An unusual call from the I.T.O.

r/HistoryPorn - Female Indian telephone switchboard operator, Helen of Many Glacier Hotel, June 1925. [1600x1188]
‘May I have your PAN Card number, Sir?’

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my terrace garden, minding my own business, getting a bit of wintry sun on my back with a dash of Vitamin D thrown in for good measure, when my mobile phone went off shrilly. I must add that I was at the time reading Pelham ‘Plum’ Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the Springtime for the fourteenth time, and enjoying a particularly hilarious passage and I was not overly thrilled with the rude mobile interruption. ‘Gosh, not Amazon or Flipkart at the gates again,’ I expostulated, ‘this time bearing a consignment consisting of two packets of cream crackers and four tubes of Pepsodent G toothpaste.’ I tend to shore up on my brand of toothpaste as they get stocked out frequently on these online portals. In the event, it was neither of those two aggregating giants who were storming the gates while giving me advance telephonic warning, but a voice that sounded like a teenage girl fresh out of college. Again, my antenna was up as were my hackles.

‘Good morning Sir, am I speaking with Mr. Subrahmanyan?’ cooed a bright, young, honey-coated voice. At least, that’s how it sounded.

‘You know you are. Who else would you be speaking to? What is this about?’ As you might have gathered, I was somewhat peremptory. I do not appreciate people interrupting me when I am savouring Wodehouse. Not that I would have felt any different had I been ploughing through Salman Rushdie. When I say ploughing, I am not suggesting Sir Salman’s novels are a tough grind. Merely that his books are usually extremely long and that you have to be prepared for, at the very least, a half-marathon full of unexpected twists and turns. Unlike Sir Pelham’s slim volumes which you can race through in a couple of days, while laughing all the way at the crazy antics of the Master’s aristocrats, landed gentry, well-heeled idlers, butlers and sundry crooks.

‘If you are busy now Sir, I can always call later. I have your number,’ she continued.

‘Yes, indeed you have my number, in more ways than one, and there’s not a lot I can do about it. No, dear lady, I shan’t avidly wait for another call from you. Say what you have to say now, and make it snappy.’ I was hoping she got the message.

‘You have a funny way of talking, Sir. A bit old school, but it’s nice. I am sorry for this disturbance, but I will take only a few minutes of your valuable time.’ I must say she did not lose her composure despite my rather brusque manner. I continued in the same brusque m.

‘Listen young lady, flattery will get you nowhere unless you are damning me with faint praise. Anyhow, get this. I do not wish to invest in mutual funds, I am quite happy with my current internet service provider, I have already given my feedback to the garage that serviced my car, that they robbed me blind, I have donated liberally to associations catering to the blind and the hard-of-hearing, gave away some of my finest shirts, shoes and trousers to orphanages and more donations to a variety of disadvantaged groups and my love for dogs has been amply demonstrated by my frequently extending a helping hand to CUPA and similar animal shelters. So, I don’t think there’s much you can touch me for, seeing as I have covered most bases. By the way, on a matter of principle I am not very charitable towards religious organizations and political parties. More often than not, they are one and the same thing.’

‘Thank you, Sir. I can see you are a very generous man. And since you have taken so much time to explain all the noble works that you have been involved in, as well as your bêtes noires, I would like to trouble you for just a few more minutes. What I wish to talk to you about has nothing to do with any of the things you have so meticulously listed.’ She was gently persistent, this girl, and her vocabulary was better than most people who pester me with sales talk over my mobile phone.

‘I must concede, young lady, that you have a gentle persistence with a surprisingly wide vocabulary. Most people in your line of work won’t know what “meticulously” means, much less slip it into casual conversation. Are you reading off from a prepared text?’

‘Thank you for your compliments, Sir. No, I am not reading from a script. I am a student of English Literature and can handle myself comfortably with the language. May I come to the point now Sir, as I am sure you are a busy man and I have no wish to detain you longer than necessary.’

She was clearly oblivious of my deliciously lazy lifestyle. Still, it was good to know she thought I was a busy man. ‘By all means. Go ahead, young lady, I appear to have misjudged you. English Literature eh? What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Sorry, that was just my light-hearted way of putting you at ease. I say, you are not by any chance, trying to sell me bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, are you? Or the complete works of Shakespeare? I mean, student of English Lit and all that?’

‘Not at all, Sir. I am sure someone of your erudition will already have adorned his bookshelves with those impressive volumes. My purpose in calling you is something entirely different. If you must know, I am not representing any charitable organization and this is not a sales pitch of any kind. Since you have already spent nearly 8 minutes on the phone with me, I crave your indulgence for a further 5 minutes.’

Anyone who ‘craves my indulgence’ gets a receptive ear from me. I relaxed a tad. Truth to tell, she had also aroused my curiosity. No sales talk, nothing commercial? What did she want? ‘Go ahead, young lady. I am all ears. By the way, do you have a name?’

‘Thank you, Sir. The name is Shanta. I have come to know through sources that you are a senior citizen, probably retired but quite active otherwise. I have also come across many of your blogs, which are in the public domain, and arising from those blogs that you are of a humorous disposition. Am I going well, Sir?’

‘Extremely well, Shanta. In fact, I am getting just a wee bit alarmed. What else do you know about me?’ I was now beginning to wonder if this smooth-talking Eng. Lit. babe was not some kind of polished blackmailer trying her luck with whoever might fall neatly into her deceitful web.

‘Now, now Sir, there is no cause for alarm. As long as you have not been involved in any wrongdoing.’

She now had my complete and undivided attention. ‘Who said anything about being alarmed? And what wrongdoing? What are you getting at? I have a good mind to disconnect. I am not sure I like the direction in which this conversation is heading.’

‘I wouldn’t do that, Sir. Disconnect, I mean. I can always call you back again. I have all your coordinates. This conversation is being recorded and I can make a case out that you were flirting with me. You wouldn’t want that, would you now, Sir?’

‘Coordinates? What kind of language is this? And you accuse me of flirting? We were talking about the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Shakespeare, for crying out loud. I don’t see anything flirtatious in that.’

‘Hmm Shakespeare,’ mused this modern-day Jezebel. ‘He wrote some pretty hot stuff in his time. Try these on for size. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate – this from one of his sonnets. Here are a couple more. I have immortal longings in me – Anthony and Cleopatra. Thou art a flesh monger, a fool and a coward – Measure for Measure. I can turn all that round to my advantage. What’s more, even EB has some blue passages in it, Sir.’

I was now completely lost, and perspiring freely. Uncle Fred in the Springtime fell to the floor from my nerveless fingers. For the life of me, I could not imagine what awful truths about me this teenager was hiding. ‘What awful truths about me are you hiding, you, you…’ For a man with a wide vocabulary, I was stumped for words.

I could hear peals of laughter from the other end. Not just from this Shanta Gawdelpus but joined by a gaggle of other females. ‘My sincere apologies, Mr. Subrahmanyan. I work for the Income Tax Department, and we found from your assessment files, that you owe the Government a sum of Rs.23.50 p after all calculations and statutory deductions were taken into account. Even this I am authorized to write off because of your unblemished past record and our new policy of ‘friendly and prompt service.’ Sorry to have needlessly worried you. My colleague and I just decided we will have some fun with a few assessees, selected purely on a random basis. Our lives are deadly dull otherwise.’

I was not sure whether to be hugely relieved at this candid and brazen confession or be deeply offended. As a Wodehouse aficionado, I felt I must show that I can take a joke and decided to brush it off. I spoke to her in a bluff, hearty manner I did not feel.

‘Ha, ha very funny. Please do not try this again, Ms. Shanta, if that is indeed your name. You might be responsible for sending someone or the other with a weak heart to an early grave with your pranks. How come the Income Tax department employs giggling teenagers like you? There ought to be a law.’

‘Sir, who said anything about teenagers, giggling or otherwise? That is your own imagination running wild. I trust you are not one of those Shakespearean characters secretly nursing ‘immortal longings.’ I am 54 years old and plan to retire next year. I felt I had to sign off by doing something crazy and reckless after nearly thirty years of mind-numbing, paper-pushing drudgery, trying to catch people out on some tax dodge or the other. Just so you know, I am happily married with two grown up children. Good day Sir, and you have my word, you will not be troubled again.’

So saying, the not-so-young lady, alias Shanta, disconnected. The joke was clearly on me and I took it on the chin. Whether it was a hoax call or not, I could not say. On the whole I was relieved and if it was not a hoax, I developed a grudging admiration for the caller knowing that we have people slaving away in staid, old government offices who are not above some harmless leg-pulling. Not to mention their knowledge of Shakespeare.

My nagging doubts about the authenticity of that call were cleared a week later, when I received an official letter in a buff envelope from the I.T.O. informing me that my tax dues of Rs.23.50p had been written off as a gesture of goodwill. Clearly, this is one Government department that not only works, but has a good laugh while doing it. Would that there were more such.

Ten things to do before I snuff it

Toe Cartoon Cheerleading Clip Art - Touch Your Toes Clipart, HD Png  Download , Transparent Png Image - PNGitem

As a general rule, people who enter their late sixties or early seventies begin to entertain intimations of mortality. This does not necessarily presage a mindset devoted to gloom, doom and despondency. Unless, of course, one is an unfortunate victim of some crippling affliction. Such is not my saturnine state of mind. I am, by nature, a sunny optimist who believes in taking things as they come. Rather, I am speaking of people who start preparing a bucket list of things one must accomplish before one’s legs start wobbling, or one is unable to climb a single flight of stairs without puffing and panting. We all know that life expectancy the world over has increased manifold, and oftentimes, it is hard to tell a sixty-year-old from a seventy-year-old. Even those well into their eighties and nineties can generally be seen bouncing around in sprightly fashion. As some smart aleck said, ‘age is only a number.’ There’s even a strong rumour doing the rounds that medical research is on the cusp of finding an answer to achieving immortality – cross my heart and hope to die! Or, in the small-talk argot of my school days, ‘Put it in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not.’ Whether that is good news or bad news I am in no position to hazard an opinion. Not unlike the Cumaean Sibyl of Greek legend, who wished for eternal life without specifying eternal youth. Apparently, she lived and aged miserably for a thousand years!

The standard view amongst the elderly, for whom the bell tolls at some foreseeable future, as regards ‘things they must do before they meet their maker,’ could range from visits to global tourist spots like Venice, Florence or Paris, Wimbledon or Lord’s, the Grand Canyon (gorgeous, as one visitor punned) and other well-advertised wonders of the world. Many of us in India have not even seen half of our own country, if that. In that context there are those who pine for a visit to Varanasi, Kashi Vishwanath, Madurai Meenakshi temple and, of course, the Taj Mahal (if the Uttar Pradesh administration hasn’t derecognized it) and many other such alluring spots right here in Bharat Mata. Religious shrines are an obvious choice for salvation seekers. Still others detail their bucket list, not in terms of places to see but things to do. ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book but never got round to it,’ ‘I’ve always wanted to keep a Golden Retriever, high time I did it,’ ‘I’ve always wanted to sing all the compositions of The Beatles at home, even if my voice and I are about to croak.’ Etcetera. Dear reader, you can add your own list of items, be they places of interest to visit or creative things you always wanted to do but were too indolent to attempt.

That said, those are not the kind of dreamy, cliché-ridden objectives that I am talking about. My better half and I have had the good fortune to have travelled to most of the ‘places to see’ around the globe and in India, so I shan’t give up the ghost with regrets on that score. Having just entered my seventies, there are some pretty mundane things that I have been dying to do but have not been able to. Mark you, I am not saying I was not, for whatever reason, able to get round to doing these things. It’s more to do with the fact that I have not been actually, physically able to do them owing to some inherent lack on my part. This has been highly frustrating. Here is my strange list of things I would dearly like to do before I get the call. I also have grave doubts, grave being the operative word, if I will be able to get round to them. Nonetheless, here are ten things I would like to accomplish before the Pearly Gates open wide and invite me in as a life member.

Whistle with fingers in my mouth. You see these boisterous types at sports venues and rock concerts. When they get really excited about something, a brilliant passing shot or a helicopter swish for six or a diving goalmouth save, or for that matter, a mind-blowing guitar or drum solo, several raucous members in the audience can be seen inserting their thumbs and forefingers into the undersides of their tongues and letting fly with piercing, ear-splitting whistles. Others employ two forefingers with both their hands to achieve the same result. How on earth do they do this? It’s enviable. I have tried it more than a hundred times with nothing to show for it, but a pathetic wind exhalation. No sound and no fury, signifying nothing. Mind you, I can do the normal whistling with my lips O-shaped. Like Deborah Kerr in The King and I, I can ‘whistle a happy tune.’ Meanwhile I seek in vain to achieve the finger-and-tongue version of the rowdy whistle while my lungs are still in shipshape.

Raising just one eyebrow. ‘Holmes raised his left eyebrow, deeply suspicious, turned to his trusted aide and said, “There’s more to this than meets the eye, Watson.”’ Just to clarify, that quote is my own as I could not readily find a Sherlock Holmes novel with a reference to eyebrow-raising, but that is precisely the sort of thing Holmes would have done, as I have observed in many of the film adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels on the sleuth extraordinaire. That said, I have stood in front of a mirror innumerable times in a vain attempt to raise either my left or right eyebrow. Only for the mirror to mock from side to side with a ‘No way, José.’ The eyebrow raisers hide their secrets well. Every time I attempt this seemingly simple procedure, both my eyebrows shoot up at the same time, rendering the whole exercise null and void. It cramps my style, this disability, particularly when I elect to essay a cynical sneer and rubbish some idiot’s tall claim about his cricketing or some other prowess. It counts for nothing if those eyebrows remain a flatline. This is one instance where practice does not make perfect. Not by a long chalk. You are either a single eyebrow-raiser, or you are not. That’s all there is to it.

Touching your toes. With advancing age, stiff limbs and sudden muscle cramps go hand in hand, if not leg in leg if you get my drift. Your friendly physio prescribes a number of calisthenics, most of which I manage with a high degree of difficulty consistent with my age. However, the one exercise I simply have not been able to get a grip on, and this has nothing to do with age, is to touch my toes without flexing my knees. I could not manage it when I was a 7-year-old and I can’t at 70. The hands kind of go as far as the knee roll, and there they lodge a loud protest and refuse to travel any further. If you have watched Mr. Bean on screen, you will know what I mean. My physio urges me on. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, full of encouragement. ‘Keep stretching bit by bit and before you know it, you will touch your big toe.’ I have tried this for 63 years and success continues to elude me. Guess I will just look on the bright side. My sunset years could produce a minor triumph. As the poet had it, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ So long as I am mindful of vertigo and a possible slipped disc.

Moving your neck from side to side. In case some of you are going, ‘What’s so difficult about that?’ let me hasten to add I am not referring to merely shaking your head sideways in order to indicate a refusal or a negative response. Here, I exclude the many Indians who have this strange habit of moving their heads sideways even when they think they are nodding in the affirmative. I am talking about what Indian classical dancers, Bharatanatyam exponents in particular, do so effortlessly. The head and the neck move from side to side independent of the rest of the body, which remains stock-still. The dancers pull off this complex physical manoeuvre quite effortlessly, like those hand-painted dancing dolls. Whenever I have attempted this in the privacy of my room, I end up looking like a man nursing a stiff neck and trying in vain to address the problem. This is due to the fact that I actually do develop a stiff neck thanks to my ill-advised misadventure. Another item on my bucket list that goes up the spout.

Climbing a rope. During my school days, compulsory visits to the gym involved, among other things, climbing a thick, long rope all the way up to the high ceiling. Many of my classmates did this effortlessly. My feeble attempts were the subject of much derision. Our Physical Training master, ‘Vincy’ Vincent, was scathing in his tongue-lashing. ‘What’s this you pipsqueak, my grandmother can climb that rope faster than you can fall off it. This is what comes of eating grass and not red meat. Go run round the field ten times.’ His crude reference to my vegetarianism was uncharitable, but I ran round the field. Three times, after which I needed attention. Why running round the field ten times would make me a better rope climber, I was unable to comprehend. This inability to climb a rope would have instantly disqualified me from joining the Army. Not that I ever applied, but I still have wistful regrets about not being able to climb that gym rope.

Catch a lizard and throw it out of the window. My wife and I suffer from a lizard phobia. Which is not a helpful thing to have in a tropical country. When we do come across one during the summer months, we perforce need to resort to third degree methods involving a repellant spray and a broomstick. Most unpleasant – for the lizard and for us. I mean, a cockroach you can just stamp on and that’s that – end of. Lizards are devious and possessed of an amazing survival instinct. When they sense danger, they actually detach their tail from the parent body – to trick us! What I have always wished for is to be able to just pick the little reptile up with my thumb and forefinger and throw it out of the nearest window. Clean, no fuss, the lizard will land safely on its remarkably adhesive feet, to infest somebody else’s home, and my conscience is clear. However, this will remain an unfulfilled wish. We are now, under expert mumbo-jumbo advice, placing empty eggshells in different corners of the house. Apparently, for unfathomable reasons, the lizzies can’t stand the sight or smell of eggshells. All I can say is, ‘watch this space.’

Read War and Peace from cover to cover. War and Peace is not the longest novel ever written, but clocking in at close to 1300 pages, it is long enough for me. I am a slow reader. My ambition to read this book in toto has invariably come a cropper. After about 250 pages, Tolstoy has lost me completely. All that stuff about Napoleon trudging through snow and ice during his ill-advised Russian campaign runs to hundreds of pages, when I decide to throw in the towel (like Napoleon) less than half way through. One of these days I’ll grit my teeth and get right down to it. If someone finds me in a moribund state with War and Peace lying half opened on my chest, kindly note down the page number for posterity and a clever epitaph. A quick afterthought. Experts say Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is thelongest novel on record, boasting over 4200 pages. Even if it was serialized, it would take me three lifetimes to complete, and I am unlikely to ‘remembrance’ anything ‘of things past.’ I am giving it a miss.

Run the 100 metres inside 40 seconds. Forget about Usain Bolt, who breasted the tape at 9.58 seconds, creating a world record for the short sprint that still stands. ‘What’s the big hurry, Usain?’ that’s what I’d like to know. I mean, did he have a plane to catch? Were his creditors chasing him? Was he worried that he would miss the opening sequence of The Godfather Part 4? By the way, what’s with the triumphant bow and arrow pose, Usain? (even small-time Indian cricket heroes like Hardik Pandya are copying you). It’s this unseemly haste to do things in the proverbial blink of an eye that I am at a loss to fathom. Bolt by name – he certainly bolted, ahead of everyone else. Me, I am practicing hard to complete the 100 metres sprint at a leisurely clip of around 40 seconds, give or take, at the next veterans’ athletic meet in our neighborhood. And my warning shot to all my septuagenarian rivals is, ‘Just marvel at my clean pair of heels.’

Pressing my own shirt. The dhobi outside my gates does it, my driver does it, and my wife does it better than both of them. Why does ironing a shirt present so many problems for me? The buttons get in the way, the collar never quite sits the way I want it, the pocket acquires more creases than I had intended, and in the end, my shirt looks like something the cat reluctantly brought in. And don’t even get me started on folding the ironed shirt. At which point the good lady wife snatches it away from me to undo the damage. Provided I haven’t already burned a nice, round hole at the back. Should I persist or give it up as a lost cause? That is the question.

Remembering that third point. I don’t know about you, but whenever I have been called upon to make an impromptu speech at some informal gathering, I usually start off by saying, ‘I have three points to make.’ I have no earthly idea why I say this. I think it is some kind of reflex action. I’ve seen many practiced speakers do the exact same thing. The problem is, I can never remember the third point, if indeed there was a third point. Somehow just two points seem weak, so I get stuck with having to make three points, which involves making something up on the spur of the moment, which is dashed difficult. I have therefore resolved to commit to memory, irrespective of the subject on which I may be called upon to hold forth, some inconsequential third point, a catch-all joke perhaps, which will save me the blushes. Not exactly an earth-shattering item for a bucket list, but the problem was I had headlined this piece, ‘Ten things to do before I snuff it,’ and I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the tenth thing. So there!

I have also entertained fleeting thoughts of winning a Grand Slam title, not fussy about which one but Wimbledon would have been nice. However, since The Big Three show no signs of letting up, I have had second thoughts and dunked the idea – discretion being the better part of valour.

Echoing Hamlet’s sentiments, these are consummations devoutly to be wished. As a parting shot, if you haven’t already, watch Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List. If it’s the last thing you do!

Godspell

Image result for temple and banyan tree images
Banyan Tree and Temple. Anonymous 1795. Courtesy British Library.

A place of worship, correction, let’s call a spade a temple, located somewhere in the heartlands of south India. Ramu, a mendicant, sits in a long line of beggars outside the temple walls with a pock-marked, pitted aluminium begging bowl, seeking alms from the daily flow of worshippers who throng this holy abode of the presiding deity.  A ragged length of dirty white cloth covers his head to keep the unforgiving sun from dealing him a heat stroke. The power of the temple’s deity is said to be formidable, and though it is almost seemingly inaccessible to normal travellers, visitors flock in great profusion every day for darshan and to   pay obeisance to the almighty. They come by car, truck, van, two-wheeler, bicycle and bullock-cart, juddering through the unmade, stone-strewn paths that pass for roads leading to this village shrine. Those that live within a two-mile radius trudge to the temple with intent, avoiding stray dogs and skeletal cows sure-footedly, familiar with the rough terrain.  The coins drop in dribs and drabs into Ramu’s bowl, but over the course of a long day, they add up.

Vikram is a brilliant software engineer, based out of Bangalore. At the relatively young age of 28, he is already worth several crores in stock options and dynamic investments. His wife, Shanta, spends her time running a highly successful creche and a kindergarten in a tony area of the garden city. On Sundays and public holidays, she puts in a few hours with an NGO involved in helping mentally challenged children. However, one dark cloud looms over their idyllic life. They have not been blessed with a child after three years of wedded bliss. And that is the reason Vikram has sought out this place of worship in a remote hamlet as he has heard tell that the presiding deity can make good any lack if the proper rituals are performed. Unbeknownst to Shanta, Vikram has been a regular monthly visitor to this shrine for the past six months. He has been following all the liturgies and ablutions as directed by the resident priest, who has assured him that the local deity is fully seized of his issue, or rather the lack of it, and the patter of little feet at his bide-a-wee home is not far away.

How do we know all this? We know this because Vikram has struck up a warm friendship with the supplicant Ramu. Which then begs the question, rather like Ramu, how these two unlikely individuals come to enjoy such a close camaraderie. All rather strange and mysterious. Apparently, it started like this. On his first visit to the temple, Vikram decided he must do the decent thing and donate some of his loose change to these beggars squatting outside the temple premises. Any good deed to please the gods. As he chanted some private mantra while doling out the change to these unfortunates, he came to Ramu’s plate. On dropping a five-rupee coin into the battered receptacle, he thought he heard the beggar saying, in perfectly accented English, ‘You are most generous Sir, that must have made an awful dent in your bank balance, even if not in my dented bowl.’ A hint of sarcasm as well. Vikram felt his mind was playing tricks and that he was hearing voices. A disturbing thought. Then the beggar spoke again. ‘Take no notice of my prattle, kind Sir. I am given to making off-the-cuff comments, tinged with irony. You go about your business, Sir.’

Vikram made no response. He dropped more coins into the other beggars’ bowls and pretended he heard nothing. He found the recent exchange unsettling. His drive back to Bangalore was not comfortable. Not because of the pathetic condition of the roads, till he got to the highway, that was rattling his bones up something awful, but because of the beggar Ramu’s astonishing conversational methods. ‘Prattle,’ ‘off-the-cuff,’ ‘tinged with irony,’ ‘awful dent,’ ‘go about your business,’ – who spoke like that these days, even among the educated classes, leave alone the poorest of the poor? What’s more, his accent was quite polished. There’s more in this than meets the eye, thought Vikram to himself. Vikram’s drive back home was buffeted by a maelstrom of strange emotions. He could not get Ramu out of his head. That night he slept fitfully.

Next morning, he told Shanta he was motoring to Chennai on a personal errand and would be back by nightfall. Instead, he decided to drive back to the village housing the holy of the holies, having put in for a day’s leave of absence. Prior to his leaving, Shanta ran and fetched a thermometer and inserted it into her husband’s mouth before he could protest. This man, a confirmed workaholic, had never taken a day’s leave in his entire working life, and now this. She feared the worst. He wants to drive back to Chennai? On a personal errand? Sounded distinctly dubious. Dementia and high fever, possibly Covid, were her biggest worries. She placed her hand on his forehead but could feel no abnormality. Overwork, that was the trouble. The thermometer said Vikram’s temperature was sub-normal. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just something I came across at a kovil on the outskirts of Chennai that I need to sort out. Will tell you all about it when I return. Trust me.’ Shanta was flummoxed. She was not even aware that her husband was visiting a temple or indeed, why. In his dashing personality as a successful IT professional, she never smelt the incense of religion in his make-up. Why, they did not even design the de rigueur prayer room in their state-of-the-art apartment.  However, she decided not to press but to await his return.

Arriving at the village, Vikram parked the car under the shade of a spreading banyan tree and proceeded to confront the eloquent Ramu, who was sitting cross-legged at his appointed place, apparently in deep contemplation.

‘A penny for your thoughts,’ opened Vikram, stirring Ramu mildly out of his reverie, ‘Caught you by surprise, didn’t I? What is it exactly that you are doing here? I can see that you are well-bred and well spoken, so what’s with the indigent costume and grand deception?’

Ramu was equal to the occasion. ‘I fully expected your sudden return this morning, brother. I could see that my highfalutin garrulity yesterday took you unawares and you have been thinking of nothing else ever since.’

‘You’re doing it again, “highfalutin garrulity” indeed! That’s awfully clever of you, but I need to know what your real game is,’ replied Vikram, ‘I distinctly smell a rat. Something fishy. Go on, out with it.’

‘Make up your mind. Rat or fish? Don’t mix your smelly metaphors. Nothing fishy, my friend. Or ratty, come to that. We are strictly vegetarian here. Tell you what, why don’t we go and stand under that banyan tree where your swank car is parked and we can have a chinwag,’ said Ramu.

‘Fair enough,’ said Vikram and the two of them walked towards the shade of the banyan’s cooling branches, ‘now reveal to me why you move in this strange, cloak-and-dagger way, keeping me guessing. And don’t think you can fob me off with some lame, hard-luck story about losing all your ill-gotten gains at the bourses or the race courses. We are standing on sacred land. I want the truth.’

‘Got a fag?’ queried Ramu.

‘What? No, I don’t smoke,’ replied Vikram, clearly taken aback by this startling request and plainly irritated. ‘Filthy habit.’

Ramu drew himself up to his full height. ‘All right, don’t get all hoity-toity with me. It’s just that these hand-rolled bidis are killing me. I’ll get straight to the point. Your name is Vikram, right? You work in a software company, you are well paid, your wife Shanta is doing noble community work – a happily married couple, except for one, solitary sorrow in your young lives. You don’t have a child. And that’s why you keep coming here.’

Vikram was aghast. ‘Who are you? Where did you come from and how do you know all this?’

‘Peace be with you, bro. Don’t get so hot under the collar. Things will soon sort themselves out and your wishes will be taken care of.’ Ramu sported a broad smile.

‘I still don’t get it,’ cried Vikram. ‘What are you, a godman, a shaman? And I am not your brother. And don’t call me bro, either. I hate that new wave corruption. And you, with your mumbo-jumbo black magic.’

‘Says the guy who, for all his cynicism, comes here monthly to talk to his god. Let’s just say I know things. I can’t reveal more. Why don’t you just go home and let nature take its own, majestic course?’ Ramu was clearly in high spirits, revelling in the techie’s discomfiture.

Vikram was getting quite irritable and fidgety. ‘And how come you talk like this? A poor, starving beggar in rags, looks like you haven’t had a shower in months, stinking to high heaven and you converse like Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. And now you’re advising me to let nature take its own course.’

‘Majestic course,’ interjected Ramu, imparting plenty of topspin. ‘Great movie, My Fair Lady. Saw it six times.’ At which point, he started singing Get me to the church on time, under his breath. Was this guy for real?

Vikram was now at his wit’s end. A Broadway hit song, on top of everything else. ‘All right. Majestic course. I am going home now, Your Majesty. And if what you say turns out to be true, I will return and break a hundred coconuts in your name. What is your name, by the way?’

‘My name is of little consequence, my friend. Just go home to your wife,’ replied Ramu darkly. ‘I will bid you farewell for now. You sure I can’t bum a fag off you? Dying for a proper smoke.’ So saying, Ramu wandered off towards the line of beggars, leaving a puzzled and disturbed Vikram revving up his car.

Vikram returned home early. Shanta was still out. He helped himself to a cold beer from the fridge and switched the television set on to watch one of the many sports channels. India 36 all out? What is the world coming to? The TV was supposed to soothe the savage breast. He turned to another channel showing some soporific golf and fell soundly asleep, his beer only half consumed.

He woke up to Shanta’s urging voice asking him to go and sleep in the bedroom. Vikram was wide awake now. ‘Listen Shanta. I have something strange and dramatic to tell you. Why don’t you sit yourself down?’

‘I know all about the 36 all out Vikram, but first I have to take something for my stomach. I was violently sick at the creche and am still feeling woozy. Could be that five-day old custard in the fridge I ate this morning. Must have been off, what with all the power cuts.’ While she was narrating this, she heaved sickeningly and ran to the bathroom, and came out in a few minutes looking pale, white as a sheet. ‘I think we should call the doctor,’ said Shanta weakly.

Vikram was wreathed in smiles. He could not believe what he was hearing. Can this be actually happening? He had seen too many Hindi and Tamil films not to recognize the tell-tale signs. Only the rousing background music was missing. This tale does not need any more telling. Dear reader, you can surely guess what the beaming doctor or rather, the gynecologist said.

Tailpiece: Next morning, first crack out of the box, Vikram was speeding away to the village temple to meet Ramu and thank him brokenly. En route, he picked up a carton of India Kings cigarettes for his benefactor. That was the least he could do. On arrival, he parked his car under the ancient banyan and ran towards the temple. He searched high and low amongst the long line of squatting beggars, but Ramu was nowhere to be found. Was he ill? He ran into the temple and asked the head priest if he was aware of Ramu’s whereabouts. The priest knew every single beggar by name. He merely gave Vikram a knowing look, turned back and gazed reverently at the resplendent deity, and said, ‘Ramu was His plaything. You are a Tamilian aren’t you? Have you seen that old classic Sivaji Ganesan film Tiruvilaiyaadal?  Where the Almighty descends on earth and plays the common man in different disguises? You have? Five times? And you doubtless recall the Hollywood film, Oh God! where George Burns, who plays God, tells the judge in the final scene, “If it pleases the court, and even if it doesn’t please the court, I’m God, your honour.” Then you will understand what transpired here. Go home and be with your wife.’

Vikram was dumbstruck. A die-hard film buff, this temple priest but he was moved by what he said. Vikram merely reached out and offered the carton of India Kings to the appalled priest. ‘Believe me your Holiness, He would appreciate this gift much more than the hundred coconuts I was planning to break.’

As he drove away from the temple, Vikram thought he heard a disembodied voice call after him, ‘Brother Vikram, where’s my fag?’ He peered into his rear-view mirror, saw nothing, smiled to himself and pressed on the accelerator, a thick cloud of dust rising in the vehicle’s wake.

A Toolkit for Mr. Tikait

Image result for toolkit images

Until very recently, my idea of a toolkit was a somewhat rusty old metal box in my late father-in-law’s workshop consisting of a variety of implements like hammer, chisel, pliers, screws, rawlplugs, drill bits, industrial glue, sandpaper, lengths of wire and a few sundry items, names of which I cannot readily recall. He was very good with his hands, my father-in-law. Whether it was the undersole of your shoe that had come undone and gaped embarrassingly, or your watch strap that had detached itself from its parent chronometer or even your precious blackened, oxidized silver medal you won at school for excelling at elocution which needed polishing, the old man could attend to these tasks with great expertise and pride. Dexterity was his middle name. All he needed was his magic box of tricks containing his toolkit. Take his toolkit away from him and he was a spent force – Samson without his locks. By locks, I mean Samson’s curly hair and not the kind of locks you might have chanced upon in my father-in-law’s toolkit. Come to think of it, good old Samson wouldn’t have known what to do with a Yale lock if you handed it to him on a silver platter. And Delilah wouldn’t have been of much use either.

So much for locks, my father-in-law and Samson. My current preoccupation with the term ‘toolkit’ is from an entirely different connotation ascribed to this everyday item. At first it just passed me by. The word toolkit was being uttered on television news channels and referred to in newspapers so frequently that I paid scant attention to it. If anything, without my being aware of it, the word was being embedded into the recesses of my brain. The advertising gurus have a word for it – subliminal. Then there were references being made to pop star Rihanna’s toolkit (the mind boggles) and teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s toolkit, all of which were apparently proving extremely helpful to farmer Rakesh Tikait’s toolkit. A billionaire pop diva, a teenage Swedish activist and a battle-hardened agriculturist – all coming together under one toolkit roof to find common cause. A more unlikely trio you will be hard pressed to find. Incidentally, Greta Thunberg’s Twitter account claims 4.9 million followers. That’s a lot of twits. Guess you can double or treble that for Rihanna. Bit much, I thought. Here was a simple, common or garden, quotidian word, ‘toolkit,’ which brought to mind my father-in-law’s hammer and chisel, and all of a sudden, before you can say MSP it takes on a completely new, political dimension. From Arnab Goswami and Rahul Srivastava to Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah, they were all talking about toolkits. The bombastic Shashi Tharoor does not appear to be in the mix, possibly because the term toolkit has just two syllables!

At which point I felt it was time to ferret around a couple of search engines to arrive at the modern definition of a toolkit, and this is what I unearthed – ‘A toolkit is a collection of authoritative and adaptable resources for frontline staff that enables them to learn about an issue and identify approaches for addressing them. Toolkits can help translate theory into practice, and typically target one issue or one audience.’ So, there we have it. A toolkit explained lucidly and graspable to the meanest intelligence. Not the faintest mention of rawlplugs, drill bits or screw drivers. It was then the work of a moment for me to get my teeth into that involved definition, parse every sentence down to its component parts and describe their syntactic roles. After all that, if I still cannot make any sense out of it, I will simply have to hurl the blasted toolkit, drill bits and all, out of the window. As Rihanna and Greta Thunberg were not readily available for a quick online interview, my emails to them eliciting an ‘address unknown’ response, I had no option but to seek out their agents, who promised to take my questions and revert with their replies as soon as feasible. Lo and behold, I received email responses from both of them. I cannot swear to the veracity of these mails and their contents. They may or may not be fake, but I thought it would be interesting and instructive to share them with my readers. For the record, I posed one identical question to both these luminaries.

‘Can you explain precisely why you have put out tweets condemning India’s new farm laws, and while you are about it, what is your understanding of MSP and APMC?’

Rihanna – ‘See Bro, I was born in Barbados in the West Indies. I am guessing my ancestors were farmers in sugarcane plantations which that region was famous for. So, I have a lot of time and sympathy for farmers. I love cricket. Sir Garry Sobers, a Barbadian, is like God to me. I also love reggae music, Bob Marley being another God. Also, Harry Belafonte who sang about banana farms. Let me sing a snatch. Work all night on a drink of rum / Daylight come and we want go home / Stack banana ’til the morning come / Daylight come and we want go home / Day-o, day-o.’

That is why I know so much about farming.  I owe all these millions I now earn to these inspirational characters. Some people say I am being paid a few million smackeroos to put out this tweet that has created a big controversy, but I don’t know nothin’ about that. Whenever I want a new luxury yacht, I just ask for it. So you see, I have great sympathy for these farmers from Ceylon, Burma, Indiana or wherever. MSP, APMC? I don’t need to know all that. It’s the farmers my heart bleeds for. I can also sing that old Lead Belly song my Gramps used to sing. I’ll sing it for you. When I was a little bitty baby / My mama would rock me in the cradle / In them old cotton fields back home. I know that was in Louisiana, but you get the sense of our closeness to the farming community. You can also check out my hit song videos on YouTube, Bitch Better Have My Money and Loveeeeeee Song. I would recommend parental guidance and even they might need guidance.

Greta Thunberg – ‘You know, just because I am barely 18 years old people think they can treat me like a child. It’s freezing cold right now in Sweden but I am still fighting against global warming, though here in Stockholm and other cities, we could all do with a bit of warming. Just shows, I don’t just think about myself. Climate change is my favourite topic. I got 98% for my thesis on this subject, and my Mom gave me two helpings of Kladdkaka, our yummy Swedish sticky chocolate cake as a reward. My Dad joined the party and said since I am 18, technically an adult and eligible to drive our Saab, I could have a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon red wine. I thought it tasted like cough mixture, but they say it’s always like that the first time. Sorry, I am digressing. About this farmers’ agitation in India, I am very upset at all these pictures I am seeing. Tractors running over people, others climbing poles at some big fort to escape tear gas firing and the government insisting they will not repeal the farm laws. Do I know what MSP is? Does that matter? I am told if the new laws are repealed all the problems will be solved, so what’s all the fuss about? Why should these shivering farmers sit on the streets, get foot massages, cook their food and do all their other business there? Very bad for the climate. I am sending them a toolkit which should be strictly followed.  By the way, did I hear that farmers are in favour of stubble burning? That’s a tricky one as I have been rooting for clean air. Stubble means trouble. I have to give it some thought. Oops, its 6 pm already. It gets very dark here in Sweden. Time for beddy-byes, or Mom will scold. Good night.’

Finally, I posed this question to the man of the hour, the never-say-die farmer who is looking to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for spearheading the longest protest movement known to man, the irrepressible Rakesh Tikait from Uttar Pradesh. This English translation loses a bit of the bite from Rakeshji’s down-to-earth Hindi.

‘Rakeshji, the Government is willing to consider all your demands and settle matters amicably. You have already met Tomarji and Goyalji 11 times. There has to be some give and take, but you are only saying ‘Repeal, Repeal, Repeal.’ How will this end?’

‘Arre Bhai, please understand. Modiji may cry in Rajya Sabha, but I also cried. Many times. Nobody is listening. And now they are accusing me of this toolkit tamasha. Who is this Rehana Shehana and Geeta Tungabhadra? Why are they sending toolkits and confusing every one? We have our own toolkits in India. I can screw anything or anyone with our own screwdrivers. Government can put nails on roads, but I will remove them with my pliers and plant flowers instead. I am a man of peace. I have only this to say to the Government, ‘Repeal, Repeal, Repeal.’

Moral of the story – You can take a toolkit to a Tikait, but you cannot make him use it.

Making a clean breast of things

Image result for female judges cartoon images
Judge not, that Ye be not judged

Convicted Criminal: As God is my judge I am innocent.
Judge Norman Birkett: He isn’t, I am and you’re not!

After all the ongoing brouhaha over the never-ending farmers’ agitation in the capital, followed by even more heated debates and discussions on the Union Budget, to say nothing of the all-pervading Covid19 situation which kind of sits over all of us like a frozen suet pudding, it was good to turn my attention to something completely different in our newspapers. Well, good is not a good word because the news item in question that grabbed my notice was both disturbing and ridiculous. I am talking about the Supreme Court, very properly, coming down with a heavy hand over a recent Bombay High Court decision which had held that ‘pressing the breast of a 12 year-old child without removing her top will not fall within the definition of “sexual assault” under Section 7 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).’

This really set the cat among the pigeons in my head. They were fluttering, the pigeons that is, like nobody’s business while I tried to wrap my challenged intellect around this verdict. I am talking about the Bombay High Court’s (Nagpur Bench) verdict, and not the Supreme Court’s quashing of the same. The stay was ordered by India’s Chief Justice, S.A. Bobde, and this may well have been one of the easier decisions he has had to make since taking the oath of office. What were these boffins at the Bombay High Court thinking, specifically Justice Pushpa Ganediwala who was at the controls? Apparently, the person who has been accused of some species of molestation can go scot free, as long as his victim was wearing clothes, and there is no ‘skin-to-skin’ contact. One lives and learns as judicial terminology keeps reinventing itself. In short, if the girl is fully clothed and someone touched her improperly, he was only ‘outraging her modesty,’ under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, and through derivative logic, no punishment is called for. If our illiterate, oversexed offenders were aware of this loophole in the law, they would go berserk with their breast pressing, bum pinching and much else besides. It’s all very well to go on about sowing your wild oats, but there are limits.

 To revert to the subject on hand, here’s how I view this sleazy scenario. We have this lecherous lout who squeezes himself into a crowded bus or wherever and, ‘accidentally on purpose,’ presses himself against the embonpoint of a nubile youngster in a sexually offensive manner and quietly hops off at the next stop, leaving the poor victim red faced and helpless. ‘Sorry, young lady, nothing much you can do about it because you were wearing clothes.’ At least, that’s what the asinine verdict appears to be telling the young victim. How about getting some able-bodied men to apprehend the perpetrator and bash his thick skull in? If the law is going to take its own majestic course, then somebody else had better step in. You might scoff at vigilantism, but it has its uses. Her Ladyship at the Bombay High Court, Nagpur Bench, contended that Section 8 (yes, there is even a section for this) of POCSO exonerates the desperado on the grounds that the accused had no sexual intent to commit offence because there was no skin-to-skin contact. And how, pray, do you divine that, Your Honour? Telepathy? ESP? Dear, oh dear! One of the most celebrated judges, Lord Denning, quoting Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist, provided gravitas and credence to the expression, ‘The law is an ass.’ He certainly knew what he was talking about.

As if all that was not absurd enough, the next day’s papers had more small print of a similar nature. Again, it was the reverberating Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court that went a step further. Undeterred by the Supreme Court’s rap on its knobby knuckles, the High Court now ruled that holding the hand of a minor while unzipping his pants cannot be termed a sexual assault. The accused offender in question was a 50 year-old man, who was attempting to exhibit his manhood to a 5 year-old girl! Surely, there is such a thing as assaulting the senses. One is rendered speechless. All I can say is that if any of you, who happen to be reading this, is planning a short family holiday in Nagpur (I know the city is famed for its oranges), and you plan to take along your teenaged daughters with you, cease and desist. All that profusion of succulent oranges in the city seems to be putting libidinous ideas into the sex-starved male of the species. You are much better off going to the hills or some seaside resort, where the judicial system comes down mercilessly on unzippers of pants, unbuttoners of flies and gropers of mammary glands. If you don’t heed my advice, on your heads be it, or rather, on your breasts.

This sordid story should have ended hereabouts, but my morning daily just will not give up on Justice Ganediwala and her strange enthusiasm for cases involving deviant sex offenders. The honourable lady may soon, with justice, earn the dubious sobriquet of ‘serial acquitter of paedophiles.’ Try this on for size.  Her Ladyship, reportedly gave it as her considered view that a man, who had already been incarcerated, cannot be accused of committing a sexual act ‘without any scuffle.’ I suppose there is some crude logic to this argument that if the man had forced himself on the girl who was reluctant to engage with him, a scuffle would have ensued involving torn clothes and sundry injuries, none of which was evident. Ergo, the vile act was not vile but consensual. On the face of it, one might have to (purely on technical grounds) hand the benefit of the doubt to the acquitted accused. It’s just that given the court’s previous judgements of a somewhat similar nature, I am filled with doubts and misgivings and from the alleged victim’s point of view, I am not sure that there is no case to answer.

In this rapidly evolving story, the finishing touches have now been given by the Bombay High Court which has, in the light of Justice Ganediwala’s quirky pronouncements, recommended to the Supreme Court that her elevation to the position of a permanent judge of the Bombay High Court, be stayed. A decision that would be welcomed by all right-thinking citizens, particularly those with teenage and minor daughters in their families.

I was about to put this piece to bed when, lo and behold, Justice Ganediwala struck again. This time she ruled that a 27-year old man cannot be convicted of multiple rape of a 17 year-old girl simply on the alleged victim’s say-so, as the prosecution failed to provide substantive evidence of the crime. Perhaps, just perhaps, she got it right this time round. The young lady might have been crying wolf, but I am not holding my breath. One way or the other, this particular judge appears to have cornered the market on cases pertaining to child sex offenders.

Doubtless inspired by the goings-on at the Bombay High Court, the Madras High Court has decided that it can’t be left behind. Pronouncing that a man, in this case a police constable, and a woman locked inside a room for long hours does not prima facie suggest that there was any funny business involved. Or in the ringing words of Justice R. Suresh Kumar, that it ‘need not necessarily lead to a presumption that they were in an immoral relationship.’ Exactly my thoughts, but you know judges. They like to spin it out a bit. Circumlocutory is the word that springs to the lips. Be that as it may, I am willing to take the locked-up couple’s word at face value, so long as they did not come out of the room in a state of déshabillé. You know, torn clothes, unzipped flies and the like.

In conclusion, this left-field obsession with ‘skin to skin,’ ‘improper touching,’ and ‘provocative unzipping’ reminded me of a hilarious exchange between a young couple out on a date, which was featured in British comedian and celebrity-interviewer par excellence, David Frost’s show, That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s. Here is an extract from ‘Fly Buttons,’ not verbatim, as I am paraphrasing it from the deep recesses of my foggy memory but you’ll get the general idea.

(At a small café somewhere in England)

She (whispering) – ‘Listen, your fly is open.’
He – ‘What?’
She – ‘I said your fly is open.’
He – ‘It’s not.’
She – ‘It is.’
He – ‘How far?’
She – ‘What do you mean, how far?’
He – ‘How far is it open?’
She – ‘More than half way. Zip it up.’
He – ‘I can’t.’
She – ‘Why not?’
He – ‘It buttons.’
She – ‘Then button it up.’
He – ‘That’s all you care about, isn’t it? My fly buttons. War, disease, famine, crime, corruption, cataclysms, nothing matters to you. Absolutely nothing. So long as we button our flipping flies. I wouldn’t button my fly if it was open all the way.’
She – ‘It is.’

(After a bit more argument)

She – ‘Look, we can’t stop here all evening discussing your gaping fly buttons. We’ll be late for the movie. Shouldn’t we move?’
He – ‘All right, all right. Just wait till I button my fly.’

I am not sure about Justice Ganediwala, but I rest my case.

An open letter to the Union Finance Minister

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Union Budget 2020-21 in the Lok Sabha
Mind it, I say!

Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman
Union Finance Minister
Cabinet Secretariat
Raisina Hill
New Delhi.                                                                          January 27, 2021.

Dear Ms. Sitharaman,

On the first of February, you will rise to present the Union Budget to the nation from the Lok Sabha – an event, I venture to suggest, that captures more attention than most programmes barring the Prime Minister’s periodic updates to the nation on Mann ki Baat, the Election results or an India – Australia Test match. You will doubtless already have received representations from all manner of interested groups to take care of their specific requirements. Industry and the Farm Lobby, to name just two denominations will be asking for the moon. Not to speak of the poorest of the poor for whom you will unfailingly announce a slew of relief measures. The rich and the super-rich will be soaked, along with the sinful tobacco lobby which is only right and proper. The middle-class, or muddled class, will be loftily ignored. It is a taxing task, in every sense of the term.

That is how I anticipate your speech will go, based on decades of historical data analysis of our finance ministers’ budget speeches since Independence. You will also be fully aware that, no matter what you propose, the opposition will condemn it outright as anti-people, anti-farmer and pro-rich. Or more precisely, pro Ambani / Adani, the suit-boot ki sarkar. (The farmers’ protest took a violent turn for the worse on Republic Day, but since no one is owning the blame for the fracas that ensued, we will just have to wait for the plot to thicken and unravel). The middle-class will moan and groan, and the rich will sigh resignedly – a few hundred crores here or there will make little difference to their bank balance. There will be much heckling, wailing and gnashing of teeth, flailing of fists and banging on the benches. Some MPs may even barge into the well of the House and attempt to grab the Speaker’s microphones, waving a tattered copy of the Constitution the while, but you are fully seized of all this and will surely be adequately prepared to present a dead defensive bat.

As one who represents R.K. Laxman’s fabled Common Man, I can freely confess to not following much of what the budget speech is all about. Or the Finance Bill, come to that. Truth to tell, pretty much most of it. All those provisions, exemptions, tax impositions, tax breaks, sections from various acts being quoted left, right and centre. And don’t even get me started on ‘vote-on-account.’ They tend to go over my head for the most part. My usual practice is to call up my tax consultant and get the low down on whether I will be paying more tax or less, as a result of your lengthy spiel and closing peroration. The fact that my tax consultant may himself have been gasping for breath is another matter altogether. I appreciate that the television channels invite a host of business and finance experts to provide an elucidating running commentary even while you are making your announcements, but that only serves to create more confusion. Add to that the live, racing figures of the Sensex and the Nifty, yo-yoing up and down after every announcement from you, keeps us all enthralled. Only the fine print in the next morning’s newspapers will tell the real story, provided I can follow a word.

Under the circumstances, I am eschewing any attempt to make silly requests to you to increase this or decrease that. You are going to ignore my pleas anyway, as the idle wind. Notwithstanding, kindly don’t be predictable and impose a ‘pandemic tax.’ We have suffered enough with Covid19. Hope I am not putting ideas into your head! You may treat what has just preceded as the preamble to what now follows, which is a step-by-step guide for a few simple rules you should adhere to in order to make your budget presentation more decorous and appealing on television. Since the majority of folks watching your ‘great moment’ are clueless, the following tips may endear you to them, make you more beguiling. What is more, it will keep their minds blissfully away from all those complicated numbers you will be spewing, which will be a blessing in disguise. After all, the next general election is not too far away.

Dress code: As the second lady Finance Minister of the nation (PM /FM Indira Gandhi was the first in 1970-71), though this is your third budget presentation, what you wear becomes vital, bearing in mind your viewers. As befits your conservative background, a white or cream-coloured silk sari, with a bright saffron border would present a dignified presence. The blouse can either be of the same colour as the sari, or match the saffron border to provide a stark contrast. You may, if you wish, completely reverse the colour scheme, making saffron the dominant colour and cream providing subtle support. Personally, I would stick to the former combo. This will portray you on screen as a person of quiet authority coupled with elegant dignity. Elegant dignity goes down well with the masses, particularly for a lady. Our late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had elegant dignity down to a nicety, even if she did a lot of not very nice things. A word of caution. Whatever you do, please do not approach a fashion consultant for advice. That way lies disaster. You are addressing the nation from a pristine podium, not sashaying on a ramp.

Opening quotation: It has now become standard practice for our finance ministers to open their budget preamble with a quotation. From Ghalib to Tiruvalluvar, a wide range has been covered depending on which part of India the minister hails from. I understand Ms. Sitharaman, you are fluent both in Tamil and in Telugu. You have a wide choice, from some of the great Tamil poets like Subramania Bharati, to the likes of Saint Tyagaraja who composed his immortal songs in Telugu. May I suggest, however, that you break with tradition and opt for the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius. The Chinese government, whom we treat with kid gloves, will be pleased as punch and much goodwill could be garnered. I would even suggest the following quote – ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall / It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.’ The quote must necessarily be preceded by the words, ‘Confucius say,’ which sounds grammatically incorrect, but it is what it is. With the help of a coach, you could even attempt to first read the quotation in Mandarin, but I would advise against it. Your reach might exceed your grasp.

Praising the Prime Minister: After your first budget presentation, some smart aleck journalist who had nothing better to do, kept a tab on the number of times you mentioned the Prime Minister in your speech. In glowing terms, of course. He counted thirteen occasions when, in his considered, if ill-advised opinion, you took the PM’s name in vain. I disagree with this petty scribe. I think your invoking the name of the country’s tallest leader was entirely in keeping with the tenor of your speech. That being the case Madam, for your forthcoming budget please talk about our PM as and when the fancy takes you. Only don’t stop at thirteen mentions. Unlucky for some, as they say. Go on to achieving higher goals. Don’t scrimp. Make it fourteen, fifteen or even twenty. Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar, as my English master in school used to tell us. The words of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson will come in handy. In his poem Ulysses he waxes lyrical, ‘Men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.’ Should some literary, journalist wag cavil that you are quoting Tennyson out of context, put him in his place and take away his Lok Sabha entry pass. That’ll teach him!

Spectacles: I fully understand that at your age, 61 I am reliably informed, a pair of reading glasses is a pre-requisite. All those reams of pages with statistics and graphs are enough to give anyone blurred vision. The thing is successive finance ministers, and you are no exception, have found it necessary to keep removing their glasses and putting them back on again in mid-speech. This is as much due to a nervous habit, as it is to wipe one’s eyes and the bridge of one’s nose to dry out accumulated moisture and, at times, just for effect – waving your glasses at the opposition benches while making a telling point. I would also caution against a chain or strap cord attached to your glasses. It can get caught in your hair and generally get in the way, causing needless awkward moments. Remember you are on television. Contact lenses can be considered, but it’s a big risk if one or, horror of horrors, both of them fall off. The press will go bonkers with tasteless barbs about ‘the blind leading the blind.’

While on the subject of glasses, the glass of water placed at the podium for you to frequently take sips from (the Budget speech is thirsty work), could do with a change. Instead of the standard, quotidian glass, why not look at a sparkling silver tumbler with some ornate filigree work of your party symbol? The lotus suggests itself. In marketing we call it subliminal advertising. The cameras will lovingly pick it up, the journos will have a field day commenting on it and the opposition will go ballistic. That’s three birds with one stone!

Deportment: You should try and maintain a smiling visage throughout your speech and particularly during the climactic peroration, post which you can end with another quote, this time reverting to your mother tongue. You could even consider singing a line, which will be a real first for a budget speech! I seem to recall your gracing the Music Academy Madras a few years ago at their annual festival, when your love for Carnatic music was amply evident. I emphasise the smile because I have observed during interviews that you tend to maintain a consistently grim visage. I have also heard tell that you have a bit of a temper on you. In the words of 17th century English playwright William Congreve, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I would strongly suggest you treat all provocation from the opposition members with a cold hauteur. It’s a proven winner, cold hauteur, leaving your foes looking silly and abashed. To remind you again, the television cameras are on you. As Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits said in one of his songs, ‘close ups can get rough.’ Further, we cannot rule out the possibility of a leading member of the opposition crossing the floor unannounced, to hug the Prime Minister. At this point you can purse your lips and sneer contemptuously, something you affect so well, but no more. All this will come to nought if you wear a mask, even if cunningly colour coded. Avoid the mask at all costs, so long as you are socially distanced. What is more your speech will be muffled. Restrained subtlety and understated emotion. Poise is the name of the game.

The bag (bahi khata), you displayed last time round, specially designed by your aunt, for you to carry those vital budget papers, was an absolute winner. Ethnic chic is the term that springs to the lips, reflecting an amalgam of the traditional with the modern – the India of today. Such powerful symbolism compared to those staid, old briefcases other finance ministers carried. A variant on the same would be welcome this time round, perhaps designed in the shape of, what else, but the lotus. The cameras would feast on it. And the pièce de résistance? The sacred bindi on your forehead, could be in the shape of your party’s lotus symbol, in the traditional saffron colour. The optics will zoom stratospherically. Cynics will carp and snipe. To which I can only paraphrase Kipling, ‘What do they know of India, who only India know?’

Finally, on the subject of deportment, I observe that you have greyed gracefully since your last budget speech. Understandable, given the inevitable pressures of your high calling and the inexorable passage of time. Forget about Indira Gandhi’s coiffured grey streak. Nevertheless, I think you should do absolutely nothing about this. Grey hair represents experience, wisdom and maturity. Qualities that all of us cherish in our senior ministers. Lest we forget, the budget speech can be quite hair-raising at times.

Medical aid: On an earlier occasion, your budget presentation was so lengthy that you were beginning to feel faint and required some tablets to keep your BP from plummeting. I expect your speech this year to be even longer. It goes with the territory and I would therefore strongly advise you to keep handy a clutch of tablets for any eventuality. And do keep yourself hydrated every 10 or 15 minutes, Madam. Long speeches tend to parch one’s throat easily, and I have personally found hot water mixed with lemon and honey to be most efficacious for a dry throat. And without wishing to sound alarmist, a doctor in the house, purely as a sensible precaution, may not be entirely out of place. I say this out  of concern for your well-being on this momentous occasion when the eyes of the world (India, at any rate) will be on you and you can ill afford a slip-up.

In conclusion, you may consider telling a joke, which has never been attempted before. It will reduce the tension and leave people with a smile on their lips. You will be lauded as someone with a sense of humour, generally not considered a strong suit of finance ministers. This needs careful thought as things can go awry if the joke falls flat. However, try this one on for size. You first preface the joke with a remark that you would like to end on a light note, and boldly dedicate the joke to your Prime Minister who has been most vocal in wishing to root out corruption in our country. It goes like this. “A teacher reads this sentence to the class, ‘One day our country will be corruption free.’ And asks the class, ‘Which tense is it?’ One bright spark puts his hand up and goes, ‘Future Impossible tense.’” The Lok Sabha collapses with mirth. You will then tell the house that your government is dedicated to proving that impertinent, too-clever-by-half student, wrong. This will earn you the double bonus of ending your speech amidst raucous, thigh-slapping laughter and tumultuous applause from the Treasury and Opposition benches, and will show your vast audience that you have the ability to laugh at yourself – a quality as rare as hen’s teeth.

I thank you for your time and patience, Madam Finance Minister. One must also thank your government for changing the timing of the budget presentation (from evening to morning), moving it forward by a month, and doing away with a separate Railway Budget some years ago, to suit India’s requirements and not to cater to British needs, as was absurdly the case for many decades after Independence. Big Ben is no longer timekeeper to our nation. While you’re at it, you may consider changing our financial year to follow the calendar year, as is the practice worldwide.

Finally, do forgive my extended, circumlocutory style. I was greatly inspired by another loquacious Chinese philosopher, On Too Long. I wish you the very best as you prepare to present India’s Union Budget for the financial year 2021-22.

With warm personal regards.

Sincerely yours,

Suresh Subrahmanyan.

‘May you live in interesting times’

Thursday's national newspapers: How front pages are covering Biden's  swearing-in ceremony | UK News | Sky News
The Last Trump

The more observant and eagle-eyed amongst you, dear readers, would be asking yourselves why the innocuous headline to this essay is bookended by single quotation marks. The simple answer to that is because it is a quotation, the provenance of which is shrouded in some doubt. The best explanation I was able to glean from my assiduous research was that this expression, apparently, is claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse (nowadays we can blithely blame the Chinese for anything with impunity). Even allowing for learned scholars who attribute the epithet to the Chinese as possibly being apocryphal, the subtle meaning of the same is worth understanding. By all accounts this traditional malediction is normally used ironically, ergo, that life is better in ‘uninteresting times’ of peace and tranquility than in ‘interesting times,’ which are usually times of strife. Imagine life without war, conflict, disease, crime, chicanery and betrayal. Our news channels would be deadly dull. As the fellow facing the gallows and being given a royal reprieve at the last minute said, ‘No noose is good news.’ The fact that no actual Chinese source has been produced to prove this contention is neither here nor there. Our friends from the ‘forbidden city,’ the land that gave us Wuhan and its environs, are now fair game. Truth to tell, the origin of our headline quote predates the Wuhan fiasco by some distance. Still and all, we don’t have to be too picky about ‘being fair’ when it comes to a nation that has become a perennial pain in the posterior.

So much for that brief historical reflection. It occurs to me that by the irrefutable force of the argument just placed on the table, we appear to be living in extremely interesting times. Not a day passes when something or the other does not happen somewhere in the world that makes us sit up and take notice, usually with great concern. That being the case, I felt it would be a good idea to go through some of these events that have so enriched our lives in recent times contributing to its deserved nomenclature of being dubbed interesting. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Just a few issues that struck me off the top of my head, in a manner of speaking. I am sure you can add freely to this roster from your own varied experiences.

The continuing saga of the Coronavirus pandemic, its treatment in sickness and in health, the long and arduous wait for that magic bullet, namely the cure-all vaccine, the tragedy of millions dying around the world, the relentless fight by the medical fraternity under extreme conditions – all these have collectively dominated our consciousness for the best of part of the past twelve months. Now that the vaccine is at our doorstep, more or less, it is not all unbounded joy. Doubts are raised as to the relative merits and demerits of the different brands of vaccine on offer. There will always be Doubting Thomases. Even worse, particularly here in India, political parties could not have chosen a more inopportune moment to cast slurs and innuendoes on the soundness of the vaccine development programme, attempting to score cheap brownie points, succeeding only in leaving the populace in a state of confused ambivalence. One of the typically immature statements, one of many, that we have heard goes, ‘Why can’t the Prime Minister and all his senior cabinet colleagues take the vaccine if it was so safe?’ Asinine comments like this queer the pitch in what is otherwise being lauded, even by the World Health Organization as a job well done by India in handling the Covid19 pandemic. And word has just filtered through that the PM and his team will be putting their best arms forward, eftsoons. That should shut the Cassandras up good and proper. As the vaccination drive is well and truly launched, let us leave it there in hopes of a happy ending to this sordid chapter in human history.

Another event that has worldwide ramifications, is the result of the elections in the United States of America. Historically, these elections to choose the man or woman who would grace the Oval Office in The White House, draws billions of eyeballs around the world. Not without reason. If America catches a cold, the rest of the world usually contracts double pneumonia. They are definitely suffering big time thanks to Covid19, but the Biden – Trump confrontation has managed to hog the headlines for some months now. It was a close and acrimonious election. Biden is the popular winner while Trump comes out of it looking like a very sore loser. More so as he ungraciously decided to absent himself from the swearing-in ceremony. Newspapers are full of pun filled headlines like, ‘Don leaves. Welcome a new Dawn.’ As this missive goes to press Biden, along with Kamala, have been sworn in. Doubtless Trump will be sworn at. The Democrats ought to be celebrating, but the pandemic and Trump’s shenanigans have left little time for quiet reflection, leave alone boisterous celebrations. The latest shocking invasion of the Capitol by Trump’s supporters, leaving several dead and injured, is a shameful blot on America’s hollow claim of being the most developed nation in the world. All that excessive beef consumption might be good for muscularity, but the brain cells take a severe beating. They should eat more fish, as advocated by Jeeves. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will have their hands full repairing the damage done to their country’s image. Lest we forget, Trump’s huge voter base will continue to cast a long shadow over the new administration in the years to come.

China, apart from its seminal role in donating to the rest of the world something the world wanted like a hole in the head, continues to be a right royal pest on India’s borders. In cohorts with its faithful pet, Pakistan, nary a day passes without some skirmish or the other taking place. India is having to expend massive human and financial resources along its huge, uncontrollable and very porous borders to keep the Chinese at bay. In turn, China keeps playing hot and cold, their strength coming from their power as a trading powerhouse. Many nations, who threatened to break ties with them, continue to consort with them on the quiet. Talk about sleeping with the enemy! India finds itself between and betwixt when it comes to bilateral issues with China. Some might say, a rock and a hard place. We keep hearing about diplomatic dialogue being kept alive, like it’s on a ventilator, but aggressive postures are more than evident across the Line of Control. Once the freezing winter thaws, we could expect more action of an eyeball-to eyeball and fisticuffs nature. We will keep watching this space for more interesting news.

Other developments of interest in the country include constant bickering between political parties with important state elections just a few months away, the farm lobby not giving an inch on the Farm Laws and the Government appearing to back off from a full frontal, the hyperventilating media’s perennially angry young man Arnab Goswami’s troubles with alleged Television Rating Points manipulation and his non-stop tilting at the Maharashtra Government’s windmills, child rape and murder being reported with alarming frequency – yes, you might not be far off in saying that we are living in extremely interesting times. The stock market keeps rising so steeply and no one seems to know why. Is this a mirage or a bubble that would suddenly burst and come crashing down like a ton of bricks? That would make life unbearably interesting, as there is nowhere else to park our meagre funds to stay afloat and ahead of inflation, what with plummeting interest rates. The forthcoming Union Budget is eagerly awaited and should provide a few interesting clues.

That said, I would like to end this grim contemplation with some really good, read uninteresting, news. India’s stupendous victory in the just concluded Test series against Australia was such soothing balm for a deeply wounded and divided nation. To beat the Aussies in their own backyard, against insuperable odds, including racist taunts, which are all too well documented for me to detail or repeat here gave us so much pleasure and pride. For just one, brief, shining moment, we basked vicariously in the brilliant spotlight with this young team of cavalier and courageous colts. After Rishabh Pant’s heroics at the Gabba, the newspapers (as is their wont) went into overdrive with puns. ‘The Rishabh Pantomime,’ ‘Aussies left Panting,’ ‘Oz Pants taken off,’ ‘Blood and gore at the Gabbatoir,’ to give just four underwhelming samples. A salutary warning to those, like me, who cringe at excessive punning. Expect more. In the midst of it all, skipper Ajinkya Rahane’s wonderful gesture after the game, to present Aussie off-spinner Nathan Lyon with an Indian shirt for completing 100 Tests, was a standout moment of pure class. The spirit of the gentleman’s game was restored. All we need now is for a mischief monger to suggest that some fat cat Indian business tycoon had paid off the Aussies to tank the game. Now that would make it really interesting.

To round off, I can only say that if the mysterious Chinese wag who construed the term ‘interesting times’ is viewed as being a blight on our lives, I am all for a life of ‘uninteresting times.’ Or as Shakespeare might have put it, ‘Give me excess of it.’

Bruised, Battered, Bloody but Unbowed

"Really Really Special": Ravichandran Ashwin, Hanuma Vihari Discuss Match-Saving Partnership. Watch
Ravi Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari embrace after a titanic resistance

The on-going cricket Test series between India and Australia, being played Down Under has reached its apogee. The series stands at one all, one match heroically drawn and the deciding Test to be played at Brisbane over the coming weekend. Unlike match-ups between these two proud cricketing nations over several decades, when the Aussies ruled the roost and the Indian cricketers merely turned up on the morning to show that there’s no ill feeling, more recent encounters have been fraught with tension, neither side giving an inch, waiting to see who blinks first. In short, plenty of needle when they meet across the sacred 22 yards. It’s been hard to pick a winner. Further there’s no great ‘home’ and ‘away’ advantage or handicap. Players from all countries have become quite accustomed to playing in varying conditions around the globe.

In more recent times, India taking on Australia has always been the series to savour. Once upon a time, it was India vs Pakistan or Australia vs England vying for the Ashes, that caught the public’s imagination. The West Indies are in terminal decline. Apart from the deadly intent and the ‘take no prisoners’ approach of both these sides, the quality of cricket has been of the highest order. The likes of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman going head-to-head against Ponting, Gilchrist, McGrath and Warne have been mouth watering prospects. Add to that Sehwag, Kumble, Dhoni and Kohli squaring up against Smith, Warner, Starc and Lyon and you have a recipe fit for kings. It therefore comes as no surprise that post the T20 and ODI encounters this Australian summer, it is the gripping Test series that is avidly engaging cricket fans, making it an Indian summer Down Under.

As always, it is not just matters purely cricket that are contributing to the heat and dust being generated. On a previous tour, we had the ‘Monkey-gate’ scandal involving Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh. This time round, Australia’s premier batsman and habitual offender Steve Smith, who seems to possess an uncanny knack of getting into hot water, casually erased Rishabh Pant’s batting guard at the crease. Though in itself not a serious infringement, it was childish and needless and Smith’s captain Tim Paine’s ‘explanation’ that Smith was just indulging in some harmless visualization or shadow play, as is his wont, simply did not wash. Not good enough, Tim. It is your defence of Smith that smacks of immaturity. The captain, for his part, did not cover himself with glory, when he engaged Ravichandran Ashwin in an endless, irrelevant banter to distract the batsman who, along with the stubborn and injured Hanuma Vihari, was denying Australia even a sniff of victory with impregnable, heroic defence. It is small consolation that Paine finally admitted that his conduct was unbecoming of an Australian captain and that he would like to put the incident behind him. With the final game eagerly awaited, let’s hope he is as good as his word.

In the midst of all this drama, the Indian team is fighting its own demons in a completely different area. Namely, the fitness of its players, which is now becoming a matter of considerable concern. The injury list grows longer by the day. Try this on for size. Mohammed Shami bowed out with a fractured arm during the first Test, Umesh Yadav pulled up with a muscle cramp while bowling during the third Test, ditto Hanuma Vihari while taking a quick single, Ravindra Jadeja takes a lethal one for the team on his thumb, Cheteshwar Pujara is playing with pain killers after a finger injury, Rishabh Pant gets painfully hit on the elbow but the blow was thankfully not too serious, K.L. Rahul declares himself hors de combat at net practice, Ashwin wakes up with a back strain but battles on, Mayank Agarwal gets bonked on the arm, again during nets and horror of horrors, our bowling spearhead and lethal weapon, Jasprit Bumrah has an abdominal tear and will most likely sit out the final Test in Brisbane. At this rate, the head coach, Ravi Shastri might have to pad up and be ready for action! Let’s hope he does not bend down to pick up a dropped napkin at breakfast. At his age and fitness level, that will be another one for the stretcher. One can only hope that the rest of the team’s players, including its stand-in skipper, Ajinkya Rahane, are being preserved in moth balls, lest more harm should visit them.

Now here’s the thing. I can understand players sustaining injuries during actual play. Even then, given the number of batsmen who get rapped on the knuckles or arms, our medicine men and physios should be able to provide better protection in terms of quality of gloves or arm guards. Perhaps they should be given a rap over the knuckles. This is the 21st century, for heaven’s sake. Gavaskar’s home-made skull cap is a thing of the past. That said, I simply cannot understand why our players should consistently find themselves copping serious injuries during net practice. What is more, cricketers playing football as a means of keeping fit is another disaster waiting to happen. A contact sport, for crying out loud. That’s simply asking for trouble. I would strongly recommend chess as a viable alternative for our cricketers. What they might lose by way of physical fitness, they can compensate by sharpening their grey cells and besting the enemy on strategy. Man for man, the Aussies are all taller, more muscular and would weigh-in as heavyweights, whereas our players would all classify as somewhere between lightweight and welterweight. However, we possess more grey matter. Brain must prevail over brawn. Physical confrontation would be a no brainer.

To add to all our woes, the final nail in the coffin (an unfortunate metaphor), is the constant reminder that no visiting team has ever beaten Australia at Wooloongabba (the Gabba to its friends) in Brisbane, the venue for the 4th and final Test, since 1988. We are being constantly reminded of this both by Indian and Australian media channels. At least the Indian media should look for more positive portents from Brisbane’s cricketing folklore to give our boys some cheer. Chances are the wicket is tailor-made for fast bowlers and the big, strapping Aussie quicks will be hoping to make early inroads into our depleted batting line-up. At least, that is how the Australian cheerleaders, many of them abusive, would like to write the script. Adding insult to injury, the Indian team was checked into a hotel in Brisbane which did not provide room service! Sacré bleu!  Whatever next? This is carrying mind games to ridiculous extremes.

Not to worry. The present Indian side, led by the unassuming Rahane, is made of sterner stuff. In spite of all the doom and gloom, we should be of good cheer. Our boys have more than held their own during the last three Tests on this tour, barring that one nightmare innings at Adelaide which we would all like to forget. Injuries or not, our lads have shown fighting qualities above and beyond the norm. Ashwin and Vihari have been the embodiment of courage, Pujara and Pant have met fire with fire, Gill and Rohit have given us good starts and the bowlers have readily come to the aid of the party. If only we accept the catches that come our way. This is no time for butter fingers. Rahane has led the side with maturity and sagacity in the absence of superstar, super dad Kohli. Come to think of it, now that the baby and mother are well, why can’t Kohli fly back for the Friday Test? After all, Dhoni stayed back in Australia when his baby was born. Finally, barring Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, the Aussie batting has not been all that it is cracked up to be. If only we have the bowling strength to exploit those cracks. And that’s the rub.

Yes, my friends, the odds are against us. That should not deter us. I would ask our eloquent coach Ravi Shastri, to recite these lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V, as the King’s troops ready themselves for battle.

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company

Frankly, if that doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will.

A Tale of Two Vaccines

Covid-19 Vaccine Update | WCFD7

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

A few days ago, on New Year’s day to be exact, we were greeted with the news that India had launched two vaccines to combat our close friend, Covid19, known generically as the Coronavirus. We have been living with CV19 for almost a year now and the virus seems almost like one of the family pets – canine, feline or avian. Part of the furniture. Just when we were beginning to think no power on earth is going to shift this stubborn pestilence out of our lives, along comes this dramatic announcement, to coincide with the dawn of 2021. The present dispensation in New Delhi have an uncanny sense of timing and what better time to unveil these two ‘magic bullets’ than to coincide with the new year heralding bright new beginnings. Happy days are here again, in the words of a long-forgotten soft-drink commercial.

At least, that was the way the script should have played out. Only, it didn’t. One of the two vaccines, Covishield, produced by the Serum Institute of India, in collaboration with Oxford-AstraZeneca of the United Kingdom had evidently ticked all the right boxes and everything was hunky-dory with this brand. More or less. The problem was with the other vaccine, Covaxin, produced indigenously by Bharat Biotech. Apparently, and this is what we were being told, this vaccine is still in the trial stage and it was premature to announce its state of readiness. Naturally, a flaming row erupted. Political parties opposed to the ruling dispensation, went into overdrive criticizing the Government for its alleged unseemly haste and brazenly capitalizing on the main chance. The Government in turn retaliated, firing on all cylinders, and the head of the beleaguered vaccine company went on national television, in righteous indignation, castigating all those who dared throw stones at the company that was doing yeoman’s service with no thought of pelf.

In short, what ought to have been a rah-rah moment of self-congratulation for the Government and the Indian medical profession turned out to be a sticky quagmire, and a PR nightmare. The Government’s medical arm was scrambling around offering complex explanations which only served to complicate matters further.  I shan’t get into the nitty gritty of the issue, except to say that the matter could have been handled all round with a bit more caution and finesse, instead of rushing into areas where angels fear to tread and making needless announcements which left more questions unanswered. It is likely that everything will turn out well, and we may be on our way to getting the vaccines out to our eagerly waiting citizenry. After all, the world has been patting India on the back for its overall handling of the pandemic. And we are reputed to be the vaccine makers to the world for decades. So clearly the Government has got something right. It was at this point that I decided I should talk to my personal physician and get the lowdown on what he felt about the entire l’affaire vaccine. We connected with each other on Zoom and I proceeded to pepper him with inconvenient questions. I was making no apologies. I mean, family physician and all that.

‘Good morning Doc,’ I commenced cheerily. I always called him Doc. What is it with patients that when they face their doctors, invariably they become overly familiar and chatty. A nervous disposition, this hail-fellow-well-met act. I continued, ‘You must be very busy, but thanks for giving me this online appointment at short notice. You are looking well. You will be paid your consultation fees, of course.’ At this point he interrupted me.

‘What seems to be the trouble? I did not get an advance briefing from my Secretary on your complaint.’ He sounded a bit peeved, unless I was vastly mistaken.

‘Unless I am vastly mistaken, you sound a bit peeved Doc. Are you feeling all right?’ I injected just the right amount of caring concern in my voice. Since we were on Zoom, I affected a worried frown. I should be vastly surprised if a few wrinkles did not appear on my forehead, to say nothing of the knitted eyebrows.

‘No, no, nothing of that sort. Just that I have many patients waiting online, so I thought we should get straight to the heart of the matter. What’s more, you seem in fine fettle.’ The Doc sounded quite curt and formal.

‘Heart of the matter, eh? Tell you what, Doc. The old ticker seems to be in perfect working order. BP, pulse, oxygenation, all pretty much up to scratch. I have already jabbed myself with all the other normal flu vaccines. I’ve got arms like pin cushions, as Tony Hancock so memorably put it. Truth to tell, and as you have so unerringly divined, nothing physically wrong with me. Not at the moment anyway. Don’t wish to tempt the fates and speak too soon, eh. Ha ha. Since you keep tapping your pencil restlessly on your front teeth presaging incipient impatience, let me get straight to the point. These two vaccines that the Government has just announced. What is your take on the relative merits or demerits? Come on Doc, out with it. And don’t prevaricate.’ I was brooking no nonsense from him. Put him on the spot.

‘Is this what you fixed an appointment for? And who the hell is Tony Hancock? No wonder I didn’t get your file. Look, I’ve got patients who are genuinely suffering from all manner of ailments, including post-Covid recovery cases. And you want to chat with me on some academic issues to do with vaccines? For God’s sake, all you have to do is watch the news channels on television. They are full of it. The nation’s finest doctors, sporting fine suits and bow-ties and speaking in flawless Oxbridge accents, what more do you want? You can get all the dope from them, free of charge. Why waste your time and mine, not to speak of your money, talking to me about this? I am cutting this link now.’ He was really beside himself.

I rushed in before he disconnected. ‘Hey, hey, Doc. Hang, hang on. Don’t get so worked up. You are missing the point here. Very shortly, I hope, I will be lining up to get a shot of one of these two vaccines. Is it unreasonable to ask my personal physician of twenty-five years standing, which one I should opt for? Forewarned is forearmed and all that. Be reasonable, Doc. We are pals. Don’t take on so. As for Tony Hancock, just Google his name and Blood Donor. Brilliant British comedian of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ah, I see your tea has arrived. Take a sip or two and simmer down. Careful you don’t spill any on your lovely, silk hand-woven tie. And answer my question.’

My Doc visibly calmed down. ‘Sorry, old chap. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. By the way, nice double entendre, forewarned is forearmed. To get back to your question. Look, about these vaccines. Your guess is as good as mine. How the blazes do I know which one is better, when I have not laid eyes on either one of them? The journos at the newspapers seem to know much more about all this. They keep printing detailed, comparative analyses of the drugs, with plenty of colourful graphics and so on. Bloody confusing, pardon my French.’

‘That’s why I came to you, Doc,’ I said. By now, I was feeling quite sorry for him. ‘Listen, my old medicine man with the stethoscope. Let me give you a tip or two, because I have been cramming up on many of these press reports. Pencil and paper ready? Good. Take notes.’

 I then sat back and let fly from my layman’s knowledge of all that I have been reading in the Times of India and watching on Times Now, India Today, NDTV etc. My Doc was taking all this down furiously. In about fifteen minutes, I was through. ‘That’s it, Doc. I realize you don’t have the time to watch TV or read the papers, but these observations of mine will help you. Ask your Secretary to type this up and read it in the car on your way home. I take it you have a driver.’

‘Yes, I do have a driver, and I will do as instructed. Just a quick question before we end this. What if both the vaccine brands appear equally good on all parameters? What then?’ My Doc was now transformed, he looked quite excited though a bit confused and who can blame him?

‘I guess you’ll just have to toss for it,’ I replied. Adding for good measure, ‘Price equations may come into play, but you can worry about that later. One thing, though. When the vaccine is ready to roll out, I insist on getting the first jab from you, Doc.’

‘Jab we met, eh?’ He laughed raucously at this Bollywood-inspired, overworked, stale in- joke. He was clearly in the mood now. ‘Thanks pal. You’ve been a great help. Taken a load off my mind. Please treat this consultation as pro bono. Sorry I was a bit shirty earlier.’

‘No, no. Think nothing of it. Pro bono? Wouldn’t dream of it. Already paid. And I don’t want a credit note either. We’ll see next time.’ I signed off. As I did so, I saw my Doc looking thoughtfully at two empty vials (marked Covishield and Covaxin) on his table and muttering to himself, his pencil pointing this way and that,‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.’ His voice trailed off as my computer went into sleep mode.

Looking back with Limericks

Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: A Little Nonsense | NEH-Edsitement

Edward Lear (1812-1888) was an English artist, illustrator, poet and musician. However, he will be best remembered as the man who introduced the world to a new poetic form, to wit, the limerick. A simple definition of a limerick would run thus, ‘a kind of humorous verse of five lines, in which the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines, which are shorter, form a rhymed couplet.’ Whether anyone else prior to Edward Lear, possibly an unknown pub crawler in the town of Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, discovered this refreshing, new poetic format or not will remain a matter for speculation. However, it is to the everlasting credit of E. Lear that the limerick became a household word when he brought out ‘A Book of Nonsense’ in 1846. Litterateurs around the United Kingdom took a somewhat snobbish and stand-offish attitude towards the limerick, dubbing it patronisingly as ‘nonsense literature.’ Evidently, they felt his first book was aptly named. Experts aver that his most famous limerick was this verse,

There was an Old Man with a beard
‘Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren
Have all built their nests in my beard!’

The estimable Mr. Lear wrote as many as 212 limericks and they continue to be regarded as the gold standard as far as this particular style of verse goes –  never mind what Wordsworth or Coleridge might have thought of it, while they were ‘smokin’ up in Kendal,’ (according to Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison). One of the nice things about the limerick is that you do not require any special poetic talent to write one. Just follow the AABBA rule, as enunciated earlier and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pretty much any language can have fun writing limericks. One of my English masters in school had a special talent for penning limericks, and decided to write one on each of the junior cricketers for our school Annual. As we had won the junior inter-school shield one year, he felt this would be a novel way to commemorate the triumph, instead of writing hagiographies which was the sole preserve of the senior boys. I happened to be a proud member of that ‘Under 14’ team, but I kept getting run out or running my batting partners out with alarming regularity. I was thus immortalised with the following limerick:

Suresh hates playing in the damp
He says it gives him a cramp
But we hope next season
This won’t be the reason
For him being the run-out champ.

Every other boy in the team had something similarly unique versified about him. I still have that tattered, dog-eared Annual with me, a special treasure from my school memorabilia.

The limerick, because of the relative simplicity of its structure, has particularly lent itself to ribaldry and we have hundreds of examples of limericks that are clearly aimed ‘below the belt,’ in a manner of speaking. Most of them I would hesitate to reproduce here, seeing as this is what our software boffins would describe as an ‘open source’ forum and we do not wish to offend sensitive souls. That said, having tickled your curiosity, it would be grossly unfair it I did not, at the very least, reproduce a couple of acceptably racy limericks, that would pass the acid test of being allowed in polite company. And if some of you are still going to take umbrage, I am afraid prudery has no place here. As Dame Iris Murdoch put it in Latin, Sic bisquitus disintegrat or, ‘that’s how the cookie crumbles.’ Having covered my backside thus, here are two such examples.

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

I like blokes, be they Brown, Jones or Smith 
Well my virtue is mostly a myth
Cos try as I can
I just can’t find a man
That it’s fun to be virtuous with.

In this blog, which is scheduled to hit the stands, metaphorically speaking, on New Year’s Day, I felt it would be a good idea to try my hand at writing a limerick, each on a variety of issues that has engaged the attention of the world and India during the recent past, and 2020 in particular. Politics, Sport, Covid19, Farmers’ Agitation, Personalities and so much more have taken centre stage at different points in time during the year. So, I doff my cap respectfully to Edward Lear for giving me this light-hearted format to enjoy and to imagine myself to be, just for one brief, shining moment, a modern-day poet. While I may have adhered strictly to the AABBA rule when composing these limericks, you’ll have to pardon my veering off the straight and narrow when it comes to observing metre and syllable strictures. Or structures. I mean, give me a break. With those few words, I scamper off the starting blocks.

India’s peripatetic PM Modi
Travelled far to the US to say ‘Howdy!’
He stole Trump’s thunder
Whose pride was rent asunder
Making the President look quite dowdy.

Joe Biden is to be the next President
A bit long in the tooth to make a dent
He has Kamala Harris in tow
Whose antecedents have caused a row
For her the White House could be heaven sent.

Finally, the Covid vaccine is born
The medical profession is blowing its horn
But how long will it take
For our labs the vaccine to make
Please God, let it not be a false dawn!

Over ‘Love Jihad’ the Government is up in arms
Raising forced religious conversion alarms
But all love is blind
To all religions that bind
And sees only the besotted one’s charms.

What is it about the blighted MSP and Mandis
That our farmers scream and the politician bandies?
Is the middleman on the take?
Is the farmer burned at the stake?
Or are the corporate suits the real dandies?

Still with the farmer’s on-going trouble
He says he simply must burn his stubble
The Government hummed and hawed
Finally gave in and thawed
But the MSP issue is still in a bubble.

Christmas Eve came and went with quiet dignity
For New Year’s Eve the public wanted no solemnity
Let’s party till we’re sozzled
And our eyes pop out razzle-dazzled
Kick out 2020 and embrace 2021 with serenity.

Mamata is livid with Shah and Nadda
How dare they spoil their cozy little adda
BJP says Bengal is burning
But the lady’s not for turning
She screams ‘Nadda, Fadda, Bhadda, Chadda.’

Rahul Baba jazzed off to Italy, again
His critics wondered if he had a brain
Some say he went to see Granny
Others say he needs a nanny
But Mummy’s praying he finds a Plain Jane.

India’s cricket captain King Kohli
Down Under was feeling pretty poorly
He rushed through the First Test
Tamely came off second best
And flew back home feeling lowly.

In Adelaide India were bundled out for thirty-six
At Melbourne we were not even in the mix
Kohli scarpered from the scene
But it was Rahane’s turn to preen
As he gave the Aussies the ultimate licks.

Rajini’s political debut had his fans on a roll
Our Thalaivar was a winner at every poll
Suddenly he felt the heat
Developed BP and cold feet
And decided the cinema will forever be his goal.

India are perennially fencing with China’s Xi Jinping
With neither country having any inkling
Of when to have peace talks
Or when to stop throwing rocks
A clear case of confused and muddled thinking.

As I conclude this contemplation on limericks and how they can be employed to comment poetically on any situation, I can’t help but share a mail I received from an English friend in London. It said simply, ‘What is this monkey bath your PM appears to be taking every month? I am intrigued. Kindly explain.’ On reflection, I decided not to respond directly. I thought it prudent to let my friend come to his own zany conclusions. On second thoughts, I sent him this limerick.

Our Prime Minister is adept at speaking his mind
Over the radio he leaves no topic behind
His reflections on ‘Mann ki Baat’
His critics decry as monkey bath
‘It’s a case of the blind leading the blind.’

It’s a good job the PM does not listen to his opponents. He just carries on regardless. Happy New Year.