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.
The much-acclaimed movie, My Left Foot (1989), is based on the true story of Christy Brown as revealed in his autobiography and brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in his Oscar-winning role of the handicapped protagonist. Afflicted with cerebral palsy, the only functional part of his body was his left foot. He could paint, write, and do extraordinary things with it. I was reflecting on this heart-rending, wonderful film after many years for a reason. A week or so ago, I discovered that my nails needed clipping, and the nails on my big toes had grown conspicuously. So much so that people had begun to take notice; not in a nice way. Would you look at those toes. Ugh! Until that fateful moment, it never occurred to me that people looked at other people’s toes. It was the work of a moment for me to fish out my nail-clippers and get to work on the big toes.
Now here’s what impelled me to start writing about my right foot, and let me state right away, the concerned trotter is not really deserving of being billed in capitals as My Right Foot. Just a normal foot that happens to be at the end of my right leg. As I got to work in right earnest with the clipper, I had to struggle a fair bit with the nails of my big toes, particularly the one attached to my right foot. Those of you who visit fancy salons for an outrageously expensive pedicure may not realise it, but cutting the nail of one’s big toe, left or right, is no mean task. For unfathomable reasons, these nails are much harder and more inflexible than the nails on the smaller toes or your finger nails.
Finger nails, on the other hand, can be easily bitten off without any mechanical aid. Just observe some youngsters watching the end of a tense cricket match and you will know what I mean. Bite it and spit it out. Nails scattered all over the floor. Why only youngsters, just watch former Australian cricket captain and coach Ricky Ponting, a notorious nail biter, sitting in the dugout. He could be playing a mouth organ the way his fingers are clamped to his mouth. It’s a wonder he has any finger left to chew. A nervous habit, and a filthy one, if the frequent admonition of our elders is anything to go by. Incidentally, did you know that nails and hair keep growing even after you are gathered up and buried. In the poet John Donne’s words, A bracelet of bright hair about the bone. Just as well much of the world cremates its dead.
Let me get back to my right big toe. There I was straining my back muscles to reach my big toe with the clipper. As you enter your 70s, or even 60s for that matter, these apparently routine tasks take on a different degree of difficulty. Once you have finished managing to clumsily cut your toe nails, a visit to your physiotherapist is in order to take care of your knotted back muscles. Perhaps those who deem it worthwhile to spend a small fortune at the tender mercies of their fashionable pedicurist, have a point after all. However, in my case a visit to a footsie (my nom de guerre for a pedicurist) would have been infinitely preferable to what, in fact, happened to me.
My inexpert handling of my right big toe led to some serious medical issues. As explained, because of the toughness of the nails, I literally cut off more than I could chew. Is that how the expression ‘tough as nails’ came about? Or does that aphorism refer to the other ‘nails’ that you hammer into wooden planks and joints? I wonder. Be that as it may, to my shock and horror, I discovered that I had been ignoring my toe nails, at least the one on the right foot, to a point where it had started growing inwards; an ingrowing toe nail. While I sat staring at the royal mess I had created for myself, a trickle of blood started oozing. Without wishing to alert and alarm my better half, I locked myself up in the bathroom, and did whatever I could with wads of cotton wool, Dettol, and some clean strips of cloth. A stop-gap measure. While the bleeding was momentarily staunched, the pain got worse and the best way I can describe what was achingly happening to my right big toe, onomatopoeically, is ‘boing, boing’ indicating a repeated throbbing sensation.
At this point, my wife had to come into the picture and I made a clean breast of it. She would have found out anyway. You can never keep a messed-up, painful toe under wraps for long. ‘My foot got caught in the door jamb’ would come across as a limp lie, to tie in with my limp gait. Next thing I knew, I was being driven off to our nearby friendly GP. By now, the fleshy part of the toe had developed a conspicuous, white tinge, possibly an incipient sign of pus formation. I feared I might be going under the knife, but made no mention of it to the better half. Little did I know that she was thinking on similar lines. Septicemia briefly flashed across my fevered brain. Anyway, off we went to the man who had taken the Hippocratic oath. He took one, disgusted look at the toe, let out a volley of oaths and pointed firmly to the surgical room, called his nurse to prep me for surgery, pronto. I wanted to tell him that the pain was subsiding in the hope that some medication might be prescribed instead of the ‘chop chop’ option.
‘But Doc….’ he did not let me finish.
‘No buts, no ifs, I have seen it and that’s that. Off you go to the surgery.’ Evidently, the errant nail had macheted its way through the nerves and any further burrowing would have led to serious consequences. He might have been condemning me to the gallows. (If you want a good laugh over this, watch the Fawlty Towers episode on YouTube featuring Sybil Fawlty’s in-growing toenail.) I swallowed and slunk off to the surgery and waited with trepidation, the good, old ticker pounding away like nobody’s business. Sting’s timely song, Be Still my Beating Heart played around in my head, but provided little comfort. After an uneasy half hour or so, the doctor breezed in, and announced that he will be injecting my toe with an anaesthetic (‘this won’t hurt’) to numb the digit while he waded into my toe with surgical knives and other implements of torture. The local anaesthetic was a blessing, as I felt nothing during this minor surgery but as my hearing was not impaired, I could take in all manner of sounds aided by a few ‘oohs,’ ‘aahs’ and ‘ayyos’ from the nurse. Clear as a bell. Which did nothing to help restore my equanimity. It was all over in about 5 minutes at the end of which, the doctor’s parting words to the nurse, ‘clean and dress it up,’ came like a soothing balm. End of ordeal.
I still felt absolutely nothing and had no idea what had transpired. In a quaking voice, I mock-ironically asked the doctor, ‘have you lopped off my entire toe Doc, or is it still there?’ He just gave me an enigmatic smile and whooshed off the room, leaving me still uneasy. The nurse, who appeared to possess a macabre sense of humour, comforted me by saying, ‘you will be able to walk after a few days, even without the toe, Sir.’ I craned my neck and nervously peered at my right leg, and was greatly relieved to see a clean, white bandage round my right toe, while the nurse giggled, enigmatically. After the mandatory rest and recovery for about ten minutes I walked out, rather, hobbled out, my toe intact and the operation successful. The nurse asked me if I would like to take the severed toenail with me. I did not detect any irony in her voice, so I guess she meant it. I fleetingly considered having it mounted and displayed as a trophy, but wiser counsels prevailed.
So, there you have it. The story of My Right Foot, the capitals now fully earned. My point, quite simply, is this. If Daniel Day Lewis can be awarded an Oscar for going on and on about his character’s left foot, or rather His Left Foot, I don’t see why I should not go to town somewhat on the travails of My Right Foot. Granted My Right Foot is incapable of writing or painting, or doing anything at all other than mindlessly (in)growing itself a useless nail that is impossible to cut at home. A total nuisance in fact, but one can draw some salutary lessons from my trivial episode. The gentler sex, at least many of them, love to grow their nails and daub all manner of paints and polishes on them. We males are not called upon to similarly indulge ourselves, unless we are real odd balls. So, if you spot a nail growing more than it should, particularly on your toes, get thee to a pedicurist or chiropodist as fast as your feet can take you. Take care of your toes because your toes will not take care of themselves.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, ‘the human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.’ That’s all very well for Leonardo. He was fully limbed from hand to foot enabling him to paint that famously enigmatic smile of you-know-who. Spare a thought for the palsied Christy Browns of the world, not to speak of amateur toenail cutters.
It was a big day for enigmatic smiles (and giggles).
A few days ago, I was watching a programme on television, a talk show pretentiously titled ‘Whither English education in India?’ Or words to that effect. The anchor of the programme was talking to three teachers of English language and literature from major Indian cities. One of the participants, a lady of some standing amongst the teaching fraternity, was asked what she thought of the standard of English in our country today. Sounding quite haughty and full of herself, she replied, ‘I have always told the children in my school that until and unless they don’t read Shakespeare, they will never be successful in mastering English.’ That rumble you may have just heard is Shakespeare turning in his grave. Now here’s the thing. Without so much as batting an eyelid, this guardian of the colonial language that we have come to adopt as our own, fell straight into one of the most common hidden traps we are prey to, the inadvertent employment of the double negative, which reverses the meaning originally intended. This is a common affliction endemic to our country. On hearing this I asked myself, if this teacher has not realised the folly of her grammatical ways what earthly chance did the children have?
I do not have a problem with the man on the street speaking informally, spreading double negatives all over the place like a rash. After all, to him English is an acquired habit and one should be grateful, in a polyglot country such as ours, that taxi drivers and bus conductors make a spirited attempt to speak in a common lingo to get across to people from different geographies. Kudos to them, and one should refrain from sticking on dog and correcting their grammar. My problem is more to do with the so-called upper crust class of people who hold forth on just about any subject under the sun, with nary a care about merrily stepping into syntactic pitfalls. If you ask me, the television programme I referred to earlier should have been called ‘Wither English education in India.’ I trust, dear reader, your hawk-eye spotted the difference.
Our television anchors, news readers and those political representatives who constantly infest our small screens, are notoriously guilty of committing the crime of the double negative. Only the other day, an oft-seen lady of obstreperous temperament with a preternatural sulk, from one of the leading political parties had this to say to the anchor, and I am paraphrasing, ‘Until you don’t apologise for that remark, I won’t walk out of this programme this instant.’ Naturally, the anchor man, who came from a better finishing school, heeded her instruction and declined to proffer an apology! There is comic irony in this exchange, and how a word or expression out of place can create confusion and misunderstanding. However, for the most part, our conversations tend to sprinkle double negatives like largesse and no one is any the wiser. We have learnt to live with them. During my professional working days in marketing and advertising, I would often chide a junior colleague for saying things like, ‘until you don’t call me, I won’t come.’ My riposte to the puzzled colleague was, ‘I won’t call you, and you need not come.’
I will freely grant you that I must have been a bit of a pain in the posterior, forever looking out for errors to correct in other people. It comes from having spent much time in dark, dank printing houses in the dark, dank days of incessant power cuts in Calcutta during the 70s, reading galley proofs in 6 pt Helvetica or Garamond typeface for annual reports and corporate brochures, with only a kerosene lamp to throw some light. We were not aided by Word software telling us where we have gone wrong and to correct same. M/s Microsoft have some cheek telling me to correct ‘realise’ to ‘realize!’ And they don’t oblige if I ask for the British spelling option in favour of American. I can’t even tell them to sod off with a terse, ‘Until you don’t give me the British option, I won’t use Microsoft Word.’ You won’t get much change out of Apple, either.
At this point, I shall abruptly change the subject to Pink Floyd, the much revered and massively followed British rock band. To be honest and strictly speaking it is not really such a big change of subject, just a change of protagonist from English teachers and TV anchors in India to a band of British musicians. One of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs, Another Brick in the Wall opens with the lines, We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control. Now here is an English band, as English as Fish and Chips or Shepherd’s Pie, resorting to an American abomination, viz., the use of the double negative. That said, I think there are extenuating circumstances here that one must contend with. The world of pop music allows its own liberties with the language which the lofty world of the spoken or written word frowns upon. If Pink Floyd had sung the song pedantically correctly as We don’t need any education / We don’t need any thought control, it just would not have sounded right, certainly not to the younger generation, and the metre would have been all wrong. Pink Floyd’s equally celebrated compatriots, The Rolling Stones rocked the world with I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction), and The Beatles, in their song Oh! Darling, pleaded, I’ll never do you no harm. Enough said.
There are many more such examples but to cite three of the United Kingdom’s most legendary pop groups and their minor grammatical faux pas (not that they really are) would suffice for the present to make a point. Elvis Presley did complain that You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog, but then, Elvis was as American as Mom and Apple Pie so we must make allowances.
Lest you should harbour a false notion that only famous pop musicians and semi-literate Indian television personalities frequently come under the spell of the double negative, take heart. No less than William Shakespeare was once found guilty of using a triple negative in his play Richard III, when he wrote, ‘I never was nor never will be.’ Hell’s bells! The italics are not the Bard’s. It goes without saying that had I challenged Shakespeare on his excessive use of the negative, he would have fobbed me off with a ‘More of your conversation would infect my brain.’ (Coriolanus Act 2, Scene 1). I doubt if anyone had the gall to tell old William that most of his conversations, as gleaned from his plays, gave many of his readers some level of brain disorder, but that is another matter. Which is hardly surprising for if you really annoyed the man, he could crush you through Hamlet’s voice, ‘O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.’ You have been warned.
End of day, to quote rusticated Congressman Sanjay’s Jha’s go-to phrase, one cannot place any value judgement on whether the usage of the double negative in our regular discourse is kosher or not. The jury is out and unlikely to return in a hurry. Ultimately, it is all a matter of conditioning. If you are an Indian who is well versed in the intricacies of the English language, it all depends on whether the American way of speaking appeals to you more or the British. I am specifically referring to Indians born and bred in India, and not people of Indian origin such as Rishi Sunak or V.S. Naipaul. Shashi Tharoor can be in the mix. Though he was born in the UK, he spent his early years in India, till he went to the US for higher education and, strangely, there acquired a British brogue. Those ringing, plummy tones would have raised his stock at the United Nations. And therein lies the rub. Had the estimable Tharoor returned to his home country to pursue a career in politics, armed with a Yankee twang, we would not have given him the time of day. But a clipped, British accent, a la Alec Guinness? Ah, now that is entirely different. That, we Indians like.
A caveat. I feel it incumbent upon me to explain, just to set the record straight, that the double negative variant starting with the words ‘until you don’t…’ is of uniquely Indian provenance, whereas the Pink Floyd offering, ‘we don’t need no education’ is a typically American figure of speech, finding favour in various parts of the globe.
Screenwriter Robert McKee got it just about right, ‘In life two negatives don’t make a positive. Double negatives turn positive only in math and formal logic. In life things just get worse and worse and worse.’ Speaking for myself, until you don’t tell me otherwise, I won’t speak in double negatives. Ain’t nobody can do nothin’ about it.
Hey now, baby / Get into my big black car / I want to just show you / What my politics are. Cream.
As a responsible and civic-minded resident of the tech-city of Bangalore, or Bengaluru if you are so disposed to pronounce it, in the state of Karnataka, and not Karnatak as many of our television news-readers, as well as non-local politicians are apt to mangle it, now where was I? Ah yes, pardon me, I do get carried away at times with my needlessly orotund sentence construction, and tend to lose my way in the thicket. Right, pull yourself together, man.
What I am working my way around to is that the all-important assembly elections, which come around once every five years, have just taken place in my state of residence, Karnataka. More particularly in my once garden, now garbage city of Bangalore. And as I was inarticulately endeavouring to explain at the top of this essay, to convey to you that I was happy to exercise my franchise, which is my God-given right. Left forefinger has been indelibly smudged, though some have claimed on social media that the royal blue mark vanished as soon as the they left the voting booth. Vanishing ink? And why on earth do so many people insist on taking a selfie of said ink-stained forefinger and posting it on social media? Since I do not know the precise contours of any of my acquaintance’s fingers, leave alone forefingers, frankly it could be anybody’s finger. When you have seen one besmudged forefinger, the second and third fail to grip and arrest. And yet, we are being fore-fingered on all sides. It is one of those life’s great mysteries.
As I need hardly elaborate, the subject of politics over the past decade or two has become acrimonious, to say the least. Even when close friends congregate, they need to mind their Ps and Qs, or more to the point, their BJPs and their Congresses. We have also witnessed many an unholy congress between those two political parties, floor crossing a habitual pastime. Warm friendships have been ruined overnight on X discovering, to his or her great shock, that Y is a closet BJP sympathiser, and the former was kept in the dark all these years. You could have been secretly harbouring a mistress in some nook, for all the furore! Which is why I think it extremely poor form to ask someone who he or she voted for.
The same situation can be expressed the other way round, in case the Congress is your chosen flavour. The betrayal is invariably too much to bear. Et tu, Brute? about sums it up. The world of Indian politics has been clearly polarised. In a sense, if you will excuse the iffy pun, we have all become polar bears, freezingly cold towards one another. For all I know, polar bears are extremely warm, friendly and cuddly towards their own kith and kin, though I would strongly advise against cuddling up with one of these Arctic, hypercarnivorous creatures, if you place any value on your life. At least, as far as national politics is concerned, a certain chill amongst opposing views exists. A common refrain when people get together over lunch, tea or dinner is, ‘all subjects can be discussed barring politics.’ What does that leave us with? Hmmm.
Which brings me nicely to the question of whether the physical act of casting your ballot during elections can be considered political or apolitical. For the purposes of a discussion, I mean. Frankly, the situation was getting a bit desperate. There we were, three couples meeting after a long hiatus, over a convivial dinner preceded by a glass or three of liquid libation. Bear in mind that this was a day after the state election voting. Being close friends, we sensibly decided to eschew this self-imposed restriction on the subject of politics. We will play it by ear and take it as it comes. And even if one or two of our number gets a bit hot under the collar, we could always douse the embers with a chilled glass of beer or white wine. Well, iced lemonade, if you insist. The unsaid party rule, therefore, was no holds barred but we will err on the side of civility. Friends do not brawl. Ho hum.
With all these complex psychological issues playing around in our minds, we had to tip-toe on eggshells as the conversation commenced on a neutral tone. It does not really matter who said what, as I present the feast of reason and flow of soul in a stream-of-consciousness manner, without attributing remarks to any particular individual. Better safe than sorry.
‘Fabulous game yesterday, between CSK and Mumbai Indians. What a finish!’
‘Yeah, it was all right. Honestly, what was it? Game number 51? After a point, unless you are a die-hard supporter of any one particular franchise, the scores, the highlights, the points table, they all tend to merge into one unrecognizable blur. Even the interminable number of sixes start tending to pall. Does it really matter if Dhoni is playing his 200th game as captain or that Andre Russell has just hit his 250th sixer? Whatever happened to the forward defensive push, bat and pad locked together?’
‘You have a point. We have had a surfeit of IPL. Let us talk about something else.’
‘Well said. Anyone seen The Kerala Story? I am told it is pretty grim, rather like The Kashmir Files. The movie is creating quite a storm in various parts of the country. Some states want it banned, others are issuing incentives for people to go and see it. Some have gone to court, seeking a ban or to lift same. At times one’s heart goes out to our judiciary. It’s all politics.’
‘I say, would discussing The Kerala Story come under the broad ambit of politics? Just asking, in case things get a little out of hand.’
‘Don’t be silly. We are discussing a movie here. We can discuss direction, acting, screenplay, cinematography, background score and that sort of thing. Nobody is asking you to get into a tizzy over the rights and wrongs of the political stance taken by the film, if at all there is such a stance. ’
‘Boy, are we naïve. The film is political to the core, so kindly don’t pull the wool over our eyes.’
‘All right, let us forget about this film. Will someone kindly recharge my glass? Thanks.’
As your narrator, at this point I shall briefly take over the reins to merely inform you that a longish and uncomfortable silence ensued. The kind of silence often described as pregnant, presumably because it promises much but the time it takes to deliver can be painful. Who knows. In case you are tut-tutting, wondering why no interrogation mark after ‘who knows,’ it was said rhetorically and not to elicit an answer. So there. As your chronicler, I am just filling in the time before one of our band of merry folks looks up from his or her glass to utter some pearls of wisdom. Or not. The thing is, when these uncomfortable silences occur, three people decide at the same time to break the deadlock. Like so.
‘Why don’t we….’
‘Who made up these rules…’
‘Anyone for tennis…’
Those three unfinished sentences, possibly questions uttered simultaneously, were cut off in their prime. ‘One at a time, please,’ as our English teacher in school was wont to say. The awkward silence was quickly followed by cries of ‘you go first,’ ‘no, no, après vous’ and ‘I think I’ve said enough already.’ Finally, one of the ladies, who was not part of the insistent threesome, decided to have a go.
‘I am sorry, gentlemen and ladies, but with elections, voting and counting happening at our very doorstep, not discussing politics is akin to ignoring the proverbial elephas maximus in the room.’
‘Must you be so pretentious? Elephas maximus indeed! Why can’t you just say, er, whatever it is that elephas maximus means?’
‘How about pachyderms? Or better still, Haathi mere saathi would be more to your liking?’
‘Now you are just being insufferably pompous. Anyhow, how the hell did the subject of elephants crop up. What is more, I am totally confused. Did we agree to discuss politics or not?’
It was now beginning to dawn on me that this get-together was not such a great idea after all. In making a strenuous effort not to discuss politics, we kept reverting, even without our own volition, to that very subject. We tended to behave not very differently from the way junior politicians, their spokespersons and television anchors conducted themselves on the small screen. It’s all very well to say, ‘I shall steer clear of politics,’ but when push comes to shove, politics will rear its not very pretty head and ruin the whole evening for everyone concerned.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan went close to the bone and hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘Politics I supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.’
I was riffling through Stephen Fry’s Paperweight, a bulky tome comprising some of his most elegantly penned columns, for the umpteenth time. Whatever Mr. Fry does – writing, acting or just plain speaking – he holds me in thrall. And in splits. Not the laugh-out-loud kind of splits, but a knowing chuckle as I marvel at his extraordinary breadth of erudition which he wears ever so lightly on his broad shoulders. To say nothing of his silver-tongued oratorical skills, and that rich, plummy BBC voice that adds to the charm. Strangely, you can hear that voice even when you are devouring his writings. Now where am I going with this opening, appreciative spiel on Stephen Fry, you may well ask. I should quickly add that my column this week has nothing, per se, to do with him. I have paid my respects to the man exclusively, in an earlier column several months ago. It is to do with a chapter in the aforementioned Paperweight, where Fry, for one of the many publications to which he contributed, donned the role of the fabled Agony Aunt. For a variety of reasons not relevant to go into, he changed his persona to Agony Cousin, and proceeded to have himself a ball tackling ridiculous questions from an imagined set of readers with equally ridiculous answers.
Here in India, some of our publications do devote some space now and then for readers to write in, in order to be guided and comforted by some pretend know-all sitting forlornly at his desk in some dank, newspaper office. Agony Aunts, or their equivalents, are usually reduced to such a pathetic pass. More often than not, Agony Aunts tend to be Agony Uncles. One’s heart goes out to them. Generally, the subjects covered are medical or psychological which is, more or less, the same thing. While cogitating over this matter, it occurred to me that it would be an interesting challenge to place myself in the role of a friend, philosopher, and guide if I can reach out to a few people to confide in me with their issues, problems or just plain queries. In so doing, I went out of my way to ensure that I did not invite a single individual from my regular set of contacts, who will display an understandable bias, as will I, thus putting the kybosh on the entire purpose. The whole object of the exercise is for the Agony Aunt (Uncle) to remain totally anonymous. I dredged out email ids of about 100 persons, male and female, young and old and invited them to share their concerns with me, assuring them that they will get my utmost empathy and thoughtful response. This was my mailed letter.
There is not a soul in this benighted world of ours who does not need an unseen friend in whom one can confide one’s innermost concerns. You may not want a shoulder to cry on, but certainly someone who can provide a different perspective to your predicament and make you look at things afresh. Well, I am happy to inform you that your long search is over. Agony Uncle is here to listen to your every query and suggest a way forward. Incidentally, it does not have to be health and marital concerns you wish to share, though they are not precluded. You can also talk about your career, love life, exam prospects, sporting ambitions and other everyday matters on which you wish to elicit the views of an objective and disinterested third party. This is where Agony Uncle comes in. Just mail your thoughts to email@example.com and you will receive my response within 24 hours. There will be no cost involved. I do this out of a sense of pure altruism, and not prurient curiosity, so go ahead and start pouring your heart out.
Yours with great anticipation.
To be perfectly frank, I was not expecting much by way of response. At best I could have struck a discordant chord with a couple of cranks who might have shot back with words that might not have been printable. How wrong I was. Within a week I had received around 47 mails, which was way above what any optimist could have hoped for. For my readers, I have just selected a handful of these letters to share with you, along with my thoughtful responses. For the purposes of protecting their identity, I have changed the names of the respondents as my fancy dictated. For reasons already stated, I shall not be responding to mails from people I already know. Without further ado, here goes.
Dear Agony Uncle,
I keep waking up at precisely two in the morning from a bad dream, where my house is being raided by nasty, little green men from the Enforcement Directorate. This happens every night (or morning) at exactly the same time. While I am relieved it is only a dream, I am unable to sleep thereafter. How can you help? I have tried sleeping pills, but to no effect.
Prabhakar from Karol Bagh, New Delhi.
This is what we in the trade call an anxiety dream. Do you belong to any political party opposed to the present government? In which case, I would recommend you defect immediately to the ruling party and you will sleep like a baby. No more nasty, little green men will come knocking. Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bugs bite.
Yours, Agony Uncle.
Dear Agony Uncle,
I am 85 years old, and by rights, you should be calling me Aunty as you are still employed, ergo, younger than me, but I will let that pass. There are a bunch of kids who play cricket just outside my flat in the corridor. The ball keeps banging on my door causing much disturbance and annoyance to a lonely widow like me. My newly polished door is getting a pummelling as well. Also, they keep shouting ‘howzzat,’ whatever that means, apart from screaming and shouting. I requested them politely to go and play outside the building, and they made some rude remarks. I threatened to complain to their parents and they made even ruder remarks and threatening gestures. I am petrified. What should I do, Uncle?
Chandra Aunty from Dadar, Mumbai.
Dear Chandra Aunty,
I am so sorry to hear about your troubles with the kids. Boys will be boys, though some of them could be girls as you did not specify. Girls, too, play cricket. I have two suggestions. Buy a box of laddoos, tell them it’s your birthday and invite them in for a brief celebration. Spike the laddoos with some mildly toxic substance that will make them run to the loo for at least a week. That should slow them down. They may still be back but you will have had your revenge. Failing which, hire a Rottweiler for a few days and chain him outside your flat. That should do the trick. I trust you cook beef at home? For Rover, that is. Good luck.
Yours, erm, Agony Uncle.
Dear Agony Uncle,
They say you can solve any problem. Try this on for size. I am 15 years old, learning Carnatic music from a very strict guru. My voice went through some changes last year. My problem is the upper shadjam on our seven-note scale. Try as I might, I cannot reach it and my guru gets very cross, likening me to a constipated crow. In Tamil, that sounds even worse! He even refused my mother’s coffee, which he always looks forward to. I am afraid he will walk out on me. Can you help?
Revathi from Mylapore, Chennai.
That is a tricky one. Fortunately for you, I have also studied a bit of Carnatic music when I was your age and might be able to provide some guidance. Try and hit that upper note with a false voice. It usually works. Otherwise, when your guru is not there, lower the scale on your sruti box a notch, say from 5 (G) to 4 (F). With any luck, he may not notice and will be impressed with your improvement. And he will relish your mum’s filter coffee. Good luck with the Bhairavi ata taala varnam!
Dear Agony Uncle,
My wife complains that I snore very loudly and that she is unable to sleep as a result. I know I don’t snore but she just won’t listen. This morning she played a recording of my alleged snoring, which she captured on her mobile, sly fox. Frankly, that could have been anyone. How do I convince her I am not a snorer?
Rakesh from Indira Nagar, Bangalore.
Ha, that old chestnut. No one likes to accept that he or she snores. The only way to defend yourself is to go on the attack. Fire with fire. Pretend to go to sleep and stay awake till your wife is fast asleep. Sure enough, she will start snoring. Everybody snores. Record her oral and nasal fireworks and play it back to her next morning. Better still, forward the audio to her mobile. The complaints will stop instantly.
Dear Agony Uncle,
Are you for real or are there ten silly people in your newspaper who take on these asinine questions and come up with their own stupid answers? Or do you also make up these ridiculous questions yourself (selves)? I am agonising over this question.
Professor Shastri from Kalahasteeswarar Temple Street, Kumbakonam.
Dear Professor Shastri,
Siva, Siva! That was not very nice of you. From a professor, even from Kumbakonam and living near that temple with the unpronounceable name, that was disappointing. Still, I shall be civil. I am the only silly person who comes up with my own stupid answers. The only ridiculous questions are from professors like you. There.
Yours deeply hurt,
After due consideration, Agony Uncle has decided to permanently close down this page. Can’t take the emotional strain. Readers, if you have a problem, seek another Agony Aunt or Uncle. There are many out there twiddling their thumbs. Cheerio!
I have written at length in the past on the vexed subject of having to deal with the well-known affliction bloggers like me periodically confront, viz., Writer’s Block. I marvel at many professional columnists who, at the drop of a Homberg, can reel off three 2000-word columns a week without batting an eyelid. The operative word here is ‘professional.’ If some publication is paying you good money to churn out a certain number of columns a week, and you are paid by the word, then you jolly well hitch up your trousers and get down to it. I am, happily, under no such compulsion. Au contraire, I pay this blogsite a pretty penny every year to allow me to use their space in order to spread the good word to my faithful, if limited, reading public. The commitment to write one blog a week is entirely of my own making. For the most part, I keep reading my own blogs times without number (having already proof-read them several times) and marvel at my own brilliance, saying to myself in the manner popularised by Little Jack Horner, ‘What a good boy am I.’ I have been advised to get urgent psychiatric help.
Once in a rare while, I do dash off a piece or two to some friendly newspaper which will carry the piece, if the editor is in a good mood. In the fullness of time, they may (or may not) pay me. A pittance, I’ll trouble you. I suppose the honour of being published ought to be payment enough. I take the moral high ground and exclaim, ‘I do it for the sheer pleasure of it, and not for cheap dross.’ However, I do not cavil, even if some junior sub mangles my prose beyond recognition. ‘The apostrophe was meant to be after the ‘s’ and not before, you cretin.’ And that is the least of it.
Just when all seems lost, someone of substance somewhere, says something stupid and the creative juice, for what it is worth, starts flowing. A couple of days ago, the President of the redoubtable Congress Party of India, Mr. Mallikarjun Kharge, likened the Prime Minister of India to a poisonous snake. I wish to make no comment on the appropriateness or otherwise of this hare-brained remark. To quote the Congress President, if the English translation from Kannada in leading newspapers is accurate, he said, ‘Modi is like a poisonous snake. Don’t try to lick this snake to check whether it is venomous or not. If you taste it, you are dead.’ I am not sure of Kharge’s familiarity with the works of Shakespeare. Had his school syllabus contained the play Julius Caesar, he would have quoted Brutus word for word, ‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder and that craves wary walking.’ In Kharge speak, that translates roughly into, ‘tread warily before you get within licking distance of the Prime Minister.’ Not much chance of that Sir, what with all the hawk-eyed security detail in place.
There is no lyrical beauty here, and I refer to Kharge’s quote, not the Bard’s. That could be just the translator’s fault. Perhaps in Kannada, the dormant poet in Kharge came to the fore. We can but surmise. Nevertheless, the good Mr. Kharge evidently had a rethink on his unthinking faux pas, issued a hurried apology and ‘clarified’ that it was not a personal remark targeting the Prime Minister but at his party and their ideology. Nice try, Sir. Had Mr. Modi been aware of the phrase, he might have riposted with a ‘you can tell that to the marines, Kharge Saheb.’ Or in schoolboy banter, ‘put it in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’ This will be scrumptious cannon fodder for all our television channels for a few days, before someone from the ruling party returns the compliment in kind, and we will be off again.
Almost on cue, as I keyed in those words. an over-zealous BJP MLA in Karnataka unwisely decided to get his own back, presumably on behalf of his party, by reportedly calling former Congress President and MP, Sonia Gandhi a vishakanya, meaning a venomous woman. The snake poison motif has clearly caught the imagination of some of our politicians. With the number of loose cannons that abound in our political circles, there is never a dull moment. Battle is now truly joined. Seconds out of the ring, first round, fight. I could have added, and no hitting below the belt, but I would have been laughed out of court.
One can only hope someone does not go to the courts with a defamation suit against Kharge, whereby the latter finds himself holding hands with his young leader, Rahul Gandhi who is already facing the prospect of a sentence for defamation against the Modi collective, both wondering what the harvest will be. With elections looming, the last thing anyone would want is for these two worthies playing patience on the wrong side of the iron bars. And who knows, they may even have for dubious company, the errant BJP MLA who shot his mouth off indiscreetly against Madam Sonia Gandhi.
Vile invective being hurled at political leaders, particularly at hustings during the elections, is not a new phenomenon. Not in India, not anywhere in the world. In fact, if history teaches us anything, it is that political leaders from time immemorial have never been short of an abusive word when it comes to describing their political opponents. For the most part these politicians give as good as they get. Prime Minister Modi has himself brushed off these diatribes against him by quipping that he has digested several kilos of gaali (insults) and is none the worse for it. While that may be so, his party apparatchiks as well as those of other parties, are so thin-skinned that they are quick to take offence at any comment made against them and as we are witnessing, ready to run to the judiciary and the media and make maximum capital out of it. It is in this regard that one can take a few salutary lessons from those leaders from other nations who abuse and have been similarly abused in much viler, if wittier, fashion.
At the dawn of the 19th century, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams described his predecessor Thomas Jefferson as ‘a slur upon the moral government of the world.’ This may be regarded as high obloquy given the less vituperative times in which these two worthies operated on the political landscape. Contrast that with this salvo from erstwhile British PM Boris Johnson who greeted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as ‘a mutton-headed old mugwump.’ Never one to hold back, the garrulous Boris did not hesitate to take a sideswipe at former U.S. President George W. Bush characterising him as ‘a cross-eyed Texan warmonger.’ Speaking of British PMs, even the iron lady, Margaret Thatcher was not spared. Parliamentarian Jonathan Aitken opined that Mrs. Thatcher ‘probably thinks Sinai is the plural of sinus.’ Arguably one of Britain’s most fearless and dynamic political figures, Thatcher’s authoritarian ways tended to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Politician Tony Banks was at his acerbic best, ‘she behaves with all the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor.’ Again with the snakes! As I have not had the privilege of observing a boa constrictor on heat, I am unable to visualise the level of sensitivity they exhibit at such charged moments.
In Syria, where they go straight for the jugular, their defence minister General Mustafa Tlass said of PLO Chief, Yasser Arafat, ‘He is the son of 60,000 whores.’ Religious heads were not spared, as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe had no hesitation in calling the much respected and admired Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu ‘an angry, evil and embittered little bishop.’ We will let the feisty Boris Johnson have the last word as he describes former US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton thus, ‘she’s got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ Boris probably had Nurse Ratched, the main antagonist from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in mind.
I guess what I am driving at is that we in India should try and not get too hot under the collar if our leaders are called names, even vile ones, during the frenetic cut and thrust, rough and tumble of elections. It does not make for very civilised discourse, but then, with rare exceptions, who ever expects politicians to be civil to one another? Certainly not at the hustings. Our judiciary is already creaking under the intolerable strain of too many cases and too few judges. Give them a break and stop running to court, wailing, ‘Mamma, he is calling me bad names.’
I would like to end with a quote from a contemporary writer, the brilliant satirist Marina Hyde, who had this to say on former British PM Theresa May’s final days in office. ‘May loses her majority and is effectively left on life support for the rest of her premiership. (Boris Johnson spends a lot of time hanging around the plug socket looking shifty.)’ At the end of the day, even the most reviled politicians are not known for their Dickensian Uriah Heep’s ‘umble, ‘umble persona. When asked how he would rate his performance as President, Donald Trump said, ‘I would give myself an A+.’ Not for him all that false modesty, school exam report stuff like ‘could do better,’ ‘room for improvement,’ and all that guff. Only a straight A+. What a man!
So, I say to our politicians in India. Develop a thick skin. You can shed it later, as the snakes do. On the other hand, like Cleopatra, if you have ‘immortal longings,’ slide your hand into a little basket of figs containing a venomous asp, and let the slithery reptile do its deadly stuff.
In recent months, I have been shadowing two of my senior-citizen, nodding acquaintances (they are no more than that), as they take the air of a pleasant morning at a nearby park in our leafy Bangalore suburb. Their conversations, while they go about their lung-filling, oxygenated perambulation, oftentimes can be quite riveting. When I am privileged to be a serendipitously unseen auditor to such a free and frank exchange of views, I have seen fit to report the same to my band of readers. Not all that big a band mind you, more of a sextet or an octet, but as the great man said, ‘’tis enough, ’twill serve.’
By sheer dint of observation, I have placed our two protagonists as being somewhere in the vicinity of 75 to 80 years of age. As is their usual routine, three gently ambled rounds of the periphery of the park, suitably accoutred with walking sticks, earns them a well-deserved rest on one of the comfortable park benches. It is here that they are able to give vent to their pent-up views on the state of the nation, nearly always based on news reports gleaned from their morning daily. While they are not averse to watching television, they appear to give more credence to the news purveyed through their broadsheet. You can put that down to decades of the reading habit ingrained in them. And a very good thing too.
The subject that appeared to be animatedly engaging them on this particular morning was somewhat unusual. As always, I took my place comfortably on a neighbouring bench, pretending to be thoroughly engrossed in P.G. Wodehouse’s classic, Psmith in the City. In the normal course of events, I do not need to pretend to be involved in that great work by the Master of humour, but on this occasion, I was all ears for the approaching feast of reason and flow of soul. I have been in this situation before and looked forward to the upcoming treat, one that provides occasional grist to my writing mill. As I was saying, the unusual topic of discussion this morning was ‘Same Sex Marriage.’ The Government of India and our Supreme Court have been giving this rather delicate matter the full weight of their combined intellect, resulting in some well-mannered, verbal fisticuffs as is now the norm between the judiciary and the executive. As the two septuagenarians were chewing the cud over the respective merits and demerits of the case, a final resolution of the bone of contention is still a work in progress, and it may take a while before the apex court delivers its verdict. We take up the conversation of my senior citizens in the park. Let us call them Bhatia and Rao, the better to monitor who is saying what.
Bhatia it was, who decided to take first strike, if one might be pardoned a cricketing metaphor. ‘I say Rao, what is all this hullabaloo about same sex marriage and related subjects that seems to be engaging the attention of our Supreme Court and the government?’
Rao appeared a bit preoccupied. ‘Look Bhatia, before I answer that question, do you see that chap sitting on the next bench? I think he is trying to spy on us. Better watch what you are saying.’
‘Spy on us?’ Bhatia was puzzled. He was vaguely aware of his friend’s creeping senility and paranoia, but this was a bit much. ‘Why should anyone spy on two old farts discussing matters of public interest? Your imagination is running away with you. Actually, if you look carefully through your powerful bifocals, you will observe that he is reading good old Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City. A young man with excellent taste, I’ll wager. And he is laughing, which is hardly surprising if you have read the Master.’
‘Sniggering, more like. He is holding the book upside down, or haven’t you noticed? What does that tell you?’ Rao was getting quite agitated.
‘It tells me, Rao, that he has read the book umpteen times and is challenging himself to read it upside down. Happens all the time with us literary folks. Bit like doing Sudoku in double quick time.’
Rao was not convinced. ‘Literary folks? Us? Pull the other one. I suggest we keep our voices down. You never know these days. He might be a plant from RAW. Anything is possible.’
‘If that is true, I have to say the chaps at RAW have a fine sense of humour. Listen, my friend, forget about your Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt or Guy Burgess. I think you’ve been reading too many John le Carré novels. Wodehouse is an infinitely better option. Let’s get back to our subject. What is your view on two individuals of the same gender taking wedding vows?’
Rao stole one more nervous glance at the Wodehouse fan and turned to Bhatia. ‘As I have understood the situation, our laws now recognise the legitimate existence of gay couples. Decriminalised, as the legal boffins have it. The government’s problem is with them gaily, excuse the unintended pun, tying the knot and pronouncing themselves man and wife, or man and man or wife and wife, or whatever. That is where the government wishes to draw the line. And, between you, me and the gatepost, I think they might have a point.’
Bhatia looked at his friend scornfully. ‘Come on Rao, which world are you living in? Grow up. I never thought I would say that to a 77-year-old man. However, there is one thing that startled me during these court proceedings. Out of nowhere, the judges and the lawyers started throwing the G-word around.’
Rao looked lost. ‘What G-word? You speak in riddles, Bhatia. Explain yourself.’
‘You have obviously not been reading the papers carefully. The word they kept repeating in court,’ and here Bhatia stage-whispered loudly enough for me, exaggeratedly buried in my Wodehouse, to hear the word ‘Genitals.’ At which point, I dropped the book and went into an uncontrollable spasm of laughter.
Rao was aghast. ‘I told you that fellow was spying on us. He is very clever, you know. Reading Wodehouse is an excellent cover. We don’t know if he is laughing at our conversation or at something hilarious Psmith said in the city.’
Bhatia was not having any. ‘Look Rao, forget about your spy. What is your take on our judicial beaks and civil servants throwing words like ‘genitals’ around like confetti?’
‘Why do you keep repeating that obnoxious word? And I don’t mean confetti? Walls have ears or didn’t you know?’
‘What walls?’ Bhatia riposted. ‘Which walls? We are sitting in a park, open to sky, birds chirping all around us, and people walking their dogs. Or just jogging. Unless you meant trees have ears.’
‘Don’t be so literal, Bhatia. It’s just that I do not want this spy sitting there with his, ha ha, upside-down Wodehouse, thinking the worst of two old men using words like that. He will think we are sick. He might even think we are that way inclined.’
‘No wonder that chap is laughing. Words like what? Genitals? The Times of India’s front page was littered with it this morning, and it was quoting the judges and the solicitors and other legal luminaries. What is your problem?’
Rao was still uneasy, if not actually squirming in his park bench. ‘Why couldn’t they just say PP?’
‘PP? Now I am really foxed. Please expand PP.’
Rao went close to his friend and hoarsely whispered, ‘Private parts.’
This time, I lost it. Psmith in the City went flying out of my feeble grasp, the cover went one way and the inside pages the other way, while I held my stomach for fear of collapsing with helpless mirth.
Rao could take this no longer. He strode aggressively up to his imagined Kim Philby, namely, moi.
‘Listen, young man. I don’t know what your name is, but I’d watch it, if I were you. Why can’t you go and sit somewhere else instead of eavesdropping on us and mockingly laughing at us. Where’s your manners? Left it at home?’
I must confess I was totally taken aback by this unexpected onslaught from Rao, but I had to politely defend myself.
‘My dear Sir, I am equally at a disadvantage in that I too do not know your name. Nevertheless, let me put your mind at rest. My laughter has nothing to do with whatever conversation you and your friend were having,’ I lied. ‘I am reading Wodehouse, and if you are familiar with his works, you will know that people who read him in public are often embarrassed by not being able to control their emotions. The man is a genius. You should read him sometime, Sir. He will instantly lift your mood from ‘dark and gloomy’ to ‘bright and sunny.’
Rao was not sure if he should be offended by this upstart’s gratuitous advice or take him at face value. He seemed to possess an honest face. He decided to climb down from his high horse.
‘All right, I am sorry if I was a bit peremptory. It’s just that one never knows these days who is who and what is what, if you get my drift. And you were holding it upside down. Anyhow, here is your book, or whatever is left of it.’
At this point, Rao’s friend Bhatia joined us. ‘Everything all right? We should be on our way home, Rao, before our wives start calling the police and the hospitals. Nice book, by the way, young man. Seen better days, I daresay. Seeing as you are a Plum bhakt, I would also recommend highly, Leave it to Psmith. Bye for now.’
As the two senior citizens strolled away, they passed by another couple laughing their heads off while scanning a newspaper. What is more, they distinctly heard one of them say, ‘Genitals, for God’s sake!’
‘I am never coming to this park again,’ exclaimed Rao. ‘Wild horses won’t drag me here, ever again.’ Bhatia merely sighed resignedly and added, ‘And stop reading newspapers.’
‘You dirty, yellow-bellied rat…’ James Cagney in Taxi
Let me state, straight out of the box, that I am not terribly fond of rats. That goes for mice, bandicoots, hamsters and other representatives of the rodent species. I could add lizards to this list but they are not rodents. It is rats that I am focussed on for now. It is a prejudice I share with millions of people all over the world. Never mind if these critters are black, brown or white, rats are rats, even if cuddly, and I do not fancy spending a relaxed evening with one of their number. The comic book cliché of a woman screaming, ‘Eek, a rat,’ is well documented. This is no reflection on the female of the species. I don’t mind admitting that I will do the same on sighting a dormouse, except that my expletive, as opposed to ‘Eek,’ might not be printable. One appreciates, somewhat reluctantly, that scientists and medical researchers, in the line of duty, are compelled to spend most of their waking hours communing with members of the rodent family. Lab rats, they are called (not the scientists, the rats) and usually they are white in colour (the rats that is, not the scientists), if Hollywood is anything to go by. I have not analysed this leaning in favour of white mice against black or brown, but I am satisfied that there is no racial bias involved. Injecting these furry creatures with all manner of germs and viruses is part of the research ritual, and good luck to them. They seem quite happy doing it and observing the results, even if the rodents are not. Mark Twain once said, ‘Nothing is made in vain, but the fly came near it.’ He could have added the rat to his quote.
Now let me come to the nub of my piece and the provocation behind this rather unsavoury obsession with rodents. Earlier this week my daily brought the cheerful news that a gentleman, if one can so describe him, from the state of Uttar Pradesh, where bandits and bandicoots abound in profusion, was arrested, address unknown but residing somewhere in that vast state, on the charge of killing a rat. To protect his identity let us just call him Ratso. Those of you who are going, ‘What a horribly contrived pun of a name,’ I would urge you to hold your horses. Remember Dustin Hoffman in that classic film noir, Midnight Cowboy all those years ago? His name was ‘Ratso’ Rizzo. If it was good enough for Dustin Hoffman, it should be good enough for our anonymous rat killer.
I can detect many of you reading this piece clicking your tongues restlessly (if tongues can be clicked restlessly) and exclaiming, ‘Why don’t you come to the point and what is the big deal about some guy snuffing out a rat? We are doing it all the time. Government agencies are employed to put to death rats on an industrial scale. Why the fuss?’ Good point, and your irritation is understandable. You see, this Ratso was no ordinary rat killer. Not for him the spraying of an insecticide or leaving a bit of chemically treated poisoned cheese in a caged rat trap. Even employing the services of a predatory cat was not in his complex scheme of things. To cut to the chase, here is how our Ratso went about killing his rodent victim.
Apparently, the Indian version of Ratso the rat killer’s modus operandi was simple in the extreme. Or was it? We dig deeper into the criminal’s method. Curiously, Ratso’s weapons of choice were a brick and a piece of string. Once thus armed, he apparently goes about looking for a stray rat. Now here’s the damndest thing. When rats are the last things you have on your mind and all you are seeking is a bit of mindless television, watching some pervert being arrested on charges of vivisecting and refrigerating some poor, innocent teenager, rats will appear out of nowhere, completely destroying your sleep-inducing, idiot box goggling. You get up with a start, look for broomsticks or other lethal domestic implements and by the time you wrap your hands round the rusty can of Flit, the gas having evaporated eons ago, your agile Stuart Little has scurried away. Yet, when an avowed rat-seeker like Ratso is searching high and low for a rat, never mind black, brown or white, he draws a blank. Where is the local Pied Piper of Hamelin when you desperately need him? It’s a cruel world. However, Ratso is a determined, young man. He will have his rat.
Clearly this obsession with wanting to bring a rat to book is some sort of mental disorder. And since rats were brought to this earth only to be killed in their millions, no one took a blind bit of notice of Ratso’s strange way of spending his nocturnal hours. Nocturnal, because that is when the rats come out to play. And since cats do the same to catch the rats, the problem for Ratso increases manifold. No sooner does he tell himself, ‘I smell a rat,’ Grumpy Cat gets ahead of the game and the chase is on. Now my interest in Ratso’s rat-hunt expedition is not so much to do with why he does it as how he does it. As stated earlier and duly recorded by the police, a brick and a piece of string play a vital role in the plot. As to being interrogated with the philosophical question, ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Ratso was equivocal.
‘It does not matter, one way or the other,’ he replied, ‘so long as the rat cannot slip out of the loop and make good its escape.’
‘And what part does the brick play in your murderous scheme of things?’ continued the insistent police officer, trying to make sense of this complexity.
‘It provides the weight to take the rat down to the bottom of a well, pond or drain. If there is no brick, the rat can swim back up to safety. Simple physics.’ Ratso was a failed science graduate, which is a contradiction in terms, but let us not nit-pick. Suffice it to say that he knew a thing or two about Archimedes’ displacement of water principle and that sort of stuff.
The local cop had barely scraped through high school, so he was a bit fogged. ‘Why could you not just bonk it on the head with a hockey stick or something?’
‘Good question, officer. Firstly, I am not in possession of a hockey stick and before you ask, no cricket bat either. And even if I had either of those, the rats run very fast and hide. Impossible to bonk them on the head and run the risk of waking up the household at one in the morning. It would have been simpler to bonk Grumpy the Cat.’ Ratso was persuasive, but the cop was not convinced.
‘In that case, how did you catch this rat alive and tie it with a string to a solid brick? Surely, the creature would have struggled and even attempted to bite you. You might even have contracted rabies.’
‘Another good question. You are in fine nick, officer. I do not want to reveal trade secrets. I do this for other households in the neighbourhood for a fee and I have no wish to have some copycat rat killer imitating my methods. Competition can kill my business. Incidentally, rats do not carry rabies. I have checked it out.’
By now, the cop was getting exasperated. ‘Look, you are aware that there is a government rule prohibiting the killing of rats with bricks and strings and so on. It constitutes cruelty to animals. Rats can only be exterminated by authorised government agencies, if the problem is brought to their notice.’
Ratso was also beginning to get peeved. Refraining from inquiring about cruelty to humans, he protested, ‘Look officer, in the middle of the night, if I am bothered by rats, I can’t be calling the government rat catchers. They will all be asleep. Are you not worried about the plague?’
‘The plague? The plague was gone hundreds of years ago. History. I have read Camus’ The Plague, the local translation, naturally. So please, don’t get too cute with me. Now look, you will be in the lock-up for a day or two till the local magistrate arrives and decides on the final punishment. For the last time, just to satisfy my curiosity, how exactly did you secure a live rat with a brick and a length of string?’
‘Right, ask me nicely and I will tell you, provided you put in a good word for me with the magistrate and help me get off lightly. Deal? Good. Now here is what you do. Get hold of a strong piece of string, preferably a twine and tie it tightly to a brick, which must be lying around somewhere in your shack. Having done that, you now sit with your kerosene lamp and wait for the rat to appear.’
The policeman was not impressed. ‘Suppose the rat does not oblige and sees through your ruse. What then?’
‘You just go back to sleep and try again the following night. It is a chance you take – a game of patience.’
‘All right, into the lock-up you go. And here is a piece of string and a brick. Also, a large bucket of water for the drowning act. There is a huge bandicoot resident here and we can’t seem to get rid of it. I will leave it in your capable hands. It’s against the law but I’ll look the other way. Good night.’
‘Pssst,’ Ratso was not done. ‘I’ll let you into a little secret. I actually kill the rat with the brick, tie it with the string and chuck it down a well, but don’t tell a soul. Bad for my image.’
The cop was aghast. ‘Then what is the point of it all? Why confess to cruelty when you are not guilty? Bashing a rat to death is not a crime. Drowning it alive is.’
Ratso’s lips were sealed. He just smiled enigmatically. He was released immediately.
Postscript: Well, what do you know? As I am putting this reflection on rats to bed, news comes through that the Mayor of New York City has appointed one Kathleen Corradi as the city’s first director of rodent mitigation. In plain speak, rat catcher, or as Mayor Eric Adams grandiloquently put it, NYC’s first ever ‘Rat Czar.’ Her task? To send the rats packing and create a cleaner New York. In the Mayor’s compelling words, ‘The rats are going to hate Kathy, but we’re excited to have her leading this important effort.’ All together now, three ‘eeks’ for Kathy! Rats will no longer be nibbling at the Big Apple.
Oh, and one other thing. If I am invited out for dinner and find ratatouille on the menu, I shall give it a wide berth.
Money, money, money / Always sunny / In the rich man’s world. ABBA.
Here is a simple question. Would you pay a tad over Rs.52 lakhs or even Rs. 2 crores (not that it matters), as some sources will have it, for a lady’s handbag? You would if you happen to be an Ambani and you wish to lavish your soon-to-be daughter-in-law with a gift fit for the occasion. The occasion being the inauguration of the state-of-the-art Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) which recently opened in Mumbai at an eye-popping gala function, at which Fashion was the primary theme. As we all know, the Ambanis do not do things by halves. It was the full Monty, the whole nine yards and yes, they threw the kitchen sink as well for good measure, at this inaugural do. Nothing left to chance. Celebrities? You could hardly throw a stone without conking one. Sadhus and Sadhgurus, Bollywood and Cricket, Industrialists and Politicians – they were all there, predictably agog. ‘Staggering,’ gushed Deepika Padukone. ‘Staggering,’ echoed her husband Ranveer. ‘Staggering,’ cried Saif Ali Khan and Kareena in unison. Without a script to aid them, these Bollywood stars were constricted in their vocabulary. Shah Rukh Khan’s mouth was bursting with some expensive paan, so what he blurted out while trying to control the red spittle, was unintelligible. Sachin Tendulkar piped up with an original, ‘Spectacular,’ repeating it twice. The godman Sadhguru was more circumspect. He merely stroked his flowing white beard and chanted, ‘Om.’ In a sense, it was a double-engine (if I am not trampling on copyright) affair – the inauguration of the cultural centre and, presumably, the announcement of the forthcoming nuptials of the younger of the Ambani scions. As I did not receive a gilt-edged invitation for the function, my information is necessarily dependant on the scraps of news I picked up from media sources, not renowned for their accuracy.
However, if one were to go by what one read in the newspapers, online publications and society channels, all the excitement at the function was apparently caused by this little handbag, that could almost pass for a wallet, that was being quite ostentatiously displayed by Radhika Merchant, the young lady who would soon be welcomed into the bosom of the Ambani household as a fully paid-up member of the family. Stands to reason. After all, it was not just any old, understated little handbag picked up from Crawford Market. This was no meretricious gewgaw. This, hold your breath, was a Hermès Kelly Morphose miniature bag that grabbed all the headlines and limelight. A sure-fire head turner. Incidentally, dear reader, do not conclude, simply because I casually threw in a name like Kelly Morphose, that I am some kind of authority on the subject of luxury handbags. To be upfront with you, I had never heard of Kelly Morphose before. I did once consult with a niche, Indian luxury jewellery brand and am familiar with the reverence with which French luxury brands like Hermès and Louis Vuitton are held the world over. Beyond that, my knowledge on the subject is a closed book.
Expensive accoutrements come naturally to the Ambani family. The younger of Mukesh Ambani’s sons Anant, the bridegroom-to-be, even sports a Patek Philippe wristwatch costing over Rs.18 crores, the most expensive in the world! The point I am striving to make is that this Hermès handbag worth Rs.52 lakhs (or Rs. 2 crores) need not raise too many eyebrows in the midst of such exalted finery. It is pretty much par for the course. Nevertheless, to put the record straight, the mini handbag, we are reliably informed by the nobs, is in actual fact a piece of frightfully expensive jewellery. The bag itself is quite incidental and probably surplus to requirements. Radhika might just about manage to fit in a platinum credit card into that precious receptacle. To quote from the news item, ‘the iconic bag can be deconstructed and transformed, so you can use it as an ornament for the neck, wrist and fingers, instead of just slinging it across the body. The one that Radhika Merchant chose is the Hermès Kelly Sac Bijou Chaine in sterling silver.’ I guess it would sound even more impressive if you could pronounce that in the time-honoured French patois, which is as though you are on the verge of sneezing but the ‘ah-choo’ just refuses to arrive. We have all experienced that feeling, though not because we were attempting to pronounce that Sac Bijou whatever.
So much for the Ambanis, their handbags and watches. I can already hear murmurs from certain quarters about the wisdom or otherwise of ostentatious and lavish spending. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me state straight out that it is no concern of mine how many lakhs or crores anyone splurges on their personal clothing, jewellery, cars, watches or even, palatial residences. If you have the stuff in sackfuls, and you have worked hard for it, or merely inherited it, it is not for others to raise eyebrows. It is all very well to say trite things like, do you know how many poor families can be fed and for how long with Rs.52 lakhs (or Rs.2 crores), leave alone Rs.18 crores? If you are well-heeled and have earned the right to be a billionaire many times over, the best one can do is to ask you how you did it. So let us refrain from all this inverted snobbery stuff and look down on the rich and famous, while secretly wishing you were in their Gucci shoes. I would merely, as a mute and staggered bystander, wish the young couple well in their wedded bliss and may their tribe increase. That is the way they did it in the old days, which should hold good even now.
When all is said and done, I am reminded of how that great British thespian, Richard Burton honoured his wife, Hollywood queen Elizabeth Taylor at their wedding. It was quite amusing really. Liz Taylor was taking no chances. She went out shopping with her celebrity beau, calmly picked out a Bulgari necklace featuring a 32 carat Burmese sapphire pendant, and a Krupp diamond. The bill came to a modest $305,000 in 1968. Adjusting for inflation for today’s prices, you can do the sums. Burton swallowed twice, complained of stomach cramps, but footed the bill. Love is, etc. And lest we forget, Richard Burton played Marc Antony to Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra, in the eponymously named blockbuster film, Cleopatra, involving many a romp in luxury ships on the river Nile. These things tend to take their toll. In keeping with the finest Hollywood traditions, Taylor and Burton decided to part company after about 10 years, and surprisingly, got married again a few years later. Whether the second attempt involved another visit to Bulgari or Cartier is not clearly recorded. The fact that Liz Taylor was married to eight different men during her turbulent life, tells us that she did extremely well on the jewellery front. On the other hand, Burton was no slouch either. He tied the knot five times, which meant he drew the short straw, having to buy expensive trinkets each time his woman cooed, ‘I will.’ No wonder he took to drink, big time.
Happily, the Ambanis, coming as they do, from a far more traditional, conservative background, are bound to ensure that no reckless conduct will be tolerated. They will spend freely when the occasion demands, but they will be keeping a keen eye on the bank balance, which, at last count, was not easily countable. As for all those glamour watchers going ga-ga over Radhika Merchant’s precious accessories including the necklace, ring, pendant or bangle, masquerading as a micro-mini handbag, eat your hearts out. And if you are nursing ambitions of putting up iconic art spaces and inviting the high and mighty for the gala, while swanning around in a Cartier, Tiffany or Harry Winston solitaire, go and drill some oil wells and hope like mad something black and gooey gushes out.
Moral of the story – if you want to make plenty of money, you have got to get your hands dirty.
India’s cricket-mad public can never get enough of the game. There is no such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’ in their lexicon. Mind you, one can debate endlessly on whether excessive cricket watching is a good or bad thing, but let us put that to one side. Only recently, two nations from the Antipodes, New Zealand and Australia visited our shores to play a series of limited-overs games and in the latter’s case, four Test matches as well. Three of the four Tests finished well inside three days on what appeared to be heavily doctored pitches to suit our bowlers. The first two encounters delivered as per the script written by India’s team management. In the third Test, we were hoist with our own petard, and the Aussies scored a resounding win, their spinners seemed to be saying, ‘Anything you can do….’ The momentum shift in the series made the Aussies an odds-on cinch to square the series. India’s grounds staff, egged on no doubt, by the powers-that-be, decided to produce a dead-as-a-dodo wicket for the fourth and final Test, calculated to ensure that no result was possible even if they had played over 10 days. India got their way, their blushes were spared but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Aussies then roundly thrashed us in the ODIs and that was that. Many of us decided to concentrate on world tennis instead, and vicariously bask in the glow of brilliant emerging talents like Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner.
However, before one could even begin to appreciate the subtleties of a back hand cross court pass or a delicate drop shot, the IPL cricket circus is upon us. Once more with feeling. With all the refined subtlety and finesse of a wild rhinoceros on heat hurtling through a barn door. Even a couple of weeks before the tourney could commence, we have been assailed by full page newspaper adverts and non-stop television commercials. With that kind of persuasive power, one feels almost a deep sense of obligation to watch some of the games. I am not sure about how many of these matches I am going to actually sit through, but I thought I should spare some time to witness the opening ceremony at the, ahem, amazing and mind-blowing (can it be anything else?) Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. We were promised that the show was going to be ‘like nothing you have ever seen before.’ A claim I can fully vouch for as being true. As a codicil, they could have added, ‘and like nothing you will ever want to see again.’
The opening match between the hosts and last year’s winners, Gujarat Titans and the four-time winner and insanely popular Chennai Super Kings was to commence at 7.30 pm on March 31st. The telecast and the build-up, however, started a couple of hours before that. The biggest stadium of its kind in the world was packed to capacity, the audience squeezed in the stands like the proverbial tin of sardines. ‘We love Dhoni’ banners were fluttering everywhere. Then the actual show began. A dazzling combination of son et lumière, Bollywood and Tollywood dance sequences and an Indie-pop, 10-piece band that seemed to play on forever, like they were fitted out with super-charged Duracell batteries. Their lead singer just kept on singing for hours together, showing no sign of fatigue. He was even driven round the stadium in a strange looking vehicle, and still he sang. The crowd seemed to love it. Speaking for myself, I had no idea what the music was about and I have no wish to put on airs and turn my nose up, all because it was not my kind of music. After all, I could hardly expect them, on an occasion like this, to play Carnatic or Hindustani classical music, any more than I could expect the dancing girls to do a couple of turns of Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi. That goes for Bach, Beethoven and The Beatles. That said, the crowds loved it and the colourfully choreographed song-and-dance sequence climaxed with their own take on the Oscar-winning Naatu Naatu, which I was fully anticipating and which was delivered with all the oomph that we have come to expect.
Once in a rare while, the camera would shift from the performance on stage and the wild crowds to zoom in on the man of the moment – M.S. Dhoni, who seemed to be sitting all by himself in the dugout, looking a bit lost, in a Zen-like trance. One suspects he was contemplating his possible final stint with CSK. Then again, with MSD, all bets are off. Perhaps the music and the dancers had a catatonic effect on him. At which point, the crowds would go berserk, seeing the legend on the big screens in the stadium. None of the musicians or dancers came anywhere close to being applauded or cheered on the way India’s greatest cricket captain was being received. It was hardly surprising therefore, that when the captains of the two teams, Hardik Pandya and M.S. Dhoni were called to the stage, they were driven-in on some outlandishly designed, Mahabharat-meets-Ramayana chariots powered by an automobile, the musicians and dancers rushed to touch Dhoni’s feet to be snapped with him!
It struck me that this being Ahmedabad, the stadium being named after our Prime Minister, it would have been too good an opportunity for the government’s PR machinery to miss, what with so many elections in the offing, swinging into action and inviting El Supremo to grace the occasion in some shape or form, even through the digital medium. It is with great relief that I am able to report that that did not happen. The last thing anyone wanted was someone, even the PM, to put in an appearance and rain on Dhoni’s parade. We are grateful for small mercies. At this very venue, they did just that in the final Test against Australia (with a bemused Australian PM in tow) and had to face a great deal of flak on social media. Lesson learnt; we hope. Of course, we still have the closing ceremony to come, so I shan’t be holding my breath. We did spot a few middle-weight leaders of the ruling dispensation as well as the opposition enjoying the game, and why not? So long as they do not make long-winded speeches, there is no harm done.
For the next couple of months, whether you enjoy ‘pyjama cricket’ or not, be prepared to be bombarded by all manner of IPL blandishments. Not necessarily from the cricket establishment to watch the games (Indian fans don’t need much encouragement on that score), but by marketing companies with their deep pockets and endless tie-ins with cricketers past and present, goading you on to buy this brand of car, or that brand of flavoured yoghurt, not forgetting how to responsibly park your money in mutual funds. Tendulkar, Dhoni, Kohli, Yuvraj, Kumble – they are all playing their roles, not as discreet Hidden Persuaders but as a group of in-your-face, door-to-door salesmen. There’s money in them thar advertising. And frankly, we should not complain. As a former advertising man myself, I can state with hand on my heart that the wheels of commerce must be kept well-greased and turning unceasingly. For that to happen marketing and advertising must go hand in hand. I will freely admit that there is excess of it in our media, particularly during high-profile sports events, but it is what it is. After a while, the consuming public cannot differentiate between which brand is being promoted by which brand ambassador. It is all one noisy blur. Truth to tell, it brings in the moolah (to somebody) and enables millions of cricket-crazy fans to enjoy their favourite pastime, namely, binge-watching on television. Now that Navjot Singh Sidhu has been released from jail, we can hope to hear more cringe-worthy classic put-downs like ‘If one-day cricket was pyjama cricket, then T 20 is underwear cricket.’ Long live IPL.
Postscript. As I put this piece to bed, some sad news has just filtered through that former Indian all-rounder, Salim Durani, has passed away at the age of 88. Those of us who were fortunate enough to witness live Test match cricket during the 60s and 70s can never forget the flamboyant, charismatic southpaw, who would hit sixes on demand and break important partnerships just when the team needed it. He was a crowd pleaser and crowd puller and women swooned at the sight of him. In a different era, IPL franchises would have paid millions to secure the services of ‘Prince Salim.’ He is gone, the memories linger. RIP.
The other day, at the local club, I ran into an old friend of mine. Old friend, meaning we have known each other for a very long time, also that we are both pretty long in the tooth. Not that I wish to compare ourselves with the equine species, but you know, just saying. All right, enough of all this shilly-shallying. Let me place the cards squarely on the table. We are both in our early 70s, which means we are perfectly at liberty to provide a red-carpet welcome to the creeping onset of senility. Not that we are completely gone-case, non-compos mentis or anything like that, but our conversations can be somewhat trying to those who may be giving us a handicap of around 15 to 20 years, age-wise. A tendency to repeat oneself is a marked symptom. Nevertheless, here we are at our friendly club, with a tall mug of the frothy stuff and ready to bend our elbows for as long as it takes. The conversation was, as is to be expected, when two old rogues get together, sparkling. So, if you are a human fly on the wall, pin your ears back and soak in the feast of reason and flow of soul, as someone whose name momentarily escapes me, once described it.
I decided to open the batting. ‘I say, I hear these Khalistani terrorists are revolting in London?’
My friend took a long, contemplative draft of the chilled stuff and said, ‘The Khalistani terrorists are revolting period. They are revolting, be they in London or in Montreal or even here in Delhi.’
I had to quickly butt in. ‘Yes, yes, I get that. They are revolting, but what I meant was that they are revolting about or against something or the other at our Indian Embassy in London. You know, destroying property and climbing the walls to bring down the Indian flag from the top of the Embassy building in Old Blighty.’
‘Didn’t they try some such trick a couple of years ago in Delhi at the Red Fort? I recall there was a major humgama about it on all our television news channels. Perfectly revolting.’ His memory was in pretty good shape, the old codger’s.
I was patient. ‘Yes, my friend. I fully get your point that these Khalistanis are revolting per se and they are revolting about something. Question is, what is it that they are revolting about?’
‘Ah, there you have me,’ he sighed. ‘Even our television anchors and reporters are so caught up with all this stuff about pulling down India’s national flag from turrets of forts and buildings that the reason for doing so has been given a by-your-leave. And to cap it all, the British Government, with an Indian at the helm and another Indian as Home Secretary, have decided to keep mum. Not a yip out of them. And here we were, drinking to Sunak’s health and sending flowers to his in-laws in Bangalore. Makes you want to throw up.’
‘They should be outlawed. The British, I mean, not the in-laws. Look, I can understand your chagrin, if that’s the right word. However, please understand Sunak and Suella are no more Indians than Modi and Shah are British. I feel sorry for Sunak’s wife though. Caught between a rock and a hard place.’
I felt it was time to move on to some other subject. We had come to a dead end with the Khalistani terrorists. Market was going distinctly bearish on the subject. Pausing only to snap my fingers at the bartender for another round, I carefully steered the topic in another direction. Before I could start, my friend gave speech.
‘I say, what about this Khalistani Amritpal chap? Some say he is on the run and the cops in Punjab are unable to trace him. Others think he is in custody but carefully preserved in mothballs. A third opinion has it that he has been bumped off in a staged encounter. Which one are we to believe?’
Meanwhile, the bartender placed two more overflowing mugs, with a nice head of froth, in front of us. I took over the narrative. ‘Look, we more-or-less agreed to put a lid on this Khalistan business, so let’s just forget about Amritpal and taking down of flags and so on. Unpleasant subject. One final thought on Amritpal. I think they should grill the barber who gave him such a smart haircut. Moving on, did you hear about this 30-year-old woman somewhere in Telangana and a 55-year-old man in Bhopal, both dropping dead while dancing?’
My friend was impressed. ‘What, you mean they were both dancing with each other and died at the same time? Talk about dying in each other’s arms! Extraordinary. Guinness Book of Records stuff.’
‘No, no. The woman was dancing in Telangana at some wedding function. The man, evidently a government official snuffed it while shaking a leg at some other do in Madhya Pradesh. The two incidents were unrelated, but the newspapers reported it under one headline.’
My friend was taken aback. ‘That is the problem with our media. They conflate two different incidents and give us a totally false impression. What a let-down. By the way, conflate is the right word, is it not?’
‘Spot on, my friend. You are on top of your game. Have another one.’ A nod at the bartender and the third round duly arrived. ‘Let’s just say, it was one of those weird, if tragic, coincidences. However, for the papers, it makes for good copy. T’gana woman and Bhopal Govt official die while dancing. I cannot blame you for thinking they were doing the Naatu Naatu together. Enough to give anyone a cardiac.’
It was time to change the subject again. Also, I could see that my friend’s speech was beginning to slur. I daresay he felt the same way about me. We were on our fourth. I bashed on regardless.
‘Why is the government so hell-bent on giving poor Rahul Gandhi the third degree? Not a day passes when he is not in the news. If you ask me, he is getting more media coverage than the PM. If that is possible.’
My friend laughed. A hollow laugh, spilling some beer in the process. ‘Surely, you exaggerate. The PM stands alone. He is nonpareil, but I see your point. Rahul Baba does let fly, often without thinking. The words fly out, and its too late to push them back in. Which lands him in a right, royal pickle.’
‘Absolutely. This time he is really in the soup, and for something he said in 2019. That anyone with the name of Modi must be a cheat, or words to that effect. Maybe it was the other way round. That is surely asking for trouble. He is looking at a possible two-year jail sentence. Although Lalit and Nirav spring to mind right away, I think he had a much bigger Modi in mind. What has our public discourse come to?’
My friend was beginning to get maudlin. The bartender came round and looked expectantly at me, but I shook my head, indicating that enough was enough. ‘The tragedy of all this is that we may not see Rahul in parliament if he gets disqualified which, for the moment, is a done deal.’
‘He could get a reprieve from the Supreme Court, but yes, that will be a great loss. Where will we get our entertainment from if Rahul is not there to regale us with his intended or unintended faux pas? Tell you what though, the last word on this subject has not been spoken. The Congress and other opposition parties are sharpening their knives. He may not attend parliament, but Rahul will hold forth outside the precincts, along with his Bharat Jodo walkathoners. We saw the Sadhu Gandhi with his flowing beard, then we saw the Cambridge Gandhi with his trimmed beard, impeccably suited and booted, smart as a whip. And now, it is time for Martyr Gandhi, created entirely by the ruling party. And in the fullness of time, who knows? Mahatma Gandhi 2.0?’
I heard a gentle snore emanating from my friend, who was by now in dreamland. I signed off and escorted him out towards the car park. His driver was on hand. On days like this, when the libation is generously sloshing about in our innards, I too hire a driver. As we tooled along the congested Bangalore roads, homeward bound, I was left to thinking about what we had in store over the coming months. Elections in several states, parliament proceedings just short of fisticuffs, the ruling party counting on Adani becoming a fading, distant nightmare, the opposition scrambling to unite behind Rahul but still conflicted over who becomes the adversarial face to The Modi. As for The Modi himself, He will continue to traipse the globe, holding forth (and fifth) on global issues, the environment and the universality of man (and woman). The heavy lifting on ground will be undertaken by all the heavies He has at His disposal.
All the while, I metaphorically toss and turn, fret and fume, restless at the thought that Rahul Gandhi may not be among those present. Then again, with appeals and counter-appeals in the offing, hope springs eternal. Fate might yet hand the young scion an iron fist in a velvet glove.
There will be joy in the morning.