Here is the news, and it’s not good

Has anyone heard any good news lately? Just asking, because if anything even remotely approaching good news has filtered through, then I clearly missed it. What was that some smarty pants said? No news is good news? I think it is safe to say that we appear to be in that unfortunate situation as this missive is being word processed. There you go. I can’t even say ‘as this is being written,’ because some literal-minded idiot will accost me on social media with a ‘How can you say “written” when you are tapping this on your keyboard?’ Life is hard enough without having to deal with these twits on Twitter. I do apologise for my crabbiness. Blame it all on the news, which does nothing to engender that elusive sunny optimism.

To get back to my point, I have been scanning the newspapers and news channels to check if anybody has something good to say about anything. You might as well be looking for an oasis in the Sahara. Here is a random list of news items that have been dominating the headlines, and if any of you can find anything good there, then you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Nirbhaya. The Nirbhaya rape and murder case has been dragging on for well over seven painful years, and our wheels of justice keep moving at a pace that would make a snail fancy its chances against the system. They have even had the time to make a television serial out of it. ‘Hang the rapists’, the country cries out. ‘In a while crocodile,’ responds the system. Appeals, counter appeals, mercy petitions and still the noose eludes the four guilty goons. Dates are set for the execution and re-set. When such dilatoriness happens over an execution, the public’s unsated, prurient interest only heightens. Remember those medieval times when the blood-thirsty public were invited to witness executions? Better these matters be dealt with swiftly and all concerned be duly informed once the dreaded task is over. Instead of all this shilly-shallying.

There is an interesting sidebar to the Nirbhaya case. Some months ago, somewhere in the heartlands of Telangana, another gang of murder suspects being held in custody for a heinous rape crime, was mysteriously gunned down in an ‘encounter.’ The cops claimed they had no option as the desperados snatched their guns and tried to make a run for it, but the smart money was on the cops ‘managing’ the shootout to their advantage. Some may say rough justice, but even those from the higher echelons of society were found to be applauding the local police. ‘Serve them right,’ was the cry of the vox populi, underscoring their disenchantment with the glacial movement of our justice system.

L’affaire Shaheen Bagh. Protesters gathering in Shaheen Bagh in India’s capital city have been grabbing the news headlines, and only recently has the noise died down. While it lasted, they were able to disrupt normal life in Delhi more than somewhat, to employ one of Damon Runyon’s pet phrases. I shan’t get into the rights and wrongs of their compulsion for so doing (CAA, NPR et al). The Central Government and the Delhi State administration were helplessly red faced. This movement gave rise to more Shaheen Baghs across the country, putting more pressure on the BJP led government. They in turn stuck to their guns, accusing the opposition of spreading falsehoods and innuendoes, all the while emphasising that the CAA was ‘good for every Indian citizen,’ if only the citizen cared to understand what the Act sought to achieve. The opposition parties were raucously gloating at their rival’s discomfiture. Meanwhile, with the onset of the warm weather and the Covid 19 (Coronavirus) scare, the protesters have reportedly dwindled, and the citizens of Delhi can, hopefully, soon breathe easy.

Coronavirus. When I said the Delhi denizens can breathe easy I was, of course, speaking metaphorically. The one thing they are not able to do, along with citizens all over the country, is to breathe easy. The Coronavirus pestilence, not unlike SARS and Swine Flu which took much of the world by nasty surprise, is now infesting various parts of the world, and anyone who so much as sneezes, hares off to the overworked hospitals. Travel and the world economy have taken a nose dive, and we keep opening the newspapers every morning hoping the dreaded virus shows signs of retreat. Face masks have gone underground, and a few hopefuls are running to Homoeopaths and sundry quacks for a miracle cure. I wash my hands with soap and water ten times a day! No shaking hands. Namaste is the order of the day. While Coronavirus continues to occupy centre stage, other news will for now, fade into the background. Had my mother been alive she would have said in chaste Tamil, ‘We are all paying for our sins.’ Hmmm!

The Delhi riots. Donald Trump came calling. Our Prime Minister pulled out all the stops in his home state to welcome the American President. Trump and Modi addressed a humongous gathering in Ahmedabad, with Donald trumping the Indian PM with his oh-so-cute references to Swami Vivecamundan and Soochin Tendulkar. While Trump visited Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and was feted royally, rioters went to work in parts of Delhi, the resultant communal clashes leaving many dead and many more injured. Damage to property and businesses was incalculable. Again, political parties blamed each other. Were the riots cynically timed to take away the sheen from the Trump visit? Or was it a powder keg waiting to explode? Who knows? The national media had to divide their newsprint space and airtime to both these happenings in a bizarre concatenation.

The bourses go berserk. With so much bad news taking pride of place, our sentiment driven stock markets went base over apex. The Sensex and the Nifty plunged southwards in simpatico with world financial markets, primarily driven by scare-mongering brought about by the Coronavirus and its deadly implications for world trade. The Yes Bank crisis was the icing on the cake. My fund manager called me to say that at these levels prices are attractive and this may be a good time to invest. At the time I had a worrying cough and could not respond. Which was just as well.

T20 Women’s World Cup. With so much bad news, the progress of the Indian eves, as they are fancifully referred to, reaching the final of the T20 World Cup in Australia raised great hopes of a famous win. Kohli’s boys had not covered themselves in glory earlier in New Zealand, and this was our chance for redemption. It proved to be a false dawn. At the packed MCG, Harmanpreet Kaur and her girls went down like nine pins against the fancied Aussies. Our cup of woe was overflowing, and the media resorted to the usual clichés whenever we lose.

A judge is transferred. The peremptory, and some might say vindictive, midnight transfer orders given to the estimable Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court was received with anguish and anger by the judicial community and the intelligentsia – with just cause. The silver lining was the admirable composure with which the judge himself responded, without acrimony and displaying considerable dignity and grace under pressure. A much loved, respected and admired judge overnight became a national icon and treasure. There is hope yet.

So there we are, still waiting for some news to cheer us up. Perhaps I should stop watching the news channels or reading the newspapers. Like the fellow said, it’s wonderful when we are not supplied our dailies following a public holiday. ‘Nothing ever happens.’

This article appeared in the Deccan Chronicle dated 10th March 2020.

The book was much better

Gone with the Wind



‘The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to movies and say, “Oh, the book is better.”’ Paulo Coelho.
We are all familiar with the tired cliché, ‘The movie was good, but the book was much better.’ If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. There is a smidgen of scoffing pretension that goes with it. As in, I am well read, sophisticated, and I opine that the subtleties of the language can never be transposed adequately on to the silver screen. Movies are all right for transient, momentary thrills, but if you want to really get down to the nitty gritty, it simply has to be the written word. Reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, re-reading an entire sentence or paragraph, to gain a deeper understanding of what the author is trying to convey – none of this is possible when you’re at the cinema. I’ll grant you that if you’re watching a home movie, you can pause, rewind and start again, though it’s not quite the same thing. You’ll still hear the same lines, without discerning any change in the shaded nuances. Whereas with a book, the same descriptive sentence will trigger a different imagery for each individual reader.

Watching a movie is a collective process. At the cinema, all of us are viewing the same thing. This is true if you’re in a group at home, enjoying a DVD or the latest offering on Netflix. With a chilled beer, and a packet of crisps to keep you company. At times, it can even get a bit soporific. Flopped on your diwan, head thrown back over the cushions, you waft into a dreamy state. Next thing you know, your better half is upbraiding you. ‘I can’t follow the dialogue for your snoring.’ And your invariably weak riposte to that is, ‘I am not snoring, just closed my eyes because they were burning. Must have been a stray gnat or something. Ask me what Brad Pitt just said to Angelina Jolie, and I’ll repeat it verbatim.’ Nice try.

The consensus of literary opinion is that War and Peace was one of the longest, if not the longest book ever written. Rumour has it the author Leo Tolstoy was a fresh faced teenager when he started on this epic, hadn’t even thought about his first shave, and by the time he came to the last page and typed in ‘The End,’ he was a wizened old man with a flowing white beard, and the Russian priests readying themselves to read him his last rites. The story is apocryphal of course, but makes a telling point about the lengths, literally, to which Russian authors went to tell a story. The 1956 film adaptation of War and Peace, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, tested the audience’s patience for three and a half hours. The director must have thought since reading the book from cover to cover took him a year to complete, he must inflict some of the pain on his hapless audience. As P.G. Wodehouse famously complained, it takes nearly 400 pages of ploughing through a Russian novel before the first murder takes place in a remote petrol pump in an even more remote gulag! Posterity’s verdict on War and Peace, therefore, must be that it was touch and go as to which was more draining – the book or the movie.

Contrastingly, what about the shortest book ever written? According to experts, ‘The sex life of the British,’ if such a title exists, would qualify eminently. Again, the origin and veracity of this claim is shrouded in mystery. Thank God the British have the singular ability to laugh at themselves. It is instructive to quote from the Hungarian born, British émigré  George Mikes’ satirical meditation on the British, How to be an Alien, in which the chapter entitled ‘Sex’ is disdainfully dismissed in a single, telling line – ‘Continental people  have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.’ Making a movie out of this is clearly precluded.

 Notwithstanding Mikes’ caustic cynicism of the Briton’s sexual proclivities, or the lack of the same, in the world of British cinema, sex has been celebrated with gay (pun intended) abandon in such films as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, Fanny Hill, My Beautiful Launderette and for comic relief, the never ending, racy Carry On sagas. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita enjoyed critical acclaim as a book, though subsequent cinematic adaptations received muted response. The point is made that, even in the subterranean world of erotica, the literary power of suggestion is more likely to arouse than humans on screen in fake orgiastic missionary positions.

Indian cinema has its own unique way of dealing with love, marriage and sex – strictly in that order. All our heroes and heroines need is a well composed, hummable song that traverses time, some frolicking amidst sand and snow, hills and valleys, a tree or two to prance around, the scene swiftly cutting to an outlandishly garish bridal bed, camera quickly panning to a hideous painting on the wall of two love birds precariously perched on a twig, the song finally culminating to reveal a bedecked cradle with the cherubic, gurgling infant wreathed in spittle. The alternative, less pleasant, scenario involves the heroine falling suddenly, unaccountably and violently sick, followed by fainting fits, and everyone in a bit of a tiswas. Until the good doctor is summoned, and with beaming smile, announces the impending patter of little feet. Joy reigns supreme. Unless of course, God forbid, the nauseous heroine happens to be unmarried. Tauba Tauba! For then, all hell breaks loose and the pitiable leading lady breaks into an insufferably mournful, self-pitying dirge. In Harry Belafonte’s calypso-inflected words, ‘Woe is me, shame and scandal in the family.’

Adducing the Indian cinema example does not enhance the case for books being superior to film adaptations, other than to say that even the best novels would suffer at the hands of most of our directors, barring some notable exceptions. No better example of the film not quite living up to the book exists than some of the delightful Wodehouse sagas captured on celluloid. Over the decades, there have been many versions of the Jeeves – Wooster and Blandings Castle imbroglios adapted for screen and television. Some of the finest actors have portrayed key roles with great aplomb, the most recent being Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster respectively. In Stephen Fry’s eloquent words, ‘Wodehouse’s language lives and breathes in its written form. It oscillates privately between the page and the reader. The moment it is read out or interpreted, it is compromised.’ Here’s an outstanding example from the Master’s oeuvre of what Fry was driving at.

“‘Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?’ said Wilfred. ‘ffinch-ffarromere,’ corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.’” By definition, this cannot be transferred on screen. A clear case of ‘book trumps film.’ It’s another matter altogether if you have not read the book, on which the movie is based. You are then blessed by ignorance and can enjoy the film for its own sake, without having to carry the baggage of being a part of ‘the original sin,’ like Adam and the Tree of Knowledge.

It is not as if the book has always held sway over the film adaptation. Take Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a brilliantly crafted novel on the seamy underworld of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. The world, however, will forever celebrate and remember Francis Ford Coppola’s screen adaptations of The Godfather trilogy. Movie pundits have routinely voted the first of the trilogy as the best film ever made in the history of cinema. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and ‘a cast of thousands’ taking this film to stratospheric heights, few can argue with popular public acclaim. Mario Puzo’s place under the sun, however, was not to be denied as he wrote the screenplay for the film as well. The Godfather’s clutch of Academy Awards bears permanent testimony to its exalted status. Adding a dash of controversy, Brando boycotted the Oscars ceremony to receive the Best Actor award, in sympathy with what he felt was the ‘mistreatment of Native American Indians.’ But that’s another story.

While I have elaborated on a few examples to underscore my point of books being cinematically adapted with varying degrees of success or failure, we must pay homage to some magnificent honourable mentions in this genre. Dickens’ Great Expectations and Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago were sumptuously directed by David Lean. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provided Gregory Peck with an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins’ standout performances shone through in Thomas Harris’ noir, The Silence of the Lambs and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. And you ignore Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind at your own peril – the book and the movie vying for equal encomiums. Clark Gable’s ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ may arguably be the most famous throwaway line ever uttered in movie history. As the master of horror fiction Stephen King says, ‘Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.’

In conclusion, what I have shared is little more than a soupçon of the best and brightest that the wonderful world of books and the cinema offers us. So which takes pride of place – the book or the film? Or their convergence? You be the judge.

This article first appeared on Spark online magazine.

‘Blue, blue my world is blue’

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Viagra can make you go blue in the face. Report.

One’s heart goes out to the male of the species. Shakespeare has already dubbed the female of the species as being deadlier than the male, which did absolutely nothing to enhance the much-touted male ego. That was the problem with Shakespeare. He wrote pretty much whatever came into his head, and to hell with the consequences. What is more, everyone and his uncle started quoting Shakespeare left, right and centre. After that, there was no stopping the Bard from Avon. He was on a roll. Ever since, it has been a constant uphill struggle for Man to establish his superiority over the laughably described ‘weaker sex.’ Muscles are not everything in this world, and Woman has been shrewdly aware of this ever since God yanked out that rib from Adam in the Garden of Eden and declared in that pompous, echoing way God had, ‘I declare this Adam’s rib Woman.’ Or words to that effect. Then of course, came all that stuff about the apple and the snake, and the world as we knew it, went for a toss. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Adam was seen slinking around the Eden Gardens, not to be confused with the hallowed cricket ground in Calcutta, looking bereft and feeling sorry for himself. His self-esteem went up the spout.

Putting Biblical fairy tales to one side, let us come to the present day scenario. Failing to establish his superiority over the apocryphal ‘gentler sex’ in most matters, Man needed something, and fast, to regain some level of parity. Enter stage left, if not quite pursued by a bear, the wonder drug Viagra! Actually, it was Shakespeare’s stage directions which stated, ‘Exit stage left, pursued by a bear,’ but I am sure the great playwright wouldn’t mind if I misquoted him slightly. You see, try as one might, one can never quite keep William S out of the discourse. Let’s get back to Viagra, shall we, before we get side-tracked again. Here is a drug that has been in the news ever since it was first discovered in 1989. Its generic name, my research tells me, is Sildenafil, branded and adored the world over as Viagra, by the well-known pharmaceutical company that introduced it to the world, Pfizer. Now it is not my intention to go into the details of how the Viagra pill enables the male to rise to greater heights in bed and other such salacious details. You can find all that on the internet, if you’re really interested. Truth to tell, I am not even aware if this ‘recreational drug,’ as it is intriguingly referred to, is sold over the counter in India. One tip I picked up from my research which I can pass on. If you trot off to your nearest pharmacy and ask the salesman at the counter for a strip of Sildenafil in the presence of other customers, most likely he will look blankly at you. At which point, you will drop your voice a couple of notches and stage whisper, ‘Viagra,’ and be received with a knowing smile of recognition. That’s the word on the street, though I cannot personally confirm this.

My immediate provocation for that rather long-winded introduction is a recent report I came across, curiously headlined, ‘Viagra can make men see blue, says study.’ The report, quoting from a published article in a reputed medical journal, “Frontiers in Neurology” goes on to add, ‘Research found patients suffered abnormally dilated pupils, blurred vision, light sensitivity, and colour vision disturbances, which included intensely blue coloured vision and red-green blindness.’ Incidentally, the Viagra pill is also sold in the colour blue. Don’t ask me why. My best guess is that, having swallowed the blue tablet, and to while away the hour or so for it to take effect, the couple sit around and watch a ‘blue film,’ post which the fun and games can begin in right earnest. With full vigour, as it were.

Now you will have observed that I have had to couch my language in suitably conservative terms. Which is perhaps why many publishing sites reject my pieces, citing as reason my somewhat, archaic and circumlocutory choice of phrases. ‘Today’s youngsters don’t have the time for all this. You must be brief, cryptic and on point.’ Well, I am sorry, but I can’t be writing for social media twits who only wish to twitter. And if it’s matters sexual we are discussing, plenty of titter as well.

I could easily lay the blame for this on my own, somewhat strict and hidebound upbringing, where even ‘sex’ is considered a four letter word! I can also apportion a part of the blame on India that is Bharat where we tend, for the most part to shy away from the topic altogether. I am aware that all this is rapidly changing, and in a land where the current population of 1.3 billion is expanding exponentially, a land that gave the world the Kama Sutra, we can’t all be living in cloud cuckoo land, naively believing in storks and divine births. There is a limit to how much we can lay at God’s doorstep. He is still having a hard time, as it is, living down the Adam and Eve brouhaha.

That being the case, it must surely follow that many of our male citizens must be resorting to the periodic intake of performance enhancing drugs such as Viagra or its generic equivalent (if such a one exists), to show their partners how virile they are. And if that is a given, this latest news report that Viagra can make you see blue (without the aid of blue films) must make one stop and ponder. As a quick aside, I have not the faintest notion why sexually explicit, pornographic films came to be known, in modern parlance, as blue films. Google is cagey on the subject. Perhaps, like me, Google is also a prude.

To revert to the famed medical journal’s report, regular Viagra users are now beginning to wander around, their brows furrowed with anxiety. One loyal user was heard complaining to his girlfriend at a coffee shop, ‘Look, everything has been going swimmingly well for us so far on the fun and frolic side of things after lights out. Now comes this report, and frankly, I don’t mind telling you I am shaken. Not stirred yet, but definitely shaken. I know it does not apply to all Viagra users, perhaps just an infinitesimal minority. The problem is it plants that insidious seed of doubt in my head. And once I start thinking on those lines, bang goes my confidence, and no amount of staring at blue films is going to do any good. If this report is to be believed, apart from not being able to perform, I should be going blind as well as blue in the face, never mind colour blind and my pupils will forever remain dilated. I think I’ll slink off and become a monk.’

At this point, the girlfriend delivers her moaning boyfriend a tight, ringing slap and walks off, giving him a stern warning never to darken her doors again. Moral of the story: If you must talk about your sexual angst, avoid doing it with your bed mate. Seek one of Freud’s descendants instead.

‘Honey, I shrunk the tumours’

Image result for cancer cure cartoon images


Yet another cancer cure announcement. News agencies.

Every once in a couple of years, some medical institute or the other announces that they are on the cusp of a dramatic breakthrough in man’s indomitable quest to find a cure for cancer. Papers are presented at leading world medical conferences, the media go agog over the likely outcome and the pharma industry starts licking its chops over the coming financial windfall that awaits them, while scrips of leading pharma brands go through the roof in ecstatic anticipation. Many of these brilliant minds are even recognised handsomely through prestigious awards at highly respected forums. Usually announcements of this nature pertain to specific forms of malignancy. As in, breast cancer, lung cancer or pre-cancerous brain tumours and so on. As always, most of these revelations which come out with a bang, end in a whimper. After the initial excitement, things quieten down and nothing much is heard of again. Stricken, yet hopeful patients, meanwhile, find their spirits soaring only to come hurtling down in a heavy, anti-climactic thud.

That said, one must acknowledge the tremendous strides that have been taken in the field of cancer research, particularly in the areas of early screening and detection, enabling partial or even complete cures. However, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of solution as yet available for this dreaded affliction. Tuberculosis and many other ailments were similarly feared in previous decades, but continuous research and unremitting dedication by the medical profession have ensured complete success in treatment. We haven’t quite reached that stage where cancer is concerned, and we secretly continue to fear the possibility of harbouring ‘The Big C’ every time we set out for our annual medical check-up. ‘Hmmm,’ intones Dr. Banerjee gravely, scanning your routine blood report, ‘I am not sure I like this sudden spike in you SGPT and SGOT count. We’ll need to conduct further tests. And what is this little black mole at the back of your neck? I don’t like the look of it.’ Difficult man to please, Dr. Banerjee. By definition you can’t see anything on the back of your neck, so you just sit there stoically, trying not to look alarmed. This effectively ruins your peace of mind for the next few days. In the end, after running a battery of tests and biopsies, it all turns out to be much ado about nothing. However, you will now have to be treated for ulcers brought about by extreme tension and unconscionable medical bills. Forget about the Scotch, you are now prescribed one large peg of liquid Gelusil every evening. What makes matters worse is that cancer is one of those conditions where, more often than not, the treatment is worse than the disease, involving as it does, long, expensive and painful procedures often culminating infructuously, early detection notwithstanding. The patient can’t be blamed for thinking, ‘I’d rather meet my maker than go through this torture.’ All this grimness, read in conjunction with a recent World Health Organisation report that one in every ten Indians will develop cancer during his or her lifetime, hardly adds to our collective sense of well-being. The Grim Reaper is clearly working overtime. And the rampant, novel Coronavirus is not helping either.

Let us at this juncture, spare a thought for the rodent community. I am sure the medical experts from time immemorial had valid reasons why they thought rats or mice were the best guinea pigs (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor) to be experimented upon, to introduce as-yet-untried medicines for a variety of diseases that attack human beings. Doubtless these creatures, the original precursors of the dreaded plague, are thought to be eminently expendable, and therefore all manner of deadly trials are inflicted upon them. One’s heart goes out to them, but hey, they drew the short straw in God’s elaborate plan, and are paying the price. Presumably in a good cause – for humans that is, not the rats. One doesn’t quite see the slaughter of other animals for human consumption in quite the same light, because that was the way God supposedly divined things on earth. You simply can’t keep God out of the equation, a real busybody. Ours not to reason why.

Which is why the latest news report, promising a complete cure for any form of cancer, caught my attention. I must admit I read it with a degree of scepticism but as the saying goes, ‘hope springs eternal.’ I may be guilty of a slight exaggeration, as I attempt to share these dramatic findings trusting to my dodgy memory and some hastily scribbled notes from what I read a couple of weeks ago, but the kernel of the research results appears to be that a group of scientists in the United States of America may be on the verge of discovering the much longed for cure for cancer by developing a vital drug that might hold potential to kill the toughest of cancer cells and shrink the malignant tumours. The Holy Grail beckons. This could very well be the harbinger of a dramatic, scientific breakthrough that doctors and cancer sufferers have been, literally, dying for. Apparently, the treatment has been code-named ‘CF33’ (how do they think up these weird codes?), and if it delivers the goods as hoped for, it promises to kill every type of cancer cell in a petri dish (a kind of shallow glass bowl in which you test cells for bacteria) and has also claimed to completely kill or shrink tumours in mice. Again with the rats!

The long and the short of it is that, once again we wait with bated breath to learn if this latest missive on cancer research reveals anything substantive, or if it’s just another one of those periodic adrenalin-uppers that keeps us all hooked for a few weeks before it vanishes from our consciousness through sheer inertia. Lest my somewhat glib observations should send out the wrong signal, let me reiterate that I yield to no one in my admiration for all these scientific and medical boffins who slave night and day to find cures for all manner of pestilential germs that bug our society (sorry, but sometimes puns just happen). More power to their shoulders. As this anonymous quote so pithily puts it, ‘Cancer is a word, not a sentence.’

Tailor-made for you

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A stitch in time saves nine. Old proverb.

My mind turned to tailors recently. Or to put it more precisely, my mind turned to why my mind had not turned to tailors for a very long time. Several years, in fact. There are good reasons for this. Over the past few decades, the sartorial world has shown a distinct preference for the readymade stuff. We live in an instant world. Everything is wanted yesterday. Instant coffee, instant tea, flavoured malts, milk, buttermilk, fruit juices – all available in neat tetrapaks, ready for immediate consumption. However, clothiers continued to ply their trade relatively unharmed. The search for that perfect fit which makes all the difference kept driving the punctilious, dress-conscious male to his personal, bespoke tailor to provide him with a suit or a shirt or a pair of trousers that was the envy of his contemporaries. P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal goofball, Bertie Wooster, once wrote a piece, though no one had actually read it, titled ‘What the well-dressed man is wearing’ for his Aunt Dahlia’s magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. Clearly, Bertie’s sole journalistic, if anonymous, effort was not going to set Fleet Street and the publishing world on fire. Even his trusted manservant, or gentleman’s personal gentleman to employ the mot juste, the equally immortal Jeeves took a dim view of it. In Bertie’s memorable words, ‘the lovelight suddenly died out of his (Jeeves’) eyes.’ In Wodehouse’s fantasy world, Savile Row was the temple of tailoring and all men of proper breeding had their suits cut there. That was then and this is now. More to the point, that was Imperial England, and this is free India.

To revert to the point at issue, tailors and the rarefied world of tailoring, if not quite becoming extinct like the dodo, are showing incipient signs of mortality. We see less and less of them. At this point, I must hastily qualify my statement, in so far as what I have been rambling on about pertains largely to tailors who cater to male patrons. The distaff side of things are still going pretty strong, which is hardly surprising. Blouses need to be stitched to perfection, hems taken in on newly acquired saris and skirts, and for reasons that do not need going into in detail, our gentle women folk are constantly having to address sensitive issues like weight loss and weight gain, and the friendly tailor round the corner is an indispensable support system. Though why a particular article of clothing is suddenly discovered to be a misfit, in a manner of speaking, has always been mystifying. 24 hours prior to attending a grand wedding reception, blood curdling screams ring out across the length and breadth of one’s apartment that ‘the blouse has become too tight, omigosh!’ And you found that out now? Surely there must be other blouses. Alas, you poor, ill-informed male! A particular sari has already been earmarked from a select shortlist, over a month ago to stun your friends and relatives at the forthcoming la-di-da reception. The matching blouse, which has not been worn for close to a year, is now discovered to be ill-fitting. You get the picture. And the more than passable imitation of Edvard Munch’s priceless painting, ‘The Scream’ is presented in all its horrific, pastel splendour. The limited point one is trying to make is that there is no clear and present danger of the tailor catering to the female of the species dying out any time soon. At least, not in India. The Singer sewing machine has been an integral part of most middle-class households, but nowadays, it performs the role of an antediluvian furniture piece, one with the dinosaur.

My earliest recollection of interacting with a tailor was when I was admitted to boarding school in Bangalore. The school blazer and cap were essential accoutrements as part of the school uniform. Within a couple of days of joining school, we had to line up in front of old man Rakhra, a tailor whose immense reputation had clearly preceded him. I was 10 years old and to my infant’s eyes, the bald and thickly bespectacled Rakhra looked like Methuselah, at least 90 years old, at a conservative estimate. The Biblical Methuselah, of course, was said to have lived till the ripe old age of 969! In our more normal times, I thought 90 was old enough to be getting along with. The truth of it was that he was probably in his mid to late ‘60s.

Now the thing about this Rakhra couturier, who was always turned out in spotless, creased whites, was his gruff manner with a disconcerting habit of patting, poking and prodding us all over the place while his assistant would keep tying us up in knots with the measuring tape, and reading out our embarrassingly puny chest, waist and other anatomical measurements. At least, the blazer and cap details involved only the top half of the body. When it came to the half pants, Rakhra’s hands would roam where angels feared to tread. All in a purely professional cause, I hasten to add. It was part of his job and I daresay the ancient tailor meant no harm, but for us children, we squirmed, shifted and often laughed out loud, particularly when his strong fingers would give our ribs a right working over. It didn’t help that the supervising House Master would, every now and then, administer a smart clip round the back of our heads, admonishing our needless histrionics. ‘That will be enough of that, Waller. Stop making an ass of yourself,’ about summed up the Master’s views on the matter. Then of course, we had to go for the trial, sometimes more than once, and this was a bigger trial than the initial measurement taking. To make things worse, at that age we quickly outgrew our clothes and this meant going through the whole rigmarole again. Like Topsy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, we just ‘growed.’

Thus, it was a great relief to have grown to man’s estate, as it were. Once we crossed the age of 15 or 16, chances of our growing further were remote. That was as far as height went. Weight and waist measurements were another matter altogether. It was a phase when we switched from half-pants to full length trousers making us feel that we were now adults – proper young gentlemen, strutting about the place like proud peacocks. Though there was a funny side to wearing full pants, as the school colloquialism went. A handful of us outgrew the long trousers as well, resulting in an awkward gap between the end of the trouser folds and our ankles. Leading to that classic jibe from other boys, ‘Waiting for floods, are we?’ That said, with each passing year our growth, by and large, stabilised. This enabled us to switch to readymades with a greater degree of comfort.

Getting into our time machines and fast forwarding to the post-millennial generation, it’s all about branded clothes wear. Just walk into any respectable department store or mall, and visit the clothes section, and you are spoilt for choice. All manner of sizes, in a bewildering array of advertised brands will be available, if it’s trousers you’re looking for. Convenient trial rooms enable you to try them on yourself in front of a full size mirror, and if some slight adjustment is needed like shortening the length or increasing the waist, the ladies at the counter will pencil in the details on your invoice, and request you to collect the merchandise a couple of hours later. Just like that! There is a tailor on hand but he does his job with great finesse. No prodding of your rib cage, sending you into paroxysms. Then again, if you are obscenely well-heeled and belong to the truly upper crust, it has to be Savile Row, London or its Indian equivalent. Since no one in India will notice the difference at parties, you will have to be inventive and find ways to obliquely communicate this to your friends and acquaintances. ‘You like my suit? Yeah, it’s fine but frankly, I wouldn’t waste all that money I had to shell out for this at Savile Row.’ Mocking yourself with false modesty. The oldest showing off trick in the book.

Here in India we can still find, if we looked hard enough, the modest tailor in his modest little shop, peddling away on his (erstwhile referred to) Singer machine, somewhere in an impossibly crowded street. He will be more than willing to loosen the waistline of your trousers, shorten the hem of your petticoat and sari, or even re-stitch the borders of your pillow cases, for a song. Oh, and another thing. When it comes to your trouser fly, always go for the button option. Those metal zips can be a right, royal pain. Literally. In the final analysis, clothes may make the man, but Polonious’ gratuitous advice from the Bard’s Hamlet is worth recalling:

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy / But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.

The road to hell

Image result for bangalore police mannequins
Spot the real dummy

This ain’t no technological breakdown / Oh no, this is the road to hell. Chris Rea.

My wife and I moved to Bangalore from Calcutta 20 years ago. The reasons were not far to seek. The much-vaunted salubrious climate of Bangalore (if you are not prone to allergies), the relatively slower pace of life and a real chance, in troubadour Van Morrison’s words, ‘to smell the sea and feel the sky.’ There is, of course, no sea as far as the eye can see in and around Bangalore, but you could always ‘stop and smell the roses.’ At this point, I must make it clear that even 20 years ago, Bangalore no more resembled a sleepy hill-station than it does today. The tell-tale signs of rapacious progress were all too evident. Everybody wanted to come and live in Bangalore, the trendiest, snazziest El Dorado in India. Friends and relatives from out of town, en route to Ooty or Kody, invariably stopped for a couple of days to shop or ‘hang out’ in Bangalore’s vaunted pub joints.

A quick word about Calcutta. Irony of ironies, since we moved, Calcutta has become a more liveable city than it was during my 40 years’ residence there. Whether this was owing to industries moving out of the city en masse, thereby inversely providing cleaner air or simply better governance, is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless I have to put up with frequent ‘I told you so’ barbs from my friends in the City of Joy who were loath to see us go.

Bangalore isn’t quite the hell hole it is being made out to be. It is worse. In the name of progress and ultimate benefit for our children (and our children’s children), we are being made to pay a heavy price in terms of quality of life. If benefits are ultimately going to accrue, it may very well take the amount of time for our children’s children to make an appearance. Present residents can forget about driving comfortably over flyovers, underground tunnels, clockwork traffic signals, ample parking space and smooth Metro trains ferrying us to the sleek, ultra-modern airport. Or as Yul Brynner said in ‘The King and I’, ‘etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.’

If that somewhat orotund introduction to what was intended to be a frustrated rant on civic conditions in Bangalore went ‘all over the place’, I crave your indulgence. As a writer, I have to spin things out a bit. If I had merely written one short sentence, ‘Bangalore is the pits,’ and key in Finis under it, you would not have been best pleased. It might have been succinct, on point and endorsed Shakespeare’s aphorism of brevity being the soul of wit. On the other hand, my legion of fans (about 5 in number when I last checked), would have looked askance and gone off their morning breakfast. You’ve got to keep the fans happy. If I keep at it, my blog administrators assure me my readership during the coming year could double dramatically to 10! That’s what keeps me going.

So where was I? Yes, the garden city of Bangalore. Some people are beginning to call it the garbage city. All this is most distressing and why are our city slickers getting restless and sending me veiled notes and threats to write something about it? These are of course drawn from those 5 fans I talked about, but they do represent a decent sample size to accurately reflect the grumpy dissatisfaction of a larger section of the populace. I shall now proceed to try and list out some of the typical problems that we tax paying citizens of Bangalore face, day in and day out – with no relief in sight.

Lawless and disorderly. The traffic lights system in our beloved city appears to have a mind of its own. Sometimes it operates automatically, other times the traffic police decide to take matters in hand and keep switching from red to amber to green and back again, as the mood takes them. At certain intersections we wait in our cars for upwards of 7 minutes when, much to our relief, the green light comes on, but in barely 25 seconds it switches back to red again. This could be due to VIP movement, a medical emergency or just the traffic cops deciding things quixotically on the spur of the moment. This arbitrariness has often witnessed drivers going berserk, whizzing through red lights, brazenly driving through ‘No Entry’ roads, driving over footpaths or even the wrong side of the road. It’s literally hell freezing over, if you’re caught up in one of these bottlenecks. I dread to think what happens if a critical patient needs to reach the hospital in double quick time. Chances are he or she will reach his or her heavenly abode much sooner. And forget about drivers using their indicators, because they themselves don’t know which way they will turn.

God save us from two-wheelers. What is it with these two-wheeler terrorists? They appear to have arrogated to themselves the divine right to criss-cross, zig-zag over road dividers, mobile phones hidden under their helmets and the police forever lurking in street corners to accost them with fines, official and unofficial. Nothing deters them. My car side mirror has been repaired six times thanks to two-wheelers yanking them out. Add to this autos, bullock carts, light  motor vehicles, jaywalkers, smoke-belching trucks and buses, and you could be walking straight into Dante’s inferno.

No Parking. Where on earth will cars find parking space in Bangalore? Virtually every road is dotted with ‘No Parking’ signs, an injunction that is observed laughably in the breach. All the side roads are thus filled up, and residents merrily hoist sponsored ‘No Parking’ boards in front of their gates which is understandable, but also place obstructive bricks in the common pavement area, which they have no right to do. Pedestrians have no place to walk. In a city like London, pedestrian pavements are much broader than the vehicular roads they abut.                     

Flyovers, Metros etc. As touched upon briefly, work goes on for an eternity on these flyovers, underground tunnels and Metro rail (between long periods of grinding and masterly inactivity). The pace of work is painfully slow, and almost every other project appears ill-conceived, riddled with legal disputes while self-appointed urban experts write recriminatory reams in the dailies. Net result? We are stuck.

Election preoccupations. The state government seems to be in a perennial state of getting ready for some form of election or by-election. Functionaries are too busy ensuring the elections go off smoothly, round the year. It’s almost as if the elections are an end in themselves. As a result, no one has any time to actually address everyday problems like roads, street lighting and other basic infrastructure needs.

Is there a glimmer of hope in sight? The question is rhetorical.

Footnote: If this piece portrays cops as little more than dummies, fret not. Bangalore’s innovative traffic police have installed giant replicas of themselves all over the city. The purpose is unclear, as the mannequins are not equipped with artificial intelligence. Last heard, a couple of them were found with their dark glasses and white hats missing. If motorists are expected to be fearful of these giant sized cops, I don’t think the objective is being met. However, passers-by and tourists have found a new subject to pose for selfies with.


Follow your own passion – not your parents’, not your teachers’ – yours.
~ Robert Ballard.

Now let me tell you, straight off the bat that I had no idea who Robert Ballard was until I came across that snappy quotation. For the record, he is a retired US naval officer and an expert on oceanography. And going by his views, I am sure he was an extremely competent oceanographer. Any scrap of marine life that escaped Mr. Ballard’s minute attention was probably not worth knowing about. Amongst his many substantive achievements on ocean exploration and underwater archaeology, Ballard is widely credited with the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic, the battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. I well remember the Hollywood film, PT-109 during the early ‘60s starring Cliff Robertson as Kennedy. It ran to packed houses at a time when the young, flamboyant President of the United States, who captured the world’s imagination, rose like a Phoenix from the ashes and fell like Lucifer from heaven.

So much for Robert Ballard, whose contribution to this essay was primarily to kick off this subject of being ‘driven by passion’, such that you would go to any lengths to achieve your life’s ambition – even down to the bottomless depths of the ocean bed. Consequently, it occurred to me to discuss some luminaries in certain fields of endeavour close to my heart, a purely subjective list of my own making; individuals who have pursued their goals with unswerving commitment. Of course, for every person I choose to talk about, the reader could well have a fistful of alternative options. Invidiousness does not come into play here and many names will be conspicuous by their absence. The idea is to demonstrate what undiluted passion can do to elevate a person from the humdrum to the humdinger.

Let’s take a subject that all of us in India are only too familiar with – Cricket. Over a hundred years and more, cricket-playing nations around the world have produced outstanding sportsmen with great inborn skills. The passion of a cricketer shines through when he fights the odds, inspires other team members to play above themselves and seal victory. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman were passionate about representing India, making worthy contributions towards India’s wins. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli have all been inspirational and driven leaders, having their own, unique way of displaying their passion. Gavaskar wore his patriotism on his sleeve, Kapil Dev was just a happy, preternaturally gifted individual, Ganguly and Kohli, emotional and demonstrative, while Dhoni was a monk – totally understated. It must be said that when representing the country, players find an additional boost of adrenaline and testosterone to spur themselves. I mean naturally, and not through aided substances! Similar stories demonstrating passion abound in tennis, football, athletics and other sporting endeavours.

Let’s turn to music. Musicians, their genre notwithstanding, must necessarily deal with emotions when they perform – be it their own or the audience for whose benefit they are strutting their stuff. It is the nature of the beast. Whether you are a singer or an instrumentalist, bringing out the emotional aspect of music that touches the listener’s heart is an extremely difficult task. There is a difference between conveying emotion and merely emoting. Many musicians resort to playing around with the lyrics, which have an in-built emotional quotient, without the requisite musical heft or skills. If it is an instrumental piece, then one tends to rely on the quality of the composition. If you sit and listen undisturbed to Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony or the peerless Violin Concerto in D, your emotions soar to inexplicable levels – that which cannot be articulated. All you can feel is a lump in the throat. When you further consider that Beethoven was deaf, imagine the passion and the frustration that must have gone into producing something so ethereal, the fruits of which only his audiences could enjoy, and Beethoven himself could only hear in his head!

Pop and Rock music, the experts aver, arouse the senses rather than genuine passion. I am not sure what the difference is. It all depends on the skill sets of the artists. Listen to some of Eric Clapton’s elongated guitar solos (Layla), or Duane Allman and Dickey Betts (dual guitars) jamming together in a jazz-rock magnum opus, Mountain Jam, or the ineffably beautiful acoustic Little Martha, and you will feel your spirits soar. The dexterity and plucking involved are indescribable. Even a simple song, with beautiful backing, composed and sung feelingly, will elevate you. Key in Van Morrison’s Village Idiot (he’s got a simple mind) or Tired Joey Boy (of the makings of men), and tell me your heart didn’t miss a beat.

Finally, on music and passion, let me come closer to home. Top gun Carnatic maestro Sanjay Subrahmanyan literally moves audiences to tears of joy, particularly when he launches into his impassioned renditions of Tamil songs and poetry. There are many musicians who sing well and are hugely respected and admired, but Sanjay provides that indefinable X factor, that brings men and women of all ages in droves to his concerts. They feel at one with him, and his intensity, joie de vivre and single-minded ability to ‘stay in the bubble’ for the entire duration of the concert. Qualities that keep audiences spellbound and emotionally glued to their seats. Is he passionate in his renderings? Does the audience experience rollercoaster emotions during his live concerts? That’s a no-brainer, to employ a present-day argot. Those of you who are not too au fait with what I am talking about, just take in one of Sanjay’s concerts next time he is in your neck of the woods. That is, if you can manage to cadge a pass.

I would like to round off this dialectic on passion with a few thoughts on fine art. In particular the paintings of the great masters are worth looking at from the point of view of their ability to stir emotions and in many cases, drive wealthy people to spend millions to obtain some of these masterpieces for themselves. After all, owning a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh canvas places you in an exclusive and exalted league of gentlemen! What is it about some of these paintings that moves one so? Let’s dwell briefly on Van Gogh’s impressions. I have been fortunate enough to visit the master’s museum in Amsterdam. One blinding canvas after the other, the daubs of paint, the brush strokes – Wheatfield with crows, Starry night, Irises – the reality of the unreality in the impressionism, makes you go weak in the knees. To say nothing of the Dutch master’s disturbing self-portraits. Was it pain or passion that drove Van Gogh, with no thought of pelf or profit, to produce these magical paintings? That is a question for the ages. There is a scene in the 1967 film Night of the Generals, when the protagonist, Peter O’Toole (he of the blue, blue eyes) cast as a German general, stares intently at a Van Gogh self-portrait and goes through a plethora of heaving emotions. A moment of extreme and controlled passion, brilliantly portrayed by the late Irish thespian.

I conclude with a brief observation on the written word. Can something as sterile and dry as mere text move people to extreme emotion? I exclude news items of death, crime and destruction which is merely reportage that could propel people to take to the streets. I am talking about using language that lifts your spirits and makes you go, ‘I wish I could write like that.’ This one example from Shakespeare would suffice:

Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears / Moist it again, and frame some feeling line / That may discover such integrity.
~ Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Reproduced through the kind courtesy of Spark Online , 10th anniversary issue, January 2019.

Happy New Year, India

Christmas is upon us and the New Year is just around the corner. 2020, there is a nice symmetry, roundness and ring to the sound of the coming year. Doubtless some smart aleck advertising copywriter will dub it T20. In keeping with the usual custom, just about every one you know along with many you don’t know, keep sending you messages, to which you are obliged to respond. Whether you actually do so or not is another matter. In pre-digital and social media times, we trotted off to Archies, Hallmark or some such establishment with a carefully selected list of people you cared about, and spent a pretty penny on UNICEF cards which made you feel good about having contributed to something worthwhile. Signing each one of them was a bit of a pain, though the easy option of having your signature pre-printed in royal blue on hundreds of cards was the coward’s way out. I know many people who did this, especially in corporate offices. Just not done, old chap. One must also make mention of the funny cards. You know, the ones with jokes, cartoons, pop-ups and generally puerile one liners – these were best avoided, but the kids loved them.

Anyhow, my inbox has started swelling with these electronic greetings from my bank managers, mutual fund houses, business associates, political parties I have supported and political parties I have shunned. What was The Godfather’s famous one liner? ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ Add to this my car service outfit, my physiotherapist, my dentist and a clutch of restaurants I may have patronised over the years. There are more but those will suffice for now. At least, that is what I thought at first.

 Closer inspection revealed that some unusual personages had also sent me season’s greetings through email. How they obtained my mail id will forever remain an enigma. Unusual in the sense that these were not just normal friends and relatives or bank managers. They were VIPs, people who are newsmakers and would be classified as ‘top-of-mind’ celebrities across categories – Politics, Sport, Films and Media. At first I could not believe my eyes. First time in years people of such eminence have deigned to recognise my existence. Me, a humble columnist hack, who hacks away every week simply because he loves his pastime of juxtaposing words in such a way that they make for amusing reading. Naturally, my joy knew no bounds and, unlike the other messages, I started opening these mails breathlessly, one by one. Of course, I then discovered that these were not actually goodwill missives but exculpatory statements on various issues, and likely circulated en masse. Even you, dear reader, might have received these mails. I am sharing the contents of some of the gems I unearthed from the morass that was my inbox.

Before I actually get into these VIP mails, I must issue a caveat. I have absolutely no means of ascertaining if they are genuine or just put out by pranksters who have nothing better to do than send fake messages to all and sundry. I therefore accept no responsibility for the authenticity of said messages, and the only reason I am sharing them is because they make for amusing reading.

Sourav Ganguly  – ‘The only CAB I know is the Cricket Association of Bengal. Now the country is going bonkers over CAB, NRC, CAA, whatever that is, and everyone thinks I have something to do with it. For God’s sake, leave me and my family alone. Even my daughter Sana has been dragged into this messy affair. She is supposed to have tweeted some message, when I know for a fact that she has not. All fake. Baaje kotha!

Sana Ganguly – ‘I don’t know how to tell Baba, but I did send that message that is creating so much disturbance. Actually, I didn’t compose any message. Just retweeted something someone else had said many years ago. Somebody called Khushwant Singh. No idea who he is, or was. Now my parents have gated me for one week. What about my Christmas and New Year parties? Sarbonaash!’

Derek O’Brien (Trinamool Congress)‘See my tee shirt? It’s got “NO NRC” and “NO CAA” scrawled in B-L-O-O-D. No, I tell a lie. It’s just red paint. I tried to get some volunteers to slash their wrists and donate some blood for the greater cause, but they just told me to go slash my own wrists. As I am anaemic and faint at the sight of blood, I took the easy way out. Though I must say it looked pretty dramatic on television. I was once an ad man, you know.’

Mamata Banerjee – ‘What nonsense this BJP is doing with CAA, CAB, BCCI, NRC ETC? I am now approaching United Nations to organise a referendum in India so that the real voice of our peoples will be heard. My party will not accept any of this, mind it! And why our Bengali cricket champion Sourav should get involved with Amit Shah’s son? Very worrying. Plus that Babul Supriyo fellow is also giving me headaches. Why can’t he just sing? His singing is much better than his politics. Even I am nowadays leading chorus singing. BJP CHI CHI, CAA CHI CHI, CAB CHI CHI, NRC CHI CHI , KA KA, KI KI. Ki korbo, bolo to!’

Arnab Goswami – ‘I have in my studio 27 people to talk about this CAB / NRC stir. Actually there’s not enough room on the television screen to accommodate so many people, so I have decided that they will all be huddled together in the same room and all of them will talk (read shout) at the same time. I believe in democracy, and if we can’t all listen to each other, we will talk at the top of our voices together. I will lead the chorus. All together now, let’s have some lung power…’

Rajdeep Sardesai – ‘Every time I attack the ruling party, my colleague Rahul Kanwar queers the pitch by coming up with a strong defence on the government’s behalf. Once or twice, he even checkmated me. This must stop. I will speak to our boss, Aroon Purie, and try and convince him that you can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. At least, not on the same channel.’

Nidhi Razdan – ‘Both Srinivasan Jain and I are fed to the back teeth trying to go one up on people like Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and Harish Salve. Despite all our homework and background checks, they seem to have all the answers. That does not make us look very bright. How can we attack the government if we keep talking to brilliant people like this? I am trying to approach Prannoy to get us some dullards to interview, but he is always relaxing somewhere in some beach resort with his pals Dorab and Shekhar with a cameraman in tow, trying to buttonhole some unsuspecting evening walker about pre-election polls. Nice job, if you can get it!’

Cyrus Broacha – ‘I am giving our Prime Minister 10 on10 for his overall performance. I am proud to be an Indian. People who say nasty things about him are all afflicted by that jealous green-eyed monster. Which reminds me, I must call the U.S. Consular office to check if my Green Card is ready. Gotta rush. Ciao!

Rahul Gandhi – ‘Let me get one thing straight. My name is not Rahul Savarkar. Truth to tell, my surname was actually, originally Ghandy and not Gandhi. But that’s another story. Half the time I wake up not knowing who I actually am, which country I belong to, what with my mother being an Italian and everything. One guy in Rome asked me if Mahatma Gandhi was my grandfather. I confused him, saying the Mahatma was my father, and the father of 130 crore Indians! That shut him up. Is it any wonder I have an identity problem?’

Amit Shah – ‘We may be losing some state elections here and there, but have no worry. We will not budge an inch on CAA, CAB and NRC or any other acronym you wish to hurl at me. And don’t smirk. I do know words like ‘acronym.’ And ‘smirk.’ Thanks to all you English channels, my English has improved. Thank you. Vande Mataram.’

The Prime Minister – ‘I am working very hard to achieve our target of becoming a US 5 trillion economy. To this end I will be visiting 10 countries over the next 15 days. Domestic issues? No problem. I have a strong team handling all such matters. What was that? You like my new glasses? Great, they are rose tinted. Jai Hind.’

Yesudas fluffs his lines

Image result for yesudas images

 Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Blaise Pascal.

The vexed question of whether women of a certain age group should be allowed to enter the hallowed portals of the Sabarimala temple and pay obeisance to the resident shrine, Lord Ayyappa, has been exercising the minds of men, women, government officials and judicial beaks for quite a while now. The latter two categories, of course, will also necessarily be classified under men or women. The judiciary pronounced initially in favour of women being allowed to enter the temple, but the verdict’s acceptance by the temple authorities as well as dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists of both sexes, is conspicuous by its absence. On the contrary, battle lines have been clearly drawn, and ardent devotees have boldly announced that any attempt by women to enter the temple premises will have to be, literally, over their dead bodies. Footage on our television screens showing a man chasing a woman outside the temple premises, spraying chilli powder made for abhorrent viewing.

It must be said that the highest law of the land, having given its verdict, has been strangely muted in its advocacy of the ruling being implemented pronto. They have been sitting on the fence, stating that it is not for them to get involved in the actual carrying out of the judgment. That the matter is now under a review petition and referred to a larger bench means the matter continues to hang in the balance. Doubtless a sensitive issue, the buck has now been passed by the gavel wielding wise men. I believe in the old Biblical dictum of ‘let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.’ Where will we common folk go if the courts start prevaricating and let ‘“I dare not” wait upon “I would”, like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?’

Which is why I was somewhat discomfited when one of India’s most popular, polyglot singers in the film playback and devotional segments, Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, known simply as Yesudas to his legion of fans, elected to hold forth on the powder keg issue of women’s access to the Sabarimala temple. Now, let me state outright that I yield to no one in my admiration for Yesudas’ mellifluous singing and dulcet tones. Some of his film songs have indelibly imprinted themselves in the annals of Indian film music. If not quite rubbing shoulders with Mohd. Rafi and Kishore Kumar, certainly pretty close to doing so. His devotional songs, particularly in his native tongue of Malayalam and other Indian languages, have sold in their millions worldwide. Apparently he has recorded well over 80,000 songs. That’s a lot of songs during a blazing career spanning over five decades. Yesudas certainly does not have to sing for his supper. He is also a Carnatic musician of some standing, but I will reserve my judgment on where he stands in the pantheon of stalwarts in this art form.

That said, where does my discomfiture spring from? It has to do with a recent newspaper report in which Yesudas gave it as his considered opinion that women devotees entering Sabarimala will ‘distract’ the devout males who throng in their millions for a darshan. Apparently during their period of worship, they are required to remain both abstemious as well as self-abnegating from any physical relationship with the opposite sex. Which is not to suggest that same sex dalliance is kosher, but you get my drift. Before I critique Yesudas’ stated position, it should be emphasised that the man with the golden voice, though belonging nominally to the Christian faith, has had no problem in embracing a plethora of religions during the course of his hugely successful musical journey. This theological multiplicity is an ambiguity he has lived quite comfortably with. More importantly, his army of fans have accepted his versatile position wholeheartedly, and one must doff one’s hat to his singular status in India’s music world because of this. Some cynics might scoff that this is nothing more than a brilliant marketing gimmick, taking advantage of his musical ability, to gain pan India recognition. That, however, would be uncharitable to a musician who has won the hearts of millions purely through his variegated attributes as a singer.

However, I must express my reservation at Yesudas’ ingenuous statements on the Sabarimala issue. To bolster his contention that women visiting the Sabarimala shrine will distract male devotees from their undivided obeisance to the deity, he goes on to say, ‘If a beautiful girl goes to Sabarimala with the kind of attire they wear today, Lord Ayyappa will not even open his eyes and see. But other Ayyappas (devotees) will see (the women) and it is not good. Their intention would change. That is why we tell them (the women) not to go. There are other temples and they can go there.’ He concludes by saying that times have changed from the days when a man would not even glance at his wife during the 41 day vratham (abstinence)period before visiting the shrine – rounding off with an earnest plea to women devotees, ‘Please don’t tempt Ayyappa’s devotees.’

I find Yesudas’ statements completely out of whack at so many levels. The naivety is incomprehensible. If it is his contention that men will be distracted by women during their prayers at Sabarimala, why should it be all right for the women to go to other temples? Will there be no men to disturb women’s peace of mind there? I am aware that there are a handful of temples in the country that allow entry only for women, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, before Yesudas provided his piercing insights on the subject, the temple authorities’ view was that the godhead Ayyappa will himself be disturbed and they will not countenance such an awful eventuality while prayers are being offered! Excuse me? There is also something quite misogynistic about these arguments. Women are being portrayed as sultry temptresses driving the men to distraction, whereas there is no suggestion that women can be equally put out if they are so inclined, by ubiquitous bare-chested men in places of worship. If the inference is that women have greater self-control over their emotions, I am happy to go along with that view, for the simple reason that that is verifiably true. And pray, what is this business about ‘with the kind of attire they wear?’ As far as I can tell, women who visit temples are nearly always attired properly in keeping with our best traditions of modesty and appropriateness. In the unlikely event that a young lady is misguided enough to visit a temple in a mini skirt, tight jeans or a skimpy dress, I am sure she will be quietly asked to go home and return after changing into something more suitable. The assumption is galling, leave alone the conclusions being drawn on that basis. Other issues to do with women being ‘out of doors’ (read periods) and so on, I do not wish to touch upon as it is not strictly relevant to the primary thrust of this discussion.

Over the centuries traditions across the world, including our Hindu forms of worship, the restrictions and control lines imposed, have seen many fluctuations in keeping with changing mores and times. Tonsured widows being a prime example, leave alone the barbaric practice of suttee. Which is why a democratic country like India proudly boasts of an enlightened citizenry and a robust judicial system to help us manage these vicissitudes. However, fat lot of good having a robust judiciary does if implementation on sensitive issues such as the one under discussion becomes unimplementable. The matter is fraught enough without all and sundry, including the Yesudases of the world giving free rein to their gauche opinions and the media only too happy to lap them up and add their own spicy twist.

I can think of no better way to conclude this reflection than to quote cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, ‘Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.’

It is that time of the year again

Image result for sanjay subrahmanyan images
Sanjay Subrahmanyan in full flow

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible, is music. Aldous Huxley.

The 2019 Chennai Music Season is upon us. The 2018 Season seems just like yesterday. A pleasant aural illusion. Over recent decades, we have witnessed a massive upsurge in the interest and enthusiasm evinced in Carnatic music. Those who brought about this tectonic shift to the Carnatic music scene at the turn of the millennium are today’s superstars. In their wake, another clutch of youngsters has put their hands up, and are packing the audiences in. The sabha managements are deliriously happy, and for a brief period of 3 or 4 weeks, the secretaries and committee members rule the roost, possessively handing out tickets and passes like they are going out of fashion. Yes, we are aware that full houses are the sole preserve of a few big names, but that has always been the case.

It is therefore a challenge to write a refreshingly original piece on the Season, because most of the observations, once considered novel, now appear trite. However, one thing can be said. In more recent years, we have had happenings (not always savoury) that have riveted the public’s attention. The ‘Me Too’ brouhaha had everybody talking about things other than Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s Todi or Ranjani Gayatri’s abhangs. Fortunately, the pruriently exaggerated interest shown in these salacious news reports were relatively short lived, and the named and shamed appear to be carrying on with their professional lives with insouciance. Speaking of ‘savoury’, the only savouries worth giving a once over are those to be found in the sabha canteens.

If you ask me it is a good thing that public memory is short. Nobody went to court, nothing was demonstrably proven but a bit of muck stuck. Doubtless it is now completely washed off and consigned to a rapidly distant and fading memory bank. Let me hasten to add that it is not my case that those who were the alleged victims of these alleged misdeeds should not be given a sympathetic and fair hearing. The same applies to those charged as well. The problem is, once you start talking to the media in high dudgeon and play the victim card, you’ve got to be prepared to go all the seamy way, if you’ll pardon the unintended double entendre. That involves muck raking and finger pointing which no one, least of all in this environment wants. My best advice to anyone who knows for sure that she is being harassed, just administer a tight slap with plenty of wrist work and follow through, or a swift kick at the offender’s nether regions and move on, and make sure he does not darken your doors ever again. You will feel elevated about it and the glad-eyed Casanova will never bother you. Caution: You had better be right and not merely vindictive, else retribution will be swift.

On to more pleasant subjects. While Carnatic music is the dominant presence on display during the Season, other art forms find their own dedicated space. There are classical dance performances, primarily Bharatanatyam which most sabhas try to fit in. In fact, the Music Academy has an entire fortnight dedicated to a classical dance festival close on the heels of the music series. Then there are Tamil dramas staged by some sabhas during the festival, plenty of lecture demonstrations every morning where experts go into the theory and practice of Carnatic music. Unlikely as it may seem, some of these lecdems can get quite tense at times, with gnarled veterans crossing swords over some obscure technical issue. The moderator has a hard time maintaining the peace.

 In recent times, programmes of a more eclectic variety have begun to make their presence felt. The likes of Anil Srinivasan (The Piano Man), Sikkil Gurucharan, Jayanti Kumaresh and U.Rajesh (to shoot a clutch of names off the cuff) think outside the box to perform and discuss various aspects of Indian and global music to entertain and enlighten the audience. The coup de grace, (I have said this before, and I will say it again) is historian Sriram V’s morning illustrative lectures on past masters:  always a blockbuster. Even standing room is not available if you’re tardy in arriving. He has an easy, jocular, laidback, conversational style of presenting his celebrated subjects, speaking ambidextrously in English and Tamil. He is unfailingly introduced to the audience as ‘the Neville Cardus of Carnatic music.’

At the end of the day, however, it is the music that must take pride of place during what everybody and his uncle refers to as ‘the Music Season.’ A frenzied air of anticipation and excitement is palpable in the ether. If you hang around in the portals of the venerable Music Academy, Madras (I am glad they didn’t change the nomenclature to the populist Chennai) during The Fortnight, the corridors will be buzzing with self-appointed experts, poseurs, academics, young hopefuls, music lovers and, of course, the odd sprinkling of foreign culture vultures who visit to take in what is arguably the biggest classical music festival of its kind. Groups of aficionados can be seen huddled in corners or in the canteen (always the canteen) animatedly discussing some arcane points of music. The sweet strains of Kalyani and Kambhoji literally suffuse the air. Lately, some of the bigger stars, if seen in public view, are avidly approached for selfies and autographs. Last year, Sanjay Subrahmanyan T-shirts were being worn by a large group of fans (bhakts), many from across the seas. Move over, Ed Sheeran.

As we slip into December, and as the musical tempo rises, a whole phalanx of supremely talented musicians, who have been laying down a marker this past few years, is making its presence felt. There are many such potential stars on the horizon, and subjectively naming a personal selection would be invidious. Suffice it to say that the health of Carnatic music is sound and in tune. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of Carnatic music are greatly exaggerated.

Kind permission of Deccan Chronicle 11/12/2019