Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
I read voraciously. I write obsessively. The reading aids the writing. Any Rushdie will tell you that. The reading bug took hold of me, in a serious way, rather late in life; only about twenty years ago. Prior to that I read fitfully and my oeuvre was largely confined to P.G. Wodehouse and his ilk. The Master of humour wrote, for the most part, in a time-warped bubble of an innocently imagined England of a bygone era. He made me laugh out loud. LOL, as today’s social media generation would have it. And whenever I did write on any subject, Wodehouse’s influence was palpable, an influence I am loath to jettison, though I have striven hard in recent times to develop a voice of my own. Not easy, mind you, but as the poet T.H. Palmer so succinctly put it, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ It can be trying, but one keeps trying, if you catch my drift.
Latterly, I have been devouring the works of many authors, both contemporary and of an earlier vintage. Whether it was Damon Runyon, writing about guys, dolls and wise guys during the notorious prohibition era in America and who, astonishingly, wrote all his short stories entirely in the present tense, or the new age British glamour writers with a more literary bent, like V.S. Naipaul, Martin Amis (son of Kingsley ‘Lucky Jim’ Amis), Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie (I see him as a British Indian, though he became an American citizen in 2016) and a handful of others who keep me elevated and entertained at the same time. One of these days, I’ll get around to Jane Austen – watching Pride and Prejudice or Emma on film doesn’t count. What is more, all of the above named, without exception, can turn out an ineffably beautiful sentence. It comes as no surprise that Salman Rushdie wrote copy for a reputed advertising agency in London, before raking in the shekels as a full time novelist.
That said, there was a notable gap in my reading of this highly decorated author. I was being asked by all and sundry if I had read Salman Rushdie’s 1981 blockbuster classic, Midnight’s Children, his breakthrough novel. Most of those who probed me had not read the book themselves, which I thought was a bit cheeky. I had read about it, of course, and I was reluctant to take the coward’s way out with that well-worn cliché, ‘I’ve seen the film,’ which I haven’t. I kept close tabs on reviews galore and accolades that followed the author, all of which made Salman Rushdie an international celebrity overnight. A few years after Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s fame gravitated into the hallowed space of notoriety when he published The Satanic Verses, which was banned in many countries, including India, as these verses referring to pagan goddesses, were deemed anathema to the Islamic religion. The offending verses were believed to have been inserted by Satan into the Holy Book. Rushdie himself fervently denied any hurt intended or expressed towards the religion and issued an apology, but try telling that to the Ayatollah Khomeini who was not impressed and issued the ‘off-with-his-head’ fatwa. A price was placed on Rushdie’s head by leaders of the Islamic faith. All of which, naturally, made the book even more talked about, and it flew off the shelves like those proverbial hot cakes. If Midnight’s Children altered the course of Rushdie’s life bringing fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, The Satanic Verses brought more fame allied to notoriety, presaging danger to life and limb under the sinister ministrations of religious intolerance and fundamentalism. Like V.S. Naipaul before him, Rushdie’s most trenchant critics invariably never read the book. The poor chap, now a hunted man, had to become incognito and went into hiding for extended periods.
In spite of all this unwanted attention swirling around Rushdie’s head, or perhaps because of it, the Bombay born author became the toast of the literary world while others, more inimically inclined had their knives out and were threatening to turn him into toast! He even appeared in the odd film, most notably a cameo as himself in the hit comedy, Bridget Jones’s Diary. A cause célèbre, our Sir Salman. Yes, the icing on the cake was the knighthood he received for literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2007. ‘Arise, Sir Salman.’, intoned Her Majesty, as she dubbed him Knight. An accolade that was received with unbounded joy by his admirers and, in equal measure, with unconcealed revulsion by those clerics who wanted him put down.
Such was the ironic existence of this iconoclastic writer. Meanwhile, I was yet to lay my hands on a Salman Rushdie book, and this was beginning to irk and get me talked about in a distinctly patronising manner by the cognoscenti. ‘What are you telling me, you have not yet read Midnight’s Children? And you have the gall to call yourself an aspiring writer? Aspirated writer would be more the mot juste.’ This and variants of the same, I had to put up with on a daily basis. To my biting counter question, ‘Big deal, have you read Midnight’s Children?’ the conversation amongst the literati would adroitly shift to, ‘Is Arundhati Roy’s activism harming her writing?’ or the impending threat to the earth’s green cover or the ozone layer, not that anyone is in the least bit bothered about what happens to the ozone layer, with the exception of a clutch of environmentalists and the polar bear, I am guessing.
To get back to Midnight’s Children, I finally took the bold decision to buy the book. A couple of taps on my desktop keyboard, and the next thing I knew, the Amazon masked man was at our gates with the bulging parcel. I had to keep the bubble wrapped packet in home quarantine for 48 hours thanks to the pandemic, and at last I was able to hold the book in my hands. After riffling through the pages and smelling it, which I do with all new books (a schoolboy habit), I placed it on my work table and carefully considered this voluminous opus. It was a paperback edition, the imported hard cover would have blown a gaping hole in my bank balance. At 650 pages, Midnight’s Children weighed in impressively, easily qualifying as a heavyweight amongst books, literally and metaphorically. Off hand, I can readily think of only Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which packed in substantially more words. So there it was, Midnight’s Children, resting serenely on my bedside table waiting for my studious attention. I let a few days pass, allowing the book to marinate, in a manner of speaking, while I quickly flipped through Wodehouse’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit for the sixth time to get me nicely warmed up for the big ‘un.
The thing of it was that the 650 pages was proving to be a dampening deterrent. I was also concerned that long periods of holding the book in my hands could cause irreparable harm to my wrists, particularly the carpal and scaphoid bones, which need to be in mint condition to do pretty much anything mundane and routine. Every now and then, I would gently lift the book up, lower it down and put it back on the table, weighing up the options, thinking I would come back when I was good and ready. To read a book of the heft of Midnight’s Children, you need to be physically in shipshape order and mentally agile. Under such arduously challenging circumstances, procrastination was an easy option. ‘Let the weekend pass,’ I would mutter to myself, ‘and I should be prepared to dive headlong into it from Monday.’ Any time but now, about summed up my state of mind.
What is it about fat volumes that turns one off so? Whereas other past best-sellers like Love Story and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull barely went beyond 140 pages before Messers Erich Segal and Richard Bach decided to down tools. Lazy sods! Of course, Love Story was merely an unabashedly lachrymose tear jerker with a great opening line, and I cannot possibly place Erich Segal’s pot boiler alongside Rushdie’s monumental MC. It was just this illogical mental block that kept me from picking up MC and giving Rushdie the once over. Finally, finally I took courage in my hands and decided to break the deadlock. I started reading the blasted thing, digging in for the long haul. Let me quickly add, right here and now, lest you get ideas, that I am not going to talk about the book’s contents or even remotely attempt to review or critique it. I simply do not possess the literary or intellectual wherewithal. Suffice to say that, far from being a plodding, tedious drudge that books in excess of 500 pages usually turn out to be, this one was a blast. I finished the book in six days flat, far from my original apprehension of having to pore over it in instalments over six months. Put me in mind of Wodehouse’s wry observation that the problem with Russian novels was that you had to plough through 400 pages before the first murder took place in some remote gulag! Not so with Rushdie’s MC. I did not experience that sinking feeling that I had just run the marathon and collapsed unconscious at the end of it. Far from it. It helped greatly that the story was set in the Indian sub-continent, the protagonist taking us on a rip-roaring, hair-raising journey beginning ‘at the stroke of the midnight hour’ on August 15, 1947, all the way down to the Indira Gandhi dynasty’s shenanigans. The novel was a heady combination of ‘magic realism and historiographic metafiction’, as described by some literary pundit, and who am I to argue with that? That’s about as much as I am willing to divulge.
As for the 650 pages of Salman Rushdie’s brilliance, having gone through it like a breeze, I have drastically revised my biased opinion on fat books. Other than the fact that they pose serious problems in terms of space management in my home library, not to mention wrist sprain, I shall now warmly welcome corpulent tomes into my humble abode, without prejudging them purely on the basis of their obesity. To conclude, I can do no better than to quote Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, ‘Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look……..Let me have men about me that are fat.’ My thoughts exactly, Julius. Only, my thoughts extend to the rarefied world of books.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:1–9.
According to the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, there are 22 languages officially listed and recognised in India. Unofficially, other sources credit our polyglot nation with figures running into well over a staggering 1500 languages, but this is almost certainly a gross misinterpretation that includes derivatives, dialects and local patois that differ from district to district and sometimes, even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in the same town or city. Biblical references to the Tower of Babel only partially tell us why the world is possessed of so many linguistic variations, though India is not, unsurprisingly, included in its theological proclamations. Small wonder then, that ‘the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.’ Without getting into a needless mental twist over it, we will accord due respect to our Constitution and stick to the stated 22 languages which, quite honestly, should be enough to be getting along with.
My current focus however, is not so much to get into the nitty-gritty of the intricacies and nuances of India’s linguistic multiplicity, but to take a somewhat left field, light hearted look at how English is spoken in different parts of our country, and how certain English phrases and expressions have been given a uniquely Indian flavour, which owes much to the idiosyncrasies of a particular regional tongue, as it could be Tamil, Bengali or Hindi, to cite three examples I am familiar with. The exercise here is to highlight some of the more commonly heard Indo-English phrases, a kind of pidgin combo, that tellingly mark out a person as hailing from this or that state. To give you a sampler, I might add that even the word ‘hailing’ which I just employed in the previous sentence is more commonly used in India (in that context), particularly in the south, than even in the United Kingdom. For instance, if you approached Mr. Ramaswamy from Tamil Nadu and ask him where he comes from, more often than not he is likely to respond by saying, ‘Sir, I hail from Madurai.’ The pride conveyed in pinpointing the place of origin in his voice is unmistakable. What’s more, Mr. Ramaswamy is likely to sniff in a superior manner if you told him you ‘hail’ from neighbouring Dindigul. As for my Bengali dentist, Mr. Ghosh, he would probe into my cavity with a sharp, pointy instrument and inquire solicitously if I felt any ‘pen’ and proceed to write out a prescription with his Sheaffer fountain ‘pain.’ Altogether a most ‘penful’ experience.
With that brief background let us dive headlong into our subject matter. A caveat. This is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive list (none exists, as far as I know). Au contraire, they are merely turns of phrase or expressions taken arbitrarily out of my own memory bank. It can only be roughly representative. I have selected three languages to illustrate the essence of this piece – Bengali, Tamil and Hindi. I am sure you, dear reader, can add your own list culled from your personal experience. That said, here goes nothing.
Although born into a Tamil speaking family, I spent close to five decades in the mock-modestly named City of Joy – Calcutta. The steaming, teeming metropolis has now been officially accorded its original Bengali moniker, Kolkata, but I make no apology for referring to it as Calcutta, or even the colloquially anglicised, Cal. Old habits die hard. One of the many joys of living in that vibrant city is that you have no option but to learn to speak Bengali. A Dada ektu please here, a Dada khoob dhannobad there, they all add up and contribute towards keeping the wheels of progress well oiled. After all, even the regal former Indian cricket skipper (potentially a future Chief Minister), Sourav Ganguly, was known the world over as simply, Dada. (Geoff Boycott has sole rights to the sobriquet, ‘The Prince of Calcutta.’)
A majority of the non-Bengali population who lived and worked in Calcutta spoke the local lingo with varying degrees of competence. A peculiar avenue of pleasure was to listen to the average Bengali, not the burra sahib corporate type who wined and dined at the upper-crust Bengal Club and spoke the Queen’s English while spearing into his grilled salmon. Rather, I am speaking of your everyday Bengali babu sitting behind a grimy, termite ravaged table in a bank, post office or even an advertising agency, often clad in the traditional dhuti panajbi. This sturdy son of the soil was never happier than when showing off his unique brand of English, while helping himself to a paper bag full of jhal muri (spiced puffed rice), dragging on a Charminar, swatting flies and keeping his perspiration under control with his hand held bamboo fan and a moist hand towel – all the while shaking his legs and even his entire body in a furious metronomic rhythm, a typically unconscious, nervous habit that evidently aids concentration!
Here’s the bank clerk – ‘Ore, Shubromonyom Saheb, please wait moshai! It is only ten phiphtin am. Will phinish my cha and carrom board game. You want Passh Book aapdate? Shamay laagbe. Reelax. You want matka cha? Bhery bhery teshty. Why you must hurry burry? Taara kisher? Always you want to raan raan raan. Ektu boshun. Read Teshmann pepper. Gabhashkar century mereche, aar Bishonath wattay stylish tharty phor, umpire phaltu elbeedubloo diyeche, shuar ka baccha! Tomorrow, amader jamai babu, Prosonno bowling korben. Daroon oph- speen bowler, saala.’ (Note: Prasanna was married to a Bengali which gave him special bragging rights in the affections of the Bengali populace).
My advertising agency Studio Manager – ‘Mister Shuresh Babu, what you are thinking? This is joke or what? Why you are so narvaas? You are saabmitting requisition today and you want phinished artwork tomorrow? Baa, baa, khoob bhaalo. I am not P.C. Shorkar for doing magic. What? Client is souting? You tell client, “Baadi jao.” What she is thinking about himself? Saala! Ek second. Oueels Filter aachhe? Give me two, bhaalo chhele. Khoob cheshta korbo my lebhel best to give artwork tomorrow.’
Two Wills Filter fags and you were home and dry. You would have observed that my ad agency studio manager had problems distinguishing the genders when speaking in English. This is a characteristic trait in Bengal. They get the ‘he’ and ‘she’ mixed up, primarily because the Bengali language does not make the distinction. Their gender is neutral, hence the confusion, which manifests itself when they speak English.
When it comes to Tamil, my mother tongue, I have always been grateful to my parents that they insisted on their children conversing in Tamil at home, as far as possible. I emphasise this because my younger brother and I spent much of our childhood in a predominantly English speaking boarding house, and left to our devices, we might have paid scant attention to Tamil. My older brother had no such issues since he grew up in Madras and was fluent in the local lingo. That said, your average Mr. Everyman in Tamil Nadu, possessed a strange penchant for injecting his Tamil sentences with a generous dose of his own brand of English. From the bus conductor who signals his driver to move on with a stentorian ‘Right, right,’ to the classic ‘Romba thanks,’ which is an indelible part of our lexicon.
Our General Physician, Dr. Srinivasan – ‘Hullo, young man. Enna problem? Stomachaa? Loose motionaa? Open your mouth, aaaaa kami. Good. Feverish? No? (places thermometer under my tongue, and hums a snatch of Bhairavi while waiting). Mild joram. Slight infection irukku. Nothing to worry. Strict diet for three days, okayaa? Plenty of fluids and buttermilk, seriyaa? Entero Quinol tablet prescribe pannaren. You can go.’ (As I leave, the good doctor begins to render, under his breath, Tyagaraja’s immortal Entero Mahanubhavulu in the raga Shree).
My father, a scrupulously upright banker (pouring his woes to my mother) – ‘That union leader Brahma, avan oru suddha blackguard! He should be called Brahmmahatthi. Cantankerous madayat*. 20% bonus declare pannalenna strike threaten pannaran, bloody fool of an ass. He thinks he is a periya pista, arrogant fellow. Mannangatti. Tomorrow naan Chairmana confront panna poren. He should be sacked, this Brahma idiot, illenna ennoda resignation letter readiyya irukku.’ (*Madayat, an ingenious combo of ‘madayan’ and ‘idiot,’ both meaning the same thing.)
At which point, my mother’s face turns ashen and she hares off to the kitchen, before the milk boils over.
To conclude, a brief look at our rashtra bhasha. Many regions, notably from the south, railed against the imposition of Hindi as the national language, but over time, they have all come to accept it as a necessary evil. Stands to reason. You can’t go around enjoying the antics of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, keep singing Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar hits on social media, and not accept the language. Once again, I turn to my departed father. Despite his lengthy innings in Calcutta, there was no way he was going to learn to speak Bengali. That said, for the sake of survival, he was more than willing to struggle gamely with Hindi, grammar can take a back seat. And the devil take the hindmost! Here he is, taking our Bihari driver to task in chaste Hinglish! Shades of Mehmood in Padosan.
‘Again, tum itna late aata hai. Humka office meeting mein bahut delay ho gaya. Aisa karne se kaisa hoga? This is not good, Mr. Shiv Prasad, acchha nahin, bahut karaab. Punctuality bahut important. Once more aisa karne se strong action lena padega. Yeh final warning. Tum jaa sakta.’
That was about as tough as my father got with the domestics. The ultimate irony of all this is that most Indians will look askance at you should you attempt to speak proper English. As for those ne’er do wells who keep mocking me for employing words and phrases that are rarely used and bracketing me with the bombastic Shashi Tharoor, my stinging riposte is, ‘The words and phrases are there, somebody’s got to use them.’ I’ll leave the final word to Shaw’s immortal creation, Professor Henry Higgins –
Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning
The Hebrews learn it backwards
Which is absolutely frightening
But use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak
If that makes me a freak, so be it. As my Bengali bank clerk might have pithily put it, ‘What goes my father, saala!’
Manohar (Manu) Rajaram Chhabria (1946 – 2002), or MRC, was perhaps the most discussed business tycoon during the ‘80s and’90s. Rising like a Phoenix from the electronics shops of Lamington Road in Mumbai, the mercurial corporate gadfly dropped anchor in Dubai, founding his flagship Jumbo Electronics. Whence he proceeded on an acquisition spree of blue chip companies during the latter half of the ‘80s. Shaw Wallace, Dunlop, Mather & Platt, Hindustan Dorr Oliver and Gordon Woodroffe were among his stunning trophies. The Indian media couldn’t get enough of him. He was their controversial poster boy, headlining the business narrative.
MRC was a one-off. They broke the mould after him. No respecter of reputations, he would freely speak his mind, often in a tone and language that would make an inebriated sailor blush. His fellow corporate honchos, many of them captains of industry in their own right, never quite knew what to make of him. He kept them constantly off kilter. Utterly charming one minute, apt to fly off the handle the next. A chronic diabetic, he would lapse into fits of choleric rage at the slightest provocation. A Janus faced chameleon. A PR manager’s nightmare.
MRC was nothing if not compelling. He had his own, self- taught way of expressing himself. His English was not straight out of the hallowed portals of Oxbridge, but you had no trouble following his thought process, once you got past the polyglot sprinkling of profanity. Or perhaps, because of it! He was always nattily turned out, blue pinstripes being a particular favourite. The vertiginous vicissitudes of his journey have been well documented, and do not bear repetition. Suffice to say that his meteoric rise and untimely demise are now an indelible part of India’s business and corporate folklore.
This piece describes an extremely personal and unique experience that your chronicler had with MRC. One of many, but one that accurately portrays the man’s native sapience and brilliant turn of originality.
It was mid -1987. Manu Chhabria had wrested total management control of Dunlop India in Calcutta, the consequence of an uneasy partnership with a reputed industrial group. I was a middle level manager, looking after advertising at the tyre major. Normally, I would have least expected the Chairman of the Board to want to interact with someone of my humble station. He had Directors and Vice Presidents aplenty at his beck and call. But call me he did, and what followed is the prime raison d’etre for this amusing anecdote. Allowing for some inevitable garnishing, the telling is accurate. I remember it vividly.
On the day prior to our scheduled meeting, MRC’s secretary called me up to say that he would meet me at his plush, oak-panelled office in Shaw Wallace in Bankshall Street, Calcutta. I was commanded to make a presentation of Dunlop’s recent advertising campaigns, after which he wished to brief me on a highly confidential project. The meeting was scheduled for 11 am. We met at 6 pm, which was par for the course with him. To his credit, he inquired solicitously if I had lunched. I answered in the affirmative, and he waved to me to proceed. On asking him if anyone else was attending the meeting he responded tartly, “Is the Chairman of the company not good enough for you?” That went straight home and rammed me in the solar plexus, and I learnt a salutary lesson – do not ask needless questions.
I proceeded to take him through the recent history of Dunlop’s advertising. The presentation was made with the aid of a Kodak Carousel projector with a tray containing 80 plastic mounted slides. We were still eons away from laptops and Windows Power Point. As the room was darkened, the better to read the slides and view the pictures, I couldn’t actually see my boss’s face. While I kept droning on about radial tyres and market shares, there would emanate from his direction, a gentle, rythmic snore. At first, I thought it was a stray gnat or bee or some such winged insect, come to join the proceedings. When I realized, it was the Chairman enjoying his post prandial nap, I would stop my rambling, and wait uneasily for him to wake up. Given his impossible flight schedules, I was attributing his nodding-off to jet lag. When he realized my comforting, soporific prattle had abruptly ceased, he would open his eyes and bid me to carry on, adding gratuitously, “Sometimes, the presentation gets boring, so I just close my eyes. But you just go ahead. I am absorbing everything. You are doing a good job.”
In this strange manner, we continued for another half hour or so, when he abruptly stood up and announced, “That will do. I get the general idea. I will come and see you in Dunlop tomorrow on a most important matter.” I was relieved to have been stopped in my tracks. Tomorrow is another day. The venue for our meeting was shifted to the Shaw Wallace HQ, though I would have preferred to beard the lion in my own den at Dunlop House. Slotted for 12 noon, the Chairman waltzed in ‘promptly’ at 4pm, with a couple of obsequious henchmen in tow. I took the strategic precaution of requesting a creative boffin from our advertising agency to accompany me, but only after timorously seeking MRC’s assent, lest he should rap me on the knuckles for being presumptuous. With the benefit of hindsight, it turned out to be a wise decision.
He got straight to the point. “The Chhabria Group is to make a presentation to the Board of Directors of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. In Hong Kong. We are seeking some financial gearing from them, and need to make a favourable impression. I want you to produce a film on our Group that will impress the hell out of them. You have exactly 15 days.” I was foxed and flustered. Some brief this! It was brief all right, but I was struggling. What about the content? Where will I get all the information? What tack should I take? He could sense my discomfiture. “Oh don’t worry, my dear. I will instruct my CEOs to give you all the information you want. For now, you are the boss, as I will be away in Dubai.”
“Thank you Sir,” I sputtered. “Given the tight schedule, I may have to bring the film directly to Hong Kong.” He winked at me knowingly and said, “Trip maarna hai, kya? No problem. You come.” I stuck my neck out and said, “Sir, it would help if you could let me know what kind of people will be sitting on that board, so I can capture the right tone.” I thought he was about to explode, as patience was not one of the Chairman’s prominent virtues. Surprisingly, he turned all amicable and said, “That is a very good point, mere dost. I think we understand each other. Ok, I will tell you what I want.”
“I am going to talk to you about suits,’ he opened, opaquely. “Not the legal types, but the suits we wear. See, if I want to get myself a smashing suit, I can approach three different types of tailors.” I was not sure where he was going with this, but I found myself, ridiculously, writing the words ‘pinstripes’ and ‘charcoal grey’ in my notepad. The sartorial angle was rife with creative possibilities. My ad agency friend went all rigid early in the proceedings. Rigor mortis had set in. He had never attended a meeting like this in his young life.
Mr. Chhabria pressed on, warming to his subject. “You can go to a highly respected tailor like Barkat Ali in Calcutta. He will take your measurements, call you for a trial one week later. Are you following me so far?” “Yes Sir,” I said dubiously, illegibly scribbling words like ‘Barkat Ali,’ ‘one week trial’ and similar inanities. He continued. “When you wear this suit and walk down Park Street, people will stop you and go, ‘Arre wah Chhabria Saheb, what a lovely suit. Must be Barkat Ali’s.’ You get my point?” I nodded weakly. My legs had turned to jelly.
“Now imagine a Chinese tailor, Ching Chong Cho in Hong Kong,” he continued animatedly. He was in his elements. “You can go to his showroom on Nathan Road, get measured out at 11 am, come back at 2 pm for a trial fit out, and collect the finished suit the same evening. Next morning, when you walk down Causeway Bay, people will look at you admiringly and say, ‘What a fantastic suit, Mr. Chhabria, must be Ching Chong Cho’s.’ Are you still with me, young man?” I was with him all right, literally, but still groping. However, I was starting to get the drift. I was all intense concentration, my eyebrows knit so close together they had become one straight line!
“Finally,” said the Chairman, shooting his cuffs excitedly, ostentatiously revealing his luxury Patek Phillipe chronometer. “Gieves & Hawkes of No.1 Savile Row, one of the most famous tailors in the world. They make suits for billionaires and royalty. They will decide if you are fit to wear one of their suits. Get my meaning? Naturally, they will accept someone like me, but not you,” he said, reassuringly. “They will take their own sweet time for trial and delivery. Otherwise, they will politely show you the door. When you finally wear the suit, and take a stroll down Regent Street, the English gentlemen will nod in silent approval. No word spoken. Now, do you understand what I am talking about, meri jaan?”
“I think I get it, Sir. You are looking for understated elegance. Rather like the British directors you will be meeting at The Hong Kong Bank.”
Mr. Chhabria stood up, pumped my hands warmly and said, “Corrrrrrrect, my friend. You have fully understood my thinking. Now I have nothing to worry about.” We were shown out of the office. My ad agency friend made straight for the nearest bar.
The film got made in ten days flat. The content of the film, the group company results and so on were totally irrelevant. When we played it to the predominantly British members of the Hong Kong Bank board, a couple of whom were Peers of the Realm, they loved it for the background score containing some of the finest passages from the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin et al. They warmly congratulated Mr. Chhabria, and I was on cloud nine for the next few weeks.
I have no idea if Mr. Chhabria’s financial objectives with the Bank were met as a result of my efforts. I rather doubt it, given the way things unravelled later on for him, his rivals wallowing in their schadenfreude. This much, however, I can say. Nobody that I can think of could have provided such a uniquely original brief for such an important presentation. Granted it was all instinctive, gut feel, seat-of-the pants stuff, but it was completely out of the box, and enabled those of us receiving his instruction, to get inside his mind and deliver a product that made sense and everyone happy. If I had my way, I would have this experience included as a case study at all our leading management schools.
Extracted from my book ‘A brush with Mr. Naipaul (and other stories).’
It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Old proverb.
The Grand Old Party is shedding young and bright talent with metronomic regularity; like it’s going out of fashion. Troubling times ahead with dark clouds gathering over the horizon. Some of the more prominent faces who have been given ‘the big ignore,’ and elected to exit stage left (pursued by a bear) include the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia and Hemanta Biswa Sarma, who have seamlessly walked into the loving and capacious arms of the ruling BJP. To the Congress Party’s predictably boring accusations of chicanery and skulduggery on BJP’s part, the latter have invariably responded by expostulating, ‘What do you want us to do if you are unable to mind your own house, and the disaffected young Turks choose to move in with us?’ That’s a tried and tested response by the ruling party, while the Congress in its chagrin, flails its arms in righteous and helpless indignation.
As we pen this missive (or depress the keys at any rate), another young Congress Turk, Sachin Pilot, finds himself at odds with his erstwhile, long-in-the-tooth chums at his party in the state of Rajasthan. The state’s Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, has even gone so far as to accuse Sachin Pilot of being young, good looking and blessed with an ability to speak good English! Case closed. Top that for damning with faint praise. Matters have come to a pretty pass, such that eminent lawyers in flowing black silk and judges donning white wigs (speaking metaphorically) are flailing their own arms in court, adducing arguments suggesting foul play on Chief Minister Gehlot’s part, while the CM’s legal counsel are not to be found wanting in the arms-flailing department in defence of the canny, veteran Chief Minister. Everything said and done, it’s clearly open season for arms flailing.
A quick aside is in order at this point. How and why did the term ‘young Turk’ come about? I am at a complete loss to ascertain the etymology of this expression. Google is parsimonious with its explanation, merely confining itself to saying the term ‘young Turk’ is employed ‘to signify a progressive, revolutionary or rebellious member of an organisation, political party, especially one agitating for political reform.’ Most of the rebels we have come across are agitated primarily in the matter of career advancement, or rather, the lack of it. Witness Sachin Pilot’s recent saga. I guess I will have to dig deeper into Turkish history to glean arcane facts, possibly about some firebrand youngster in Istanbul who set himself aflame for a noble cause. For the moment I will live with that imagined explanation of my own making.
To revert to the point at issue, while seeking your indulgence for that brief Turkish diversion, the latest Congress worker, another bright young spark (57 can be considered young by political standards), Sanjay Jha, has decided to go on the front foot in his denunciation of his party, though he fully anticipates a swift expulsion from the high command any time now. Sanjay Jha was once a cricket writer and has written a cricket anthology titled, ‘11 Triumphs, Trials and Turbulence: Indian Cricket 2003-2010.’ That being the case, playing on the front or back foot should come naturally to him and he has put his podiatric agility to good use during his still maturing political career which may, for the nonce, have ground to a screeching halt. While it is debatable how many triumphs he has experienced, there is little doubt that he is facing considerable trials and turbulence at this point in time, stemming primarily from what is being seen by his party apparatchiks as his intemperate and untimely remarks about the Congress’ ongoing troubles. For a politician who, as one of the party’s spokespersons, has been indefatigably eloquent on our television news channels on a variety of issues in defence of his party and the Gandhis, which is the same thing, his current fall from grace is a telling commentary on the Congress party’s firm resolve to root out dissent in any way, shape or form. From being removed as one of the party’s mouthpieces he has subsequently been suspended and, by his own admission, is in clear and present danger of being shunted out from the party altogether. Overly fond of the phrase ‘end of day,’ let’s hope the expression does not come back to haunt Mr. Jha.
Sanjay Jha, incidentally, is not new to controversy. In a series of gaffes over the years, he has claimed that BJP veteran, firebrand Subramanian Swamy was a CIA agent, a faux pas for which he had to issue an unqualified apology ; non-compliance would have denuded his bank balance to the tune of a few crores. Prudently, he said sorry. Further, his description of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as India’s ‘weakest PM,’ drew BJP’s intense ire and found even his own Congress party deep inside the crease on the back foot, to stay with the cricketing metaphor. He also made this strange comment that the current PM Narendra Modi ‘has white hair, but he sounds more like a blonde.’ Exactly what he meant is hard to fathom as no elaboration or reference to context was forthcoming. It’s a good job, while on the PM, that Jha has refrained from invoking the tiresome ‘56 inch chest’ analogy, as that is the registered copyright of his soon to be ex- boss, Rahul Gandhi. Clearly Jha’s contrition is now beginning to manifest itself in the form of a strong antipathy towards the Congress and, who knows, presaging yet another young Turk (there we go again) gravitating towards the leviathan BJP. After all, in politics the past is past and only the present counts. Even Sachin Pilot’s earnest denials about moving to the BJP tend to sound much like Lady Gertrude in Hamlet, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’
Consistent with his outré observations, Sanjay Jha concluded a recent piece in the Times of India, a coruscating commentary on his party’s decline and inevitable fall with the elliptical words, ‘Everything has an end, only the sausage has two.’ A master of inexplicable one-liners, our man Flint! The mind boggles as one gropes for a plausible interpretation of this aphorism. The source is evidently from the Germans, who consume more sausages than we have hot dinners – ‘Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.’ The translation has already been helpfully provided by the latest rebel in town, Sanjay J. That said, the bizarre significance of the sausage motif continues to elude me. Why sausage, what is so peculiar about its two ends, and what has all this got to do with the price of fish? Let ‘end of day’ Jha fill in the blanks.
It was never my intention to flatter Mr. Jha by devoting so much column space to him. This may be interpreted as purely symbolic of the Congress party’s ongoing contretemps with its young, ambitious and articulate brigade. A man with far greater political nous and experience, Pawan Varma, a former civil servant whose studied and scholarly observations can be read in our leading papers and seen frequently on television news channels (whenever he can get a word in edgewise, thanks to some of our obstreperous anchors), had some pearls of wisdom to impart, once again in The Times of India. This is as lustrous a pearl as any to sum up the Congress Party’s dilemma, the horns of which are now beginning to cause irreparable hurt – ‘The basic truth is that the party is now held hostage to a family that could only take its total tally from a shocking 44 to 52 over two general elections. Who will win a Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest is a no-brainer. The ‘grand old party’ needs a fundamental revamp, in its leadership and organisational apparatus, to create a credible opposition, which any democracy needs. Congress members must realise that to ask for change is not subversive; nor is blind endorsement of the status quo, loyalty. Frankly, it is now or never.’
We know Elvis Presley has the rights to that concluding line, but you said a mouthful there, Pawan ji.
In the great Hollywood tradition of larger-than-life heroes and grungy anti-heroes, Johnny Depp has established himself as an actor of immense talent, gifted with an ability to perform any number of multifarious roles. His chameleon like change of personality has, in recent times, endeared himself to his multitude of fans. At once a sex symbol and an anti-hero, Depp is any director’s dream star, seeking a younger version of De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino – icons of the 70s and 80s. Depp’s stand out performances in films like Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Donnie Brasco, Finding Neverland et al, have marked him out as a silver screen thespian, whose movies fans would pay good money to watch, simply because he is in it. Rather like those other veteran actors mentioned. Such is his effulgent star value. In that respect he rubs shoulders comfortably with the likes of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, among the present day pecking order.
That said, Johnny Depp off screen, never seems to be out of the news headlines. Sadly, for all the wrong reasons. His much publicised flirtations with drugs and alcohol are well recorded and have landed him frequently in the soup. He has had to face the long arm of the law on more than a few occasions particularly with respect to his relationship with women. To top it all, he has also been at odds with the police over violent behaviour in public places, including damage to public property. One time, he was pulled up by Australian customs officials for bringing two Yorkshire terriers into the country in his private jet without proper paper work. He issued a strangely craven apology while praising Australia’s biodiversity! To describe Depp as mercurial would be an understatement. Clearly it doesn’t take much to inflame him and if not for his extraordinary talent and box office appeal, many producers and directors would not have touched him with a barge pole. Shades of the eccentric Marlon Brando, to whom the producers were reluctant to offer the role of Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather! A compelling, if unpredictable star, our Johnny Depp.
However the latest brouhaha hitting the headlines pertains to his disturbed relationship with his estranged wife, American actress Amber Heard (who accompanied him, along with the Yorkshire terriers, to Australia). The couple were involved in a stormy marriage which inevitably ended in divorce. For reasons not entirely clear, fiery court proceedings are presently in progress in London. Why two American stars should be fighting a legal battle in the United Kingdom is a bit a mystery, but not very relevant to our story. I am sure there’s a good reason. I was struck by a headline that went something like, ‘Johnny Depp accuses Amber Heard and her unnamed friend of defecating on their hotel bed.’ I first thought the word ‘defecting’ was wrongly printed as ‘defecating,’ but that wouldn’t have made sense either. In the event, it was shit that hit the fan! Amber first tried to pin the blame on their furry Yorkies, but analysts who examined the poop with a microscope cleared the house trained canines of any wrongdoing. The evacuated detritus was declared unequivocally human. This scatological introduction into the legal proceedings must have raised more than a few eyebrows at the frosty, stiff-upper-lip Old Bailey. I can even now hear the sitting judge muttering, ‘I say, must we soil this august court’s reputation with the minutiae of who soiled the linen? A bit thick, what?’ It is also rumoured, though I can’t confirm this, that the harassed judge, forgetting himself while ordering silence in the court exhorted, ‘Ordure, ordure.’
Quite so, but then the pivot of Johnny Depp’s case is that if his wife had to move her bowels, did she (or her mystery friend) have to do it on their nuptial bed? In Depp’s elliptical words, ‘I thought it was an oddly fitting end to our relationship.’ Their hotel room had been provided, as you might expect, with a luxury toilet equipped with all manner of receptacles for precisely such a purpose, which your average Joe wouldn’t even know what to do with. For instance, I have always been of the opinion that a bidet is superfluous and surplus to requirements, but I guess it keeps the ceramics industry afloat. Getting back to the res, the hotel staff were not best pleased, and who can blame them? A housemaid at the hotel where the Depps were in residence, when questioned, was less than clear in her pronouncements owing to the fact that she had her nostrils tightly shut with her fingers to visually demonstrate her olfactory disgust, thus making her speech unintelligibly nasal. It is my impression that this particular maid may have, by now, changed jobs and moved to another hotel where guests knew the difference between a double bed and a toilet or bidet – the former to sleep in and the latter to indulge in one’s bodily ablutions.
The case is ongoing and until the snoops can establish the culprit and find an answer to the vexed question, ‘Who is the bed-shitter?’ the Depp fanatics will just have to keep chewing their fingernails and wait patiently. While there may have been many important behavioural reasons that could have been the cause of great mental anguish to the aggrieved parties, leading to an improbable court case, the introduction of the faeces motif appears to have caught the prurient attention of the media more than anything else. I can even now visualise headline writers rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation. ‘Amber moves bowels; Depp moves courts; Judge condemns excrescence over excrement.’ Such is the excremental state of the world, alas! There’s Covid19 and other viruses, real or imagined, raging across the globe, Test matches being played without a soul in the stands, armed and unarmed conflicts across borders, warships taking up adversarial positions in hitherto friendly seas, the United Nations struggling to keep nations united, Trump and Xi Jinping going eyeball to eyeball and yet, the world’s media are quite happy to lead their stories with the Depp – Heard shit storm! Ah well, I guess the world needs its stinky diversions.
Here in India, we don’t lack for sidebar stories as well. The saga of cop killer Vikas Dubey being on the run, ultimately brought to book and sent on his way to perdition (under arguably dubious circumstances) had our television channels in a right royal tizzy 24 x 7. Now that he is dead, the story will gradually fade into oblivion. Bollywood’s Bachchans, en famille, tested positive for Covid19, and that dominated the headlines for the next couple of days, with the senior Bachchan himself addressing his fawning fans from his hospital bed, all trussed up and bandaged. The Gehlot government in Rajasthan faced an internal revolt led by young Turk Sachin Pilot and the BJP bore the brunt for the Congress Party’s discomfiture (surprise, surprise) and in the midst of all this, the pandemic rages on with gusto with a promise to peak, decline and fall in a couple of months from now. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, ‘In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists.’ The Mahatma was an incurable optimist. We live in more cynical times.
The following conversation was overheard between two elderly gentlemen sitting on a park bench, after their evening constitutional. Obviously they were wearing masks and were perched at the two ends of the bench, respecting social distancing etiquette during these dystopian times. This necessitated their having to speak in a much louder voice than would have been the norm, exacerbated by the fact that one of the two spavined septuagenarians was hard of hearing. It is a well-established medical fact that those who are partially or stone deaf tend to speak the loudest, in the mistaken belief that the recipient of their pearls of wisdom is equally deaf. In turn, the person who is blessed with reasonably normal auditory functions, feels obliged to raise his voice several notches seeing as he is speaking to a handicapped individual. All this enabled the recorder and reporter of this conversation, sitting alone on an adjoining park bench with a newspaper spread across his face to cover his curiosity and identity, to hear every word as clear as a bell. Thankfully, his hearing was totally unimpaired, and he was able to enjoy this elevating give and take, cut and thrust that so enlivens an exchange of views amongst our senior citizens.
‘You know Chatterjee, I don’t much care for this chap who heads up WHO.’
‘That’s right. This chap called Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He is an Ethiopian. He is the Director General of the World Health Organisation, WHO.’
‘Can you please adjust your earplugs, Chatterjee? I am talking about this Ghebreyesus fellow. The guy who is the boss at WHO.’
‘Oh, that WHO. I get it. What don’t you like about him, Narayanan?’
‘His name, for a start. Impossible to pronounce and for you, impossible to hear. What’s more, he is forever groaning and moaning about the Covid19 pandemic. Never has anything positive to say. The only positive thing he talks about is the quantum jump in the number of positive cases worldwide, and how we are all destined to suffer for a very long time before things get better, if they do at all. Who wants that?’
‘WHO wants that? Surely not.’
‘Gosh, this conversation is already tiring me out. No, no, pin your ears back, Chatterjee, and listen carefully. What I meant was, when these experts talk about infection figures and so on, positive is negative and negative is positive. And Ghebrewhoever is always playing the harbinger of doom role to a nicety. Never has anything positive to say. Or do I mean negative? Whatever. Altogether a gloomy cove, as Bertie Wooster might have put it.’
‘Who is saying all these positive negative things, Narayanan?’
‘That’s right, Chatterjee. WHO is saying all these positive negative things. Mainly this Gheb chap. At last the penny drops.’
‘But tell me Narayanan, why does this Gebresellasie character moan so much?’
‘For crying out loud, not Gebresellasie, who was an Ethiopian long-distance runner, Olympic gold medallist. No less. He had nothing to moan about. Always smiling he was, showing his pearly teeth. This Ghebrewhatsit is the WHO guy.’
‘Exactly. What is more, WHO initially gave China a clean chit on this whole pandemic imbroglio. In spite of the Wuhan mess.’
‘Who gave a clean chit?’
‘Exactly. WHO did. And that was the main cause of the spread of the Covid19 virus. Now WHO is backpedalling furiously, trying to make amends. And they have now become prophets of doom. Particularly this Ghebgawdhelpus. He should be wearing sackcloth and ashes. His latest salvo is to warn us of the virus being airborne, scary droplets floating around all over the place. In the old days, the Kings and Emperors had a short way with harbingers of bad news. Chop chop.’
‘WHO didn’t. I am talking of Kings and Emperors. Don’t you hear anything I say, Chatterjee?’
‘Look Narayanan, I heard you perfectly well the first time. When I said, “Who did?” I didn’t mean “WHO did?” I meant “Who did?” Who, Who, Who, not WHO, WHO, WHO.’
‘All right Chatterjee, stop hooting like an owl. I regret I ever started this WHO conversation with you. Deaf as a doorpost and dumb as well.’
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing. To get back to WHO, now that India has a strong representation in the organisation, we can expect greatly improved quality of communication.’
‘Who is in WHO from India?’
‘This time you got your who and WHO right. Firstly, there’s Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO. She is extremely bright, articulate, intelligent and very presentable on TV.’
‘For God’s sake, not with the who again. I just said who. Turn up the volume on your hearing aid and listen. Soumya Swaminathan, the one with the distinguished grey hair. Given a free hand, she’ll run rings round that Gheb guy. By the way, she hails from Kumbakonam and her Dad is Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, father of India’s Green Revolution. My TamBram friends tell me that Kumbakonam denizens are razor sharp. I should know. Being a TamBram myself, and all.’
‘You’ve been watching Pacino in Scent of a Woman again, haven’t you? Hoo haa indeed! To get back to WHO and India, we now also have our Union Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, who has taken over as Chairman of the WHO executive board. Decent bloke, Harsh Vardhan. Was a doctor, I believe.’
‘God, give me patience. Harsh Vardhan. He is our health minister, now a big dad on WHO’s board. With him and Soumya leading the way, it’s a big feather in the cap for India and bodes well for our campaign against the wretched Coronavirus.’
‘In other words, Harsh Burman and Sukanya Subramanian are the who’s who of WHO. My hearing may be slightly impaired, but I thought that was a bloody good one. Don’t you agree?’
‘It’s Harsh Vardhan and Soumya Swaminathan but you were near enough, for a deaf adder. Well if you must insist on earning cheap brownie points with your pointless puns and poor jokes, who I am to stop you?’
‘Who indeed? By the way, I heard that Trump is withdrawing his contribution to WHO because of what he sees as an unacceptable tilt by the organisation towards the yellow dragon. What say you, Narayanan?’
‘By Jove, you’ve certainly boned up on your current affairs, Chatterjee. I am impressed. Trump may have dumped WHO, but Xi Jinping is playing Chinese Checkers with them. Like he is doing with us in Ladakh. What’s more, apparently they have the vaccine as well.’
‘WHO has the vaccine? Wow!’
‘It is China who have the vaccine, not WHO. Well, fry me for an oyster!’
‘Then why does WHO keep saying the vaccine will take more than two years, if ever, to arrive?’
‘Good question, Chatterjee. I shall shoot off a mail to ICMR and ask them for a true assessment on the subject.’
Postscript: This enlightening discussion would have dragged on interminably, but our reporter had to leave at this point, leaving the two senior adversaries jousting in animated banter. Which left him pondering on the question, ‘Who is in charge of the world’s health? WHO?‘
For several weeks now, we have been waiting for something to happen that would grab the headlines away from the Covid19 crisis engulfing the world. Or more pertinently, India. Well, something did happen – on India’s forbiddingly mountainous terrain of Ladakh bordering China. This was not the diversion one was seeking from the pandemic problem but, as Shakespeare had it, “’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but’tis enough, ’twill serve.” He had a way with words, did old William. The Bard of Avon also fulminated, ‘Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war,’ as he was clearly in a very bad mood, a sentiment I heartily endorse when I think of the present conflagration in the Galwan valley or Pangong Tso or wherever the hell it’s happening. My geography is, at best, dodgy. In sum, while we can raise a feeble one and a half cheers that CV19 has been temporarily pushed into the background, I am not sure the Galwan issue hogging the banner headlines gives us much cause for the balance one and a half cheers. If anything, it has only added to our misery. The one bit of good news amidst the mayhem is that the stock markets, against all conventional wisdom are on the upswing, though no one seems to know why. No matter. For now, we will take whatever crumbs are thrown our way. For tomorrow they could plunge steeply southwards.
To revert to the skirmish with our Chinese brothers (some brothers), military experts have termed the June 15 fisticuffs and the bloody business with stones and wooden club thingummies embedded with nails and so on as a ‘watershed moment’ in the history of Sino-Indian conflict. Evidently for decades now, there has never been a ‘kinetic’ confrontation between the two sides, a term I am not contextually familiar with, but if ‘kinetic’ was good enough for the luxuriantly moustachioed Major General Bakshi, it is good enough for me. While on the subject of General Bakshi’s expressive moustache, I cannot help but be reminded of P.G. Wodehouse’s magnificent description of the Duke of Dunstable’s enviable, upper lip vegetation, in a moment of extreme agitation. ‘….his moustache, foaming upwards as if a gale had struck it, broke like a wave on the stern and rockbound coast of the Dunstable nose. A lesser moustache, under the impact of that quick, agonised expulsion of breath, would have worked loose at the roots.’
It is quite amazing that in this day and age, when armies across continents are armed with the latest, state-of-the-art weaponry, here are two rival battalions in mortal combat going hammer and tongs at each other, quite literally, taking us back to the days of our Palaeolithic ancestors. Fists of fury, eyeball to eyeball – didn’t someone educate them on social distancing, particularly when you are up against a race that gave us Wuhan and the Coronavirus?
Our primary source of information, naturally, is the media. While newspapers, the online or the papyrus versions, give us an opportunity to read and absorb happenings over the previous day in a calm, reflective and collected manner, the real action is on our news channels on television. Particularly on the so-called debates, where the verbals get so violent some may almost term them ‘kinetic,’ if the good General Bakshi will be kind enough not to sue me for copyright. In the time-honoured fashion, our small screens at home are full of flailing fists, antagonists screaming blue murder at each other, while Arnab Goswami and his ilk attempt, infructuously, to maintain the peace. In actual fact, the anchors only add fuel to the fire. In all this excitement our Prime Minister and some of the opposition leaders become collateral damage at the hands of those elected to be mouthpieces of their respective parties. I am particularly tickled by one chap who is always reclining at the back of a moving car while spewing fire and brimstone. I can never remember his name, but it has always puzzled me why he can’t sit comfortably at home while spewing f and b.
These so-called debates, more often than not, give us much cause for mirth and merriment during these grim times. Still on the Indo-China kerfuffle, take the common or garden word, finger. Grammatically, it is a noun denoting the ten digits at the extremities of our upper limbs consisting of thumbs, forefingers, index, middle, little and so on. In more informal and somewhat rude parlance, the word can also be employed as a verb, as in ‘he was right royally fingered,’ metaphorically meaning the unfortunate ‘he’ clearly got the worst of the deal, drew the short straw. The expression can also, on very rare occasions, be interpreted literally, but that can get a bit anatomical, clearly unsuited to a respectable blog such as this. Suffice it to say that when the Americans ‘give someone the middle finger,’ the recipient of the offending digit has been told off in no uncertain terms.
In case you are wondering why I am going to all this trouble talking about the humble finger, you can place the blame squarely on whoever decided to name the several ridges descending from mountain peaks in Galwan or Pangong Tso or wherever, Fingers. A proper noun, with a capital F and everything. As in Finger 1, Finger 2 and going on all the way to Finger 8. If there are more than 8 Fingers in Galwan or for that matter Pangong Tso, then I am not in the know. Not that it matters, frankly. A Finger here, a Finger there, big deal. It’s just that when the conflict was first reported and all these retired decorated army and air-force types were scrambling over each other on our television screens to give their expert views, they started spouting sentences like, ‘China have taken full control over Finger 4, and unless the Indian forces can ascend Fingers 5 and 6, we could be in serious trouble.’ That’s when I first encountered the curious employment of the word and cottoned on to the fact that a Finger was a mountain ridge, which is where the Chinese were comfortably and strategically ensconced, looking down at us and yelling nasty things at our soldiers in their unintelligible tongue, while the Indian troops, for the most part were holed up in the troughs, looking up. Unsurprisingly, no proper noun has been ascribed to the troughs. Clearly, this was a situation unfavourable for our brave jawans, who needed to find a more strategic way to get the better of their opponents. Any soldier worth his salt will tell you that, given the choice, a peak is a much better place to be perched on, than to be craning from a trough. In the final analysis, it’s all a matter of who fingers whom first.
Finally, as I go to press, in a manner of speaking, still on China I was tickled pink to learn that a large number of Lord Ganesha idols have been made to order in Beijing, Shanghai or, Shiva forbid, possibly Wuhan. Had this not come to light during the Ladakh imbroglio when anti-Chinese passions are at fever pitch, Indian importers would have carried on in their merry ways flooding our markets with cheap, Chinese-made Ganeshas, and none of us any the wiser. It is only fitting then, that I end with the famous legend surrounding Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati and their two children, Ganesha or Vinayaka or Pillaiyaar (our Gods enjoyed multiple monickers) the elephant God, and his elder brother Subramanya or Kartikeya or Muruga, who looks more like a normal human being.
The story goes that Parvati came into possession of a divine mango with magical powers and told her two children that whoever circles round the globe three times and is the first to return home, will win the blessed fruit. Kartikeya hopped on to his pet peacock and set off on the long journey. Ganesha’s pet, the domesticated mouse, didn’t stand a chance against his winged rival. In a flash of inspiration, Ganesha merely traipsed round his parents thrice and bowed reverentially, explaining to them that they are his world and all that lay therein. Ganesha had the fruit and ate it too! For once Shiva, who usually hogs the limelight, allowed his good wife to take centre stage, along with the kids.
So what does that fable teach us about the present fracas in Ladakh? Simple. The Chinese may boast of fire-breathing dragons, but India’s canny elephant gods can stamp them out in a trice. If only we can gain access to the peaks of some of those Fingers!
Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
(Taken from the song ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime?’, composed in 1932 during The Great Depression and made famous by Bing Crosby.)
One has often heard meteorologists and weather pundits prattling on about ‘V-shaped depressions’ when they gloomily predict the onset of a cyclonic storm about to hit the poor east coast or the rich west coast of India’s land mass, sending hundreds of thousands of people scurrying for cover. However, in recent months I have been auditor to many of our economic boffins talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery,’ particularly in the context of all the doom and gloom surrounding the Covid19 catastrophe. A quick aside is in order here. To those of you who are scratching your heads wondering what my being an auditor has anything to do with anything, let me offer an explanation. I am not a book-keeping auditor, thank heavens. At least, not in the conventional sense of a poor sap poring over balance sheets, expense statements and tax returns finding a clever way to effect another tax dodge for his client. I can think of better ways to earn a living. I mean no offence to the financial auditing community. You need them now and then like you need an enema now and then. My aim is different. I employ the word ‘auditor’ to denote its original Latin derivative – audire, meaning to hear or to listen. However, I digress for which I crave your indulgence. I am a rambling writer and the occasional meandering goes with the territory.
I revert to ‘V-shaped recovery.’ Being a close follower of a couple of our television channels which specialise in business and financial news, I am completely bowled over by the number of experts who hold forth on a variety of issues which have a direct bearing on our investments and the consistently erratic stock market. I have invested a pretty penny on the bourses, and consequently, what the business community’s thought leaders have to say on a daily basis is of paramount importance to me. If only I could follow what they are trying to say. All the while, my eyes keep darting to the bottom corner of my television screen where I am treated to a running live counter of the Nifty 50 and Sensex performance. Those numbers keep yo-yoing all day long, bar weekends and public holidays, moving from red to green and back to red again. My auditor (the tax planning guy), who is a good listener, cautions me against binge viewing of these channels on account of the fact that a) I won’t understand anything being discussed and b) my blood pressure will be showing an upward spike, unlike the stock market, which favours a sharp southwards slant. He has a point but do I listen or audire? No way, José. As to why I must torture myself by speculatively plonking my meagre ill-gotten gains on the mercurial mutual funds and share scrips, or seek customised investment strategies through Portfolio Management Services, the answer is self-evident. No other option, baby. Interest rates have plummeted, bank deposits are safe (or are they?) but closely wedded to the well-founded economic principle of the law of diminishing returns. More so when you take into account inflation. You see, even I have picked up the lingo. Further, if you happen to be a senior citizen, which I am, the banks offer an extra half percent interest which does not exactly make me jump up and down with unbridled joy. In any case, jumping up and down at my age, joyfully or otherwise, carries needless risks.
To try and obtain some clarity on what this whole investing lark is all about (bit late in the day, I admit), I decided to buttonhole one of my investment advisors who happens to be a bit of a guru in these matters and who is also to be seen every now and then on some of our television channels. Without wasting any time or beating around the bush, I came straight to the point. Let’s just call him Mr. Bose.
‘Now look here Mr. Bose, you keep asking me to take a long term view on stocks. That is a relative term. What is a long term perspective for a 70 year old? I have taken a long term view since I was 30 years old, and I am still being given the same spiel. Why don’t you change the script, if not the scrip? Ha, ha.’ I laughed at my own feeble joke, but Mr. Bose was not amused.
‘Sir, I think you’ve done reasonably well, all things considered,’ replied Mr. Bose, evenly. ‘This Covid19 is a black swan event which no one could anticipate. However, even as we speak things are picking up and we fully expect a V-shaped recovery.’ Clearly Mr. Bose was fully into his stride.
‘I can see you’re in form Mr. Bose but you can’t impress me with that double whammy. V-shaped recovery and black swan event, indeed. I have looked up the latter, which is repeated ad nauseam on TV and have come to learn that it denotes a very rare if impossible event, black swans not being extant. However, this V-shaped recovery I am still coming to terms with. Please do explain. I am all ears.’
‘Gladly Sir,’ continued Mr. Bose. ‘A V-shaped recovery is one which is, well, V-shaped, if you get my drift. It kind of starts at the top, hurtles down at a 45 degree angle and shoots straight back up again at the same angle. It’s a geometry thing, Sir.’ I looked at him dubiously but decided to be patient. I failed in geometry in school. All those set-squares, protractors and compasses had me in a right tizzy.
‘Right Mr. Bose, next you’ll start blathering about Pythagoras’ theorem, isosceles triangles and how they affect movement of shares. Kindly enlighten me, in words of less than two syllables, whether my investments are safe in your portfolio’s portmanteau. You see, I am getting the hang of this fund manager speak.’
‘You certainly are Sir,’ said Mr. Bose somewhat patronisingly. ‘Portfolio’s portmanteau, eh? Nice one, Sir. I must use it with some other client. As to your investments, when I take into consideration your cost of churning coupled with the dividend distribution tax, not to speak of the balance maturity tenure of your schemes and add to that the Alpha coefficient operating in a bear market along with indexation, I must say that the NAV of your combined portfolio is kind of holding its own. Always assuming the Nifty can break the 11k barrier soon. It’s quite simple really, when you think about it.’
My monumental patience (a saint could have taken his correspondence course from me), was beginning to wear thin. However, Mr. Bose bashed on regardless. I waited for him to finish and spoke to him as follows: ‘Now you listen to me very carefully, my fine, feathered, financial friend, who spouts gobbledegook clichés. I don’t know much about V-shaped or U-shaped recoveries. At this juncture, my investments are going pear shaped which I need hardly remind you, could turn me into a basket case, from which I am not sure I will recover – in U or V shaped form. Frankly, I’ve had it up to here with lock-in periods, entry and exit loads, brokerage fees, open-ended and close-ended schemes, bull market runs, bear market runs, causing me to run to the toilet with the runs. If you get my meaning.’
Mr. Bose was by now a spent force. He was ready to throw in the towel. ‘Sir, you accuse me of speaking “gobbledegook,” whatever that means, but with due respect Sir, have you heard yourself speak? It sounds like English but you lost me long ago.’
I smiled benignly at the man. ‘You poor, lost soul. That makes two of us, Mr. Bose. Me speakee English, you don’t follow. You speakee English, I don’t follow. Better you don’t speak.’
It was Mr. Bose’s turn to run to the toilet for a spot of the trots.
Postscript: Meanwhile, it has been reported that a 35 year old man in Bangalore revealed to his parents that he plans to bump himself off as his business had gone kaput, thanks to ‘financial problems.’ His ageing parents told their depressed son if he is set on this decision, he may as well kill them off first. It was probably a rhetorical plea but the young man, having been brought up to obey his elders, smothered them to death in the dead of night with a pillow. At this point he lost the plot. Hurling himself into a river from an insufficient height, he reckoned without a shallow rock bed, fell on it, sustained severe injuries, was rushed to hospital and sadly recovered, thus rendering his suicide plans abortive. And guess what, the young man was a professional auditor! Go figure.
A temple priest in Odisha recently beheaded his gardener in order to rid the world of the Covid19 virus. News Agencies.
I am involved in a losing battle every time I firmly resolve not to write about the Coronavirus ever again. I have taken this vow about four times already, but something or the other happens that compels me to return to the dreaded subject. Just when I thought I was running on empty vis-à-vis the Covid19 topic, along comes this village temple priest from the remote heartlands of Orissa, or should I say, Odisha. This temple priest, who shared digs with the temple gardener, apparently had a visitation during his beauty sleep from the presiding temple deity. The deity appeared before the priest in the dead of night and declaimed, in that rather pompous way deities have, that the pestilential Coronavirus can be single-handedly eliminated, and that the responsibility for achieving this monumental task lay in the priest’s hands – quite literally. ‘You are the Chosen One,’ proclaimed the Almighty. The temple God went on to elaborate. ‘All you have to do is behead the gardener who is sleeping soundly by your side in your humble temple abode, and next thing you know it will be “Goodbye, Coronavirus.”’ The priest stood rigid with an indescribable fear and excitement. A human sacrifice was called for and it fell to him to carry out this unpleasant but necessary task, in order to save the world. It was God’s will. If a passing thought ever occurred to the priest that this dastardly act might be considered contrary to the laws of the land and that he himself could be in line for the guillotine, he swiftly brushed it aside in the confident knowledge that God was on his side.
Thus instructed, the priest awoke to the grim reality to recognise his role as the Grim Reaper who must accomplish his task with missionary zeal. Clearly, he has been sent to this earth to finish off this Covid19 virus, and if that means one gardener has to die, so be it. After all thousands are dying every single day, of the virus. He consoled himself by reflecting that the gardener will surely go to heaven for his supreme, if unknowing, sacrifice. Whether or not a phalanx of vestal virgins will welcome him in heaven was a moot point.
So saying, the priest fished out one of the gardener’s machetes or whatever it is that gardeners employ to hack down trees and the like, and proceeded to decapitate the poor garden tender’s head from his parent body. It is of little consolation to the gardener that he felt nothing. Or so we hope. His dreaded deed done, apparently on the Divine One’s orders, the priest ruefully but proudly reflected on the fact that he has made a seminal contribution to Man’s fight against the killer flu. One thing is certain though. He ensured that the temple gardener will never be infected with Covid19 ever again, there being no living host cell in the headless body to take in a guest virus. It is as well to acknowledge at this juncture that this man of God, having accomplished his somewhat bizarre ecclesiastical duty, proceeded straight to the nearest police station, presumably with the gardener’s decapitated head held by the hair in one hand, and the bloody machete in the other. Shades of Salome of Biblical fame, bearing John the Baptist’s head on a plate. A nasty shock, the cops at the station received. Two of the gendarmes fainted on the spot and the station chief thought he was having a stroke.
Naturally the priest, who had come to confess his crime with all the incontrovertible evidence suitably provided (a decapitated head with unseeing eyes should be good enough evidence for most cops), was not expecting a cosy reception. Nevertheless, the police inspector sat the priest down, divested him of the murder weapon and the severed head, offered him a cup of tea and proceeded to question him. You need to treat your temple priest with care and courtesy, lest the awful wrath of God pays a visit to the police station. The priest’s pre-emptive confession could not be taken at face value. Some other bandit could have done the deed, drugged the priest and made him behave in this strange manner. Improbable, but not impossible.
‘Tell me, Your Holiness’ began the inspector somewhat hesitantly, ‘what’s with the head and the deadly instrument? Was this some sort of revenge killing involving your gardener and some of the local goons? Perhaps the gardener chopped down a few trees from the local Dada’s land and made off with the valuable timber and sundry cash crop? And you’ve paid us a visit to tell us that you found his body separated from his head in your quarters? All very unpleasant, but I am glad you did not shirk your duty. Drink up your tea.’
The priest’s chest was heaving and he was breathing heavily and stertorously, and after taking a sip of the local chai, he calmed down and proceeded to speak. ‘Inspector, I am trying to tell you that this deed was done by me. No goon or brigand involved. But you are not paying attention and gabbing on about local goondas and revenge killings. Perish the thought. It was I and I am prepared to sign a confession, with blood if required, and I have plenty of that right here with me.’ He then proceeded to emit a macabre giggle at his own sense of irony, which made the inspector’s blood run cold.
The inspector, having swallowed his own saliva several times, was having some difficulty processing this information. ‘Quite, quite Your Reverence, I get the picture. Let’s take it from the top, shall we? What prompted you to do this? If indeed, you did it.’
‘Haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve been saying, Inspector?’ wailed the irascible priest. ‘Read my lips. It was two in the morning. I was fast asleep despite the gardener’s snoring which could have woken up the dead. Anyhow, it certainly appeared to wake up the local deity, who stood right in front of my astonished eyes. I stood up in a flash and prostrated before the Godly vision.’
‘Then what happened?’ asked the visibly agitated police inspector.
‘I told you what happened. Don’t you pay attention to anything I say? Listen, Covid19 had to be slayed, en masse. And God chose me as His earthly instrument to carry out this task. A human sacrifice had to be made. One small gardener for Man, one giant leap for Mankind, capiche?’ cried the priest becoming a bit Neil Armstrongish and Don Corleoneish at the same time. To cap it all, he added, ‘I told God, “give me the tools and I will finish the job.”’ The priest knew his Churchill as well. Widely read man.
The inspector had had enough of this. He handcuffed the priest and directed him to spend the night in his lockup.
‘Oh, there’s one other thing,’ said the inspector to the priest, ‘where’s the body? We went to the crime scene and found the body conspicuous by its absence. One number head, right here with me. Check. Headless body couldn’t have upped and made a run for it. So where is it, my dear man of God?’ If the inspector had been aware of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, he would have readily identified with his predicament.
The priest just looked balefully at the inspector and smiled a beatific smile and replied somewhat enigmatically, ‘That I cannot reveal, I fear. My lips are sealed. The gardener’s body is now one with the elements.’
‘Meaning what, exactly?’ wailed the inspector.
The priest gave a broad grin, rubbed his stomach with great satisfaction, as one who has just enjoyed a fine repast and let out a huge belch. And promptly went to sleep. The inspector had to be rushed to the nearest hospital emergency.