A recent column in our leading newspapers was heart rending. The chief executive of one of India’s tallest and most respected corporations in the information technology space has had to take a haircut on his annual salary to the tune of around 15%, bringing his booty down to a measly Rs.12 odd crores. Other senior officials of the organisation have had to join the CEO in some heavy weight shedding, which would have left them a few crores lighter as far as their bottom lines went. I was deeply moved when I read this. What is poor Ashok (real name withheld) going to tell his family on this cruel blow when he gets home? The expression ‘poor Ashok’ is employed metaphorically. A lame ‘Covid19’? A sticky quandary. I mean, three family holidays a year to Europe or the US is clearly not on the cards anymore. Two, if they can stretch it. The head honcho may have to look at Thailand or Vietnam, with their dirt cheap hotel rates. There’s just so much one can do with Rs.12 crores, particularly after the tax man has done his hatchet job. ‘But Ashok dearest’ chimes in his distraught wife, ‘how can we go anywhere when all international flights are grounded?’ Fair point. Ashok’s grand gesture has left top gun executives from many other companies fuming. ‘Who does he think he is? If this sort of thing starts taking hold, the next thing to go will be our club memberships, and I’ll have to sell my Callaway golf clubs to make ends meet. I don’t have a problem with people taking salary cuts, it’s their business, but why make a song and dance about it and give other companies ideas?’ Ah well, one can but sympathize. If you don’t have golf, what have you got? Might as well turn into a monk.
Then there’s the matter of the cars. Ashok is at pains to explain to the love of his life. ‘Darling, I know we have four garages, doesn’t mean we must have four cars. I think we must make do with three. The kids will simply have to adjust to the SUV. The BMW will have to go. And stop that groaning. I am putting my foot down. I am surrendering the Audi to the company as well. We’ll take a raincheck on the Merc. There’s some talk of cycling to work, but I never learnt to ride a bicycle. So that’s out.’ The better half was not best pleased as she retorted, ‘Ashok, pin your ears back and listen. I am putting my foot down as well, on the Saab’s accelerator and not taking it off the floor. So there.’ Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
You have to feel for Ashok and his ilk. As the company head, he has to set an example. The salary cut will pinch and there will be strife at home, but at least, three square meals can still be managed, with some shrewd planning on the kitchen front. Thank God the cook is still there, though straining at the leash to get back to his home town somewhere in the Kerala backwaters. ‘They are running the trains to Trivandrum, Sir,’ he bleats. Gosh, Cookie has his ear to the ground and Ashok has to employ all his wiles, including handing out the threat of catching this awful Coronavirus infection in those crowded trains. Bloodied but unbowed, Cookie stalks back to the kitchen to rustle up some toothsome appam and stew for breakfast. Peace reigns, but only just. You can lose your wife, for a while. You lose your cook, and you’re in Doldrumsville. And your marriage could be headed for Splitsville!
Corporate honchos everywhere are grappling with the problems of pruning and cost cutting during these straitened times. Look at Mukesh Ambani. He has given up an entire year’s salary, a figure that contains more zeroes than you and I can configure on ten fingers. The report, however, was foggy on whether the Reliance boss was giving up his dividends and other goodies that come with being the head of an awesome behemoth. Ultimately, it’s all very well for us mere mortals to be mordant about corporate bigwigs taking salary cuts. Try doing it. It hurts like blazes. So let’s doff our hats to Ashok and his intrepid band of brothers. To quote Othello via the quill and ink of Shakespeare, ‘Of one whose hand/ Like the base Indian / threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe.’
One would have thought enough material has been published and continues to be written and released on the malady we are all obsessed with at the moment, to wit, Covid19, or the new Coronavirus. Clearly there is a palpable fatigue factor at play. Literally and metaphorically. How much more of this virus can we take editorially? That is a good question, but it does not stop the media pundits, be they spouting forth with the written or spoken word. Speaking for myself, I have not exactly been a slouch, having published around three lengthy pieces coming from different points of view on the dreaded subject. Enough is enough, methinks. I vowed to myself that I will spend more time reading books of varied hues by a plethora of authors. There is, after all, little else to do at Containmentville bar the occasional writing, listening to some elevating music and a couple of hours of cable TV. To which end, amongst other authorial worthies, I started reading a book by Richard Gordon titled Great Medical Disasters.
Now just in case there are those amongst you who are not familiar with the works of Richard Gordon, here’s a quick introduction. An Englishman, a medical doctor by profession, whose fame spread far and wide when he started writing humorous novels on his chosen profession – Medicine. Once the first book was out, and the public lapped it up, Gordon knew he was on to a good thing. He followed it up with a series of hilarious novels with titles like Doctor in the House, Doctorat Sea, Doctor in Love, Doctor in Clover, Doctor at Large and many more in similar vein. Thus, a little known practitioner of medicine became a world famous humourist with the medical profession his satirical and scintillating target. More success was to come by way of movies based on many of his novels starring such luminaries as Dirk Bogarde and James Robertson Justice. If the British movie industry during the 60s struck a rich vein of form and success, Richard Gordon’s medical novels can take much of the credit. The films at times bordered on slapstick, but the public lapped it up.
To revert to Great Medical Disasters, to my delight I found a second hand hardbound version reasonably priced on Amazon and wasted no time in placing the order. The book has been well thumbed, but in good condition. Fifty real life cases of almighty goof-ups that have occurred in the field of medicine over the centuries, featuring kings and queens, ministers both cabinet as well as clerical (parish), hotshots from the medical world and just plain tuppenny-ha’penny criminals. Failed diagnoses, botched up operations, botched up hangings, diseases we have come to know and love and many more. As ever, brilliantly recounted with a potent combination of deep medical insight and humour that Wodehouse, at times, might have envied.
The immediate provocation for this piece is my decision to reproduce one particular chapter from the book titled, Bitter Victory – Spanish Flu. Many of you would have heard and read about the Spanish Flu, particularly as a counterpoint to our present global quandary with Covid19. Considering Gordon wrote this piece several decades ago about a worldwide outbreak during the turn of the 20th century in his gently acerbic style, there is so much we can identify with concerning our present predicament. If for nothing else read it for his flair, and you may be tempted to try and obtain the book (if you’re lucky) and enjoy the complete oeuvre. So without further ado, here is Dr. Richard Gordon holding forth on the Spanish Flu. If I have infringed on any copyright laws, I proffer my apologies in advance. I am sure the estate of the late Dr. Richard Gordon will be glad of the free publicity with a good chance that several more copies of this estimable book might move off the shelves or more pertinently, online stores.
(Footnotes and asterisks are entirely mine and not to be attributed to the author of the article).
Bitter victory. Spanish flu.
At the eleventh hour, the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the killing stopped. The world rejoiced, the gods laughed.
The Great War killed 8,538,313 military personnel, 12.5 per cent of the 65,038,810 mobilized. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 0.5 per cent of the entire population of the United States and of England, 3 per cent of Sierra Leone’s, 25 per cent of Samoa’s and 60 per cent of the Eskimos in Nome, Alaska. In six weeks it killed 3.1 per cent of US recruits at Camp Sherman. Five million died in India, often untidily – the corpses needed removing from overcrowded trains on arrival. Liners docked with 5 per cent fewer passengers than embarked.
The big American push on the Meuse-Argonne front was checked by 70,000 flu casualties. So was Ludendorff’s last fling on the Somme. Woodrow Wilson got it, also Lloyd George, Clemenceau, German prime minister Prince Max and Colonel House.
Nature is a more efficient murderer than man. The war needed four years, the flu barely one. It killed 25,000,000, 3 per cent of all cases, our worst plague. A fifth of the global population caught it, it left serological fingerprints on many more who nursed subclinical attacks.
Flu fatalities usually lie in infancy and senility. This epidemic mocked the war by slaughtering the 20-40 age group. Influenza was the tiger, pneumonia the jackal for its unkilled prey. Antibiotics lay as far ahead as Chancellor Hitler.
Where had it come from? The milder first wave started in US military camps during the spring of 1918, to be transported with the troops to France. Thence to Spain, where the fright was so violent the disease found its name. There was influenza that spring in China, and Chinese labourers mingled with men from everywhere crowded into Europe, coughing over each other.*
A deadlier wave broke in the autumn, perhaps starting at Ashkhabad in southern Russia, crossing the Iranian border for an outbreak at Mashhad, in the corner against Afghanistan. That August, HMS Africa had sailed from Sierra Leone, losing 7 per cent of her crew before reaching the Channel. Like a malign Puck, infection girdled the earth with simultaneous outbreaks in the ports of Freetown, Brest and Boston. In the US it killed more new immigrants from rural Italy, Russia, Austria and Poland than from crowded Britain and Germany.
As Boccaccio said of an earlier scourge, ‘How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfasted with their kinfolk and that same night supped with their ancestors in the other world.’ People eyed each other with keener suspicion than during the war’s spy scares. To sneeze was like drawing a knife.** ‘Coughing, Sneezing or Spitting Will not be Permitted in the Theatre,’ said the notices outside. ‘In case you must Cough or Sneeze, do so in your own handkerchief, and if the Coughing or Sneezing Persists Leave the Theatre At Once. Go Home and Go to Bed until You Are Well. If you have a cold or are coughing and sneezing Do Not Enter This Theatre.’
Hospitals had patients in the corridors. Thousands were inoculated with useless anti-flu vaccine. Schools and libraries were closed. Men were advised to stop shaves in barbershops. Everyone was advised to wear fresh pyjamas, avoid shaking hands, take castor oil. The world wore white cotton masks, like surgeons’. In San Francisco they were obligatory, on pain of gaol (the police complained they encouraged robbery).
Soldiers prudently dug graves for which there were not yet bodies. There was profiteering in coffins. The Washington DC health commissioner commandeered two railroad cars full of them, which a railwayman tipped him off to be lying in the Potomac freight yards. He stacked them under police guard, coffin theft being the crime of the moment.
The visitation lingered everywhere about six weeks. A less lethal wave came with 1919. By the spring, the flu had gone. Where? Perhaps into swine.
We are well into the fifth week of the official lockdown brought about by the Novel Coronavirus, Covid19 to give it its formal appellation, and the one thing we can be certain about is that the uncertainty will almost certainly continue for an uncertain period of time. April 20th beckoned seductively, with something to look forward to, but various State Governments, after enticing us with vague indications of some level of freedom, developed cold feet and went back on their word (wisely perhaps), and now we wait with bated breath for May 3rd. As to what magic will occur over the next couple of weeks whereby the third day in the merry month of May will bring forth joy unbounded, is anybody’s guess. Chances are we will still be stuck in the ‘same old, same old’ situation with more infections, recoveries and fatalities, but the curve should flatten. However, as the poet had it, hope springs eternal and with most countries, including the World Health Organisation (which is not a country but a conglomeration of divided countries) giving their thumbs up to India for the way we have thus far handled the crisis, we might just about scrape through without humongous damage. That is the hope, and we will have to survive on a wing and a prayer over the coming weeks and months. A quick aside on WHO. Donald Trump, in a fit of heightened pique, cut off WHO’s fund supply for its apparent China tilt. However, help was at hand from a predictable corner. China, naturally, coughed up (cough being the operative word) several millions to make up for Trump’s parsimony. Who knows, WHO might move its HQ to Beijing sometime soon! Or, perhaps, Wuhan. In Al Pacino’s Oscar-winning expletive from Scent of aWoman, ‘Who Haa!’
This is the third consecutive column I am writing, if tapping on the keys of my desktop can be classified as writing, on Covid19. Some might say I am overdoing it a tad. If so I plead guilty as charged, taking comfort in the knowledge that I cannot find a single piece in any newspaper that talks about anything else. Even the ‘bare bones’ sports page, in its studious analysis of who will take over from the Big 3 of world tennis – Novak, Rafa and Roger – cannot help but make constant mention of the virus and how it may or may not have affected these giants of the game, their glorious backhands and lethal forehands. As for sundry actors from the celluloid world cooking up a storm in their fancy home kitchens, or Virat Kohli being given a haircut by his celluloid wife, ‘been there, done that.’
Herein lies the columnist’s dilemma. Should he choose to go clean off topic and write a column on, say, ‘Is Vishwanathan Anand’s lethal end game waning?’ or ‘Should M.S.Dhoni put us all out of our misery?,’ verbal blows will rain on him for indulging in sports frivolity when the whole world is beset with this beastly virus. On the contrary, do another piece, albeit from left field with a totally different perspective on Covid19, and the Cassandras will go, ‘Gosh, haven’t we had enough of this dreaded topic? I am sick to the back teeth with the virus.’ If indeed that is so, I could advise them to visit the nearest hospital, only to be condemned as a literal minded idiot. There you are, you see. It’s a classic writer’s conundrum, one that I have bent my feeble intellect long and hard to find a solution to, thus far with scant success.
The Eureka moment took its own sweet time, but when it did arrive, it was a snorter. The name ‘Lav Agarwal’ drifted into my mind, and I knew I had found a neat solution to write on the subject we humans around the world are presently obsessed with, and yet coming from an angle that will keep reader interest alive and afloat. If you haven’t cottoned on to where I am headed with this fresh tack, then you must be duller than I had imagined. I am talking about the daily 4 PM bulletin on all the news channels on our television screens, when a group of four or five worthies from the Health and Home Ministry provides us with the latest rundown on what has been happening over the past 24 hours all across the country with regard to, what else, but the Coronavirus. When I first tuned into these distinguished government servants sitting across a table and addressing the media, I found it all rather desiccated. However, with each passing day, I began to appreciate these masked officials who were providing us with detailed information on a subject every single one of us should be vitally interested and involved in. Our lives could depend on it. Thus, my afternoon siesta ended at 3.59 PM when I would wake up and sit bolt upright, to listen to their chief spokesperson, Lav Agarwal from Health, ably supported by a demure lady, who usually took the trouble to colour match her sari with her mask, followed by the ICMR gentleman sporting a walrus moustache, who had the unfortunate task of having to explain to the media why the special rapid testing kits from China were yet to arrive, or were diverted to Italy or, worse still, why many of these kits were found to have holes in them in the wrong places! He invariably put a brave and kindly face on it, this walrus-moustachioed gentleman, but you could see the strain was beginning to tell. As for the elegant lady from the Home Ministry, she generally kept her missives short and on point.
That said, the hero of the hour was, without a shadow of a doubt, our good friend Lav Agarwal from the Health Ministry. He was invariably given maximum screen time, and he did not waste a second of it. Fully informed, he would meticulously trot out the statistics pertaining to each state, would easily switch from Hindi to English and back, as the mood took him. A veritable fount of information, Lav Agarwal left no stone unturned or avenue unexplored to drone on with his inexhaustible fund of information on social distancing and contact tracing. Truth to tell, more often than not, I hardly took in anything of what he was saying, but I would yield to no one in my admiration for his saying all that he was saying. It was like a soother and would give me great comfort, often lulling me back to the land of Nod. On occasion, when the cameras did not pan on the estimable Agarwal for any length of time, I would get disturbed. Has he not come today, is he unwell? Surely he hasn’t contracted…no, no. Surely not. Perish the thought. And just as I was in danger of sinking into a slough of despond at Lav’s apparent absence, there he would appear, his cherubic face a symbol of reassurance! You gotta Lav this Agarwal. In case anyone thinks I am being frivolous, let me assure my readers that I have not missed a single day of the Government of India’s daily 4 PM bulletins, fronted by the patient Agarwal. I say patient because the Q & A session at the end of the conference can try anyone’s patience. But Agarwal and his team tackle all the queries with great meticulousness, and if they don’t know the answer, they don’t try to prevaricate. In fact the ICMR representative with the walrus moustache is particularly open and never tries to put one over the media. If he does not know something, he will be upfront about it. If there’s a hole in the testing kit where no hole should be, he will come right out and say so.
In sum, I think the Public Relations wing of the Government has done an excellent job of keeping the Indian public fully informed on a daily basis on precisely how things are developing on this terrible medical crisis that has taken a vice-like grip over all of us. Which is why I was startled out of my wits when there was no bulletin a couple of days ago on TV. I felt hollow and my mind was full of questions. I could not imagine an afternoon without these doughty sentinels of the Government having a cosy, fireside chat with us. Happily, they were back the following day (with graphs, charts, the whole shooting match) to give us an extended report on ‘one month after the lockdown.’ They were probably preparing the previous day for this, hence the absence.
Finally, if and when CV19 finally takes leave of us, and it can’t be too soon, the one thing I will miss most are these 4 o’ clock siesta talks on TV. Methinks I will record some of these programmes, and keep playing them later on to wallow in a sense of comforting nostalgia. It’s not what Lav and his team told us that matters as much as the fact that they were there to tell it.
One of the many incidental fallouts of the all-pervasive, all-consuming Novel Coronavirus, or Covid19 if you are a stickler for the mot juste, is that there is no shortage of free advice from all and sundry on this vexed subject. Given that most of us are claustrophobically house bound, experiencing the true meaning of American television serial expressions like ‘stir crazy,’ our options for diversion and entertainment are largely confined to reading, music, watching telly (no live sport is a crusher) or allowing social media to envelope us into its ample bosom, contradistinctively through our deceptively small mobile phones. What was that the poet Oliver Goldsmith said of the village schoolmaster? ‘And still theygazed, and still the wonder grew / That one small head could carry all he knew.’ The mobile or cell phone, warts and all, is our perennial if wayward schoolmaster, always at our side, and full of information which, for the most part, we do not require. Sadly, unlike the village schoolmaster, our mobile phones cannot admonish us when we start browsing websites that are clearly unsuited to people of any age. And I am not talking about sex or pornography. Sex is passé. When you can learn how to make a lethal bomb in 6 easy steps on the internet, it makes one sit back and pause for deep reflection. Anyhow, as is my wont, I tend to veer off tangentially sometimes as the mood takes me. One thing leads to another and before you know it, I am scurrying back with a half-apologetic ‘Now where was I?’
I’ll tell you where I was. I was talking about the present, dystopian environment that we are living through, where fictional movies like ‘Contagion’ acquire a chilling, retrospective reality. So much so that we are even fearful of watching films of that genre. Take the dreadful Alien franchise from Hollywood for instance. I am not suggesting that horrible, gooey, spidery, leathery things of all shapes and sizes will suddenly start slithering out of our air-conditioning vents and water pipes (I have my hands full coping with lizards), with the sole objective of glutinously wrapping themselves round us in a deathly embrace. That said, neither did we think, not 4 months ago, that the whole world will be reaching near decimation thanks to some virus that masqueraded as the common cold, and was anything but common – confining us all to our homes and hearth. As I was about to explain till I started interrupting myself, the social media and its constant gratuitous advice has not helped matters. Doctors, neo-doctors, alternative medicine peddlers, dietitians, wellness teachers, yoga masters, physio experts, religious swamis, enlightened TV gurus – you name it, they are all at it, and looks like we can’t get enough of them. What can I say? We are all suckers for succour.
At this point I decided it was better if I had a long heart-to-heart natter with a doctor friend of mine on the dreaded subject of Covid19. Someone who knew me and who would not hesitate to blow the lid off the topic, if that was what was required. Confidentiality and the need to preserve and respect his privacy precludes my naming him. For the purposes of this missive, I am just going to call him Dr. No, inspired by Ian Fleming’s notorious James Bond villain. Why Dr. No will become apparent as you go through this interview, conducted on Face Time for reasons that need no elaboration.
SS (that’s me) – ‘Hey Dr. No, long time no see. Very busy time for you, I am sure. Thanks for making the time.’
Dr. No – ‘No sweat. That’s what friends are for. Tell me, what’s bugging you?’
SS – ‘Since you put it like that, nothing is physically bugging me. It’s this Covid19 that the whole world is sweating over and very bugged about. They are calling it a Black Swan event. The crisis teaches us new things. Like Social Distancing.’
Dr. No – ‘No, no. It’s being blown up out of all proportion. Look, I am not saying it’s not serious. It is. It’s just that panic is not the order of the day. I mean, more people in the world die crossing the road than from any virus. So we need to stay indoors, and keep washing our hands till you can actually see your metacarpals and phalanges. Above all, just keep cool. Black Swan? Haven’t a clue what that means.’
SS – ‘Fund managers love that term. It means a very rare event, in fact an event that can never happen is a Black Swan event, because there is no such thing as a black swan. Like hen’s teeth or once in a blue moon, that sort of stuff.’
Dr. No – ‘No, no. I don’t agree. We’ve gone through the Plague, AIDS, SARS. Ebola, Chikungunya, Swine Flu and so much more. Covid19 just feels scarier, that’s all. Black swan, slack swan. All nonsense. All media hyperbole. We just need to keep testing more people. These are testing times.’
SS – ‘I’ll have to look up “hyperbole.” “Testing times”, ha ha. Since we are now on idioms, how about “flattening the curve?” What do you make of that?’
Dr.No – ‘No listen. I am a doctor of medicine, not English. I have heard of “fattening the calf,” but “flattening the curve” is a new one on me. I grant you that if a dyed-in-the-wool Bengali said “flattening the curve,” it will sound a lot like “fattening the calf.” If I didn’t know any better I would have said the expression had something to do with getting your bulging tummy in shape. Anyhow, you are the writer, you tell me.’
SS – ‘Nice touch Doc, that Bengali thing. If you watch any of the English TV news channels they use that expression, “flattening the curve” at least 20 times in each programme. It’s to do with graphs, spikes in the number of infections, deaths, recoveries and the like, if you’re still with me. At the moment the curve on the graph is rising and if we can reduce the rate of infection (not be confused with inflection point), that rising curve will start flattening. Which will be good news.’
Dr. No – ‘Big deal. Why don’t they just say “we would like to reduce the number of infections or fatalities?” What’s all this flattening curve business? Jargon, jargon all the time with these media guys. No, no look here. I have enough problems dealing with cases without having to employ an interpreter to follow what you guys are saying. And to pre-empt you, don’t ask me if India’s hot summer months will kill the virus. It kills thousands of people every year, so who knows?’
SS – ‘What about masks?’
Dr. No – ‘What about them?’
SS – ‘Which part of “What about masks?” did you not follow?’
Dr. No – ‘Stop being a smartass. I have no view on masks. Wear them, take them off, wash them and re-wear them, give them to your kids to use as catapults, whatever. Makes no difference. Everyone is wearing masks with their nostrils fully exposed. So much for protection. Morons. Some television anchors pronounce masks as mosques, adding fuel to the fire.’
SS – ‘Look, I know you’re frazzled, what with the work pressure and everything. Let’s just take it easy for a bit, ok? Now tell me, how well do you think this national lockdown is working?’
Dr. No – ‘Stop telling me to take it easy and cool down and all that. Come and sit in my chair and you’ll know what it’s all about. Take it easy, indeed! This is a hot seat, my friend. Or should I say hotspot? And it’s getting hotter by the hour. My bottom’s on fire. No, no I will not take it easy. Anyhow, what was your question again?’
SS – ‘The lockdown all over India. Do you think it is working? And sorry, I won’t ask you to take it easy again.’
Dr. No – ‘How the heck do I know? About the lockdown, I mean. Why don’t you watch the daily Health Ministry briefing every evening? With scorecards and everything. No, I have no time to assess if the lockdown is going swimmingly well or if people are dropping like flies on an hourly basis. I have to deal with patients trooping in and out 24 x 7. When I get home it’s gone past midnight and I am in no mood to switch on the telly and watch a re-run of Arnab’s fist-flailing, insisting that the Nation Wants to Know. And if I so much as clear my throat, my wife hares off to the guest bedroom, covering her face with the blanket! Hey, I am sorry buddy, but I am on a short fuse here. My wife muttered, half asleep, that the lockdown is going reasonably well. I take her word for it.’
SS – ‘One last question, Doc. How is this Social Distancing thing going for you and your family?’
Dr. No – ‘I am glad you asked me that. I haven’t touched my wife in over a fortnight. People are drawing circles in front of banks and shops, and they generally seem to be going round in circles. Tell you what, though. If we can keep up this Social Distancing lark for long periods of time, our population growth will plummet. And that’s a curve I would dearly like to see flatten. And if you don’t call me for the next few weeks, it will be too soon.’
So ended this eventful Face Time interview. I think my irate and touchy doctor friend makes a good point about the unintended benefits of Social Distancing. If and when Covid19 finally bids a tearful adieu, sneezing and coughing the while, perhaps our indefatigable Prime Minister will once again address the nation and exhort us to practice Social Distancing at least twice a week. Family Planning will have a new arrow in its quiver.
Has anyone heard any good news lately? Just asking, because if anything even remotely approaching good news has filtered through, then I clearly missed it. What was that some smarty pants said? No news is good news? I think it is safe to say that we appear to be in that unfortunate situation as this missive is being word processed. There you go. I can’t even say ‘as this is being written,’ because some literal-minded idiot will accost me on social media with a ‘How can you say “written” when you are tapping this on your keyboard?’ Life is hard enough without having to deal with these twits on Twitter. I do apologise for my crabbiness. Blame it all on the news, which does nothing to engender that elusive sunny optimism.
To get back to my point, I have been scanning the newspapers and news channels to check if anybody has something good to say about anything. You might as well be looking for an oasis in the Sahara. Here is a random list of news items that have been dominating the headlines, and if any of you can find anything good there, then you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
Nirbhaya.The Nirbhaya rape and murder case has been dragging on for well over seven painful years, and our wheels of justice keep moving at a pace that would make a snail fancy its chances against the system. They have even had the time to make a television serial out of it. ‘Hang the rapists’, the country cries out. ‘In a while crocodile,’ responds the system. Appeals, counter appeals, mercy petitions and still the noose eludes the four guilty goons. Dates are set for the execution and re-set. When such dilatoriness happens over an execution, the public’s unsated, prurient interest only heightens. Remember those medieval times when the blood-thirsty public were invited to witness executions? Better these matters be dealt with swiftly and all concerned be duly informed once the dreaded task is over. Instead of all this shilly-shallying.
There is an interesting sidebar to the Nirbhaya case. Some months ago, somewhere in the heartlands of Telangana, another gang of murder suspects being held in custody for a heinous rape crime, was mysteriously gunned down in an ‘encounter.’ The cops claimed they had no option as the desperados snatched their guns and tried to make a run for it, but the smart money was on the cops ‘managing’ the shootout to their advantage. Some may say rough justice, but even those from the higher echelons of society were found to be applauding the local police. ‘Serve them right,’ was the cry of the vox populi, underscoring their disenchantment with the glacial movement of our justice system.
L’affaire Shaheen Bagh.Protesters gathering in Shaheen Bagh in India’s capital city have been grabbing the news headlines, and only recently has the noise died down. While it lasted, they were able to disrupt normal life in Delhi more than somewhat, to employ one of Damon Runyon’s pet phrases. I shan’t get into the rights and wrongs of their compulsion for so doing (CAA, NPR et al). The Central Government and the Delhi State administration were helplessly red faced. This movement gave rise to more Shaheen Baghs across the country, putting more pressure on the BJP led government. They in turn stuck to their guns, accusing the opposition of spreading falsehoods and innuendoes, all the while emphasising that the CAA was ‘good for every Indian citizen,’ if only the citizen cared to understand what the Act sought to achieve. The opposition parties were raucously gloating at their rival’s discomfiture. Meanwhile, with the onset of the warm weather and the Covid 19 (Coronavirus) scare, the protesters have reportedly dwindled, and the citizens of Delhi can, hopefully, soon breathe easy.
Coronavirus.When I said the Delhi denizens can breathe easy I was, of course, speaking metaphorically. The one thing they are not able to do, along with citizens all over the country, is to breathe easy. The Coronavirus pestilence, not unlike SARS and Swine Flu which took much of the world by nasty surprise, is now infesting various parts of the world, and anyone who so much as sneezes, hares off to the overworked hospitals. Travel and the world economy have taken a nose dive, and we keep opening the newspapers every morning hoping the dreaded virus shows signs of retreat. Face masks have gone underground, and a few hopefuls are running to Homoeopaths and sundry quacks for a miracle cure. I wash my hands with soap and water ten times a day! No shaking hands. Namaste is the order of the day. While Coronavirus continues to occupy centre stage, other news will for now, fade into the background. Had my mother been alive she would have said in chaste Tamil, ‘We are all paying for our sins.’ Hmmm!
The Delhi riots.Donald Trump came calling. Our Prime Minister pulled out all the stops in his home state to welcome the American President. Trump and Modi addressed a humongous gathering in Ahmedabad, with Donald trumping the Indian PM with his oh-so-cute references to Swami Vivecamundan and SoochinTendulkar. While Trump visited Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and was feted royally, rioters went to work in parts of Delhi, the resultant communal clashes leaving many dead and many more injured. Damage to property and businesses was incalculable. Again, political parties blamed each other. Were the riots cynically timed to take away the sheen from the Trump visit? Or was it a powder keg waiting to explode? Who knows? The national media had to divide their newsprint space and airtime to both these happenings in a bizarre concatenation.
The bourses go berserk.With so much bad news taking pride of place, our sentiment driven stock markets went base over apex. The Sensex and the Nifty plunged southwards in simpatico with world financial markets, primarily driven by scare-mongering brought about by the Coronavirus and its deadly implications for world trade. The Yes Bank crisis was the icing on the cake. My fund manager called me to say that at these levels prices are attractive and this may be a good time to invest. At the time I had a worrying cough and could not respond. Which was just as well.
T20 Women’s World Cup.With so much bad news, the progress of the Indian eves, as they are fancifully referred to, reaching the final of the T20 World Cup in Australia raised great hopes of a famous win. Kohli’s boys had not covered themselves in glory earlier in New Zealand, and this was our chance for redemption. It proved to be a false dawn. At the packed MCG, Harmanpreet Kaur and her girls went down like nine pins against the fancied Aussies. Our cup of woe was overflowing, and the media resorted to the usual clichés whenever we lose.
A judge is transferred.The peremptory, and some might say vindictive, midnight transfer orders given to the estimable Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court was received with anguish and anger by the judicial community and the intelligentsia – with just cause. The silver lining was the admirable composure with which the judge himself responded, without acrimony and displaying considerable dignity and grace under pressure. A much loved, respected and admired judge overnight became a national icon and treasure. There is hope yet.
So there we are, still waiting for some news to cheer us up. Perhaps I should stop watching the news channels or reading the newspapers. Like the fellow said, it’s wonderful when we are not supplied our dailies following a public holiday. ‘Nothing ever happens.’
This article appeared in the Deccan Chronicle dated 10th March 2020.
‘The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to movies and say, “Oh, the book is better.”’ Paulo Coelho. We are all familiar with the tired cliché, ‘The movie was good, but the book was much better.’ If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. There is a smidgen of scoffing pretension that goes with it. As in, I am well read, sophisticated, and I opine that the subtleties of the language can never be transposed adequately on to the silver screen. Movies are all right for transient, momentary thrills, but if you want to really get down to the nitty gritty, it simply has to be the written word. Reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, re-reading an entire sentence or paragraph, to gain a deeper understanding of what the author is trying to convey – none of this is possible when you’re at the cinema. I’ll grant you that if you’re watching a home movie, you can pause, rewind and start again, though it’s not quite the same thing. You’ll still hear the same lines, without discerning any change in the shaded nuances. Whereas with a book, the same descriptive sentence will trigger a different imagery for each individual reader.
Watching a movie is a collective process. At the cinema, all of us are viewing the same thing. This is true if you’re in a group at home, enjoying a DVD or the latest offering on Netflix. With a chilled beer, and a packet of crisps to keep you company. At times, it can even get a bit soporific. Flopped on your diwan, head thrown back over the cushions, you waft into a dreamy state. Next thing you know, your better half is upbraiding you. ‘I can’t follow the dialogue for your snoring.’ And your invariably weak riposte to that is, ‘I am not snoring, just closed my eyes because they were burning. Must have been a stray gnat or something. Ask me what Brad Pitt just said to Angelina Jolie, and I’ll repeat it verbatim.’ Nice try.
The consensus of literary opinion is that War and Peace was one of the longest, if not the longest book ever written. Rumour has it the author Leo Tolstoy was a fresh faced teenager when he started on this epic, hadn’t even thought about his first shave, and by the time he came to the last page and typed in ‘The End,’ he was a wizened old man with a flowing white beard, and the Russian priests readying themselves to read him his last rites. The story is apocryphal of course, but makes a telling point about the lengths, literally, to which Russian authors went to tell a story. The 1956 film adaptation of War and Peace, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, tested the audience’s patience for three and a half hours. The director must have thought since reading the book from cover to cover took him a year to complete, he must inflict some of the pain on his hapless audience. As P.G. Wodehouse famously complained, it takes nearly 400 pages of ploughing through a Russian novel before the first murder takes place in a remote petrol pump in an even more remote gulag! Posterity’s verdict on War and Peace, therefore, must be that it was touch and go as to which was more draining – the book or the movie.
Contrastingly, what about the shortest book ever written? According to experts, ‘The sex life of the British,’ if such a title exists, would qualify eminently. Again, the origin and veracity of this claim is shrouded in mystery. Thank God the British have the singular ability to laugh at themselves. It is instructive to quote from the Hungarian born, British émigré George Mikes’ satirical meditation on the British, How to be an Alien, in which the chapter entitled ‘Sex’ is disdainfully dismissed in a single, telling line – ‘Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.’ Making a movie out of this is clearly precluded.
Notwithstanding Mikes’ caustic cynicism of the Briton’s sexual proclivities, or the lack of the same, in the world of British cinema, sex has been celebrated with gay (pun intended) abandon in such films as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, Fanny Hill, MyBeautiful Launderette and for comic relief, the never ending, racy Carry On sagas. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita enjoyed critical acclaim as a book, though subsequent cinematic adaptations received muted response. The point is made that, even in the subterranean world of erotica, the literary power of suggestion is more likely to arouse than humans on screen in fake orgiastic missionary positions.
Indian cinema has its own unique way of dealing with love, marriage and sex – strictly in that order. All our heroes and heroines need is a well composed, hummable song that traverses time, some frolicking amidst sand and snow, hills and valleys, a tree or two to prance around, the scene swiftly cutting to an outlandishly garish bridal bed, camera quickly panning to a hideous painting on the wall of two love birds precariously perched on a twig, the song finally culminating to reveal a bedecked cradle with the cherubic, gurgling infant wreathed in spittle. The alternative, less pleasant, scenario involves the heroine falling suddenly, unaccountably and violently sick, followed by fainting fits, and everyone in a bit of a tiswas. Until the good doctor is summoned, and with beaming smile, announces the impending patter of little feet. Joy reigns supreme. Unless of course, God forbid, the nauseous heroine happens to be unmarried. Tauba Tauba! For then, all hell breaks loose and the pitiable leading lady breaks into an insufferably mournful, self-pitying dirge. In Harry Belafonte’s calypso-inflected words, ‘Woe is me, shame and scandal in the family.’
Adducing the Indian cinema example does not enhance the case for books being superior to film adaptations, other than to say that even the best novels would suffer at the hands of most of our directors, barring some notable exceptions. No better example of the film not quite living up to the book exists than some of the delightful Wodehouse sagas captured on celluloid. Over the decades, there have been many versions of the Jeeves – Wooster and Blandings Castle imbroglios adapted for screen and television. Some of the finest actors have portrayed key roles with great aplomb, the most recent being Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster respectively. In Stephen Fry’s eloquent words, ‘Wodehouse’s language lives and breathes in its written form. It oscillates privately between the page and the reader. The moment it is read out or interpreted, it is compromised.’ Here’s an outstanding example from the Master’s oeuvre of what Fry was driving at.
“‘Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?’ said Wilfred. ‘ffinch-ffarromere,’ corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.’” By definition, this cannot be transferred on screen. A clear case of ‘book trumps film.’ It’s another matter altogether if you have not read the book, on which the movie is based. You are then blessed by ignorance and can enjoy the film for its own sake, without having to carry the baggage of being a part of ‘the original sin,’ like Adam and the Tree of Knowledge.
It is not as if the book has always held sway over the film adaptation. Take Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a brilliantly crafted novel on the seamy underworld of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. The world, however, will forever celebrate and remember Francis Ford Coppola’s screen adaptations of The Godfather trilogy. Movie pundits have routinely voted the first of the trilogy as the best film ever made in the history of cinema. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and ‘a cast of thousands’ taking this film to stratospheric heights, few can argue with popular public acclaim. Mario Puzo’s place under the sun, however, was not to be denied as he wrote the screenplay for the film as well. The Godfather’s clutch of Academy Awards bears permanent testimony to its exalted status. Adding a dash of controversy, Brando boycotted the Oscars ceremony to receive the Best Actor award, in sympathy with what he felt was the ‘mistreatment of Native American Indians.’ But that’s another story.
While I have elaborated on a few examples to underscore my point of books being cinematically adapted with varying degrees of success or failure, we must pay homage to some magnificent honourable mentions in this genre. Dickens’ Great Expectations and Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago were sumptuously directed by David Lean. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provided Gregory Peck with an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins’ standout performances shone through in Thomas Harris’ noir, The Silence of the Lambs and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. And you ignore Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind at your own peril – the book and the movie vying for equal encomiums. Clark Gable’s ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ may arguably be the most famous throwaway line ever uttered in movie history. As the master of horror fiction Stephen King says, ‘Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.’
In conclusion, what I have shared is little more than a soupçon of the best and brightest that the wonderful world of books and the cinema offers us. So which takes pride of place – the book or the film? Or their convergence? You be the judge.
This article first appeared on Spark online magazine.
One’s heart goes out to the male of the species. Shakespeare has already dubbed the female of the species as being deadlier than the male, which did absolutely nothing to enhance the much-touted male ego. That was the problem with Shakespeare. He wrote pretty much whatever came into his head, and to hell with the consequences. What is more, everyone and his uncle started quoting Shakespeare left, right and centre. After that, there was no stopping the Bard from Avon. He was on a roll. Ever since, it has been a constant uphill struggle for Man to establish his superiority over the laughably described ‘weaker sex.’ Muscles are not everything in this world, and Woman has been shrewdly aware of this ever since God yanked out that rib from Adam in the Garden of Eden and declared in that pompous, echoing way God had, ‘I declare this Adam’s rib Woman.’ Or words to that effect. Then of course, came all that stuff about the apple and the snake, and the world as we knew it, went for a toss. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Adam was seen slinking around the Eden Gardens, not to be confused with the hallowed cricket ground in Calcutta, looking bereft and feeling sorry for himself. His self-esteem went up the spout.
Putting Biblical fairy tales to one side, let us come to the present day scenario. Failing to establish his superiority over the apocryphal ‘gentler sex’ in most matters, Man needed something, and fast, to regain some level of parity. Enter stage left, if not quite pursued by a bear, the wonder drug Viagra! Actually, it was Shakespeare’s stage directions which stated, ‘Exit stage left, pursued by a bear,’ but I am sure the great playwright wouldn’t mind if I misquoted him slightly. You see, try as one might, one can never quite keep William S out of the discourse. Let’s get back to Viagra, shall we, before we get side-tracked again. Here is a drug that has been in the news ever since it was first discovered in 1989. Its generic name, my research tells me, is Sildenafil, branded and adored the world over as Viagra, by the well-known pharmaceutical company that introduced it to the world, Pfizer. Now it is not my intention to go into the details of how the Viagra pill enables the male to rise to greater heights in bed and other such salacious details. You can find all that on the internet, if you’re really interested. Truth to tell, I am not even aware if this ‘recreational drug,’ as it is intriguingly referred to, is sold over the counter in India. One tip I picked up from my research which I can pass on. If you trot off to your nearest pharmacy and ask the salesman at the counter for a strip of Sildenafil in the presence of other customers, most likely he will look blankly at you. At which point, you will drop your voice a couple of notches and stage whisper, ‘Viagra,’ and be received with a knowing smile of recognition. That’s the word on the street, though I cannot personally confirm this.
My immediate provocation for that rather long-winded introduction is a recent report I came across, curiously headlined, ‘Viagra can make men see blue, says study.’ The report, quoting from a published article in a reputed medical journal, “Frontiers in Neurology” goes on to add, ‘Research found patients suffered abnormally dilated pupils, blurred vision, light sensitivity, and colour vision disturbances, which included intensely blue coloured vision and red-green blindness.’ Incidentally, the Viagra pill is also sold in the colour blue. Don’t ask me why. My best guess is that, having swallowed the blue tablet, and to while away the hour or so for it to take effect, the couple sit around and watch a ‘blue film,’ post which the fun and games can begin in right earnest. With full vigour, as it were.
Now you will have observed that I have had to couch my language in suitably conservative terms. Which is perhaps why many publishing sites reject my pieces, citing as reason my somewhat, archaic and circumlocutory choice of phrases. ‘Today’s youngsters don’t have the time for all this. You must be brief, cryptic and on point.’ Well, I am sorry, but I can’t be writing for social media twits who only wish to twitter. And if it’s matters sexual we are discussing, plenty of titter as well.
I could easily lay the blame for this on my own, somewhat strict and hidebound upbringing, where even ‘sex’ is considered a four letter word! I can also apportion a part of the blame on India that is Bharat where we tend, for the most part to shy away from the topic altogether. I am aware that all this is rapidly changing, and in a land where the current population of 1.3 billion is expanding exponentially, a land that gave the world the Kama Sutra, we can’t all be living in cloud cuckoo land, naively believing in storks and divine births. There is a limit to how much we can lay at God’s doorstep. He is still having a hard time, as it is, living down the Adam and Eve brouhaha.
That being the case, it must surely follow that many of our male citizens must be resorting to the periodic intake of performance enhancing drugs such as Viagra or its generic equivalent (if such a one exists), to show their partners how virile they are. And if that is a given, this latest news report that Viagra can make you see blue (without the aid of blue films) must make one stop and ponder. As a quick aside, I have not the faintest notion why sexually explicit, pornographic films came to be known, in modern parlance, as blue films. Google is cagey on the subject. Perhaps, like me, Google is also a prude.
To revert to the famed medical journal’s report, regular Viagra users are now beginning to wander around, their brows furrowed with anxiety. One loyal user was heard complaining to his girlfriend at a coffee shop, ‘Look, everything has been going swimmingly well for us so far on the fun and frolic side of things after lights out. Now comes this report, and frankly, I don’t mind telling you I am shaken. Not stirred yet, but definitely shaken. I know it does not apply to all Viagra users, perhaps just an infinitesimal minority. The problem is it plants that insidious seed of doubt in my head. And once I start thinking on those lines, bang goes my confidence, and no amount of staring at blue films is going to do any good. If this report is to be believed, apart from not being able to perform, I should be going blind as well as blue in the face, never mind colour blind and my pupils will forever remain dilated. I think I’ll slink off and become a monk.’
At this point, the girlfriend delivers her moaning boyfriend a tight, ringing slap and walks off, giving him a stern warning never to darken her doors again. Moral of the story: If you must talk about your sexual angst, avoid doing it with your bed mate. Seek one of Freud’s descendants instead.
Yet another cancer cure announcement. News agencies.
Every once in a couple of years, some medical institute or the other announces that they are on the cusp of a dramatic breakthrough in man’s indomitable quest to find a cure for cancer. Papers are presented at leading world medical conferences, the media go agog over the likely outcome and the pharma industry starts licking its chops over the coming financial windfall that awaits them, while scrips of leading pharma brands go through the roof in ecstatic anticipation. Many of these brilliant minds are even recognised handsomely through prestigious awards at highly respected forums. Usually announcements of this nature pertain to specific forms of malignancy. As in, breast cancer, lung cancer or pre-cancerous brain tumours and so on. As always, most of these revelations which come out with a bang, end in a whimper. After the initial excitement, things quieten down and nothing much is heard of again. Stricken, yet hopeful patients, meanwhile, find their spirits soaring only to come hurtling down in a heavy, anti-climactic thud.
That said, one must acknowledge the tremendous strides that have been taken in the field of cancer research, particularly in the areas of early screening and detection, enabling partial or even complete cures. However, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of solution as yet available for this dreaded affliction. Tuberculosis and many other ailments were similarly feared in previous decades, but continuous research and unremitting dedication by the medical profession have ensured complete success in treatment. We haven’t quite reached that stage where cancer is concerned, and we secretly continue to fear the possibility of harbouring ‘The Big C’ every time we set out for our annual medical check-up. ‘Hmmm,’ intones Dr. Banerjee gravely, scanning your routine blood report, ‘I am not sure I like this sudden spike in you SGPT and SGOT count. We’ll need to conduct further tests. And what is this little black mole at the back of your neck? I don’t like the look of it.’ Difficult man to please, Dr. Banerjee. By definition you can’t see anything on the back of your neck, so you just sit there stoically, trying not to look alarmed. This effectively ruins your peace of mind for the next few days. In the end, after running a battery of tests and biopsies, it all turns out to be much ado about nothing. However, you will now have to be treated for ulcers brought about by extreme tension and unconscionable medical bills. Forget about the Scotch, you are now prescribed one large peg of liquid Gelusil every evening. What makes matters worse is that cancer is one of those conditions where, more often than not, the treatment is worse than the disease, involving as it does, long, expensive and painful procedures often culminating infructuously, early detection notwithstanding. The patient can’t be blamed for thinking, ‘I’d rather meet my maker than go through this torture.’ All this grimness, read in conjunction with a recent World Health Organisation report that one in every ten Indians will develop cancer during his or her lifetime, hardly adds to our collective sense of well-being. The Grim Reaper is clearly working overtime. And the rampant, novel Coronavirus is not helping either.
Let us at this juncture, spare a thought for the rodent community. I am sure the medical experts from time immemorial had valid reasons why they thought rats or mice were the best guinea pigs (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor) to be experimented upon, to introduce as-yet-untried medicines for a variety of diseases that attack human beings. Doubtless these creatures, the original precursors of the dreaded plague, are thought to be eminently expendable, and therefore all manner of deadly trials are inflicted upon them. One’s heart goes out to them, but hey, they drew the short straw in God’s elaborate plan, and are paying the price. Presumably in a good cause – for humans that is, not the rats. One doesn’t quite see the slaughter of other animals for human consumption in quite the same light, because that was the way God supposedly divined things on earth. You simply can’t keep God out of the equation, a real busybody. Ours not to reason why.
Which is why the latest news report, promising a complete cure for any form of cancer, caught my attention. I must admit I read it with a degree of scepticism but as the saying goes, ‘hope springs eternal.’ I may be guilty of a slight exaggeration, as I attempt to share these dramatic findings trusting to my dodgy memory and some hastily scribbled notes from what I read a couple of weeks ago, but the kernel of the research results appears to be that a group of scientists in the United States of America may be on the verge of discovering the much longed for cure for cancer by developing a vital drug that might hold potential to kill the toughest of cancer cells and shrink the malignant tumours. The Holy Grail beckons. This could very well be the harbinger of a dramatic, scientific breakthrough that doctors and cancer sufferers have been, literally, dying for. Apparently, the treatment has been code-named ‘CF33’ (how do they think up these weird codes?), and if it delivers the goods as hoped for, it promises to kill every type of cancer cell in a petri dish (a kind of shallow glass bowl in which you test cells for bacteria) and has also claimed to completely kill or shrink tumours in mice. Again with the rats!
The long and the short of it is that, once again we wait with bated breath to learn if this latest missive on cancer research reveals anything substantive, or if it’s just another one of those periodic adrenalin-uppers that keeps us all hooked for a few weeks before it vanishes from our consciousness through sheer inertia. Lest my somewhat glib observations should send out the wrong signal, let me reiterate that I yield to no one in my admiration for all these scientific and medical boffins who slave night and day to find cures for all manner of pestilential germs that bug our society (sorry, but sometimes puns just happen). More power to their shoulders. As this anonymous quote so pithily puts it, ‘Cancer is a word, not a sentence.’
My mind turned to tailors recently. Or to put it more precisely, my mind turned to why my mind had not turned to tailors for a very long time. Several years, in fact. There are good reasons for this. Over the past few decades, the sartorial world has shown a distinct preference for the readymade stuff. We live in an instant world. Everything is wanted yesterday. Instant coffee, instant tea, flavoured malts, milk, buttermilk, fruit juices – all available in neat tetrapaks, ready for immediate consumption. However, clothiers continued to ply their trade relatively unharmed. The search for that perfect fit which makes all the difference kept driving the punctilious, dress-conscious male to his personal, bespoke tailor to provide him with a suit or a shirt or a pair of trousers that was the envy of his contemporaries. P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal goofball, Bertie Wooster, once wrote a piece, though no one had actually read it, titled ‘What the well-dressed man is wearing’ for his Aunt Dahlia’s magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. Clearly, Bertie’s sole journalistic, if anonymous, effort was not going to set Fleet Street and the publishing world on fire. Even his trusted manservant, or gentleman’s personal gentleman to employ the mot juste, the equally immortal Jeeves took a dim view of it. In Bertie’s memorable words, ‘the lovelight suddenly died out of his (Jeeves’) eyes.’ In Wodehouse’s fantasy world, Savile Row was the temple of tailoring and all men of proper breeding had their suits cut there. That was then and this is now. More to the point, that was Imperial England, and this is free India.
To revert to the point at issue, tailors and the rarefied world of tailoring, if not quite becoming extinct like the dodo, are showing incipient signs of mortality. We see less and less of them. At this point, I must hastily qualify my statement, in so far as what I have been rambling on about pertains largely to tailors who cater to male patrons. The distaff side of things are still going pretty strong, which is hardly surprising. Blouses need to be stitched to perfection, hems taken in on newly acquired saris and skirts, and for reasons that do not need going into in detail, our gentle women folk are constantly having to address sensitive issues like weight loss and weight gain, and the friendly tailor round the corner is an indispensable support system. Though why a particular article of clothing is suddenly discovered to be a misfit, in a manner of speaking, has always been mystifying. 24 hours prior to attending a grand wedding reception, blood curdling screams ring out across the length and breadth of one’s apartment that ‘the blousehas become too tight, omigosh!’ And you found that out now? Surely there must be other blouses. Alas, you poor, ill-informed male! A particular sari has already been earmarked from a select shortlist, over a month ago to stun your friends and relatives at the forthcoming la-di-da reception. The matching blouse, which has not been worn for close to a year, is now discovered to be ill-fitting. You get the picture. And the more than passable imitation of Edvard Munch’s priceless painting, ‘The Scream’ is presented in all its horrific, pastel splendour. The limited point one is trying to make is that there is no clear and present danger of the tailor catering to the female of the species dying out any time soon. At least, not in India. The Singer sewing machine has been an integral part of most middle-class households, but nowadays, it performs the role of an antediluvian furniture piece, one with the dinosaur.
My earliest recollection of interacting with a tailor was when I was admitted to boarding school in Bangalore. The school blazer and cap were essential accoutrements as part of the school uniform. Within a couple of days of joining school, we had to line up in front of old man Rakhra, a tailor whose immense reputation had clearly preceded him. I was 10 years old and to my infant’s eyes, the bald and thickly bespectacled Rakhra looked like Methuselah, at least 90 years old, at a conservative estimate. The Biblical Methuselah, of course, was said to have lived till the ripe old age of 969! In our more normal times, I thought 90 was old enough to be getting along with. The truth of it was that he was probably in his mid to late ‘60s.
Now the thing about this Rakhra couturier, who was always turned out in spotless, creased whites, was his gruff manner with a disconcerting habit of patting, poking and prodding us all over the place while his assistant would keep tying us up in knots with the measuring tape, and reading out our embarrassingly puny chest, waist and other anatomical measurements. At least, the blazer and cap details involved only the top half of the body. When it came to the half pants, Rakhra’s hands would roam where angels feared to tread. All in a purely professional cause, I hasten to add. It was part of his job and I daresay the ancient tailor meant no harm, but for us children, we squirmed, shifted and often laughed out loud, particularly when his strong fingers would give our ribs a right working over. It didn’t help that the supervising House Master would, every now and then, administer a smart clip round the back of our heads, admonishing our needless histrionics. ‘That will be enough of that, Waller. Stop making an ass of yourself,’ about summed up the Master’s views on the matter. Then of course, we had to go for the trial, sometimes more than once, and this was a bigger trial than the initial measurement taking. To make things worse, at that age we quickly outgrew our clothes and this meant going through the whole rigmarole again. Like Topsy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, we just ‘growed.’
Thus, it was a great relief to have grown to man’s estate, as it were. Once we crossed the age of 15 or 16, chances of our growing further were remote. That was as far as height went. Weight and waist measurements were another matter altogether. It was a phase when we switched from half-pants to full length trousers making us feel that we were now adults – proper young gentlemen, strutting about the place like proud peacocks. Though there was a funny side to wearing full pants, as the school colloquialism went. A handful of us outgrew the long trousers as well, resulting in an awkward gap between the end of the trouser folds and our ankles. Leading to that classic jibe from other boys, ‘Waiting for floods, are we?’ That said, with each passing year our growth, by and large, stabilised. This enabled us to switch to readymades with a greater degree of comfort.
Getting into our time machines and fast forwarding to the post-millennial generation, it’s all about branded clothes wear. Just walk into any respectable department store or mall, and visit the clothes section, and you are spoilt for choice. All manner of sizes, in a bewildering array of advertised brands will be available, if it’s trousers you’re looking for. Convenient trial rooms enable you to try them on yourself in front of a full size mirror, and if some slight adjustment is needed like shortening the length or increasing the waist, the ladies at the counter will pencil in the details on your invoice, and request you to collect the merchandise a couple of hours later. Just like that! There is a tailor on hand but he does his job with great finesse. No prodding of your rib cage, sending you into paroxysms. Then again, if you are obscenely well-heeled and belong to the truly upper crust, it has to be Savile Row, London or its Indian equivalent. Since no one in India will notice the difference at parties, you will have to be inventive and find ways to obliquely communicate this to your friends and acquaintances. ‘You like my suit? Yeah, it’s fine but frankly, I wouldn’t waste all that money I had to shell out for this at Savile Row.’ Mocking yourself with false modesty. The oldest showing off trick in the book.
Here in India we can still find, if we looked hard enough, the modest tailor in his modest little shop, peddling away on his (erstwhile referred to) Singer machine, somewhere in an impossibly crowded street. He will be more than willing to loosen the waistline of your trousers, shorten the hem of your petticoat and sari, or even re-stitch the borders of your pillow cases, for a song. Oh, and another thing. When it comes to your trouser fly, always go for the button option. Those metal zips can be a right, royal pain. Literally. In the final analysis, clothes may make the man, but Polonious’ gratuitous advice from the Bard’s Hamlet is worth recalling:
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy / But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
This ain’t no technological breakdown / Oh no, this is the road to hell. Chris Rea.
My wife and I moved to Bangalore from Calcutta 20 years ago. The reasons were not far to seek. The much-vaunted salubrious climate of Bangalore (if you are not prone to allergies), the relatively slower pace of life and a real chance, in troubadour Van Morrison’s words, ‘to smell the sea and feel the sky.’ There is, of course, no sea as far as the eye can see in and around Bangalore, but you could always ‘stop and smell the roses.’ At this point, I must make it clear that even 20 years ago, Bangalore no more resembled a sleepy hill-station than it does today. The tell-tale signs of rapacious progress were all too evident. Everybody wanted to come and live in Bangalore, the trendiest, snazziest El Dorado in India. Friends and relatives from out of town, en route to Ooty or Kody, invariably stopped for a couple of days to shop or ‘hang out’ in Bangalore’s vaunted pub joints.
A quick word about Calcutta. Irony of ironies, since we moved, Calcutta has become a more liveable city than it was during my 40 years’ residence there. Whether this was owing to industries moving out of the city en masse, thereby inversely providing cleaner air or simply better governance, is anybody’s guess. Nevertheless I have to put up with frequent ‘I told you so’ barbs from my friends in the City of Joy who were loath to see us go.
Bangalore isn’t quite the hell hole it is being made out to be. It is worse. In the name of progress and ultimate benefit for our children (and our children’s children), we are being made to pay a heavy price in terms of quality of life. If benefits are ultimately going to accrue, it may very well take the amount of time for our children’s children to make an appearance. Present residents can forget about driving comfortably over flyovers, underground tunnels, clockwork traffic signals, ample parking space and smooth Metro trains ferrying us to the sleek, ultra-modern airport. Or as Yul Brynner said in ‘The King and I’, ‘etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.’
If that somewhat orotund introduction to what was intended to be a frustrated rant on civic conditions in Bangalore went ‘all over the place’, I crave your indulgence. As a writer, I have to spin things out a bit. If I had merely written one short sentence, ‘Bangalore is the pits,’ and key in Finis under it, you would not have been best pleased. It might have been succinct, on point and endorsed Shakespeare’s aphorism of brevity being the soul of wit. On the other hand, my legion of fans (about 5 in number when I last checked), would have looked askance and gone off their morning breakfast. You’ve got to keep the fans happy. If I keep at it, my blog administrators assure me my readership during the coming year could double dramatically to 10! That’s what keeps me going.
So where was I? Yes, the garden city of Bangalore. Some people are beginning to call it the garbage city. All this is most distressing and why are our city slickers getting restless and sending me veiled notes and threats to write something about it? These are of course drawn from those 5 fans I talked about, but they do represent a decent sample size to accurately reflect the grumpy dissatisfaction of a larger section of the populace. I shall now proceed to try and list out some of the typical problems that we tax paying citizens of Bangalore face, day in and day out – with no relief in sight.
Lawless and disorderly. The traffic lights system in our beloved city appears to have a mind of its own. Sometimes it operates automatically, other times the traffic police decide to take matters in hand and keep switching from red to amber to green and back again, as the mood takes them. At certain intersections we wait in our cars for upwards of 7 minutes when, much to our relief, the green light comes on, but in barely 25 seconds it switches back to red again. This could be due to VIP movement, a medical emergency or just the traffic cops deciding things quixotically on the spur of the moment. This arbitrariness has often witnessed drivers going berserk, whizzing through red lights, brazenly driving through ‘No Entry’ roads, driving over footpaths or even the wrong side of the road. It’s literally hell freezing over, if you’re caught up in one of these bottlenecks. I dread to think what happens if a critical patient needs to reach the hospital in double quick time. Chances are he or she will reach his or her heavenly abode much sooner. And forget about drivers using their indicators, because they themselves don’t know which way they will turn.
God save us from two-wheelers. What is it with these two-wheeler terrorists? They appear to have arrogated to themselves the divine right to criss-cross, zig-zag over road dividers, mobile phones hidden under their helmets and the police forever lurking in street corners to accost them with fines, official and unofficial. Nothing deters them. My car side mirror has been repaired six times thanks to two-wheelers yanking them out. Add to this autos, bullock carts, light motor vehicles, jaywalkers, smoke-belching trucks and buses, and you could be walking straight into Dante’s inferno.
No Parking. Where on earth will cars find parking space in Bangalore? Virtually every road is dotted with ‘No Parking’ signs, an injunction that is observed laughably in the breach. All the side roads are thus filled up, and residents merrily hoist sponsored ‘No Parking’ boards in front of their gates which is understandable, but also place obstructive bricks in the common pavement area, which they have no right to do. Pedestrians have no place to walk. In a city like London, pedestrian pavements are much broader than the vehicular roads they abut.
Flyovers, Metros etc. As touched upon briefly, work goes on for an eternity on these flyovers, underground tunnels and Metro rail (between long periods of grinding and masterly inactivity). The pace of work is painfully slow, and almost every other project appears ill-conceived, riddled with legal disputes while self-appointed urban experts write recriminatory reams in the dailies. Net result? We are stuck.
Election preoccupations. The state government seems to be in a perennial state of getting ready for some form of election or by-election. Functionaries are too busy ensuring the elections go off smoothly, round the year. It’s almost as if the elections are an end in themselves. As a result, no one has any time to actually address everyday problems like roads, street lighting and other basic infrastructure needs.
Is there a glimmer of hope in sight? The question is rhetorical.
Footnote: If this piece portrays cops as little more than dummies, fret not. Bangalore’s innovative traffic police have installed giant replicas of themselves all over the city. The purpose is unclear, as the mannequins are not equipped with artificial intelligence. Last heard, a couple of them were found with their dark glasses and white hats missing. If motorists are expected to be fearful of these giant sized cops, I don’t think the objective is being met. However, passers-by and tourists have found a new subject to pose for selfies with.