar. As if not to be left out of the action, a DMK politician in Tamil Nadu has decided to add fuel to the fire by calling his brethren to eliminate the already dwindling and, by and large, peaceable Brahmin community wherever they may be found. Apparently, he is seeking revenge for all the suffering the non-Brahmin lot allegedly endured historically under the ‘superior’ caste members. This fire-breathing activist goes by the improbable name of Rajiv Gandhi! When it comes to wreaking vengeance or inciting violence, it looks as if there are no half-measures to be entertained. The thirst for blood is insatiable. Not surprisingly, BJP firebrand lawyer and politician, Subramaniam Swamy, himself a member of the Brahmin denomination, has moved the Election Commission to take the strongest possible action against this misguided individual and his party, which has thus far maintained a stoic silence on the matter. Mr. Swamy, a feisty lawyer who will not hesitate to take any issue to court at the drop of a veshti, has threatened judicial action if he does not get satisfaction from the Election Commission. To be fair to Mr. Swamy, he is not playing the Brahmin victim card to gain sympathy. His position is simple. You cannot go around threatening mass extinction of communities in a civilized society and he now seeks that the political party that supports such statements themselves ought to be in the dock. The days of pogroms are a thing of the past. Or so we hope. We shall eagerly await further developments.

To revert to our original subject, the BJP’s action of suspending two of its spokespersons has been characterized cynically by the opposition parties as pandering to international criticism, particularly from the oil-rich Islamic nations in the middle-east. They have reasoned, with some logic, that when similar critical noises have been confined within the borders of India, the ruling dispensation has tended to look the other way. The Government, in turn, could riposte by saying ‘you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’ As objective outsiders looking in, most of us are left in the dark because we have not been clearly told precisely what the two spokespersons said that has so incensed the opposition and the minority community. And in what context? Suffice it to say that serious offence has been caused, taken and suitable punishment meted out. Apparently, Nupur Sharma of the BJP allegedly said some unsavory things about the Prophet, though what the provocation was is not entirely clear. That was enough for those who felt grossly insulted, to bay for her head. Quite literally. The television and print media have been scrupulously silent on the specifics of the issue, though the argument rages across all media channels. This means those who actually heard the remarks have spread the message about, with suitable ornamentation and the rest have been left to speculate on what might have been. In such an event the social media that thrives on canards, comes into its own and all hell breaks loose. Samuel Johnson once described patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. He could so easily have been talking about today’s insufferably self-righteous social media.

At the end of the day, I am left scratching my head wondering why human beings find it impossible to live with each other without polarizing themselves into all kinds of binaries – race and religion, to name just two. This is by no means a new phenomenon unique to India. The problem goes back several hundred years and never looks like coming to any kind of sensible and amicable end. Whether it is the Bible, the Koran or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, battles have been fought and blood spilt in an infructuous effort to arrive at any solution, leave alone the Final Solution. This continues even as I write this piece, and one must wonder how something sacred like religion, which is meant to guide humans towards leading a decent existence and point them in the right direction, should in fact be the cause of so much strife. I am reminded of King Henry II scolding one of the senior bishops from the clergy in Jean Anouilh’s play Becket – ‘All wars are holy wars, Bishop.’ Staying with historical literature, Queen Margaret’s ‘off with his head’ command in Shakespeare’s Henry VI can hardly find resonance in the 21st century. And so say all of us, but medievalism exists in the hearts and minds of so many constituents around the world and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid carrying out such barbarous deeds under any pretext they deem offensive to their tenets. Never mind the laws of the land and civil codes. It is an appalling situation because so many people are not really appalled by it.

Whether it was Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten cartoons on the Prophet, the simmering anger of Islamic fundamentalists has frequently taken a violent turn. The question of tilting at windmills, against the inalienable right of freedom of expression, struggles to meet at the crossroads. Perhaps the twain shall never meet.

I return to the here and now, when religious and political differences have become so toxic that even family members have to mind their Ps and Qs at social gatherings lest they commit an unpardonable solecism, without intending to do so. Bones of contention are crumbling through an irreversible case of osteoporosis.  We keep treading on hyper-sensitive toes and are unable to put forth arguments without offence, intended or otherwise, being taken. In a recent television debate (a misnomer if I ever heard one), while the participants appeared to lose their cool and their heads, my old friend, the multi-faceted speaker and brand-builder Suhel Seth, who is never short of a word, appeared to be the lone, sane voice. As he tellingly and gently chided, and I am paraphrasing from memory, ‘let us agree to disagree, but let us not become disagreeable.’ Seth might well have been echoing Paul McCartney’s famous lyrics, ‘speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’

Karl Marx’s memorable quote, ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ rings true today in ways he may or may not have envisioned.

Just like Greta Garbo

Kshama Bindu – going it alone

Sologamy: the act of marrying oneself in a public ceremony, also referred to as self-marriage or autogamy.

I have said this before and I will say it again. You never quite know what you are going to be confronted with when you open your newspaper of a morning. Every time I am stuck for a subject that is slightly out of the box to have a little fun with in my blogs, something or the other pops up out of my broadsheet and I am off and running. My weekly fix is safe for the following Sunday. On the odd occasion when the newspapers do not come to my rescue, I invariably fall back on mining something from my dim past. Nostalgia, aided by a dodgy and selective memory bank, is a firm ally.

Take a look at what I came across this week in one of the dailies I subscribe to. Prominently displayed on the front page, albeit in the bottom half was this stunning headline – ‘Baroda woman to wed herself in solo wedding.’ Not only did that catch my eye, I was riveted. My eyes may not have actually popped out but it was a near thing. The abject silliness of our politics with its same old, same old shenanigans, the never-ending Russia-Ukraine conflict and everything else globally associated with it, soaring fuel prices and the final, sordid denouement of the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial – all that paled in comparison with the startling news that a young lady in Baroda had dramatically decided to get married to herself. A few years ago, the same newspaper drew my attention to a villager who decided to marry a log of wood in the garb of his bride. That was excellent grist to my writing mill, but this latest example of extreme self-love takes the cake.

The enterprising lady in question, Kshama Bindu is from Baroda in the state of Gujarat, and none of this nonsense about actual name being withheld and so on. She was happy to be identified for what she was and what she believed in, namely, that her singular duality was an open book as she enters into holy matrimony with her other half. A radiant photograph of Kshama accompanied the report. It took us many years, but the legal system in India finally gave their stamp of approval to gays, lesbians and the LGBT community, much to their delight and relief. This is not to say that several millions of our populace are in favour of what they, in their narrow tunnel vision, see as unnatural and dangerous liaisons, but the law has spoken and that is that. However, the unique case of the admirable Kshama Bindu tying the traditional triple knot to herself does not seem to have any recorded precedent, at least not in India. It surely has to be a first of its kind. Mr. Guinness, he of the World Records fame, or his estate should take note.

The 24-year-old auto-bride-to-be is quite candid and deadly serious about her views on her unconventionality. ‘Ever since my teens I never wanted to get married. The tradition, somehow never appealed to me. But I did want to become a bride. I decided to marry myself. It’s called sologamy.’ Initially I thought she had coined the term. I was mistaken. The word exists and matches Kshama’s pithy definition. Our sologamist goes on to add, ‘maybe I am the first to set an example of self-love in our country where marriages are considered sacred.’ Bravo Kshama. Not only are you firmly set in your views, but you are blazing a new trail, one that exists in theory but given the short shrift in practice. Apparently, her liberal-minded parents have given their darling daughter their blessings. Some, like the trolls in our unsocial media, might take the view that Kshama suffers from an advanced case of solipsism. Bully for her, say I. Being focused on the self is not altogether a bad thing.

What is more, Kshama has even sorted out the bridal trousseau; white dhoti and kurta for the ‘mehendi’ ceremony and a sari for ‘haldi’ on the wedding day. Again, the duality motif presents itself. Perhaps she is drawing freely from Hindu mythology, where Ardhanarishvara is depicted as an androgynous composite of Shiva and his wife, Parvati. Experts in these matters tell us that if the inner masculine and feminine meet, one is in a perpetual state of ecstasy.  That’s not all. A temporary state of ecstasy is guaranteed as Khsama has planned a two-week honeymoon all by her wedded self in Goa, post the nuptial ceremony. Caps it all off to a nicety.

We know of several cases of men and women electing to remain single all their lives. Many of them come under the lens of close family scrutiny and often this gives rise to needless tensions. If you are educated, holding down a decent job and are perfectly capable of looking after yourself, I see no reason why there should be any pressure on a man or a woman to be compelled to take wedding vows. Leave well enough alone would be the way I would tend to look at it. That said, by any stretch of the imagination, what young Kshama has done is taking things to a different level. On the face of it, her decision not to marry is not all that uncommon, but one imagines that she is making a bold statement to the world at large that one can achieve lifelong contentment if one is happy in one’s own skin. That she has introduced this novel concept of getting married to herself, a powerful metaphor and announced the same to the whole world, appears to indicate a missionary zeal to spread the good word. She seems to be saying to anyone who is listening (and the media is, avidly), ‘hey folks, marriage to another being is not all that it is cracked up to be. Not by a long chalk. Why get into a lifelong relationship with all its attendant pitfalls? And why get pressurized into bringing more children into this world which is already bursting at the seams with the human race, and not coping?’ Not her exact words, but point eloquently made. It’s all very well, speaking biblically, for God to instruct Noah to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’ At the present time and given the world’s population explosion, God needs to employ a new script writer. (As I write this, news is just filtering through that, over the coming 50 to 100 years the world’s population, including India’s, will fall drastically due to lower fertility rates which will bring with it its own attendant problems. My response? That will be the day!)

I am not sure if Kshama Bindu actually asked those questions in a conscious manner but that is the message, if there be one, that we should all take from her remarkable decision. This is not to suggest that people should not get married and raise families; it is merely to appreciate a point of view that is drastically tangential to motherhood wisdom, and has plenty of courage and merit going for it. One should stand up and applaud the young lady, whose admittedly divergent way of going about things could excite all manner of comment. However, her heart is clearly in the right place. Hers is an act of self-acceptance. As she herself puts it so concisely, ‘people marry someone they love. I love myself and hence this wedding.’ As the ancient Romans used to say in Latin, quod erat demonstrandum or Q.E.D. as we wrote at the conclusion of a geometry rider or theorem. In schoolboy parlance, ‘Quite Easily Done.’ Or as Kshama, a product of the modern age might put it, ‘End of.’

Finally, to those of you who are puzzled by the title of this piece (what has Greta Garbo got to do with anything?), I can do no better than to quote these angst-ridden lines from one of Van Morrison’s most beautiful songs, and its appropriateness to this piece on Kshama Bindu.

Well I guess I’m going AWOL.
Disconnect my telephone
Just like Greta Garbo
I just want to be alone.

Greta Garbo – ‘just leave me alone.’

Celebrating World Bee Day

Anton Janša- the pioneer of beekeeping

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man. Albert Einstein.

Let us raise a toast to the humble bee. Or if you prefer, the bumble bee. I cannot assert with any degree of authority if the bee, be it ne’er so humble or bumble, can lay any genuine claim to humility as an inborn trait. I just put that in because the two words, humble and bumble, rhymed. Which is usually a good enough reason for any hack writer to get started on an article. Naturally, that raises the valid question as to why I woke up yesterday morning and decided to write a paean on the bee or, to give it its biologically generic name, Anthophila. My research on the subject further reveals that there are more than 20,000 known species of the bee and possibly, several hundred more variants. That’s a lot of bees to be getting along with, and the one thing you want to avoid are these flying insects buzzing around your head at any time. Get your head caught in one of these angry swarms, and your face could be rearranged forever – with the help of plastic surgery. If you spot a beehive anywhere in your line of vision, pause and admire a stunning marvel of nature, but on no account touch it.

On World Bee Day, however, I have no wish to dwell on the more unpleasant aspects of the bee’s behavioural characteristics. There are plenty of perfectly good things to say about the bee (honey for starters), and I shall manfully strive to focus on these. Particularly because we have been celebrating World Bee Day on May 20th, to mark the birth anniversary of Slovenian beekeeper Anton Janša, widely regarded as the pioneer of modern beekeeping. Seeing as he was born in 1734, it is clear that beekeeping as a hobby and profession has a hoary old tradition. I am somewhat handicapped by the fact that there exists no further useful information on Mr. Janša barring his strange obsession with these busy, winged creatures. This bee lover was of Austrian descent which explains his appointment as the first beekeeping teacher at the Viennese imperial court. From early childhood, he was as dedicated in his quest to suss out information about the bees as the latter themselves were in single-mindedly focusing on hive building and honey producing.

We can set the domestic scene. I imagine the young Anton coming home every evening, joyously showing off to his parents the many stings he has had to endure from his favourite insects. ‘Look mummy, I got seventeen red stings on my arms and cheeks today. Aren’t they lovely?’ Mummy freaks out and heads towards the kitchen looking for some ancient herbal ointment to ease the pain and lessen the swelling while muttering under her breath, ‘he will not listen, he will play with those bees.’ But the boy will have none of it. Anton had firmly made up his mind to keep bees – a few stings here and there were little more than a flea-bite, a necessary collateral damage.  Beekeeping was thus born not just as an interesting if dangerous hobby, but one that was to become a cottage industry of considerable financial significance in the years to come. The stings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to paraphrase Shakespeare and begging his pardon. Yes, we will come to the honey part of it presently.

On this very significant day, when we are doffing our hats to bees of every genus and recognising their immensely industrious nature, their innate architectural genius in building those picture-perfect beehives and honeycombs, it is not my intention to take you on a National Geographic type excursion into the habits and everyday chores of the bee species. If they reproduce like rabbits, I shan’t go into the hows and whys. Some of their habits are pretty weird, mind you, like the queen bee literally making a meal of her king bee, assuming there is one, if he fails to obey her slightest command. Not unlike her other distinguished colleague from the insect kingdom, the highly poisonous ‘black widow’ spider which wouldn’t think twice about gobbling up its kith and kin at the drop of a hat, having invited them to her parlour. At the human level, there have been dark suggestions that in 1567 Mary Queen of Scots did her husband Lord Darnley in, but it remained in the realm of rumour and saucy palace gossip. Unlike the Scottish queen, the queen bee from the Queendom of Anthophila does not leave anything to idle speculation. It goes about its murderous business with cannibalistic efficiency.

Moving away from the darker side of bee life, as we are celebrating World Bee Day and singing hosannas to Anton Janša and his pioneering efforts in the arcane hobby of beekeeping, my thoughts turned to music. So many songs have been written and sung, leaving the hit parades buzzing the world over. (This is where I introduce the honey motif.) I felt this is a good time to look at some of these memorable numbers by famous artists that celebrate the sweetness of honey and the bee that is responsible for bringing the sticky sweet syrup into our homes and our breakfast tables. We are, thanks to Hollywood, familiar with the many terms of endearment this sticky, gooey substance has inspired in men – honey / hon / honey-bunch / honey-kins and so on. From there to bursting into song is but a lilting step.

This is a purely personal and subjective selection and could be conspicuous by the songs that went missing from your list. So here is a list of my personal song favourites on the subject of bees and honey. In so doing, I once again bow to this singular, largely unsung individual, Anton Janša, who gave us something sweet to cheer and sing about even if, in the process, he was stung pleasurably. 

A Taste of Honey. I first heard this beautiful song performed by The Beatles though the original composition is credited to Scott / Marlow. The song featured in their debut album, Please Please Me in 1962. While there have been many other cover versions of this song, for me the young Paul McCartney sets the benchmark and shows early signs of his melodic crooning talent as he takes the lead – A taste of honey / Tasting much sweeter than wine. It was one of those rare Beatles albums where they covered other composers’ songs, till they became the most prolific singer-songwriters themselves.

Honey. Bobby Goldsboro’s version of this iconic 1968 hit was one of those many songs that was played over and over again at parties and get-togethers during our college days. It topped the charts all over the world with its evocative lyrics set to a simple, hummable melody. The lyrics were mushy, demanding Kleenex tissues readily at hand. It was a time when people thronged to cinema halls to weep over Love Story. A sampler. She was always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart / And I loved her so / And I surprised her with a puppy / Kept me up all Christmas Eve two years ago / And honey I miss you.

Honeycomb. Jimmie Rodgers was a hugely popular American singer in the 1950s with a string of hits to his name, none more popular than Honeycomb. Never a Sunday passed during Calcutta’s favourite radio programme, Musical Band Box, without this song being played. Again, a simple and singable song with the honeybee garnering all the attention. Well it’s a darn good life / And it’s kinda funny / How the Lord made the bee / And the bee made the honey / And the honeybee lookin’ for a home / And they called it honeycomb.

Sugar Sugar. This 1969 teeny-bop hit had children and adults dancing to the tune of The Archies’ bouncy track, based on an animated TV show inspired by the Archie comics. The lyrics, if you can call it that, does not exercise the mind, more the legs – Sugar, ah honey, honey / You are my candy girl / And you got me wanting you. As a stunning variant, the second line starts with Honey, ah sugar, sugar. Not exactly the Gettysburg Address, but the pop world loved it. What is more, the song was played in the command module of Apollo 12 on the way to the moon in November 1969!

Honey Pie. The Beatles again, in 1968, gave us this jaunty little ditty, a direct homage to the old-time, British music hall style. The lyrics, mawkish but nothing to write home about, suggests a hopeless admirer yearning for the company of a Hollywood starlet. You became a legend of the silver screen / And now the thought of meeting you makes me weak in the knee / Oh, honey pie / You are driving me frantic / Sail across the Atlantic / To be where you belong / Honey pie come back to me.

Tupelo Honey. One of Van Morrison’s most beautiful songs, the Irish troubadour uses the theme of the unique brand of honey produced in the city of Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace) in Mississippi, to describe the love of his life. You can take all the tea in China / Put it in a big brown bag for me / Sail right round all the seven oceans / Drop it straight into the deep blue sea / She’s as sweet as tupelo honey / She’s an angel of the first degree / Just like honey, baby, from the bee. The much-acclaimed 1997 film, Ulee’s Gold, features Peter Fonda as a beekeeper who treasures the honeyed nectar from the tupelo tree. Van Morrison’s title song was played over the end credits of the film.

Like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, on honey-dew have I fed in this piece, and it is all down to an unsung Slovenian beekeeper’s pioneering efforts nearly 300 years ago. Happy birthday, Anton Janša.

Note: all the songs mentioned in this piece can be accessed on YouTube or Spotify. Just key in the song and artist name.

Shuttling their way into history

Proudly holding aloft the Thomas Cup

Badminton is not as glamorous as cricket. Saina Nehwal

I called a close friend of mine a few days ago and breathless with excitement, told him that India had just won the Thomas Cup for the first time in the 73-year history of the tournament. I knew he was travelling and felt he might have missed this sensational nugget of sporting achievement. His reply was somewhat muted and laconic. ‘Ah, Thomas Cup. Would that be tennis? No can’t be, that’s Davis Cup. Whatever, we won something. Great. Refresh me, will you, about this Thomas Cup.’ I need proceed no further. Case rests. It neatly brought home to me our country’s obsession with one sport, and one sport only, to the exclusion, and dare I say detriment, of nearly all others. I say ‘nearly’ because once in a rare, black swan moment, we have experienced a few triumphs in tennis, the odd medal in athletics at the Olympic games (we went justifiably bananas over Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold), and a couple of notable individual performances in badminton at the All-England and elsewhere. Hockey, once India’s pride and glory, an Asian celebration of stickwork wizardry, has become a physical, soulless push n’ run, hit or miss, penalty corner affair played on synthetic surfaces. Barring occasional glimpses of success in the sub-continent, the game in its present avatar has become the preserve of beefy Antipodean and European brawn.

Other than that, the nation has been engrossed in a game, witheringly castigated by Rudyard Kipling, Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls / With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.’ Kipling, of course, was deriding his own countrymen for their misplaced priorities. It is significant that Kipling’s cricketing ‘flannelled fools’ come off slightly better than the footballing ‘muddied oafs’ in his pecking order. Not by much, but still. At the time Kipling wrote those lines during the turn of the twentieth century, the Indophile poet and novelist, born in Mumbai, was not to know that several decades later, India would outdo their erstwhile masters when it came to playing and following cricket. While the English still actively support cricket, most of them are obsessed with their ‘muddied oafs.’ The modern term for them, of course, is football hooligans.

That said, let me revert to badminton and India’s astounding success in Bangkok where our boys trounced their infinitely more fancied Indonesians by three matches to nil, rendering the remaining two scheduled matches redundant. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we wiped the floor with the former multiple champions. Predictably, the mainstream Indian sports channels did not telecast this historic encounter. They must be eating their hearts out. Look at all the ad revenue they could have garnered, the ravenous sods. I paid a pittance to trace it to a private cable channel. Let me come clean here. I was actually hunting for a channel that was streaming the ATP Masters 1000 tennis in Madrid and Rome. When I logged on to it, I discovered that they were dishing out the Thomas Cup badminton extravaganza as well. A fortuitous double delight. That is how I came to follow India’s historic march to badminton glory.

Apropos of the television coverage, it would not be out of place to mention that in 1980, when Prakash Padukone delighted all of India by winning the All-England Badminton Championships, our national television channel failed to telecast the game. Mind you, those days we only had Doordarshan, whose priorities were more in the areas of India’s family planning programmes and agricultural production highlights. Some enterprising spectator at Wembley had filmed part of that historic game from one side of the court only, and I recall watching a snippet of the elegant Padukone essaying a couple of delectable drop shots. His opponent was not visible! For the record, he was Liem Swie King of Indonesia. We took our jollies from such meagre scraps of unexpected generosity that came our way. Nowadays we wallow in an excess of sporting coverage and, ironically, place less value on them. More is less and vice versa.

The moment Kidambi Srikanth smashed his way to victory against his fancied opponent, the floodgates opened wide. Every single news channel on television stopped whatever else they were telecasting to focus on the Thomas Cup victory. The channels, in a competitive frenzy, tried to get hold of whoever was readily at hand to vent their considered views on this memorable win. ‘Remember, we brought this incredible news to you first, .005 seconds before the other channels jumped on to the bandwagon,’ they screamed. I am, naturally, paraphrasing with some poetic license. I say ‘they’ because all the channels said the same thing at pretty much the same time. What is more, the badminton celebrities comprising ex-champions and administrators plus a couple of de rigueur ministers as well, were to be seen in all the news channels repeating themselves ad nauseum. Can’t blame them, really. How much originality can you inject in your statements when you are faced with an intimidatingly long queue of television crews beating a path to your door.

The daily newspaper journos, who have the advantage of time to prepare their pages for the next morning’s issue, went about their coverage of the event more sensibly and methodically. Plenty of smashing photographs and some detailed, in-depth analyses by former players, coaches and inevitably, a few bullet points from our heroes on court who made this momentous victory possible. However, into each life a little rain must fall. We had to endure encouraging comments from the likes of the Prime Minister and other concerned Union Ministers, whose knowledge of the game, as one wag famously put it, could be written on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill; but we should not cavil. Our PM often invokes the Opposition’s ire by keeping mum on many issues. That he pens a few well-chosen words to congratulate a stirring sporting triumph should be warmly welcomed. Union and State ministers will invariably dole out some moolah by way of cash awards, which will then generate some spicy controversy over why the players were awarded and not their coach blah, blah, blah. Then there’s always the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli to chip in with their felicitous wishes on the subject. We can never get away from cricketers, never mind which sport happens to be the focus of attention. I have to say it surprised me not to see Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan adding their two-pice bit. Unless I missed it.

So, there we have it. Our boys (sporting heroes are always addressed avuncularly as ‘our boys,’ or ‘our girls’) have done the nation proud. They have served, tossed, smashed, dropped, feinted, driven and cleared their way to a first-ever Indian victory and taken their rightful place on top of the world badminton stage. Our Thomas Cup of delight is overflowing. Special mention must be made of India’s former badminton greats who, silently behind the scenes, coached and motivated our boys. Bravo Vimal Kumar, P. Gopichand and their dedicated teams. We now await a fitting response from P.V. Sindhu and company to return the compliment at the next Uber Cup. Finally, a request to all our television sports channels to look sharp next time round and not miss a trick.

 Love all, play.

(This article appeared in Deccan Chronicle dated May 21, 2022).

The dubious joys of domestic violence

A recent banner headline in one of Bangalore’s leading dailies made me sit up with a start and spill my morning cuppa all over my shirt front. The headline boldly announced, ‘Majority in Karnataka believe it’s OK to beat wives.’ They have it on good authority, as the bizarre conclusion is based on the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted under the auspices of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. As I am a long-time resident of the fictional Garden City (now an entirely inappropriate nomenclature), the findings did not fill me with pride. If my chest swelled at all, it would have been with shame. I hasten to add that this was an all-India survey but the findings in Karnataka were understandably given due prominence by a newspaper catering to the state. The study further reveals that a very large percentage of Indians, particularly in south India, opt for the convenience of consanguineous marriages, i.e., marrying into blood relations. Whether the resultant familiarity breeds contempt or not is open to question.

At this juncture, I would like to make it plain that I have no wish to bore you, dear reader, with numbing statistics on a variety of different issues pertaining to the justification of domestic abuse, as they are in the public domain. Speaking hypothetically, would it make a blind bit of difference to you if you knew that 72.5% of the men probed were wholly in favour of administering an upper cut followed by the knock-out punch to their wives for adding too much salt in the sambar, while 63.6% of the wives actually welcomed said punishment as an atonement for their misdemeanours? I thought not. Suffice it to say that the results of the study were shocking, not least because the sentiments in favour of clubbing the wives for all manner of specious reasons found favour, hold your breath, with men and women. I ask you! The victims, the female of the species, of this heinous practice appear to be willing sympathisers of and hark back to, the stone-age caveman syndrome.

That said, let us take a closer look at the various circumstances being listed by the NFHS-5 under which their respondents felt it was perfectly kosher for the husband to haul off and let his wife feel the benefit of an open palm while administering a tight slap, among other acts of pugilism. No mention is made, alas, of the wife returning the compliment in like measure.

For starters, let us dwell on the subject of cooking, which features right at the top of the priorities to ensure household bliss. As suggested earlier, the survey indicates, by some distance, that if the lady of the house failed to satisfy her lord and master’s gastronomic needs in some shape or form, he would be perfectly within his rights to let fly, all guns blazing. WHACK! Why is the rice undercooked? THUMP! You call this oily, dripping thing fried chicken? BIFF! Too little sugar in the pudding. CLANG! SPLAT! The last two are sounds emanating from the plate flung at the nearest wall, and the remains of the pudding splayed out against another wall. In short, the wife’s goose is cooked. But no harm done. We are assured by NFHS-5 that most of the husbands and wives of our country are entirely fine with this state of affairs. What is life without a spot of frenetic action at home, eh? Maybe they even get off on it.

We then move to that hoary, old chestnut – the in-laws. We can infer from this that if the wife should exhibit the slightest disrespect to her husband’s parents, there will be hell to pay. Popular Indian films over the years have, for the most part, portrayed the mother-in-law as a cruel harridan, ready to run to her darling son to complain about some misdeed or the other, real or imagined, mostly the latter. The son, who suffers from an Oedipus complex, then proceeds to remove his belt from his spreading waist and give his wife the lashing of her life, while Cruella watches with undisguised glee, and provides a spot of her own tongue-lashing from the sidelines. A mournful, tearful song by the stricken wife then follows. The father-in-law is usually a timid, shadowy figure cowering in the background. That is the celluloid template. Clearly, life imitates art. Our real-life husband will brook no insult to his mummy and daddy (particularly mummy), and he heartily approves of such retributive action as he deems fit, against his wife. And, as the all-knowing NFHS-5 informs us, so do most wives! So, what are we all beefing about? Our courts have also been yammering on endlessly about marital rape and the judges themselves are split, ergo confused, on how to deal with matters that take place ‘behind closed doors.’

To top it all, an elderly couple in Dehradun sued their son and daughter-in-law for not providing them with a grandchild after six years of wedded life. All they wanted, the poor grandpa and grandma, was a little toddler to play pin the tail on the donkey or hide-and-seek with in their dotage. Is that too much to ask? Instead, they were willing to settle with their beta and bahu for a piffling Rs.5 crores for ‘mental harassment.’ Conjugal bliss can go hang, as far as they were concerned. ‘Show me the money,’ as Cuba Gooding Jr. memorably urges Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Now there’s a smashing script for a Bollywood potboiler!

Apart from the reasons stated above in the survey, a wife can also be subjected to merciless beatings if she ‘refuses sex,’ ‘argues with husband,’ ‘goes out without telling husband’ and ‘neglects house and children.’ The majority of the husbands and wives questioned by the NFHS-5 were quite happy with such punishment being meted out to the long-suffering wife if she is found to transgress any of the above commandments. The line has to be drawn somewhere. I cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that most of the wives questioned get some sort of perverted kick being beaten up by the worse half, kick being the operative word. I do not wish to go into the gory details of reasons for sex refusal, but evidently, the old ‘headache’ excuse as apocryphally trotted out by Eve to Adam is no longer applicable. As for arguing with the hubby, it would be interesting to know what precisely constitutes an argument. ‘How dare you say Kejriwal looks like a third division clerk, you stupid woman! Take that. And that.’ More onomatopoeic BIFFS and POWS.

The harassed wife remonstrates. ‘Yesterday you threw the cactus potted plant at me for going out without telling you.’ Retaliates the husband, ‘That was only because I could not find the steaming hot iron at that precise moment. Thank your lucky stars. And by the way, you have been neglecting the house and the children. I still owe you a few juicy ones with the broomstick for that.’ The nulliparous wife is now beside herself with rage. ‘What children, you idiot! Are you non-compos mentis? We don’t have any children or haven’t you noticed? That’s why your parents are suing us for Rs.5 crores.’ Checkmate! And the argy-bargy raves on.

From what one can observe, it would be logical to conclude that the average housewife who is at the receiving end of all manner of domestic abuse, should be slamming the door on her husband and leaving in a huge huff to go live with her parents (if they are not suing her). Instead, the redoubtable NFHS-5 would have us believe that the wife is very much in consonance with the idea that she was born to be the burning martyr – again, the filmy cliché. I find that hard to believe and would be immensely interested in meeting some of them.

‘Hi there, Madam. I understand your husband slaps you around daily if the cup of tea is not quite heated to the exact temperature he demands. Surely, that can’t be true?’

‘Oh, that is perfectly true. He demands absolute perfection in everything I do, and the slaps are his way of ensuring I get it spot on. A saucy variant of the love bite.’

No, no NFHS-5, I think you’ve got it all wrong. I am sure you interviewed the couple together and the husband would have hit the roof if the wife expressed anything other than total approval of his tantrums. Grill the wife separately and see what happens. Wouldn’t she just love to take a roundhouse swing at her husband with the hairbrush? You betcha.

Surveys! They never get it right.

More than the sum of his parts

Stephen Fry delivering the MCC Cowdrey Lecture

My morning newspaper brings me glad tidings. The MCC or Marylebone Cricket Club to give it its full nomenclature, has just announced that its next President will be none other than the celebrated English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, polemicist, television presenter and film director, 64-year-old Stephen Fry. Not to mention that he is a gripping and side-splittingly witty public speaker. My research on the man also reveals that Fry has been a long-time advocate for mental health and has been President of Mind, the mental health charity, for well over a decade. The more astute and observant among you are probably reading this and going, ‘All that is very well but we do not detect the word cricket anywhere in that brief, though awesome, resume of MCC’s somewhat unusual choice for such an exalted position.’ On the face of it, dear reader, you would have made a telling point, but you would have been guilty of missing the wood for the trees. The MCC is not a body that takes decisions on a whim, even if this particular choice bears close scrutiny.

Around 20 years ago, on BBC Radio’s much-loved Test Match Special broadcast at the Oval, Stephen Fry was invited to the commentary box to have a chat with Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew at The Oval, a day on which Sachin Tendulkar made 54 on his 100th Test appearance. Amongst other things, including high praise for India’s little master, Fry shared his world view on the game. ‘It’s a whole cultural world and the marvellous thing is it’s not just a British one. I can’t bear the snobbery that says real cricket is cricket played within sight of a spire and an English field. It’s wonderful, village cricket, but cricket on a coir mat or on a beach or in an alleyway in Calcutta – that’s cricket as well. It’s a game that’s much bigger than its roots. That’s what’s so wonderful. Rather like the English language.’

That pretty much sums up Stephen Fry. A lifelong cricket lover, supporter and a patron of the MCC Foundation, the multi-faceted Fry was invited last year by the MCC to deliver its prestigious annual MCC Cowdrey Lecture, a sure sign that the once undisputed headquarters of world cricket had Stephen Fry in its sights for bigger things. Expressing his overwhelming emotions at the invitation to speak, Fry pointed out that he was only the second non-cricketer to be so invited after the Reverend Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa – ‘big shoes to fill.’ Fry will take over as President of the MCC from former England women’s captain, Clare Connor in October this year. Connor had notched up a unique distinction when she became the first woman president of the MCC in 2021.

While Fry’s love for the game of cricket needs no elaboration, his appointment to this august position underscores his deep concern and anguish at some of the darker aspects that have bedevilled the game in recent years. Yorkshire cricket’s infamous racism row last year, when Pakistan-born cricketer Azeem Rafiq had to face racial abuse in the dressing room, had the British thespian feelingly expressing his solidarity with the victim. ‘When he (Rafiq) said today that he didn’t want his son to go anywhere near cricket my heart fell to my boots. But actually, that simple statement crystallises everything, it gives us a clear human image that says it all. It is a rallying cry.’ In a typical example of Fry flamboyance, he described the handling of that abhorrent incident in Yorkshire as having exuded a ‘mephitic stink.’ He rounded off his observations on this unsavoury incident thus, ‘Unless all our nation’s sons and daughters with the talent and desire to have a life in cricket are confident that cricket will want to have a life with them, the spirit of cricket, its very flame, will flicker and go out. Let’s dedicate ourselves to ensuring that that will never happen.’ That is the kind of language one would like to hear from a president-elect.

While I was driven to hastily pen this appreciation of Stephen Fry’s rise to cricketing stardom, in a manner of speaking, I cannot but take this opportunity to recall some of his brilliant moments on print and television. His comic double act with fellow British actor Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry & Laurie and the same partnership delighting fans the world over in their televised interpretation of P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal creations, Jeeves and Wooster, his hilarious partnership with Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson in the memorable Blackadder series – we can watch these again and again and never tire of them.

Fry’s atheistic views on religion saw him take on the high and mighty of theology without taking a backward step. He often stood solidly side-by-side with friend and fellow non-believer, the brilliantly coruscating late Christopher Hitchens. You, dear reader, could do a lot worse than spend a relaxed evening watching these titans at their eloquent best on YouTube. Lest I forget, Stephen Fry’s role in the film Wilde, in which he portrays the protagonist, author and playwright Oscar Wilde, is so eerily uncanny. That Fry is a dead ringer for the controversial Wilde and given Fry’s own unabashed sexual orientation which meshes with Wilde’s, one could be forgiven for mistaking the one for the other. Fry is happily married to British comedian, Elliot Spencer, who is 30 years his junior. Stephen Fry even gained a brief period of notoriety when he was sent to prison for three months for a credit card fraud at the age of 17. Never a dull moment.

As a writer, Stephen Fry is an unmitigated delight. From his hilarious columns which are available in book form (Paperweight, The Stars’ Tennis Balls), his autobiographical works (The Fry Chronicles, More Fool Me), his magnificent retelling of Greek myths (Mythos, Troy and Heroes) – just a few dishy morsels from a wide and impressive body of work.

There you have it. Stephen Fry, a man of many parts and I may even be guilty of merely scratching the surface in describing his astonishing variety of achievements. In inviting such an extraordinary personality to helm the affairs of the MCC for the period 2022-23, the cricketing mavens at Lord’s should be warmly congratulated for their choice. One is confident Stephen Fry will carry out his responsibilities as MCC’s President with erudition, compassion, skill and above all with his renowned wit and humour – qualities the game and the world need more than ever, right now. The silver-tongued orator and soon-to-be cricket boss once famously said, Better sexy and racy, than sexist and racist.’

May the force be with you, Stephen.

(This article appeared in Deccan Chronicle dated May 8, 2022).

The Interview

Waiting to be called in

As far back as I can remember, my first job interview happened when I was around 20 years of age. ‘Management Trainee’ was the buzz word going around, and I am speaking of the late 60s. The recruitment pages in the newspapers were crammed to bursting with adverts for management trainees, fresh out of college and wet behind the ears. The elite Indian Institutes of Management were still finding their feet. Talent spotting with a vengeance were well-known corporate houses along with private and public sector banks. Not to be outdone, candidates with good deportment and communication skills (in English naturally) were avidly sought for jobs in tea gardens. I lived in Calcutta and the tea garden contiguity was fertile ground for employment. Today, there is a great deal of furore over whether Hindi should be considered the link language for the nation or not, but that will keep for another day. At the time I am talking about, a job in a reputed tea garden was a particularly well-paid billet, primarily to compensate for the lonely life one was expected to lead in remote and hilly even if beautiful, surroundings.

 From the little I could gather via third party sources, a management job in a tea estate largely involved driving around in a jeep through lush vegetation and supervising crop rotation (whatever that meant), tackling a few labour issues and returning home to a lovely bungalow with a private garden; a quick shower and off the to the nearest club, about a 90-minute bumpy drive; play darts and drink the house down with your colleagues. An early marriage was highly recommended, at least by anxious parents. No worries about being stopped by the local cops on the way back home asking you to breathe into a tube. If anything, the cops would have shoved you into the slammer had you turned up sober! That was the kind of job it was. Nice work if you could get it, some might say. Well, I nearly got it, were it not for a couple of inadvertent missteps during the interview.

Unlike in the other sectors mentioned earlier, like banks and well-known business houses based in our bustling metros, the entire interview process for an executive trainee job in a tea garden was not particularly rigorous. The short essay you were asked to submit along with your application form, appeared to suffice. Why am I seeking a professional career in tea? in not more than 300 words was the task given, and I felt I had got it all down pat, including a couple of quotes from Shakespeare. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this essay, because nearly all the questions at the interview were drawn from what one wrote about why a career in tea appealed to one. So there I was, along with twenty other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants, clutching a file folder containing my precious certificates, waiting to be called in for the grilling.

As I was somewhere around 7th or 8th on the list of interviewees, some of us eagerly crowded around the candidates who came out after the interview to ascertain the nature of the questioning and the personalities of the officers seated on the other side of the table. This was a waste of time and effort because the candidates just interviewed never gave you an accurate account of the proceedings for fear you might gain an unfair advantage and pip them at the post. I just sat back, waited patiently while muttering, under my breath, some material I had read up about Assam, Darjeeling, CTC, Earl Grey and so on. Frankly, I have no idea why we candidates did this. Mugging up some stuff at the last minute, depending on which company you are being interviewed by, in the hope of impressing. The managers do not expect you to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the business they are in, neither are they going to question you on the same. They are there to assess potential, personality and bearing – the crease of your shirt and the knot of your tie, that sort of thing. Let me stress once more that I am talking about what used to happen over 50 years ago. Things are very different to-day.

Soon enough, the bell tolled for me. I quickly adjusted my Half-Windsor knot and walked in a nervous gait to the conference room. There were three gentlemen seated comfortably, two of them smoking. One of the trio motioned to me to sit across the table in a straight, hard-backed chair. To be perfectly clear, I was asked to sit on the chair, not across the table. After the cursory good morning, I did as I was bid. What is it about job interviews that you always feel the chaps who are asking the questions are out to get you? Stuff and nonsense, of course. They are probably very sweet guys, who go home to their wives and children and read a good book or watch something wholesome on television. I think it’s just some sort of paranoia that afflicts the candidates. The bloke sitting in the middle (I marked him down as the leader of the pack) kicked off the proceedings.

‘Right Mr. Subrahmanyan, or let’s keep things informal, shall we? Suresh it is. Why have you applied for a job in our company?’

I thought that was a stupid question, but I didn’t show it. ‘Well Sir, I am in the market for a decent job and you had advertised in the papers looking for candidates with my kind of qualifications.’

The man in the middle looked a bit muddled but he pressed on. ‘Yes, we can see that. I was looking for a less obvious answer. What I meant was why our company in particular. Do you have a special fondness for the tea industry?’

‘Actually Sir, I am not sure how to answer that. At home we don’t even drink tea. Filter coffee is the beverage of choice. As you might have guessed, I come from a Tam-Bram family. We are big on filter coffee. However, I heard tell that this advertised job is for a position in the tea gardens. I thought a change of scene from the usual city-based jobs, not to mention a change of beverage, would make for a diverting experience.’

The gentleman to the left of centre now piped up. ‘Tell me Suresh, if I’ve got your name right, have you ever drunk tea at all? And before you answer, let me assure you that coffee is also available at the tea gardens. Not sure about the filter, though.’

Smug character. What’s not to get right about a simple, two-syllable name like Suresh, I thought to myself. I bashed on. ‘In our college canteen Sir, we all drank tea because we could not afford coffee. However, we only had the canteen staff’s word for it that they were serving tea. For all we knew, it could have been warm water with some brown sludge mixed in and a sprinkling of sugar. College canteens! I am sure you have experienced it, Sir.’ A touch of levity, I felt would go down well.

Nobody laughed, not even a semblance of a smile. ‘Never mind about us,’ continued the smug one, ‘where do you see yourself ten years from now in our company?’

That was the killer. Every person who has interviewed me has had this horrid question tucked up his sleeve. I saw it coming but could do nothing about it, like one of Bumrah’s slower deliveries. I mean, this was my first job potentially, and I was not even sure about landing it and here was this guy asking me about ten years down the road. I decided not to hold back.

‘With due respect Sir, I know nothing about your company. Not yet anyway. I don’t even know if you will be offering me the job. Right now, I am unable to think beyond that, and my thoughts are all about my interview tomorrow with a Delhi based multi-product conglomerate. Ten years from now? Who knows? Maybe I’ll be sitting where you are right now.’ I was pretty certain I had blown it. The sheer effrontery! The interview was all but over. I had nothing to lose. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought to myself. I proceeded to ask, ‘Excuse me Sir, but may I ask a question?’

‘Shoot,’ said the middle man. Ah, if wishes were horses.

‘I see that the person on your left has not asked me a single question. Looks like he was trying to stare me down, while blowing perfect smoke rings. Why is that? Is it some sort of passive-aggressive, psychological strategy to put me off my stroke?’ The person on the left merely smiled enigmatically and scribbled something down on his notepad. The man in the middle said ‘Thank you, we’ll let you know.’ The magic words, ‘we’ll let you know,’ meaning my goose had been well and truly cooked.

I then went through the rounds of some well-known companies. One of them asked me to draft a mission statement for them. I quietly demurred as I did not know what that meant. I was on a mission myself, namely, to find a job to suit my temperament. That is how I stumbled into advertising. They said the tea garden job involved too much drinking and having a good time. Guess what? Advertising had all of that, and more. And lots of exciting work at the ad agency. At the end of the interview, they asked me one question. ‘You speak and carry yourself well, but can you hold a drink?’ They were pulling my leg and my response matched their spirit, ‘Certainly Sir, I’ll be your bartender at all the agency parties. I’ll hold as many drinks as you wish.’

I got the job.

How about some Stricken Born Poop?

Scanning the menu

There are things that happen to us at various points in our lives on a consistent basis, simple and apparently inconsequential things, that we never give a second thought to. On reflection, however, and with the passage of time, these little happenings begin to acquire a somewhat deeper, philosophical tinge. Things that are sent to try us. In case you are wondering what this orotund introduction is all about, let me quickly cut to the chase. Take for instance, an everyday matter of ordering food at a restaurant. There you are, seated comfortably, along with your wife (or partner) and another couple, oblivious to some gormless fusion music playing in the background. A happy foursome, enjoying the liberty of post-pandemia, to coin a term. While you are still giving the menu the once-over, the waiter hoves into view with a cheery, ‘And how can I help you with the menu this evening, Sir? Some wine to start with, perhaps? I could recommend the Burgundy red. Or the Sauvignon blanc, if white is your preferred tipple.’ A vintner in the making, our waiter. Fact of the matter is while you’ve been intently studying the menu, you haven’t actually been paying any attention to the items. It is possible that the obscene amounts mentioned on the right-hand column, particularly the wine section, have distracted your attention from the actual offerings on the menu. You then turn to the waiter with a ‘We are still studying the menu, please come back in ten minutes, thanks.’ And the waiter vanishes, like he was never there.

Before I get to the actual ordering, a quick word about the menu itself. Barring a few sensible eateries, most restaurants have now decided they will not waste good money designing and printing lavish menus, where frequent, blotchy redactions have to be made for items currently unavailable for some reason or the other, as well as to incorporate frequent price changes owing to cost escalations, GST and unbridled greed. ‘Sorry Madam, we are fresh out of avocado, but might I recommend the Waldorf salad?’ Shades of Basil Fawlty!

 Instead, what they do now is to digitize the menu. So, when you ask for the outsize printed thing, the waiter points to a glass-encased card prominently displaying a squiggly design, like a QR Scan. In fact, I am informed it is a QR Scan, silly old me. Then you go through the elaborate and embarrassing process of holding your mobile phone in front of the display. When nothing happens, the ubiquitous waiter, reappears miraculously. He obligingly takes the mobile from you, ever so gently, turns the phone round the other way and says in an unctuously superior tone, ‘This way, Sir.’ You are tempted to tell him tersely that you were not dropped on the head as a child, but hey presto, the menu, all 125 pages of it, is in the palm of your hands in a type font and size that is barely readable. Let me rephrase that, it is completely unreadable. You now enter the rarefied world of scrolling – up and down. The process is repeated for all the four of us, and we are now ready to order, our mobile phones just a click away. Sadly, the establishment does not provide a magnifying glass to enable easier reading. One can, of course, expand the type by the simple expedient of the employment of your thumb and forefinger, but then half the text goes out of the screen and you are back to square one!

Given that we are not enjoying the first flush of youth, the digital menu is the cause for much squinting and removal and replacement of spectacles. If you ask me, we end up making quite a spectacle of ourselves. The waiter is still hovering obsequiously.

I clear my throat and announce, ‘I think I will have the Stricken Born Poop for starters,’ thus setting the ball rolling for the others to follow.

The waiter, looking puzzled, says that there is no such item on the menu. I give him a stern look. ‘Look, my friend, it clearly says Stricken Born Poop on your digital menu. Under Soups and Starters. I have no idea what it is but I am feeling adventurous, so let’s have some steaming hot poop, pronto.’

‘Sir, what you have ordered is Chicken Corn Soup. Perhaps the lettering was not very clear on your mobile. Try increasing the brightness, Sir.’ Tactful chap.

‘Ah, I see. Right then, Chicken Corn Soup it is. Pity. I was so looking forward to some stricken poop, just born.’ The waiter smiles patronizingly and turns to the others, who he hopes would be blessed with keener eyesight.

‘No starters for me,’ declares my wife. ‘I’ll go straight to the mains. Chicken a la Kiev sounds good, if I’ve read that right. And by the way, should that not be spelt Kyiv, or are my eyes also deceiving me? I read about Kyiv every day in the papers.’

‘Sorry Madam, that item is banned ever since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. The management is sensitive to the feelings of our Russian and Ukrainian clients. Never mind how you spell Kiev. Or Kyiv.’ And cheeky, as they come.

My friend pipes up, ‘That’s taken care of my Molotov cocktail, I guess. And my Russian salad goes up the spout as well. Why did we choose this place, anyway? How is it you haven’t banned falafel, shawarma, hummus and all those Middle Eastern dishes? They are forever at war in that part of the world, aren’t they?’

Before the harried waiter could frame a suitable response, my wife rejoins the discussion with a curt ‘I take it you can manage the Shepherd’s Pie on digital page 79? Please place the order immediately before Britain declares war on Russia. And don’t spare the mashed potatoes.’

The waiter scribbles something on his pad and looks expectantly at my friend’s wife, who has remained silent thus far. She, fortunately, does not seem unduly fussed about the political ramifications on the restaurant’s food menu. Easy come, easy go was her motto in life. She then places the mobile phone very close to her eyes, adjusts her spectacles and pronounces gaily, “I’ll settle for, to start with, Honey Chirri Flied Potatoes followed by that old-time classic, Chicken Flied Lice.’ Let me quickly add that it was a multi-cuisine eatery.

The waiter then gets into the spirit of things and responds with a smart ‘I am afraid we are fresh out of lice madam, flied or otherwise, but I can get the chef to do you a plate of delicious Chicken Fried Rice. But if you insist on lice, there’s that louse of a street dog sitting outside the gates that might be willing to delouse himself in exchange for a marrow bone. ’And we all have a good chuckle, though I felt he was overstepping the limits for a waiter. I told myself I should tip him handsomely for the unsolicited entertainment. One rarely comes across hotel waiters with an ironic sense of humour.

That said, cuisine life in a touchy-feely-menu-less world is nothing to write home about. It has its uses if you are ordering food from home online. Seductive photographs of various dishes in all their lip-smacking splendour serve a purpose, enabling us to tap our fingers on the chosen item. Notwithstanding the fact that more often than not, the pictures flatter the actual items that arrive an hour later, often cold and unappetizing. However, when you are seated comfortably in a restaurant, the last thing you want is to bury your head in your mobile phone, squinting tightly, asking the waiter if Camel Custard under ‘Just Desserts’ on digital page 124 is veg or non-veg, not counting the eggs. Even the poor waiter stops seeing the funny side of things.

Thus, I return to my original premise. Apparently insignificant things in life happen for a purpose. It may not be immediately clear what that purpose is, but some unseen power that directs our destiny, moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform. Today it is menu cards in restaurants that gradually disappear from our lives. The anticipated death of the newspaper has been greatly exaggerated, though environmentalists may ensure that eventuality in the not-too-distant future. Thanks to the internet of things, the ominous signs are already there. Cassette tapes, vinyl records and CDs are fast becoming one with the dinosaur, the rarity only adding to their false snob value. Hullo Spotify. In the meanwhile, menu or no menu, I am making a beeline for quality restaurants in the company of close friends, before food as we know it and conviviality, disappear altogether. We could be swallowing ‘food pills’ three times a day that provide all the vitamins and nutrients our bodies need. Like our astronauts in space. Convenience foods will acquire a completely new meaning. I hope by then, I will be one with the dinosaur.

Here comes the bride, all dressed in…

I am gutted. Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor tied the nuptial knot in Mumbai a few days ago. Our television news channels, who have an uncanny sense of what the public wants to see and hear, went ape over the affair. Zelensky and Putin can continue to go hammer and tongs at each other, communal clashes in various parts of India can rage, Boris Johnson tries to save Rishi Sunak’s blushes, Covid appears to have been a closed chapter in India, at least for now and the reverberating IPL has become a bit of a yawn. However, the power couple #RanLia’s (preceded by the compulsory hashtag) power wedding gets top billing. Incidentally, coupled, hash-tagged acronyms (#RanLia) are all but de rigueur.

That’s all very well, two young and charismatic stars of our silver screen, hearts aflame, go riding off into the sunset for their honeymoon, while the end credits roll to the schmaltz of A.R. Rahman’s music. The pertinent question is, why am I gutted? What is it to me if a high-profile Bollywood couple decides to walk down the aisle, in a manner of speaking? Or, as some of my Bengali friends in Calcutta might have inimitably put it, ‘What goes my father?’ I’ll tell you what goes my father. The simple fact that I was not invited.

You, dear reader, can very well ask why I should consider myself eligible to feature on the wedding invitation list of Bollywood stars. Virat and Anoushka (#AnoRat) ignored me as did Ranvir and Deepika (#RanIka) and several others before them, so why all this mooning about feeling sorry for myself? That is a valid question and my answer may not satisfy your slavering curiosity. Be that as it may, this is how I view the entire scenario. The image managers of the Kapoor and Bhatt clans decide that they must have the entire country drooling over the various stages of this big-time affair. Pre-publicity commenced well over a month ago. Plenty of social media chit-chat, and a spot of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, then the hyperventilating newspaper reports, the colour supplements and glossies full of specially orchestrated photoshoots – all carefully planned and executed to whip up the idolatrous fans’ insatiable appetite for more of the same. At which point, the ground is well laid out for the television channels to take over.

Once the audio-visual medium gets into the act, with its ability to go the whole hog with son et lumiere, all hell breaks loose. Each channel tries to go one over the other, and they all go over the top. I sit and watch all this incredulously, while my heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. I was feeling the kind of melancholy that Keats must have experienced, not because he was not invited for a big-ticket wedding but for other reasons not relevant to this discussion. One of the news channels devoted well over half-an-hour chattering about what happened at the wedding with stills and moving pictures, often repeating themselves. Even informal dance rehearsals for the reception jamboree were not left out. Here’s Ranbir lifting Alia clean off the ground, there’s Alia and Ranbir in a tight embrace and yet again (wait for this), the sexy couple kissing each other. Not just any dainty peck on the cheek, oh no, but a full-on, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Bollywood morphs into Hollywood. Not sure which of the two needed the resuscitation after that, but there you go. The blushing Bollywood bride, side-by-side with her uxorious Bollywood husband. This is the New India. At least, the way Bollywood sees it in real life and on celluloid. As for the smooching, I am no prude. If Bollywood feels it’s time India went for the Full Monty, so be it.

Pressing on, I was quite tickled by how some of the television girls (it was mostly girls who were assigned this task), standing outside the imposing gates of the Kapoor residence, kept describing all manner of irrelevant and self-evident minutiae as events unfolded. ‘We now see Ranbir stepping out of the car, oh sorry, that was Saif Ali Khan and out the other door comes Kareena. Wow, they look gorgeous. Saif is wearing a special outfit designed by Manish Malhotra, wow he’s so hot, while…’ She was about to say something about Kareena’s sari, but just then she had to rush in another direction as a swank vehicle drew up. Off screen, you hear voices screaming things like, ‘Kareena, where is Karishma?’ and other similar inanities. The girl with the microphone could not have been more than 17 years old and her camera person ran after her puffing and panting. ‘Look, look. I think that’s Alia just arriving. Look at that unbelievably brilliant sari she is wearing. Your channel has learned that it was designed by Sabyasachi. No other channel knew, we are the first to bring this breaking news to our viewers. We will try and get Sabyasachi later for an interview, if he is here.’ If he is here and been invited, the excitable girl might have added.

At this point, we cut back to the studio anchor, who is breathlessly conducting affairs from HQ. She takes the viewer through an audio-visual slide montage of the burgeoning romance between Alia and Ranbir, who their mutual friends are, how Ranbir’s mother, yesteryear star Neetu Singh simply dotes on Alia while providing a choked tribute to her late husband and Ranbir’s dad, Rishi, how Ranbir went down on his knees, filmy style (what else?) to propose to his sweetheart and then literally swept her off her feet. The storyline goes into an endless repetitive loop during this televisual feast, and the only thought that goes through my mind is, ‘Perhaps it is just as well that I did not receive that gilt-edged invite.’ In all probability, I would have scanned the bottom of the card for the RSVP mail id, sent out a polite regret letter (‘Down with the flu, could be Covid, better not take a chance, blessings etc’), and sent them a cheque for Rs.21/-. The additional rupee is down to superstition, to ensure continued prosperity. And if you think Rs.21/- is a pathetic sum to gift, I assure you, for Ranbir and Alia even Rs.2 lakhs would have been pathetic. Erring on the side of caution was a wiser option.

It would be appropriate to add at this juncture that pretty much all the news channels had locked on to this glam wedding story. Irrespective of which channel you were hooked on to, the logos on rival microphones jostling for space were all too visible. Anyhow, while I was surfing, one of them had managed to get a famous fashion designer to talk to them and the brief interview went something like this. I cannot mention the name of the designer because I could not recognize him and the channel felt it was superfluous to display his name, given that he was a national celebrity. That tells you how much I know about fashionistas.

‘We are thrilled to speak with one of India’s foremost fashion designers. He is a very busy man, but he has condescended to spare a few minutes exclusively for our channel,’ crooned the anchor.

‘Actually, I can spare just three minutes because 12 other channels are also waiting to interview me exclusively. So, less with the introduction and on with your question.’

‘Right. Tell us, how did it come about that you were selected to design Alia’s trousseau for the wedding.’

I switched the television set off. I had had enough of this. On and on they’ll go about the mehendi, the wedding, the reception, the challenges of choosing the right material and colour to match the skin tone, blah, blah. blah. I am surprised they didn’t interview the celebrity chef and run through the entire wedding menu for us to salivate over. Or perhaps they did and I missed it altogether. Boy, am I glad I did not get that invitation, and don’t say ‘sour grapes.’ I turned the TV on again and switched to CNN. Putin was mumbling something unintelligible in Russian. His skin tone was not looking awfully bright. The dark suit only accentuated his desiccated pallor. I think he should have retained a fashion consultant. Or stylist. Or something.