Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Yet another cancer cure announcement. News agencies.
Every once in a couple of years, some medical institute or the other announces that they are on the cusp of a dramatic breakthrough in man’s indomitable quest to find a cure for cancer. Papers are presented at leading world medical conferences, the media go agog over the likely outcome and the pharma industry starts licking its chops over the coming financial windfall that awaits them, while scrips of leading pharma brands go through the roof in ecstatic anticipation. Many of these brilliant minds are even recognised handsomely through prestigious awards at highly respected forums. Usually announcements of this nature pertain to specific forms of malignancy. As in, breast cancer, lung cancer or pre-cancerous brain tumours and so on. As always, most of these revelations which come out with a bang, end in a whimper. After the initial excitement, things quieten down and nothing much is heard of again. Stricken, yet hopeful patients, meanwhile, find their spirits soaring only to come hurtling down in a heavy, anti-climactic thud.
That said, one must acknowledge the tremendous strides that have been taken in the field of cancer research, particularly in the areas of early screening and detection, enabling partial or even complete cures. However, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of solution as yet available for this dreaded affliction. Tuberculosis and many other ailments were similarly feared in previous decades, but continuous research and unremitting dedication by the medical profession have ensured complete success in treatment. We haven’t quite reached that stage where cancer is concerned, and we secretly continue to fear the possibility of harbouring ‘The Big C’ every time we set out for our annual medical check-up. ‘Hmmm,’ intones Dr. Banerjee gravely, scanning your routine blood report, ‘I am not sure I like this sudden spike in you SGPT and SGOT count. We’ll need to conduct further tests. And what is this little black mole at the back of your neck? I don’t like the look of it.’ Difficult man to please, Dr. Banerjee. By definition you can’t see anything on the back of your neck, so you just sit there stoically, trying not to look alarmed. This effectively ruins your peace of mind for the next few days. In the end, after running a battery of tests and biopsies, it all turns out to be much ado about nothing. However, you will now have to be treated for ulcers brought about by extreme tension and unconscionable medical bills. Forget about the Scotch, you are now prescribed one large peg of liquid Gelusil every evening. What makes matters worse is that cancer is one of those conditions where, more often than not, the treatment is worse than the disease, involving as it does, long, expensive and painful procedures often culminating infructuously, early detection notwithstanding. The patient can’t be blamed for thinking, ‘I’d rather meet my maker than go through this torture.’ All this grimness, read in conjunction with a recent World Health Organisation report that one in every ten Indians will develop cancer during his or her lifetime, hardly adds to our collective sense of well-being. The Grim Reaper is clearly working overtime. And the rampant, novel Coronavirus is not helping either.
Let us at this juncture, spare a thought for the rodent community. I am sure the medical experts from time immemorial had valid reasons why they thought rats or mice were the best guinea pigs (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor) to be experimented upon, to introduce as-yet-untried medicines for a variety of diseases that attack human beings. Doubtless these creatures, the original precursors of the dreaded plague, are thought to be eminently expendable, and therefore all manner of deadly trials are inflicted upon them. One’s heart goes out to them, but hey, they drew the short straw in God’s elaborate plan, and are paying the price. Presumably in a good cause – for humans that is, not the rats. One doesn’t quite see the slaughter of other animals for human consumption in quite the same light, because that was the way God supposedly divined things on earth. You simply can’t keep God out of the equation, a real busybody. Ours not to reason why.
Which is why the latest news report, promising a complete cure for any form of cancer, caught my attention. I must admit I read it with a degree of scepticism but as the saying goes, ‘hope springs eternal.’ I may be guilty of a slight exaggeration, as I attempt to share these dramatic findings trusting to my dodgy memory and some hastily scribbled notes from what I read a couple of weeks ago, but the kernel of the research results appears to be that a group of scientists in the United States of America may be on the verge of discovering the much longed for cure for cancer by developing a vital drug that might hold potential to kill the toughest of cancer cells and shrink the malignant tumours. The Holy Grail beckons. This could very well be the harbinger of a dramatic, scientific breakthrough that doctors and cancer sufferers have been, literally, dying for. Apparently, the treatment has been code-named ‘CF33’ (how do they think up these weird codes?), and if it delivers the goods as hoped for, it promises to kill every type of cancer cell in a petri dish (a kind of shallow glass bowl in which you test cells for bacteria) and has also claimed to completely kill or shrink tumours in mice. Again with the rats!
The long and the short of it is that, once again we wait with bated breath to learn if this latest missive on cancer research reveals anything substantive, or if it’s just another one of those periodic adrenalin-uppers that keeps us all hooked for a few weeks before it vanishes from our consciousness through sheer inertia. Lest my somewhat glib observations should send out the wrong signal, let me reiterate that I yield to no one in my admiration for all these scientific and medical boffins who slave night and day to find cures for all manner of pestilential germs that bug our society (sorry, but sometimes puns just happen). More power to their shoulders. As this anonymous quote so pithily puts it, ‘Cancer is a word, not a sentence.’
A stitch in time saves nine. Old proverb.
My mind turned to tailors recently. Or to put it more precisely, my mind turned to why my mind had not turned to tailors for a very long time. Several years, in fact. There are good reasons for this. Over the past few decades, the sartorial world has shown a distinct preference for the readymade stuff. We live in an instant world. Everything is wanted yesterday. Instant coffee, instant tea, flavoured malts, milk, buttermilk, fruit juices – all available in neat tetrapaks, ready for immediate consumption. However, clothiers continued to ply their trade relatively unharmed. The search for that perfect fit which makes all the difference kept driving the punctilious, dress-conscious male to his personal, bespoke tailor to provide him with a suit or a shirt or a pair of trousers that was the envy of his contemporaries. P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal goofball, Bertie Wooster, once wrote a piece, though no one had actually read it, titled ‘What the well-dressed man is wearing’ for his Aunt Dahlia’s magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. Clearly, Bertie’s sole journalistic, if anonymous, effort was not going to set Fleet Street and the publishing world on fire. Even his trusted manservant, or gentleman’s personal gentleman to employ the mot juste, the equally immortal Jeeves took a dim view of it. In Bertie’s memorable words, ‘the lovelight suddenly died out of his (Jeeves’) eyes.’ In Wodehouse’s fantasy world, Savile Row was the temple of tailoring and all men of proper breeding had their suits cut there. That was then and this is now. More to the point, that was Imperial England, and this is free India.
To revert to the point at issue, tailors and the rarefied world of tailoring, if not quite becoming extinct like the dodo, are showing incipient signs of mortality. We see less and less of them. At this point, I must hastily qualify my statement, in so far as what I have been rambling on about pertains largely to tailors who cater to male patrons. The distaff side of things are still going pretty strong, which is hardly surprising. Blouses need to be stitched to perfection, hems taken in on newly acquired saris and skirts, and for reasons that do not need going into in detail, our gentle women folk are constantly having to address sensitive issues like weight loss and weight gain, and the friendly tailor round the corner is an indispensable support system. Though why a particular article of clothing is suddenly discovered to be a misfit, in a manner of speaking, has always been mystifying. 24 hours prior to attending a grand wedding reception, blood curdling screams ring out across the length and breadth of one’s apartment that ‘the blouse has become too tight, omigosh!’ And you found that out now? Surely there must be other blouses. Alas, you poor, ill-informed male! A particular sari has already been earmarked from a select shortlist, over a month ago to stun your friends and relatives at the forthcoming la-di-da reception. The matching blouse, which has not been worn for close to a year, is now discovered to be ill-fitting. You get the picture. And the more than passable imitation of Edvard Munch’s priceless painting, ‘The Scream’ is presented in all its horrific, pastel splendour. The limited point one is trying to make is that there is no clear and present danger of the tailor catering to the female of the species dying out any time soon. At least, not in India. The Singer sewing machine has been an integral part of most middle-class households, but nowadays, it performs the role of an antediluvian furniture piece, one with the dinosaur.
My earliest recollection of interacting with a tailor was when I was admitted to boarding school in Bangalore. The school blazer and cap were essential accoutrements as part of the school uniform. Within a couple of days of joining school, we had to line up in front of old man Rakhra, a tailor whose immense reputation had clearly preceded him. I was 10 years old and to my infant’s eyes, the bald and thickly bespectacled Rakhra looked like Methuselah, at least 90 years old, at a conservative estimate. The Biblical Methuselah, of course, was said to have lived till the ripe old age of 969! In our more normal times, I thought 90 was old enough to be getting along with. The truth of it was that he was probably in his mid to late ‘60s.
Now the thing about this Rakhra couturier, who was always turned out in spotless, creased whites, was his gruff manner with a disconcerting habit of patting, poking and prodding us all over the place while his assistant would keep tying us up in knots with the measuring tape, and reading out our embarrassingly puny chest, waist and other anatomical measurements. At least, the blazer and cap details involved only the top half of the body. When it came to the half pants, Rakhra’s hands would roam where angels feared to tread. All in a purely professional cause, I hasten to add. It was part of his job and I daresay the ancient tailor meant no harm, but for us children, we squirmed, shifted and often laughed out loud, particularly when his strong fingers would give our ribs a right working over. It didn’t help that the supervising House Master would, every now and then, administer a smart clip round the back of our heads, admonishing our needless histrionics. ‘That will be enough of that, Waller. Stop making an ass of yourself,’ about summed up the Master’s views on the matter. Then of course, we had to go for the trial, sometimes more than once, and this was a bigger trial than the initial measurement taking. To make things worse, at that age we quickly outgrew our clothes and this meant going through the whole rigmarole again. Like Topsy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, we just ‘growed.’
Thus, it was a great relief to have grown to man’s estate, as it were. Once we crossed the age of 15 or 16, chances of our growing further were remote. That was as far as height went. Weight and waist measurements were another matter altogether. It was a phase when we switched from half-pants to full length trousers making us feel that we were now adults – proper young gentlemen, strutting about the place like proud peacocks. Though there was a funny side to wearing full pants, as the school colloquialism went. A handful of us outgrew the long trousers as well, resulting in an awkward gap between the end of the trouser folds and our ankles. Leading to that classic jibe from other boys, ‘Waiting for floods, are we?’ That said, with each passing year our growth, by and large, stabilised. This enabled us to switch to readymades with a greater degree of comfort.
Getting into our time machines and fast forwarding to the post-millennial generation, it’s all about branded clothes wear. Just walk into any respectable department store or mall, and visit the clothes section, and you are spoilt for choice. All manner of sizes, in a bewildering array of advertised brands will be available, if it’s trousers you’re looking for. Convenient trial rooms enable you to try them on yourself in front of a full size mirror, and if some slight adjustment is needed like shortening the length or increasing the waist, the ladies at the counter will pencil in the details on your invoice, and request you to collect the merchandise a couple of hours later. Just like that! There is a tailor on hand but he does his job with great finesse. No prodding of your rib cage, sending you into paroxysms. Then again, if you are obscenely well-heeled and belong to the truly upper crust, it has to be Savile Row, London or its Indian equivalent. Since no one in India will notice the difference at parties, you will have to be inventive and find ways to obliquely communicate this to your friends and acquaintances. ‘You like my suit? Yeah, it’s fine but frankly, I wouldn’t waste all that money I had to shell out for this at Savile Row.’ Mocking yourself with false modesty. The oldest showing off trick in the book.
Here in India we can still find, if we looked hard enough, the modest tailor in his modest little shop, peddling away on his (erstwhile referred to) Singer machine, somewhere in an impossibly crowded street. He will be more than willing to loosen the waistline of your trousers, shorten the hem of your petticoat and sari, or even re-stitch the borders of your pillow cases, for a song. Oh, and another thing. When it comes to your trouser fly, always go for the button option. Those metal zips can be a right, royal pain. Literally. In the final analysis, clothes may make the man, but Polonious’ gratuitous advice from the Bard’s Hamlet is worth recalling:
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy / But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
This ain’t no technological breakdown / Oh no, this is the road to hell. Chris Rea.
My wife and I moved to Bangalore from Calcutta 20 years ago. The reasons were not far to seek. The much-vaunted salubrious climate of Bangalore (if you are not prone to allergies), the relatively slower pace of life and a real chance, in troubadour Van Morrison’s words, ‘to smell the sea and feel the sky.’ There is, of course, no sea as far as the eye can see in and around Bangalore, but you could always ‘stop and smell the roses.’ At this point, I must make it clear that even 20 years ago, Bangalore no more resembled a sleepy hill-station than it does today. The tell-tale signs of rapacious progress were all too evident. Everybody wanted to come and live in Bangalore, the trendiest, snazziest El Dorado in India. Friends and relatives from out of town, en route to Ooty or Kody, invariably stopped for a couple of days to shop or ‘hang out’ in Bangalore’s vaunted pub joints.
A quick word about Calcutta. Irony of ironies, since we moved, Calcutta has become a more liveable city than it was during my 40 years’ residence there. Whether this was owing to industries moving out of the city en masse, thereby inversely providing cleaner air or simply better governance, is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless I have to put up with frequent ‘I told you so’ barbs from my friends in the City of Joy who were loath to see us go.
Bangalore isn’t quite the hell hole it is being made out to be. It is worse. In the name of progress and ultimate benefit for our children (and our children’s children), we are being made to pay a heavy price in terms of quality of life. If benefits are ultimately going to accrue, it may very well take the amount of time for our children’s children to make an appearance. Present residents can forget about driving comfortably over flyovers, underground tunnels, clockwork traffic signals, ample parking space and smooth Metro trains ferrying us to the sleek, ultra-modern airport. Or as Yul Brynner said in ‘The King and I’, ‘etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.’
If that somewhat orotund introduction to what was intended to be a frustrated rant on civic conditions in Bangalore went ‘all over the place’, I crave your indulgence. As a writer, I have to spin things out a bit. If I had merely written one short sentence, ‘Bangalore is the pits,’ and key in Finis under it, you would not have been best pleased. It might have been succinct, on point and endorsed Shakespeare’s aphorism of brevity being the soul of wit. On the other hand, my legion of fans (about 5 in number when I last checked), would have looked askance and gone off their morning breakfast. You’ve got to keep the fans happy. If I keep at it, my blog administrators assure me my readership during the coming year could double dramatically to 10! That’s what keeps me going.
So where was I? Yes, the garden city of Bangalore. Some people are beginning to call it the garbage city. All this is most distressing and why are our city slickers getting restless and sending me veiled notes and threats to write something about it? These are of course drawn from those 5 fans I talked about, but they do represent a decent sample size to accurately reflect the grumpy dissatisfaction of a larger section of the populace. I shall now proceed to try and list out some of the typical problems that we tax paying citizens of Bangalore face, day in and day out – with no relief in sight.
Lawless and disorderly. The traffic lights system in our beloved city appears to have a mind of its own. Sometimes it operates automatically, other times the traffic police decide to take matters in hand and keep switching from red to amber to green and back again, as the mood takes them. At certain intersections we wait in our cars for upwards of 7 minutes when, much to our relief, the green light comes on, but in barely 25 seconds it switches back to red again. This could be due to VIP movement, a medical emergency or just the traffic cops deciding things quixotically on the spur of the moment. This arbitrariness has often witnessed drivers going berserk, whizzing through red lights, brazenly driving through ‘No Entry’ roads, driving over footpaths or even the wrong side of the road. It’s literally hell freezing over, if you’re caught up in one of these bottlenecks. I dread to think what happens if a critical patient needs to reach the hospital in double quick time. Chances are he or she will reach his or her heavenly abode much sooner. And forget about drivers using their indicators, because they themselves don’t know which way they will turn.
God save us from two-wheelers. What is it with these two-wheeler terrorists? They appear to have arrogated to themselves the divine right to criss-cross, zig-zag over road dividers, mobile phones hidden under their helmets and the police forever lurking in street corners to accost them with fines, official and unofficial. Nothing deters them. My car side mirror has been repaired six times thanks to two-wheelers yanking them out. Add to this autos, bullock carts, light motor vehicles, jaywalkers, smoke-belching trucks and buses, and you could be walking straight into Dante’s inferno.
No Parking. Where on earth will cars find parking space in Bangalore? Virtually every road is dotted with ‘No Parking’ signs, an injunction that is observed laughably in the breach. All the side roads are thus filled up, and residents merrily hoist sponsored ‘No Parking’ boards in front of their gates which is understandable, but also place obstructive bricks in the common pavement area, which they have no right to do. Pedestrians have no place to walk. In a city like London, pedestrian pavements are much broader than the vehicular roads they abut.
Flyovers, Metros etc. As touched upon briefly, work goes on for an eternity on these flyovers, underground tunnels and Metro rail (between long periods of grinding and masterly inactivity). The pace of work is painfully slow, and almost every other project appears ill-conceived, riddled with legal disputes while self-appointed urban experts write recriminatory reams in the dailies. Net result? We are stuck.
Election preoccupations. The state government seems to be in a perennial state of getting ready for some form of election or by-election. Functionaries are too busy ensuring the elections go off smoothly, round the year. It’s almost as if the elections are an end in themselves. As a result, no one has any time to actually address everyday problems like roads, street lighting and other basic infrastructure needs.
Is there a glimmer of hope in sight? The question is rhetorical.
Footnote: If this piece portrays cops as little more than dummies, fret not. Bangalore’s innovative traffic police have installed giant replicas of themselves all over the city. The purpose is unclear, as the mannequins are not equipped with artificial intelligence. Last heard, a couple of them were found with their dark glasses and white hats missing. If motorists are expected to be fearful of these giant sized cops, I don’t think the objective is being met. However, passers-by and tourists have found a new subject to pose for selfies with.
Follow your own passion – not your parents’, not your teachers’ – yours.
~ Robert Ballard.
Now let me tell you, straight off the bat that I had no idea who Robert Ballard was until I came across that snappy quotation. For the record, he is a retired US naval officer and an expert on oceanography. And going by his views, I am sure he was an extremely competent oceanographer. Any scrap of marine life that escaped Mr. Ballard’s minute attention was probably not worth knowing about. Amongst his many substantive achievements on ocean exploration and underwater archaeology, Ballard is widely credited with the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic, the battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. I well remember the Hollywood film, PT-109 during the early ‘60s starring Cliff Robertson as Kennedy. It ran to packed houses at a time when the young, flamboyant President of the United States, who captured the world’s imagination, rose like a Phoenix from the ashes and fell like Lucifer from heaven.
So much for Robert Ballard, whose contribution to this essay was primarily to kick off this subject of being ‘driven by passion’, such that you would go to any lengths to achieve your life’s ambition – even down to the bottomless depths of the ocean bed. Consequently, it occurred to me to discuss some luminaries in certain fields of endeavour close to my heart, a purely subjective list of my own making; individuals who have pursued their goals with unswerving commitment. Of course, for every person I choose to talk about, the reader could well have a fistful of alternative options. Invidiousness does not come into play here and many names will be conspicuous by their absence. The idea is to demonstrate what undiluted passion can do to elevate a person from the humdrum to the humdinger.
Let’s take a subject that all of us in India are only too familiar with – Cricket. Over a hundred years and more, cricket-playing nations around the world have produced outstanding sportsmen with great inborn skills. The passion of a cricketer shines through when he fights the odds, inspires other team members to play above themselves and seal victory. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman were passionate about representing India, making worthy contributions towards India’s wins. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli have all been inspirational and driven leaders, having their own, unique way of displaying their passion. Gavaskar wore his patriotism on his sleeve, Kapil Dev was just a happy, preternaturally gifted individual, Ganguly and Kohli, emotional and demonstrative, while Dhoni was a monk – totally understated. It must be said that when representing the country, players find an additional boost of adrenaline and testosterone to spur themselves. I mean naturally, and not through aided substances! Similar stories demonstrating passion abound in tennis, football, athletics and other sporting endeavours.
Let’s turn to music. Musicians, their genre notwithstanding, must necessarily deal with emotions when they perform – be it their own or the audience for whose benefit they are strutting their stuff. It is the nature of the beast. Whether you are a singer or an instrumentalist, bringing out the emotional aspect of music that touches the listener’s heart is an extremely difficult task. There is a difference between conveying emotion and merely emoting. Many musicians resort to playing around with the lyrics, which have an in-built emotional quotient, without the requisite musical heft or skills. If it is an instrumental piece, then one tends to rely on the quality of the composition. If you sit and listen undisturbed to Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony or the peerless Violin Concerto in D, your emotions soar to inexplicable levels – that which cannot be articulated. All you can feel is a lump in the throat. When you further consider that Beethoven was deaf, imagine the passion and the frustration that must have gone into producing something so ethereal, the fruits of which only his audiences could enjoy, and Beethoven himself could only hear in his head!
Pop and Rock music, the experts aver, arouse the senses rather than genuine passion. I am not sure what the difference is. It all depends on the skill sets of the artists. Listen to some of Eric Clapton’s elongated guitar solos (Layla), or Duane Allman and Dickey Betts (dual guitars) jamming together in a jazz-rock magnum opus, Mountain Jam, or the ineffably beautiful acoustic Little Martha, and you will feel your spirits soar. The dexterity and plucking involved are indescribable. Even a simple song, with beautiful backing, composed and sung feelingly, will elevate you. Key in Van Morrison’s Village Idiot (he’s got a simple mind) or Tired Joey Boy (of the makings of men), and tell me your heart didn’t miss a beat.
Finally, on music and passion, let me come closer to home. Top gun Carnatic maestro Sanjay Subrahmanyan literally moves audiences to tears of joy, particularly when he launches into his impassioned renditions of Tamil songs and poetry. There are many musicians who sing well and are hugely respected and admired, but Sanjay provides that indefinable X factor, that brings men and women of all ages in droves to his concerts. They feel at one with him, and his intensity, joie de vivre and single-minded ability to ‘stay in the bubble’ for the entire duration of the concert. Qualities that keep audiences spellbound and emotionally glued to their seats. Is he passionate in his renderings? Does the audience experience rollercoaster emotions during his live concerts? That’s a no-brainer, to employ a present-day argot. Those of you who are not too au fait with what I am talking about, just take in one of Sanjay’s concerts next time he is in your neck of the woods. That is, if you can manage to cadge a pass.
I would like to round off this dialectic on passion with a few thoughts on fine art. In particular the paintings of the great masters are worth looking at from the point of view of their ability to stir emotions and in many cases, drive wealthy people to spend millions to obtain some of these masterpieces for themselves. After all, owning a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh canvas places you in an exclusive and exalted league of gentlemen! What is it about some of these paintings that moves one so? Let’s dwell briefly on Van Gogh’s impressions. I have been fortunate enough to visit the master’s museum in Amsterdam. One blinding canvas after the other, the daubs of paint, the brush strokes – Wheatfield with crows, Starry night, Irises – the reality of the unreality in the impressionism, makes you go weak in the knees. To say nothing of the Dutch master’s disturbing self-portraits. Was it pain or passion that drove Van Gogh, with no thought of pelf or profit, to produce these magical paintings? That is a question for the ages. There is a scene in the 1967 film Night of the Generals, when the protagonist, Peter O’Toole (he of the blue, blue eyes) cast as a German general, stares intently at a Van Gogh self-portrait and goes through a plethora of heaving emotions. A moment of extreme and controlled passion, brilliantly portrayed by the late Irish thespian.
I conclude with a brief observation on the written word. Can something as sterile and dry as mere text move people to extreme emotion? I exclude news items of death, crime and destruction which is merely reportage that could propel people to take to the streets. I am talking about using language that lifts your spirits and makes you go, ‘I wish I could write like that.’ This one example from Shakespeare would suffice:
Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears / Moist it again, and frame some feeling line / That may discover such integrity.
~ Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Reproduced through the kind courtesy of Spark Online , 10th anniversary issue, January 2019.
Christmas is upon us and the New Year is just around the corner. 2020, there is a nice symmetry, roundness and ring to the sound of the coming year. Doubtless some smart aleck advertising copywriter will dub it T20. In keeping with the usual custom, just about every one you know along with many you don’t know, keep sending you messages, to which you are obliged to respond. Whether you actually do so or not is another matter. In pre-digital and social media times, we trotted off to Archies, Hallmark or some such establishment with a carefully selected list of people you cared about, and spent a pretty penny on UNICEF cards which made you feel good about having contributed to something worthwhile. Signing each one of them was a bit of a pain, though the easy option of having your signature pre-printed in royal blue on hundreds of cards was the coward’s way out. I know many people who did this, especially in corporate offices. Just not done, old chap. One must also make mention of the funny cards. You know, the ones with jokes, cartoons, pop-ups and generally puerile one liners – these were best avoided, but the kids loved them.
Anyhow, my inbox has started swelling with these electronic greetings from my bank managers, mutual fund houses, business associates, political parties I have supported and political parties I have shunned. What was The Godfather’s famous one liner? ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ Add to this my car service outfit, my physiotherapist, my dentist and a clutch of restaurants I may have patronised over the years. There are more but those will suffice for now. At least, that is what I thought at first.
Closer inspection revealed that some unusual personages had also sent me season’s greetings through email. How they obtained my mail id will forever remain an enigma. Unusual in the sense that these were not just normal friends and relatives or bank managers. They were VIPs, people who are newsmakers and would be classified as ‘top-of-mind’ celebrities across categories – Politics, Sport, Films and Media. At first I could not believe my eyes. First time in years people of such eminence have deigned to recognise my existence. Me, a humble columnist hack, who hacks away every week simply because he loves his pastime of juxtaposing words in such a way that they make for amusing reading. Naturally, my joy knew no bounds and, unlike the other messages, I started opening these mails breathlessly, one by one. Of course, I then discovered that these were not actually goodwill missives but exculpatory statements on various issues, and likely circulated en masse. Even you, dear reader, might have received these mails. I am sharing the contents of some of the gems I unearthed from the morass that was my inbox.
Before I actually get into these VIP mails, I must issue a caveat. I have absolutely no means of ascertaining if they are genuine or just put out by pranksters who have nothing better to do than send fake messages to all and sundry. I therefore accept no responsibility for the authenticity of said messages, and the only reason I am sharing them is because they make for amusing reading.
Sourav Ganguly – ‘The only CAB I know is the Cricket Association of Bengal. Now the country is going bonkers over CAB, NRC, CAA, whatever that is, and everyone thinks I have something to do with it. For God’s sake, leave me and my family alone. Even my daughter Sana has been dragged into this messy affair. She is supposed to have tweeted some message, when I know for a fact that she has not. All fake. Baaje kotha!’
Sana Ganguly – ‘I don’t know how to tell Baba, but I did send that message that is creating so much disturbance. Actually, I didn’t compose any message. Just retweeted something someone else had said many years ago. Somebody called Khushwant Singh. No idea who he is, or was. Now my parents have gated me for one week. What about my Christmas and New Year parties? Sarbonaash!’
Derek O’Brien (Trinamool Congress) – ‘See my tee shirt? It’s got “NO NRC” and “NO CAA” scrawled in B-L-O-O-D. No, I tell a lie. It’s just red paint. I tried to get some volunteers to slash their wrists and donate some blood for the greater cause, but they just told me to go slash my own wrists. As I am anaemic and faint at the sight of blood, I took the easy way out. Though I must say it looked pretty dramatic on television. I was once an ad man, you know.’
Mamata Banerjee – ‘What nonsense this BJP is doing with CAA, CAB, BCCI, NRC ETC? I am now approaching United Nations to organise a referendum in India so that the real voice of our peoples will be heard. My party will not accept any of this, mind it! And why our Bengali cricket champion Sourav should get involved with Amit Shah’s son? Very worrying. Plus that Babul Supriyo fellow is also giving me headaches. Why can’t he just sing? His singing is much better than his politics. Even I am nowadays leading chorus singing. BJP CHI CHI, CAA CHI CHI, CAB CHI CHI, NRC CHI CHI , KA KA, KI KI. Ki korbo, bolo to!’
Arnab Goswami – ‘I have in my studio 27 people to talk about this CAB / NRC stir. Actually there’s not enough room on the television screen to accommodate so many people, so I have decided that they will all be huddled together in the same room and all of them will talk (read shout) at the same time. I believe in democracy, and if we can’t all listen to each other, we will talk at the top of our voices together. I will lead the chorus. All together now, let’s have some lung power…’
Rajdeep Sardesai – ‘Every time I attack the ruling party, my colleague Rahul Kanwar queers the pitch by coming up with a strong defence on the government’s behalf. Once or twice, he even checkmated me. This must stop. I will speak to our boss, Aroon Purie, and try and convince him that you can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. At least, not on the same channel.’
Nidhi Razdan – ‘Both Srinivasan Jain and I are fed to the back teeth trying to go one up on people like Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and Harish Salve. Despite all our homework and background checks, they seem to have all the answers. That does not make us look very bright. How can we attack the government if we keep talking to brilliant people like this? I am trying to approach Prannoy to get us some dullards to interview, but he is always relaxing somewhere in some beach resort with his pals Dorab and Shekhar with a cameraman in tow, trying to buttonhole some unsuspecting evening walker about pre-election polls. Nice job, if you can get it!’
Cyrus Broacha – ‘I am giving our Prime Minister 10 on10 for his overall performance. I am proud to be an Indian. People who say nasty things about him are all afflicted by that jealous green-eyed monster. Which reminds me, I must call the U.S. Consular office to check if my Green Card is ready. Gotta rush. Ciao!’
Rahul Gandhi – ‘Let me get one thing straight. My name is not Rahul Savarkar. Truth to tell, my surname was actually, originally Ghandy and not Gandhi. But that’s another story. Half the time I wake up not knowing who I actually am, which country I belong to, what with my mother being an Italian and everything. One guy in Rome asked me if Mahatma Gandhi was my grandfather. I confused him, saying the Mahatma was my father, and the father of 130 crore Indians! That shut him up. Is it any wonder I have an identity problem?’
Amit Shah – ‘We may be losing some state elections here and there, but have no worry. We will not budge an inch on CAA, CAB and NRC or any other acronym you wish to hurl at me. And don’t smirk. I do know words like ‘acronym.’ And ‘smirk.’ Thanks to all you English channels, my English has improved. Thank you. Vande Mataram.’
The Prime Minister – ‘I am working very hard to achieve our target of becoming a US 5 trillion economy. To this end I will be visiting 10 countries over the next 15 days. Domestic issues? No problem. I have a strong team handling all such matters. What was that? You like my new glasses? Great, they are rose tinted. Jai Hind.’
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Blaise Pascal.
The vexed question of whether women of a certain age group should be allowed to enter the hallowed portals of the Sabarimala temple and pay obeisance to the resident shrine, Lord Ayyappa, has been exercising the minds of men, women, government officials and judicial beaks for quite a while now. The latter two categories, of course, will also necessarily be classified under men or women. The judiciary pronounced initially in favour of women being allowed to enter the temple, but the verdict’s acceptance by the temple authorities as well as dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists of both sexes, is conspicuous by its absence. On the contrary, battle lines have been clearly drawn, and ardent devotees have boldly announced that any attempt by women to enter the temple premises will have to be, literally, over their dead bodies. Footage on our television screens showing a man chasing a woman outside the temple premises, spraying chilli powder made for abhorrent viewing.
It must be said that the highest law of the land, having given its verdict, has been strangely muted in its advocacy of the ruling being implemented pronto. They have been sitting on the fence, stating that it is not for them to get involved in the actual carrying out of the judgment. That the matter is now under a review petition and referred to a larger bench means the matter continues to hang in the balance. Doubtless a sensitive issue, the buck has now been passed by the gavel wielding wise men. I believe in the old Biblical dictum of ‘let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.’ Where will we common folk go if the courts start prevaricating and let ‘“I dare not” wait upon “I would”, like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?’
Which is why I was somewhat discomfited when one of India’s most popular, polyglot singers in the film playback and devotional segments, Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, known simply as Yesudas to his legion of fans, elected to hold forth on the powder keg issue of women’s access to the Sabarimala temple. Now, let me state outright that I yield to no one in my admiration for Yesudas’ mellifluous singing and dulcet tones. Some of his film songs have indelibly imprinted themselves in the annals of Indian film music. If not quite rubbing shoulders with Mohd. Rafi and Kishore Kumar, certainly pretty close to doing so. His devotional songs, particularly in his native tongue of Malayalam and other Indian languages, have sold in their millions worldwide. Apparently he has recorded well over 80,000 songs. That’s a lot of songs during a blazing career spanning over five decades. Yesudas certainly does not have to sing for his supper. He is also a Carnatic musician of some standing, but I will reserve my judgment on where he stands in the pantheon of stalwarts in this art form.
That said, where does my discomfiture spring from? It has to do with a recent newspaper report in which Yesudas gave it as his considered opinion that women devotees entering Sabarimala will ‘distract’ the devout males who throng in their millions for a darshan. Apparently during their period of worship, they are required to remain both abstemious as well as self-abnegating from any physical relationship with the opposite sex. Which is not to suggest that same sex dalliance is kosher, but you get my drift. Before I critique Yesudas’ stated position, it should be emphasised that the man with the golden voice, though belonging nominally to the Christian faith, has had no problem in embracing a plethora of religions during the course of his hugely successful musical journey. This theological multiplicity is an ambiguity he has lived quite comfortably with. More importantly, his army of fans have accepted his versatile position wholeheartedly, and one must doff one’s hat to his singular status in India’s music world because of this. Some cynics might scoff that this is nothing more than a brilliant marketing gimmick, taking advantage of his musical ability, to gain pan India recognition. That, however, would be uncharitable to a musician who has won the hearts of millions purely through his variegated attributes as a singer.
However, I must express my reservation at Yesudas’ ingenuous statements on the Sabarimala issue. To bolster his contention that women visiting the Sabarimala shrine will distract male devotees from their undivided obeisance to the deity, he goes on to say, ‘If a beautiful girl goes to Sabarimala with the kind of attire they wear today, Lord Ayyappa will not even open his eyes and see. But other Ayyappas (devotees) will see (the women) and it is not good. Their intention would change. That is why we tell them (the women) not to go. There are other temples and they can go there.’ He concludes by saying that times have changed from the days when a man would not even glance at his wife during the 41 day vratham (abstinence)period before visiting the shrine – rounding off with an earnest plea to women devotees, ‘Please don’t tempt Ayyappa’s devotees.’
I find Yesudas’ statements completely out of whack at so many levels. The naivety is incomprehensible. If it is his contention that men will be distracted by women during their prayers at Sabarimala, why should it be all right for the women to go to other temples? Will there be no men to disturb women’s peace of mind there? I am aware that there are a handful of temples in the country that allow entry only for women, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, before Yesudas provided his piercing insights on the subject, the temple authorities’ view was that the godhead Ayyappa will himself be disturbed and they will not countenance such an awful eventuality while prayers are being offered! Excuse me? There is also something quite misogynistic about these arguments. Women are being portrayed as sultry temptresses driving the men to distraction, whereas there is no suggestion that women can be equally put out if they are so inclined, by ubiquitous bare-chested men in places of worship. If the inference is that women have greater self-control over their emotions, I am happy to go along with that view, for the simple reason that that is verifiably true. And pray, what is this business about ‘with the kind of attire they wear?’ As far as I can tell, women who visit temples are nearly always attired properly in keeping with our best traditions of modesty and appropriateness. In the unlikely event that a young lady is misguided enough to visit a temple in a mini skirt, tight jeans or a skimpy dress, I am sure she will be quietly asked to go home and return after changing into something more suitable. The assumption is galling, leave alone the conclusions being drawn on that basis. Other issues to do with women being ‘out of doors’ (read periods) and so on, I do not wish to touch upon as it is not strictly relevant to the primary thrust of this discussion.
Over the centuries traditions across the world, including our Hindu forms of worship, the restrictions and control lines imposed, have seen many fluctuations in keeping with changing mores and times. Tonsured widows being a prime example, leave alone the barbaric practice of suttee. Which is why a democratic country like India proudly boasts of an enlightened citizenry and a robust judicial system to help us manage these vicissitudes. However, fat lot of good having a robust judiciary does if implementation on sensitive issues such as the one under discussion becomes unimplementable. The matter is fraught enough without all and sundry, including the Yesudases of the world giving free rein to their gauche opinions and the media only too happy to lap them up and add their own spicy twist.
I can think of no better way to conclude this reflection than to quote cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, ‘Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.’
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible, is music. Aldous Huxley.
The 2019 Chennai Music Season is upon us. The 2018 Season seems just like yesterday. A pleasant aural illusion. Over recent decades, we have witnessed a massive upsurge in the interest and enthusiasm evinced in Carnatic music. Those who brought about this tectonic shift to the Carnatic music scene at the turn of the millennium are today’s superstars. In their wake, another clutch of youngsters has put their hands up, and are packing the audiences in. The sabha managements are deliriously happy, and for a brief period of 3 or 4 weeks, the secretaries and committee members rule the roost, possessively handing out tickets and passes like they are going out of fashion. Yes, we are aware that full houses are the sole preserve of a few big names, but that has always been the case.
It is therefore a challenge to write a refreshingly original piece on the Season, because most of the observations, once considered novel, now appear trite. However, one thing can be said. In more recent years, we have had happenings (not always savoury) that have riveted the public’s attention. The ‘Me Too’ brouhaha had everybody talking about things other than Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s Todi or Ranjani Gayatri’s abhangs. Fortunately, the pruriently exaggerated interest shown in these salacious news reports were relatively short lived, and the named and shamed appear to be carrying on with their professional lives with insouciance. Speaking of ‘savoury’, the only savouries worth giving a once over are those to be found in the sabha canteens.
If you ask me it is a good thing that public memory is short. Nobody went to court, nothing was demonstrably proven but a bit of muck stuck. Doubtless it is now completely washed off and consigned to a rapidly distant and fading memory bank. Let me hasten to add that it is not my case that those who were the alleged victims of these alleged misdeeds should not be given a sympathetic and fair hearing. The same applies to those charged as well. The problem is, once you start talking to the media in high dudgeon and play the victim card, you’ve got to be prepared to go all the seamy way, if you’ll pardon the unintended double entendre. That involves muck raking and finger pointing which no one, least of all in this environment wants. My best advice to anyone who knows for sure that she is being harassed, just administer a tight slap with plenty of wrist work and follow through, or a swift kick at the offender’s nether regions and move on, and make sure he does not darken your doors ever again. You will feel elevated about it and the glad-eyed Casanova will never bother you. Caution: You had better be right and not merely vindictive, else retribution will be swift.
On to more pleasant subjects. While Carnatic music is the dominant presence on display during the Season, other art forms find their own dedicated space. There are classical dance performances, primarily Bharatanatyam which most sabhas try to fit in. In fact, the Music Academy has an entire fortnight dedicated to a classical dance festival close on the heels of the music series. Then there are Tamil dramas staged by some sabhas during the festival, plenty of lecture demonstrations every morning where experts go into the theory and practice of Carnatic music. Unlikely as it may seem, some of these lecdems can get quite tense at times, with gnarled veterans crossing swords over some obscure technical issue. The moderator has a hard time maintaining the peace.
In recent times, programmes of a more eclectic variety have begun to make their presence felt. The likes of Anil Srinivasan (The Piano Man), Sikkil Gurucharan, Jayanti Kumaresh and U.Rajesh (to shoot a clutch of names off the cuff) think outside the box to perform and discuss various aspects of Indian and global music to entertain and enlighten the audience. The coup de grace, (I have said this before, and I will say it again) is historian Sriram V’s morning illustrative lectures on past masters: always a blockbuster. Even standing room is not available if you’re tardy in arriving. He has an easy, jocular, laidback, conversational style of presenting his celebrated subjects, speaking ambidextrously in English and Tamil. He is unfailingly introduced to the audience as ‘the Neville Cardus of Carnatic music.’
At the end of the day, however, it is the music that must take pride of place during what everybody and his uncle refers to as ‘the Music Season.’ A frenzied air of anticipation and excitement is palpable in the ether. If you hang around in the portals of the venerable Music Academy, Madras (I am glad they didn’t change the nomenclature to the populist Chennai) during The Fortnight, the corridors will be buzzing with self-appointed experts, poseurs, academics, young hopefuls, music lovers and, of course, the odd sprinkling of foreign culture vultures who visit to take in what is arguably the biggest classical music festival of its kind. Groups of aficionados can be seen huddled in corners or in the canteen (always the canteen) animatedly discussing some arcane points of music. The sweet strains of Kalyani and Kambhoji literally suffuse the air. Lately, some of the bigger stars, if seen in public view, are avidly approached for selfies and autographs. Last year, Sanjay Subrahmanyan T-shirts were being worn by a large group of fans (bhakts), many from across the seas. Move over, Ed Sheeran.
As we slip into December, and as the musical tempo rises, a whole phalanx of supremely talented musicians, who have been laying down a marker this past few years, is making its presence felt. There are many such potential stars on the horizon, and subjectively naming a personal selection would be invidious. Suffice it to say that the health of Carnatic music is sound and in tune. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of Carnatic music are greatly exaggerated.
Kind permission of Deccan Chronicle 11/12/2019
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton.
I was attempting to explain the recent, messy Maharashtra imbroglio to my English friend, John. He lives in London and travels frequently to Mumbai and Delhi. He is something of an Indophile. We were chatting on WhatsApp, and he was posing some awkward questions on the murky, political goings-on in India’s richest state. One of the problems of long distance conversations is that you cannot always find the right words, particularly when your friend has been following the Indian political scene closely. He is well prepared, shooting from the hip, and I am respondng on the hoof as it were, trying not to sound like an ignoramus. To obviate this problem I suggested we ‘type chat’ over Skype or some such, giving me time to frame considered responses. John thought it was a sound idea. So there we were, tapping away furiously on our keypads. I had made a decent fist of educating my friend on the rapidly shifting political sands that we have been wallowing in with voyeuristic delight these past few weeks.
John – ‘I say, old fruit. Can you put me wise on what exactly has happened in the just concluded Maharashtra assembly elections? I got the gist, that no single party won an absolute majority. That the pre-poll alliance of the BJP and the Shiv Sena came a cropper and all hell broke loose. To start with, why did the alliance go kaput?’
SS – ‘One word. Greed. I can add more words. Naked, self-serving ambition. The whole shebang was about sharing the Chief Minister’s post over the five year tenure. The minor player in this dodgy coalition Shiv Sena, claimed the BJP had promised two-and-a-half years of the CM’s seat to them. The BJP said “balderdash”, or words to that effect. The long and short of it was the BJP told the Shiv Sena to take a long walk off a short pier.’
John – ‘And I understand the Shiv Sena supremo, Uddhav Thackeray wanted his son to be the Chief Minister during their period of ascension to the throne.’
SS – ‘That is correct, but the young man is barely out of his teens, completely wet behind the ears. It was an absurd demand. All that, however, was neither here nor there. The BJP firmly refused to entertain the idea of a split Chief Ministership, never mind if their alliance partner’s candidate was a gnarled veteran or a baby in swaddling clothes. Devendra Fadnavis, the erstwhile and incumbent CM made it clear he will take some shifting. In short, we had what you Brits call an impasse. They tried to stare each other down, but to no avail.’
John – ‘That much even I could follow. It’s what came after, that was baffling. It would appear that the Shiv Sena now started talking to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) to forge a workable alliance with a view to government formation. Which would have left the single largest party, the BJP, high and dry. Incidentally, can you tell me the difference between the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress?’
SS – ‘Good question, John. The NCP is a breakaway group from the INC and was formed in 1999 under the leadership of Sharad Pawar. They were booted out from the apex Congress Party.’
John – ‘Pawar. Hmm. The same guy who was the Chief of the International Cricket Council some years ago?’
SS – ‘The very same.’
John – ‘My word. He does get around. From politics to cricket?’
SS – ‘In India, politics is cricket and cricket is politics. Most of our leading politicians have a finger or two in India’s massive cricket pie. And do you know why this Sharad Pawar-led rebel group was expelled from the INC? Because they objected to Italian-born Sonia Gandhi being made head of the party! Now it’s all hunky-dory and they are back together again.’
John – ‘Mamma mia, that’s rich. So both the INC and NCP came from the same Congress stable, split up acrimoniously and have joined forces in a Faustian pact with their perennial bête noire the Shiv Sena? Just to keep the BJP at bay?’
SS – ‘That’s about the size of it. You might call it “an unholy congress.”’
John – ‘I might indeed. I have another query. The Shiv Sena are, if anything, even more rabidly pro-Hindu than is attributed to the BJP, and by definition, anti-Muslim. They did not even allow the Pakistan cricket team to play in Mumbai. So how come this sudden bonhomie and keenness to make nice with the supposedly more egalitarian parties like the two Congresses?’
SS – ‘Wah, wah! You have certainly boned up on the political landscape in India. The only answer to that question is that politics makes strange bedfellows. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that sort of rot. Mao Zedong said “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but in India “Power grows out of the slit of a ballot box.”’
John – ‘I can see that plenty of puns and jokes on the “Pawar” name (Pawar Play, Pawar hungry, Sharad Power etc.) are doing the rounds in your social media circles, with ‘horse trading’ an oft repeated term. A gross insult to our equine chums. Which brings me to the other Pawar. Ajit, Sharad’s nephew. What the hell was he up to with all his “Spy vs Spy” shenanigans?’
SS – ‘Yes, John. We are now approaching the climax of this amazing real life soap opera which kept the whole country glued to their televisions sets. What followed was mind boggling. Ajit Pawar, who is (was) the head of NCP’s legislature, in what seemed a kamikaze act, ups and runs to the BJP with a list of signatures from a majority of the members of his party, supposedly swearing allegiance to a newly forged BJP – NCP alliance. In return for this munificence, he is awarded the post of Dy. CM under CM Fadnavis.’
John – ‘Goodness me, real cloak and dagger stuff.’
SS – ‘You had better believe it. Party members from the BJP and the NCP are roused from their beds even before the break of dawn and rushed to the Governor’s residence at the imperially splendiferous Raj Bhavan. The poor Governor’s beauty sleep was ruined as well. Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar are sworn in as CM and Dy. CM respectively. The nation woke up to this unreal reality, flabbergasted. Those of us who saw it first on our mobile internet, were convinced this was fake news. We should have known our politicians better.’
John – ‘And, as I saw these bizarre events unfolding, with MLAs being herded from hotel to hotel in luxury buses, there was a further twist to the tale, yes?’
SS – ‘Absolutely, John. To cut a long story short. Ajit Pawar had clearly taken Fadnavis and the BJP for a jolly good ride. Sharad Pawar and the rest of the family shed crocodile tears on Ajit’s shoulders and this oleaginous man melted, resigned from his newly appointed post, and slunk back to the NCP fold. All was forgiven. Leaving the BJP red faced. At which point, CM Fadnavis had to put in his papers as well. To his credit, Fadnavis served Maharashtra well during his 5 years and 3-day tenure.’
John – ‘All rather nefarious. As you say, this one beats all soap operas. So now we have the two Congresses who could not stand the sight of each other, and the Shiv Sena who cannot stand the sight of anyone other than themselves, who are all ideologically violently opposed, getting together to form a government. The Sena gets the plum CM’s post and together this bizarre troika cock their snooks at the BJP.’
SS – ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself, John. The BJP are left to lick their wounds, but as they say, beware the wounded lion. They could have held the high moral ground by abstaining. Alas, greed and unwonted naivety won out. We have not heard the last of this saga. 5 years is a long time in politics. Expect action in just a few months from now. Watch this space. The long and short of it is that no one came out of this smelling of roses. More like horse manure. There has been no winner.’
John – ‘One last thing. Who is this Chanakya character everyone in India talks about?’
SS – ‘Ah. The original Chanakya (371 BC – 283 BC), the author of the definitive Arthashastra and the original master of statecraft, is our equivalent of the scheming Machiavelli, who famously said, ‘Politics have (sic)* no relation to morals.’ Chanakya was a master strategist and manipulator. In the present context, there are many claimants to the nom de guerre ‘the modern Chanakya.’ Sharad Pawar and Amit Shah to name but two pretenders, with the former presently leading by a short head.’
John – ‘Tell you what. I thought British politics right now was getting pretty confusing, what with Boris (Johnson), Jeremy (Corbyn), Brexit and the forthcoming general elections. But when it comes to political chicanery, India stands alone.’
SS – ‘We had good teachers, John. The British taught us for 250 years. Rubs off. Good night, John.
John – ‘Touché and good night.’
*For the pedantic, I have inserted a (sic) because Machiavelli’s exact quote, ‘Politics have no relation to morals’ sounds wrong, as opposed to ‘Politics has no relation to morals.’ However, grammarians aver that in the quoted context, ‘have’ is more correct than ‘has’. I am sticking to my guns.
The city of Calcutta (a moniker I greatly prefer to Kolkata) recently went pink. We know that the present ruling dispensation’s favourite colour is blue. However, needs must. When a cricket crazy city like Calcutta decides to host the first ever day / night Test Match in India at the storied Eden Gardens, to be played with a pink cricket ball, the powers-that-be have little option but to go pink in the face. From what we could see on television, pretty much the entire city was gaily converted into a brilliant profusion of pink buntings, banners and floats. Doubtless the brainchild of some marketing guru’s fertile mind, the local administrators went to work in feverish haste to get the city all dolled up in garish pink before the first pink ball was bowled. Building facades, lampposts, streetlights, public transport – you name it, they had ‘pinked’ it.
As for the stadium at the Eden Gardens, no effort was spared to ensure that the arena metamorphosed into a sea of pink before the game commenced. Public response was brilliant for a Test Match, and the day night affair ensured a full house. People were face-painted and decked out in pink attire of every possible description, and the ‘festival of pink’ was truly joined. Sourav Ganguly, Calcutta’s favourite son, recently crowned supremo of the BCCI, and a former India captain of no mean provenance, basked in the pink afterglow. The gentlemen and ladies of Calcutta were in the pink of health and good cheer.
Rumours that the political bigwigs at the original Pink City, Jaipur were planning to take the state government of Bengal to court for wrongly appropriating its legally protected nom de plume, proved to be just that – a false rumour. Just some well-timed spice by social media mischief makers.
It is entirely incidental, almost trite, to report that India vanquished the brave, but ill-equipped Bangladesh team comprehensively by an innings, well inside three days. That the spectators at the Eden Gardens were deprived of a further two days of play in this Test match in no way dampened their spirits. In retrospect, perhaps the occasion warranted a stronger opposition – an Australia or an England, but we will let that pass. This particular game was more of an occasion, a celebration to inaugurate an exciting new innovation aimed at reviving public interest in Test cricket, and that objective was achieved in spades. That captain Kohli essayed another brilliant hundred and India decimated the opposition through a troika of fearsome fast bowlers was a novel and invigorating sight. Let us doff our hats to the city of Calcutta, its sports mad denizens and its administrators. When it comes to putting on a sporting show, few cities in India can match the passion and élan with which Calcutta trundles its wares.
There was much erudite discussion on television by self-appointed experts about how the pink ball would behave, the extra lacquer applied on it allowing the proud seam ‘to talk,’ that it will swing more after twilight – on and on went our commentators. Given half a chance the Sanjay Manjrekars and Harsha Bhogles can talk the hind legs off a donkey. To add spice, the two worthies crossed swords as well. Still and all, they had something new to talk about, and we must cut them some slack. After all, they are paid to do just that.
As I had suggested earlier, it was not just the cricket that was subject to this striking wave of pink. Elsewhere in the city, there was much brain picking on how the ‘pink fever’ can be taken advantage of to add to the frisson. I can only hazard an educated guess as to what might have happened in the City of Joy. I am speculating that the most popular drink in clubs, pubs and other watering holes of Calcutta would have been pink gin or pink champagne. The establishments would have announced a ‘one for one’ offer and Calcutta’s casual imbibers and serious topers would have been raising merry hell. Themed parties across the city would have exhorted guests to arrive in predominantly pink attire.
Baby girls born in the city during Test match week would have, without exception, been named Pinky. This would have greatly added to the already existing profusion of Pinky Bagchis, Pinky Bhattacharyas and Pinky Boses. The baby boys would have had to make do with sucking their thumbs and being called Pintu. The pious nuns at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity might have considered wearing pink saris during the week, which would have cheered the inmates up no end, though Mother T might have turned in her grave.
The once famous, but now closed discotheque in Calcutta, The Pink Elephant, would have reopened on the wave of an emotional upsurge over the pink Test Match. Giant screens featuring the game would have streamed continuously while the young men and women danced to golden oldies such as Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Theme from the Pink Panther, Lily the Pink, Pink Moon and Pink Cadillac.
A specially curated film festival with a ‘Pink’ theme would have played for a week at the Nandan theatre. The following films select themselves – Pink, The Pink Panther (the entire Peter Sellers and Steve Martin franchises), Jonah and the Pink Whale, and Pink Floyd – The Wall. Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who starred in Pink and Pink Panther 2 respectively, would be the chief guests. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would have cut the ribbon, clad in a white sari with a pink border. A pink sari with a white border might have been striking, but the strong lady might have thrown a fit at the idea.
As a final coup de grace, a grand dinner, under the auspices of the BCCI with Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly as mine host, would be arranged at one of Calcutta’s swank hotels. The who’s who of the city would be invited. Again, pink being the primary dress code. The cricketers from India and Bangladesh would be the cynosures. Selfie seekers would be well advised to take Dada’s help in identifying the largely anonymous Bangladesh cricketers. All the dishes would be garnished with pink topping. This might be off-putting turning the guests a bilious pink, but the sensation will pass. Pink rosogollas and pink mishti doi will go down a treat.
The greeting protocol for the evening would be to cross or hook pinkies (little fingers), instead of the conventional handshake. So there you go. Calcutta, as is its wont, will leave no ingenious stone unturned to mark the inauguration of the pink game. As the party winds its weary way to an end, the band strikes up the well-known Indian nursery rhyme, Inky pinky ponky. Padma Shri Usha Uthup, decked up in a brilliant pink sari, her forehead adorned with a large pink bindi, with the Bengali letter ‘ক’stencilled in, leads the chorus and all the guests join in lustily. As the guests troop out of the hotel, Sourav Ganguly is overheard stage whispering to wife Dona, ‘If I don’t see the colour pink again, it will be perfectly all right with me. Boledilam!’*
*Boledilam! (Bengali) – Literally, ‘I’ve told you.’ Idiomatically, ‘Just watch it.’ Or in Rajinikanth’s immortal phrase, ‘Mind it.’
‘I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well.’ – Bertie Wooster / P.G. Wodehouse.
The world can broadly be divided into two discrete parts. Those who have seen the play, The Mousetrap, and those who have not. In the fashion of today’s argot, let’s call it ‘The Mousetrap Binary.’ This Agatha Christie classic has been playing in the United Kingdom for more than a millennium. Forgive the exaggeration, but it does seem that way. Though I am reliably informed that it made its debut in London’s West End in 1952, and has staged well over 25,000 shows worldwide (and counting), and thousands of actors have trod the boards under its banner. Any tour operator, herding holiday makers on a chartered flight to London, must necessarily include The Mousetrap (tickets pre-purchased), along with compulsory visits to the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Kew Gardens, National Museum, Buckingham Palace, the West End and other well-known attractions. Shopping at Oxford and Bond Streets is a must to lighten your wallets. I have travelled to London, several times over the decades, but have shrewdly managed to avoid The Mousetrap, like the plague. A serendipitously apt description.
However, my singular sense of overweening and inverted pride in claiming to be among the very few not to have seen this two-act whodunit, came to nought recently. The British, being British, still smarting from having lost their ‘Jewel in the Crown,’ constantly seek to keep their ‘subjects’ entertained and reminded of the grandeur that once was. And most of us are suckers for their smooth sales talk. Some of us even talk and write like them. C’est la vie, if you’ll pardon the French. It is entirely possible that the average Englishman, some more average than others, does not want to have anything to do with The Mousetrap. One must doff one’s hat to his sound common sense and judgement. Then again, he may have been stricken by a crushing ennui, having watched it so many times, including having to escort friends and relatives from all over the world, come to visit. One sympathises. Even the avid tourists to the UK are beginning to blanch every time someone mentions The Mousetrap. Phantom of the Opera, Cats and The Lion King are now the pre-eminent favourites and even these wonderful musicals are starting to fray at the edges.
However, the determined management of The Mousetrap franchise is not about to curl up and die. No way, Jose. I should have said James, but it doesn’t rhyme. Undeterred, they have decided to take the play to the far corners of the globe, particularly to areas where large swathes of the population continue to hold dear, all things British. And what better place to start than right here in India, a country that was in British thrall for over 250 years. Catering to the thousands of Anglophile Indians who may or may not have seen it in England, who may or may not have read the play, who may or may not have watched it on YouTube – but all of them keen to be seen at the venue. A peer group thing. (Were you at The Mousetrap on Sunday? Which row?) After all, in a few decades from now, Indians may not even be conversing in English any longer, if the present ruling dispensation had its way.
Thus it came about that, when we saw the advertisement in the newspapers, here in the once garden city of Bangalore, tickets online sold like hotcakes. ‘The longest running play in the world,’ ‘The original production from London’s West End,’ screamed the headlines. Never mind that the price spectrum of the tickets ranged between Rs.1000/- and 7000/-. Give or take (I gave). I must bow down and confess that I was among those who went online and did the deed. I bought the cheapest available tickets for the family. It turned out to be a wise call.
We were seated in the balcony which was all right. The ticketing information did warn us that these were seats with ‘partially obscured view.’ I had no idea what that meant, precisely. On taking our seats we discovered that this in no way hindered a full view of the stage. It’s just that a mottled glass fencing, about four feet high at the front of the balcony, could prevent a perfectly clear view. The glass barricade could also prevent people from falling over to their instant deaths on to the ground floor. At least, that’s my best guess.
There was, however, one problem. While the glass barrier did not block our view completely, it did present us with a strange viewing sensation. The top half of the actors was clear of the glass, while the bottom half had to be viewed through the glass. As the glass itself was of dubious quality, the bottom part of the actors’ anatomy was somewhat distorted. We were thus treated to watching a play where all the protagonists looked like something out of a ‘Hall of Distorted Mirrors’ in Disneyland. Comic it was but we hadn’t come to watch a slapstick affair. Can’t blame the organisers, though. They gave us adequate warning that if we wanted to go on the cheap, we had to be prepared for a partially obscured view. Distorted would have been a more apt description.
Then there is the inevitable nuisance. The mobile phones. They do request us over the tannoy, to switch off our mobiles. An instruction that is scrupulously observed in the breach. The over-excited members of the audience frantically WhatsApping messages to friends and relatives worldwide, along with photographs and video snippets of ‘their unforgettable evening at The Mousetrap.’ At one point the darkened auditorium looked like a gathering of mourners at a silent candlelight vigil for the loss of their favourite pop idol! Predictably, someone gets strangled in complete darkness. In the play, I mean. All we hear is a scream and a dying gargle. The stage is pitch dark so we don’t know whodunit.
At this point, a twenty minute interval is announced, during which half the hall disgorge themselves to do those things people do when they disgorge themselves after being strapped to their seats for over an hour. Most of them trot off to the loos, others for a snack or smoke, and quite a few to call their homes to check with their domestics if their pet dogs have had their din-dins and walkies. Everyone then rushes back when the second bell rings just before the curtain goes up. It’s time to reveal the murderer.
The final denouement takes an age. Everybody is assembled on stage and we ‘suspect everyone’, as the advert advised us. We know who was ‘done in’ because she is no longer among those present on stage. As to who did the dastardly deed, nobody has a clue. In keeping with all Agatha Christie stories, we look for Opportunity and Motive, which all the characters appeared to have had in spades. And we are still clueless. Remember, there’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in the play to handhold us. Finally, all is revealed. Goodness me, so that was the culprit. Fancy that. I would never have suspected him, not in a million years. I always thought it was the butler, only to learn after the play was over that there was no butler in the cast! That’s how well I followed the play.
So there you are. The Mousetrap was presented to us with much advance fanfare and grossly overpriced tickets, not to forget that the play’s reputation greatly preceded it. For all that, I felt the play was a bit of a let-down. An anti-climax. When it came to the curtain call, the actors took their customary bow, curtsying elegantly to rapturous applause. One of the actors then proceeded to tell us not to reveal the murderer’s identity as it might spoil it for those coming to the subsequent shows. He needn’t have worried. I still have no idea who the murderer was.