King Federer I

Image credit: Eurosport

Ever since Roger Federer announced that he is hanging up his racket for good, there has been an avalanche of goodwill messages from all over the world wishing the maestro well. Copious tears have been shed. That was only to be expected, given all that the great man has achieved in the world of tennis. Nadal and Djokovic, Federer’s greatest rivals, have been leading the charge with their emotion-filled missives on social media, followed by any number of other tennis personalities, both from the men’s and the distaff side of the game singing hosannas to the player who defined elegance, style and class on a tennis court. We saw it coming, his exit that is, over the last couple of years (he is 41 years old) but when the announcement actually arrived, most tennis aficionados felt that this was a vacuum that may never be filled. Nadal and the Djoker are still there, not for long one suspects, and brilliant, young upstarts like Alcaraz and Sinner are putting down a marker on the world stage. The moot question is, can anyone capture the public imagination like the genius from Basel did? Time, and it will be a very long time, will tell. The GOAT debate has raged for a while and depending on whether you are from Spain, Serbia or Switzerland, the accolade for the greatest will vary. If the vote was not based on sheer numbers and only on emotion, the Fed will win hands down. For when the dust has settled and the fat lady has sung, that is how Roger Federer will be remembered – an Emotion. As our magnificent Lone Ranger rides off into the sunset on his white steed, swinging for one last time his Wilson Pro Staff RF 97 Autograph racket, we can hear a distant ‘Hi-yo, Silver! Away!’

I have been asked by some of those who read my blogs (about five of them when I last checked) why I have not yet joined the clamorous bandwagon of gushing fans penning an appreciative paean on arguably the greatest tennis player ever to whip a single-handed, backhand cross court winner past a bemused opponent. I have succumbed to pressure as you can see, if you are reading this. My initial hesitancy was due to the fact that I could hardly add anything of value to the reams of copy already circulating around the globe, across media, telling us why we are all going to miss this icon of the game. Not that we needed any telling. Furthermore, Federer’s timing of his retirement coincided with the passing of a much-loved British monarch, give or take a few days. That meant the King of tennis had to vie with the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for public attention. For all that Federer is an adored superstar, Her Majesty, regally holding nothing more than her Sceptre for some 70 years, now interred at Windsor, was going to win that particular contest hands down. Queen Elizabeth II could not do much about when she was going to pass on and join her royal ancestors at the great palace in the sky, but the sultan of the tennis court could have deferred his announcement by a couple of weeks. That may sound facetious (I speak as a tennis buff) but Federer certainly deserved to be given a proper send-off without high-profile and protracted royal obsequies raining on his parade.

Roger Federer may not be a royal in the sense in which members of the Windsor family are, but anyone who understands the difference between a second serve and a double fault will tell you that the balletic Swiss is regal. Regal in a way no tennis player before him has been, certainly not on a tennis court. Federer’s racket skills can only be compared to Zubin Mehta’s baton waving while conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His personality off court was as winning as his achievements on court. Measured purely on the scale of fan following, he reigns supreme. All he needed was the Ermine cape, the Orb, the Sceptre and the Crown and he could have walked into Buckingham Palace, no questions asked, though King Charles III might have thrown a hissy-fit like he did recently when his fountain pen leaked. However, Federer is certainly the King of Wimbledon measured by the number of singles titles won, unless Djokovic goes past him in the near future. However, let us not get completely carried away. Roger Federer was and is human. Almost. As a callow youth, he had to deal with anger management issues and was known to throw temper tantrums like you wouldn’t believe. The broken rackets at the Federer homestead would have kept the family warm at the fireplace during the chill winters of his home country.

Fortunately, unlike some other famous tennis stars I could name, Federer quickly learnt how to disport himself on the world stage, particularly when he started winning the biggies on the circuit. All the world was, indeed, a stage for him. He smiled a lot when he won, cried a lot when he won, and lost. A lachrymose chap, our Roger. I had mentioned earlier that Federer was an Emotion with a capital E, but he was also emotional on court and wore his heart on his sleeve. And didn’t his fans love him for it. It’s not that they loved Nadal less, it’s just that they loved Federer more. As for Djoko, even he knows nobody loves him (his compatriots aside), and the feisty Serb draws strength from that. When the crowd yells ‘C’mon Roger,’ Novak hears ‘C’mon Novak.’ But that’s another story. Incidentally, I am glad Roger got rid of that pony tail he flaunted in his initial days on the circuit.

Federer’s retirement has also unleashed the dreaded punning epidemic amongst headline writers in the print and social media. A rash of puns, some clever, some plain asinine, mostly overwrought has assailed readers this past week. ‘End of the FED-ERA’ screamed one, ‘PeRFection’ was not bad, ‘Roger and Out’ went another, ‘Roger that!’ was repeated ad nauseum. War comics clichés are clearly still an inspiration. The transportation major, FedEx lapped up a lot of cheap publicity every time Roger won somewhere with copywriters falling over each other to come up with lines like ‘Fedex delivers on time.’  In slightly cruder, impolite usage, we have also heard the phrase, ‘So-and-so was Rogered in straight sets.’ I need hardly elaborate on that. One headline in the French newspaper L’Equipe puzzled me slightly. The paper dedicated its front page to Federer with the phrasing ‘God Save The King.’ Apparently, the tribute to the tennis legend is a reference to the accession of King Charles III in the United Kingdom but as an attempt at the telling double entendre it was a bit of a stretch and did not quite make sense. That is the problem with punning for its own sake. You can miss the wood for the trees.

It is axiomatic that you cannot compare players of one generation with that of another, purely on the basis of numbers. By any reckoning, Australia’s finest sportsman (a photo finish with Don Bradman) would be Rod Laver, the tennis colossus who won, back-to-back, all the four Grand Slam singles titles in the same calendar year, and he did it twice with a 7-year gap in 1962 and 1969. Djokovic came within a whisker of achieving that feat in 2019 but fell at the last hurdle at the US Open. The ongoing Laver Cup, pitting Team Europe against Team World being played in London, featuring the present-day giants of the game, including for one last time Federer, is a fitting tribute to ‘The Rockhampton Rocket.’ As I put this piece to bed, I have just seen Roger’s final match partnering Rafa at the Laver Cup, post which the tears flowed freely. Roger, as is his wont, choked up while trying to speak, Rafa was almost inconsolable as was the sobbing full-house at the magnificent London 02 Arena. Rumours that a super-sopper had to be employed to mop up and dry the court for the next game, was a tad exaggerated.

 Over the last century many changes have been wrought in court conditions, quality of equipment, physical fitness and so on. Then there’s the money. Enough said. Even taking all those changes into consideration, for three players to win, between them over roughly the same period, 63 Grand Slam singles titles (and counting) is staggering. Longevity is being redefined. Novak and Rafa will enjoy superiority in numbers over Federer and that is not to be pooh-poohed in our unabashed adulation of Federer. I would only like to end by throwing one challenge, the ultimate acid test. Just walk out onto the street and buttonhole one hundred people at random, and ask them who their favourite tennis player in the world is. If Roger Federer does not overwhelmingly win that statistically valid dip-stick survey, I will eat my non-existent and metaphorical hat. Vox populi! King Federer has retired. Long live the King!

Now then, where’s my box of Kleenex tissues?

To be perfectly honest

Former US President Richard Nixon – ‘I am not a crook.’

I am always deeply suspicious of anyone who starts a sentence, particularly in answer to a question, any question, with the words, ‘To be perfectly honest with you…’ It matters not a whit what the question is. I have watched several eminent personalities resort to this reflex-induced, often irrelevant, for the most part dishonest, kick-off to their response. I suppose it is slightly better than the patronizing ‘I am so glad you asked me that question.’ Then there is the present-day abomination where almost anyone on television starts a sentence with the monosyllabic So. ‘Do you think inflation will be a problem in the near future?’ ‘So, let me be perfectly honest with you.’ You get the picture. This does not include Indian politicians at the very highest echelons because most of them prefer to converse in Hindi or some other vernacular of their preference. The local lingo does not quite possess an equivalent to ‘To be perfectly honest…’ Not literally, but metaphorically. Furthermore, most of our political top guns are never unduly worried about whether they are going to be scrupulously honest (ha ha) or, as some prefer to describe it, ‘economical with the truth.’ There are exceptions of course, even in political circles, but finding such gems of purest ray serene would be akin to hunting for a needle in a haystack.

Take Shashi Tharoor for instance, the silver-tongued Congressman, who speaks English as to the manner born, Oxbridge accent et al. Not that he went to Oxford or Cambridge, but he somehow developed his plummy, English accent while studying, debating and treading the boards in Calcutta. That helped him enormously at the United Nations and other august international bodies where doors opened for him the moment he sonorously intoned, ‘Good morning, Mr. Kofi Annan.’ He even gave a lecture at the Oxford Union (so he did go to Oxford after all, in a manner of speaking) and told the Brits off in no uncertain terms for their 200 odd years of misrule in India. However, if I have heard him say this once, I must have heard him several times. To the question, ‘Mr. Tharoor, how did you come to speak English with a pluperfect accent and in such an orotund a manner that even the English are floored?’ His answer? ‘I am so glad you asked me that question. To be perfectly honest with you, your question incorporating words like “orotund” and “pluperfect” leads me to the inescapable conclusion that you are having a spot of risible fun at my expense.’ That may not be a verbatim reproduction of the hypothetical question posed or the imagined answer proffered by the loquacious parliamentarian, but near enough. I’ll say this in his favour, he does not start his sentences with the semi-literate So.

One last, if contentious issue about our eloquent MP from Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram, if you want to be pedantic). I recently watched him on YouTube trying his hand at stand-up comedy and my sincere advice to him is to cease and desist. Just not his bag. I found his jokes contrived, flat and very unfunny. That he was reading these one-liners off handwritten notes made it only that much worse. He is much better off taking the strips off his political rivals with his Shakespearean flourishes and Wildean wit as his potent weapons. For one thing, his opponents don’t know what on earth he is saying which in itself is half the battle won. Only that they are being vaguely put down. Stick to your strengths, Shashi. As an incidental aside, dear reader, try saying Thiruvananthapuram slowly, provided you are sober, without tripping up around the fourth or fifth syllable. It is not easy if you do not belong to Kerala or the south of the Vindhyas. BJP’s cherubic and feisty spokesperson Sambit Patra tried it several times recently on television and came a cropper. He kept saying Thiruvanthpuram on numerous occasions without hitting the bull’s eye. I invite readers, even while ploughing through this blog, to closely compare Thiruvanthpuram with Thiruvananthapuram to spot the difference. The doughty Sambit Patra struggled manfully, unaware of his dysarthria. In similar fashion most of our news readers and north Indian politicians can never pronounce Karnataka. For inexplicable reasons, they will insist on pronouncing the name of the state as Karnatak. Ditto Keral for Kerala. Are they dyslexic or something? How would they take it if I pronounced Haryana as Haryaan?

To be perfectly honest, our Prime Minister set the ball rolling to send out friendly smoke signals to his fellow brethren in south India, Tamil Nadu in particular, when he quoted a line from poet and freedom fighter Subramanya Bharati, in Tamil, during the newly named Kartavya Path inauguration and the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose statue unveiling in New Delhi. As a Tamilian myself, I would give the PM full marks for effort and displaying great courage. However, as the complex Tamil syllables (for a Gujarati, that is) Parukulle nalla nadu, engal Bharata nadu (India is the greatest nation in the world) hesitantly escaped the PM’s lips, many of us might have been excused for feeling that discretion could have been the better part of valour. Aren’t there any great Gujarati poets? I can do no better than seek recourse in Hamlet’s words, Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. The Bard of Avon was the master of the mot juste.

My point being, what is there to be ‘perfectly honest’ about while making a simple and logical point. Let me now take another example, this from the world of management and business. ‘You must learn to think outside the box,’ is a phrase much favoured by business school students and their bosses in the corporate world, most of whom are also products of the same hallowed portals of management academia. As I had not graduated from a business school, I had problems with some of my better qualified colleagues and superiors in corporate life, who had the wood on me and kept asking me to think outside the box. Or square, if they wanted a bit of jargon variety. When this particular cliché was first thrown at me, my immediate response was, ‘To be perfectly honest, I am not sure I follow you. How do you mean outside the box? What box, which box?’ I was quite pungent with my reaction, which endeared me not one bit with my toffee-nosed colleagues. It was suggested to me that I might not climb very high in the corporate ladder, if I insisted on being ‘too clever by half.’ There’s another one, I thought. My response was a real zinger. I replied vaguely, ‘Ah well, what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts.’ The recipient of this remark had no clue what I was talking about, as I flounced out of the room in high dudgeon.

Clichés, when used sparingly, can help one make a telling point. However, more often than not, we tend to scatter them around like confetti, more to impress than to advance a serious case for its usage. I was once scolded by my history teacher in school for ‘taking one step forward and two steps back,’ and told that I will not make much progress in class.  At the time, I was happy just to put one foot in front of the other. I was 12 years old and I used to walk around the school grounds taking one step forward and retreating two steps back, wondering if that would throw some light on what my teacher meant by that strange admonition. In so doing, I discovered that I was standing at the same place and not making any progress in terms of moving forward. Then the meaning of the phrase hit me. Voila!

At the end of the day (that’s another favourite), my heart is heavy with whatever hearts are heavy with. To be perfectly honest, I concur with the homily that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and that you can’t go through life with your head buried in the sand. What’s more, no man is an island, necessity is the mother of invention and one should always let the shipwrecks of others be your seamark, so long as you remember that for things unknown there is no desire. Always keeping in mind that there are horses for courses, so long as you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and never forget that you can take a horse to the water trough but you can’t make the stubborn equine drink.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what on earth I am talking about any more, my head is all abuzz with aphorisms and other sayings we tend to come across and employ in our daily lives, oftentimes without even knowing what they mean. Nevertheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I take refuge once again in Shakespeare from ‘Measure for Measure,’ Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.

C’est tout.

I’ll stop watching cricket

Anytime is a good time for cricket!

After well over six decades of watching sport at the highest level, either live or on television, I am now able to say with a clear conscience, that top quality tennis is what I would like to sit and watch goggle-eyed till the end of my days. Like most Indians who are wedded to the arcane joys of cricket, I too belonged (I stress on the past tense) to that sturdy band of faithful who would follow the fortunes or misfortunes of the Indian cricket team to the ends of the earth. Well before our boys started strutting around the Elysian cricket fields of the world in blue-coloured clothing and before the ‘Men in Blue’ became a catchphrase in Indian cricket, I was rooting for the likes of Umrigar, Borde, Durrani, Pataudi, Jaisimha, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra, Viswanath and Gavaskar, all attired in virginal whites and doing their country proud, even if we lost more often than we won. The last named, Gavaskar, was also witness to the advent of coloured clothing and instant cricket, albeit briefly, and captained India in one of their famous ODI multi-national tournament victories in Australia in 1985, defeating our nemesis Pakistan in the final. Oh, what joy! Nowadays we have started losing to those men in green which kind of evens things out, though the ignominy of it all hurts. Only a game, did you say? Go tell that to the marines.

There is a piquant irony attached to Gavaskar’s involvement in that 1985 tourney I mentioned. This monumental Test opening batsman once, I blush to state, during a Prudential World Cup game against England in 1975, played an inexplicably soporific innings, scoring 36 runs while facing 174 balls at an appalling, cringe-worthy strike rate of 20.68. I’ll remind you this was a one-day game! Maybe they forgot to tell him that. If this had happened in another, bygone era, he might well have been hauled up for a public flogging. Gavaskar made amends, as stated earlier, before hanging up his boots, more as a leader than for any hurricane effort at the crease. Today he holds forth on the game on television in a statesmanlike fashion, though he tends to be a tad touchy and thin-skinned, ready to lash out at anyone who is critical of his era. Quite rightly too. The man is a legend, for God’s sake. Show some respect.

I have just consumed around 400 words talking about a game I have vowed never to watch. However, I needed to pay homage to those cricketers who did draw me to the game in the first place and who were a lasting advertisement for all that was good and decent about Test cricket. Gavaskar was one of its finest ambassadors along with several others, across nations, who graced Lord’s and the Eden Gardens with equal aplomb in sparkling white flannels and ‘walked’ when the umpire raised that dreaded forefinger, with no recourse to DRS. Let me tell you there were some appalling umpiring decisions those days, with neutral umpires an unknown entity. Gavaskar blotted his copybook when he threatened to walk out in a Test in Melbourne in 1981. The little master felt, justifiably, that he was the victim of a horrendous umpiring howler, though he proffers his own version as to why he almost left the field and potentially forfeited the game. However, as my games master in school used to chide us if we made a fuss about a decision that went against us, ‘Does the scoreboard say you are out? Then you are out. The umpire’s decision is final.’ Thus chastised, we sat glumly licking our wounds and feeling sorry for ourselves.

The problem with watching cricket these days, even on television, is that there is far too much of it. Shakespeare’s Give me excess of it was all right for music, but cricket is a different kettle of fish, particularly the limited-overs version. T20 tops the list in terms of popularity, followed by the 50 over ODIs and those two versions of the game financially buttress Test cricket. The five-day Test sporadically produces interest whenever one’s own country does well. Otherwise, it seems to be living on borrowed time, surviving precariously on oxygen. There are those who aver that the death of Test cricket is greatly exaggerated, but I am ready to read the last rites. As I was saying, on our own television screens in India, international cricket is telecast wherever it is played in the world. Half the time, you are not sure who is playing whom and in which country. All these games kind of blur into one hazy, unrecognizable mass. Is it any wonder that many of us would rather watch something else, like tennis for instance?

Which gives me a little breathing space to talk about tennis. Only early this morning, I sat up to watch a quarter-final game at the US Open between two of the brightest young sparks adorning this lovely game at the present time. 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain took on 21-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy. For a little over five hours, these two youngsters served up an exhibition of tennis fit for the gods. Some of the rallies were simply off the wall, while the bemused spectators gawped open-mouthed in admiration. When the game finished, it was 3 am local time in New York. That Alcaraz eventually prevailed over the indefatigable Sinner is a minor detail of little consequence. To repeat that tired, old cliche, the game of tennis won. Move over Rafa, Novak and Roger. And probably Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas. The future of tennis is here in the shape and form of Alcaraz and Sinner. While I say that, someone else like Casper Ruud or Frances Tiafoe might sneak in and win this last Grand Slam of the calendar year. Which only underscores the point I am making about so much fresh talent in the tennis world to keep us riveted. The women are equally exciting with fresh names like Świątek Sabalenka, Jabeur and Garcia filling in the vacuum created by the exit of Serena, Venus and their generation.

To get back to my original theme, I am done with following cricket, primarily because of its excessive and endemic presence in the sub-continent. Also, too much needless non-cricketing controversy, particularly when India takes on Pakistan. Frankly it’s getting to be boring in the extreme. Then again, that’s just me. And let’s not forget the IPL which grindingly fills in the gap whenever we are not involved in international fixtures. Cricket is now an industry, no longer a game.

Anyone for tennis?

Add to Cart. Everything must go.

‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business / Everything must go. Steely Dan.

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have known the first thing about booking or ordering stuff online. You know what I am talking about – airline tickets and hotel rooms, to name just two. And I am not even getting into Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato, Big Basket, Dunzo, Ola, Uber and the like. The whole world seems to be waiting to open up for your sole pleasure, between the tips of your fingers and that magic touch screen on your mobile phone. It is by now a well-established fact that most of us keep ordering things online we would normally never even have remotely thought of, simply because it is so infernally convenient to do so. Ironically, we now do everything remotely.

The fact that you are not actually shelling out hard currency from your wallet, and that the expenditure is being debited to some invisible, bottomless pit of an account in your bank, only to surface a month or so later in your bank or credit card statement gives you a cushy, if false, sense of well-being. Long live UPI. It is almost as if you have just helped, or rather, gifted yourself to that pair of ankle weights you would never have dreamt of buying a few hours earlier. Of course, when you actually study that bank or credit card statement, you do wince and go, ‘did I actually order that?’ Ankle weights? All you have to do is tap on the ‘Add to Cart’ or ‘Buy Now’ tab and a couple of days later the ankle weights duly arrive courtesy Amazon. You admire the item in question and put it away somewhere safe. So safe that you forget all about it until you guiltily discover its forlorn presence six months later. At which point you push it further back into the loft so no one can spot it, including yourself.

Like everything else, these online marketers or aggregators as some of them are fancifully called, have allowed success to go to their heads. They are now beginning to show those tell-tale signs of slackness, the result of extreme hubris. I guess that was inevitable. If you aggregate so much you don’t know what to do with it! In recent times, many items that you would like to order are out of stock. Of course, items you don’t particularly need, like ankle weights, are plentiful in supply. I would have thought these smart chaps, who are supposedly wizards at forward planning would have been able to analyse their customers’ needs based on past buying behaviour and so on. But no. Pepsodent G, my regular toothpaste brand, not available (my gums will start bleeding again). Heinz ketchup, try again next week. Heinz baked beans, you must be kidding. Heinz Means Beanz, but not here. Kellogg’s Almond and Honey cornflakes, try the plain ones. Coca Cola, we can give you Diet but not Regular. Cadbury’s Silk Plain, sorry we have Hazelnut or Fruit and Nut and in small 250 gm packs only. As for Ching’s noodles, velly solly prease. I think you get the idea.

I can hear some of my patriotic, tricolour-waving friends going, ‘you buy only American and Chinese brands? Shame on you. Why don’t you try Mohun’s cornflakes or Amul Chocolates or Kissan ketchup?’ Yes, point taken, but those American and Chinese brands are being made in India and sold through Amazon India. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

 Bottom line, what with no one talking of Covid any more, we drive to our nearest departmental store, suitably masked, and get those very items the aggregators said ‘no’ to. As far as I can tell, more and more people are visiting brick and mortar stores to do their shopping. This is as much because of the supply problems online I spoke about, but also to once again experience the pleasure of walking around a departmental store, browsing, touching and feeling the products. Something by definition and inherently not experienced with Amazon. Or Big Basket, come to that. This is further accentuated by a nameless dread. ‘What if Covid comes back with a vengeance? Let us enjoy going out while the going is good,’ about sums up the general view.

Since the Amazons of the world do have a window to talk to one of their representatives over phone in case of some intractable problem, I felt I must let off some well-worded steam and let them know that their standards are clearly slipping. Press 2 for English and you will get someone greeting you in Tamil, ‘Vanakkam.’ Wiser to press 5 for Tamil, and you will be put through to an English-speaking representative. On no account should you press 8, unless you are fluent in Swahili. Always pre-supposing that in order to be able to have this conversation, you need to first get across to them, which involves navigating through several options and hoping fervently that the line does not suddenly go on the blink. If that happens, God forbid, you will have to go through the whole painful process once again. However, if at first you don’t succeed and you try, try again, ultimately your perseverance will pay off and you will win through to an almost human voice, as I did.

Almost Human Voice (AHV) – ‘Good morning Sir and how can I be of help to you?

Yours Truly (YT) – ‘I shall dispense with the courtesies and get straight to the point. No chocolates, no baked beans, no toothpaste, no noodles, no cornflakes, no Coke, what the hell is going on? You call yourself Amazon? You should be renamed Lilliput.’

AHV – ‘Lilliput Sir? I do not understand.’

YT – ‘I didn’t think you would. Go and read Gulliver’s Travels. What about all those items I listed that you are stocked out of? All pretty much standard items.’

AHV – ‘We do have other toothpaste brands, Sir. Likewise for chocolates, noodles and so on. You should patronise some desi brands, Sir. Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali range of ayurvedic products is highly recommended.’

YT – ‘Baba Ramdev, eh? Next, you’ll be telling me to stand on my head for 20 minutes! I don’t need a lecture on patriotism from you, young lady. It’s not good enough. Always assuming you are a young lady, and not a 14-year-old boy whose voice has not yet broken, in which case I shall complain to the authorities about employing underage children. Anyhow, I am a very brand loyal person. You, of all people, must know that, since you keep quoting from my past purchase records.’

AHV – ‘Sir, it is very difficult to follow what you are saying. But Sir, we do have ankle weights and you have purchased them from us. I can see it on our records. I hope you are happy with them.’

YT – ‘I am sorry if you cannot follow proper English. Look, I can’t brush my teeth with ankle weights now, can I? Nor can I have them for breakfast. What good is ankle weights when I am starving at breakfast time?’

AHV – ‘I can help you there, Sir. Why don’t you try our MTR idli or upma mix? Easy to prepare, the instructions are on the pack. Even a child can do it. And we are well stocked up on these items.’

YT – ‘I am sure you are. All the things I am not interested in, you will have abundant supply. Right now, I am not in the mood for idlis or upmas. Or, for that matter, Mohun’s cornflakes.’

AHV – ‘How about porridge or oats, Sir. Very English. You sound very English, and we have plenty of brands like the world-famous Quaker Oats.’

YT – ‘All right, maybe I’ll give it a try. My apologies if I have been somewhat abrupt with you. Not your fault of course, but you should play this recording to your bosses. A disembodied voice did say at the start of this dialogue that this conversation is being recorded for “training purposes.” So there, I shall cry off for now and hope you will be better stocked next time round.’

AHV – ‘Thank you, Sir, and I hope the ankle weights are serving your ankles well.’

At which point, I disconnected. I thought she was being a tad cheeky with that ankle weight send off, but I had to appreciate her tongue-in-cheek gumption. However, the conversation had gone on long enough and it was time to terminate. My final view on the subject is that, taking it for all in all, warts and all, I would greatly welcome being able to shop once more at physical stores without let or hindrance. Good exercise too, walking round and round those aisles. The Amazons, Big Baskets and their ilk will continue to rule our lives, but at least, if I do not find my favourite brand of sliced cheese at the shop, I can gently vent my spleen at another human face, and not at some telephonic, faceless juvenile delinquent who will remind me of the availability of ankle weights when I am desperately hunting for my favourite shampoo brand, in addition to those cheese slices.

Mind those medical check-up offers!

Say ‘aaahh’ and cough twice

I don’t know about you, but for some time now, my mail inbox has been inundated with all manner of freebie messages. Notoriously regular among them are offers of ‘full body medical check-up at unbelievable prices.’ There are others such as servicing of my car (including free washing and special chemical cleaning), free inspection of my apartment for delousing and routine electrical line checks, and not to forget, combo cleaning offer of all our carpets and curtains by specially imported machines, all done in situ. However, it is the medical check-up wallahs, pounding my inbox daily like there’s no tomorrow, who hold my particular attention. A word of caution. Do not get taken in by the seductive ‘free.’ There is nothing free in any of this. What they mean, in their own elliptical way, is that they will not charge you for coming over and taking a close look at your carpets. Once they unleash their sales spiel, they have you by the short and curly. When they start the actual work, the meter starts ticking. Caveat emptor applies. Get a close look at the estimate first, sign on the dotted line and the devil take the hindmost.

That said, let me get back to the subject that interests me most. Every day, without fail, I will receive a mail from some pseudo-medico organization (their provenance a big question mark) stating dramatically that ‘YOUR APPOINTMENT FOR A FREE MEDICAL CHECK-UP IS CONFIRMED FOR 11AM ON SEPTEMBER 1.’ When I first came across a message of this nature, I naturally thought I had fixed an appointment and that it had slipped my mind. I had no idea all this was being offered gratis. Perhaps I should check out one of those ayurvedic concoctions to aid memory power. Closer inspection revealed the truth, that this was just a crude, sales hoax. One has to read the small print carefully with a magnifying glass to figure out there’s nothing free here. The following day I would receive an almost identical message from some other lab testing company. It did not take me long to realise that these messages should be ignored and deleted straight away. I even tried to block these evangelical messengers so concerned about my health. No way, they just kept coming back like a reverberating echo. Skins as thick as buffalo hides.

Gone are the days when you just trotted round the corner to a pharmacy, behind which in a small, dank room sat a sad-looking general practitioner reading the daily newspaper. When you told him you had a slight tummy upset or thought you were running a temperature (actually it did not matter what you were ailing from), his course of action was unfailingly the same. ‘Stick your tongue out, say aaahh,’ then out comes the stethoscope which will be pressed at different points on your chest and back during which you had to essay a cough or two, just to ensure your lungs are clear. When all that was done, he will write out a prescription for some awful-tasting patent mixture to be taken for three days. The ‘compounder’ at the pharmacy actually mixed the liquid concoction. No second visit to the doctor was required. Life was simple.

Truth to tell, I was a bit of a sickly child. Every couple of months or so, I would invariably come down with some form of streptococcal infection (sore throat), graduating to high fever and if the mood took me, my stomach would start playing up and all in all, I was a miserable wreck for about a week to ten days. I was once told I had para typhoid, which sounded very impressive to relate to your friends who hadn’t had it, like some dubious badge of honour! At heart, we are all hypochondriacs. The funny thing though, not that anyone was laughing, was that I do not recall blood being drawn and ten pages of platelet count, red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, clotting factor and all manner of other nauseating details of my A+ blood group being revealed. Maybe I was too down in the dumps to have noticed all these sly tests taking place behind my back. I think the general theory those days was that you just lay around feeling like death warmed up, drank plenty of fluids (provided you didn’t bring it up) and your natural immunity system would kick in and fight off those awful germs attacking your frail body. However, if the doctor came round to administer an injection, you feared the worst, the jab being worse than the disease.

Let me stress that such treatment as one received in the days gone by happened only when you actually fell ill. Things are different today. You could be in perfectly robust health, but you are encouraged to take an annual medical check-up. Just in case. Any number of hospitals and private clinics offer this service, and it is an excellent revenue stream for these institutions. Now, I do not wish to sound too cynical about all this, but the fact is most of us have fallen prey to these medical blandishments, and we dive headlong into the waiting arms of their seductive offers. Next thing you know, after another ten months or so, you get a call saying your next check-up is due in a fortnight’s time and can we confirm your appointment. Rather like the reminders you receive nowadays from your car service company.

It helps that if you are over the age of 60, you are entitled to special discounts on the tests. Medical insurance does not provide coverage for diagnostic tests, but you had better take one out on the off-chance that you might get knocked over by a bus and be wheeled in for emergency surgery. Or worse. It is a carefully calibrated world, this whole medical check-up lark, but you have been sucked into it, so you had better lie back and enjoy it. A brief word on medical insurance. When you actually need it, you have to work doubly hard to get the compensation you deserve and have paid for, year on year. Extracting blood out of a lump of rock could be easier, such is the runaround you are given by the companies. That said, I must confess that if you have the ability and the patience to fill up hundreds of forms and answer all their questions to their satisfaction, they usually cough up. My own advice is to take out a policy by all means, but try not get into a situation where you must make a claim. Better you take advantage of the ‘no claim bonus.’

I come back to these regular advertising mails one receives on one’s mobile phones luring me to come and take a medical check-up on the never-never, because they have apparently actually ‘fixed an appointment’ for me. Do not touch these invitations with the proverbial bargepole. If, out of curiosity, you respond in any shape or form, you are done for, my friend. You will get calls, day and night, at the end of which you may need to actually go and get yourself tested for high blood pressure. Leave well enough alone, is my sage counsel. Stay with your trusted family doctor, if such a tribe still exists, or visit a reputed hospital and consult the same doctor every time, as he or she will get to know you, your family history and will ensure that you do not need to go haring off to get tested for all manner of ailments, real or imagined. I do realise that I reckon without those who simply love visiting doctors, and spend a pleasant morning or evening chatting about their innards and perhaps politics and the cricket scores. To them I say, you are beyond hope and you may as well have the time of your lives discussing your gout, lumbago or sciatica in excruciating detail with your doctor. If that is what gives you your jollies. Speaking for myself, if I do not have to visit a doctor or wait to take a blood test for the next five years, it will be too soon.

‘We have a blackout. Call the doctor.’

Unconfirmed reports indicate many doctors in the country are looking for alternative jobs.

All of a sudden, everybody and his uncle is talking about the unemployment situation in our country. Let me rephrase that. All those who are opposed to the present ruling dispensation are spewing venom on the government for allegedly turning a blind eye to the plight of the huddled masses who cannot find work and could well be on the verge of starvation, if not extinction. On the other hand, those favourably disposed towards Prime Minister Modi and his policies, aka bhakts, point to the sterling work his government is putting in, not only to get the economy kick-started after the pandemic (‘which we have tackled better than any other country in the world’), but to generate employment on a pan-India basis. Employment and unemployment are the two key words in this political binary that we are going to get a lot of in the coming months, what with several key state elections in the offing. To say nothing of the blockbuster General Elections in 2024.

As matters reach fever pitch at the hustings, the populace will be inundated with mind-numbing statistics on the entire employment scenario. Without a shadow of doubt the jungle of figures will be suitably massaged and finessed by all the stakeholders at the elections in a manner to suit their own argument, given that employment is a highly emotive issue. As a matter of policy, I pay scant attention to these numbers, a) because I am numerically challenged and b) its all lies, damned lies and statistics anyway, as Mark Twain so pithily put it. Let all the economists, financial and political pundits make what they will of the verbal diarrhoea soon to be unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. I am much more intrigued by something else I heard recently. It may just be an irresponsible rumour, but there is some talk that the medical profession is worried about losing jobs in large numbers because the coronavirus is in swift recession, while hospitalisations and visits to doctors are almost back to pre-pandemic days. Into each life, a little rain must fall. I am then contemplating a situation where doctors, for want of adequate work in their chosen area of medical expertise, are offering themselves to undertake other jobs, even in relatively uncharted waters, just to keep the wolf from the door.

The scene opens in an upper middle-class family home in one of India’s urban cities. The husband has gone to work. The wife has just called one of those 24 x 7 service companies, who can take on any task from fixing a gas leak, checking on the plumbing system, cleaning the carpets, fumigating the house, and taking the little doggie out for ‘walkies.’ In this particular case, the power supply system at their semi-detached villa has collapsed. The wife is desperate, she rings her husband at the office and brings him up to speed. The hubby, taking no chances, also calls the service chappies, and the next thing you know, the doorbell rings and the harried, but now relieved wife rushes to open the door. Quick correction. The doorbell does not actually ring because there is no power. The wife runs to the door on hearing the horse-shoe, brass metal door knocker going ballistic. She is confronted by a pleasant looking young man displaying a stethoscope sticking out of the pocket of his large, white waistcoat.

The Service Chap – ‘Good morning, I understand you called for an electrician. Perhaps you could let me in and tell me exactly what the symptoms are.’

The Wife – ‘Symptoms? I am sorry, I am a bit confused. You look more like a doctor than an electrician. What is that rubber tube thing sticking out of your pocket?’

The Service Chap – ‘Don’t worry about that. Just tell me exactly where the pain is?’

The Wife – ‘Pain? You mean the electrical problem. Yes, for a moment there I thought you said pain.’

The Service Chap – ‘It’s this howling wind. Storm brewing. Plays tricks with one’s ears. Right, let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? Are we talking about a complete power failure, or just partial blockage?’

The Wife – ‘Blockage? Look there’s power in all the neighbouring homes. I called many of them and checked. So, it is not the electricity company’s problem. What? Of course, we have paid our monthly electricity bills. It’s one of those auto-debit things with our bank. ECS or something. It could be our back-up UPS system that has gone kaput or some kind of undetected electrical fault. That is what we want you to check and, hopefully, rectify, if you are up to it. The food is beginning to get rancid in the fridge. So could you kindly get a move on?’

The Service Chap – ‘Madam, we cannot just rush these things. This is a serious case. I would go so far as to describe it as critical. I need to conduct a battery of tests before arriving at the correct diagnosis. Only then can a proper course of treatment be recommended.’

The Wife – ‘What on earth are you chuntering on about diagnosis and treatment? Next you will be recommending surgery. Are you sure you are not a visiting doctor accidentally come to the wrong address? You certainly look like one. Some poor patient might be at death’s door even while you are wasting your time at my place. I’ll call the company again.’

The Service Chap – ‘No, no. Ha, ha. Madam, don’t be so hasty. I read a lot of medical thrillers in my spare time. You know, A.J. Cronin, Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, that kind of stuff. It’s a passion. So, I tend to use medical terms at times. Metaphorically. Take no notice. Just point me to your generator room.’

The Wife – ‘Follow me. It’s part of our garage, actually. There, that’s where the UPS system is. I checked the batteries, and they have all been properly serviced just a week ago. We have an AMC with the company.’

The Service Chap – ‘AMC, UPS, ECS, we only speak in acronyms these days. Now then, Madam, may I request you to leave me alone with the patient for a while. I need to concentrate fully without any distraction.’

The Wife – ‘Patient? Did I hear you say patient?’

The Service Chap – ‘Did I, I mean did you? Gosh, must have been a slip of the tongue. Force of habit. Sorry. Allow me to continue with my investigation.’

The wife thought she heard this strange chap mutter under his breath, ‘and I don’t even have a nurse to assist me,’ but she let it pass. At least, he didn’t blurt out, ‘scalpel.’ Instead, she went back to her room and called her husband on the mobile.

‘Listen dear, sorry if I disturbed you at a meeting or something, but this so-called electrician that the service company sent down appears to be a complete nincompoop.  Non compos mentis. He keeps talking about symptoms, tests, patients and so on. I am at my wit’s end. He might burn the entire place down.’

My husband went into a controlled spasm of laughter. ‘My dear light of my life, I think I know what the entire confusion is in aid of. Didn’t you read in the papers that a large number of doctors could be out on the dole, looking for employment in other fields? I am sure this bright spark, whom you fear might be a potential arsonist, is one of those. I wouldn’t worry. They have been properly trained. I am sure he knows what he is doing. Even I could have managed it, if I had had the time.’

‘You! Please. Last time you tried to change a light bulb, you brought the entire crystal glass chandelier crashing down on our dining table. And don’t even get me started on your changing the fuse. I am on a short fuse here, myself. Thanks for nothing. I’ll take care of this lunatic.’

The wife went anxiously back to the garage and found the ex-doctor fiddling furiously with some wires. He even carefully placed his stethoscope on one of the batteries and listened attentively! And hey presto, next thing you knew, the house was awash with blazing lights and whirring fans. Even the refrigerator was purring contentedly.

The Wife – ‘My God, you did it! It’ll probably go off again in a few minutes, but well done. For a moment there, you really had me worried sick. I feared that we will all be sitting on a mound of ash and rubble. For an ex-doctor, you do seem to know something about electricity. What was the problem?’

The Service Chap – ‘Thank you Madam. Who told you I was a doctor?’

The Wife – ‘Oh, I don’t know. That stethoscope sticking out of your white coat pocket was a dead giveaway. Then all those references to diagnoses, symptoms and so on. I smelt a rat. Anyhow, thank you. I’ll go and make us a nice cup of tea. We’ve both earned that.’

The Service Chap – ‘Thank you Madam. Most kind. I also notice that you are suffering from a hacking cough, and your eyes are watering. If you wish, I can do a quick check up of your pulse and BP, give you the once over and prescribe some medication. And that will be on the house. I am not moonlighting.’

The Wife – ‘Wow, a two-in-one pro. Would you check me out? Terrific! You still haven’t told me how you fixed the electrical problem. I need to know. It could happen again as soon as you leave.’

The Service Chap – (enigmatically) ‘Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies. Trial and error, more error than trial.’

They both laughed heartily and enjoyed their cups of tea and cheese and tomato sandwiches. As the service chap-cum-doctor drove away in his battered-up van, he thought he heard a loud blast coming from very close to the villa he had just left, along with a muffled scream from a woman. From his rear-view mirror, he could see a thick black cloud of smoke rising in the receding distance. He jammed his foot on the accelerator pedal right down to the floor and sped off as fast as his rickety vehicle would take him.

Chess diplomacy. Making the right moves.

PM Modi, CM Stalin and GM Anand at the inaugural ceremony

Chess is in the air. More to the point, the game of chess has been pervading the city of Chennai, as this great cultural and sporting centre has just been hosting the 44th Chess Olympiad, popularly referred to as the Chennai Chess Olympiad. By definition, chess is not a game calculated to get the adrenalin flowing amongst the masses. It is not cricket or football. Its cloistered indoor format with the participants staring down their kings, queens, pawns, rooks, bishops and knights over 64 black and white squares is hardly calculated to engender an atmosphere of wild, raucous cheering. Bridge comes closest to chess in terms of the participants sitting across a table and wondering what to bid. That said, at the end of a marathon, such as we have been witness to over the years, featuring the likes of Korchnoi, Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Fischer, and more recently Anand, when the winner finally whispers the ultimate death knell ‘checkmate’, the crowds watching behind glass screens have been known to erupt in joy; as much out of relief that the ordeal is over as in celebration over the winner’s triumph.

I have no intention here of providing a laundry list of the names of the winners and runners-up in the aforementioned Chennai jousts or in attempting to describe any of the games. I have no competence in that regard. What is more, all that has been done and dusted and the media has been fulsome in its coverage. Challenged as I am in the finer aspects of this board game, I could at best pick up that India has a bunch of brilliant youngsters, some of whom may not even have had their first shave. I am, of course, referring to the boys here. The brilliant girls too looked barely out of their teens. So, it is clear that Indian chess is in safe hands.

That our Prime Minister and Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister chose to be present at the inaugural gala, sitting side by side, speaks volumes for the importance attached to this tournament at the highest levels. The two prominent political honchos were seen whispering sweet nothings to each other during the song and dance sequence that was unfurled for their delectation. What priceless exchanges took place between them will remain forever a matter of speculation, given that they don’t speak the same language, in more ways than one! Rumours floating around that someone sitting close to them heard the PM ask CM Stalin, ‘Do you prefer the Ruy Lopez opening over the Queen’s Gambit? Personally, I favour the Sicilian Defence; if I am playing black, naturally,’ were just that – rumours. In any case, Stalin looked quite blank and was not heard answering. He turned helplessly to his PA who merely shrugged his shoulders. My own instinct tells me that the PM was probably saying something like, ‘Stalin Bhai, why are you wasting your time with these Mahagathbandhan losers? Align with the NDA and we can fly sky high.’ At which point, the PM applauded lustily as one of the Bharatanatyam tableaux came to an end. Stalin continued to look befuddled while he carefully patted his hair in place.

Given that PM Modi and CM Stalin are on opposite sides of the Indian political divide, this may have been the first time they came together on a common cause. The Chess Olympiad fandango was probably just a smokescreen for the two strong leaders to engage in some confidential and informal backroom chats. Two Grandmasters picking their way carefully through the squares! The machinations of politicians are unpredictable and sometimes can make strange bedfellows. This may, and this is pure conjecture on my part, have been a first-time effort at chess diplomacy in our country. In the international arena of political intrigue over the years, journalists have frequently used chess as a metaphor to describe diplomatic moves and manoeuvres. 

While my own light-hearted speculation on the just concluded Chess Olympiad in Chennai, against the backdrop of Indian politics was precisely that i.e., satirical speculation, there is a lot more to the game in the global arena. On the international stage, over the years, the game of chess has reflected in deadly earnest, the more serious political conflicts that sparked worldwide interest. When precocious American child prodigy Bobby Fischer took on his Russian counterpart Boris Spassky for the World Championship title at Reykjavik in 1972, the entire world was agog.  It was almost as if Nixon was facing off against Brezhnev. Even those who could not tell the difference between a rook and a knight sat up and took notice. Because this was not just any ordinary chess game. It was widely projected as the ersatz cold war between USSR (as it then was) and the United States being played or fought out over a chess board in neutral Iceland’s capital city. For the record, the enigmatic, unpredictable genius, Fischer defeated Spassky to be crowned world champion, while America and most of the world representing capitalist interests, went berserk. It was as if the USA had militarily annexed the USSR. Even the world’s most popular rock band, The Beatles, in a different context, had the world dancing to Back in the USSR.

India has always had a close association with chess. Historians aver that the game shatranj or chaturanga, was first discovered and developed in India during the 6th century AD. In more contemporary times India could boast of many fine chess players, but none of them hit the headlines globally. However, it was not until the 80s and 90s that a quiet, unassuming lad from Madras, Viswanathan Anand, blazed a phenomenal trail of glory for his country. He became the first Indian grandmaster and was awarded the Padma Shri at the age of just 18 and in 2007, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the first sportsman to have been so honoured. (The Congress party’s politically opportunistic awarding of the Bharat Ratna to Sachin Tendulkar came later). The rest of ‘Vishy’ Anand’s fabulous career needs no elaboration as it is well recorded for anyone who is interested. He has just this year been elected Deputy President of the FIDE (World Chess Federation). If India today boasts a clutch of highly talented young chess players, the meteoric rise of ‘Lightning Kid’ Anand has undoubtedly been the primary inspiration. It is worth adding here that the late film director and maestro Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), set in circa 1857 during the Indian mutiny against the British, won international plaudits and reaffirmed India’s pioneering role in developing the game of chess, though the game itself played a subtle, metaphorical backdrop to the main storyline.

Having said earlier that chess is not a mass spectator sport, if you are even remotely interested in the game and find two people at a roadside table, heads bowed in deep concentration over a chess board, you will gravitate towards them along with several other passers-by already studying the moves closely. It is a powerful, magnetic attraction. Vladimir Putin once said, ‘Chess makes men wiser and clear-sighted.’ Judging by recent events in Ukraine, the Russian strongman was clearly not a particularly good exponent of the game. I end this reflection with an amusing, though true, anecdote that demonstrates the enormous influence the game has had over people from all walks of life. Some legendary musical and chess names feature in this story.

The eminent Soviet composer and pianist, Dmitri Shostakovich was an avid chess player. Whenever he and Serge Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf) were at the same musical event, they would go to one of their hotel rooms for a serious game. He frequently collaborated with violinist David Oistrakh, and they spent every free minute at their chessboard in the green room. His love of chess was well known in the Soviet Union, a nation where chess was big news. A reporter once asked Shostakovich ‘Who is the strongest player you have faced?’ Shostakovich told them this story: When a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in the early 1920s, he made a little money playing the piano accompaniment in silent movie theatres. One day, walking through the lobby after the film finished, he noticed a man looking over a position on a chessboard. Shostakovich asked if he’d like to play a game, the stranger accepted.

Shostakovich tried a new opening idea he and his friends had seen in the latest German chess magazine. The stranger seemed puzzled, studied the position for 4 or 5 minutes, then crushed Shostakovich with an idea the German magazine hadn’t mentioned. ‘I have never been so quickly and decisively defeated,’ Shostakovich admitted. He thanked the stranger and introduced himself, ‘Shostakovich, Dmitri Dmitriyevich. The stranger, in turn, introduced himself, Alekhine, Alexander Alexandrovich. That was my toughest opponent,’ he told the reporter. Judging by the great composer’s laconic reaction, it is not fully clear if the renowned composer actually realised that he had just moved the ivories, not too astutely, against one of the all-time great chess players, one who dominated the world of chess at the turn of the 20th century. It makes one ponder on the existential question of why Russians have had a vice-like stranglehold on this game since time immemorial.

With so much chess and its allied subjects occupying my mind during this past couple of weeks, I leave you with my opening gambit (I am playing white). All set? King’s pawn, 1.e4. Good luck and take your time.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

‘Not everyone who drinks is a poet. Some of us drink because we’re not poets.
 
Dudley Moore.

It has always been a matter of wonderment to me why, in the overall realm of things, poetry has invariably been placed a notch above prose in the pantheon of English Literature. I grant you that this is more a perception than a reality, but that is the general feeling one takes away. For instance, excellence in certain forms of sport is often likened to poetry. ‘Roger Federer’s backhand crosscourt is sheer poetry,’ you will hear television commentators gush. Ditto Diego Maradona’s ‘Goal of the Century’ against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City. It was a close-run thing between Maradona’s magical goal and the Uruguayan television commentator, Victor Hugo Morales who went poetically berserk describing it. Similar poetic praise is reserved for a Virat Kohli cover drive, though we have not been seeing much of that in recent times. The late American poet and music critic Amiri Baraka (previously known as LeRoi Jones) once said, ‘Poetry is music, and nothing but music. Words with musical emphasis.’ He was a jazz enthusiast and an avowed admirer of the legendary Miles Davis, whose trumpet playing has often scaled poetic heights.

We all know that Shakespeare wrote many beautiful sonnets, but he is justly celebrated for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of his immense body of plays. We quote the Bard, day in and day out, consciously or otherwise, whenever we speak or write in English. And yet, to a lay person of the present generation, his plays read more like poetry than prose. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is more enjoyable to watch an enactment on stage of Hamlet, than to actually sit down and read the entire play, as you would a novel. After all, wasn’t it Shakespeare himself who said, ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.’? And just to drive home the point, the great man adds, ‘The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.’  This is perhaps one reason why heightened sensations in any field of activity draw comparisons with poetry, whereas things more mundane tend to be described as prosaic. That’s just my impression and I am open to be taken issue with. Gently please, don’t land on me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

If I were to reel off a few names of great poets at random, say, Donne, Dante, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Eliot, there would be a tendency on the part of people to roll their eyes heavenwards and heave a deep sigh as if to say, ‘those men knew what life and beyond was all about.’ Whereas if I were to invoke the names of a few great novelists, say, Dickens, Hemingway, Kafka, Conan Doyle, Austen, Brontë (all three of them), Waugh (the Elder), Wodehouse, V.S. Naipaul, the general reaction would be one of awe and respect. The crucial difference lies in the ability of poets to evoke a kind of ethereal ecstasy while the novelists, though hugely revered, tend to be viewed in more down to earth terms. This is not to put one literary form over the other. As I said earlier, it is just the way I perceive them. Truth to tell, I have never been much of a one for poetry. The poetry fanatics from English Literature classes would wax eloquent about Free Verse, Blank Verse, Sonnet, Acrostic, Villanelle, Limerick, Ode, Elegy, Haiku (you can never keep the Japanese out), to say nothing of sub-categories like Quatrain, Cinquain, Couplet, Sestet and several more. In more modern times, we have seen the emergence of Rhyming Slang, which the British hoi polloi is pretty adept at. Once the conversation gets into things like Iambic Pentameter, I scoot for the hills. Who knows, it is entirely possible that when John Keats felt a thirst coming on, he made a beeline for the nearest pub and declared to the bewildered bartender,‘O for a beaker full of the warm South / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene / With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.’Whereas a simple, ‘a large tankard of your finest ale please, bartender, and here’s a shilling for your trouble,’ would have more than met the case.

I felt, therefore, that I should set the record straight and turn my hand to a bit of poetry, if this be the first and last time I attempt it. I have tried my luck with limericks earlier, and according to most experts, I came a cropper. This time, I shall curb my ambition and go for a straightforward four-liner verse format. Quatrain, is it? Let’s just call it poetic license. So, here goes nothing. With apologies to all poets, past and present.

Let’s hear it for poetry
Though I am partial to prose 
If I can’t quite rhyme it
Don’t think me gross.

In India, politics is all
If Modi can’t crack it
We are up the spout
And Rahul just can’t hack it.

Then there’s the doughty Mamata
Forever crying hoarse
With an eye on the PM’s chair
Is it with her, the Force?

Yogi quietly watches the fun
Some say he is next in line
If Modi drops a hint
Watch the saffron sadhu shine.

What of the beleaguered Sonia?
On all sides being corralled
Can she find a way out
Of the mess that is the Herald?

All the while Tharoor speaks
Nineteen to the dozen
No one understands a word but
In social media he is buzzin’.

In Bengal the TMC frets
Over ill-gotten moolah
Arpita cries, ‘Not me, not me’
While Partho da swings on his jhula!

Over in bustling Mumbai
The ED closes in on Raut
‘I’ll see you in hell’ says our Sanjay
But for him it augurs a rout!

Arnab brings the roof down
On the Vadra-Gandhi clan
Rajdeep does much the same
Only with far more elan.

The Opposition was up in arms
‘Let’s talk GST, let’s talk inflation.’
The Treasury turned the other cheek
And said, ‘Why not corruption?’

China threatened to blow up Pelosi’s plane
Xi tried hard, the visit to stall
But Biden held firm
The lady sure has some gall.

Meanwhile, the US took out al Zawahiri
Who didn’t know what hit his shack
Biden celebrated from his secure White House
And told all Americans, ‘Watch your back.’

In old Blighty, the race is on
To see who will let the cat out
Nightly at Number 10
Is Rishi still in with a shout?

Russia’s shelling of Ukraine is unceasing
No one knows when this will end
Putin is pulling out all the stops
But Zelensky will not bend.

They say cricket and politics don’t mix
Ha, ha, who are they kidding?
Ask ex-skip Virat Kohli
Whose career is up for bidding.

The legend MSD they left alone
With him they had no beef
Captain Cool was too clever
From whose book they should take a leaf.

India is playing in the Caribbean
Is anybody following?
Does anybody care?
Only the BCCI seems to be wallowing.

What about the Commonwealth Games?
Some say we shouldn’t be there
Shuttling and wrestling for a few medals
Ah well, let’s dream to dare.

Shed a tear for poor, old Djoko
They said ‘no vax, no Slam’
‘No way, Jose,’ said the champ
‘I am Novak(s), you can all scram!’

Covid, please make up your mind 
Are you coming or going? 
Monkeypox has its foot in the door 
It's our minds you're blowing.

And that’s where I’ll end this try
Tilting at poetic windmills
I am no dab hand at it
Only prose will pay my bills.

I told myself at the outset that poetry is not my bag, but I am not very adept at taking good advice. Not even my own. But what the hell, one has to try something out in order to plumb the depths, as it were. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Not that I have gained much from this exercise, but I have to say it was fun. I shall now proceed to inflict these rhymes on an unsuspecting world, and hope they will be a wee bit more charitable than I have been on myself. A few luminaries from the Dead Poets’ Society could well be turning in their graves on reading my overwrought rhymes. Serve them right, I say, for making me go through all that stuff in school about Skylarks, Country Churchyards, Highland Lasses, Mists, Mellow Fruitfulness and so on. They were all compressed in very small print in a fat, red book called Golden Treasury of Longer Poems. By the time we got to the 17th verse, we couldn’t wait for the end-of-class bell to ring. The only time the boys got excited was during Coleridge’s Christabel, when the eponymous heroine watches her well-endowed, dodgy pal Geraldine disrobe herself, and our English Master quickly turned the page to avoid having to read, at least for us impressionable teenagers, some graphic anatomical descriptions. Not content with this, Coleridge got right up our noses and proceeded to write his longest poem ever, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Poor Coleridge. Poor English Master. Poor students. All said and done, I shall stick steadfastly to prose, barring the odd poetic quote punctuated here and there, to show there’s no ill feeling. And finally, if someone can explain to me why (and how) ‘the mirror crack’d from side to side’ as Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott cried, ‘The curse is come upon me,’I should be much obliged.










	

Tell me about it

Sharing the same language but……

There might be some debate as to exactly what percentage of the world’s population speak the English language, but there can be little doubt that it covers a very large swathe of the globe. After all, not for nothing did the Brits sail around the world a couple of centuries ago, seeking whom they may devour. While their avarice to conquer and stay on as uninvited guests for long periods has been resented by the colonised, and rightly so, we need to graciously acknowledge their sagacious contribution in leaving behind a language that binds many nations and keeps the wheels of commerce well oiled. Else we might have been bumbling our way through with French, Dutch or perhaps, Portuguese. It is true that in each geographical region, the English language has been suitably adapted to cater to its own vernacular needs, resulting in uniquely different accents and emphases on words and phrases. Why, in India the way a typical Bengali speaks English is vastly different from how his compatriot in Chennai would hold forth in the same lingo. The native mother tongue influences the English pronunciation and phraseology. In that respect we Indians laugh at ourselves all the time, good-naturedly mocking our fellow countrymen and women.

The rapid spread of English has been, by and large, helpful though it has provided much comic relief when people attempt to mimic the way English is spoken in different tongues. All those years ago, British comic actors Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, through their immensely popular Goon Show, attempted to create a ‘one-size-fits all’ Indian accent and had their admirers from all over the world helplessly rolling in the aisles. Listen to the song Goodness, Gracious Me! featuring Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, recorded as a promo for the film The Millionairess (though excluded from the main film) and you will know what I mean. A more recent reprise of the same song, enacted by Rowan Atkinson (whom I otherwise admire) falls way short of the original.

My own preoccupation for some years now, has had to do with the wonder that is the way English is spoken in the United States of America. Notwithstanding allowances made for marginal differences in the way a Texan would drawl as opposed to a New Yorker’s staccato, rapid-fire way of communicating, one can safely club American English into one unique slot. In India, for obvious reasons, most of us have been more used to the British way of speaking and writing English when it comes to spellings, idioms, phrases, aphorisms and so on. Bernard Shaw’s fictional Professor Henry Higgins (Pygmalion and My Fair Lady) famously complained that ‘in America, they haven’t used it (English) for years.’ The reason American English intrigues me is that, while they seem to be speaking English, there are many phrases and expressions they employ that continue to baffle me. The Australians too speak English in their own, unique way. Listen to former Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting or eccentric tennis star Nick Kyrgios, speak. You will need an interpreter to translate what they are saying into decipherable English, but that is simply the accent. The Americans appear to have a vocabulary all their own. That said, now that we have cable television and any number of American TV serials and films readily available at our finger tips, English as she is spoke, particularly by the younger generation in India, is slowly but surely morphing from the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes. And who are we fuddy-duddies to complain?

Several years ago, on my first visit to New York City, I called my hotel from the airport where I held a reservation. The conversation went something like this.

‘Good morning, my name is Subrahmanyan. Not Submarine. No, no, I am not from Suriname. My name is Subrahmanyan, and you are holding a single room for me. Could you kindly confirm the same? I should be arriving in about an hour.’

‘Can you spell that for me, please? I didn’t quite catch that. Just the first five letters should do it,’ replied the chap at the reception.

‘Right, here goes. S U B R A…’

‘Got it. Pretty long name, huh?’

‘Sub-rah-man-yan. Just four syllables. No longer or more unpronounceable than Zbigniew Brzezinski.’

‘How much?’

‘Never mind. The name, for the last time, is Subrahmanyan, Suresh.’ I was beginning to get just a little peeved.

‘Check. Copy that.’

‘How do you mean check, and copy what? Anyhow, you can copy it wherever you like. Just wanted to be sure of my booking. And by the way, Zbigniew Brzezinski was a former National Security Advisor of your great country. Just so you know.’

‘Whatever,’ he responded, laconically. I also suspect he was chewing gum.

I was to learn later that copy that means ‘noted and understood.’ We hear that often enough now in American movies. Back home in India, we were entertaining an NRI family from New Jersey. The husband and wife were to land up at our place for high tea along with their teenage son, who was finishing his schooling in the US. The couple arrived bang on time, the youngster was coming from elsewhere. While we were chit-chatting, the time flew by and their darling boy was yet to put in an appearance. The mother became quite agitated and called the tardy scion on the mobile and spoke in an exaggerated Yank accent. ‘Where are you, Raja? You were supposed to join us an hour ago, da. Will you drop whatever you are doing and come here already?’

Come here already? Never heard the word ‘already’ used that way before. Sounded like a contradiction in terms. In more recent times, particularly on streaming video, this phrase has become increasingly commonplace, and Indian kids, be they from the US or from India’s urban elite, are quick to latch on. To complete that high tea story, when the errant boy did arrive, he examined the generous fare on the dining table and exclaimed, ‘Goody, goody gumdrops! Am I going to pig out.’ Ah well, each to his own, I suppose. Speaking for myself, immense hunger would have driven me to venture, metaphorically, that ‘I could eat a horse.’ As for G.G. Gumdrops, the Americans and the British have been squabbling for long over who owns the copyright.  Let me quickly add here that phrases like I don’t care in place of ‘I don’t mind’ and my bad in place of ‘I am sorry’ have already become passé, a cringe-worthy part and parcel of our daily lexicon, such that I shan’t elaborate on them. Suffice it to say that, so far, so bad.

Let’s move along to behind the eight ball. The phrase, drawn from the game of billiards or pool, is meant to indicate that you are falling behind the competition in whichever subject is under discussion. ‘My friend, let me caution you that in the matter of winning the confidence of your boss, you are clearly behind the eight ball as compared to that greaseball, Jack. You had better buck up.’ I actually like this phrase, but if used indiscriminately, you will just come across as a boor and a show off.

I first came across the word period, when I joined school; 9 am to 10 am was Geography period, 10 am to 11 am was History period and so on. To say nothing of the British Period, the Mughal Period, the Chola Period, et al. We now know that this word has very many different meanings and shades, and I shan’t go through all of them here. (If she is having her period, show some understanding.) It is a common enough word. Period can also mean ‘full stop,’ and in the bygone days when we dictated letters, we would use the word frequently. ‘Dear Sir, Thank you for your kind enquiry about our tyres for animal-drawn vehicles period.’ Your smart secretary would automatically translate that to full stop. In the more trendy, conversational style of the present day, one is apt to say something like, ‘I do not wish to dwell on this subject anymore. Period.This, to indicate firmly, that the topic is irrevocably closed.

Here’s one that has not quite gained currency in India, but it will only be a matter of time. ‘Hey look, I have no time for late night parties. I am working the graveyard shift.’ Those swotting away in India’s IT and services sector speaking to clients all over the world, who start work at around 11pm and slog all night till the sun comes up, work the graveyard shift. It won’t be long before some of your friends start mouthing this phrase, if they aren’t already at it. I was also struck by yet another unheard-of beauty. ‘Wow! Where did you get your hair done? It’s absolutely on fleek!’ I have it on good authority that the expression denotes appreciation for a job perfectly done.

I end this far from comprehensive rumination on spoken or written expressions one comes across from ‘the land of the free and home of the brave,’ spreading like a rash to other parts of the world. If you have come this far with this piece, lolling back and going out of your way to find nasty things to say about it, you are nothing more than a mean, old Monday morning quarter-back. The phrase is obviously derived from American football, which is not football at all. At least, not as we know it. Why this hyper-critical quarter-back chooses Monday mornings to vent his spleen on his colleagues is an even greater mystery. I will now need to scour Wisden’s cricket almanac to find a suitable local riposte. At that I may not even get to first base. I think I’ll just take a raincheck, ride shotgun with my friend in his Audi and shoot the breeze.

American English. Some may say it sucks. Will my English masters in school have approved? Not on your nelly (that’s British), and they are unlikely to have said, no can do. My 21-year-old grand nephew just called me from Chennai. As we were ending our brief chat, he said, ‘I’ll ring off now. Peaceful.’ This, for a change, may be a recent Indian coinage but puzzling, all the same.

Tell me about it.

Are we ‘Ready for Rishi?’

When Joe Biden assumed office as President of the United States on January 20, 2021, here in India there was much excitement. Not because anyone in India gave a toss about Joe Biden. The appeal of American Presidents to the Indian public, both domestic as well as the diaspora, depends largely on whether they are good looking or so ridiculous that you have to pay close attention. On that score both John Kennedy and Donald Trump, for those very reasons (you can work out which applied to whom), merited our keen interest. In the case of Biden, our curiosity in India had much more to do with his vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris because of her Indian antecedents. That she was also part West Indian on her father’s side did not seem to matter. Perhaps some sections of the Indian public interpreted West Indian to mean Mumbai and not Jamaica. However, for a few, brief shining moments, those of us from south India, particularly Chennai and its environs, went ballistic with joy. Reams were written in Indian newspapers about Kamala’s maternal family background from a conservative Tamil Brahmin household. Unknown relatives crawled out of the woodwork. Which also meant that her love of the cuisine from that part of India, including idli, vada, dosa and curd rice received as much billing as her untested political nous. If she also enjoyed spare ribs and beef steak, we did not mention it.

All very droll. That was over a year ago, when Kamala Harris was sworn in. In that period, even if she was not being publicly sworn at, it was a near thing. At any rate, she appears to have gone clean off the radar. Not even a blip. No one talks about ‘our Kamala’ any more. Not even in suburban Chennai. Lotus (Kamala in Sanskrit) is unlikely to become POTUS, unless Biden decides to throw in the towel before his term ends. I have heard tell that a soothsayer has predicted the lady could get the top job before Biden’s term ends!  Such is the fickle, ephemeral nature of fame.

That preliminary introduction about Kamala was prompted by the current hullabaloo we are witnessing over the possible ascension of an Indian-origin candidate, Rishi Sunak, as a potential successor to the ousted Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson. The Indian media, social circles, our neighbours, friends, relatives and possibly their pet dogs, are all waiting with bated breath to see if young Rishi (he is only 42) can become the first non-white Prime Minister of Great Britain, albeit a tad wet behind the ears. Incidentally, my friends who are clued up on these things, assure me that the terms United Kingdom and Great Britain (and by inference, even England) are freely interchangeable. The golden rule appears to be that if they win the football World Cup, which they did against West Germany 4 – 2, in 1966 at Wembley (aided by a controversial third goal), or an Olympic gold, the cry will ring out, ‘another triumph for Great Britain.’ Whereas if they lose, it will change to ‘England loses again.’ It’s complicated but it is what it is. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t count.

Let’s get back to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Rishi Sunak. Straight off the bat, let us recognize that the aspiring PM is no more Indian than Boris Johnson is Punjabi. Sunak’s parents came over to the UK from East Africa in the 1960s, as did thousands of others of their ilk, thanks to the tender ministrations of Idi Amin, and ran a successful if modest pharmacy, which may or may not have been a traditional corner shop. Sunak was born in Southampton and the rest of his meteoric academic and political career has been well documented. I shan’t go over them again. My preoccupation is more to do with why we in India are going all gaga over someone who is attempting to become the Prime Minister of a nation that ruled India for close to 200 years. Is it the Indian origin thing? I haven’t even heard of a family in India called Sunak! Nasser Hussain captained England’s cricket team and worked overtime to convince his countrymen that he was English, and not just a fair-complexioned lad from Madras with a posh public-school accent. Is it the pigmentation? Could be, but if you walk around Central London and hurl a brick randomly into the middle distance, you are more likely to bean someone of an Asian, African or Middle Eastern descent. Let’s cut to the chase. I’ll tell you why we in India are getting super excited about Rishi. He is married to a true-blue Indian girl. That’s why! He is our son-in-law; Daamaad, Jamai babu or Maapillai, depending on which part of India you hail from.

There’s more. Rishi’s father-in-law, N.R. Narayana Murthy can safely be described as one of the fathers of India’s IT revolution. A highly principled, self-made man, he is one of the many poster boys in India’s rise as an economic power house, thanks to the company he founded, Infosys. Not that Mr. Murthy would himself care to be described as a poster boy, he being of a somewhat modest and self-effacing disposition. His educationist and philanthropist wife Sudha Murty (she drops the ‘h’ in her surname, insists her husband’s name is spelt incorrectly!), is a woman of substance in her own right, seen as a role model for the betterment and upliftment of women, children and the downtrodden. She is a prolific writer having authored many books, in particular for children, and is ever ready to reach out to the needy with a helping hand. And their daughter Akshata it was who said ‘Yes’ to Rishi Sunak when he popped the question to her on bended knee in the sylvan surrounds of Stanford. And now, dear reader, can you at all be surprised that in India, it is a completely different kind of rishi all the way from the UK who is hogging the headlines as opposed to the ones we are so accustomed to seeing? This one is suited, booted and clean-shaven, and speaks with an Oxbridge accent. Not a tinge of saffron anywhere.

The rishi double entendre is even more apt when you consider the fact that Rishi Sunak is reportedly a practicing Hindu, and that he took his oath as Chancellor of the Exchequer with his hand placed firmly on the Bhagavad Gita. Should he ascend to the exalted office of Prime Minister and take that short hop from No.11 to No.10 Downing Street, Britons will be counting many ‘firsts’ in their rich political history. This also raises a pertinent question. When push comes to shove, is a predominantly Christian nation such as the United Kingdom ready to entertain a devout Hindu (one assumes he is devout) as their chief executive? In order for that to happen, Sunak has to take on some stiff headwinds from his shortlisted colleague, Liz Truss, who is fond of saying, ‘we’ll hit the ground running.’ While the lawmakers from Britain’s Conservative party have selected these two worthies, the complex voting process will take place through a balloting system involving some 200,000 party members in early September. Notwithstanding Sunak receiving more votes than his rivals in the initial phase, Liz Truss could well be holding all the aces. She could be following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May as the third woman Prime Minister of ‘this sceptered isle.’ There’s everything to play for. At some point during these proceedings, erstwhile Prime Minister Boris Johnson will quietly make his way out of what can surely be described, in his case, as ‘10 Drowning Street.’ If you read that gag in one of the British tabloids, remember you saw it here first!

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, we in India are witnessing our own history in the making. The ruling dispensation’s candidate, Droupadi Murmu, is all set to take the oath as India’s 15th President, and the second woman to do so. The uniqueness is derived from the fact that President Murmu (get used to that name) hails from a tribal community in the state of Orissa. The BJP has once again caught everyone, particularly the opposition parties, completely off guard. The move is seen as being far-reaching, statesmanlike and above all, a sure-fire vote catcher – depending on whether one is a supporter or a cynic of the government in power. India’s Prime Minister, meanwhile, sits back comfortably and smiles beatifically. Like the cat that’s had its cream.

A final thought on what it could mean for India if Rishi Sunak does, indeed, make it to 10 Downing Street, provided he can get past Liz Truss. Not very much, I don’t think. Rather like Kamala Harris, Rishi will need to keep an arm’s length distance from his ancestral nation, lest his countrymen come down on him like a ton of bricks. The British press are already pooh-poohing his ‘humble-humble’ background claims. His wealth and their sources are being closely examined with a fine toothcomb. In other words, he will have enough problems running the country without pointedly cosying up to India. This may create some domestic unrest at the Sunak household at No.10, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles when you sit on the hot seat. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. As I put this piece to bed, the smart money has Liz Truss with her nose in front as the odds-on bookies’ favourite. She may well pip Sunak to the post in this two-horse race, in what could be a photo finish. Sunak’s nick name to some of his close friends is ‘Hedgie,’ derived from the fact that he had earlier worked in the hedge fund business. He will certainly be hedging his bets now. But just in case Sunak defies the odds and pulls through, is India, in the words of his campaign plank, ‘Ready for Rishi?’ Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I shan’t be holding my breath.

Postscript: This could be apocryphal, but a group of Indian tourists to the UK, visiting Winston Churchill’s burial site at St. Martin’s Church, just outside Blenheim Palace grounds, swore they felt something turning in his grave!