‘That fellow from Down Under’

US president Joe Biden participates in a virtual press conference on national security with British prime minister Boris Johnson (R) and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in the east room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. (AFP)
(L to R) – Scott Morrison. Joe Biden, Boris Johnson

The President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, recently had the world in splits, embarrassingly so, with a stunningly casual throwaway line while addressing the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. It happened at a joint live video communique announcing the formation of an important defence strategic alliance between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Joe Biden took over the microphone, virtually that is, from Britain’s PM Boris Johnson, thanked Boris, tactfully refraining from commenting on why Boris had not combed his hair that morning, then turned to the screen displaying the Aussie PM and said, wait for it, ‘And I want to thank that fellow Down Under, thank you very much pal.’ Collapse of stout party, as the venerable Punch magazine used to put it. To Scott Morrison’s credit, he was very diplomatic about the whole faux pas, and in statesman-like fashion, dismissed the incident as one of those things that happen, and that one should not make much of it. That was very large of him but the media had a field day, wondering if Biden’s shocking memory lapse was a portent of more sinister things to come.

For now, Mr. Biden would do well to firmly commit to memory the names of all the world’s leaders he is likely to meet during his tenure as POTUS. The last thing we in India want is for him to address our Prime Minister thus, ‘Gee whiz, what’s that guy’s name with the long, white beard? Thanks for everything buddy.’ No, no. That wouldn’t do at all. No siree, Bob. After all, when his predecessor, Donald Trump last visited India, even his carefully crafted and presumably rehearsed speech found him comically floundering with some iconic Indian names. Try this on for size. ‘Swami Vivekaamundan, Soochin Tendalkar and Virot Kohli.’ I guess we should be grateful that the former President did not say, ‘That Swami feller with the orange tunic and turban.’

American leaders dropping bricks in public fora is not a new phenomenon. On rare occasions this may happen due to an unfortunate slip of the tongue, but more often than not, lack of adequate preparation bordering on carelessness and callousness is the prime cause. Without wishing to rub salt into the wound, Joe Biden again takes the spotlight for an earlier gaffe. In 2008, while campaigning in Missouri, he exhorted Senator Chuck Graham of Columbia, who had been wheelchair-bound since the age of 16, to come forward and take a bow. ‘Chuck, stand up. Let the people see you.’ For one mad, fleeting moment, the public wondered if Biden was possessed of some divine power to perform a miracle cure. America is full of such charlatans. ‘Could he part the waters, make our Chuck walk again?’ That was not to be. Red faced and realising his goof-up a bit too late, he tried to make amends asking the crowd to ‘stand up for Chuck.’ The crowd were already standing and Chuck was still sitting in his wheelchair, a wee bit miffed, I shouldn’t wonder.

Yet another American President, Ronald Reagan, who has appeared in a few Hollywood films in his time, got his roles mixed up on one notorious occasion. Taking part in a sound check shortly before his weekly radio address to the nation in August 1984, Reagan decided to have some fun and announced with much histrionic fanfare, ‘My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.’ Unfortunately for Reagan, a recording of this flippant and not awfully funny, sound check was leaked to the Russians, who decided to put their defence forces on high alert. Frantic behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts prevented what could have turned into an ugly situation. Why do so many of our world leaders fail to be mindful of errant microphones which are either accidentally or, at times, deliberately left switched on? That said, as lay people we should not complain as such unintended bloopers provide us with much comic distraction.

One would have normally credited former US President Barrack Obama with tact and good sense and the ability to mind his Ps and Qs. However, he too fell victim to the ‘hot mic’ syndrome on one occasion at a G 20 conference during a private chat with the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, just before the scheduled press conference. The assembled reporters were handed translation boxes but were told not to plug their headphones in until the leaders’ backroom conversation had finished. Several people ignored the instructions and heard Mr. Sarkozy talking to Mr. Obama about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ‘I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar,’ Mr. Sarkozy said. ‘You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,’ replied Mr. Obama drily, clear as a bell for every reporter to faithfully record. Sacré bleu, about sums it up.

In case, dear reader, my observations thus far have led you to believe that American Presidents have cornered the market on public brick dropping, that is far from the case. `Even the normally understated and extremely tactful Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain had a blushful moment some years ago. The 95-year-old longest reigning British monarch made a blooper when, in a rare diplomatic solecism, she was caught on camera referring to Chinese officials, characterising them as being ‘very rude’ during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK. Coming from the Queen that was almost the equivalent of top swearing. Unfortunately, her remarks were recorded by the official Royal cameraman, which then raises the pertinent question as to how it was leaked to the avaricious British fourth estate. Doubtless the concerned cameraman would have been rigorously questioned by the Palace, his camera taken away and sacked. ‘You will never hold another camera in front of royalty ever again.’ So, he scoots off and joins The Sun or Daily Mirror, tasked with shadowing the royal family wherever they go, armed with a state-of-the-art, long-focus telephoto lens camera. Many a royal has been caught unawares by prying cameras doing unroyal things they would rather the public be blissfully ignorant about.

India has had its own share of prominent personalities who did not quite think through what they were saying, and tended to come a cropper under the unremitting glare of the media. Former senior Congress leader, the much- respected Ghulam Nabi Azad, provided an original twist to the concept of family planning and how best to execute his ambitious programme in a hugely populous country like India. During his tenure in 2009 as Health and Family Welfare minister, he turned the spotlight on the implementation of a massive rural electrification programme to achieve the desired results. You heard right. Electrify the nation and our population growth will decline dramatically! Give the man his due. He had a credible explanation. The minister gave it as his considered opinion that in many backward and rural areas of our country, the lack of electricity meant people had nothing better to do after dusk and invariably resorted to sex for entertainment, which is a necessary precursor to a burgeoning population. If electricity was widespread, people in small towns and villages can visit community halls and watch television till late into the night, the minister opined. By the time they return home they will be too tired to indulge in love making and will make straight for bed to catch up with their beauty sleep. A truly original thought! One wonders why successive governments waste their time and resources towards educating our folk on family planning, contraception and the like when all it needed were millions of television sets placed across the country and the requisite power feed to run them for the diversion and delectation of our outback, small town denizens. Unfortunately for the minister, the numbers indicated no dramatic fall in the population figures. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the romantic antics of our film stars and starlets only enhanced their innate tumescence.

On the subject of population control, here is a quick aside. The late Sanjay Gandhi was ‘credited’ with promulgating the disastrous ‘nasbandhi’ or forced sterilization programme during the late 70s to keep India’s population growth in check. This was during the infamous Emergency and the policy had his mother, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s blessings. Free transistor radios were distributed to those who offered themselves to be thus humiliated. Informed reports also attributed the aggressive intervention by ‘western loan sharks’ like the World Bank and the IMF in the government’s misguided programme, which cost the Congress Party dear at the hustings.

 The Queen and Prince Philip with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003
Ready for bed?

Saving the best for last, three of my favourite gaffes come from the late Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was famously adept at saying the wrong things at the wrong time. For which reason, the British media declared him a national treasure! In 1969, on an official visit to Canada, he quipped, ‘I declare this thing open, whatever it is.’ On a state visit to China in 1986, he told a group of British students, ‘If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.’ Later in 2003, he told the President of Nigeria, who was attired in his traditional, flowing robes, ‘You look like you’re ready for bed.’

In sum, we should all be grateful when our leaders go off script, as it gives rise to so much mirth and merriment.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are (not quite) dead

A lifeless ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD at BYU | Utah Theatre  Bloggers

(A one-act play. With apologies to Tom Stoppard)

The curtain rises and on stage are two beds in a nursing home. Lying on the beds are two very ill middle-aged males. At the foot of the beds hang two boards with the same bold legend on each, ‘Rosencrantz – Nil by mouth, Guildenstern – Nil by mouth.’ IV drips, tubes and clear, plastic bags carrying all manner of liquids into the patients and more tubes and bags conveying other liquids and semi-solids coming out of the patients, are visible. Flashing, beeping monitors overhead keep them constant company.  It seems only a matter of time before they are carried away in body bags. However, they are able to speak, just about. For the benefit of our readers, it should be said their feebleness in speech is dramatically raised to what all theatre buffs call ‘a stage whisper.’ Loud enough for the audience to hear, and on the printed page, for us to visualize.

Rosencrantz – ‘Good morning, Guildenstern. First off, is it morning, afternoon, evening or night? They keep the curtains drawn all day and all night.’

Guildenstern – ‘I am going by my body clock. And in my present, enfeebled state, that is not ticking with Swiss precision. If push comes to shove, I’d hazard a guess and plump for late afternoon. Pre-dusk, kind of.’

Rosencrantz – ‘You are not being very helpful. At least, if they wheeled in porridge, eggs and tea, I’d know it was breakfast time and I could keep tabs from thereon. This “nil by mouth” nonsense with all the tubes and everything, along with the drawn curtains, makes a mockery of time consciousness. Why don’t they fix a clock on the wall, preferably one with a cuckoo?’

Guildenstern – ‘A cuckoo clock. Nice idea. It will hourly jolt us awake if we drop off into a near coma. Actually, we should be grateful we are conscious at all. Why are you so obsessed with the time? It’s not as if you have an appointment to keep. I mean, we are virtually strapped to these hospital beds for ever and anon. Me, I keep myself entertained, when I am not sleeping that is, watching these liquids racing up and down the tubes. Very soothing to the nerves. I have asked the duty nurse if she could see her way round to providing coloured liquids. Bit more psychedelic. Blue, red and orange sludge squelching around the tubes in tandem.’

Rosencrantz – ‘You are a weird one, Guilders. And while you’re about it, why don’t we ask the nurse to place the beeping monitors somewhere in front us, instead of behind us where we can’t see them. Not only would that be helpful in keeping tabs on our pulse, BP, oxygen levels and so on, but all those coloured flashing lights and metronomic sounds they produce, along with your multi- coloured liquids, would turn this place into a medical discotheque. Cheer us up no end. Why, even our playwright, Tom Stoppard worked it into our play, “The colours red, blue and green are real. The colour yellow is a mystical experience shared by everybody.”’

Guildenstern – ‘Good point, Ros. If they can play some bouncy, instrumental music along with all that, we may not actually be able to get up and shake a leg, but we can try and move side to side in rhythm. I’ll speak to the nurse when she’s here next with the bed pan. Music wise, what is your preference? Easy listening from the 60s like The Shadows, The Ventures or something more avant-garde like, say, Weather Report? It’s all there on Spotify, so no problem.’

Rosencrantz – ‘What on earth are you rabbiting on about? They can play our national anthem, for all I care. We can’t stand up anyway. Or even sit down come to that. To get back to the point, Guilders, did it ever strike you that we can ask the nurse what time it is? Why did we not think of something so obvious? And why no television?’

Guildenstern – ‘Your memory is shot to pieces, Ros. You did ask the nurse, last time round. And you know what she said. In fact, she didn’t say it. She actually sang it, a snatch from that old Cyndi Lauper hit Time after Time Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick and think of you / Caught up in circles confusion. Very cheerful, I don’t think. And since you ask, television is too depressing, as they have only news channels.

Rosencrantz – ‘But very appropriate. The nurses here are quite strange. They don’t give you a straight answer to any question. I once asked one of them if we will ever get out of here. Dead or alive. You know what her response was? And I am quoting verbatim. “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else. Tom Stoppard.” I could not make head nor tail of that. What did she mean “Tom Stoppard?”’

Guildenstern – ‘Come on, Ros. Surely, you can’t be that forgetful. Didn’t you pop your memory pills this morning? Stoppard is the chap who wrote both of us into this play. You said it yourself just a short while ago. We might have been two minor players for old Shakespeare, recruited to stick our knives into Hamlet, and in the process, get our own heads chopped off, but this Stoppard chap detected hidden potential in the two of us and made us the heroes of this play. London’s West End simply couldn’t get enough of us. And I am sure we conquered New York as well.’

Rosencrantz – ‘Of course, it’s all coming back. “We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!” What a line that was. The audience was rolling in the aisles. I am so glad you reminded me of who we actually are. Actors! So why am I getting so depressed. Is this a one-act play, a black comedy, or will there be an interval? I can’t wait for the curtain call, then we can get in front of the screens, bow to the audience two or three times, and saunter off to the pub for a quick one, after the thundering applause dies down.’

Guildenstern – ‘Look, let’s not get carried away. I am still not absolutely certain if at this very moment of my speaking to you, we are in Tom Stoppard’s play or if we are actually two terminally ill patients in a dank nursing home struggling to figure out what time of day or night it is with only colourful tubes and flashing monitors to keep us company. And not a cuckoo clock to be seen for miles around. And waiting for the Grim Reaper to claim us for his own. Then we will get carried away. Ha ha. As Mr. Stoppard wrote on our behalf, “We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.” Let’s just chew on this situation for a while. Perhaps it’s all a dream.’

Rosencrantz – ‘And here I was dreaming of retiring to our dressing rooms after the curtain call and sipping champagne with the rest of the cast, meaning those two nurses. The director would have been there, of course. Perhaps, even Tom Stoppard. Bouquets of red roses all over the place. Not forgetting the throng crammed outside the doors for selfies and autographs. I mean, if I am dreaming, I might as well go all the way. That line he gave one of us, I forget who, was a classic.  “Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking: Well, at least I’m not dead.” If you ask me, I am betting that we are just play acting. Don’t you agree Guilders? Guilders? GUILDERS!’

(There’s no sound from Guildenstern’s bed. Not even the faintest comatose breathing. Rosencrantz looks up at his friend’s monitor. Just flatlines.)

Rosencrantz – ‘Maybe that’s why they call it “theatre of the absurd.” And why call it an existential drama, when I am not even sure of our ability to exist? What was that our celebrated quarry, the Prince of Denmark said, in the deft hands of the Bard – “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” When the curtain rises, I’ll know if all this was a bad dream, will my partner Guildenstern continue to remain inert and lifeless, or will he jump out of bad and break into song, “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,” from Oklahoma. Not that he has the slightest clue if it is morning, evening or night. For now, I can do no better than to end with Stoppard’s own final line written for us, “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

(Stage lights off, curtain comes down, hall lights on)


Footnotes in the sand

I am somewhat ambivalent on the subject of footnotes*. I can take them or leave them. For the most part, I find footnotes intrusive as they tend to get in the way of the natural flow of whatever it is that one is reading. Not all authors take recourse to this literary device. Those that do are well-intentioned.  The apparent exercise in taking the reader off at a tangent, is to explain in considerable detail some reference that the writer is keen to elaborate upon, paint in a bit of background information, as it were. Doubtless, the aim is to be helpful, enabling the reader to obtain a better understanding of reference to context. I can fully understand the need for footnotes when one is involved in an academic exercise if you are in the realms of higher learning, say, a post-graduate or doctorate in literature.

Thus, if your university syllabus for Eng. Lit. includes Shakespeare’s arguably greatest play Hamlet**, then you cannot just pick up any old version of the play and go to work. The prescribed text book for the course will have several pages of introductory notes by some noted Oxford don, the index and reference pages alone running into nearly half the length of the book and above all, or rather, below all, the explanatory footnotes.

There is also the issue of why footnotes are printed in an almost illegibly small font size. This can be explained quite simply. Small type fonts will force the students to go close to the page, squint their eyes and concentrate hard. In other words, it is a practical aid to focus single-mindedly. Students who smuggle into their tutorials magnifying glasses to enable them to read the footnotes in comfort, are usually taken to task and severely reprimanded. Standard punishment takes the form of forcing them to stay back for detention and read the whole of Richard the Third set in 8pt Times Roman, with extensive footnotes set in 6pt of the same typeface.  That will put the lid on their winter of discontent.

The footnotes in this piece are set in an indeterminate type size to enable you to read without too much strain. I have no wish to turn off my readers, the few that there are. American author Joanna Russ, in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, had this to say on the subject. ‘I once asked a young dissertation writer whether her suddenly greyed hair was due to ill health or personal tragedy; she answered: “It was the footnotes”.’

* An additional piece of information printed at the bottom of the page, always in much smaller letters, guaranteed to give you the mother-of-all headaches. Footnotes are intended to cite references or comment on a designated part of the text above it. For example, say you want to add an interesting comment to a sentence you have written, but the comment is not directly related to the argument of your paragraph, that is an ideal excuse to bung in a footnote. Also, footnotes can give the reader the impression that the author is erudite, scholarly and not to be trifled with. So, when you come across one or more of the star marks at the end of a word, stop right there and go to the first footnote. Then wait for a word with two stars, then three… you get the picture. At student level it is safer to assume a low IQ level when it comes to figuring out footnotes. Never read a footnote in isolation – that is a cardinal rule. Incidentally, since this is a tutorial, these star marks are also known as asterisks – asterikos or ‘little star’ in ancient Greek. Not forgetting astericus in ancient Latin.

** Hamlet, one of the Bard of Avon’s greatest plays. With some terrific speeches like, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ The play is also a ghost story featuring a chap called Banquo who has this great one-liner, ‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?’ Hang on, hang on, that’s from Macbeth, not Hamlet. Never mind, this was to illustrate the use of the footnote. Hamlet or Macbeth, makes no difference. Tell you what though, I will certainly ‘start and seem to fear’ if Banquo’s ghost turned up uninvited at my doorstep.

Lest I give the reader an impression that footnotes are provided only for text books in schools, colleges and educational institutions, I would like to disabuse you of that impression. It is true that you are almost certainly not going to be provided such learning aids if you are leafing through P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit*** or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express****. Those worthies wrote simple joyful stories about love among the chickens or people getting stabbed on trains with daggers bearing strange Oriental designs. Footnotes are surplus to requirements in their scheme of things. Which is why I was taken aback when I picked up Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice*****, only to be assailed by a rash of footnotes.

*** At this point, I would normally have dwelt at length on when the Master of comic writing wrote Jeeves and the FS, 1954 if you’re too lazy to look it up, a brief outline of the plot which usually involves the hero, Bertie Wooster, getting embroiled in all kinds of scrapes and Jeeves invariably extricating him out of trouble. The novel will also feature a gaggle of aunts, butlers, scheming secretarial Baxters and possibly a gardener or two. Throw in a fat pig, if you wish. Items of jewellery or a silver cow creamer could get purloined, but somehow the complicated plot will unravel, the brooding newt-fancier will get the mooning girl, while Bertie will escape walking down the aisle by the skin of his teeth. Jeeves delivers yet again. Cynics of Wodehouse’s oeuvre will moan that all his novels have the same plot. To such ignoramuses my unfailing response is, ‘A pox on you, and may you be plagued extensively by unreadable footnotes like this one with every book you pick up to read.’

**** Murder on the Orient Express features the mystery of a murder on, you guessed it, the Orient Express, a luxury train that runs from Istanbul to London. Except that the train is halted mid-way by a snowstorm, during which a dead body is discovered on board. What good is a Christie novel without a corpse or three? Enter a funny looking Belgian with a funny accent and a funnier moustache, the remarkable Hercule Poirot (the H is silent), the detective supreme. The passengers on the train have strange names like Bouc, Foscarelli, Dragomiroff, Hildegarde Schmidt, Arbuthnot, Andrenvi, Hardman, Stavros Constantine and some less exotic names like Debenham, Hubbard and Ratchett. Comic relief is provided by Poirot trying to pronounce these names as he conducts extensive interviews to figure out ‘who killed Ratchett?’ Oops, I have already given part of the game away by naming the victim. Damned if I am going to reveal the murderer. I’ll leave it to Poirot, if you can get past the Belgian accent.

***** Pride and Prejudice is the archetypal novel of manners, written in 1813. Few authors did it better than Jane Austen. I saw the film before I read the book. In a nutshell, the story is a straight-up romance between the protagonist, the demure but proud Elizabeth Bennet and the even prouder and aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy, known only as Mr. Darcy. The version I read was introduced and notated throughout the book by some literary don, who went to town with a rash of needless, explanatory footnotes. After a point I was not sure if I was to follow the endless trail of footnotes or the main storyline. After finishing the book, I had to go back and watch the film on cable to figure out what’s what. Keira Knightley is sumptuous as Jane Bennet, but Colin Firth’s Darcy gets my vote in the earlier television mini-series.

I am presently reading a voluminous book, by a very contemporary author, who has often been described as the enfant terrible of modern English literature viz. Martin Amis******. He deserves a six-star footnote. Weighing in at around 525 pages, the book rightfully belongs to the heavyweight, wrist-endangering category in more ways than one. It is titled Inside Story – A Novel. I can understand why it is called the ‘Inside Story,’ as pretty much all of it is autobiographical. As to why it is also dubbed ‘A Novel’ I am at a loss to fathom. Nothing fictional about it. That said, the man writes like a dream and the book is a compulsive read, like most of his works.

****** Son of celebrated British author of yesteryear, Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), Martin Amis wears his famous surname lightly. This is a rare case of a son outdoing his father in terms of achieving fame and notoriety. However, the reason for talking about Martin Amis and his new book is to highlight his inordinate obsession with footnotes in this volume. Every other page has detailed notations, often exceeding in length the actual text on the page. The book, already forbiddingly lengthy, gives you a sense of running the marathon as you flip with great relief from one page to the other. As I turned over the final page, excluding the Index pages, I felt a monumental sense of achievement. I have read longer books without experiencing that steep, oxygen-sapping mountainous climb. Make no mistake, Amis Jr. wields a mellifluous and eloquent pen. I would devour the telephone directory if he wrote it. It’s the hellish footnotes that get my goat.

Postscript (not to be confused with a footnote): Whoever said ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ nailed it. Footnotes, hellish to ingest, are ultimately good for you, rather like Epsom salts.

Murder most fowl

2,023 Gluttony Vector Images - Free & Royalty-free Gluttony Vectors |  Depositphotos®

Just for a change, this week I decided I will take a bird’s eye view of various happenings around the country, particularly those that had something peculiar or ridiculous to comment upon. Fortunately, in India we are never short of news items culled from our dailies that amuse and / or startle us. Whether these nuggets should be classified as ‘funny peculiar’ or ‘funny ha-ha,’ is largely up to you, dear reader. Comedy lies in the sensibilities of the beholder. Truth to tell, most times funny does not even come into it. A person being put to death or gangraped can never be funny or amusing. The circumstances leading to such a heinous crime, however, can befuddle and even amuse, in a dark, macabre kind of way.

Take what happened in the garden city (that tired moniker is quite funny) of Bangalore. Mubarak Pasha, a 30-year-old businessman comes home from work, his wife sets the table for dinner. ‘Dinner’s ready, come and get it,’ she coos invitingly, presumably in the vernacular. The bread winner of the home sits down to eat, examines the fare on offer, scrunches up his face and looks extremely displeased. ‘Where is my fried chicken?’ he demands. Evidently this Pasha is a bit of a fried chicken freak, and cannot bear to go through a meal without sinking his teeth into some succulent chunks of the local equivalent of KFC. ‘I specifically told you to cook fried chicken for dinner and you have arrogantly disobeyed my orders, and not for the first time either.’ Clearly, the couple have had foul words before over fried fowl. Now whether his dutiful wife gave him a rude retort or merely walked away in a huff, the news report was not forthcoming. What happened next was what grabbed the headlines. The short-tempered Pasha flew into a fit of rage, looked for the nearest lethal log of wood, and proceeded to bash his wife’s head in. Before you could say Kentucky Fried Chicken, he had become a widower and their three children were left motherless. The fact that he trotted off to the nearest police station later and confessed to his crime is neither here nor there. My plea to housewives, therefore, is to be ever vigilant. Today it is fried chicken, tomorrow it could be mutton biryani or masala dosa. I am not suggesting you should be ready to serve your lord and master’s favourite cuisine day in and day out, at his whims and fancies. I am merely advising you to be on guard, keep your own weapon of choice handy, be it a log or a well-honed axe or meat-cleaver, just in case your husband starts acting up violently. Forewarned is forearmed.

Let’s move on to another horrific incident. The Home Minister of Karnataka upbraids a young university student and her boy friend for straying out and wandering around in the vicinity of the picturesque Chamundi hills near Mysore well after dusk, as a consequence of which the girl was waylaid and gangraped by a bunch of six inebriated goons. The boyfriend had been neutralized. Not to be satisfied, the criminals had actually made a video of the assault. ‘What was she doing there at 7 – 7.30pm? Why did she go to a secluded place with her classmate after sunset?’ asked the minister. At a very basic level, the minister’s scolding, rather like an irate parent’s, would have been reasonable (just about) if the victim had returned home safe. In the face of a ghastly incident, not to have first-off, condemned outright the venal crime and targeting instead the victim’s apparent carelessness, the minister was at best unbelievably naïve and at worst, criminally callous. To be fair, he did describe the incident as ‘unfortunate’ and that drastic action will be taken against the culprits. Naturally, the opposition political parties, always with an eye to the main chance, rightly deplored and condemned the minister’s insensitive remarks. Later on, the state’s Chief Minister tried to assuage matters by strongly condemning the home minister’s tasteless comments. Whether the matter will end there or take on a more incendiary form, only time will tell. Meanwhile, the unfortunate victim’s life has been irretrievably damaged while the goons, at the time of going to press, are still at large lurking around for another quarry.

Still on the subject of rape, the Chhattisgarh High Court had an interesting take on the subject. Wait for it and fasten your seat-belts. This is what their honourable justices of the court had to say on a plea from a wife claiming intolerable sexual harassment by her husband. ‘The complainant is the legally wedded wife….therefore sexual intercourse or any sexual act with her by the husband would not constitute an offence of rape, even if it was by force or against her wish…’ (my italics). The court, as per the news report, did add a proviso that the ‘victim’ should not have been under 18 years of age. We should be thankful for small mercies! Naturally all manner of sections, sub-sections and clauses were quoted by the High Court in extenuation of their archaic judgement. My heart goes out to the poor wife, the complainant, who will, in light of the judgement, not be able to proffer the age-old excuse of suffering from a headache to ward off the lascivious advances of her husband. The horrible man will whip out the rule book and point to the loopholes in the IPC Section 376 of the relevant act, as deemed by the esteemed court, and demand conjugal satisfaction – headache or no headache. Perhaps the Act ought to be amended to provide relief to the unfortunate wife, in case she is suffering from a migraine or some other ailment to which women are prone. That will serve the wanton hound right. Otherwise, every other male in the country will quote this judgement and make his wife’s life a living hell. Come on, all you lords and ladyships, can we have some amendments please?

I conclude this ignominious round-up of bloodthirst and unbridled lechery with yet another sleazy account that simply refuses to go away. A basketball coach, who preyed on his young female wards and who was briefly incarcerated under the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, was recently released on bail to roam free. Pramodh Kumar, that was the disgraced coach’s name, is presumably in hiding somewhere, while his alleged teenage victims have been coming out of hiding to narrate horror stories of forced sexual advances, inappropriate touching and all manner of unsavoury acts. Some of the descriptions trotted out by over 20 girls, all aspiring basketball players, were quite graphic and does not leave much to the imagination. That the local police authorities were unable to explain precisely why the accused was allowed to leave the suffocating confines of his prison cell continues to baffle. Evidently all this happened in the state of Karnataka which also witnessed the fried chicken murder and gangrape. Not that I am suggesting that Bangalore and its mother state own sole copyright on salacious crimes (it happens all over the country), but that is the way the cookie crumbled this time round. In passing I must add that the photograph of the alleged offender, the basketball coach, in the newspaper, a passport mug shot, would make any mother want to welcome him home as a son-in-law – pleasant, trustworthy and good-natured was the impression created. Who knows, perhaps the photograph was inappropriately touched up to give a favourable impression! This should be a lesson to all those matrimonial match makers who go superficially by an exchange of photographs. Dig deeper. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words could reveal more than you had bargained for.

Uncle Tom at the park

grayscale photo, man, sitting, bench, solo, reader, old, park, old sitting in the park, forest

I ran into an old timer a few days ago during my morning walk at our nearby park. I employ the phrase old timer with due care, given that I am not exactly a spring chicken myself. Let’s just say that he had the drop on me on the seniority front, which made him a very senior citizen. That’s all I am willing to divulge so far as our respective ages are concerned. It’s simply not cricket to go around asking people how old they are, unless you happen to be an insurance agent cadging for business. And that is an excellent cue to take off on what this elderly gent and I got to talking about.  The cue? Cricket, of course. This early morning walker’s name happened to be Thomas Cherian, and I addressed him as Uncle Tom. He was quite the cricket pundit, full of anecdotes and reminiscences. A voluminous book lay opened on his lap. Wisden, naturally. If you got stuck with him, you got that eerie feeling of being trapped that so engulfed young golfers who ran into The Oldest Member at the club in many of Wodehouse’s hilarious golfing stories. Frequently and ostentatiously shooting my cuffs, speaking metaphorically (I was wearing a tee-shirt), to look at my watch made not a blind bit of difference. Like Old Man River, he just kept rolling along. In present day parlance, he was on a roll. He was at that moment, seated on a park bench with a faraway look in his eyes. His companion was a rather overweight black Labrador on a leash, a bit long in the tooth, that sat motionlessly under the bench, doubtless dreaming of bones to gnaw and cats to chase.

sad labrador Online Shopping -

‘Good morning, Uncle Tom. A penny for them. What is it that occupies your mind this early in the day? You seem to be deep in thought.’ That was my opening gambit while jogging in a stationary position, not wanting to make the cardinal error of sitting down next to him. I had things to do. The Labrador looked up at me balefully. I gave him a friendly scratch under the chin and he went back to sleep.

Uncle Tom peered at me quizzically, from the top of his bifocals. ‘Ah, young man. Ganesh, isn’t it? Good to see you. Why don’t you sit down and I will tell you what it is that is occupying my mind, as you so eloquently put it.’

‘Mar gaya,’ I muttered to myself. ‘It’s Suresh actually, not that it matters. Well alright, just a couple of minutes then. I have some guests coming round for breakfast and the wife will be getting anxious.’ So saying, I sat down next to him. Big mistake.

‘You were asking me what I was thinking about. This Kohli chap. Fine batsman and all that, but why does he keep jumping up and down, like one of our ancestral primates? Just can’t stand it.’ You could see the old codger was visibly upset, resorting to phrases like ‘ancestral primates,’ when a simple ‘monkeys’ would have met the case. What’s more he seemed primed for a long, leisurely chat. My references to guests, breakfast and the wife had made not the slightest impact on him.

Nevertheless, I decided to wade in on the debate. I sprang to the Indian skipper’s defence. ‘Look Uncle Tom, you can’t have it both ways. You know, hunting with the hares and running with the hounds. Or is it the other way round? If we lose, the captain was too laid back, allowed the game to drift. That’s what they said about the great Dhoni at times, and if Kohli gets into the opposition’s face, he is a monkey. We won the game, did we not? You are just biased because he sports a well-trimmed beard. Then again, pretty much every player in the team is bearded. It is the look of the day.’

‘Was Gavaskar bearded? Or Visvanath? Or, for that matter, the peerless Kapil Dev? All clean cricketers and clean shaven. As to your other point, winning is not everything. And don’t tell me it is the only thing. These present-day wisecracks will be the death of me. You speak as if Kohli will lose all his strength if he removes the fungus. He is not Samson, for God’s sake.’ He was in an irascible mood. Uncle Tom then went into a dreamlike trance. ‘Ah, the good old days, when cricket was cricket, and not the circus it is today. I well remember Frank Worrell and Len Hutton. Such thorough gentlemen.’

‘Uncle Tom, those gentlemen used to thrash us within an inch of our lives. They could afford to be gentle. And our Merchants and Hazares were even more gentlemanly, tamely genuflecting and taking it on the chin, at times literally. You talk so feelingly and go all misty-eyed about the good old days. What about Jardine, Larwood and all that leg-theory stuff? Bradman survived, but they nearly went to war on that one, the Poms and the Aussies.’

That was a huge error on my part. Once I engaged him in what was turning into an argument, he then launched into a major lecture on cricket being a gentleman’s game and that sort of claptrap. Holding my hand tightly, so I couldn’t get up, he proceeded to flow into his narrative from the 1940s. I couldn’t even shoot my non-existent cuffs. ‘You know Lala Amarnath, he bowled off the wrong foot. Foxed the batsman completely. Neck and crop. Lock, stock and barrel. What a man! He was a tough nut, independent India’s first cricket captain. Mind you, later on as a commentator he tended to shoot his mouth off somewhat.’

I was starting to shift uneasily. Time was ticking away and I was getting late. ‘Tell you what, Uncle Tom. I’ll come over to your place one of these evenings and we can have a long chinwag about those halcyon days when batsmen walked before the umpire could raise his finger. I’ll bring a bottle.’

This seemed to mollify him somewhat but he still had an iron grip on my left wrist. ‘No, no. What’s the rush Mahesh? By the way, I am very glad you don’t hold with this modern-day abomination of calling batsmen batters. All because women have started playing. Why can’t the women be called batspersons? To get back, I haven’t quite finished with this Kohli situation. Sit still, will you, otherwise Blackie will get restless.’

Blackie seemed perfectly at rest, just shaking his head once and flapping his ears, the way dogs do when winged insects alight on their heads. Uncle Tom continued remorselessly. ‘I know we won that Test match at Lord’s, and very exciting it was too. Joe Root held all the aces on the final day, but he was perhaps a bit too timid and…..’

‘Exactly, Uncle Tom. That is my point. In Root’s place Kohli would have moved in for the kill. Game, set and match.’ I apologised for mixing my sporting metaphors.

‘You surprise and disappoint me, Naresh. That Bumrah kid peppering their tailenders with bumper after bumper. That happened only because that wretched Kohli instructed him.’ I had long given up trying to correct him on my name.

‘But Uncle Tom, that fast bowling tailender was Anderson and he had given our nine, ten and Jack the same treatment. What’s more, the tailenders were all armed like one of the Knights of the Round Table. Tit for tat.’

‘Mind your language, Ramesh. I am 86 years old.’

‘What? What did I say?’ I was flummoxed.

You know what you said. I cannot repeat it,’ he said with prudish pomposity.

‘Oh, you mean…..’

‘That will do. I won’t hear another word. I thought you were a decent bloke, but I was clearly mistaken. If it’s all the same to you, this conversation is at an end. You may go. Come on Blackie.’

‘Uncle Tom, don’t take on so. I can explain everything. What is more, you are still holding my hand.’

He finally released my hand and I got up to go. As I was leaving, I thought I saw a couple of blue tits foraging for worms in the lawn. An incredibly rare sighting this, blue tits in India, if indeed they were so. I am no expert. I thought I will draw Uncle Tom’s attention to the birds, he being an avid bird watcher, if not a full-blown ornithologist. But after seeing his extraordinary reaction to my ‘tit for tat’ remark, I thought better of it and walked away, waving a courteous goodbye. Uncle Tom did not wave back, though Blackie gave me a friendly tail-wag.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.

India at Tokyo Olympics: Record 7 medal haul for India in Olympics
Pride and Passion

Let me push straight off the starting blocks, to employ an athletic aphorism, seeing as we are all still wallowing in the warm afterglow of the Olympic Games just concluded in Tokyo. A word of caution. I may step on sensitive toes while offering my personal take on how the country has reacted to what our boys and girls have achieved in the land of the rising sun. I shall not be treading warily on eggshells. With special reference to the Indian context and the gallant show displayed by our sports heroes who have come away with one gold, a brace of silvers and four bronze medals, making seven in all. This is not an earth-shattering collective performance for a country the humongous size of India, but it is a more than encouraging start, and our medal tally represents the highest ever for the country in four decades of the Olympic Games. So, congratulations and salutations to all our sports warriors who have acquitted themselves with great passion, panache and pride.

Yes, we would have been overjoyed if shuttler P.V. Sindhu had bagged the gold medal (walloping a few Chinese along the way), ditto with wrestler Bajrang Punia and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, boxer Lovlina Borgohain (love the name), and our gallant hockey teams – men and women, but we rejoice at whatever colour of metal their mettle delivered. One does not look at Olympic medals in the mouth, particularly when they have been hard won. (Even the mighty Djokovic went medal-less). Then again, Neeraj Chopra did the near impossible, winning India’s first ever gold in a track and field event – the javelin throw. The way in which he expressed, retrospectively, that he was absolutely certain of out-throwing his rivals, reflected a certain insouciant charm and confidence rather than braggadocio. Chopra also showed that he was politically savvy in stating that he would have liked to have shared the podium with fifth placed Pakistani, Arshad Nadeem, bringing more glory to Asia. Not just a handsome face, our Neeraj! The resultant euphoria that erupted across the length and breadth of the nation was perfectly understandable, in contrast to the level-headed calm with which the young athlete responded to all the adulation that deservedly came his way. To say nothing of the moolah. This was manna from heaven.

While commending the medal winners, let us spare a thought for the likes of our women’s hockey team, golfer Aditi Ashok, discus hurler Kamalpreet Kaur and grappler Deepak Punia (shared surname with Bajrang a happy serendipity), all of whom fell within a whisker of bagging a bronze. In sum, India was placed 48th in the medals table, its highest ranking in 40 years. I am still trying to get my head round how we were ranked 23rd in the 1980 Moscow games with just one solitary medal – the men’s hockey gold.

That said, it would be entirely appropriate to mention another Indian javelin thrower, Padma Shri Devendra Jhajaria. ‘Devendra who?’ I hear you ask. He was the only Indian to win two gold medals at any Olympic or Paralympic games – one at the Athens Paralympics in 2004 and another in 2016 at the Rio Paralympics. When you consider that he achieved this with just one arm, the mind boggles. Sadly, Jhajaria already joins the swelling ranks of India’s unsung and forgotten heroes. He wings his way to Tokyo once again where the latest edition of the Paralympics gets under way shortly.

We now move to the not very pleasant side of India’s heart-warming Olympic story. This is where the eggshells and sensitive toes come in. If I were pushed to give it a working title it would be something on the lines of ‘Clambering on to the bandwagon.’ I fancy you know where I am going with this, dear reader. Your agile brain would have leapt to the conclusion, correctly, that I am about to express considerable angst over the manner in which pretty much anyone who was anyone in our country – the news media channels (both print and television) and through them, ministers and their minions, aka petty babudom, sportspersons, past and present, from all disciplines, columnists and authors, well-known personalities from the world of arts and entertainment, going all the way up to the top of the social and political tree, the PM and the President included. The forums became thinly-veiled excuses for opposing factions from the political spectrum slinging mud at each other, praising our sports heroes’ remarkable feats in the service of the nation while we had to endure venom-spewing antagonists every day preventing the passage of normal business in parliament. While political parties from every hue were united in showering unstinted encomiums on the athletes, they did not lose a moment to extol their own virtues in the process.

State government bosses announced handsome rewards to the winning athletes, which was fine and dandy, then spoilt it all by taking credit for the winners’ honours. Depending on which party was ruling that particular state, the opposition went hammer and tongs in their trenchant criticism of this tasteless self-aggrandisement, forgetting momentarily that a mirror image fiasco was taking place in their own state elsewhere in the country. As for the media, television in particular, it looked as if nothing else was happening in the country. The pandemic was forgotten as was Pegasus, petrol prices and a temperamental monsoon. Every television anchor and correspondent was hyperventilating with overweening pride, some even shedding a crocodile tear or two, the emotions threatening to overflow the banks. Many of them were full of personal anecdotes about ‘how I advised Sindhu on her footwork,’ or ‘how a young Aditi would come running to me seeking advice on the long putt.’ It is refreshing to note that Aditi herself took a more hard-nosed view of her performance. ‘To finish fourth in the Olympics is the worst feeling, but I hope to do better.’ A sensible head on young shoulders.

One correspondent even went to the extent of saying that he will be in Tokyo and should the Indian girls win a hockey medal, he will cry his eyes out while singing Jana Gana Mana at the podium ceremony. Sadly, our girls narrowly failed to make the cut for the bronze medal, thus leaving our correspondent alternately dry-eyed and lachrymose. If we sought balance and a sense of proportion in the way in which the nation ought to have responded, expressing quiet pride in what a handful of our athletes achieved coupled with a steely determination to better ourselves next time round, it was not forthcoming. The way the nation responded, it looked as if we had bagged 100 medals. Prakash Padukone, former All-England badminton champion and co-founder of Olympic Gold quest, a not-for-profit organisation promoting sports excellence, had this to say, ‘What concerns me is the complacency which is likely to have crept in after all the adulation and publicity once the bronze medal was within our athletes’ grasp. An overdone celebration is always a distraction. It does more harm than good. It is premature and makes it seem that the event is over. Players are confused, there is no incentive to go for gold as recognition and appreciation reach saturation point.’

Nowhere was the obsession with India’s Olympic performance more tellingly demonstrated than during a panel discussion on one of our English television news channels. Mr.Virendra Sharma, Labour MP in the United Kingdom, when queried on why his government was imposing needless quarantine regulations on Indians coming into the UK with a valid double-dose Covishield certificate, replied with a complete non sequitur. He held forth at length on the brilliant performance of the Indian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, and how the Indian diaspora in the UK is over the moon with pride and joy. He finally, almost reluctantly, managed a few words on the quarantine imbroglio, promising to take the matter up with the Boris Johnson administration.

Enough said, methinks. Let me reiterate once again that we as a nation have every reason to be massively chuffed at how the ‘Seven Samurai,’ as one newspaper colourfully described them (Hockey counts as one unit), brought pride and glory to the nation. However, we must have the maturity and reflect that seven is not the greatest return for an investment on the largest ever 124 strong contingent that went to Tokyo for the 2020 Games. It is a time for sober reflection, particularly for all those who have had precious little to do with the performances but wish to bask in the limelight that does not shine on them. One can only recall the stirring words of the founder of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin – The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.

For now, those words should serve us in good stead and perhaps, provide cold comfort.

Postscript: The title of this piece, Citius, Altius, Fortius, the Olympic motto translates from Latin into English as Faster, Higher, Stronger. Mottos always sound so much grander in Latin. Now here’s my beef. On 20 July 2021, the Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved a change in the Olympic motto ‘that recognizes the unifying power of sport and the importance of solidarity.’ They decided to add the word ‘Together’. So now the Olympic motto will officially read ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together’ or in Latin, ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter.’ Which adds nothing and ruins everything. Why can’t people leave well enough alone? The motto was doing just fine all these decades with just three words and now the IOC had to go tinkering around and add a completely superfluous fourth. Committees!

A kingfisher’s tale

Kingfisher-opt - GardenBird

The former Indian business tycoon, Vijay Mallya, after protracted legal proceedings in the United Kingdom, has now been officially declared bankrupt, paving the way for a consortium of Indian banks to pursue a worldwide freezing order to seek repayment of debt owed by the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines. News reports.

A good friend of mine who lives in London and is well-versed with the Indian business and corporate scene had this piquant tale to relate. Now that the Covid restrictions have been all but lifted in the UK, this friend, let’s just call him Dilip, was wandering around Piccadilly Circus and the adjoining Soho area. Taking the air, as it were, and enjoying the new-found, post-pandemic freedom. There were the usual crowds milling around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, more popularly known as the Eros statue, furiously clicking photographs and taking selfies. The British football fans had planned to celebrate raucously at this very spot in their thousands (as they did in 1966), anticipating an England victory at the recently concluded Euro Cup against Italy, but their hopes were cruelly dashed as the Azzurri lifted the Cup on penalties, and the predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth all over England followed. To revert to my story, Dilip, accompanied by his English wife Sarah and their ten-year old son Danny, were looking for a nice place to enjoy a quiet meal, something they had not done for the best part of two years.

All of a sudden Dilip spotted this pony-tailed, bearded, burly figure standing in front of the famous Lillywhites sports goods store, a cigar butt dangling from his lips, his hat lying upturned next to his feet on the pavement. A few coins could be seen inside and outside the hat, but barely enough to rub together, and certainly not enough to buy a cheeseburger without extra toppings from the Burger King across the street. His tie, sporting the logo of a bird, possibly a kingfisher, was hanging loose from his unbuttoned shirt collar. His torn blazer was badly patched up at both the elbows. The man appeared to be pre-occupied with something weighty on his mind. Other than mechanically repeating the words, ‘Top of the morning to you Sir, can you spare a quid to see me through lunchtime?’ his mind was clearly on other things. His heart did not seem to be quite in it. Every now and then he would break into a vaguely familiar tune with some unintelligible syllables that sounded like Oolalallalla layo.

I will let Dilip take up the story.

That’s when, like a bolt from the blue, it struck me. Right between the eyes. I could have sworn this was none other than Vijay Malady, one of India’s most flamboyant businessmen, who has been taking shelter in the UK for the last few years, staying far away from the banks and his employees to whom he allegedly owes untold sums of money. I was pretty certain that’s who this scruffy, straggly-bearded street corner busker was, but I needed to be sure. I decided to approach him gingerly. My wife Sarah upbraided me and told me to mind my own business and that she and Danny were famished. I told both of them to proceed to the nearby Angus Steakhouse, the famous steak joint, a repast I was dearly looking forward to. ‘Both of you make tracks to Angus. I’ll join you in a jiffy. You can order a Waldorf salad and a filet mignon, medium rare, for me.’ Having sent them on their way, I proceeded to buttonhole the man they called ‘The King of Good Times’ in India. I was still not absolutely certain this was the man I thought it was.

‘Er, excuse me,’ I started hesitantly. ‘Are you not Vijay Malady, the Indian tycoon who has been in the business pages of our dailies here in London in the recent past? Is it true what they say, that you are skint?’

‘Perhaps in London, I just made the business pages and not more than half a column at that. Back home in India, I am front page news and headlining the TV news channels as well. They simply can’t get enough of me. Only the Prime Minister garners more eyeballs.’ He then took a listless drag on his half-smoked cigar. ‘Have you got a light?’ he asked. He had run out of matches, and his Ronson lighter had run out of fuel. He was skint.

‘I am sorry, but I don’t smoke,’ I added ruefully.

He did not seem to absorb what I said and instead, carried on feverishly, puffing away at his extinguished cigar butt. ‘I meant what I said about the Indian media being obsessed with me. Don’t get taken in by all this porn stuff this Johnny-come-lately Raj Kundra is peddling. He is just a glory hunter and will do anything to get the media’s attention. I heard he is planning a short film titled ‘Porn Free,’ involving lions and lionesses frolicking in their natural habitat, but it could just be a wild rumour. The Joy Adamson estate might have had something to say about it.’

‘Gosh, so you are Vijay Malady. The playboy of the Indian corporate world. Richard Branson’s mirror image. You were a great admirer of Branson, were you not? You pretty much built yourself in his image. Have you met him recently in London?’ I was getting quite involved by now.

Malady seemed put out by my line of questioning. ‘Look, I did look up to Branson many years ago. You might say I even followed in his footsteps. You know, the airlines, the fashion models, the catwalks, the race horses, the glamour. Yes, I kind of hero worshipped him. Who knows where he is now! Probably hurtling in space with Bezos.’ He sounded wistful, like he should have been among those hurtling. He was, of course, but his journey seemed to be hurtling down to the centre of the earth.

I was fascinated and felt rather sorry. ‘But Mr. Malady, how has it all come down to this? You busking outside Lillywhites, singing Oolalallalla layo just to be able to buy yourself a hamburger. Such a precipitous fall. Explain that to me.’

He chuckled cynically. ‘I don’t know any tune other than the Kingfisher jingle, so I keep on yodelling that. I am a bit tone deaf. There was a time, you know, if I asked someone to jump, which was often, he would ask “how high?”, and here you are, a jumped-up migrant Indian in London asking me to explain myself. Some cheek. My friend, it is the British courts. They have declared me bankrupt and overnight things have come to a pretty pass. Only last week I was dining at The Ritz, just round the corner from here, with Lewis Hamilton. Now he doesn’t even want to know me.’

I was blown. ‘Wow, that’s impressive. Not your going broke, but you fine dining with Lewis Hamilton. At The Ritz, no less. Hai, hai as we say back home. So what happens now? Where do you go from here?’

‘Chokey? But not in India, if I can help it. Tell you what, if you can spare me a couple of quid, a temporary bridging loan, I’ll grab myself a bite at Burger King and then go down to the Piccadilly Underground to get a quick forty winks. Haven’t slept properly for days. Much obliged.’ He seemed to be in dire straits.

My heart bled. ‘Tell you what, Mr. Malady. Here’s ten pounds. I can’t bear to see you like this. You get yourself a hearty pub lunch. You know, shepherd’s pie and mashed potatoes with a tankard of beer to wash it down. You do that. Meanwhile, let me see if I can arrange some cheap digs for you somewhere in the suburbs. A bedsitter. I’ll take care of the expenses till you sort things out.’

 Malady’s eyes misted over. ‘You are truly generous my friend, whatever your name is. Not a skinflint, like all these other passers-by. Thanks for everything. I am touched, and so are you to the tune of ten pounds. If you can come round at 5 pm and wake me up, on the passage way to platform 3 on the Underground, just below the Phantom of the Opera poster, that will suit me down to the ground. I must have my afternoon nap, what with the beer and everything. I hope they serve Kingfisher.’

I felt so happy for the rich little poor man. As I was taking leave of him, he grabbed me by my coat tails and hissed, ‘Pssst, don’t look now, but there’s a small, baldish guy waving at me, big scrounger. No doubt he is trying to get into my ribs for a quid. He seems to be pushing somebody in a wheelchair. Good God! Surely not. Let’s make a run for it.’

‘But who are these chaps you are running away from?’ I was non-plussed.

Vijay Malady dragged me away from the spot and stage-whispered, ‘Don’t you know anything? That small chap is the diamantaire now pauper, Nirav Modi, and the guy he is pushing in the wheelchair is his uncle, Mehul Choksi. Once fat cats, now fugitives down on their luck.’ Like someone else who was doing all the talking! I was sure the former was in jail in Britain and the latter was hiding somewhere in the Caribbean, but I let it go. Obviously, Malady’s fevered brain was seeing things. At which point, the once, big-time liquor baron detached himself from my arm and ran hell for leather. I never saw him again.

Alas, poor Malady!

WhatsApp Doc?

Devo ou não passar meu WhatsApp para o paciente?

Just over a decade ago, 2010 to be precise, an extremely important development took place in India. The WhatsApp messaging application was launched, barely a year after two bright sparks, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, flagged it off in the United States. Those of us who happen to own a smartphone, which is practically the entire universe, have become craven slaves to this brilliant technological advance, enabling the human species to communicate with one another, across villages, towns, cities, countries and continents with a degree of ease that was unthinkable barely 20 years ago. The convenience, the utility value, the mere fact that your message can get across to your contact even before you’ve been able to marshal your own thoughts (‘blink of an eye’ doesn’t even begin to describe it), has given us a boon that some may consider a mixed blessing. To be perfectly blunt, many consider it a bane – with good reason. Of course, the WhatsApp bouquet is but one of a plethora of very clever things that your internet-enabled smartphone allows you to perform. Like ordering groceries, net banking, watching films, live sports and so on and so forth. Whether an utopian day will arrive when we can order food and have it delivered piping hot straight off our mobile screens instanter, I am not sure at this point in time. That said, I won’t count anything out, given that snooping devices are being embedded without our knowledge on our mobiles, even as I am tapping these letters on my keyboard. All in all, rapidly advancing technology, like so many other things that advance rapidly, have their good points, though you must perforce take the warts in your stride.

However, the main purpose of this contemplation is to reflect on the WhatsApp app, which incorporates an extra ‘app’ that is redundant, surplus to requirements and sounds corny, but it is what it is. If the application becomes part of the brand name, you have to expect convoluted sentences like that. The WhatsApp app (there I go again) has as many critics as it has supporters. Of one thing, nevertheless, I am convinced. Polarised though the WhatsApp world may be, both those in favour and against are avid users of the app. The carpers against WhatsApp, who find themselves unable to live without the app, can be accused of being part of the ‘pot-calling-the-kettle-black’ brigade. As a moderate user of the app, I can vouch for its ills and its benefits, but I would much rather take the broad view. I would like to look on WhatsApp’s positive attributes. The negatives are too many and can take care of themselves. The benefits that have been conferred on an unsuspecting public through WhatsApp have been plentiful and varied, too long to enumerate, but here’s a brief sampler. From residents of apartment blocks, old school associations, general do-gooders who get together to do good to the society at large, music lovers, book lovers, dog lovers, which in turn can be broken up into specific musicians, authors and dog breeds – they all form groups on WhatsApp and keep chatting (often violently) all the livelong day on subjects as diverse as the ‘Gone with the Wind’ controversy, rubbishing the archaic building society regulations, what to do when your adopted pie-dog contracts distemper, and much else besides. Why all this must be done on WhatsApp when you already have other online platforms like Facebook is a question for the ages. If you detect a touch of irony in my analysis, I assure you it is entirely intentional.

Among those who have benefitted greatly from people’s addiction to incessantly be on WhatsApp messaging or telephone calls, the latter being free and often much clearer than regular calls, the orthopaedic wing of the medical profession must surely top the list. In order to obtain a better insight on the subject, I called up an orthopaedic doctor friend of mine, whose knowledge and experience on the subject of bones and joints is second to none. What he does not know about spondylitis or spondylosis (I can never tell the difference), cervical or lumbar, can be written on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill, as I have heard it described. To this good doctor friend, therefore, I placed a call.

‘Hi Doc, what gives? What with the pandemic and everything, I guess business must be pretty dull. In your line of work, you need patients to be placed on metal beds, x-rays taken, backs and necks pummelled till they leave your clinic feeling much worse than when they entered, and the neck pain shooting skywards when they see your bill. All in a profitable day’s work, it used to be. Now with masked patients hobbling into your clinic in trickles, how do you make ends meet?’

I could see my bone specialist pal was not best pleased with my airy-fairy, tongue-in-cheek conversational gambit. ‘Look, it’s all very well you cracking tasteless jokes. However, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, my friend. If you must know, business is booming.’

‘Really,’ I responded with a touch of sarcasm. ‘Pray, do enlighten me.’

‘For one thing, this talking and messaging on WhatsApp virtually 24 x 7, has resulted in more and more people of all age groups coming down with cervical problems. Even before the pandemic struck, neck related complaints had increased manifold, thanks to WhatsApp. Now, Covid19 has ensured that the use of WhatsApp on smartphones has gone through the roof, and along with that so has my online consultancy. If you must know, my systems manager tells me that the number of patients consulting me with neck issues has gone up by a staggering 66% over the last two years. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.’

As I don’t smoke, I let the boastful metaphor pass. I pressed on. ‘Surely then, you should be advising your patients to use their mobiles in moderation and not indulge in useless chit chat about what they are wearing this evening for someone’s birthday which they will celebrate online through what else, but WhatsApp. By the way, with regard to developing neck problems, is there a difference between texting and video calls? What I am getting at is, is one of those two activities less likely to create a crick in the neck?’

The doc was not impressed. ‘What kind of a damn fool question is that? Whether you talk over video or you type in text, you are still hunched over your mobile, are you not? Your neck is still prone to the same level of stress. Capeesh?’

I was beginning to feel the strain myself. My neck muscles were knotted up. ‘Capeesh? What is that, Swahili? Alright, don’t get so stressed yourself? Just seeking an opinion, that’s all. In sum, what you are striving to tell me is that this obscene pre-occupation with WhatsApp has resulted in pretty much massive swathes of the population being unable to keep their heads straight thanks to the neck pain. This in turn has hugely increased calls being made to you, also on WhatsApp, and you are laughing all the way to the bank. Would that be a correct summation of the situation?’

‘Got it in one, even if you expressed it crudely. You are not quite as thick as a brick. The point is, my friend, I cannot be seen to be profiting from other people’s ailments, but that is what all medical practitioners do. It’s not our fault that people fall ill. I was only making the limited point that one thing leads to another. The pandemic has forced people to stay at home. This has compelled more people to conduct all their business, personal and professional, through their smartphones. At that, WhatsApp has come out on top as the communication tool of choice. Which has naturally led to more people coming down with neck trouble. Simple logic. Savvy?’

‘Savvy is better than capeesh, I guess,’ I replied drily. ‘That’s great. Good for you, Doc. Why don’t you close shop and come over to my place? Let’s have a drink. We’ll smoke a peace pipe. Ha ha.’

He looked pained, rubbing his neck vigourously. ‘Sorry, no can do. I have an appointment with my orthopaedist.’

I went ramrod straight. ‘What! But you are one yourself. Orthopaedist, I mean. And why, for crying out loud?’

‘That is the irony of it.  All this constant talking and video conferencing with my patients on WhatsApp has put my neck clean out of joint. Quite literally. I have been on WhatsApp with you for the last 20 minutes! And you know the cardinal rule in the medical profession. Doctors should never treat themselves or self-medicate. They always get a second, objective opinion.’

I guess that made sense. Doctors should also help each other out to keep the home fires burning. I ended the call with a consoling, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’

When all is said and done, Messrs Acton and Koum have much to answer for.

O! For a horse with wings

Pegasus: The Winged Stallion - Greek Mythology Explained - YouTube
The magical and mythical Pegasus

They sway’d about upon a rocking horse / And thought it Pegasus. John Keats, Sleep and Poetry.

The three wise Gods of Asgard, in the Kingdom of Norse decided to get together at Valhalla to discuss a matter of great pith and moment. They were all double-masked to keep away a strange and unknown pestilence, christened Covidicus, that was threatening to decimate the entire populace of Norse. Though all three of them had gulped down two silver goblets each, at the recommended twelve-week interval, of the Astracus  Zenecus Covaxicus potions, which the medicine men of the Apothecary had promised would provide full protection against the dreaded Covidicus, including the wretched Deltalus variant. Had the magic nectar failed to do its stuff, heads would have rolled down Valhalla’s majestic, winding marble stairway. Not quite the Stairway to Heaven of legend and song, but almost half way there. Divinity’s winsome threesome was huddled together at an emergency meeting. At the head of the table sat the wisest of them all, he with the long, flowing white beard, Modicum the Mighty. He was joined by two of his most trusted lieutenants, Shahftus the Handyman and Naddalus the Everyman, their blank, polished, granite tablets and sharpened stone writing implements at the ready, to inscribe every precious commandment of their leader. Imagine, if you will, Moses (or Charlton Heston) on top of Mount Sinai hugging a tablet of commandments on each arm.

Having taken the Chair, Modicum the Mighty called the meeting to order. ‘Order, order,’ he cried, in the time-honoured fashion, which is the sole preserve and copyright of high court and supreme court judges across the land, and in particular, their honourable wig-wearing justices from the celluloid world.

‘First off, may I suggest we remove our masks right this minute. We have all been twice dosed. Shahftus and Naddalus, both of you are rotund and well-endowed in shape and size and of similar build and complexion. It is virtually impossible to tell you apart. Which makes it difficult for me to address you by your proper names if you insist on wearing the masks, in the absence of any recognition software. I am, of course, easily spotted owing to the fact that my long, flowing, white beard extends well below my mask, the luscious outcrop fully obscuring the determined jut of my chin. As a courtesy to both of you, however, I shall also take off my mask and you need have no qualms about dealing with an impostor. I am the head of Asgard, the venerable Odin, better known as Modicum to my friends. The Mighty is optional.’

Shahftus and Naddalus were both sitting at a precise 45-degree angle to the right and left of Modicum respectively. There was an attractive and precise symmetry to this disciplined triangulation. Modicum was extremely partial to symmetry in everything he did. Whichever hand he stuck out, the two heavyweights were at hand, in a manner of speaking. He liked to be even handed. The twosome nodded vigorously in assent after Modicum’s brief introductory remarks.

Shahftus, being the senior of the two lieutenants, was the first to respond. ‘We are waiting to hear from you with bated breath, Modicumji. To what do we owe the honour of this sudden meeting at the witching hour of midnight? Is our land under attack? Has Covidicus mutated out of control? Has Rahulus the Gandalf developed mumps? What is it? Do tell, Modicumji. I am bursting with anticipation.’

Modicum smiled benignly wagging his long forefinger avuncularly. ‘That is the last thing you want, Shahftus. Bursting, I mean. I’ve had occasion to chastise you about your weight before. Your brain is overly exercised, perhaps your body too should take inspiration from your grey cells. There is, however, a grain of truth in some of your well-founded questions. We are under attack, but not from Covidicus which we have, for now at any rate, brought under control in most parts of our kingdom, barring a few errant states. If we behave ourselves, and consume more potions, we can ward off any wave that tries to engulf us. Speaking for myself, I am more concerned about the ever-present threat of a wave from our western borders, rather than this bug that bugs us. As you know, they are led by a man, Imodium Khan, who once played a strange game called cricket, and this leader could swing a red cherry wickedly, much like a banana. As for Rahulus the Gandalf coming down with mumps; no such luck, I am afraid. As far as Rahulus is concerned, Mum’s the word, ha ha. Geddit? And you won’t get much change from his sister Priyantarantulus, either. No. no, it’s something else. What do either of you know about this Pegasus?’

After a hearty chuckle at the Imodium and Rahulus’ mumps crack, both Shahftus and Naddalus looked blank. ‘Sorry?’ they said in chorus.

‘Don’t apologize, just answer the question,’ retorted Modicum.

‘When we said sorry, we didn’t mean sorry, we meant sorry? As in, beg your pardon?’

‘You are pardoned for now, but if you carry on like this, you could be trying my patience.’ Modicum was not amused. ‘Now tell me about this Pegasus.’

‘Pegasus? Pegasus?’ they intoned in chorus. Naddalus added respectfully, ‘If you could elaborate, Modicumji.’

Modicum looked left and right symmetrically, at both of them. ‘You are beginning to sound like an Abbott and Costello double act. I expected better from my lieutenant. And my rightenant. I ask again. What do either of you know about Pegasus? Are you keeping something from me? And before you answer, look carefully under the table, your chairs and your tablets in case there are strange listening devices implanted.’

Shahftus butted in quickly. ‘Modicumji, the room has been swept for any such device. You have nothing to worry about. So, what is this Pegasus?’

‘I am asking you, Shahftus,’ returned the Mighty One, archly.

Naddalus, who was up-to-date with the latest technological developments, had a ready explanation. ‘I did a quick Googlinctus search on my Itablet. It’s a horse, Modicumji. A white horse with wings. My friends tell me it has mystical powers. Like being able to listen and see things over very long distances.’

‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, eh? I always thought White Horse was the name of a whisky brand, though I do not touch the stuff myself. It is banned where I come from,’ chimed Modicum, ‘but I am still confused. Why is everybody in the land chanting the name of Pegasus, as if it’s a crippling disease like Covidicus and giving all of us dirty looks? Shahftus, you usually have an ear to the ground. What are your men telling you, and what are you not telling me?’

Shahftus shifted uneasily in his chair. Took a few chips off his tablet with his stone writing implement. ‘Word on the street, Modicumji, is that someone from our ruling elite has been hiring some foreign body to plant listening and viewing devices onto our country’s people, the better to figure out what mischief they are up to.’

‘Is that not a desirable thing? Surely, that is standard practice?’ roared Modicum rhetorically. ‘Should we not be kept in the loop, as I have heard our media friends and enemies describe it? And anyway, why have I not been told about this? Our opposition parties are clamouring for some joint committee to probe this matter, and I am still clueless. Naddalus, what say you?’

After scratching something furiously on his tablet with his stone stylus, Naddalus responded. ‘Modicumji, you will still be clueless and so will Shahftusji and myself when you learn who will spearhead this joint committee. It is that puffed-up poltroon, Shashticus Thoroughbred, who speaks a form of English only he and the Bard of Avon can even remotely follow. He also uses words like Snoopgate, Spyware and Watergate. To say nothing of acronyms like NSO. And quite recently, ‘pogonotrophy,’ with a not-so-veiled reference, Modicumji, to your glorious beard.’

When Naddalus saw that Modicum had blanched deathly pale, he rushed furiously to clarify, ‘Pogonotrophy Modicumji, not pornography.’ The colour quickly rushed back to Modicum’s face as he took a long draught of coconut water and continued.

‘By all the Gods of Norse and all the ancestors of Odin, surely not Shashticus. I will need all the 5000 marble tablets of the God Roget and his Thesaurus by my side to refer to while this fellow is holding forth. And fifth. What was that again Naddalus? Puffed-up poltroon? Very good. Perhaps you can take this Thoroughbred head-on. I’ll give him a pogonotrophy he won’t forget.’ So saying, Modicum let out a bellow of raucous laughter.

The two underlings laughed in unison. When the Boss laughs, the world laughs with Him. At this point, Shahftus struck a conspiratorial note. ‘Modicumji, evidently a foreign power has financed this entire Pegasus project worldwide. It is feared that anyone with a talking device could be subjected to being heard and seen at all hours of the day or night. This has made many of our women folk extremely nervous, lest they should be sighted in a state of déshabillé if you get my meaning.

‘You are not doing too badly yourself, Shahftus. Déshabillé eh? Meaning what, exactly? Naddalus, what does your Googlinctus say?’

Naddalus looked distinctly uneasy. He knew exactly what déshabillé meant but he was taken aback that his colleague Shahftus had heard of the word, though he murdered the pronunciation, what with the French and everything. He cleared his throat and attempted an explanation. ‘Modicumji, the word is French in origin, like many fancy English words, and it means when someone, particularly a woman, is in a state of, um, how I shall I put it, in the privacy of her boudoir, not modestly clothed.’ Naddalus let out a huge sigh of relief, mopping up the beads of perspiration on his forehead.

Modicum broke into a smile. ‘That was not so difficult, was it Naddalus? I am equally surprised that Shahftus knew this word, when I would have thought it was more in the vocabulary range of our erstwhile friend, Shashticus Thoroughbred. Déshabillé indeed! Utter nonsense. We have full respect for our women and men, and while I am at the helm, which will be till our holy cows come home, there will be no deshabilling. Go and tell that to the people.’

As it appeared that the meeting was winding down to a close, Shahftus wanted to know what exactly should be done about this Pegasus issue. Modicum replied firmly. ‘Look my friend, I still don’t know what Pegasus means other than that it is a white horse with wings, which might or might not be a brand of whisky. I suggest we just ride this one out, and the horse will just fly away. It has wings, has it not? We have survived far more tricky issues. So why worry about something no one seems to know the meaning of.’

‘Yes Modicumji, thank you Modicumji,’ the two strong men spoke in practiced unison. Far off, a winged white horse neighed, as it took flight.

It was just another day at the office.

Pleased as Punch

File:Punch magazine cover 1916 april 26 volume 150 no 3903.png - Wikimedia  Commons
An early Punch front cover

During the early 70s, when I was fortunate enough to land a job as an executive trainee in one of Calcutta’s leading advertising agencies, I had precious little idea of what I was letting myself in for. The hurly-burly, non-stop excitement of working shoulder to shoulder with bright-as-buttons creative copywriters and art directors; tough-as-nails, smooth-talking bosses, some of whom grandly toted cigars and if I allowed my imagination to run wild, a snifter glass of Hennessy cognac swirling about in their free hand. Not to be outdone, pretty much all your colleagues, men or women, smoked a variety of cigarette brands like chimneys. I meant they smoked liked chimneys, not that the cigarette brands were like chimneys, if you get my meaning. These transferred epithets are a pain to the unwary writer. Forgive the digression. Smoking was not merely a habit, a bad one, but a fashion-statement, an equally bad one. If you didn’t smoke, you were not quite ‘with it.’ Incidentally, if you were game for extremes, then the humble ‘bidi,’ favoured by rickshaw-wallahs and their ilk, took you to the top of the pecking order – inverted snobbery! This was before the spoilsports from the health ministry started insisting that all cigarette packets must carry dire warnings stating that the inhalation of noxious fumes from tobacco could lead to an early grave. Not being copywriters, they adopted the more prosaic line, ‘Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.’ Some of the packs, not taking chances, even had a skull and crossbones graphic alongside. Not that anyone took a blind bit of notice.

Anyhow, it was the done thing those days, walking around looking pensive, with a Wills Filter or Charms dangling from your lips. Think: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. And if the midnight oil had to be burned, which was often, to meet client presentation deadlines, you could count on a never-ending supply of Old Monk rum on tap. Hardly the sort of atmosphere my strictly conservative parents would have envisaged or desired for their quiet, obedient son. I have had occasion to touch upon this licentious aspect of my early days in advertising in some of my other missives, so I shan’t go over that well-trodden path again. Except, perhaps, to add gratuitously that I was a total disgrace to this accepted template of the rising ad man. One small rum I could just about manage. The second, forced down my glass (if not my throat), invariably watered the nearest potted plant when my colleagues were looking the other way. They were too sozzled to notice, anyway. As for cigarettes, my father thought them sinful, and I had visions of Purgatory whenever I took a tentative puff. It came as no surprise when my boss angrily exclaimed, ‘You don’t smoke, you can’t drink, what the hell are you doing in an advertising agency?’ Touché. That said, it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors at the agency. Merely the preliminary pourparlers preceding a more elevating aspect of those early days of my advertising career.

The wonderful thing about our agency was that it had a well-stocked library. Apart from the classics and many of the more modern authors of that period (Salinger, Kerouac et al), the agency also subscribed to a number of Indian and foreign magazines. The idea was that reading books would never be a waste of time in a profession where the English language was deemed a primary sine qua non for success. In later years, books and periodicals in some of India’s major vernaculars were also added to the subscription list, as language advertising became a prime requirement.

One of the many magazines that adorned our library was the British humour and satire weekly, Punch. This venerable magazine, which was founded in 1841, and sadly downed its shutters some 151 years later in 1992, was one of the most sought-after publications in our library. Even if you were not amongst the first to ‘get at it’ as soon as it was delivered, there were plenty of back issues to go through. However, a word in season with the librarian, along with a packet of fags always helped to receive that early tip-off. Apart from the wondrous content, both written articles as well as rib-tickling cartoons and illustrations, the magazine gave us an insight into high class advertising in Britain during the vibrant 70s. Tobacco, liquor and top-of-the-line automobiles were the primary categories heavily advertised in Punch, reflecting the exalted target group that constituted the magazine’s core readership. My little cubicle was refulgent with colourful adverts, stunningly photographed (and airbrushed) cut out from the magazine’s pages – an inspiration to any aspiring advertising executive. The librarian was none too pleased with my vandalizing the magazines thus, but he took the broad view and looked the other way – the fags doing their stuff!

The 1966 Beatles issue in 2021 | Cartoons magazine, The beatles, Poster  prints
Punch’s 1966 The Beatles issue

More than the advertising, I was hooked on to the legendary columnists who regaled me week after week with their ability to bring down politicians and venerable institutions with extraordinary style and elan, such that you could hardly take offence. America’s mirror image magazine, MAD, crude by comparison, could scarcely hold a candle to Punch. Editors and contributors to Punch were legends in their own right.  Basil Boothroyd, Alan Coren, E.S. Turner and Miles Kington were among the regulars that kept me entertained over an idle hour. Some of my senior colleagues and bosses would pop round to my ‘cabin’ on hearing my uncontrolled chortling, wanting to know if I was having an apoplectic fit. And if not, what the dickens was I doing reading magazines when I should have been working on that Dunlop truck tyre presentation. Well, it was a small price to pay, earning my bosses’ indulgent wrath against the literary enjoyment I derived from Punch. Incidentally, occasional celebrated contributors to Punch, historically, have included the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Keith Waterhouse, A.A. Milne, Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Plath. The last named took me by surprise. The celebrated poet and author of the classic roman-à-clef, The Bell Jar and the poetic Ariel, Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression and tragically took her own life. Wouldn’t have thought she was the right fit for the happy-go-lucky Punch, but I will need to read her contributions, if I can source them, before arriving at any definitive conclusion.  Although the magazine no longer exists, the works of many of its brilliant contributors, most of them no longer with us, are available in book form. Now in the relaxed evening of my life, I have been ordering some of these wonderful collection volumes online, ecstatically poring over them all the livelong day. I was also fortunate to get my grubby hands on some of the Punch annuals at select second-hand book shops in places like Portobello Road in London during some of my memorable visits to the UK. You can’t get these now for love or money. And to anyone reading this who is entertaining ideas of borrowing some of these treasures from me, let me put you straight. You are most welcome to come home and spend a few hours leafing through them, as you would at the British Council library, but the books shall not leave my premises. So there. You have been duly cautioned.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is punch_final_issue.jpg
The final cover – April 1992

In conclusion, I would like to share an interesting personal experience I had with Punch. During my callow advertising agency days, I would spend some of my spare time attempting to write articles of a humorous nature, inspired by Punch. I would submit these to some of the local newspapers in Calcutta for favour of publication. They did me no favours! More often than not, I would not hear from them. On the rare occasion when I did, it would be a bland pre-printed rejection slip without even the courtesy of a signature. I then decided that I would go the whole hog and try my luck with Punch. In for a penny, in for a pound. Remember, these were pre-email days. I slaved for weeks, carefully typing and retyping the draft, checking for misplaced apostrophes and errant punctuations, and wrote a thoughtfully worded covering letter to the Editor and bunged it off Par Avion to London. Set me back a pretty penny in postage stamps, I can tell you. I expected nothing, and nothing happened for close to a month. Just when I had given up the ghost, a buff envelope arrived with my name and address neatly typed and the Punch rubber stamp proudly displayed along with the Queen’s philatelic mug shot. My pulse raced. I felt like the poet Wordsworth; ‘My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.’ ‘Can it be?’ I asked myself, holding my breath. I did not dare open the envelope for a good fifteen minutes. Finally, with the aid of a kitchen knife, I carefully slit the envelope and fished out the letter. It was from Miles Kington from the editorial board of Punch. Clearly handwritten with a biro it said, ‘Nice idea, but it could do with a bit of reworking. Keep writing. Best wishes. Miles.’

It was the nicest and most treasured reject letter I have ever received. If only I can find the blessed thing! A few days ago, I ordered from Amazon and received ‘The best of Miles,’ a collection of Kington’s finest columns, along with another volume of his distinguished colleague, Alan Coren’s choicest pieces. My cup runneth over. Pleased as Punch, in fact.

ECC Cartoonbooks Club: Larry on Larry: My Life in Cartoons
From one of Punch’s great cartoonists, Larry.