India and The Henley Passport Index

File:Indian Passport.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

I will make such a wonderful India that all Americans will stand in line to get a visa for India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Hands up, all those who have heard of The Henley Passport Index. All hands down, I see, which is pretty much what I expected. I had not heard of The Henley Passport Index myself, till I read about it a few days ago. In a nutshell, the index ranks all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without the requirement of a visa. In other words, the holders can either walk through Immigration without so much as a by-your-leave, or they can obtain a visa on arrival with minimal formalities. Unless of course, your passport bears the name ‘Novak Djokovic.’ Of relevance to this piece is the news item that India has now improved its ‘passport power ranking’ for the year 2022, climbing seven places to number 83. The number of countries we proud Indians can now waltz into, waving our passports with a cheery ‘Hi there,’ now stands at 60. That’s straight from the Henley’s mouth.

I couldn’t wait to scroll down the news report to scan the list of countries that will welcome me with open arms. It’s always extremely disconcerting, having gone through several weeks of form-filling and having to fly down (at my expense, I’ll trouble you) to Chennai or New Delhi for interviews with high profile embassies to obtain a three-month tourist visa, to be asked impertinently on arrival, ‘Are you travelling on holiday or business Sir?’ when your passport clearly states that your visa falls under the tourist category. The gall! All that is now in the past, thanks to Henley and his estimable Passport Index. But I digress. The list, the list. Let me take a look at all those countries that await my pleasure.

Broadly, the list of countries was categorized by continents. And what an amazing list of destinations it was. Let us start with the Middle East. You obviously wish to travel to Dubai, Bahrain, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi, the most frequented hot spots in that part of the world. Notwithstanding loonies who wish to bomb some of these airports. All our friends and relations have put down roots there, minting money. There’s also the attraction of taking in periodic sports entertainment, what with IPL games being shifted to the desert, thanks to the pandemic or elections in India. Well, I have news for you. Those countries mentioned are not on Henley’s list guaranteeing visa free entry. Instead, you have a choice of Iran, Jordan, Qatar and Oman. One or two names there may allow me free entry, but I cannot be certain of my exit. That pretty much puts paid to any immediate holiday plans I had for that part of the world. After all, there’s a limit to the quantity of dates and apricots, however delicious, one can consume. I have had it up to here with dried fruits.

We then move on to Europe. Oh, what joy! I have been to most of Europe’s favoured tourist delights, except perhaps much of Eastern Europe, but to re-visit Venice, Florence, Geneva, Paris, Athens, good old London and many other dream cities without visa hassles was beyond my wildest dreams. Guess what, that is exactly what it turned out to be, beyond my wildest dreams. The ‘Europe List’ put together for India by Mr. Henley contained just two nations. Yes, you heard that right. And they were? Albania, about which I knew next to nothing barring some attractive postage stamps in fascinating triangular shapes, which I came across whilst pursuing philately as a hobby during my school going years. Some thieving Gibbons filched my stamp album from my locker, but that’s another story. The second country on that list was, would you believe it, Serbia. If not for Novak Djokovic, I may not even have given this country a second glance, leave alone a first. And after ‘Novax’ Novak’s endless troubles in Australia, largely of his own making, I do not expect to be received by friendly faces in Belgrade. It’s not that Serbia has anything against India, but I think the entire nation is in a bad mood since their icon was, according to the Serbs, so disdainfully treated. As to what Novak did or did not do to earn such opprobrium, is a matter of public record.

Happily, the Caribbean gives us a much wider choice, thanks to Henley’s generosity. As many as 11 nations in the West Indian islands will be happy to lay out the red carpet for Indian citizens without the formality of having our passports stamped with an entry visa. That is how Indian fugitive and jeweller baron Mehul Choksi skedaddled and found a safe haven in Dominica, one of the nations on that favoured list. Cricket fans in India will rejoice at countries like Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago opening their gates wide open when international cricket is played in the home of Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding and company. As for other attractions like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Montserrat or St. Kitts & Nevis, some of those names ring a bell for their reputation as safe tax havens and not for much else. Still and all, any destination in the sunny West Indies will be worth flying into without any visa hassles.

The vast Asian continent has provided a list of 11 nations for visa-free travel from India. Frankly it’s mostly a ‘been there, done that’ kind of list. Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia – ho hum. Then again, the exotic-sounding Timor-Leste promises much mainly because I know next to nothing about it – the seductive charm of the unknown! And how about this for an intriguing name – Macao (SAR China)? After the Covid 19 virus, allegedly originating from you-know-where, the prefix SAR before China provides speculative food for thought.

America was next on the list and my eyes lit up. New York, New York! No beefy officials to stop me at JFK’s forbidding immigration counters with a ‘Howdy, hold it right there, pal,’ as I flash my no-visa privilege at them. Instead, what I read under ‘America’ had me reeling. Just two names. Bolivia and El Salvador. Crikey!  I looked at the continent name again and it said ‘Americas,’ which meant the northern part of the continent was not obliged to wave me through. Latin America was more obliging. Bolivia was fine if I wanted to go on a trip, snort some white powder and get a real high, while risking being waylaid by some gun-toting drug barons. As for El Salvador, I hear the crime rate there is high but it’s safe for tourists. That’s a double-edged, guarded advisory which I have no intention of heeding. Wodehouse memorably named such places ‘the 78 rpm’ countries!

Of all the continents, Africa appears to be the most hospitable. As many as 21 countries there look kindly towards Indians, waiving all visa requirements. That said, whether I really want to land up in places like Rwanda, Botswana, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda, Somalia, Togo and Uganda, I am not sure. Bob Dylan waxed eloquent about the pretty girls in Mozambique and sang feelingly about the place. Which was nice for the Nobel troubadour but then, I am not Bob Dylan and may not get a similar warm reception. Cape Verde and Comores Islands sound inviting, but then all islands do. Never heard of these two, so I’ll take a raincheck.

Bottom line is that India’s jumping up the passport power rankings does little to fill me with unbounded joy, as I am not about to board a plane to any of these destinations in a hurry. Amidst these cheerless reflections, Henley also informs me that Japan and Singapore top the list with 192 nations open to them sans visas, Germany and South Korea a close second with 190 countries letting their populace in without let or hindrance. Under the circumstances, I don’t see why we should be screaming deliriously from the rooftops at just 60 countries, not all of them very salubrious, placing the welcome mat for us. However, let me tell you what gives me immense pleasure – the fact that our friendly neighbour Pakistan has been ranked the 4th worst on the passport ladder, with just 31 destinations to boast about (China could be there!). Just below Pakistan are Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. So, there you have it. If that is not something to shout about, I don’t know what is.

Firestarter

Hooded person holding a lighter in front of burning house scary arsonist / who seems to enjoy arson / he should be in jail arson stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Denied loan, man sets bank on fire. News reports.

Spare a thought for Wasim Hazaratsab Mulla, 33, a resident of Rattihalli town in Haveri district, Karnataka. He had applied for a loan for an undisclosed sum from his friendly (or so he thought) neighbourhood branch of a nationalized bank. As is the way with bureaucracy the world over, the boffins at the bank processed his application, took their own sweet time over it, and finally informed the wretched man that his loan application had been rejected. And the reason given? The applicant, the above Mr. W.H. Mulla returned a low CIBIL score. As the press report blithely assumed all its readers knew exactly what CIBIL’s expanded term was, I tried to look it up. While the expansion of the acronym remains unrevealed, I was able to conclude that it related to a person’s credit rating. We are in the dark as to the criteria applied to determine a loan applicant’s creditworthiness, but we can safely assume that our friend Wasim didn’t quite make the cut.

That appears to be, in a nutshell, what transpired between the bank and its customer. Now most people I know, who are in dire need of some cash at less than extortionate rates of interest, lean on their banks to cough up generously from their swelling coffers. Provided, of course, the loan is to be used for some genuine workaday purpose – buying property, purchasing a car or a two-wheeler in easy instalments, sending your child abroad for higher education, a medical emergency – that kind of thing. The bank, in turn, wants to be sure you are not squandering the loan betting on the horses or going on a wild bender at the local bar. Hence, they ask about 150 questions, in very small, illegible print, to make sure you are on the level and have more than an even chance of returning the principle and meeting your interest obligations. Not to speak of painful issues like lien and mortgage. All this information is analyzed till the customer is blue in the face, to determine that the money will be returned in God’s good time. If the results indicate that the would-be borrower is not a risk worth taking, he is politely shown the door. At times, not very politely.

Which is precisely what happened in the case of Wasim Mulla. Since I am not privy to the precise nature of the reasons ascribed for rejecting his application, one will have to assume they were sound. Most people, on facing such a rejection, would have merely shrugged their shoulders philosophically as if to say, ‘Ah well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.’ They may then have approached some shady-looking money lender sitting just outside the bank, who can recognize a loser when he sees one. Which would have led to a successful deal where the interest burden alone would have led the borrower to take his own life at some future date. Mr. Mulla, however, was not having any of this nonsense. He was made of sterner stuff. He had, in his opinion, clearly done everything he could to satisfy the skinflint pen pushers behind their desks at the bank. Just the paper work involved would have driven most customers to distraction. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ cried the stricken man rather biblically. Deuteronomy 32:35. Romans 12:19. Those may not have been his exact words, but close enough.

Wasim Mulla went home in a dark mood and pushed away, untasted, the plate of chicken biryani his wife had lovingly prepared for him. This should have aroused her suspicion as to what had upset him and what might follow, but she knew better than to question her husband. The hour was late while Mulla planned and plotted. ‘That bank must be torched,’ he muttered grimly to himself. He then took with him a tin of petrol and a box of matches and stole out of the house at the dead of night, while his wife slept dreamlessly. He then crept up to the bank premises, broke open one of the windows, sprayed the petrol as far as his arm and wrist work would allow him, struck a match and threw it into the highly combustible gas. We have to assume no security guard was posted to challenge nocturnal marauders. The resultant conflagration caused extensive damage to furniture, equipment and sensitive files and documents. It would have provided ironic satisfaction to Wasim, as he scarpered from the scene of the crime, that his own rejection papers would have been amongst the records that were charred beyond recognition.

In attempting to make good his escape, the avenging arsonist was soon chased down, apprehended and brought to book by the local PC Plod. As I type these words out, he is doubtless being given the third degree, rubber truncheons et al, to understand what led him to resort to such extremes. On reflection, he could have gone back to the bank, sat down with the manager over a nice cup of tea, discussed cricket for a while and tried to sort things out. The manager might have even taken pity on him, after listening to his tale of woe, called his assistant who processed his file and asked him to take a relook. I realize that he might have been hoping against hope, but he should recall that unattributed quote ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ Then again, given his choleric temper, patience might not have been one of Wasim’s virtues. Anyhow, he did what he did and is now behind bars. I have no idea how the interrogation went, but if I happened to be an inquisitive fly on the wall at the dank police station, I might have been witness to a fascinating conversation. Naturally the exchanges would have been in the flavourful local lingo, but I have to necessarily imagine it in my brand of English.

Police Inspector (PI) – ‘Right Mr. Mulla, I take it you have been read your rights and you know exactly why you are here at my station.’

Wasim Mulla (WM) – ‘Because I was not sanctioned a loan by the bank.’

PI – ‘No, no, that is why you set fire to the bank and was arrested. I am asking you, Mr. Wasim Hazaratsab Mulla, why you decided to flood the bank premises with petrol and throw a lighted match into the building, thereby causing great damage to public property.’

WM – ‘Because I did not have bombs or any other explosive materials.’

PI – ‘I am sorry?’

WM – ‘I should be sorry for not doing a more thorough job. I am only answering your question. I am a poor man and at my home, I could only lay my hands on a can of petrol along with a box of matches. I could not afford anything more lethal. I will try to be better equipped next time.’

PI – ‘Smarty-pants. Mr. Mulla, I am trying to be patient and polite with you, but you are trying me. This is no time to be funny. You are in big trouble already.’

WM – ‘Funny? Who is trying to be funny? I was not laughing when my loan application was rejected. What would you have done Sir, if you had been turned down like me?’

PI – ‘God give me strength, again with the loan application. That is a matter between you and the bank. Look, for the last time, arson is a serious crime and you could be put away for a very long time. You are lucky no one died.’

WM – ‘Lucky, lucky? Ha, ha. You are the funny man, Sir. I am crying here. I asked the bank for a small loan for my daughter’s wedding expenses, for which I had to fill 35 pages of a highly complicated form. I spent Rs.500 on a human shark sitting outside the bank to help me fill the form. Then they sit on it for four months and tell me I did not score enough points with CIBIL.’

PI – ‘You were trying to score with Sybil? Who is she? This is interesting. A bit of excitement and forbidden romance. And why is the bank interested in your love life?’

WM – ‘Now who is being the smarty-pants? What love life? Are you trying to confuse me? I know all these slimy police methods of interrogation. By the way, if you are the good cop, where’s the bad one?’

PI – ‘ I am the bad cop. There’s no good cop. You said you failed to score with Sybil? She could be an important witness.’

WM – ‘CIBIL is not a girl’s name, Sir. C-I-B-I-L. I don’t know what it stands for. Something to do with credit, of which I have been declared unworthy.’

PI – ‘Oh, I see. Now I get it. And you get this, Mr. Mulla. You are not worthy of my spending so much time on you, either. I will draft out a confessional statement and you can sign it. In triplicate. End of interview.’

As Mulla was taken back to the lock-up he asked the constable for a light. The cop handed him a matchbox, which the accused casually slipped into his trousers pocket after lighting his fag. There was a wicked gleam in his eye. Now if he could only find a way to smuggle in a can of kerosene.

The Bad, the Ugly and the Good

The Beatles: Get Back': Peter Jackson y un documental que te permite  sentirte como un Beatle | Música | Entretenimiento | El Universo
The Beatles get back together on their studio rooftop

If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace. John Lennon.

I have just finished watching 19 episodes over two seasons of an American serial titled, Boss. In case any of you is interested, it is being streamed on the Amazon Prime Video channel. My providing this information is in no way to be construed as a recommendation to view it. If you decide to watch it and find it unbearable after the first episode, that is entirely your lookout. On the other hand, you might even enjoy its fast paced, if a tad grim, action. So there, I have covered myself on all bases.

Boss (TV series) - Wikipedia

The eponymous Boss is the mayor of Chicago, corrupt to the core in addition to suffering from a degenerative brain disorder and he is surrounded by colleagues harbouring vaulting ambition and dubious intent, family members with nasty habits and some not very nice political adversaries. The mayor’s motto in life appears to be, ‘Look the other way so long as the job gets done.’ In fact, I was hard put to it to spot a single well-intentioned character in the entire series. There was one decent chap, the mayor’s 2IC who was summarily bumped off at his instance. Clearly not a plot for decent chaps. There’s plenty of drugs, booze, sex and, of course, gory murders to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats, and their teeth on edge. If this series is intended to portray normal life in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, I am glad I never set foot in it. One reflects, ironically, that it was in Chicago on September 11, 1893 that Swami Vivekananda stunned the World’s Parliament of Religions with his brilliant address on tolerance and universal brotherhood. After watching Boss one can only paraphrase Mark Antony, ‘Oh what a fall was there, my Chicagoans!’

This is not to be taken as a review of this somewhat dark and unpleasant serial about sleaze and chicanery in high places. However, the thing that got my goat was that every time the action portended some potential for heightened drama, the director decides to introduce an almost explicit and irrelevant sex scene. Let’s just say that if it got any more explicit, the serial would have qualified for a triple-X rating. The frenetic rolls-in-the-hay could be in somebody’s office, the mayor’s kitchen, on the deck of a luxury yacht, and of course, the inevitable back seat of a car. In fact, there was no accounting for when and where the couple (and they may have met only a few minutes earlier in the scene) would decide to drop trousers and skirts and make the proverbial pig’s breakfast of the kitchen table. With all those knives, forks and cooking implements around, they could have done themselves a serious injury. Pity they didn’t. The comic potential therein completely escaped the unsubtle director, who refused to draw the line even at same sex shenanigans.

 Now I am no prude and can tolerate the odd love scene in moderation, so long as the sequence is relevant and quickly pans to a painting on the wall displaying two love birds, with the background score rising to a climactic crescendo. After all, certain things should be properly left to the imagination. I am used to that sort of thing in our wonderful Indian films from a bygone era. Which is a real pity because the criminal element in Chicago with political backing could have made for a more compelling series, if gratuitous sex and mindless violence had not reared their ugly heads at the wrong times. That pretty much sums up all I have to say on Boss.

I shall therefore turn to something far more pleasant on cable television. Get Back is not merely one of The Beatles’ greatest hits, but is now the title of a seven-and-a half-hour documentary spread over three episodes on the Disney+Hotstar channel. Directed by Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who brought to the silver screen J.R.R. Tolkien’s two monumental trilogies, Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, Get Back is something to savour, particularly if you are partial to the music of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. They went to work with over 60 hours of raw film footage (originally shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg) and 150 hours of audio tape mostly filmed and recorded in 1969. Performed live for the very last time on the rooftop of their recording studios in London’s tony Savile Row, Get Back painstakingly and memorably pieces together The Beatles’ method and work ethic. As viewers, we become unwitting ringside spectators to the blood, toil, tears, sweat, tension and dollops of humour that went into the making of a memorable album and the spontaneity with which a live concert is performed without the knowledge of their adoring fans.

Those of us who worshipped at the altar of Beatlemania during the swinging sixties will be very familiar with all the songs that are rehearsed and put together during the making of Get Back. Even if you were not part of those heady days, Beatle songs continue to fill our lives and that of several successive generations. What is particularly wonderful about the episodes is the quality of the edited footage, or rather what Peter Jackson has wrought with the original tapes. The film, technically, shines with such brilliant clarity that we feel as if it was shot just a couple of months ago. The late John Lennon, had he not been cut down in his prime, would have been 81 today. George Harrison, who died of cancer would have been 78. The two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are 79 and 81 respectively. However, on Get back, you see them at the very prime of their lives, in their late 20s. Vibrant and preternaturally gifted musicians, they throb with life and joie de vivre.

The Beatles: Get Back, review: Peter Jackson's epic edit is truly fab, but  too long and winding
Duo non pareil, Lennon – McCartney

As mentioned earlier, one of the many joys of viewing this documentary is the surprise element that awaits passers-by on the busy streets in and around the building where the Fab Four decide to play, almost impromptu, a selection of songs shortlisted for the Get Back album. On the terrace. Curious at first, Londoners of all ages, men and women, stop in awe and wonder once they realize what they are listening to but can’t actually see. A camera follows many of them to gauge spontaneous reactions, which range from stunned surprise to mild irritation at the disruption of normal life.  Then the police swing into action wondering who is ‘disturbing the peace,’ as they receive complaints from the neighbours over the unbearable racket. The bobbies conduct their investigation with utmost politeness and courtesy and by the time they reach the rooftop to figure out what’s what, the performance is over. The interaction between the long arm of the law and the studio officials provides for some good-natured, comic interludes.

To watch John, Paul, George and Ringo play with gusto and energy is a rare pleasure, particularly with Peter Jackson’s marvelous editing, along with the intelligent use of split frames, whereby viewers can simultaneously enjoy the performance and the awestruck reactions of the street crowds. Most of all, to watch, arguably the greatest rock band ever, up close and personal, is a double scoop of delight. The recording sessions, the brainstorming, the conflicts and the sheer tension of trying to put an album out in record time, we experience these moments vicariously.

As for the main protagonists, John Lennon with his impish smile, constantly joking and miming for the cameras, steals the show for me. His charisma is infectious. His wife Yoko Ono is a constant presence, sticking to John like a leech, but otherwise unobtrusive. The other spouses make periodic appearances. A surprise visitor during the recording sessions is famed comedian, Peter Sellers. Paul McCartney seems to be the self-appointed leader of the group, initiating moves and pressing his colleagues to up their game. George Harrison, ‘the quiet Beatle,’ provides some drama by walking out midway during the sessions, threatening never to return. Somehow, he is persuaded and, thankfully, gets back in good spirits. Ringo Starr plays the drums but is clearly out of the limelight. All the while, ‘the fifth Beatle’ George Martin, their legendary record producer, keeps things under control while managing his four prima-donna stars.

Whether you are a Beatle fan or not, Get Back is a must watch for any cinema buff. You wonder how technology can bring to life something that happened almost 60 years ago with such vividness, almost making the waters part, in a manner of speaking. Amazing stuff. And lest we forget, there’s the music. What is a documentary on The Beatles without their music? The songs, a fair selection from the recording sessions, not all of them complete, but fascinating in the process of their making. Let It Be, I’ve Got a Feeling, Dig a Pony, The Long and Winding Road, and of course the title track, Get Back. And many more, all of which are a part of the soundtrack of our lives.

So, there you have it. Two recent selections from my cable channels – the Bad and the Ugly, as well as the Great and the Good. Boss, produced in 2011 represents the former while Get Back, filmed in 1969 and put together in 2021, a shining example of the latter.

Postscript: As I put this piece to bed, news filters through of the passing of veteran actor Sidney Poitier at the ripe age of 94. Reams of appreciation are already cramming the conventional and social media. Race relations was a central theme of many of his movies. In terms of mentions, To Sir, with Love, with Lulu (who co-stars) belting out the title song, appears to be hogging much of the limelight. My own favourites of this trail-blazing actor will have to be Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which also starred the magnificent Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Not to forget the gritty In the Heat of the Night, in which Rod Steiger goes head-to-head with Sidney Poitier. R.I.P.

Ring out the old, with those year-end rankings

2021 End-of-Year Plan Amendment Deadlines and Other Considerations
Ring in the new

New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions. Mark Twain.

With columnists and bloggers such as yours truly, it almost seems an article of faith that as the dawn of a new year approaches, we are honour bound to indulge in some form of ranking of the highlights and lowlights of the year just gone by. Not quite a shopping list (though that can also be conveniently squeezed in), but a kind of run down of all the things that caught one’s attention during the course of the year. There are the meticulous types who will do this chronologically, starting from January and ploughing their way through to December. This would have involved some painstaking jottings in their digital diaries during the course of the year. Hard working beavers. Others, like me, take the random approach, shooting off the cuff as it were, and trusting to a dodgy memory. Incidentally, new year resolutions have become passé. Still and all, I can claim that my somewhat impressionistic, stream of consciousness approach carries with it the benefit and charm of spontaneity, if not pin-point accuracy. My simple method is, if I can’t remember some event or the other with absolute clarity, I just colour in the blank spaces with my own invention. Who is to know? In case you are wondering, I shall studiously avoid mentioning the C word and the O word. I’ve had my fill of them, thank you very much.

Depending on your particular area of interest our intrepid writers fill our newspapers during this time of the year with all manner of lists. You will come across eminent writers who will talk about their favourite films (separate sections for Bollywood and Hollywood). ‘I distinctly recall Shah Rukh Khan emoting 17 different facial expressions in the course of one thirty second close-up. Shades of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia,’ opined one well-known writer of Indian pulp fiction, and clearly a film buff. Conversely you will pore over the inarticulate ramblings of film stars who will fill our pages with books they would take to their graves (or ghats) with them. This is to let their readers and fans know that they are not just pretty faces. This book list is invariably an artfully chosen combo of Indian and western writers – Amitav Ghosh and Chetan Bhagat blending in seamlessly with Nadine Gordimer and Jeffrey Archer. It is not beyond our ken that a Bollywood action hero may say something like, ‘I read Archer not merely for his brilliantly inventive plots, but for the way in which he uses multiple metaphors to illustrate a single, telling point. Check out “Kane and Abel.”’ Thank you Ranveer, I’ll make sure to remember that the next time I visit the book section of Amazon.

Then of course, we must not forget the gourmets and the gourmands. Given half a chance, firebrand television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai could consume three columns of precious newsprint telling us all about what he is planning to cook up for family and friends this new year (that could include Yogi Adityanath and Asaduddin Owaisi at the same luncheon table, Ye Gods!). Will the belligerent Owaisi settle for bland, vegetarian fare out of respect for the saatvik Yogi? And will the Chief Minister of India’s largest state scrunch his face in utter disgust when a delicious aroma wafts in as the mutton biryani is wheeled in for Mr. Owaisi’s delectation? Mr. Sardesai will countenance a seriously contentious problem. We would love to read all about it. It would also be instructive to speculate on what the suave and gracefully ageing Prannoy Roy would serve bosom buddies Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramaniam, who one would presume are from vegetarian stock but whose culinary preferences may have turned eclectic thanks to their peripatetic, globe-trotting ways. However, Prannoy’s wine cellar ought to contain some vintage stuff. Perhaps the NDTV czar can fill a couple of pages on his Word.doc for one of our leading journals as we move inexorably into 2022.

There’s also a section devoted to music, mainly popular music in the western and Indian space. When I say Indian, it’s mainly Hindi film oeuvre. In keeping with the contrarian trend, the person putting this selection out is not likely to be from the music fraternity. The publishers will try and get hold of, if they can, someone like Virat Kohli or Sania Mirza to regale us with their favourite songs of the year we are waving goodbye to. As my pop music knowledge came to a screeching halt after Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, S.D. Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, Lata, Rafi and Kishore, I ignore this page completely. As a Tamilian, I could add the names of playback legends like T.M. Soundarrajan and P. Susheela, but I can visualize huge question marks over the head tops of a majority of my readers. Himesh Reshammiya? Who dat? Never heard of him. Arctic Monkeys? Only by reputation.

As a sports mad nation, the year’s highlights from the world of cricket, cricket and other important sports like cricket, will be exhaustively covered. Footnote references to athletic events such as javelin throw and badminton will get passing mentions, as will Neeraj Chopra and P.V. Sindhu.

Lest we forget, no newspaper or periodical worth its salt can let the last week of December go by without a bit of inspired star-gazing. How are the planets aligned in relation to our individual future? Enter stage left, the many local avatars of the late Linda Goodman and the equally late and much-loved Bejan Daruwalla. Will there be a tall, dark stranger in your life? Will you clean up on the bourses if you invest your ill-gotten gains in a couple of little-known scrips which only ‘those in the know’ are privy to, between February 15 and March 11, 2022? How about health? Will I remain in the pink throughout the year, and should I stay rooted to the broken pavement for God-knows-how-long before I can cross the road, lest I be knocked base over apex by some ‘high-on-speed’ lunatic astride a Harley Davidson? All this and more will be revealed on the paper’s full page where every sign of the Zodiac will be closely analyzed and you will know exactly where you stand. You could be an Aries, a Gemini, a Virgo, a Libra or a Scorpio. No matter, your future will be laid bare in pitiless detail. Have someone strong nearby to hold on to while you read threadbare your particular Zodiacal sign. The signs are not always good, and you must possess an innate ability to read between the lines. I have been frequently told that my favourite colour is blue, whereas I am quite partial to green. That is when I see red.

In India, of course, we cannot escape the lavishly bearded rishi type who has studied the scriptures backwards and is possessed of an invisible third eye. His combined knowledge of astronomy, astrology, palmistry and Sanskrit make him a formidable presence in the occult firmament. He is frequently approached by politicians, particularly when elections are just round the corner, to predict their party’s chances at the hustings. There are a few such people who have acquired genuine skills by sheer dint of diligent study of the sciences. Not that they always get it right. However, a majority of them are charlatans, out to make a quick buck. The strange thing is many of our leading newspapers are quite happy to give these pretend godmen free space, and depending on the publication’s political leanings, the ‘expert’ will predict gloom for one party and doom for another.

Television is not to be left behind. Being a visual medium, the sight of a man in holy orders, eyes closed in frenetic ecstasy, holding forth on the immediate future of our Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition, provides for plenty of harmless entertainment. That said, I am quite happy to listen raptly to the rishi’s considered views (at least he provides some theological value with his sonorous sloka recitations and similar), whereas so many trained psephologists and other self-proclaimed gurus on the idiot box frequently make idiots of us viewers and voters, to say nothing of themselves. That said, it makes for digestible fodder as the new calendar year approaches.

So much for the fourth estate’s obsession with ranking everything under the sun, as we sing Auld Lang Syne to the year just receding into the ether of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (with apologies to Keats). Between you, me and the gatepost, I would much rather consult the colourful fortune teller under the banyan tree with a couple of caged and garrulous parrots, who can be found in every Indian town and village; the polyglot, and at times foul-tongued, birds unerringly pick out the correct tarot card that tell me my dubious prospects for the year ahead. And it’s cheap at the price.

 2022, I have two words for you. Behave yourself.

Where have all the greeting cards gone?

Card Factory fills its shelves with Christmas cards EIGHTEEN weeks before  the festive day

It is that time of the year again. Whether we want to or not, whether we mean it or not, whether we have any genuine feelings for a particular individual or not, we feel obliged to send out all manner of overly cheerful and at times, even soppy messages of good cheer as the last couple of weeks of December comes around. Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with trillions of messages criss-crossing the globe over the ether wishing all and sundry a merry Christmas and a happy new year. In a world beset with bad news and little to cheer about, why deny folks the opportunity to spread some goodwill around like largesse. Kings and Queens do it, Prime Ministers and Heads of State do it, Popes and Pontiffs do it, it’s all part of our need to feel good about ourselves and nurse fond hopes about the next twelve months to come.

The cynics will tell you that these fond hopes are misguided and that if history teaches us anything, it is that every succeeding year brings worse news than the one we just, with great relief, waved goodbye to. Ah well, cynics will be cynics. We shall give them the lofty ignore. We shall turn to the optimists. Writer and lay theologian, C.S. Lewis said, ‘There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.’ William Shakespeare, who hates to be left behind when it comes to quotable quotes, had this to say on the subject, ‘If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.’ That was the problem with Shakespeare, he could never say anything readily comprehendible.

I do not have, conveniently at hand, statistics pertaining to the decline in sales worldwide of The Greeting Card, but the drop must be precipitous. The capital letters are deliberately placed to invest the item in question with the gravitas this dying breed deserves. To step into a book shop and look for greeting cards suitable for any occasion, particularly during festive seasons of good cheer, was a special delight. We browsed with nary a care for time pressure – birthdays, festivals, anniversaries, special occasions like exam results or notable achievements and even condolences – they were all provided for. As our budgets would permit, we would have carefully made a list of people who really mattered and bought just that many cards, with a few more to be kept in reserve. So, when someone thanked you for sending a ‘thoughtful card,’ they actually meant it.

In today’s age of social media domination, we find ourselves in the grip of innumerable messages from hordes of contacts you barely know, and quite a few you have heard neither hide nor hair of. That is without including the 32 banks, 27 mutual fund companies, 17 insurance firms and several retail houses and online portals you have purchased items from (Leathercraft Footwear wishes you a happy new year). The messages come in all shapes and sizes, as befits the technical versatility and wizardry characterized by the genius of present-day information technology. Moving images, pulsing hearts, firecrackers and starbursts, family audio-visuals with specially selected songs, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas being a particular favourite. Not to be outdone, many popular Indian film songs of a saccharinely sentimental nature find a natural billet on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

If this sounds like a rant, I apologize.  It’s not intended to be.  I know most of the good wishes are genuinely well-meant, and if the technology is there for our benefit, why not use it? I get that logic. After all, I do it myself all the time. It’s just that when the same message with the same moving image comes from thirty-five different persons, it ceases to be very moving – if you follow my reasoning. Somehow, the ridiculous ease and lack of any real effort or thought involved in receiving and sending messages greatly detracts from the warmth of feeling one seeks to convey. We live in times when stepping out of the comfort zone of hearth and home poses unseen dangers, and we remain collectively blameless for not buying greeting cards, be they Archies, UNICEF, OXFAM or just plain FUNNIES. Affixing stamps and sealing envelopes with a couple of licks, and trotting off to the nearest post office to send them off par avion is a pleasant chore presently denied to us. In the words of a Steely Dan song, ‘Those days are gone forever, over a long time ago.’

Under the circumstances, one must doff one’s hat to those near and dear ones who take great pains to design and make their own greeting cards at home, a labour of love wrought with not a little sweat of the brow. When such cards arrive at your doorstep from a caring aunt or grandmother, with a thoughtfully calligraphed message, you wrap them in cotton wool till the end of days.

That said, one does so miss the avalanche of Season’s Greetings cards that used to arrive and jam our letter boxes, to say nothing of the domestic joys of stringing them up in cheerful festoons across the length and breadth of the rooms in our wee homes. In passing, it occurs to me that we should be ever so grateful that good old JC, Mary’s boy child, was born just a few days prior to our calendar New Year’s Day, viz., January 1. Christmas morphing into new year is a continuous double delight, not to mention the double hangover! Had Christmas Day fallen on, say, May 25th, how tedious everything would have been. No snow, sleigh and reindeer, while Santa Claus would have had to be togged up in a red tee shirt with white trimmings, huffing and puffing his way up and down chimneys in a profusion of sweat and grime. Even the false, flowing white beard would have been out of the question in the middle of summer. His cheery ‘ho, ho, ho’ would have turned to ‘oh, no, no.’ That said, how do the Australians and the New Zealanders manage, the Antipodean countries’ climate being the wrong way round, their summers being our winters and vice-versa?

Meanwhile, we shall all be Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagramming and WhatsApping goodwill messages by ‘selecting all’ in our contact sheet. To a handful we may draft special messages, just to show there’s no ill feeling. Our mobile phones will be pinging all day and all night long, as quite a few of these messages will arrive from different time zones. Pretty much the entire population of the globe will be wishing for 2022 to quickly rid itself of Covid and its mutant siblings, so that we can start visiting shops to buy greeting cards of our choice next year. Come to think of it we are all wishing to administer 2021 a swift kick in its retreating backside. Many wise men and women hold the view that it is all in God’s hands. Tell you what, if God (in whichever avatar) is masterminding all that has been going on in the world this past couple of years, then there is a dire need for the Almighty to recalibrate strategies and tactics pretty swiftly. Right now, God is way behind the eight ball. My own sense is that it is Beelzebub that is holding the upper hand on things and firmly ensconced in the driving seat as we go to press, and God needs to make a final, desperate dash on the straight, Usain Bolt style, if the all-seeing one is to show a clean pair of heels to his dark rival.

Here’s wishing you all a happy, if guarded, new year.

Games people play

Nidhi Razdan reveals her Harvard University job offer was fake | Kashmir  Despatch
Former NDTV anchor, Nidhi Razdan

Oh the games people play now, every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say, yeah never saying what they mean

Joe South, 1969

Former NDTV news anchor Nidhi Razdan is in the news. Again. Let me rephrase that. Nidhi Razdan is the news. Till a couple of years ago, the personable face of the well-known English news channel had been, not just bringing us the news, but keeping her guest participants from all sides of the political, social and cultural divide honest and on their toes. Her deceptively easy manner often put her invited panelists off guard, while she seamlessly went for the kill. Always thorough with her homework, she came well prepared and for the most part, had even obstreperous politicians eating out of her hand. Else she was quick to shoot from the hip, Left, Right and Centre to refer eponymously to the name of the programme she anchored. Left of Centre was more her channel’s stated position, and Nidhi was unwavering in holding on to that stance.  She was sharp, shrewd, articulate and always one step ahead of her often-troublesome invitees. In short, Nidhi Razdan is not, or was not, one of those anchors whose eyes you could pull the wool over.

Which is why her much-touted embarrassment over being taken for a huge, academic ride comes as an unexpected surprise. The details of the case will be well known to all those who have been following the Nidhi Razdan story. Having announced that she is quitting her high-pressure, high-profile job at NDTV and moving on to the rarefied world of academia, she was the talk and toast of academic and intellectual circles in India. After all, it’s not every day that one receives an invitation to take up a teaching assignment at the redoubtable Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the toast before she became toast. An unfortunate victim of online chicanery from a bunch of spiteful, cybercrime nerds whose only objective was to embarrass her, the offer from Harvard proving to be a royal hoax. Poor Nidhi Razdan, red-faced, is nursing her wounds. As she herself put it, ‘How could I be so stupid?’ Indeed Nidhi, how could you? Had she been aware of the works of the late P.G. Wodehouse, she might have agreed with his description of a lost soul, He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.’

Apparently, she is not the only one to be victimized by such phishing attacks, there have been other bright ladies who fell headlong for this kind of trickery. Speculation is now rife as to who might be behind all this, and the Razdan sympathizers are making no bones about their suspicions. Those who wish to know more on the subject can read all about it in the International New York Times, which decided to dredge up and regurgitate the story last week. The NYT has been a relentless baiter of the Government of India, or at least of the present dispensation, and their needle of suspicion with regard to l’affaire Razdan is barely disguised.

All this, naturally, got me in a right, royal tizzy. If the likes of Nidhi Razdan can be so easily led up the garden path, what possible chance could someone of my ‘bottom of the barrel’ status possibly have? Being a writer of essentially light-hearted, satirical and possibly, humorous columns, I have for some while now been entertaining grandiose dreams of winning some major literary award dedicated to my genre of writing. Nothing too grand mind you, not a Nobel or a Booker but something more modestly suited to my oeuvre. I’ve heard tell that if you thought long and hard about some fancy wish-fulfilment, it might actually come true. I was literally floating away in a wonderful day-dream.

   I settled comfortably in front of my desktop, booted it up and went directly to my mail inbox. Lo and behold, the first item in my unopened mail was from the P.G. Wodehouse Literary Society. Would you believe it! My heart, like the poet Shelley’s, was one with the skylark.  Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Before half a blink of an eye, I had opened the mail, and was disbelievingly looking at a letterhead cleverly designed with the logo of the creator of the comic Master’s bust smoking a pipe, and the Society’s full name beautifully calligraphed. The letter was music to my ears.

Dear Mr. Suresh Subrahmanyan,

It gives us, at the P.G. Wodehouse Literary Society, considerable pleasure to inform you that our panel of eminent judges has awarded you the 2021 Wodehouse Humourist of the Year Award. The Award was instituted in 2015 and the recipients have included some of the finest writers the world of satire and humour has known. You are the first writer outside of the United Kingdom to have received this honour. Our warmest congratulations.

Apart from the specially crafted gold commemorative medal and scroll of honour you will also receive a cash prize of £35,000 generously contributed by the family estate of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. The Awards function will be held at The Dorchester in London on August 15, 2022. We have invited the great comic actor, writer, thinker and avowed Wodehouse admirer, the remarkable Stephen Fry to give away the Award. We are awaiting confirmation from him. While further details will be communicated to you in due course, we would appreciate receiving your acceptance of this Award and confirmation that you will be attending the function. We will be sending you two round-trip first-class air tickets, compliments of British Airways for you and your wife. A suite has already been booked for you at The Dorchester for five nights. You will be received at Heathrow by one of The Dorchester’s fleet of luxury cars.

We look forward to hearing from you at the earliest.

With our very best wishes.

Sincerely yours.

Gareth Fowler

Trustee

 P.G. Wodehouse Literary Society

London.

Well, well! And another ‘well’ for good measure. I mean to say! I sat stock still, as if carved out of stone. I re-read the missive twenty-seven times, and could detect nothing suspicious. In fact, you might say I was too stunned to be able to react intelligently. Questions there were aplenty, of course. How did they get to read my blogs? I did not enter any literary competition. Did someone from the judging committee get hold of one or two of my book compilations? And the August 15th fixture, coinciding with India’s Independence Day, seemed too pat. The whole thing was a dashed mystery, as Bertie Wooster might have put it, and I did not have the services of Jeeves to help me out. 35,000 smackeroos, eh? That’ll come in handy for a rainy day. Keep the wolf from the door and all that.

However, something kept gnawing at me. This can’t be right. Is the Nidhi Razdan fiasco playing out all over again? I did not want to get at the truth. Then again, why should I undersell myself. Surely, I can craft a funny sentence same as anybody else? Dear, oh dear. I was beset with doubts and possibly a smidgen of low self-esteem. Enough of all this nonsense, I said to myself. Let me put a call through to this Gareth Fowler chap from the P.G.W. Society and put an end to my misery, once and for all. I braced myself as I tapped the keys on my mobile.

I got through first crack out of the box. ‘Good morning, am I speaking to Mr. Gareth Fowler?’

‘I am he,’ responded this Fowler in pedantic English.

‘Hello. I am Suresh Subrahmanyan from India, and I have received your mail.’

‘And what mail would that be?’ That was a warning shot across the bow, if ever there was one.

‘The mail informing me of my having bagged the Wodehouse Award.’

The Fowler sounded a tad mystified. ‘I am sorry but what award? And who is this?’

‘I just told you who I was. You are Gareth Fowler, Trustee for the Wodehouse Literary Society, are you not?’ My throat was beginning to dry up.

‘My dear Mr. Whatever-your-name-is, somebody has been playing a huge prank on you. I am Gareth Fowler, yes, but I am employed by the British Gas Board in their Public Relations department. Sorry, wrong number.’ And the line went dead.

My legs turned to jelly. My depression was beyond description. The onset of the south-west monsoon could not have exhibited a deeper depression. I referred to Shelley’s joyous skylark earlier, but now I was more in tune with Keats’ nightingale. My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.

Nidhi Razdan, if you are looking for a shoulder to cry on, you don’t have far to seek.

No sex please, we’re Customs

Two impersonators faking as Customs officials arrested - India News

Sex toys hit city Customs barrier, end up in godown. The Times of India.

Honestly, I am fed up to the back teeth with our newspapers these days. All they ever talk about is the pandemic, border skirmishes, petrol prices, Modi and Putin bear-hugging, Sidhu, Channi and the Captain squaring off in Punjab, and some guy from Bollywood called Vicky getting hitched up to some gal named Kat, what the trousseau will consist of and who the lucky ones will be on their guest list. All right, so we thrashed New Zealand in a meaningless two-Test series at home. Big deal! In the midst of all this silliness, the tragic helicopter crash that took the life of India’s CDS General Bipin Rawat, his wife and other officers, was an extremely shocking change from the everyday, anodyne script.

It’s the same thing on television, only it’s impossible to follow the storyline thanks to everyone on screen striving to break the sound barrier in disharmonious unison. Which is why I was startled to come across this extraordinary headline about sex toys being seized by Customs officials in Bangalore. Naturally, I ignored everything else in my daily paper and gave the full weight of my attention to this earth-shattering piece of news. Here’s the gist of what this very enterprising reporter filed. Apparently, the pandemic has forced many of our denizens to look for diverting ways to take care of their claustrophobic idle hour. The Customs chappies were taken aback at the rapid increase in imports of a mind-boggling variety of titillating items, the primary aim of which was to satisfy man’s basest instincts.

It occurred to me that if I am to obtain reliable information on the subject, I should go straight to the horse’s mouth. I was certain the Customs office in Bangalore would be having in their employ a Public Relations department who could fill me in on the details. Having got the helpline number from Google search, thither I rang. After the usual interminable wait, and having punched several digits to choose language, subject matter and ‘if I wished to speak to one of our helpline officials,’ and ‘our lines are all very busy and we have limited staff owing to the pandemic, and we apologize for the long wait,’ I finally reached a human voice. In between, I had to put up with some stultifying Kenny G type of music.

‘Namaskar. This is Swati, how I can be of help?’ Given the subject matter I was absorbed with, I would have preferred to speak with a man. No offence, I am a bit queasy that way, but I pressed on.

‘Yes Swati, thank you. I am referring to a newspaper report this morning about which I wish to ask a few questions.’

‘Are you from the media, Sir?’ 

‘Not exactly. I am a columnist. Blogger, if you prefer. The news item I am referring to came from the media.’

‘And what is this news item about, Sir?’

‘Ah, well it’s a bit delicate.’ At this point, for some inexplicable reason, I dropped my voice to a barely audible whisper. ‘Sex toys.’

‘What? Sex boys? What are you saying, you dirty, old man. I shall complain to the higher…’

How could she have known I was old? No quaver in my voice. Anyhow, I interrupted her hastily. ‘No, no. I was whispering, there were people about and you heard me wrong. Total misunderstanding. There was a news item about confiscation of some material at Customs, broadly classified as Sex Toys. Please forgive me if I was not clear. Blame it on the poor line.’

‘Oh, sex toys. Why didn’t you say so, loud and clear, in the first place?’ She was quite blasé. ‘Let me connect you to the concerned department. Please hold. It may take some time. Lines are jammed today with calls on that subject. Sorry for the inconvenience.’ Gosh, they even have a dedicated department for this sort of thing! I was impressed.

After being put on hold for about seven minutes, while I was entertained to several recorded messages of the kind of punishment I could face if I brought in banned drugs, Chinese aphrodisiacs and pornographic videos, a tired sounding male voice finally answered.

‘Yes? What is it that you want?’ He sounded abrupt and vaguely threatening, as if daring me to bring up the subject of sex toys.

I decided to brave it out. ‘Good morning, I wish to speak with you about these sex toys you have confiscated and are threatening to destroy. Can you give me some details?’

‘What are you, a pervert, into kinky stuff? Don’t you have anything better to do than to get cheap thrills first thing in the morning?’

‘My dear Customs Manager or whatever your designation is, I am not seeking cheap thrills. I am not that kind of chap. I listen to Carnatic music. It is you who have proudly announced to the press about this haul of sex toys that you and your colleagues at Customs are sitting on, waiting for instructions to burn them. Like the cops do when they come across lethal arms, bombs, leopard skins, ivory tusks and the like. Usually, they pose proudly for photographs with the haul and the smugglers.’

‘So, you want me to pose for the camera in front of a cache of inflatable dolls, S&M whips with thongs, floggers, vibrators, triple X videos and other such dubious items?’

He was clearly well-informed on the subject. ‘Wearing a broad, triumphant smile, of course. And say “cheese.” By the way, one thing about your statement to the press intrigued me. You said that after the pandemic struck, the import of such items has greatly increased. And that you have approached higher authorities for directions. Presumably to incinerate these degrading items of sexual gratification.’

‘It has too. Increased after the pandemic, I mean. What is so intriguing about that? And your mocking, leering tone is not appreciated. We are doing a difficult job here. What do I go home and tell the wife and kids about how my day went at the office?’

‘You have my sympathies, Sir. However, when you say imports have increased it means, ipso facto, you have been allowing such items to come through in the past. Why get all cagey about it, now that more people are going in for such diversions? And you’ve been shouting from the rooftops about your capture, anyway.’ I could see that he was beginning to get hot under the collar. Before he could respond, I came up with another salvo. ‘With due respect Sir, my heart goes out to this bloke you have identified as Sid from Bangalore.’

‘Who?’

‘Sid. Not his real name, of course. He is heartbroken that, after paying 140 USD from an online Dutch portal for one of those thingummies I would rather not mention, you are now throwing the rule book at him. Have a heart, Sir. He is just a restless teenager with raging hormones. Just like Shirley (name changed) from Mathikere as well, who faced similar problems having imported some dicey stuff from the US. It’s not just the boys, you see. They all have their needs, same as you.’

‘Stop getting personal. You are skating on very thin ice. Look, I don’t have to answer all these idiotic questions from a two-bit, deviant blogger like you. You don’t even represent a third-rate, yellow-journalism rag. As it is, I have wasted too much time on you. As for this Sid and Shirley double-act, raging hormones, eh? Tough. They’ll just have to do what all of us did.’

‘And what is that, Sir?’

‘That’ll be all. End of.’

‘Just one last thing,’ I pleaded, ignoring all his insults. ‘Do you actually burn all these items, or just claim that you do? My own sense is that they ultimately find their way into…’

At this point, the line went dead. After a week or so, I received a registered letter (with acknowledgment due) from the Customs Department, asking me to explain an online purchase of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and would I appear at their offices the following week with both the books in question. I replied to them, through my lawyer, that they will be wasting their time poring through these great works of literature looking for cheap, salacious thrills. Much better if they can get hold of Shobhaa De’s Starry Nights or Sultry Days to burn. Paperback editions, naturally. More combustible.

Omigosh! It’s Omicron!

Omicron Covid Variant, Covid Variant In South Africa, Delta Variant: First  Image Of 'Omicron' Covid Variant Shows Many More Mutations Than Delta

It’s a bird, it’s a plane. No, it’s the super-spreader, Omicron!

I had vowed to myself, several months ago, that I will not write another word on Covid, the virus that has been the blight of our lives this past couple of years. I have had to go back on my word. Literally. The fact that Covid19, along with its many variants, appeared to be losing its potency over the recent past with more people getting vaccinated, more people developing anti-bodies, sports stadiums beginning to fill up again, concert halls bursting at the seams, people flying to all parts of the world – all this lulled us into a false sense of security. In fact, I recently attended, with some misgiving, a wedding reception at a swank hotel in Bangalore. We sauntered in, fully masked up, when mine host rushed up to me with a crushing bear hug and commanded me to remove my mask. ‘Bangalore is now Covid-free,’ he declared grandly. ‘Sez you,’ I muttered to myself. Many of us were looking over our shoulders warily, wondering when the next Covid avatar was set to pounce. We were pretty sure it was merely lurking round the corner, taking a water break, and getting its breath back. Infecting millions of people over such a long period can be a tiring job: even for an invisible virus. And right on cue, it happened. I crave your indulgence for starting a sentence with ‘And.’ These are trying times, and pedantic grammarians should cut us hack writers some slack.

What happened, at the stroke of the midnight hour, was the arrival of this unbidden, viral guest. Presenting the new, vastly improved variant of Covid19, the dynamic Omicron. The medical boffins tell us, and who am I to go against them, that Omicron has 32 mutations on the spike protein, is very easily transmissible and this slippery new variant can even bypass the efficacy of the double-dosed vaccine that many of us have armed ourselves with.  Very slimy piece of work, this Omicron. ‘When are we getting our booster shots?’ is the universal cry ringing out. That’s rich, coming from many who were conscientious objectors to taking even the first shot!

So, there you go. Not one to allow the grass to grow under my feet, and not entirely convinced by whatever was being peddled on our television news channels by hyper-ventilating anchors, I thought it best to approach my close doctor friend, whom I have had the pleasure of chit-chatting with in my columns on earlier occasions. Given the sensitivity of the subject being discussed he agreed, on condition of anonymity, to speak with me. For the purposes of this piece, I have decided to address him as Dr. No. It never occurred to me that the good Dr. No was not much of an expert on the subject either, but he was the only medico who was willing to give me the time of day. I bashed on regardless. Having just seen off a patient, he had me ushered into his gloomy chamber.

I breezed in with a cheery ‘Morning Dr. No, why the long face? Or is it just the long mask? What gives?’

‘First off, where did you get this idea of giving me the Dr. No moniker? Wasn’t he the eponymous villain in the first of the James Bond films? Is that the best you could come up with?’ The doc was clearly below par. Probably got up from the wrong side of the bed.

I was at my acerbic best. ‘Would you have preferred Dr. Jekyll? Or Mr. Hyde? I think not. Every time I asked to meet you, you kept saying no. Dr. No was the hands-down choice to preserve your precious anonymity. Selected itself. Look, stop moaning and let’s get down to business. We can’t have you going under the weather. Physician, heal thyself and all that. I came to talk to you about Omicron. You know, to get some precious insights into this B.1.1.529 variant of concern. As opposed to variant of interest.’ I had done my homework.

Dr. No was impressed. ‘You’ve certainly mugged up all the jargon, but what insights do you want from me? All those nattily dressed doctors on television have been spouting forth about the virus before it has even made a proper entry. You probably know more about it than I do.’

‘Come, come Doc. Modesty does not become you. Will Omicron be as dangerous as the Delta variant, which has been plaguing us thus far? Tell all, your secret is safe with me.’

‘What secret? No cloak and dagger stuff here. Trouble is you’ve been reading too many James Bond books or watching the Sean Connery movies. It’s all out in the open. Those prophets of gloom and doom from W.H.O. have been predicting fire and brimstone to befall us. Of course, they prefer the understated ‘variant of concern.’

‘Gosh, you’re getting all Biblical on me. Ok, if you want to be so cagey about Omicron, let me tell you what I have gleaned as a lay person and you can correct me if I have missed anything out. The bloody thing is a super spreader, transmissibility going through the roof, so far not proved to be fatal, symptoms include mild fever, deep exhaustion and a scratchy throat. How am I going, Doc?’

Dr. No looked peeved. ‘Go to the top of the class. If you know all this, why come here and waste my time? I have patients waiting outside. And you could be risking infection yourself. Did you ever think about that? And you call that a mask? It’s like gossamer. You might as well be rolling out a welcome mat to all the viruses floating around. Come in Omi, it’s open house today. Free drinks all round. Honestly!’

‘Look Doc, I know you’re under a great deal of stress, but there’s no need to get personal. What is the point of having a doctor for a friend if he is going to come over all sarcastic and bitter? Cheer up, my friend. That lady doctor from South Africa, the one with a funny name and a funnier accent, was all smiles. Nothing to worry about, she said.’

‘I presume you are referring to Dr. Angelique Coetzee. What is so funny about her name? Not half as crazy as Dr. No, that’s for sure. Why didn’t you call me Goldfinger? And don’t mock her accent either. Better than affecting a put-on Oxbridge brogue like that Tharoor chap. Anyway, she was quick to point out that her observations were made on the spur of the moment, and that things can change.’

‘Hedging her bets, eh? One can understand where she is coming from. But Doc, give me a final answer. Omicron, will this be the last of the variants? Or is a more deadly B.1.2. 530 in the offing? You can give it to me straight up.’

‘I am not pouring you a shot of whisky, damn it. Straight up, indeed. I am not a soothsayer, either. Beware the Ides of March. You really are a card you know. Don’t know why I tolerate you.’

‘Because you are my buddy, Doc. By the way, one last quiz question. Do you know why they junked the idea of selecting the name ‘Xi’ for the new virus, which is also part of the Greek alphabet like Beta, Delta, Epsilon and Omicron?’

‘Don’t tell me. Fearing the wrath of Xi Jinping? Really? Shucks. After Wuhan, that is exactly what they ought to have done. What a golden opportunity missed!’

‘W.H.O. developed cold feet. Understandable. Hullo, why are you sounding a bit hoarse?’

‘Don’t know pal. My throat is feeling a bit scratchy and a mild fever and body ache is coming on. And I am feeling terribly exhausted. Do you think…?’

I pushed my chair back violently. ‘Omigosh, you had better go and see a doctor, Doc. I don’t like the look of this one bit. I am out of here. Gotta fly.’ I rushed out of his chamber as fast as my wobbly legs would take me.

As I was leaving, I thought I heard a low chuckle and Dr. No telling his 2IC, ‘That got rid of him fast enough. He won’t bother me anymore. Call in the next patient.’

The Great Indian Debate

1,041 Politicians Arguing Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images -  iStock

The art of debating was actively encouraged when most of us were still in our early teens. In its barest essentials, the way we defined a debate as practised in schools and college campuses was roughly on the following lines. The House proposed a motion, as in ‘This House believes that bullying in schools should be punishable by rustication.’ Three speakers would be selected to speak ‘For’ the motion and three ‘Against.’ Each speaker would be given three or five minutes to present his or her argument for or against the motion and a final summing up would be given by a pre-selected speaker from each side. The debate was presided over by the Speaker of the House to ensure that timing was strictly adhered to and that matters did not spiral out of hand. The Speaker was provided with an old-fashioned bell which was pressed frequently to indicate to the debater that time has been called. Thirty discretionary seconds grace time was allowed after which the Speaker’s irate ringing made it clear for whom the bell tolls. Finally, after all is said and done, the motion is put to vote by a show of hands by the audience and we will then know if those nasty bullies ought to be dismissed or retained with suitable punishment meted out. All very parliamentary, civilized and above board. Sadly, our Parliament today is anything but.

It strikes me as ironic that a handful of those very proper boys and girls, now grown to (im)mature adulthood, show themselves on our television screens, during what is broadly termed the news hour, prime time debate, to be little more than crass boors. Or at best, bores. More often than not, the anchor for the programme is barely able to maintain even a semblance of control over his delirious guests, who are drawn from opposing political spectrums. Every subject is reduced to political binaries. Speakers, for the most part, have little to say from their own point of view, resorting to what is now fashionably termed ‘whataboutery,’ at every turn. I grant you that there are notable exceptions, but they only serve to prove the rule.

The madness cuts across political affiliations and many of our channels seem to go out of their way to invite speakers blessed with bloated lung power and shrunken brain power. The ability to talk ad infinitum, ad nauseam over each other without compunction would seem to be a sine qua non. ‘Off the wall’ does not even begin to describe the charade. Push comes to shove, the anchor will turn some recalcitrant, bull-headed speaker’s volume to zero, and we are witness to the comic spectacle of the poor, unaware wretch mouthing sweet nothings! It’s a farce that some of us watch some of the time, in the forlorn hope that we might learn something of value with regard to our nation’s momentous happenings. Gluttons for punishment, we are.

Let us take a topic completely at random, being debated at one of our late evening debates, and see how the proceedings unfold. I choose a hypothetical subject for this piece, but one that surely would have featured before. The subject, introduced by the anchor, discusses India’s policy towards Pakistani aggression across our northern borders, with particular emphasis on what our strategy should be.

Anchor Guy (AG) – ‘I am introducing a very serious topic this evening, that of Pakistan’s untrammeled incursions across our borders. As there are more than twenty guests on my show, I cannot waste time introducing all of them. You already know most of them. However, those three miserable, uniformed persons at the right end of your screens, with a bilious green backdrop, are my guests from Pakistan. They will not be allowed to open their mouths; they are merely present to be roundly abused by me and anyone else, other than Navjot Singh Sidhu followers. If they do try to say anything, I shall switch their microphones off. I am paying them well, so they can lump it. Right, is it time for our army to go on the offensive against the Pakis? That is the topic for the evening. Let’s debate.’

BJP Rep – ‘Thank you AG. My friend from the Congress….’

Congress Rep – ‘I am not your friend. Let me make that very clear. We would rather be friends of Mussolini……’

BJP Rep – ‘But of course, you will admire anyone from Italy, even a dictator like Mussolini. Runs in the family. How about Hitler? Further….’

Congress Rep – ‘Führer? Oh, further. Right. That really cracks me up. Who is talking about dictators? Let me tell you something about authoritarian Indian dictators who, after repealing the farm laws, are now lame duck dictators. You are nothing but…..’

AG – ‘One minute, one minute, one minute, one minute. I will not allow this kind of rubbish on my programme. Please stick to the subject. We are talking about Pakistani aggression on our soil. Where do Mussolini and Hitler come in?’

Pak Rep – ‘Mr. AG, we strongly object to this subject. It is an insult to our country. We shall take this matter up strongly with our PM, Imran Khan Saheb. Or with Navjot Sidhu Paaji.’

AG – ‘Listen my friend from Rawalpindi or Karachi or whichever hell hole you crawled out from, who are you to object? This is my programme. And you think this is an insult? Thanks for the compliment. I am just getting started. If you carry on like this, you won’t get paid. As our superstar Rajini Sir would say, “Mind it.”’

AAP Rep – ‘Listen AG, this is not fair. I did not interrupt and I have not even uttered a word. Our leader wants me to be in my Karol Bagh constituency in 30 minutes to distribute free rice to all the citizens there.’

AG – ‘Don’t be silly. You have now uttered more words than I am inclined to allow you. I will not be upstaged. If you wish to distribute free rice, electricity, water or bus and train passes, be my guest. While you’re at it, ask your driver to leave one sackful of Basmati rice in my office. I have guests coming home this Sunday, beer and biryani lunch. Now enough of all this nonsense. Let’s hear from the TMC lady.’

TMC Rep – ‘Thank you AG, mishti chele. That’s mean sweet boy in Bengali. Amar Sonar Bangla. This Pakistan business, I don’t know much. But Bangladesh, we welcome so many, many, many peoples. They are very good cooks. Some are also crooks, but theek aachhe. We give them walk-in visas. But Imran he is sooo handsome, no? Daarun personality. In fact, Didi wants to invite….’

AG – ‘That’ll do. I’ve heard enough from you. Calling me names like mishti chele won’t take you far. I am beyond flattery. And if there is one thing I am most definitely not, it is sweet. You want Imran? Ask Didi to send Navjot Sidhu to go and invite him. A few hugs won’t go amiss either.’

TMC Rep – ‘I laav it when you get angry AG. You must come home for cha bishkoot with nolen gurer sandesh when you visit Kolkata. I have nice flat in Ballygunge Circular Road…’

AG – ‘Will someone please cut this ridiculous lady off screen and sound? This is turning into a farce. I want to hear from our defence expert. Go ahead, General.’

Defence Expert – ‘I want war. Enough of this pussy footing and namby-pamby approach. Why are we tip-toeing on egg shells? If I was not 85 years old, I would have been out there in the front lines, happy to take a bullet for my country. It’s a pity those guys you have invited from Pakistan are not here live, sitting in front of me. I even oiled my rifle this morning. And that TMC lady with her half-baked Bonglish was really getting on my nerves! My finger was itching on the trigger.’

AG – ‘You’re telling me! I know exactly how you feel. Easy General, easy. You will collapse with apoplexy. There’s no doctor in the house. I am running out of time. Those 10 others who did not get a chance to speak, don’t worry. You’ll get your appearance fee. Now stop yelling and screaming all at once. I’ll see what I can do next time round. And remember viewers, if there’s anything you or the nation want to know, you know where to come. Good night.’

Programme ends. Off screen, AG’s voice – ‘I say, where’s that AAP chap. Left already? He’s forgotten my Basmati rice. Bloody hell! Cheapskate. I’ll never call him again.’

Farming the strike

India: Farmers celebrate repeal of farm laws — in pictures | All media  content | DW | 19.11.2021
A sweet day for farmers

A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus. E.B. White.

The government has finally decided to repeal the contentious farm laws. After close to a year of backing and forthing, accompanied by plenty of bickering and frothing at the mouth, threats, dharnas, morchas and eyeball to eyeball confrontations, it would appear that the BJP government has been the first to blink. Truth to tell, the only one to blink after what seemed an interminably long stare down. The opposition parties, predictably, are already playing this up as a huge loss of face, this volte face, for the ruling party. The latter are doubtless devising their own strategies and tactics to put a brave and noble face on this imbroglio. They may have had to eat humble roti, but they are not showing it. There are those who firmly believe that our Prime Minister and his aides have something up their sleeves, which will be unleashed on an unsuspecting citizenry at some unspecified future date. Debates will rage over the next few weeks on our television screens, and with important state elections just a few months away, the timing of this announcement will also be viewed with skepticism by the naysayers. In fact, the future tense is redundant. It’s already happening, with knobs on. That’s politics, baby!

Your chronicler was taking his evening constitutional the other day, when he overheard an animated conversation between two very senior citizens sitting on a park bench. No prizes for guessing, but they were having a chinwag about this very subject viz., the PM’s repealing of the farm laws. As I was not keen to be spotted eavesdropping, I pretended to be deeply involved in some standing exercises. You know, hip rotation, toe touching and a spot of yogic breathing as well. This was somewhat embarrassing because I have never been able to reach within a foot of my toes, but I decided to soldier on, as the conversation held me in thrall. Clearly, one of the two elders was deeply in simpatico with the farm lobby, while the other, possibly a right-wing retired journalist, took a more cynical view of what he saw as little more than brazen blackmail by some sections of the farming community. They spoke pretty loudly, both of them probably quite hard of hearing. This suited me fine as I could hear every word as clear as a bell.

‘I say Bhatia, you must be celebrating. You have been cribbing about what you call the draconian farm laws. You’ve got your way now. You saw the PM on television, did you not? So, when are you throwing a party?’

‘I daresay you speak figuratively, Chandru. I cannot remember ever throwing a party. Thrown many a fit, yes. In any case, I am not sure what there is to celebrate. The farmers might have won an important round, but you can never count the Prime Minister out. He must be furiously working on Plan B. That is a nagging worry.’

‘I thought you were not overly fond of the ruling party, and that’s putting it mildly. Yet you seem to have a grudging admiration for our admirable Modiji. Do I detect a change, Bhatia?’

‘You detect no such thing, my friend. That was not admiration. That was more a deep concern, knowing the Prime Minister’s capacity and muscle power to hit back when and where you least expect it. By the way, I am not a very close follower of present-day political trends and catch phrases, but what is this 56-inch jibe that the young pretender, Rahul Gandhi keeps talking about all the time?’

‘Dear me Bhatia, you are a bit out of step, aren’t you? That is actually a reference to the PM’s muscle power you just referred to. It is a metaphor, expressed with much irony and sarcasm, not that Rahul Gandhi will recognize irony if you handed it to him on a platter. The not-all-that-young Gandhi scion has also hectored the PM mockingly and inelegantly; chowkidar chor hai being his favourite pot shot.’

‘I have heard that one as well, Chandru, but it all seems to be so much water off a duck’s back. The PM, much to his critics’ annoyance, never seems to react. He simply gets on a plane and pushes off to some international conference where Boris Johnson calls him “one sun, one moon, one earth, the one and only Narendra.” Or words to that effect. That really gets my goat, this wallowing in foreign leaders’ appreciation, when back home we are trying to give him hell.’

‘To get back to the farm laws retraction Bhatia, you can never keep the opposition happy. You get my drift? I mean, this past year they were all yelling and screaming “repeal, repeal” but no sooner has the government done precisely that than they start shouting that this is just an election stunt, what with many important state elections just round the corner. You just can’t please some people. In fact, the word jhumla is frequently heard on our television screens.’

‘When you are involved in a slanging match, all bets are off. Anything goes. Look, I think many of these barbs are quite justified. The PM’s sleight of hand is now legendary. Now you see him, now you don’t. A consummate politician. And he has all these heavyweights like Shah and Nadda to face the flak while he himself is traipsing around the globe. And you know what, the thing that really bugs me is that he invariably turns it all round to his benefit. My fear is this might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the farmers.’

‘Come, come Bhatia, don’t lose heart. Pyrrhic victory, indeed! Good phraseology but stuff and nonsense. There’s still the MSP issue to be sorted out. That Tikait chap says he won’t remove his soup kitchens from the Delhi border till the government nails the MSP issue. If I can paraphrase that old Beatles hit, our government has a tough Tikait to ride.’

‘Nice one, Chandru. Tikait to ride, ha ha! Where do you dredge up these things from? Yes, I keep reading and hearing about this MSP affair, but what exactly is it and why is everybody getting into a right royal twist over it? Why don’t you explain it to me in plain English, Chandru, you being a respected journalist and all?’

‘Was, Bhatia, was. Retired now. And by the way, journalists are never respected. Not anywhere in the world. As a clan collectively, journalists are a byword and a hissing, as I have heard some of my friendly hacks from Fleet Street describe us. One politician even called journalism the second oldest profession in the world!’

‘Good grief. I will not ask you what the oldest profession is, but you are digressing. I wanted to know what exactly MSP stood for and why it has become such a sticking point between the farmers and the government?’

‘I digressed because I am myself quite clueless about this MSP affair. Beyond the fact that it is an acronym for Minimum Support Price, why this Tikait gawdelpus and his cohorts are insisting that MSP be guaranteed under law is a closed book to me. Something to do with middlemen, they tell me. You know what Bhatia, I think there is more to this than meets the eye.’

‘And what exactly does that mean, Chandru? You speak in riddles.’

‘It means neither of us has the foggiest what the palaver over the farm laws is all about. It’s just something for retired people like us to sit on a park bench and gas away till the cows come home. Which reminds me, the wife will be getting restless. It’s time to make tracks.’

‘I hate conversations that are left open-ended like this. It’s like reading an Agatha Christie novel and finding that some sadist has torn out the last page which would have revealed the murderer’s identity. Listen Chandru, will you do some ferreting around, like a good journalist, and let’s meet again tomorrow and you can tell me all about this wretched MSP in words of less that four syllables. All right? Is that a deal?’

‘All I can say Bhatia, like a good journalist, is ‘watch this space.’

‘Oh, and one last thing Chandru. This stand-up upstart Vir Das everyone is raving about. Is he for or against India?’

‘Good question, Bhatia old top. They were raving about him at the Kennedy Centre in New York. Not sure back home. I think he is hedging his bets. He speaks of “Two Indias.” He is for one and against the other. That clear?’

‘Clear as mud.’

As the two octogenarians parted company, I too completed my pretend exercise routine and headed homewards. I hate to have to say it, but I am now a bona fide member of that club of millions in our country who has not the faintest what the farm laws and its many twists and turns are all about, but at least I was privy to a most entertaining, if confused, exchange of ideas by two of our senior citizens, even if I had to remain incognito. As the fellow said in the Paul Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke, ‘What we have here is failure to communicate.’