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The Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio

The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.’ Sir Henry Royce on the value proposition of the Rolls-Royce automobile.

A very good friend of mine texted (is that even a word?) me the other day, all the way from Toronto, to tell me about a new car he is about to become the proud owner of. I could sense by the tone of his message that he was quite chuffed about the prospect. Although one could not actually see him, one had little doubt that he was preening. Given that he is a self-confessed ‘absolute automotive car nut,’ that he has never missed a ‘serious auto show’ in London, Europe and the United States, his bubbling anticipation came as no surprise. To round off this little true tale, my friend was about to trade in his Audi S6 in exchange for an Alfa Romeo, model name Quadrifoglio (four-leaf clover). If that sounds distinctly Italian, that’s because the famous Alfa Romeo brand is made in Italy. Any Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton can tell you that. It should come as no surprise that the Alfa Romeo has been a popular choice with Hollywood movies. Depending on the vintage, the brand has appeared, amongst others, famously in The Graduate, The Godfather and a brief cameo with James Bond in Octopussy. James Bond’s car brand of choice, of course, was the British made Aston Martin. Naturally, old fruit. My pal from Toronto described his new acquisition as ‘a real beauty with the sweetest V6 turbo-charged and fuel-injected engine you’ll ever see.’ Well I mean, he was head over heels. What can you say after that?

I felt absolutely delighted for this car buff. Anything that makes him happy is kosher with me, was the way I saw it. If cars are what he gets his jollies from, who am I to cavil? The only problem was I knew very little about cars. Although I don’t hold with libertine, genius footballer of yesteryear, the mercurial and sadly late George Best who famously said, ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, women and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’ By implication and a process of elimination, that would suggest money spent on booze, women and fast cars is money well spent! Manchester United’s pride and joy, the brilliant midfielder’s stunning good looks and heady lifestyle earned him the sobriquet, ‘El Beatle.’ The Beatles even composed a hit song, ‘Baby you can drive my car, yes I’m gonna be a star.’ There was the inevitability of a Greek tragedy in George Best’s untimely demise.

Speaking for myself, I see the motor car as a utilitarian vehicle that should safely transport you from point A to point B. Particularly in the Indian context, any car that can achieve this modest goal negotiating impossible traffic conditions, while providing you with decent mileage for your unconscionable spend on a litre of petrol. Nearly one hundred rupees, last time I checked. And rising. Something to do with whatever is happening in the Middle East, unless I am much mistaken. Failing which, blame it on Covid. That said, my own ambition has always been to own a car that is fuel-efficient at a steady 40 kmph and unlikely to break down without warning. Which was often the case in the 60s and 70s in India, and never mind which town or city you happened to be happily tooling along in. My father always maintained that anybody driving slower than him is an idiot and anyone going faster than him is a maniac. I have seen him wave on bullock carts to overtake him! In your sturdy Ambassador, Standard Herald or Fiat as you chuntered along in stately fashion, your car can and did, without so much as a by-your-leave, down tools and screech to a grinding halt. At which point, two or three grimy faced urchins miraculously turned up and promised to set your car straight for a nominal consideration. There are conspiracy theories behind the altruistic machinations of these roadside ‘mechanics,’ but that is another story.

In more recent times in India, we have moved away from those antediluvian days. Today, if your Skoda, Ford or Hyundai should give up the ghost at the dead of night in the middle of the highway, no spotty-faced kids will rush up to help with spanner and sundry tools. Even if they did, you would do well to shoo them away. Unless you wish to bung a spanner in the works! No, no. Nowadays, you call the helpline of your car brand’s dealer franchise and their service chappies will rush to your aid. In about four hours. I am being uncharitable here. Sometimes they make it in less that two hours. Fair’s fair. They know their onions and usually solve your problem. In a worst-case scenario, they will tow away your car to their well-appointed garage to attend to its ailment. Depending on the terms of your service contract they may even provide you with a badli vehicle till your car is ready. You will also be served with an invoice that will give you severe indigestion and peptic ulcers needing urgent medical attention, but then, you can’t expect everything. You want your fluffy omelette? You had better be prepared to break some eggs. Serves you right for driving at that time of night.

Anyhow, to get back to our original subject of cars and the pride of ownership, let me narrate my own experience when I went to look at some swank dealer showrooms to get a feel for contemporary models. I did, of course, speak to some of my friends who are quite au fait with the automobile world, to seek their opinion. The trouble with that is that if you ask ten people about their preferred choice of car model, you will get ten different views. ‘If your budget is modest, get a mid-range Maruti. Excellent value for money and wide service network.’ ‘Why go for a Skoda when you can get a Volkswagen. Same company, same car, only more expensive. But you can flaunt the VW brand!’ Enough to confuse even the most knowledgeable, leave alone a novice like me.

Sure enough, I walked into this luxury showroom of a well-known car brand and all their models (to suit every pocket) were brilliantly displayed, shining in multi-coloured resplendence. Before I could say Alfa Romeo, a young lad proffered a tray of orange juice which I hesitantly accepted, making it clear that this committed me to nothing. Soon enough, a bright young sales person, dressed smartly in house colours and sporting the dealer franchise’s logo, sidled up and spoke in a confident tone.

‘Looking for a car, Sir?’ was his opening gambit. I could not say I was just browsing as it was not a book shop, but I still came up with a good riposte.

‘No, I am actually in the market for a high-end mobile phone but now that I am here, I may as well look for a car.’ I thought I’d cut him dead, but he was made of sterner stuff. They train them well, these car dealerships. Whether he caught my ironic shaft or not I can’t say, but he bashed on regardless.

‘Ha ha, Sir. Nice one. Now this particular model you happen to be looking at is an absolute peach.’

‘If you say so,’ I replied guardedly. ‘Anything else you wish to tell me, other than that it’s a peach or a plum, or whichever fruit takes your fancy?’

‘I can see you are in good form, Sir. Everything from the middle of the bat, if you’ll forgive my cricketing analogy. This is a mid-range car, Sir. The petrol engine is 999 cc. It is available with the manual and automatic transmission. Depending upon the variant and fuel type this model has a mileage of 16.47 to 18.24 kmpl. It is a comfortable 5-seater and has a length of 3971mm, width of 1682mm, a wheelbase of 2470mm with matching state-of-the-art radial tyres. Air conditioning is efficient and is not a drag on petrol consumption. Wi-fi and GPS enabled, excellent sound system for radio and music, hands free mobile phone facility, you will lack for nothing. All this for just Rs.7.50 lakhs, all inclusive.’ You could see from his spiel, he had mugged up the sales manual by heart.

‘Gosh, just seven and half lakhs, eh? At this price you’re practically giving it away. Looks like Diwali has arrived early for me. As for all the technical gobbledegook, you could easily have saved your breath. I followed not a single word. Went clean over my head. Nevertheless, there was something sincere about your sales pitch. I will consider your proposition seriously.’

‘That’s great to know, Sir. When can I call you to follow-up? If you can confirm by tomorrow, we can even throw in a free Bose surround sound system for this car. Plus a 5% cash back.’

‘And if I confirm right this minute, will I get a 25% cash back? Don’t answer that. Just pulling your leg. Look, I’ll have to bring the good lady wife to give it the once over. She too drives you know. I’ll bring her along, and if she gives us the thumbs up, we are in business. So please, no follow-up calls.’

I left the showroom, leaving the sales chap looking hopefully, and somewhat dubiously, after my retreating back. As for me, I was already on my way to a rival car showroom not two kilometres away.

Smell the coffee

Hot steaming coffee in a glass cup - stock photo | Crushpixel

In a recent suo moto case hearing on the vexed subject of the Government of India’s handling, or rather, alleged mishandling of the Covid19 pandemic, the honorable justices of the Supreme Court came down heavily on the central government for the manner in which the dreaded disease and its trail of continuing destruction has, in its judicial and judicious opinion, been handled. ‘We have a strong arm to come down on this,’ one of the judges admonished, threatening strong-arm methods. Be it the vaccine dual pricing or procurement policy, oxygen management, health infrastructure, the alarming escalation of mortalities, the apex court did not appear awfully impressed by the way in which the disease and its aftermath has been tackled. If one were to suggest that the court took a dim view of the whole affair, one would be understating the case. Among several scathing remarks, the Bench exhorted the Solicitor General (SG) representing the government, who the Court felt was divorced from the grim reality of the crisis, to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ This caused quite a stir in legal circles. Not least because many of them did not quite get the meaning of the aphorism employed. The SG and his able assistants were unable to grasp what the senior judge was trying to convey. While I cannot confirm this, I understand they sought a 30-minute recess to consider their position. The judge settled for 15 minutes and told them to get on with it. Quite right, too.

Our television news channels were quick to pick up on this. Before you could say ‘What’s happened to Arnab Goswami?’, anchors were falling over themselves asking their panelists to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ I kid you not. I distinctly heard at least three well-known anchors saying precisely that to a puzzled set of invited speakers from various political affiliations. ‘What coffee, what smell? I am sitting at home sipping fresh lime soda. Kindly explain yourself, Madam.’ See what I mean? The Supreme Court has started something and it’s catching like Covid19.

This chronicler cannot swear as to what exactly passed between the SG and his bright-eyed, bushy-tailed colleagues during the brief recess, but a smart fly on the wall, blessed with an excellent sense of hearing passed around a scrap of paper with some hurriedly scribbled notes. Some of the writing was indecipherable, probably in Pitman’s shorthand, but we tried our best to fill in the blanks.

‘Smell the coffee? Smell the coffee? What could he possible mean?’ wailed the agitated SG. ‘Any of you have a clue?’

One of the bright sparks piped up. ‘Perhaps he was inviting you to his home, Boss, to have an offline discussion on the subject, and a steaming cup of delicious coffee was on the menu. Filter coffee, mmm. I can smell it even now. Redolent of MTR Bangalore! Could be his way of offering you a peace pipe, to make up for his peremptory remarks without conceding too much ground. And perhaps to ensure that the discussion is maintained at an even keel and not allowed to spiral out of control. I mean, it is the highest court in the land taking on the powerful central government. Decencies of debate and a level of decorum need to be observed.’

Riposted the SG, ‘In your dreams, my fine-feathered friend. You are getting carried away. Judges don’t invite you into their homes, not for all the coffee beans in Brazil. They may invite other judges, but not the likes of us. No, no. There is more to this than meets the eye. I am thinking coded message.’

‘You lost me there, Sir. Coded message? Are you speaking in code, Sir, or do we take your word at face value?’ The junior assistant looked bemused.

‘Look, surely you know what coded messages are. Haven’t you seen any spy films? You have to read between the lines, juggle around with the letters, equate numerals to the position of each letter, hold it up in front of a mirror, then read it in reverse, some of the letters or numerals may even represent morse codes. You know. Dot, dash, dash, dot, dot, dash, dot, that sort of thing. I thought they trained you chaps on all this. Come on fellows, let’s have you.’

‘Wow, Sir. All this was not part of our syllabus. Carlill vs Carbolic Smoke Ball, yes. Morse code, no. Perhaps you could solve this mystery, Sir. What with all your in-depth knowledge of dots and dashes.’

The SG was miffed. ‘Go ahead and laugh at my expense. You’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth when your life depended on decoding “how now brown cow.” Now let’s get serious. We have to face this relentless judge in five minutes. And I need to anticipate what more strange words or expressions he is likely to throw at us. I need to be sharpish. Right now, I am at my wit’s end. I refuse to be caught off-guard again. Not another sarcastic, smirky “smell the coffee” with plenty of top spin on it.’

One of the SG’s smart, young lady assistants, fresh out of law school, put forward the interesting and plausible theory that the good judge was probably suggesting that if you can’t smell the coffee, you could be a ripe candidate for Covid, and that you should go and get tested immediately. ‘Deadening of the olfactory senses is one of the symptoms, Sir,’ she added helpfully.

‘Thank you very much, doctor. I am fully aware of what the symptoms of Covid are. I am up to my eyeballs on Covid symptoms. Even our good judge was down with Covid but thankfully, fully recovered. As is clearly evident. Look team, this is taking us nowhere. We are up the creek without a paddle.’

‘Brilliant Sir. You should use that in court. Up the creek without a paddle. Their lordships or justices or whoever, will be foxed. You will have won a psychological blow. The judge who asked you to smell the coffee will be stymied. He will be clearly on the backfoot. He might switch to drinking weak tea.’

‘God, give me strength. Backfoot eh? Now I have to put up with your cricketing similes. This meeting has been about as useful as a one-legged, blindfolded man with severe astigmatism attempting to break the 100 meters world record. The judge will have me for breakfast.’

‘Perfect. It will then be your turn, to ask his lordship to smell the coffee.’ The young assistant was beside himself with his own, corny cleverness.

‘You carry on like this, young man, and the judge will send you down to a place where you will have to smell extremely unpleasant things. You may almost wish you had Covid to deaden your olfactory senses. Ha ha! Right, end of this nonsense. Thanks for nothing. Let’s make tracks to the court where the beaks are awaiting us with their knives out.’

‘Another good one, Sir. Almost Wodehousean. You can hold your own with these “beaks.”’

Back in court, one of the judges addressed the SG. ‘I trust you have had adequate time to consider your position, as you so delicately put it. How soon can we expect the Government to submit to us its detailed nationwide vaccine rollout plan?’

‘With respect your lordship, “adequate time” is a relative concept. I asked for 30 minutes and you gave us a quarter of an hour. How long is a piece of string? It is a metaphysical question worth pondering on. I am sure your lordship will recall Albert Einstein’s quip on time and relativity, “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” What a man!

The judge interrupted the SG sharply. ‘Do you plan to come to the point any time soon, Sir?’

‘Sorry judge, if you are put out by my meandering style. Meaning no disrespect, I am sure you are accustomed to long speeches by prosecution and defence counsels. In fact, I well remember on one occasion, 1979 I think it was, when you yourself, Sir, full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, went on for an interminably long…’

‘And now you are getting personal.’ The judge was livid. ‘For the last time, if you continue in this vein, I might have to find you in contempt. Get to the point.’

‘My profuse apologies. But you see, your lordship, I can’t get to the point because, right at this point, I don’t have a point. Can you not find it in your large heart to give us a week and we will come up with a plan to your satisfaction?’

‘The country is in the throes of a monumental medical emergency. I cannot give you a week. I’ll make it four days. That’s it.’

The Solicitor General bowed obsequiously. ‘Take it or leave it? Thank you, your lordship for small mercies. I can see where you’re coming from. Never give a sucker an even break. I can live with that. My philosophy is, what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts, if you get my drift your lordship. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, as it says in the Good Book. We shall revert with a subtle but effective plan that should satisfy the courts, the government and above all, the people of India. Speaking of subtle plans, your lordship, I am sure you will indulge me if I shared this quote by that fictional curmudgeon Edmund Blackadder, in that side-splittingly hilarious television series starring Rowan Atkinson. Edmund responds to his goofy, congenital idiot of an assistant Baldrick’s offer to come up with a subtle plan, “Baldrick, you wouldn’t recognise a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsicord singing ‘subtle plans are here again’.” Forgive me judges, these are tears of unrestrained joy. Just wished to end on a light-hearted note. Once again, thank you kindly your lordships, and enjoy the aromatic smell of fresh coffee at home.’

As the judges trooped out of the court, our resident, inquisitive fly on the wall distinctly heard one of them muttering under his breath,‘If I never see this man again, it will be too soon.’

Note: This piece is entirely a work of fiction barring the initial premise based on the Supreme Court’s observations.

Literature’s ‘unwashed phenomenon’

Bob Dylan & His Creative Process. Steve Jobs took some heat when he said… |  by Alex Kliman | Medium
Bob Dylan, circa early sixties

All I can do is be me, whoever that is. Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan celebrates his 80th birthday today, even as I go tip-tap in real time on my keyboard. 24th May to be precise. By the time you read this piece, a week would have passed since the seminal date of his birth, but the hoopla would have barely begun. The whole western world and much of the rest of the planet will, in some way, shape or form mark this milestone with much fanfare. Deservedly so. Dylan’s songs will be sung in concerts by celebrated musicians and also by lesser-known acts in far-flung areas around the globe. Social media will buzz incessantly with families from three or four generations crooning Blowin’ in the wind from their drawing rooms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (if these platforms have not been told to pack up and leave our shores). In India, for instance the great poet-troubadour, singer and songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota is worshipped in Assam and the surrounding north-east’s hilly terrain, apart from many of our more cosmopolitan metro cities and towns. They have been singing Dylan songs for decades. One much-loved veteran rocker from Shillong, Lou Majaw, refuses to cover anybody else’s songs but Dylan’s. If you were to be told that they offer prayers to Dylan’s graven image in their homes every evening, that would seem just about credulous.

In my personal opinion Bob Dylan, along with Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison have been the greatest singer-songwriters the world of western popular music has known. And Bob Dylan is arguably the first among equals. There are those who would be quick to cavil, citing the undoubtedly sterling claims of Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and others of their ilk.  To those who would ask, ‘What about Elvis Presley?’ my riposte would be that he was not a songwriter, iconic performer though he was. Let me say, straight off the bat, that I love The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Springsteen as well as Simon and Garfunkel but I reserve the right, as the chronicler of this piece, to place them just a shade below the other four mentioned. There are many reasons for this subjective assessment, but this is neither the time nor place to get into that argument. Dear reader, you will doubtless proffer a dozen or more names to be placed among the pantheon of musical greats, but that debate will have to wait for another day. Today is Robert Allen Zimmerman’s aka Bob Dylan’s day.

Bob Dylan Joni Mitchell Bon Jovi INXS I Shall Be Released Japan 1994 -  YouTube
Dylan jamming with Joni Mitchell

Among the four greats that I had made mention, Dylan’s claim to be the numero uno is helped in no small measure by the fact that he is American. Cohen and Mitchell are Canadians while Morrison is Irish. In matters such as popular art, being an American gives you a head start. The traction you are able to generate because of the United States’ huge cultural footprint across the globe in itself assures this. (In 1970 American poster-hulk and sentimental favourite John Wayne, whom nobody could ever accuse of being a great actor, pipped to the post for Best Actor at the Oscars the likes of brilliant thespians Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and the Midnight Cowboys, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. That should tell you something about Yankee clout). Leonard Cohen’s passing in 2016 brought his music once more to the forefront, and fans like myself set out to rediscover the magic of his lyrics and renderings steeped in gravitas. The supremely talented Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday a couple of years ago went largely unnoticed barring a few celebratory shows in Canada. The Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison turned 75 a few months shy of a year ago, and his country did him proud with radio and TV stations rounding up musicians from all over Ireland to sing his songs over several weeks. Even the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins performed one of Van the Man’s memorable speak-song poems. However, outside of Ireland the landmark only received cursory attention.

Bob Dylan on stage with Van Morrison. | Bob dylan lyrics, Bob dylan, Dylan
Dylan and Van Morrison – mutual respect

Bob Dylan is a different kettle of fish altogether. Not that Dylan’s fame needed any further boost, but his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,’ added to the lustre. In a strange way, his declining the invitation to attend the Nobel Prize presentation banquet in Stockholm only enhanced his allure. If some cynics characterized his refusal to personally present himself as inverted snobbery, he quickly made amends by accepting the Nobel medal a few months later from the Nobel committee at a private ceremony. The 900,000 US greenbacks that went with the award, was not to be sneezed at either. In a recorded speech made public later, Dylan mused, ‘When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how exactly my songs related to Literature.’ He then went on to describe how the classics he read in school influenced his music. ‘When I started writing my own songs, folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it. But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world, and I’d had that for a while. I learned it all in grammar school: Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, all the rest.’

LEONARD COHEN AND BOB DYLAN: BOTH DESERVED A NOBEL
Dylan and Leonard Cohen – men of letters

If one needed any further proof of Dylan’s literary talent or of his being a rightful claimant for the Nobel Literature Prize, just read his book Chronicles Vol.1, a brilliantly observed tome on his approach to music and his love of the language. Volume 1 would have naturally presaged a second volume, but it has yet to see the light of day, apparently stuck somewhere in the machinery. There has been much heated debate amongst the cognoscenti on the merits or otherwise of a musician being awarded the Nobel for Literature. If T.S. Eliot, Harold Pinter and V.S. Naipaul are worthy Nobel Laureates, Bob Dylan’s name nestles comfortably alongside.  I think the Nobel committee should be lauded for getting round the issue of not having a category for music by honouring a person whose songs were more poetic than perhaps many contemporary poets and writers, and whose words flowed incessantly like a series of cascades. This may pave the way for more musicians being similarly honoured in the future or, better still, a separate category being created for musicians. The Times They Are A-Changin’. Time and the Nobel committee will tell, now that a precedent has been set.

Bob Dylan to receive Nobel Prize - WWAY TV
The Alfred Nobel medallion

Bob Dylan the musician, in my considered view, played second fiddle to Bob Dylan the poet. If Van Morrison used his amazing voice to squeeze out unique musical expressions (‘singing syllables, signs and phrases’ as he once memorably put it), where the words were merely a vehicle to transport the Irishman’s musical flights of fancy, for Dylan it was the other way round. He was the quintessential poet – Blake, Donne, Keats and Coleridge all rolled into one. With a dash of Eliot, Freud and Shakespeare tossed into the mix. Having started life out as a folk and protest singer and as his interest in music deepened, Dylan felt his innate penchant for lyrical beauty could be greatly enhanced by the astute melding of music. His voice had a limited range but his phrasing was just right to convey the idealism of his words. In his case music was the vehicle that carried his stirring lyrics to all parts of the world. As you would expect from a performer who has been going at it for over six decades the range of his songs and the canvas on which he paints them is vast. Like A Rolling Stone, Blowin’ In the Wind, Tangled Up In Blue, Mr. Tambourine Man, Just Like A Woman, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Positively 4th Street, Masters Of War, All Along The Watchtower, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Shelter From The Storm, Desolation Row, I Shall Be Released – I could go on forever. And these were mostly from Dylan’s earlier oeuvre, the songs that really made him a universal icon.

To the statistically minded, Dylan has composed in excess of 600 songs, and over 2000 artists have covered his tracks. He is also arguably the most mimicked artist, that patented nasal drawl is like catnip to a cat to so many famous singers who have covered his songs. In later years his voice, inevitably, became gravelly and lost the innocent timbre of youth. If you listen to his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be speaking most of the time with just the barest hint of anything musical to support, barring the spare background instrumentals, culminating in a seventeen-minute rambling dirge on the murder of President John Kennedy, Murder Most Foul.

Bob Dylan at 80: Why “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is his greatest  protest song - Prospect Magazine
Dylan’s inspirational muse, Joan Baez

Which brings us to the obvious question. What is Bob Dylan’s legacy to the world of popular music, or indeed, to the world of literature, given that he has been awarded the Nobel encomium for that very subject? It can be safely posited that no single musician has spoken or sung more eloquently for an entire generation, and then some, reflecting the behavioral mores as well as the political and social quirks of diverse peoples around the world, but particularly of his home country. To be relevant as an influential artist for over six decades, riding the crest of the ebb and flow of rapidly changing times, is more than ample testimony to the achievements of Bob Dylan. Enough said, methinks. I’ll leave the last word to Bob Dylan’s muse, sometime lover and wondrous singer, the dazzling Joan Baez who memorably described him in song as ‘the unwashed phenomenon’ and ‘the original vagabond.’ Here’s the last verse from Baez’s Diamonds and Rust.

Now you’re telling me
You’re not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
‘Cause I need some of that vagueness now
It’s all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid.

Happy birthday, Bob. May you stay Forever Young.

I could have danced all night

Pygmalion/My Fair Lady: arts, book reports, eliza doolittle, en, film  report, language, language arts, movie, my fair lady, pygmalion | Glogster  EDU - Interactive multimedia posters
Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. Friedrich Nietzsche.

My subject this week is Dancing. Hence the bestowal of the capital D. Before you jump to conclusions, let me hasten to add that I am not about to launch on a learned treatise on Bharatanatyam, Kathakali or Kuchipudi. Or even Odissi, come to that. While I have admired the svelte and expressive grace of a Balasaraswati or a Kelucharan Mohapatra on stage during my childhood, I can’t say I naturally took to the art form, though the accompanying music sometimes held me in thrall. In other words, what I know about these classical dance forms can be written on a pinhead with a pneumatic drill, as I once heard my English teacher in school describe the state of being a total ignoramus. The same goes for Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn and their balletic brilliance. Tchaikovsky’s music for the immortal ballet Swan Lake, I could appreciate, but the soaring magnificence of the ballerinas, literally swanning about the stage, often escaped me. My bad, to employ that cringe-worthy, au courant expression. The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars but in ourselves, as Shakespeare might have put it.

However, I am talking about a completely different kind of dancing. The sort where the boy and the girl hold hands outstretched, the girl’s hand on the boy’s shoulder and the boy’s unoccupied hand resting lightly on the girl’s waist. Those were the essential hand positions for the foxtrot, one of the oldest western dance forms known to us. Of course, the feet have to move in a precise way in time with the music. It is significant that the boy keeps moving forward while the girl keeps striding backwards. Marking territory and asserting male dominance? Pull the other one! No girl I know takes a backward step these days. I hasten to add that I have no desire to expand on the nuances of the foxtrot. It is a very traditional pas de deux, and that’s all I am willing and able to trot out on the subject. The reason I brought it up is to share with you a colourful vignette from my boarding school days, one which involved the foxtrot. Elsewhere, I have dwelt at length on the joys and tribulations of boarding school life, but I have not really talked about how our masters and teachers gently made us feel comfortable in mixed company. Under their strict watch, of course.

It came about that our school, which had a boys’ and a girls’ wing, would host once a month, for the senior boys and girls, a ‘social’, also called for reasons unfathomable, ‘games evening.’ The venue was our school hall. The boys, 9th standard and above would troop in and sit on benches on one side of the hall, while the senior girls, far less in number, would sit themselves down on the opposite side. The boys were all turned out in smart, pressed shirts and drainpipes, shoes polished so you could comb your hair in the reflection, hair slicked back and Brylcreemed, Elvis Presley style. The girls, demure in multi-hued frocks and hair carefully coiffed. As only to be expected, plenty of stolen glances accompanied by titters and giggles galore, the odd teeth brace glinting at times. Remember, the average age, if you exclude the teachers present, was around 15. Giggling was the order of the day.

The teachers on duty at these socials were like informal masters of ceremony. They stood on stage and ensured that nothing came in the way of the smooth flow of the evening’s proceedings and that matters did not get out of hand. No funny business. The evening itself usually started off with a song or two by the girls and the boys, just to warm things up (Let’s get together from the film Parent Trap and Side by side being particular favourites). A comic sketch was a must, carefully rehearsed for timing and delivery of the punch line, a recitation of a dreadful poem composed by some bright spark from 9A. Then came the moment everyone was waiting for with bated breath. The Dance. This was a bit tricky. The first dance was termed a ‘tag dance.’ I am getting ahead of myself here. Let me backtrack. When the first dance was announced, the received custom required the boys to go up and ask the girls to dance with them. There were several problems to be faced here. First off, shyness. No one wanted to be the first, so we sat where we were, stock still and doing a fair imitation of our own statues. At which point the teachers would come round, hectoring the boys not to behave like blithering idiots. Ever so hesitantly, some of the boys would start walking towards the girls, legs like jelly.

Now comes problem number two. The boys invariably outnumbered the girls by a factor of 2:1. Therefore, when the boys perked up enough gumption to approach the girls, you had this farcical situation of two or three boys approaching the same girl and it was a question of who got there first. The laggards had then to pretend they were asking the girls who sat on either side of the first-choice girl. The reason for this nonsensical parody was that, out of the 30-odd girls seated, perhaps 10 were identified by the boys as being ‘the lookers.’ Thus, most of the initial surge went after these10 beauties and the poor Cinderellas were left pining with the others. My young heart bled for them. Happily, in the end all the girls were ‘picked up’ and the first tag dance was well under way. The master on duty slips in a 78-rpm vinyl of Elvis Presley crooning Love me tender or It’s now or never, the gait ideal for the foxtrot. The floor is full, the boys start tripping over their partners’ legs, most of us with two left feet and there is much mocking laughter from the boys who are still sitting on the benches waiting their turn.

This is a good moment to explain, on the off-chance there are some who may not know, what a tag dance is. The tag dance, by definition, ensures no one boy is stuck with the same girl for the entire duration of the song, an impossible strain to bear for any newcomer to the dance floor – boy or girl. So, while you are dancing, any other boy is free to come and tap you on the shoulder (the tag), and you have to make way for him to take over and dance with the girl you were tripping the light fantastic with. Incidentally, it’s only the boys who do the tagging, not the girls. This augurs much potential hilarity. For example, Mahesh has just asked Rekha for a dance. While Elvis is barely into the chorus, he (Mahesh that is, not Elvis) is tagged by Mathew. Poor Mahesh then has to withdraw with a ‘Thanks Rekha’ while Rekha responds coyly with a ‘Thanks Naresh’ and Mahesh tries to bleat, ‘Not Naresh, Mahesh,’ but the magic moment passes. Mahesh or Naresh has disappeared into oblivion. Conversation also has to be necessarily staccato and brief. ‘Hi Rekha, I am Mathew. I am in 9B, Sharon’s brother.’ ‘Oh, Sharon’s my best friend. What is your favourite…?’ What was Mathew’s favourite whatever will forever remain a mystery as just then, Mathew is tagged by Vikram. Mathew stalks off, hoping he didn’t suffer from bad breath. And so the long evening wears on. Elvis Presley gives way to Cliff Richard who puts on his Dancing Shoes much to the delight of all the Bachelor Boy(s), who in turn makes way for Connie Francis’ Lipstick on your collar, and no boy or girl is any the wiser about who exactly he or she was dancing with. Some of those songs were of a more upbeat tempo, which did not make it any easier for us to execute the foxtrot. The dancing thus became more and more impressionistic.

When the early 60s morphed into the mid-60s, the music got more raucous. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones hit town, and our teachers were broad-minded enough to allow us to move from the gentle foxtrot to the twist, the rumba and other vigorous dance forms. However, they always ensured that matters did not spin out of control. One other slightly awkward issue had to be tackled by the school authorities. Despite doing everything they could to ensure democracy with boys dancing and mixing with as many girls as possible, they could not avoid a handful of boys getting ‘fixed’ to some girls of their choice. Word quickly got around. ‘Pssst, don’t tag Wally when he is dancing with Maureen. They are fixed.’ This, of course, became a red rag challenge to the other boys with bets freely taking place. ‘Who will be brave enough to tag Wally?’ Krish of 10A puts his hand up and walks bravely across to the dance floor and taps Wally on the shoulder. ‘My dance Wally, if you don’t mind.’ Wally looks daggers at Krish and spits out of the side of his mouth, well out of Maureen’s earshot, ‘Get out of my face Krish, or you’ll be eating a fistful of knuckles after this.’ Krish trudges back, tail between legs. Tells the boys Wally agreed to give him the next dance, but nobody was buying.

   It was a strange rite of passage, this ‘getting to know the girls’ on the dance floor, and frankly, some of the crazy dance moves by the boys were not compatible with live brain activity. Then again, who cared? Over the weekend, some of our class mates brought back a clutch of autograph books from their sisters (and their friends) with a list of names to sign and write sweet nothings on. And if your name happened to be on that hallowed list, Kipling captured the emotion best. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it / And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!’

Mothers-in-law: fabled bête noire.

Mother-in-law — Stock Photo, Image

It goes without saying that one is reluctant to open the newspaper early in the morning these days. The news is uniformly depressing and experts tell us it is going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better. And if the venerated Lancet is to be believed, India has botched things up right royally and disaster will rain down on us. ‘Apocalypse,’ Lancet screams, hell hath no fury like a virus scorned. And that doomsday merchant, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) routinely predicts gloom and catastrophe for India. Fortunately, I give a flying toss for what the Lancet or WHO says. Dr. Randeep Guleria, Dr. Devi Shetty and Dr. Sanjeev Bagai, all good men and true are good enough for me. Happily, they think things will get better (provided). The chorus of an old Beatles song reverberates, ‘I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time (it can’t get no worse).’ There is a smidgen of mordant irony, if you look closely for it, in those Lennon-McCartney lyrics, and we wait for that day, somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we could all sing those lyrics, or whatever equivalent we can find in our own respective tongues. If you wish to be merely ironical, you can sing it even now.

That said, reading the newspaper of a morning, along with a steaming hot cuppa, is a lifetime habit for many of us, who are not inextricably wedded to the claustrophobic, spondylitic confines of our mobile phones causing painful changes to our cervical cord. In order to delay casting my weary eye over the inevitable missives about vaccine shortage, patients breathlessly waiting for oxygen concentrators and ventilators, running counts of the infected, the recovered and the deceased on a daily basis, I start by turning to the sports pages. Not much to cheer about there either, unless you are a Manchester City, Nadal or Djokovic fan. Charlie Brown, Hagar the Horrible, not to mention Calvin and Hobbes provide much-needed light relief on the entertainment pages, except if you favour reading about film stars frolicking with their golden retrievers and cocker-spaniels or telling us how to make chicken stroganoff (beef will be frowned upon) and gabbing on about their pets’ treatment in sickness and in health.

That being the broad scenario as far as the news pages are concerned, I did not pay much heed to a news item headlined, ‘Woman kills children and commits suicide.’ It happens all the time in our benighted country. Sadly, one has become blasé about such headlines, tragic as they are. This ghastly incident occurred somewhere in the rural heartlands of Bihar. Where else? I assumed straightaway, with good reason, that it must have been virus-related and the suffering woman decided to end it all in one fell swoop. Her husband was evidently a truck driver, and as truck drivers are wont to do, was unmindfully driving his truck somewhere in India’s broad highways, a bottle of country liquor keeping him in a cheerfully inebriated state, while his unfortunate family were doing themselves in. Horrific as this case reportedly was, and there are many more like that, it had nothing to do with the rampaging disease that is ravaging our nation. This was a simple case of the poor housewife being badgered and harassed by her mother-in-law. That old trope again, one that we have witnessed in so many Indian pot-boiler films during the 60s and 70s. Which is not to say that it does not happen in real life, as witness the abovementioned incident. As to a matter of pertinent detail, it was not very clear to me whether she poisoned all her children (there were four of them) and poured the deadly hemlock down her own throat, or in the more time-honoured fashion, threw all of them into a nearby well (there’s always one handy) and dived in right after them, or perhaps a bit of both. Now that is a poisoned well, if you’re looking for one. This lack of important detail would have rightly infuriated Sherlock Holmes, or for that matter, Hercule Poirot. I merely shook my head cynically at the pathetic quality of reportage that has permeated the newspaper industry. Superficiality is the order of the day, and that includes glossing over details.

Thus I found myself stranded in a strange quandary. Should I feel sorry for this woman in rural Bihar who was forced to end her own and her children’s lives due to mother-in-law troubles, or feel relieved that it was not a case of another lot of virus victims? It was then that I concluded that I shan’t waste any more time cogitating over the reasoning for this tragedy and instead, ponder over this mother-in-law syndrome that so afflicts our society. Let the virus do its damnedest, the vaccine will take care of it, in God’s good time. I am, for the nonce, hooked on this mother-in-law thing.

What is it about mothers-in-law that makes them a shoo-in for the role of the villainess in our scheme of things and the spiteful darlings of our film world? I often feel that the clan as a whole has been hard done by. Grossly misjudged. My own mother-in-law, may she rest in peace, was the embodiment of all that is good and kind in a person that you could wish for, and she could cook a storm in the kitchen. Then again, I am biased. Any one who can produce the kind of desserts she could, gets my vote for Mother-In-Law of The Century. I daresay there are hundreds of others who would place their hands on their hearts and swear undying allegiance to the virtues of their respective mothers-in-law. However, in broad generic terms in the Indian landscape, she has been, rightly or wrongly, portrayed as an intensely vile harridan. Vilified is the word I am groping for.

Naturally, nasty jokes abound about mothers-in-law. Let us bear in mind that someone’s mother is somebody else’s mother-in-law and that every mother-in-law was also once a daughter-in-law. Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi. That is the immutable law of nature when you decide to enter the state of wedlock. For instance, did you know that ‘mother-in-law’ is an anagram of ‘Woman Hitler,’ if you exclude the hyphens? Here’s another. First man: ‘I took my dog to the vet today because it bit my mother-in-law.’ Another asked: ‘Did you put it to sleep?’ The first replied: ‘No, I had its teeth sharpened.’ And here’s one for the road, my favourite. Bill: ‘I was sorry to hear that your mother-in-law died. What was the complaint?’ George: ‘We haven’t had any yet.’ I could go on and on. The brilliant polemicist, writer and speaker, the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens once talked of a religious text’s promise of 72 virgins for the pious when they entered paradise, ‘My only hope is that for every 72 virgins they get in paradise, they also get 72 mothers-in-law,’ Hitchens quipped.

I personally think the mother-in-law is more sinned against than sinning. Let me hasten to add that I do not, not for one nano second, claim that we don’t have a gaggle of monsters, à la our Indian film portrayals in the mother-in-law space. I am just griping about the over generalisation that reduces the whole category into a silly shibboleth. A crass cliché, if you will. Can we have a bit more discernment please? Are daughters-in-law and sons-in-law all angels in human shape? Of course not. Faults on both sides, and all that. To err is human, and mothers-in-law, most of them, are human, more or less. Let us not tar all of them with the same brush. I fully expect the ten-and-a-half readers of my blogs to bear down on me, raining verbal blows and obloquy. ‘What do you know about mothers-in-law?’ they will scream. ‘You are one of the few, lucky ones.’ Fine, I shall effect a dignified withdrawal from this unseemly brawl. Each to his or her own. I cannot arrogate to myself the right to speak for others but try stopping me speaking for myself.

In the final analysis, I make just one, humble request to all those who think they are being unfairly targeted by their mothers-in-law. Spare a thought for her background. Perhaps she was given a tough time by her mother-in-law and knows no other way to get her own back. Those of us who studied in boarding schools will know what I mean. When we were juniors the prefects and monitors would mete out punishment routinely, simply because they faced the same hardship when they were juniors, from their seniors. ‘Wear that dunce cap and stand in the corner.’ And so it gets passed on in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Likewise with mothers-in-law. Give them a break, and if you find it unbearable, break some crockery (not the Wedgwood bone china). You will find it immensely relieving.

Mercury Rising

BBC's old favourites Steptoe, Alf and Hyacinth all set to return with new  stars | Daily Mail Online
British comedian Tony Hancock with his home remedies

Just over a week ago, at around one in the morning, while I slept fitfully, I suddenly sensed that strange ague that comes only to those who are about to come down with something not very pleasant. Sleep-fogged as I was, I initially did not give it much thought and tried to go back to the land of Nod. Sleep, ‘that knits up the raveled sleave of care’ however, eluded me. I tossed one way, then turned the other but no dice. Calpurnia may or may not have heard her husband moan, but I said to myself, ‘this too shall pass.’ What passed as I clutched my stomach with unbearable cramps and ran to the toilet, I would rather not describe. Let it remain a closely-guarded secret between me and my toilet seat. When I went back to bed, Calpurnia drowsily muttered if I was all right. Which of course, I was anything but. When I described to her what was happening, her eyes widened and she uttered that unspeakable five-letter word beginning with C in an interrogative tone. You, dear reader, have every right to ask me how I knew my wife was wide-eyed when it was pitch dark and I had not turned the lights on. When one has been married for over four decades, assuming you have not changed partners, one just knows these things. It goes without saying that I did not sleep a wink for the rest of the night, I being the wide-eyed one, and the bright break of dawn brought no balm either. By this time my toilet seat had become an old friend given the number of visits I had lost count of. Bum chums, if you get my drift. I had popped anti-flatulent and antacid Gelusils like it was going out of fashion, drank tumblerfuls of Electral water, containing as it does, sodium citrate, sodium chloride, potassium chloride and anhydrous dextrose. It was printed on the packet label. Excellent stuff for if you’re having the runs on an industrial scale. My head was making a fine fist of doing ferris-wheel imitations every time I tried to sit up. Need I say more?

That I had been struck down by a vicious stomach bug leading to dehydration and fever, was a foregone conclusion. The jury did not even have to leave the courtroom. Food-poisoning could have been a facile (and hopeful) diagnosis. The burning question was, could it be that other dreadful thing whose name shall not be spoken? Everybody seems to be getting it. Why should I be the exception? But I have been such a good boy. Have not stirred out of the house for weeks, always wore a double mask whenever the doorbell rang, washed my hands 37 times a day, and strictly maintained the distance socially demanded from strangers, mainly in the form of delivery boys. Then I said to myself, ‘Pull yourself together, this is no time for panicking. Think clearly.’ Took my temperature. 100.1. Not earth shattering, but moderately high fever still. Oxygen saturation, where’s that little gizmo we bought online some months ago? The good wife knew exactly where it was, checked the batteries, shoved my right middle finger into it, the green digits oscillated wildly (which gave me palpitations), finally settled on 97 and a pulse rate of 58. Go straight to the top of the class. All is not lost. Think positive, or do I mean negative? We live in crazy times when positive means negative and vice-versa. However, the nagging fear would not leave me. Should I take an RT-PCR test, or some other test I am unaware of? And wait for six days for the results to come in and then not be sure if they were right? It was time to get expert medical opinion, and Calpurnia suggested just the man.

This is a good time for a light-hearted aside. Calpurnia, of course, is not my better half’s real name. Like you didn’t know! If there be those amongst you, and I do not wish to sound patronizing or presumptuous, who haven’t the foggiest who this Calpurnia is or was, I will put you out of your misery. She was, no prizes for guessing, Julius Caesar’s wife, and had this habit of waking up every time the great Caesar threw a fit while sleeping, which was often, given his epileptic disposition. And who can blame the mighty Caesar? I would throw several fits if I suspected that Brutus, Cassius, Casca and that lot were plotting and leather-stropping their daggers, the better to stick it to me at the Capitol the following day, the Ides of March to be precise. Shakespeare placed the murder at Rome’s imposing Capitol though gnarled historians swear the dreaded deed took place at the Curia of Pompey. I shan’t quibble. I just think the Capitol sounds so much grander.

 It’s all very well carrying on with your Friends, Romans and Countrymen speeches, but there’s blood on your hands, Brutus. I thought Caesar put it rather well with his snappy one-liner, Et tu Brute, then fall Caesar. Talk about famous last words. I am surprised he had the strength to say even that after being stabbed 23 times! That’s on record.Incidentally, dear reader, if you decide to search Wikipedia to learn more about Calpurnia, the first entry you will come across is, ‘Calpurnia. Canadian Indie Rock Band.’ Only when you scroll further down will you come across Caesar’s fourth wife. Or it might have been the third. Pop groups and boy bands must trump over literature and history. A sign of the times.

I do crave your forgiveness, dear reader, for that diversion but it was all in a good cause. Now that you are abreast of the situation, let me get back to my stomach infection and how I dealt with it. I am fortunate enough to have this very nice, and very knowledgeable doctor friend, whom I turn to whenever I think I am in trouble. If we had not been living in SARS-CoV-2 times (I will not utter the C-word), I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Leafed through my diary where my wife meticulously notes down every ailment we have ever suffered and the medication prescribed thereof. I would have simply popped the said pills, slurped the recommended syrup, plenty of hydration, inhaled steam till I choked, a bit of gargling (highly overrated) and as they say in England, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’ In case you haven’t guessed by now, I am a bit of a hypochondriac. However, since there was every possibility that it could have been something more sinister, I buzzed my good medico friend. I shall call him Ashish (not his real name) to avoid an army of patients beating a path to his door.

‘Good morning Ashish, hope I did not catch you at a bad time.’

‘And good morning to you, too. Everything all right? You don’t sound terribly bright.’ I told you he was good.

‘Ah, you clever man. Nothing escapes your razor-sharp ear. Well, apart from running a moderate temperature, mild body ache and running to the loo with stomach cramps all through the night, I am perfectly well.’ Ashish understood irony.

‘Hmmm…’ went Ashish. I hate it when doctors go ‘Hmmm…’ Ominous.

‘Listen Ashish, enough with the humming and hawing. Tell me the worst. Have I got it? I can take it on the chin. I am talking to you from my toilet seat. You can’t upset me or my stomach any more than I already am. So, fire away.’ I was trying to affect a bravado I did not feel.

‘My friend, I know you are nervous but if you keep babbling on incoherently, I can’t get a word in edgeways. I realize it’s nervousness, but you are sounding delirious. So take a deep breath and answer these questions.’ That sane tone again. So reassuring.

‘From my toilet seat, or shall I move to my bed? And would you like a video conference?’ I wished to take no chances.

‘For God’s sake, no. I would rather visualize you sitting comfortably on your bed than on your throne. And no video, please. Now tell me. Fever, check. Body ache, check. Loosies, check with knobs on. Let us now go through the full laundry list. Blood pressure? 130 /80. As normal as it gets. Headache? No. Unexplained rashes? No. Toes turning blue or green? No. Loss of appetite? Slightly, understandable. Sense of smell? Can’t stand the stench from your toilet? That’s a great sign. Nausea? Feeling nauseous but didn’t actually bring anything up. Super. Watery eyes? You cried? That doesn’t count. Dizziness? Only when you stand on your head? Ha ha. You can’t be that bad if you are making jokes. Not very good ones, but still.’

‘Enough with the questions and the symptoms, my friend, do I need to take further tests to get at the truth? Going for a test might involve its own risks. I might catch the bloody thing which I may not be having in the first place. It’s happened to others.’ A bit of paranoia showing through, methinks.

‘For the first time you spoke some sense. Going purely symptomatically, I would not recommend any further investigation. I believe in differential diagnosis. For now, you seem to have caught a nasty bug and that’s all it is. I will prescribe a three-day course of antibiotics and vitamins and you should be right as rain on the fourth day.’

I was still unsure. ‘You mean it’s not that disease starting with C, ending with D and two vowels and a consonant in between? I could jump with joy.’

Ashish was quick to gently admonish. ‘I wouldn’t advise any jumping, unless you wish to pass out. This is my present diagnosis. If you are not better after three days, I may have to revise and review my opinion.’

That sobered me up like a shot. I am happy to report that on the fourth day, I rose again (like JC) feeling a bit woozy, otherwise perfectly normal, all parameters up to scratch. Importantly, the bowels were on their best behaviour and the plumbing system in shipshape (mine, not the toilet’s). On a serious note, these are difficult times, but the lesson I learnt is not to panic (pot calling the kettle black). And if you personally know a doctor who is wise and experienced, and his adoption tried, grapple him unto thy soul with hoops of steel. That was a paraphrased gag from Hamlet, but fit for the purpose. Finally, remember this. Even Lady Macbeth advocated washing your hands thoroughly, though in her case, the damned spot would not go.

Neville Cardus. In His Own Write.

Knights Of The Round Playing Arena – An XI Of Cricketing 'Sirs' | Wisden
Sir Neville Cardus – 1888 to 1975

There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this the best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass. Neville Cardus.

The celebrated Trinidadian Marxist historian, cricket lover and writer, C.L.R. James, famously paraphrased Rudyard Kipling in saying, ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ in his seminal book Beyond a Boundary, an eloquent rumination on the game of cricket as it was played and viewed from a social milieu in the West Indies and in his transitory place of residence, London. Replace the word cricket with England, and you have, pretty much, the original Kipling quote. This particular quotation came to mind while I have been enjoying Cardus on Cricket, a book of essays and recollections of arguably the finest writer on cricket, since men of letters started taking this game seriously enough to pen their observations for newspapers, magazines and for their own delectation. Sir Neville Cardus was a turn-of-the-century writer who loved cricket as much as he loved English literature, poetry and western classical music, and his well-documented pieces on this King of Sports have now become part of literary folklore. I am aware that in ascribing this grandiloquent honorific to the game of cricket, I trespass on the game of football to which the title rightfully belongs. That is a solecism I am willing to live with.

The strange thing is that this particular tome, Cardus on Cricket, I blush to admit has been gathering dust in my bookshelf for well over a decade, pristinely untouched, and the prominent spine of the book has been glaring at me admonishingly for not having the good sense or taste to pick it up and start reading it. As an ardent lover of cricket and good writing myself, it is a mystery why I did not reach out for the book much earlier than I actually did a fortnight or so ago. True, there were many other books and authors vying for my attention, but that is a lame excuse. Therefore, I lost no time in making amends and finally turned the last page, with a sense of repletion hard to describe.

Let me first spend a few words on Neville Cardus. Born in 1888, Cardus was a prolific English writer and critic. His multifarious skills as a journalist, albeit self-taught, were so extraordinary that at one time, he held the positions of the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent and its chief music critic, straddling these two portfolios with Bradmanesque ease. He was widely and deservedly lauded for his contributions to both these distinct, if apparently contradistinctive fields before the Second World War, firmly establishing him as one of the foremost critics of his generation. However, my preoccupation with Cardus has more to do with his cricket writings during the heady days of the Ashes battles between the traditional rivals England and Australia, county cricket and the personalities that ruled the game during this period. I am particularly struck by the fact that here in the 21st century, when we open the newspapers of a morning to read about the previous day’s happenings on cricket, we are bound to be confronted by a prosaic recounting of who scored how many runs and who took how many wickets, accompanied by a scorecard, if you’re lucky, and the plates haven’t been put to bed for printing. Any descriptive comment or opinion on the day’s play is as rare as rocking horse manure.

Cardus covered the glorious game during the time of legends such as Woolley, Ranjitsinhji, Rhodes, Trumper, Constantine, Hammond, Hutton, Bradman, McCabe, Verity, Larwood and their ilk. Cricket aficionado Cardus, as already stated, was a highly respected music critic, and could count among his close friends the likes of world-renowned conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and the peerless Sir Donald Bradman. Such was the stature of Sir Neville, the éminence grise of cricket and music authorship that both musicians and cricketers opened their morning newspapers with some trepidation after their performance the previous evening. Here is a description of the inventor of the leg-glance, the India-born Ranjitsinhji who played for England. ‘His style was a remarkable instance of the way a man can express personal genius in a game – nay, not only a personal genius but the genius of a whole race. For Ranjitsinhji’s cricket was of his own country; when he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East.’ If that was just the appetizer, here’s the thrilling description of the birth of the leg-glance. ‘And then suddenly this visitation of dusky, supple legerdemain happened; a man was seen playing cricket as nobody born in England could possibly have played it. The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! the straight ball was charmed away to the leg boundary.’ As an English cricketer famously said, ‘Ranji, he never made a Christian stroke in his life.’ In pre-television days, it needed such powers of description to bring alive the genius of unique individuals. When you hear one of the contemporary writers or commentators employ a phrase like, ‘He dismissed the ball from his presence,’ you can be sure the provenance and copyright belongs to Cardus. Today, we may consider ourselves fortunate to be able to revisit the genius of Cardus’ flowing prose.

Cricket's turning points: Ranji's innovations
Ranji’s patented leg-glance

Given Cardus’ abiding love and deep knowledge of western classical music, it would be remiss on my part not to share this lovely passage describing Wally Hammond’s late cut. ‘The swift velocity of his late cuts seemed an optical illusion, because of the leisurely poise of his body. The wrists were supple as the fencer’s steel; the light, effortless, thrilling movements of his bat suggested that he had now reached the cadenze of his full-toned and full-sized concerto with orchestra.’ Perhaps a trifle self-consciously, Cardus then goes on to add parenthetically, ‘I apologize to the purists who resent musical analogies in a cricket report. I have forsworn them for years, but when the game is lifted into music by the art of a glorious cricketer, then I cannot deny the habits of a lifetime.’ The defensive tone is very un-Cardus-like and, in my humble view, quite uncalled for. Music can be analogous to almost any endeavour (in this instance, cricket) where art and craft co-mingle, and Cardus has wielded his lyrical pen with equal felicity across both genres.

MaxBooks - Neville Cardus Archive
A man of letters

As I reach the closing stages of this appreciation, I reckon it would be perfectly in order for me to dwell on a couple of examples of Neville Cardus, the music critic. While I have been exposed to the wondrous world of western classical music, I claim no knowledge deep enough to be able to appreciate the subtle nuances of a performance. Given that the genre is strictly written and notated and played accordingly, the free jazz spirit of improvisation must necessarily be limited. That is how a novice such as myself to the world of Mozart and Chopin would tend to generalize it, but those with a trained and keen ear can be far more constructively critical of how an orchestra essayed one of Bach’s magnificent Brandenburg Concertos or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Only a Cardus could have said, ‘A great composition to me is… an incarnation of a genius, of all that was ever in him of the slightest consequence.’ And here is another gem. ‘Even an ordinary broken chord is made to disclose rare beauties; we are reminded of the fairies’ hazelnuts in which diamonds were concealed but you could break the shell only if your hands were blessed.’ I could go on, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.

The legacy of Neville Cardus as a fair and trenchant commentator on the game of cricket has lived on. However, with the passing of such stalwarts as John Arlott, Jim Swanton, Brian Johnston, Alan McGilvray and others of their ilk, who were not born cricketers but revelled in describing the game in writing as well as over the air, and with radio commentary now largely consigned to ashes, the mantle of this highly respected vocation has fallen on past cricketers, who have found a fresh and gainful avenue of employment through our television screens. A handful of them are good but for the most part, pedestrian. We recall with fondness the regular reports of Jack Fingleton, who played for Australia under Bradman, but one swallow does not a summer make.

In the final analysis, Neville Cardus, every bit a staunch and unabashedly biased Englishman who wished for his country to win every game he witnessed, particularly against the old enemy Australia, was always fair and unstinting in his praise for the opponents. One would hardly wish to read Cardus to glean the score. It was never what he said, but how he said it. Rather like legendary ad guru David Ogilvy’s inspiration when he encountered a blind mendicant standing on a street corner begging for alms. A sign read I AM BLIND and the average onlooker may have walked on with nary a glance. However, had he pleaded as Ogilvy suggested, IT IS SPRING AND I AM BLIND any passer-by would almost certainly have reached deep into his pockets.

Neville Cardus unfailingly knew what to say. And how to say it.

Mad Men

Better Business Writing: Ogilvy and Rolls-Royce
David Ogilvy’s immortal Rolls-Royce advert, circa 1957

 I started my professional career during the early ’70s when I entered the rarefied world of advertising. To put it more precisely and succinctly, I successfully applied for, in response to a newspaper advertisement, and was recruited by a reputed advertising agency in Calcutta. As more than 50 years have elapsed since that first, hesitant step into the whirlwind, heady world of copywriting, art direction, media planning and account management, it was time to press the pause button. In short, a longish career which took into its ample bosom jobs in other household-name corporate houses, as well as a stint in brand consultancy. I am now enjoying a life of well-earned leisure. Time to reflect and reminisce. Put my feet up and light a pipe. Speaking metaphorically, of course, as I don’t smoke. Naturally, I am not alone in this. Most of my colleagues from that era, now scattered across different parts of India and the world, tend to similarly wallow in the past, wearing rose-tinted glasses. Still others have shaken off their mortal coil and are probably looking down at us benevolently from their heavenly abode, wondering when we’ll be joining them! It is but logical that at our age, there is more for us to recall nostalgically, than to look forward to with keen anticipation. Not that I wish to be maudlin. It is what it is.

To get back to advertising, when I was fresh out of university looking for a ‘management trainee’ job, the one profession I was blissfully unaware of was that of the activities in the beehive cauldron of an advertising agency. I was, like any other human being living in the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, fully exposed to advertising, both consciously and sub-consciously. Or as the ad gurus might put it, subliminally. Wills Filter – Made For Each Other, Lipton Means Good Tea, Come Alive With Nescafe, Dunlop Tyres – Make Your Money Go Farther, You’ll Wonder Where The Yellow Went When You Brush Your Teeth With Pepsodent and many more such seductive messages were hard to miss. Newspapers, Hoardings, Cinema, Radio, they were all in our ubiquitous line of vision. Television was still a fledgling medium during the ’70s. The Asian Games in New Delhi, which opened the floodgates to the television industry was well over a decade away. As I said, we were aware of the brands thanks to advertising in our capacity as consumers, but many of us never gave a second thought to the complex machinery that went behind the creation of the advertising. Until, as I say, I landed the job.

rediff.com Business News: Check tobacco companies' brazen adverts, urges  anti-smoking body

A quick admission here. After half a century, I don’t mind conceding that while I got the appointment thanks to my performance in the interviews, written tests and group discussions conducted by the agency, the fact that my father held a senior position in a large nationalized bank that had a year earlier selected this particular agency to handle its advertising, must have helped in no small measure. This was par for the course in those days. A word in the management’s shell-like ear that ‘the boy is so-and-so’s son’ did no harm to the candidate’s chances of being appointed. Other things being equal. To be fair to my old man, he informed his superiors that I was being recruited by their agency, entirely on merit! He even made it clear to me that I cannot accept the offer if his bosses demurred. Fortunately, that did not happen. Furthermore, getting the job ‘under the influence’ is one thing. Making a decent fist of it as a career is altogether a different proposition. In any case, my dad retired a few months after that and I was pretty much having to paddle my own canoe thereafter.

In such circumstances did I commence my career in advertising. While I had opted to be a copywriter, the management persuaded me that my all-round communication skills could be better employed in the area of client interface. The much-loved, late British comedian Tony Hancock, had he been sitting on the interview panel, might have said, ‘He has such a nice face.’ Thus, I became an Account Executive Trainee, and worked my way up slowly and steadily in the agency’s ladder of progress. Something that always stayed with me was a poster, partly torn, stuck outside the door of one of the agency’s creative honchos. It was an Oscar Wilde aphorism – ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

Over the decades, I worked in a couple of other agencies before joining a tyre major of world renown in their marketing division, looking after brand advertising. This is not intended to be an autobiography pertaining to my professional career. I just felt a little bit of sketching in of the background would help in better understanding what is to follow.

The thing is the creation and placement of advertising as it obtained during the ’70s and ’80s was a far cry from what it is today. I could dwell at length describing, point by point, the various ways in which life has changed in an advertising agency. For instance, agencies don’t entertain clients any more. The legendary Oly’s pub in Calcutta would have gone bust, but for the ad agencies’ patronage. What’s a client agency relationship if you can’t do some serious elbow-bending, and chalk up the expenses towards art charges and incidentals? Unthinkable.

Olypub entrance from Park street - Picture of Olypub Bar and Restaurant,  Kolkata - Tripadvisor
Ad men’s watering hole of choice

Instead, I decided to meet a lady, who shall remain anonymous at her request, who is one of the top creative brains in one of India’s leading advertising agencies today. Let’s just call her M, shall we? With due apologies to Ian Fleming. It is worthwhile for the reader to understand that M is a product of the millennium and speaks that language. She is being interviewed by me, a product of the ’70s, virtually a fossil by comparison. The resultant roadblocks in communication, though we were both conversing in fluent English, could be attributed to this huge chasm in the different eras in which we operated. Without further ado, I’ll just dive into the conversation.

I waded in breezily. ‘Good morning M, thanks for sparing the time. You must be “up to here” in campaign presentations, brand launches and so forth. During my time we used to be engaged in long, liquid lunches.’

She didn’t get the joke. ‘Things have been hectic, as you suggest, but it’s all in a day’s work,’ replied M without breaking a sweat, adding, ‘much rather be “up to here” than staring at the wall and wondering where the next assignment is coming from, don’t you think?’

‘Oh yes, quite, quite. Tell me M, as I entered your snazzy, open plan office, I noticed banks of state-of-the-art computers on every work station. Is that where all the bright advertising campaigns are created?’

‘Well, it’s actually created in the human mind first. The computer is only there to make it easier to render it quickly into a visual format. Today, clients want everything yesterday, you know.’

‘The definition of “yesterday” was very different yesterday, if you get my drift M. Back in the day, harking to the ’70s, we had slanted wooden boards with plenty of drawing and tracing paper, marker pens, pencils, erasers, rubber solution and all kinds of other implements for the visualizers, art directors and finishing artists to work with. Everything was done by hand, and we could not rush things. Even if the client was in a hurry, and when was he not? These hard-working beavers slaved away day and night, slouched over their desks, with no guarantee that their work would see the light of day. The creative head called the shots, and we in account management were putty in their hands.’

The beauty of a line drawing

‘Wow, sounds quite antediluvian. Nowadays, our clients will throw a fit if we took anything more than 6 hours to revert with a workable idea, and another 12 hours to render it in finished form for media release. Not just print, but television as well. Welcome to the millennial world.’ M was clearly revelling in her post-modern euphoria.

‘Ha, so you clearly did not first come up with what we called a pencil rough for internal assessment, followed by a finished rough for client approval and then the final artwork for block making.’

‘Block making?’ queried M.

‘I see you are stumped. Yes, those days printing involved processing from copper or zinc blocks, which were supplied to the newspapers or printing houses for final release. All this took time, but the end product was a work of art. Tell me M, I am curious. Can good ideas really germinate when you work in such unseemly haste nowadays on your Apple Macs or whatever?’

‘Easy come, easy go, I say. This is the way it is. Our clients are not bothered if the campaign with “the big idea” does not last for over 3 months. Longevity is passé. We just have to keep coming up with new big ideas, as often as it takes, in tandem with competitive pressure.’

‘But Wills Made for Each Other and The Marlboro Man are still fondly remembered today, are they not?’

‘Remembered yes, but the tobacco industry went up in smoke and so did the ad campaigns. They are all museum pieces now. So, kindly refrain from repeating catchy slogans from the ’60s and ’70s.’ She was being quite haughty. She didn’t quite say, ‘We are not amused,’ but I could sense it.

I played my trump card. ‘Yeah, but what about David Ogilvy? Or for that matter Satyajit Ray? Did you know Ray started off as a visualizer in an ad agency in Calcutta, an agency that was the forerunner to the one I worked in, and that he once made a documentary film for Dunlop India? Sadly, no one can find the film.’

M was quite riled by now. ‘Why am I not surprised? Yes, and Ogilvy was a chef in a French restaurant. So what? You old fogies will keep prattling on about Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce campaign till the cows come home. Satyajit Ray will always be celebrated as a great film maker, but not because of some Dunlop documentary no one has ever seen or heard of. Charulata, yes. Pather Panchali, definitely. Jalsaghar, indubitably. Let’s just leave it at that.’

Frankly, by now I had had it ‘up to here’ with this insufferable woman. M, indeed! I could have taken a lot of her nonsense, but old fogies? I think she gets all her pre-conceived biases from watching too much Mad Men, the hit television serial that captured the advertising zeitgeist of the ’60s. I stood up and said rather frostily, ‘Yes, let’s,’ and stalked out of her open plan room, my steaming cup of good Lipton tea not having passed my lips.

Vax Populi!

A crowd of Hindu devotees covered in multicolored dye raise their hands above their heads in prayer.
God help us from superspreaders!

India has been on a vaccination drive to tackle the rampant Coronavirus for several weeks now. In terms of numbers achieved of those who have got the first jab, never mind the second, we still seem to have barely scratched the surface. The more our healthcare workers keep injecting from the two brands of vaccine available in our country, the more there are people who are yet to be vaccinated. We are still eons away from achieving anywhere close to herd immunity levels of vaccinations administered. To be fair, this is not for want of trying. It is just the humongous magnitude of the task and millions in our country are still overcome by the Hamletian dilemma, ‘To do or not to do,’ if you’ll pardon me paraphrasing the Bard. I guess this is only to be expected in a densely populous country ‘boasting’ a head count of around 1.4 billion. And counting.

That’s the grim news. The grimmer news is that most of our people don’t seem to be taking a blind bit of notice towards ensuring adequate precautions, despite constant reminders over all our media channels by the medical fraternity to observe the three cardinal rules, which at the moment is being observed more in the breach.

Wear a mask. Of course, I wear a mask, but I refuse to cover my nose. I have to breathe, dammit!

Maintain social distancing. What does that mean, exactly? How many feet away from the nearest person are you talking about? What about all these crowds at election rallies, weddings, rave parties and religious festivals? And that includes all our preachy politicians. Flying kisses are back in vogue amongst the hoity-toity, and that is not entirely a bad thing.

Hand hygiene. Look, I wash my hands when I get back home, but oftentimes, I am gadding about on some work or the other, and soap, water or liquid sanitizers are not always ready to hand, in a manner of speaking. So, I have to take my chances. I’ll try not to rub my eyes or pick my nose, but I make no promises.

That’s the common man spelling out his not very uncommon position on what he thinks about health and social observances during the medical crisis that has engulfed the world and is paying a stirring second visit to India. One year has now passed and the average Joe on the street appears to have ‘had it up to here’ with all the enforced discipline. He, and quite often she as well, seems to be saying that I will go out there and have myself a ball, and the devil take the hindmost. It’s a sticky situation for the Central and State Governments to tackle, and though they are making a decent fist of it to fight the virus, the virus invariably seems to have something up its sleeve. The word mutation springs to the lips. Lockdowns are no longer an option, what with the economy showing stuttering signs of recovery. Government agencies are also in a quandary when they find their own ministerial masters jousting at the hustings during the ongoing state elections, with nary a care about crowd control or distancing of any kind. It’s a nightmare. A young, incensed doctor in Tamil Nadu took to social media and asked the public if they had clay in place of brains. The question may have been rhetorical but I think it applies literally, as well.

At this point I felt it would be a good idea to buttonhole one of my friends from the medical fraternity and get his views on how we are going to come out of this hole. I know we are witness every evening to Dr. Guleria, Dr. Devi Shetty and others of their ilk giving us the benefit of their views on television, but I felt I might get a scoop or two by discussing this with my doctor friend. At his express request, I am not revealing his name.

‘Good morning, Doc.’ I always called him Doc despite his being a close buddy. It was a bit of a tease but also displayed a modicum of grudging respect. ‘I spoke to you nearly a year ago, and in between as well, when the pandemic had all of us in a right, royal spin. During this period, we in India have released two vaccines in the market, one more visible than the other and we seem to know a lot more about our friend Covid19. That said, we now find ourselves in the same, if not worse, position than we were a year ago. Pretty funny, don’t you think?’

Doc narrowed his eyes and said, ‘You might think it funny, but I am not laughing.’ Doc was a bit literal-minded but I let it pass. He continued. ‘Yes, I agree the vaccinations have filled a lot of people with hope, but it is not a cure-all panacea. If our youngsters insist on attending all-night parties, dancing cheek-to-cheek, boozing the night away and God knows what else, a hundred jabs on both arms won’t help. As it is these kids are jabbing all kinds of other substances into their arms and veins, and the vaccination drive in some parts of our population is, unsurprisingly, going in vain. If you’ll excuse the pun.’

‘Good to see you haven’t lost your sardonic wit, Doc. I agree, it’s all very frustrating, but surely, we are getting there. I understand India is now the second largest vaccinator in the world after Uncle Sam. That should be enough to encourage people like you.’

‘Look my friend. Anyone with an ounce of common sense will tell you that the only way to beat this virus, or at least to keep it at arm’s length, is to observe the basic, simple rules. Wear a mask, keep a distance from other people and wash your hands regularly. Surely, any village idiot can follow these instructions. Even the Prime Minister repeats these rules ad nauseum whenever he is not giving Didi the third degree.’

‘True, true but the Prime Minister is speaking from the ramparts of Nandigram or Cooch Behar to thousands and thousands of people. He wishes to spread the good word, but the huge crowds are becoming superspreaders. Is that safe, Doc?’

‘It’s certainly not safe for the thousands and thousands of people who have come to listen to their leader. As for the PM himself, he seems to have been born with a built-in immunity against any virus that dares to go against him.’

‘Does that include Mamata Banerjee, Doc? Ha, ha. Speaking of Didi, what’s the official word on her leg injury? Was it a fracture? She is certainly getting full value out of her wheelchair.’

‘Now, now, don’t be naughty. Look, the Calcutta doctors said it was a “bone injury.” Make of that what you will. A strange and unique diagnosis. There was also some talk of abrasions, but the F word was never used.’

‘F word?’, queried I, perplexed in the extreme.

‘Fracture, you dolt. What did you think I meant? Except that no one admitted to a fracture, but the doughty CM is wheelchaired through the heartlands and hot lands of Bengal during this unforgiving summer. I am also given to believe that she has given strict instructions that her leg plaster should not be removed till the elections are over. I understand the high and mighty in the land, or at least in her own party, are autographing that leg plaster, which the good lady wears like a badge of honour. Might fetch a fortune one day at some auction house.’

‘That’s all very well Doc, but haven’t we digressed from the main topic, namely, vaccinations and the virus’ progression? A quick question before we wind up. Can you throw some light on this gapping confusion? Should it be 4 weeks gap between the two jabs or 12 weeks? Many knowledgeable folks, including Adar Poonawalla of the Serum Institute are in favour of 12 weeks. What say you, Doc?’

‘Well, the Prime Minister has split the difference and taken his second dose after 6 weeks. My advice is, after 4 weeks, go by what your instinct tells you,’ he concluded, rather dubiously.

‘Sorry Doc, we digressed from our original digression of politics and the elections. Let us now re-digress.’

‘I am glad we did. Digress, I mean. Re-digress, if you must. Frankly, I am fed to the back teeth talking about the virus and the vaccinations. Much more interesting to talk about politics, elections and leg fractures, or rather, bone injuries. If you are up to it, I am game to talk about the upcoming IPL. Do you think Dhoni still has it in him to provide one last hurrah for the men in yellow?’

‘Doc, I’d love to sit with you and discuss the IPL but I have better things to do. Thanks for all your valuable inputs. Next time I want to talk about Covid, its treatment in sickness and in health, I’ll contact Dr. Guleria.’

‘Or Dr. Devi Shetty. You do that my friend. Only, you’ll have to get in line behind some 50 television channels waiting to interview them. I fear for their health. Now you can vamoose. I have 100 people sitting outside waiting to be jabbed. And I am running out of vaccines. Bye.’

‘Bye-bye.’

The magic of the cinema

At the Movies | Mr. Bean Official - YouTube
Mr. Bean and his date at a horror movie

When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them ‘no, I went to films.’ Quentin Tarantino.

As far as one can remember, the cinema has always held us in thrall, young and old alike. The air-conditioned auditorium, the large screen, clutching popcorn and soda pop or ice cream soda as we used to call it, securely in our arms. Way back when. As the lights dimmed and the velvet screens parted, we had this feeling of being enveloped and transported to another world. The commercials would come on first (Beauty beyond compare, Yera glassware), then the trailers and finally, the advertised film would commence. The 5-minute interval witnessed more commercials and trailers before the movie recommenced. This was our prime source of entertainment and excitement, before home theatres and movies on the go, took over our lives. Liberty, Rex, Plaza and BRV in Bangalore. And in Calcutta, Globe, Metro, New Empire, Lighthouse and Tiger. Tiger Rag, the Dixieland standard, was the signature tune that played incessantly in this small, charming theatre on the crossing of Chowringhee and Lindsay Street, back in the day. Those were the two cities where I have spent most of my formative years. I am back in Bangalore for my sunset years, as I have heard it described, but now it’s all shiny, shiny home theatre with Netflix and Amazon Prime leading the way. Popcorn and beer can be arranged.

As I look back over the best part of 70 years, what were the films and who were the actors that made an instant impact on my sponge-like mind and why? The following is a personal list, by no means complete, but landmarks in my cinema watching life that I can never forget. Films that left a lasting, indelible impression. It is significant that my choice of films spans across the period from the early 60s to the mid-70s, which would represent my early teens to late 20s, easily the most impressionable years in one’s life. I do realize that for every film on my list you, dear reader, will have 10 others. Fair enough, I say. Live and let live.

Becket (1964)

Peter O´Toole, Richard Burton | Spanish postcard by Postal O… | Flickr

I first saw Peter O’Toole as Henry the Second in Becket, alongside the great thespian Richard Burton in the title role. This was not O’Toole’s first film, which of course, was David Lean’s magnum opus, Lawrence of Arabia. However, his essaying of the role of the star-crossed King was so mesmerizing when I first saw it, that even Lawrence paled in comparison. Many will disagree, but that was the kind of impact Becket and O’Toole in particular, had on me. A pluperfect English diction, blue, blue penetrating eyes, the quivering lips, the myriad panoply of emotions – all these to a young teenager was grist to the mill. I must have seen the film on half a dozen occasions on the big screen, and times without number at home on DVD. These characteristics stood O’Toole in good stead in many of his other films, though he did tend to become a bit predictable and typecast in later films. Both Burton and O’Toole were Oscar nominees for Becket, but neither of them won. The Academy has much to answer for. O’Toole had to be satisfied with a consolation Lifetime Achievement award from the Academy a few years before his passing. Favourite quote – ‘Oh Lord, how heavy thy honour is to bear.’

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady | Plot, Cast, Awards, & Facts | Britannica

Rex Harrison, in his Oscar winning role as Professor Henry Higgins swept us off our feet in the celebrated musical, My Fair Lady, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Close to three hours of wondrous music, scintillating dialogues, a beguiling Audrey Hepburn and an impressive support cast – all made for a package you could watch repeatedly and not get tired of. All this in magnificent 70mm and Technicolor. But it is Harrison, as the querulous professor of phonetics, who ultimately steals the show. He spoke more than he sang, the songs written for him, but it was no less unique and listenable for all that. Many of us in school would reel off these songs from memory, and My Fair Lady, as much as Shakespeare, became a benchmark and contributed to our love of the English language. The opening song, ‘Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?’ was in itself a microcosmic and scathing reflection on the declining values of the language. I won a plastic mug for reciting this at the South India Club in Calcutta!

An interesting footnote. Julie Andrews, who played Eliza Doolittle on the Broadway stage version, was passed over for the more marketable Hepburn, despite the former’s outstanding singing credentials. Word on the street was that the producer Jack Warner felt Hepburn was a more ‘bankable’ proposition, and who is to say he was not right. Hepburn did a brilliant turn as Eliza. However, there is a twist to this tale. Though Hepburn sang all the songs for the shoot, unbeknownst to her, a professional singer, Marnie Nixon actually recorded the playback. Evidently, Hepburn was beside herself on learning the truth. Not long after, Andrews got her own back with the blockbuster, The Sound of Music. Favourite quote – ‘Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?’

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969) | Dustin hoffman, The best films, Movies

Winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for British director, John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy will rank among the all-time classics. Featuring Dustin Hoffman as a low life pimp and Jon Voight as a small-town hustler, looking to sell his body to rich and lonely women in the seedy underworld of Lower Manhattan, the film captured the imagination of film goers the world over. Strangely, it was X-rated at the time, though no eyebrows will be raised if you saw it today. It was probably heavily censored here in India. The Oscar nominated performances of Hoffman and Voight are remarkable, and despite its dark theme, the film leaves you alternately in tears of joy and sorrow. Hoffman’s portrayal of the grungy, limping Rizzo ‘Ratso’ has many scene stealing moments, but none more memorable than when crossing a crowded Manhattan street and yelling at an onrushing car, ‘I am walkin’ here! I am walkin’ here!’ Mention must also be made of the movie soundtrack featuring Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Everybody’s Talkin’, which everybody was singing as they left the cinema hall. Favourite quote – ‘The two natural items to sustain life are sunlight and coconut milk. Did you know that?’

The Godfather (1972)

Compliance, Ethics and The Godfather - The Compliance and Ethics Blog

If ever a film was made, that kept you riveted on the edge of your seat for close to three hours, where every scene and sequence was so artfully crafted that you wanted to see it over and over again, The Godfather had to be that film. Under Francis Ford Coppola’s expert baton, this mafia masterpiece tops the list of virtually every all-time great film list in most categories. With Marlon Brando heading the cast, brilliantly supported by James Caan, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall amongst others, the epic gangster saga set a unique benchmark for the genre, where even the violent scenes (and there were plenty) were so realistically picturized that you kept asking for more. The inevitable and worthy sequels, The Godfather Part 2 and 3, in themselves were brilliant, but could never quite match the operatic grandeur of the original. Favourite quote – ‘I am gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon | Movie fanart | fanart.tv

Although Al Pacino hit the big time with Coppola’s The Godfather, I first saw Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, based on a true story of a botched-up bank robbery in New York. I was never a great fan of American actors, much preferring the dry wit and understated portrayals of their British counterparts. However, Pacino in Dog Day changed that perception, and in his wake, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Jack Nicholson hove into dramatic view. But it was Al Pacino, as the restless Sonny, caught in a web of his own ineptitude, trying to manage the stupefied bank staff and the New York police at the same time that makes for a film that is at once, comic, tragic and taut. Pacino had to be satisfied with an Oscar nomination, though many felt he should have lifted the statuette. His pathetically comic telephone chat with his gay partner, under the cops’ close supervision, was in itself worth the price of admission. Favourite quote – ‘Wyoming is not a country.’

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Why haven't we found a better name for electroconvulsive therapy?

Jack Nicholson’s Oscar winning performance as the crazy and rebellious patient, Randle McMurphy in a lunatic asylum, will forever be etched in the minds of those who saw this wonderfully directed film by Milos Forman. Unsurprisingly, the film bagged all the major awards at the Oscars – Best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. As much as it was Milos Forman’s direction that lifted the film, it is Jack Nicholson as the crazed, sane but insane mental patient, who attempts to extract revenge on Nurse Ratched (Oscar winning performance by Louise Fletcher) who steals the show. The ending is cruelly sad and touching, but Nicholson’s amazing performance will stay with you forever. Favourite quote – ‘Jesus, I must be crazy to be in a loony-bin like this.’

Taxi Driver (1976)

Charlie Milk Gums | Movie stars, Taxi driver, Iconic movies

“You talking to me?” Who can ever forget Robert De Niro’s mirror monologue in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Taxi Driver? A grim, seamy portrayal of New York’s underbelly, through the eyes of a mentally disturbed Vietnam war returnee turned cabbie, who seems frustratingly helpless to fight the evils of the city. The ultimate, bloody climax has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, but the film is notable for its many tender and gentle moments, notably De Niro’s attempts to rescue an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster in a stellar debut) from the clutches of her procurer boss (Harvey Keitel), and a failed attempt at romance with a political party worker (Cybill Shepherd). But the film is De Niro’s all the way. In turns sensitive and thoughtful and deeply troubled, he single-handedly carries the film on his shoulders. Favourite quote – ‘One of these days, I am gonna get organezized.’

There you go. That is my list of the most impactful films in my life. Others will have their own favourites. There are some who might cavil, ‘Why no Indian films?’ I can only offer a weak response that there’s nothing invidious intended in leaving out Indian films. It’s just that that was the way the cookie crumbled when I was growing up. Maybe, just maybe, another day might see me waxing eloquent about Sivaji Ganesan or Dilip Kumar, but for now you’ll have to make do with this. That said, let me throw you a dare. Dear reader, draw up your own list of seven of the best Hollywood films that stick in your mind. I’ll wager at least three from this list will show up, if not more. As for the youngsters who consider the ‘60s and ‘70s the stone age, get the DVDs, go to YouTube or stream on cable and watch these films. You won’t regret it.