Let’s hear it for the Zoom zombies

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‘What a drag,’ these faces seem to saying

The ongoing pandemic (is it ever going to end?) has allowed many housebound men, women, boys and girls to take up a long-lost hobby and give full vent to their latent talent. Incidentally, rarely do you get two anagrammatic words (latent and talent) in close juxtaposition. Call it serendipity, but I digress. Take me, for instance. I have been writing for many years now, but I had to steal time from my other preoccupations to put pen to paper, in a manner of speaking. What pen, what paper, I hear you smirkingly ask. Well, if you must be a literal-minded dolt, I cannot hold out much hope for you. Getting back to my keyboard, and no more silly interruptions please, there are many who are writing. Like the end of the world is nigh and there’s no tomorrow. Essays, articles, novels, novellas, fiction, non-fiction – you name it, they are writing it. Bully for them, I say, and I include myself in this self-congratulating indulgence aimed at the amateur scribes and scriveners. The latter, the scriveners I mean, get their kicks drafting interminably long legal documents and generally notarizing things, but they do write, and many of them do so with the good old quill and ink.

It takes all sorts. So, let us not be patronizing and instead, doff our hats to ‘the amateur writers of the world.’ I grant you most of our efforts go largely unread, except for a handful of close friends or relatives who take the trouble (‘Oh no, not another one!’) to rapidly scan through the piece, and state their preference to ‘like’ or plonk a throbbing heart on their social media timelines. At times some of you even ‘share’ it on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Hallelujah! Like ‘the great unwashed,’ we are ‘the great unread.’ Fair point. We can’t all be J.K.K. Rowlings or Salman Rushdies, but we appreciate, dear reader, the strenuous effort you put in to plough through our plodding effort. What’s more, many of you do respond and are lavish in your appreciation, which is greatly appreciated. Others remain stoically non-committal, and we hack writers will have to draw our own conclusions.

So much for the writing epidemic that is currently gripping the pandemic landscape. However, that is nothing compared with the singing bug that has afflicted a very large portion of the population. The number of people who have taken to social media, like a duck to water, to display their musical skills is beyond our imagination. Not a day passes without Facebook or Instagram being deluged with people of all ages and genders warbling from an inexhaustible musical repertoire of their choice. Canaries can take their correspondence course from these musical mavericks. From a random survey I would say Hindi film songs, in particular of the ‘50s to ‘70s vintage, take pride of place amongst our wannabe Mohammad Rafis, Lata Mangeshkars, Kishore Kumars and Asha Bhosles. This is closely followed by western pop songs with The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and their ilk leading the pack. Being a Tamilian, I also come across quite a few bathroom singers letting rip with old Sivaji Ganesan and MGR film hits, not to speak of the more recent compositions of Ilayaraja and A.R. Rehman. A very niche audience, namely devotees of Carnatic music, can have their fill with most leading performers posting songs from their recorded concerts, and in quite a few cases, the singers actually performing from the comfort of their homes while engaging in a live chat with their fans on the intricacies of this hoary art form.

It is, however, the amateur singer, who quite fancies her vocalizing skills that greatly interests me. The availability of karaoke to provide background music, gives the singer a sense of security and confidence. So off she goes, standing in her drawing room, or on her balcony and launches into something from Aradhana, Anand, Kala Bazaar or Hum Dono. There are even some who do live shows and take requests online. These ‘live soirees’ are advertised over social media well in advance so their devout fans can be in readiness with their listener’s choice! Smileys and floating hearts go berserk while the performer struts her stuff. Since all this is happening on the internet, at times the connection can go awry and the singer often goes into a virtual freeze in mid-song and when she returns, the song is almost over. These are but minor glitches, certainly not enough to deter our doughty, brave crooners who carry on regardless. ‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ said the Bard. Spot on, William. With social media enveloping us all hours of the day and night, we can have music while food is constantly available to us as aid to our enjoyment of the fare on offer. A quick explanatory note at this point is in order. I employ the term ‘she’ or ‘her’ out of a sense of chivalry and to avoid the tedium of mentioning both sexes every time. I assure you the ‘he’ and ‘him’ are very much in the fray. If anything, with knobs on. Nothing invidious intended.

Then there are the babies. When I say babies, I include any toddler between the age of a couple of months to a mature five-year-old. Our social media channels are choc-a-bloc with these ‘cho chweet’ kiddies crawling, frothy spittle forming moustaches around their upper lips, ‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ (Shakespeare again), pulling the poor pet dog’s tail, pulling the angry cat’s ears (the cat bares its claws and the baby is frantically pulled away), three-year old Dolly singing and lisping ‘Inky, pinky, ponky,’ four-year old Bunty delivering lethal karate chops, precocious fourteen year-old Sabrina outdoing Whitney Houston with her vocal range and finally, all those birthday celebrations, cake cutting, baby’s face smeared with gooey chocolate. Truly a feast of entertainment for us to watch over and over again, if you are into that sort of thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t find a single grainy, sepia-tinted, grease-smudged picture of any of my birthdays being celebrated before I was thirty years old. And even after that, when I am now well and truly long in the tooth, the mobile phone has captured some of these moments to drool over, most of which are delete-worthy. If you ask me, I am immensely happy mobile phones with their prying, ubiquitous cameras were not around when I was a toddler.

Let me now turn to this Zoom pestilence. Someone from your family or circle of friends will take the initiative to plan a Zoom party, whereby all of us, often as many as 30 people, are intimated in advance that on a particular date and time, we will get together over Zoom to celebrate one of our near and dear one’s birthday, anniversary or simply, chumma chumma, just like that. If you opt out of this visual jamboree, you will be viewed as a spoilsport, frowned upon and not be invited next time round (a blessing in disguise). And what actually transpires during these Zoom chats? At least two or three participants will have connectivity issues, which will take a while to set right. Then much hoo haa about ‘Where’s Shanta, where’s Ram, we are not starting without them.’ Dress code? We have to be properly attired for the occasion, though we are at home. ‘For God’s sake, you look like something the cat brought in. Go and shave.’ This, from the wife. While we are all waving frantically at each other, staring in glazed fixity at our computer screens with no idea of who has spotted whom, one person decides to take the lead, suggesting a singalong. ‘Mala, you sing, come on ya, don’t be such a fusspot.’

Mala will make a face and say she’ll start but others must join in. Depending on Mala’s choice of song, a few will mumble unintelligibly and inaudibly along with her, the others will watch stone faced, the mumbling chorus will suddenly stop mumbling, and Mala will stop abruptly and announce, ‘I am not singing anymore, let Rakesh sing that lovely Ghulam Ali ghazal he sang at Mummy’s 65th birthday.’ Meanwhile the Zoom group (30 of them, remember?) has managed to form its own sub-groups who are muttering sweet nothings to each other, a baby is propped up in front of the camera to universal acclaim and breathless exclamations. Invariably, there will be one or two cruising on a highway in their car, the engine sound drowning out whatever they are trying to say. Finally, a couple from Chicago will yawn, stretch and go, ‘Don’t know about you guys, but it’s way past our bedtime here. Good night folks.’ Black window on your screen where the Chicago twosome were. Another elderly couple, who had not opened their mouths throughout the affair, quietly disappear into the Kuala Lumpur night. Another black window. Next day we will get to know all about how stupid we were to quit at one in the morning ‘because Prema and Ravi enthralled us till midnight with their rib-tickling stand-up comedy routine. We nearly died laughing.’ With participants from five different countries and time zones, the question is whose midnight and whose one-in-the-morning?

In conclusion, let’s raise a toast to all amateur writers, singers and the Zoom zombies. These are tough times and we need to keep ourselves creatively occupied. Of course, one understands that you wish to share your literary and musical prowess with the rest of the world. By all means, do that. Only don’t get disheartened if the rest of the world is too preoccupied to take a blind bit of notice. As for all the Zoom zombies, go ahead and Zoom till you’re blue in the face. The technology is there, so why not use it? Just one caveat. I’ll sit this one out.

Rave on, Sir Van Morrison

The angry old Van Morrison | The Times
Transcendent Van Morrison circa 1974

Growing up in the sixties and seventies in India, my musical influences were many. My family was wedded to the arcane and intricate wonders, with plenty of theology casually thrown in, of South Indian Carnatic music, as distinct from the more universally embraced North Indian or Hindustani music, popularised in the west by the likes of sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar and his celebrity star protégé, Beatle George Harrison. Carnatic music was a permanent presence in my waking consciousness and the sleeping sub-conscious. I know of hardly anyone on the maternal side of my family who was not touched by its omnipresence. I even studied its complex form and substance in its most preferred and popular vocal tradition. My mother, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces – they were all connoisseurs and embraced the art form. It surprised no one that my nephew, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, is today an ace, trendsetting vocalist in the Carnatic tradition. The genes ultimately had their say.

Boarding school during the ‘60s in a distinctly British and Anglo-Indian environment, exposed me to the gay abandon and adrenaline-powered instant highs of western pop and rock music. From the testosterone elevating American Elvis Presley and his watered-down English mirror image, Cliff Richard and their ilk, we headily graduated to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with their brilliant harmonies, vocalizations pitchforking the singer-songwriter to the fore. This was boom time and one also thrilled and trilled to the likes of ‘thinking’ composers and performers such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. I could name many more, but as exemplars of that magnificent generation, those names are quintessentially representative and will suffice.

However, it is the ongoing amazing legacy of the legendary Irish singer-songwriter Sir George Ivan ‘Van’ Morrison that I wish to focus on. Not least because his fame, strangely, has never quite matched the same decibel level as a Dylan or a Cohen, and more so because he will be marking his 75th birthday on August 31 and the whole of Ireland and Great Britain are already celebrating lustily with artists from all over the ‘sceptered isle’ singing his songs. If Van Morrison’s name does not trip lightly off the tongue, this can be attributed to his notoriously introverted nature coupled with a desire to let his music and words do all the talking. Or that he emerged from Northern Ireland and not from England or the American sub-continent, where traction is swifter. He has preferred to remain under the radar, but fame refuses to elude him. The Irish troubadour was a virtual unknown in India during the sixties and seventies as opposed to Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Even bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, The Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin held centre stage at different periods for Indian aficionados.

Van Morrison | Biography, Songs, & Facts | Britannica
Van with ‘Slow Hand’ Eric Clapton

All this despite the fact that Van the Man was already producing path breaking records in the west. In fact, my own discovery of Van Morrison was during the late ‘70s when he appeared in a Martin Scorsese tribute film for The Band, ‘The Last Waltz.’ Most of the superstars of that golden era from the rock and pop firmament appeared in that film, but we in India vividly recall Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and a clutch of others. Van Morrison’s dynamic, foot-stomping performance of his own composition Caravan, passed us by as the idle wind. It was only much later, when I heard his uplifting Into the Mystic, as part of the background score in the Glenn Close starrer Immediate Family, that I began to explore this unique and alluringly strange musician.

One other singular aspect of Van Morrison’s career is that, even in his mid-70s, he continues to record and perform live almost ceaselessly. His once nasal, high-pitched voice shows scant signs of age-related decline. Rather, like fine wine it has mellowed and matured into a smooth, purring vehicle. He draws avid fans from all age groups to his live shows. To be doing this for the best part of six decades, the commitment and energy involved in the longevity, beggars belief. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell lost the magic in their voices several years ago, and Leonard Cohen’s passing reminded us that he was much more of a lyrical poet than a musician. Like Dylan he wrote some wonderful songs, but words were Cohen’s thing. However, Van Morrison continues to delight us with his staying power, prodigiousness and amazing work ethic. We should delight in his offerings, cutting across genres like Rock and Pop, Blues, Soul, Jazz, R&B and quasi-Spirituals, while he is still at the top of his game. That said, his wonderful albums will always be a permanent reminder of what transcendence in music is all about.

Bob Dylan on stage with Van Morrison. | Bob dylan lyrics, Bob dylan, Dylan
Van the Man with Mr. Tambourine Man, Bob Dylan

Van Morrison’s songs have had a strange, indescribable effect on me, through his ability to meld words and music in a way that transports you to his world, while making you feel as if you belonged. Morrison’s patch is not my patch. Other than when he writes and sings about universal themes like love and human foibles, more often than not, he is completely stuck and grooved in an autobiographical world of his native Ireland, Belfast, childhood memories, nature mysticism, musical influences, growing up, pet hates (the record publishing industry) – issues that bear no affinity to anything I have known or experienced. We are separated by thousands of miles of geography. That said, I am able to sit back in a silent room in remote Bangalore, slip in one his 50 odd CDs and be transported to Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield, the pylons, Fuscos ice-creams, listening to Sydney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow and reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Dharma Bums or J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, all the while lost in his father’s impressive collection of jazz, blues and soul records imported from America, featuring such giants as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles. I actually bought Kerouac’s Dharma Bums just to get an idea of what it was all about. He frequently name checks the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and William Blake in his songs. Hardly surprising that some of his lyrics are pure stream of consciousness. Sample this from Astral Weeks, ‘If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dream / Where immobile steel rims crack / And the ditch in the back roads stop / Could you find me? / Would you kiss-a my eyes? / To lay me down / In silence easy / To be born again.’ Stream of consciousness? Do the lyrics make sense to me? Does it matter? I am just floating with the ethereal music and the singer.

The lyrics of Morrison’s songs are a matter of record. They are available to be read and perhaps, even to be sung along with. The dreaded Karaoke will even provide the background score, if you are crass enough to want it. However, words alone do not a Van Morrison song make. It’s the way he fuses the words and the music, the way he frequently stretches the lyrics out, insanely breaks up the syntax and just grunts, scats, gasps and mumbles if he thinks that’s what it takes to get across his innermost feelings, literally spewing his guts out. He has admitted that he himself at times puts in words or phrases without knowing what they mean! You can only experience that when you watch or listen to one of his live performances.

Van Morrison’s music is not easily accessible, by which I mean assimilable, by the casual listener. In many ways, he sounds as if he sings solely for himself. He has oft been accused of turning his back on his audience. Therein lies the magic. It is hard to get across unless you happen to be a die hard Van Morrison fan. As he completes 75 years, his voice is still in great shape and he continues to pack quite a punch. Given all that and against his own inclinations, he is a superstar of our times and commands a devoted and impressive fan following, but I would be delighted if I can get at least a handful of music lovers here in India to start listening to this once-in-a-lifetime musician. And if you haven’t heard him and wish to sample his wares, go to YouTube or Spotify and look for these songs – Astral Weeks, Moondance, Into The Mystic, In The Garden, Caravan, Have I Told You Lately, Cleaning Windows, Memory Lane…after that you are hooked and there’s no escape. Van Morrison, ‘The Belfast Cowboy,’ is suis generis. The mould will surely break after him.

Happy birthday, Van.



 Kamala Harris as a teenager. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)
Teenager Kamala Harris

The nomination of Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate for the forthcoming elections in the United States this November, has set the cat among the pigeons here in India. People from various parts of Tamil Nadu, which is where Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan hailed from, thence migrated to Oakland, California back in the ‘60s, are now laying claims to be Ms. Harris’ kith and kin. It is a moot point, barring a few faded sepia-tinted recollections of walking along the Marina Beach with her grandfather, (presumably munching sundal and murukkus the while) if Kamala has any vivid recollection of India to share. I am sure she will reveal more of her ‘India experience’ soon. Kamala Harris’ husband, lawyer Douglas Emhoff remains a largely anonymous figure, rather like the self-effacing Denis Thatcher during Maggie’s hey days as the Iron Lady of Britain. Doubtless we will get to know more about Emhoff in the near future.

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The Democrat Veep nominee

However, all that is of little consequence to her near and dear ones in Madras (I am partial to the old name) and elsewhere in the state. The fact that Kamala’s father is a Jamaican appears to have been completely ignored here in India. Nostalgia is kicking in. It’s a bit like the Sundar Pichai or Indira Nooyi syndrome – the former revisiting some back street gully in Ashok Nagar in Madras where he might have played tennis ball cricket or hop scotch, and the latter spotted a few years ago enjoying a Carnatic music concert at the Music Academy during ‘the Season.’ The bigger you become on the world stage, the more you pine for the little things you fondly remember, back in the day during your infancy. Flashbacks to our Prime Minister’s tea stall at a railway station in Vadnagar in Gujarat, or Captain Marvel M.S. Dhoni, the ticket collector in the Eastern Railway. Nothing like the railways to induce that lump-in-the-throat feeling.

Getting back to Kamala Harris, ‘She is one of ours,’ is the cry that is ringing out loud and clear in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu. I shan’t waste precious column space dwelling on the circumstances surrounding Kamala’s mother’s migration to the United States and her subsequent betrothal to fellow activist and economist, Jamaican Donald Harris. All that and more has been well documented for posterity. Word is that this revolutionary (for those days) alliance was accepted by Shyamala’s orthodox but enlightened TamBram family without a murmur. No song and dance or breast beating. Every day brings some new nostalgic nugget from the office of the would-be / could-be Veep, ergo just a catastrophe away from becoming President. Among the gems from Kamala (Sanskrit for the lotus flower) was a request she sent out to her aunt in Chennai to break the auspicious 108 coconuts at the family’s chosen temple to keep the Gods in good humour and be favourably disposed when the time comes for the ballot papers (or its digital equivalent) to be counted. As a matter of abundant caution, it might be prudent for Kamala to request her aunt to break a further 108 coconuts as an insurance cover against the likelihood of her boss Joe Biden queering the pitch.

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Kamala’s parents, Shyamala and Donald Harris

The man who could be king, Biden, we are reliably informed, has a tendency to become tongue tied at crucial moments or worse, let slip a few unintended gaffes, and the bright-as-a-button Kamala may not always be by his side to lend a helping hand. The second tranche of sacrificial coconuts might just make the divine difference and tip the balance in favour of the Democrats. That said, the present incumbent at the White House, gunslinger Trump who shoots from the lip, is not going to sit idle and allow the grass to grow under his feet. No siree, Bob! The numbers are not holding out much promise for Team Trump as we speak, but count on the big man to fire on all cylinders when crunch time approaches. Already he has Kamala in his crosshairs, questioning her credentials and right to stand as Biden’s second in command. And Joe Biden himself would be nothing short of cannon fodder for the loquacious President when they go head to head in public debates. Expect more fireworks. The best Biden and Kamala can hope for is even bigger gaffes from Trump for them to capitalize on. Which is entirely on the cards. All told, exciting times loom large.

In the meanwhile, during the coming weeks in the run up to the elections, I fully expect a slew of Kamala Harris’ friends and relatives, real or imagined, to come crawling out of the woodwork. Uncles and aunts recollecting misty-eyed, their frequent visits to the Gopalan household, meals enjoyed, regaled by Sivaji Ganesan films at the Midland theatre, elevated by an M.S. Subbulakshmi kutcheri at the Academy, little Kamala and her sister Maya paying a rare visit to Madras and everyone trying to teach them to lisp in Tamil and appreciate the eternal joys of thayir saadam – so many lovely moments to recollect and the social media avariciously taking it all in and spewing it all out. Mark my words, all this will and must happen. After all, how often does one get an opportunity here in India to celebrate in anticipation, the ascension of someone of Tamilian descent (all right, half-Tamilian) to the position of Vice-President of the US of A and, potentially, could actually move into the White House as POTUS. Mouth-watering prospect. They’ll be dancing on the streets of Mount Road, Madras come November.

KamalaHarris, back row at left,in an undated family photo. Next to her, from left, her grandmother Rajam, grandfather P.V. Gopalan and sister, Maya Harris.
Orthodoxy personified. Kamala (L) with her grandparents and sister Maya (R)

Lest we forget, they will also be dancing on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. After all, Kamala’s other half belongs to that beautiful West Indian island, which the cricket crazy Indians will remember for Sabina Park and the many sporting jousts one has witnessed there. Not to speak of those awe-inspiring names – Frank Worrell, George Headley, Lawrence Rowe, Michael Holding, Jeff Dujon, Chris Gayle and many more. And perhaps, arguably the most famous Jamaican son of all, Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth and reggae king, the late Bob Marley not far behind. Donald Harris may have sung his swan song, ‘Jamaica Farewell,’ many moons ago, but they will celebrate his daughter’s new-found political stardom with a degree of verve and joie de vivre only the West Indians can so inimitably display. And should the Biden-Harris combo actually pull it off, which seems quite probable, given Trump’s pandemic woes coupled with the ongoing poll numbers, there will be high jinx all over Jamaica. As ‘whispering death’ Michael Holding, one of the greatest fast bowlers ever to grace a cricket field, now a highly respected television commentator might put it, ‘Obama opened the floodgates for black people in America. Now it is Kamala’s turn. Trump is clearly on the back foot. Now is the time to deliver that unplayable, toe-crushing yorker. Trump castled, all stumps out of the ground’ (pity I can’t do Holding’s delicious Jamaican accent here).

Guess what I am trying to tell my Tamilian friends is this. She may be called Kamala, but please don’t appropriate everything about her to Tamil Nadu and Madras. Let us share some of the bragging rights with our Jamaican brothers and sisters. Fair is fair. Finally, if the Democrats do oust Donald Trump and come to power, let us hope her Indian antecedents will have some positive bearing on the policy of the United States towards the geo-political dynamics of Asia and the sub-continent in particular. That would be far more significant than contemplating her preference for idli vada sambar over ham and eggs for breakfast.

No full stops on television

Sushant Singh Rajput suicide: Case filed against rumoured ...

Let me confess, straight off the bat, that I have not seen a single movie starring the late Sushant Singh Rajput. Since I have virtually stopped seeing Hindi films after the 70s, even the Shah Rukh Khans, Aamir Khans and Salman Khans have passed me by, like the idle wind. They are a closed book to me. Therefore, when the news broke that the young, aspiring star of the silver screen SSR (let us accord him the honour of an abbreviation, a la SRK) had taken his own life, I received the information with a degree of academic consternation and sadness. What his near and dear ones must be going through can only be imagined. My only recollection of SSR, given my interest in cricket, is confined to the M.S. Dhoni biopic, in which the young actor had portrayed the cricketing legend to wide public acclaim. That must have taken some doing because the immortally abbreviated MSD is a sporting icon the likes of which only a handful of Bollywood actors could have dreamt of coming close to. The actor had much to lose and little to gain in cinematically stepping into the former captain’s big boots. All said and done, the young actor’s untimely and unnatural passing has raised many an eyebrow while the cops across two important states of India are at each other’s throats, accusations and counter accusations flying thick and fast, the air generally reeking of suspected foul play, conspiracy theories, cover ups, financial finaglings and other unsavoury areas of speculation. The incident needed to be reported, given due prominence and thereafter, quietly moved into the background while the investigating authorities did their stuff.

However, that is not the way with our media, and I am here referring to our television news channels in particular. Once they smell scandal, they are like a rabid dog with the bit between its teeth, refusing to let go. For over two months now, virtually every channel has been monomaniacally obsessed with the life and times, not to mention the death and the dubious circumstances surrounding it, of young Sushant Singh Rajput. Covid has become so rampant it has almost ceased to be a talking point, achieving topical herd immunity; Ayodhya, after a brief flourish has taken a back seat; the Rafale jet has all but flown the coop; the fury of the monsoon floods is sporadically featured (to show there’s no ill feeling) and the near-moribund Rajasthan imbroglio has revived briefly thanks to a late intervention by the Gandhi siblings. Add to that the plane crash in Kozhikode, in which less than 20 people died, hence the media lost interest after a couple of days. In fact, I was completely taken aback when one particular channel, known for its undisguised support of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, headed up by an anchor whose second name is Garrulity, completely ignored the Ayodhya fanfare in its prime time show, on the very day the ‘Bhumi Pujan’ was in full swing, with our Prime Minister leading the ceremonies. I could hardly believe my eyes. Has there been a rift in the lute? Is there something amiss? I smell a big, fat bandicoot. Instead the said channel and a few others were reporting, 24 x 7, every single, often irrelevant minutiae of the SSR case. That continues apace even today, over two months after the tragic event. So much so that the average viewer has been completely turned off the subject, and forced to switch channels (if they can find one) to something entirely different, like the audience-deprived, sanitised Test series being played in England against the West Indies (just concluded) and now, Pakistan. Those who are into cable television greatly prefer its variegated options for entertainment of every possible description. I send up a silent prayer of thanks that the IPL has been given the green signal to be played in the Middle East.

Under the circumstances, why would anyone want to gawp, day in and day out, at half a dozen talking heads going hammer and tongs at each other about whether Rhea Chakraborty and her cohorts have stashed away huge sums of money at the expense of the deceased SSR’s recently acquired wealth, or if the poor little rich girl is being made a tragic victim of circumstances and being thrown cruelly to the wolves? Even the actor’s personal diary has been dragged with a fine tooth comb. The debate rages on and moves into more sinister territory suggesting the possibility of foul play with some big names from the film industry being slyly introduced into the discussion. To top it all, it’s now a right royal slanging match between the cops of Bihar and the gendarmes of Mumbai. The gloves are off and it’s a no-holds-barred contest with invective being freely exchanged. How can any channel resist this real life screenplay?

For their part, the television channels claim they are only doing their bounden duty in their attempt to ask the tough questions to help the nation get at the truth. They claim ‘the nation wants to know.’ Frankly I think the nation has had it ‘up to here’ and is sick to the back teeth with all the media hungama. The saving grace is that a couple of channels are still leading their newscasts with the China Syndrome or the continuing Covid crisis, which in their infinite wisdom, they consider more critical to our lives than Rhea Chakraborty’s to-ing and fro-ing from the police station. Who knows, even the Independence Day parade might be given short shrift! To add to the general melee, SSR’s ex-manager, Disha Salian hurls herself off a 14th floor balcony just a few days before the actor’s apparent suicide, setting off further speculation on l’affaire SSR. A new version has it that she might have been raped and pushed off the balcony. As Agatha Christie might have put it, the plot thickens.

While all that is happening, it is not the self-righteous ‘truth seekers’ and their round-the-clock vigil that seems to be taking us nowhere, that gets my goat. The root of the problem, as television consumers, is the sheer inability of the TV producers to cotton on to the fact that there is something called the law of diminishing returns. If they insist on peddling the same thing, at the expense of almost everything else, then surely they must realise that people are going to turn the other way. Speaking for myself, I would much rather scan the morning newspapers to get a noise-free, balanced presentation of the news, which I can read at my own leisure without Arnab, Rajdeep, Sambit, Supriya, Sudhanshu, General Bakshi, the Poonawallas and sundry self-important individuals, all caterwauling and screaming over each other disharmoniously. Interviews with the actor’s physical trainer, gym instructor, head cook and bottle washer – they are all grist to the media’s insatiable mill. I sometimes wonder. Don’t the programme anchors ever watch recorded replays of their programmes? And cringe?* Or have they become completely inured to the madness? Is this the way they wish to project India to its citizens and to the rest of the world?

I have to arrive at the inescapable conclusion that they are fully aware of what they are doing, that it is the only way to increase their TRPs and the concomitant advertising revenues, and they have no intention of changing a winning formula. If that is what their research is telling them, I will have to question the intelligence of the average Indian viewer. Notwithstanding, I will not place the blame at the door of the viewer for his and her appalling taste. It is the programme designers who need to look at themselves critically before screaming from the rooftops that their channel is the most watched (our viewership is 757% more than our nearest rival!). Frankly, who gives a rat’s ass, as the Yanks love saying. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the channel with the lowest viewership probably attracts the most discerning viewers. That’s food for thought. As William Hodding Carter II, turn of the 20th century American author and journalist said, ‘Television news is like a lightning flash. It makes a loud noise, lights up everything around it, leaves everything else in darkness and then is suddenly gone.’

* As we go to press, we hear that Congress spokesperson, Rajiv Tyagi, died suddenly of a cardiac arrest soon after a particularly stormy and acrimonious TV debate. Tragic as that is, for his party members to attribute his untimely demise to the insane verbal fisticuffs on the idiot box, might be stretching things a bit. However, it does tragically underscore the point that we could all do with a bit more civility and decorum on these so-called debates.

Let me have books about me that are fat

Bookworms: Read These Training Books!

I read voraciously. I write obsessively. The reading aids the writing. Any Rushdie will tell you that. The reading bug took hold of me, in a serious way, rather late in life; only about twenty years ago. Prior to that I read fitfully and my oeuvre was largely confined to P.G. Wodehouse and his ilk. The Master of humour wrote, for the most part, in a time-warped bubble of an innocently imagined England of a bygone era. He made me laugh out loud. LOL, as today’s social media generation would have it. And whenever I did write on any subject, Wodehouse’s influence was palpable, an influence I am loath to jettison, though I have striven hard in recent times to develop a voice of my own. Not easy, mind you, but as the poet T.H. Palmer so succinctly put it, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ It can be trying, but one keeps trying, if you catch my drift.

Latterly, I have been devouring the works of many authors, both contemporary and of an earlier vintage. Whether it was Damon Runyon, writing about guys, dolls and wise guys during the notorious prohibition era in America and who, astonishingly, wrote all his short stories entirely in the present tense, or the new age British glamour writers with a more literary bent, like V.S. Naipaul, Martin Amis (son of Kingsley ‘Lucky Jim’ Amis), Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie (I see him as a British Indian, though he became an American citizen in 2016) and a handful of others who keep me elevated and entertained at the same time. One of these days, I’ll get around to Jane Austen – watching Pride and Prejudice or Emma on film doesn’t count. What is more, all of the above named, without exception, can turn out an ineffably beautiful sentence. It comes as no surprise that Salman Rushdie wrote copy for a reputed advertising agency in London, before raking in the shekels as a full time novelist.

That said, there was a notable gap in my reading of this highly decorated author. I was being asked by all and sundry if I had read Salman Rushdie’s 1981 blockbuster classic, Midnight’s Children, his breakthrough novel. Most of those who probed me had not read the book themselves, which I thought was a bit cheeky. I had read about it, of course, and I was reluctant to take the coward’s way out with that well-worn cliché, ‘I’ve seen the film,’ which I haven’t. I kept close tabs on reviews galore and accolades that followed the author, all of which made Salman Rushdie an international celebrity overnight. A few years after Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s fame gravitated into the hallowed space of notoriety when he published The Satanic Verses, which was banned in many countries, including India, as these verses referring to pagan goddesses, were deemed anathema to the Islamic religion. The offending verses were believed to have been inserted by Satan into the Holy Book. Rushdie himself fervently denied any hurt intended or expressed towards the religion and issued an apology, but try telling that to the Ayatollah Khomeini who was not impressed and issued the ‘off-with-his-head’ fatwa. A price was placed on Rushdie’s head by leaders of the Islamic faith. All of which, naturally, made the book even more talked about, and it flew off the shelves like those proverbial hot cakes. If Midnight’s Children altered the course of Rushdie’s life bringing fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, The Satanic Verses brought more fame allied to notoriety, presaging danger to life and limb under the sinister ministrations of religious intolerance and fundamentalism. Like V.S. Naipaul before him, Rushdie’s most trenchant critics invariably never read the book. The poor chap, now a hunted man, had to become incognito and went into hiding for extended periods.

In spite of all this unwanted attention swirling around Rushdie’s head, or perhaps because of it, the Bombay born author became the toast of the literary world while others, more inimically inclined had their knives out and were threatening to turn him into toast! He even appeared in the odd film, most notably a cameo as himself in the hit comedy, Bridget Jones’s Diary. A cause célèbre, our Sir Salman. Yes, the icing on the cake was the knighthood he received for literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2007. ‘Arise, Sir Salman.’, intoned Her Majesty, as she dubbed him Knight. An accolade that was received with unbounded joy by his admirers and, in equal measure, with unconcealed revulsion by those clerics who wanted him put down.

 Such was the ironic existence of this iconoclastic writer. Meanwhile, I was yet to lay my hands on a Salman Rushdie book, and this was beginning to irk and get me talked about in a distinctly patronising manner by the cognoscenti. ‘What are you telling me, you have not yet read Midnight’s Children? And you have the gall to call yourself an aspiring writer? Aspirated writer would be more the mot juste.’ This and variants of the same, I had to put up with on a daily basis. To my biting counter question, ‘Big deal, have you read Midnight’s Children?’ the conversation amongst the literati would adroitly shift to, ‘Is Arundhati Roy’s activism harming her writing?’ or the impending threat to the earth’s green cover or the ozone layer, not that anyone is in the least bit bothered about what happens to the ozone layer, with the exception of a clutch of environmentalists and the polar bear, I am guessing.

To get back to Midnight’s Children, I finally took the bold decision to buy the book. A couple of taps on my desktop keyboard, and the next thing I knew, the Amazon masked man was at our gates with the bulging parcel. I had to keep the bubble wrapped packet in home quarantine for 48 hours thanks to the pandemic, and at last I was able to hold the book in my hands. After riffling through the pages and smelling it, which I do with all new books (a schoolboy habit), I placed it on my work table and carefully considered this voluminous opus. It was a paperback edition, the imported hard cover would have blown a gaping hole in my bank balance. At 650 pages, Midnight’s Children weighed in impressively, easily qualifying as a heavyweight amongst books, literally and metaphorically. Off hand, I can readily think of only Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which packed in substantially more words. So there it was, Midnight’s Children, resting serenely on my bedside table waiting for my studious attention. I let a few days pass, allowing the book to marinate, in a manner of speaking, while I quickly flipped through Wodehouse’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit for the sixth time to get me nicely warmed up for the big ‘un.

The thing of it was that the 650 pages was proving to be a dampening deterrent. I was also concerned that long periods of holding the book in my hands could cause irreparable harm to my wrists, particularly the carpal and scaphoid bones, which need to be in mint condition to do pretty much anything mundane and routine. Every now and then, I would gently lift the book up, lower it down and put it back on the table, weighing up the options, thinking I would come back when I was good and ready. To read a book of the heft of Midnight’s Children, you need to be physically in shipshape order and mentally agile. Under such arduously challenging circumstances, procrastination was an easy option. ‘Let the weekend pass,’ I would mutter to myself, ‘and I should be prepared to dive headlong into it from Monday.’ Any time but now, about summed up my state of mind.

What is it about fat volumes that turns one off so? Whereas other past best-sellers like Love Story and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull barely went beyond 140 pages before Messers Erich Segal and Richard Bach decided to down tools. Lazy sods! Of course, Love Story was merely an unabashedly lachrymose tear jerker with a great opening line, and I cannot possibly place Erich Segal’s pot boiler alongside Rushdie’s monumental MC. It was just this illogical mental block that kept me from picking up MC and giving Rushdie the once over. Finally, finally I took courage in my hands and decided to break the deadlock. I started reading the blasted thing, digging in for the long haul. Let me quickly add, right here and now, lest you get ideas, that I am not going to talk about the book’s contents or even remotely attempt to review or critique it. I simply do not possess the literary or intellectual wherewithal. Suffice to say that, far from being a plodding, tedious drudge that books in excess of 500 pages usually turn out to be, this one was a blast. I finished the book in six days flat, far from my original apprehension of having to pore over it in instalments over six months. Put me in mind of Wodehouse’s wry observation that the problem with Russian novels was that you had to plough through 400 pages before the first murder took place in some remote gulag! Not so with Rushdie’s MC. I did not experience that sinking feeling that I had just run the marathon and collapsed unconscious at the end of it. Far from it. It helped greatly that the story was set in the Indian sub-continent, the protagonist taking us on a rip-roaring, hair-raising journey beginning ‘at the stroke of the midnight hour’ on August 15, 1947, all the way down to the Indira Gandhi dynasty’s shenanigans. The novel was a heady combination of ‘magic realism and historiographic metafiction’, as described by some literary pundit, and who am I to argue with that? That’s about as much as I am willing to divulge.

As for the 650 pages of Salman Rushdie’s brilliance, having gone through it like a breeze, I have drastically revised my biased opinion on fat books. Other than the fact that they pose serious problems in terms of space management in my home library, not to mention wrist sprain, I shall now warmly welcome corpulent tomes into my humble abode, without prejudging them purely on the basis of their obesity. To conclude, I can do no better than to quote Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, ‘Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look……..Let me have men about me that are fat.’ My thoughts exactly, Julius. Only, my thoughts extend to the rarefied world of books.

Mind your language. Mind it, I say!

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor (1964).
Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) coaching Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in My Fair Lady

 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:1–9.

According to the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, there are 22 languages officially listed and recognised in India. Unofficially, other sources credit our polyglot nation with figures running into well over a staggering 1500 languages, but this is almost certainly a gross misinterpretation that includes derivatives, dialects and local patois that differ from district to district and sometimes, even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in the same town or city. Biblical references to the Tower of Babel only partially tell us why the world is possessed of so many linguistic variations, though India is not, unsurprisingly, included in its theological proclamations. Small wonder then, that ‘the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.’ Without getting into a needless mental twist over it, we will accord due respect to our Constitution and stick to the stated 22 languages which, quite honestly, should be enough to be getting along with.

My current focus however, is not so much to get into the nitty-gritty of the intricacies and nuances of India’s linguistic multiplicity, but to take a somewhat left field, light hearted look at how English is spoken in different parts of our country, and how certain English phrases and expressions have been given a uniquely Indian flavour, which owes much to the idiosyncrasies of a particular regional tongue, as it could be Tamil, Bengali or Hindi, to cite three examples I am familiar with. The exercise here is to highlight some of the more commonly heard Indo-English phrases, a kind of pidgin combo, that tellingly mark out a person as hailing from this or that state. To give you a sampler, I might add that even the word ‘hailing’ which I just employed in the previous sentence is more commonly used in India (in that context), particularly in the south, than even in the United Kingdom. For instance, if you approached Mr. Ramaswamy from Tamil Nadu and ask him where he comes from, more often than not he is likely to respond by saying, ‘Sir, I hail from Madurai.’ The pride conveyed in pinpointing the place of origin in his voice is unmistakable. What’s more, Mr. Ramaswamy is likely to sniff in a superior manner if you told him you ‘hail’ from neighbouring Dindigul. As for my Bengali dentist, Mr. Ghosh, he would probe into my cavity with a sharp, pointy instrument and inquire solicitously if I felt any ‘pen’ and proceed to write out a prescription with his Sheaffer fountain ‘pain.’ Altogether a most ‘penful’ experience.

With that brief background let us dive headlong into our subject matter. A caveat. This is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive list (none exists, as far as I know). Au contraire, they are merely turns of phrase or expressions taken arbitrarily out of my own memory bank. It can only be roughly representative. I have selected three languages to illustrate the essence of this piece – Bengali, Tamil and Hindi. I am sure you, dear reader, can add your own list culled from your personal experience. That said, here goes nothing.

Although born into a Tamil speaking family, I spent close to five decades in the mock-modestly named City of Joy – Calcutta. The steaming, teeming metropolis has now been officially accorded its original Bengali moniker, Kolkata, but I make no apology for referring to it as Calcutta, or even the colloquially anglicised, Cal. Old habits die hard. One of the many joys of living in that vibrant city is that you have no option but to learn to speak Bengali. A Dada ektu please here, a Dada khoob dhannobad there, they all add up and contribute towards keeping the wheels of progress well oiled. After all, even the regal former Indian cricket skipper (potentially a future Chief Minister), Sourav Ganguly, was known the world over as simply, Dada.  (Geoff Boycott has sole rights to the sobriquet, ‘The Prince of Calcutta.’)

A majority of the non-Bengali population who lived and worked in Calcutta spoke the local lingo with varying degrees of competence. A peculiar avenue of pleasure was to listen to the average Bengali, not the burra sahib corporate type who wined and dined at the upper-crust Bengal Club and spoke the Queen’s English while spearing into his grilled salmon. Rather, I am speaking of your everyday Bengali babu sitting behind a grimy, termite ravaged table in a bank, post office or even an advertising agency, often clad in the traditional dhuti panajbi. This sturdy son of the soil was never happier than when showing off his unique brand of English, while helping himself to a paper bag full of jhal muri (spiced puffed rice), dragging on a Charminar, swatting flies and keeping his perspiration under control with his hand held bamboo fan and a moist hand towel – all the while shaking his legs and even his entire body in a furious metronomic rhythm, a typically unconscious, nervous habit that evidently aids concentration!

Here’s the bank clerk – ‘Ore, Shubromonyom Saheb, please wait moshai! It is only ten phiphtin am. Will phinish my cha and carrom board game. You want Passh Book aapdate? Shamay laagbe. Reelax. You want matka cha? Bhery bhery teshty. Why you must hurry burry? Taara kisher? Always you want to raan raan raan. Ektu boshun. Read Teshmann pepper. Gabhashkar century mereche, aar Bishonath wattay stylish tharty phor, umpire phaltu elbeedubloo diyeche, shuar ka baccha! Tomorrow, amader jamai babu, Prosonno bowling korben. Daroon oph- speen bowler, saala.’ (Note: Prasanna was married to a Bengali which gave him special bragging rights in the affections of the Bengali populace).

My advertising agency Studio Manager – ‘Mister Shuresh Babu, what you are thinking? This is joke or what? Why you are so narvaas? You are saabmitting requisition today and you want phinished artwork tomorrow? Baa, baa, khoob bhaalo. I am not P.C. Shorkar for doing magic. What? Client is souting? You tell client, “Baadi jao.” What she is thinking about himself? Saala! Ek second. Oueels Filter aachhe? Give me two, bhaalo chhele. Khoob cheshta korbo my lebhel best to give artwork tomorrow.’

Two Wills Filter fags and you were home and dry. You would have observed that my ad agency studio manager had problems distinguishing the genders when speaking in English. This is a characteristic trait in Bengal. They get the ‘he’ and ‘she’ mixed up, primarily because the Bengali language does not make the distinction. Their gender is neutral, hence the confusion, which manifests itself when they speak English.

When it comes to Tamil, my mother tongue, I have always been grateful to my parents that they insisted on their children conversing in Tamil at home, as far as possible. I emphasise this because my younger brother and I spent much of our childhood in a predominantly English speaking boarding house, and left to our devices, we might have paid scant attention to Tamil. My older brother had no such issues since he grew up in Madras and was fluent in the local lingo. That said, your average Mr. Everyman in Tamil Nadu, possessed a strange penchant for injecting his Tamil sentences with a generous dose of his own brand of English. From the bus conductor who signals his driver to move on with a stentorian ‘Right, right,’ to the classic ‘Romba thanks,’ which is an indelible part of our lexicon.

Our General Physician, Dr. Srinivasan – ‘Hullo, young man. Enna problem? Stomachaa? Loose motionaa? Open your mouth, aaaaa kami. Good. Feverish? No? (places thermometer under my tongue, and hums a snatch of Bhairavi while waiting). Mild joram. Slight infection irukku. Nothing to worry. Strict diet for three days, okayaa? Plenty of fluids and buttermilk, seriyaa? Entero Quinol tablet prescribe pannaren. You can go.’ (As I leave, the good doctor begins to render, under his breath, Tyagaraja’s immortal Entero Mahanubhavulu in the raga Shree).

My father, a scrupulously upright banker (pouring his woes to my mother) – ‘That union leader Brahma, avan oru suddha blackguard! He should be called Brahmmahatthi. Cantankerous madayat*. 20% bonus declare pannalenna strike threaten pannaran, bloody fool of an ass. He thinks he is a periya pista, arrogant fellow. Mannangatti. Tomorrow naan Chairmana confront panna poren. He should be sacked, this Brahma idiot, illenna ennoda resignation letter readiyya irukku.’ (*Madayat, an ingenious combo of ‘madayan’ and ‘idiot,’ both meaning the same thing.)

At which point, my mother’s face turns ashen and she hares off to the kitchen, before the milk boils over.

To conclude, a brief look at our rashtra bhasha. Many regions, notably from the south, railed against the imposition of Hindi as the national language, but over time, they have all come to accept it as a necessary evil. Stands to reason. You can’t go around enjoying the antics of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, keep singing Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar hits on social media, and not accept the language. Once again, I turn to my departed father. Despite his lengthy innings in Calcutta, there was no way he was going to learn to speak Bengali. That said, for the sake of survival, he was more than willing to struggle gamely with Hindi, grammar can take a back seat. And the devil take the hindmost! Here he is, taking our Bihari driver to task in chaste Hinglish! Shades of Mehmood in Padosan.

‘Again, tum itna late aata hai. Humka office meeting mein bahut delay ho gaya. Aisa karne se kaisa hoga? This is not good, Mr. Shiv Prasad, acchha nahin, bahut karaab. Punctuality bahut important. Once more aisa karne se strong action lena padega. Yeh final warning. Tum jaa sakta.’

That was about as tough as my father got with the domestics. The ultimate irony of all this is that most Indians will look askance at you should you attempt to speak proper English. As for those ne’er do wells who keep mocking me for employing words and phrases that are rarely used and bracketing me with the bombastic Shashi Tharoor, my stinging riposte is, ‘The words and phrases are there, somebody’s got to use them.’ I’ll leave the final word to Shaw’s immortal creation, Professor Henry Higgins –

Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning
The Hebrews learn it backwards
Which is absolutely frightening
But use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak

If that makes me a freak, so be it. As my Bengali bank clerk might have pithily put it, ‘What goes my father, saala!’

Manu Chhabria, the marketing maverick

Manohar (Manu) Rajaram Chhabria (1946 – 2002), or MRC, was perhaps the most discussed business tycoon during the ‘80s and’90s. Rising like a Phoenix from the electronics shops of Lamington Road in Mumbai, the mercurial corporate gadfly dropped anchor in Dubai, founding his flagship Jumbo Electronics. Whence he proceeded on an acquisition spree of blue chip companies during the latter half of the ‘80s. Shaw Wallace, Dunlop, Mather & Platt, Hindustan Dorr Oliver and Gordon Woodroffe were among his stunning trophies. The Indian media couldn’t get enough of him. He was their controversial poster boy, headlining the business narrative.

MRC was a one-off. They broke the mould after him. No respecter of reputations, he would freely speak his mind, often in a tone and language that would make an inebriated sailor blush. His fellow corporate honchos, many of them captains of industry in their own right, never quite knew what to make of him. He kept them constantly off kilter. Utterly charming one minute, apt to fly off the handle the next. A chronic diabetic, he would lapse into fits of choleric rage at the slightest provocation. A Janus faced chameleon. A PR manager’s nightmare.

MRC was nothing if not compelling. He had his own, self- taught way of expressing himself. His English was not straight out of the hallowed portals of Oxbridge, but you had no trouble following his thought process, once you got past the polyglot sprinkling of profanity. Or perhaps, because of it! He was always nattily turned out, blue pinstripes being a particular favourite. The vertiginous vicissitudes of his journey have been well documented, and do not bear repetition. Suffice to say that his meteoric rise and untimely demise are now an indelible part of India’s business and corporate folklore.

This piece describes an extremely personal and unique experience that your chronicler had with MRC. One of many, but one that accurately portrays the man’s native sapience and brilliant turn of originality.

It was mid -1987. Manu Chhabria had wrested total management control of Dunlop India in Calcutta, the consequence of an uneasy partnership with a reputed industrial group. I was a middle level manager, looking after advertising at the tyre major. Normally, I would have least expected the Chairman of the Board to want to interact with someone of my humble station. He had Directors and Vice Presidents aplenty at his beck and call. But call me he did, and what followed is the prime raison d’etre for this amusing anecdote. Allowing for some inevitable garnishing, the telling is accurate. I remember it vividly.

On the day prior to our scheduled meeting, MRC’s secretary called me up to say that he would meet me at his plush, oak-panelled office in Shaw Wallace in Bankshall Street, Calcutta. I was commanded to make a presentation of Dunlop’s recent advertising campaigns, after which he wished to brief me on a highly confidential project. The meeting was scheduled for 11 am. We met at 6 pm, which was par for the course with him. To his credit, he inquired solicitously if I had lunched. I answered in the affirmative, and he waved to me to proceed. On asking him if anyone else was attending the meeting he responded tartly, “Is the Chairman of the company not good enough for you?” That went straight home and rammed me in the solar plexus, and I learnt a salutary lesson – do not ask needless questions.

I proceeded to take him through the recent history of Dunlop’s advertising. The presentation was made with the aid of a Kodak Carousel projector with a tray containing 80 plastic mounted slides. We were still eons away from laptops and Windows Power Point. As the room was darkened, the better to read the slides and view the pictures, I couldn’t actually see my boss’s face. While I kept droning on about radial tyres and market shares, there would emanate from his direction, a gentle, rythmic snore. At first, I thought it was a stray gnat or bee or some such winged insect, come to join the proceedings. When I realized, it was the Chairman enjoying his post prandial nap, I would stop my rambling, and wait uneasily for him to wake up. Given his impossible flight schedules, I was attributing his nodding-off to jet lag. When he realized my comforting, soporific prattle had abruptly ceased, he would open his eyes and bid me to carry on, adding gratuitously, “Sometimes, the presentation gets boring, so I just close my eyes. But you just go ahead. I am absorbing everything. You are doing a good job.”

In this strange manner, we continued for another half hour or so, when he abruptly stood up and announced, “That will do. I get the general idea. I will come and see you in Dunlop tomorrow on a most important matter.” I was relieved to have been stopped in my tracks. Tomorrow is another day. The venue for our meeting was shifted to the Shaw Wallace HQ, though I would have preferred to beard the lion in my own den at Dunlop House. Slotted for 12 noon, the Chairman waltzed in ‘promptly’ at 4pm, with a couple of obsequious henchmen in tow. I took the strategic precaution of requesting a creative boffin from our advertising agency to accompany me, but only after timorously seeking MRC’s assent, lest he should rap me on the knuckles for being presumptuous. With the benefit of hindsight, it turned out to be a wise decision.

He got straight to the point. “The Chhabria Group is to make a presentation to the Board of Directors of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. In Hong Kong. We are seeking some financial gearing from them, and need to make a favourable impression. I want you to produce a film on our Group that will impress the hell out of them. You have exactly 15 days.” I was foxed and flustered. Some brief this! It was brief all right, but I was struggling. What about the content? Where will I get all the information? What tack should I take? He could sense my discomfiture. “Oh don’t worry, my dear. I will instruct my CEOs to give you all the information you want. For now, you are the boss, as I will be away in Dubai.”

“Thank you Sir,” I sputtered. “Given the tight schedule, I may have to bring the film directly to Hong Kong.” He winked at me knowingly and said, “Trip maarna hai, kya? No problem. You come.” I stuck my neck out and said, “Sir, it would help if you could let me know what kind of people will be sitting on that board, so I can capture the right tone.” I thought he was about to explode, as patience was not one of the Chairman’s prominent virtues. Surprisingly, he turned all amicable and said, “That is a very good point, mere dost. I think we understand each other. Ok, I will tell you what I want.”

“I am going to talk to you about suits,’ he opened, opaquely. “Not the legal types, but the suits we wear. See, if I want to get myself a smashing suit, I can approach three different types of tailors.” I was not sure where he was going with this, but I found myself, ridiculously, writing the words ‘pinstripes’ and ‘charcoal grey’ in my notepad. The sartorial angle was rife with creative possibilities. My ad agency friend went all rigid early in the proceedings. Rigor mortis had set in. He had never attended a meeting like this in his young life.

Mr. Chhabria pressed on, warming to his subject. “You can go to a highly respected tailor like Barkat Ali in Calcutta. He will take your measurements, call you for a trial one week later. Are you following me so far?” “Yes Sir,” I said dubiously, illegibly scribbling words like ‘Barkat Ali,’ ‘one week trial’ and similar inanities. He continued. “When you wear this suit and walk down Park Street, people will stop you and go, ‘Arre wah Chhabria Saheb, what a lovely suit. Must be Barkat Ali’s.’ You get my point?”  I nodded weakly. My legs had turned to jelly.

“Now imagine a Chinese tailor, Ching Chong Cho in Hong Kong,” he continued animatedly. He was in his elements. “You can go to his showroom on Nathan Road, get measured out at 11 am, come back at 2 pm for a trial fit out, and collect the finished suit the same evening. Next morning, when you walk down Causeway Bay, people will look at you admiringly and say, ‘What a fantastic suit, Mr. Chhabria, must be Ching Chong Cho’s.’ Are you still with me, young man?” I was with him all right, literally, but still groping. However, I was starting to get the drift. I was all intense concentration, my eyebrows knit so close together they had become one straight line!

“Finally,” said the Chairman, shooting his cuffs excitedly, ostentatiously revealing his luxury Patek Phillipe chronometer. “Gieves & Hawkes of No.1 Savile Row, one of the most famous tailors in the world. They make suits for billionaires and royalty.  They will decide if you are fit to wear one of their suits. Get my meaning? Naturally, they will accept someone like me, but not you,” he said, reassuringly. “They will take their own sweet time for trial and delivery. Otherwise, they will politely show you the door. When you finally wear the suit, and take a stroll down Regent Street, the English gentlemen will nod in silent approval. No word spoken. Now, do you understand what I am talking about, meri jaan?”

“I think I get it, Sir. You are looking for understated elegance. Rather like the British directors you will be meeting at The Hong Kong Bank.”

Mr. Chhabria stood up, pumped my hands warmly and said, “Corrrrrrrect, my friend. You have fully understood my thinking. Now I have nothing to worry about.” We were shown out of the office. My ad agency friend made straight for the nearest bar.

The film got made in ten days flat. The content of the film, the group company results and so on were totally irrelevant. When we played it to the predominantly British members of the Hong Kong Bank board, a couple of whom were Peers of the Realm, they loved it for the background score containing some of the finest passages from the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin et al. They warmly congratulated Mr. Chhabria, and I was on cloud nine for the next few weeks.

I have no idea if Mr. Chhabria’s financial objectives with the Bank were met as a result of my efforts. I rather doubt it, given the way things unravelled later on for him, his rivals wallowing in their schadenfreude. This much, however, I can say. Nobody that I can think of could have provided such a uniquely original brief for such an important presentation. Granted it was all instinctive, gut feel, seat-of-the pants stuff, but it was completely out of the box, and enabled those of us receiving his instruction, to get inside his mind and deliver a product that made sense and everyone happy. If I had my way, I would have this experience included as a case study at all our leading management schools.

Extracted from my book ‘A brush with Mr. Naipaul (and other stories).’

Congressman Sanjay Jha – the last straw?

CWC should have maximum Eleven Members suggests Congress ...

       It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Old proverb.

The Grand Old Party is shedding young and bright talent with metronomic regularity; like it’s going out of fashion. Troubling times ahead with dark clouds gathering over the horizon. Some of the more prominent faces who have been given ‘the big ignore,’ and elected to exit stage left (pursued by a bear) include the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia and Hemanta Biswa Sarma, who have seamlessly walked into the loving and capacious arms of the ruling BJP. To the Congress Party’s predictably boring accusations of chicanery and skulduggery on BJP’s part, the latter have invariably responded by expostulating, ‘What do you want us to do if you are unable to mind your own house, and the disaffected young Turks choose to move in with us?’ That’s a tried and tested response by the ruling party, while the Congress in its chagrin, flails its arms in righteous and helpless indignation.

As we pen this missive (or depress the keys at any rate), another young Congress Turk, Sachin Pilot, finds himself at odds with his erstwhile, long-in-the-tooth chums at his party in the state of Rajasthan. The state’s Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, has even gone so far as to accuse Sachin Pilot of being young, good looking and blessed with an ability to speak good English! Case closed. Top that for damning with faint praise. Matters have come to a pretty pass, such that eminent lawyers in flowing black silk and judges donning white wigs (speaking metaphorically) are flailing their own arms in court, adducing arguments suggesting foul play on Chief Minister Gehlot’s part, while the CM’s legal counsel are not to be found wanting in the arms-flailing department in defence of the canny, veteran Chief Minister. Everything said and done, it’s clearly open season for arms flailing.

A quick aside is in order at this point. How and why did the term ‘young Turk’ come about? I am at a complete loss to ascertain the etymology of this expression. Google is parsimonious with its explanation, merely confining itself to saying the term ‘young Turk’ is employed ‘to signify a progressive, revolutionary or rebellious member of an organisation, political party, especially one agitating for political reform.’ Most of the rebels we have come across are agitated primarily in the matter of career advancement, or rather, the lack of it. Witness Sachin Pilot’s recent saga. I guess I will have to dig deeper into Turkish history to glean arcane facts, possibly about some firebrand youngster in Istanbul who set himself aflame for a noble cause. For the moment I will live with that imagined explanation of my own making.

To revert to the point at issue, while seeking your indulgence for that brief Turkish diversion, the latest Congress worker, another bright young spark (57 can be considered young by political standards), Sanjay Jha, has decided to go on the front foot in his denunciation of his party, though he fully anticipates a swift expulsion from the high command any time now. Sanjay Jha was once a cricket writer and has written a cricket anthology titled, ‘11 Triumphs, Trials and Turbulence: Indian Cricket 2003-2010.’ That being the case, playing on the front or back foot should come naturally to him and he has put his podiatric agility to good use during his still maturing political career which may, for the nonce, have ground to a screeching halt. While it is debatable how many triumphs he has experienced, there is little doubt that he is facing considerable trials and turbulence at this point in time, stemming primarily from what is being seen by his party apparatchiks as his intemperate and untimely remarks about the Congress’ ongoing troubles. For a politician who, as one of the party’s spokespersons, has been indefatigably eloquent on our television news channels on a variety of issues in defence of his party and the Gandhis, which is the same thing, his current fall from grace is a telling commentary on the Congress party’s firm resolve to root out dissent in any way, shape or form. From being removed as one of the party’s mouthpieces he has subsequently been suspended and, by his own admission, is in clear and present danger of being shunted out from the party altogether. Overly fond of the phrase ‘end of day,’ let’s hope the expression does not come back to haunt Mr. Jha.

Sanjay Jha, incidentally, is not new to controversy. In a series of gaffes over the years, he has claimed that BJP veteran, firebrand Subramanian Swamy was a CIA agent, a faux pas for which he had to issue an unqualified apology ; non-compliance would have denuded his bank balance to the tune of a few crores. Prudently, he said sorry. Further, his description of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as India’s ‘weakest PM,’ drew BJP’s intense ire and found even his own Congress party deep inside the crease on the back foot, to stay with the cricketing metaphor. He also made this strange comment that the current PM Narendra Modi ‘has white hair, but he sounds more like a blonde.’ Exactly what he meant is hard to fathom as no elaboration or reference to context was forthcoming. It’s a good job, while on the PM, that Jha has refrained from invoking the tiresome ‘56 inch chest’ analogy, as that is the registered copyright of his soon to be ex- boss, Rahul Gandhi. Clearly Jha’s contrition is now beginning to manifest itself in the form of a strong antipathy towards the Congress and, who knows, presaging yet another young Turk (there we go again) gravitating towards the leviathan BJP. After all, in politics the past is past and only the present counts. Even Sachin Pilot’s earnest denials about moving to the BJP tend to sound much like Lady Gertrude in Hamlet, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’

Consistent with his outré observations, Sanjay Jha concluded a recent piece in the Times of India, a coruscating commentary on his party’s decline and inevitable fall with the elliptical words, ‘Everything has an end, only the sausage has two.’ A master of inexplicable one-liners, our man Flint! The mind boggles as one gropes for a plausible interpretation of this aphorism. The source is evidently from the Germans, who consume more sausages than we have hot dinners – ‘Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.’ The translation has already been helpfully provided by the latest rebel in town, Sanjay J. That said, the bizarre significance of the sausage motif continues to elude me. Why sausage, what is so peculiar about its two ends, and what has all this got to do with the price of fish? Let ‘end of day’ Jha fill in the blanks.

It was never my intention to flatter Mr. Jha by devoting so much column space to him. This may be interpreted as purely symbolic of the Congress party’s ongoing contretemps with its young, ambitious and articulate brigade. A man with far greater political nous and experience, Pawan Varma, a former civil servant whose studied and scholarly observations can be read in our leading papers and seen frequently on television news channels (whenever he can get a word in edgewise, thanks to some of our obstreperous anchors), had some pearls of wisdom to impart, once again in The Times of India. This is as lustrous a pearl as any to sum up the Congress Party’s dilemma, the horns of which are now beginning to cause irreparable hurt – ‘The basic truth is that the party is now held hostage to a family that could only take its total tally from a shocking 44 to 52 over two general elections. Who will win a Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest is a no-brainer. The ‘grand old party’ needs a fundamental revamp, in its leadership and organisational apparatus, to create a credible opposition, which any democracy needs. Congress members must realise that to ask for change is not subversive; nor is blind endorsement of the status quo, loyalty. Frankly, it is now or never.’

We know Elvis Presley has the rights to that concluding line, but you said a mouthful there, Pawan ji.

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard raise a stink

Johnny Depp's security guard sent in to 'extract the boss' during ...

In the great Hollywood tradition of larger-than-life heroes and grungy anti-heroes, Johnny Depp has established himself as an actor of immense talent, gifted with an ability to perform any number of multifarious roles. His chameleon like change of personality has, in recent times, endeared himself to his multitude of fans. At once a sex symbol and an anti-hero, Depp is any director’s dream star, seeking a younger version of De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino – icons of the 70s and 80s. Depp’s stand out performances in films like Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Donnie Brasco, Finding Neverland et al, have marked him out as a silver screen thespian, whose movies fans would pay good money to watch, simply because he is in it. Rather like those other veteran actors mentioned. Such is his effulgent star value. In that respect he rubs shoulders comfortably with the likes of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, among the present day pecking order.

That said, Johnny Depp off screen, never seems to be out of the news headlines. Sadly, for all the wrong reasons. His much publicised flirtations with drugs and alcohol are well recorded and have landed him frequently in the soup. He has had to face the long arm of the law on more than a few occasions particularly with respect to his relationship with women. To top it all, he has also been at odds with the police over violent behaviour in public places, including damage to public property. One time, he was pulled up by Australian customs officials for bringing two Yorkshire terriers into the country in his private jet without proper paper work. He issued a strangely craven apology while praising Australia’s biodiversity! To describe Depp as mercurial would be an understatement. Clearly it doesn’t take much to inflame him and if not for his extraordinary talent and box office appeal, many producers and directors would not have touched him with a barge pole. Shades of the eccentric Marlon Brando, to whom the producers were reluctant to offer the role of Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather! A compelling, if unpredictable star, our Johnny Depp.

However the latest brouhaha hitting the headlines pertains to his disturbed relationship with his estranged wife, American actress Amber Heard (who accompanied him, along with the Yorkshire terriers, to Australia). The couple were involved in a stormy marriage which inevitably ended in divorce. For reasons not entirely clear, fiery court proceedings are presently in progress in London. Why two American stars should be fighting a legal battle in the United Kingdom is a bit a mystery, but not very relevant to our story. I am sure there’s a good reason. I was struck by a headline that went something like, ‘Johnny Depp accuses Amber Heard and her unnamed friend of defecating on their hotel bed.’ I first thought the word ‘defecting’ was wrongly printed as ‘defecating,’ but that wouldn’t have made sense either. In the event, it was shit that hit the fan! Amber first tried to pin the blame on their furry Yorkies, but analysts who examined the poop with a microscope cleared the house trained canines of any wrongdoing. The evacuated detritus was declared unequivocally human. This scatological introduction into the legal proceedings must have raised more than a few eyebrows at the frosty, stiff-upper-lip Old Bailey. I can even now hear the sitting judge muttering, ‘I say, must we soil this august court’s reputation with the minutiae of who soiled the linen? A bit thick, what?’ It is also rumoured, though I can’t confirm this, that the harassed judge, forgetting himself while ordering silence in the court exhorted, ‘Ordure, ordure.’

Quite so, but then the pivot of Johnny Depp’s case is that if his wife had to move her bowels, did she (or her mystery friend) have to do it on their nuptial bed? In Depp’s elliptical words, ‘I thought it was an oddly fitting end to our relationship.’ Their hotel room had been provided, as you might expect, with a luxury toilet equipped with all manner of receptacles for precisely such a purpose, which your average Joe wouldn’t even know what to do with. For instance, I have always been of the opinion that a bidet is superfluous and surplus to requirements, but I guess it keeps the ceramics industry afloat. Getting back to the res, the hotel staff were not best pleased, and who can blame them? A housemaid at the hotel where the Depps were in residence, when questioned, was less than clear in her pronouncements owing to the fact that she had her nostrils tightly shut with her fingers to visually demonstrate her olfactory disgust, thus making her speech unintelligibly nasal. It is my impression that this particular maid may have, by now, changed jobs and moved to another hotel where guests knew the difference between a double bed and a toilet or bidet – the former to sleep in and the latter to indulge in one’s bodily ablutions.

The case is ongoing and until the snoops can establish the culprit and find an answer to the vexed question, ‘Who is the bed-shitter?’ the Depp fanatics will just have to keep chewing their fingernails and wait patiently. While there may have been many important behavioural reasons that could have been the cause of great mental anguish to the aggrieved parties, leading to an improbable court case, the introduction of the faeces motif appears to have caught the prurient attention of the media more than anything else. I can even now visualise headline writers rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation. ‘Amber moves bowels; Depp moves courts; Judge condemns excrescence over excrement.’ Such is the excremental state of the world, alas! There’s Covid19 and other viruses, real or imagined, raging across the globe, Test matches being played without a soul in the stands, armed and unarmed conflicts across borders, warships taking up adversarial positions in hitherto friendly seas, the United Nations struggling to keep nations united, Trump and Xi Jinping going eyeball to eyeball and yet, the world’s media are quite happy to lead their stories with the Depp – Heard shit storm! Ah well, I guess the world needs its stinky diversions.

Here in India, we don’t lack for sidebar stories as well. The saga of cop killer Vikas Dubey being on the run, ultimately brought to book and sent on his way to perdition (under arguably dubious circumstances) had our television channels in a right royal tizzy 24 x 7. Now that he is dead, the story will gradually fade into oblivion. Bollywood’s Bachchans, en famille, tested positive for Covid19, and that dominated the headlines for the next couple of days, with the senior Bachchan himself addressing his fawning fans from his hospital bed, all trussed up and bandaged. The Gehlot government in Rajasthan faced an internal revolt led by young Turk Sachin Pilot and the BJP bore the brunt for the Congress Party’s discomfiture (surprise, surprise) and in the midst of all this, the pandemic rages on with gusto with a promise to peak, decline and fall in a couple of months from now. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, ‘In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists.’ The Mahatma was an incurable optimist. We live in more cynical times.

Who’s WHO?

Taiwan and World Health Organisation trade barbs over early ...

The following conversation was overheard between two elderly gentlemen sitting on a park bench, after their evening constitutional. Obviously they were wearing masks and were perched at the two ends of the bench, respecting social distancing etiquette during these dystopian times. This necessitated their having to speak in a much louder voice than would have been the norm, exacerbated by the fact that one of the two spavined septuagenarians was hard of hearing. It is a well-established medical fact that those who are partially or stone deaf tend to speak the loudest, in the mistaken belief that the recipient of their pearls of wisdom is equally deaf. In turn, the person who is blessed with reasonably normal auditory functions, feels obliged to raise his voice several notches seeing as he is speaking to a handicapped individual. All this enabled the recorder and reporter of this conversation, sitting alone on an adjoining park bench with a newspaper spread across his face to cover his curiosity and identity, to hear every word as clear as a bell. Thankfully, his hearing was totally unimpaired, and he was able to enjoy this elevating give and take, cut and thrust that so enlivens an exchange of views amongst our senior citizens.

‘You know Chatterjee, I don’t much care for this chap who heads up WHO.’


‘That’s right. This chap called Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He is an Ethiopian. He is the Director General of the World Health Organisation, WHO.’


‘Can you please adjust your earplugs, Chatterjee? I am talking about this Ghebreyesus fellow. The guy who is the boss at WHO.’

‘Oh, that WHO. I get it. What don’t you like about him, Narayanan?’

‘His name, for a start. Impossible to pronounce and for you, impossible to hear. What’s more, he is forever groaning and moaning about the Covid19 pandemic. Never has anything positive to say. The only positive thing he talks about is the quantum jump in the number of positive cases worldwide, and how we are all destined to suffer for a very long time before things get better, if they do at all. Who wants that?’

‘WHO wants that? Surely not.’

‘Gosh, this conversation is already tiring me out. No, no, pin your ears back, Chatterjee, and listen carefully. What I meant was, when these experts talk about infection figures and so on, positive is negative and negative is positive. And Ghebrewhoever is always playing the harbinger of doom role to a nicety. Never has anything positive to say. Or do I mean negative? Whatever. Altogether a gloomy cove, as Bertie Wooster might have put it.’


‘Never mind.’

‘Who is saying all these positive negative things, Narayanan?’

‘That’s right, Chatterjee. WHO is saying all these positive negative things. Mainly this Gheb chap. At last the penny drops.’

‘But tell me Narayanan, why does this Gebresellasie character moan so much?’

‘For crying out loud, not Gebresellasie, who was an Ethiopian long-distance runner, Olympic gold medallist. No less. He had nothing to moan about. Always smiling he was, showing his pearly teeth. This Ghebrewhatsit is the WHO guy.’


‘Exactly. What is more, WHO initially gave China a clean chit on this whole pandemic imbroglio. In spite of the Wuhan mess.’

‘Who gave a clean chit?’

‘Exactly. WHO did. And that was the main cause of the spread of the Covid19 virus. Now WHO is backpedalling furiously, trying to make amends. And they have now become prophets of doom. Particularly this Ghebgawdhelpus. He should be wearing sackcloth and ashes. His latest salvo is to warn us of the virus being airborne, scary droplets floating around all over the place. In the old days, the Kings and Emperors had a short way with harbingers of bad news. Chop chop.’

‘Who did?’

‘WHO didn’t. I am talking of Kings and Emperors. Don’t you hear anything I say, Chatterjee?’

‘Look Narayanan, I heard you perfectly well the first time. When I said, “Who did?” I didn’t mean “WHO did?” I meant “Who did?” Who, Who, Who, not WHO, WHO, WHO.’

‘All right Chatterjee, stop hooting like an owl. I regret I ever started this WHO conversation with you. Deaf as a doorpost and dumb as well.’

‘What was that?’

‘Nothing. To get back to WHO, now that India has a strong representation in the organisation, we can expect greatly improved quality of communication.’

‘Who is in WHO from India?’

‘This time you got your who and WHO right. Firstly, there’s Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO.  She is extremely bright, articulate, intelligent and very presentable on TV.’

‘Soumya who?’

‘For God’s sake, not with the who again. I just said who. Turn up the volume on your hearing aid and listen. Soumya Swaminathan, the one with the distinguished grey hair. Given a free hand, she’ll run rings round that Gheb guy. By the way, she hails from Kumbakonam and her Dad is Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, father of India’s Green Revolution. My TamBram friends tell me that Kumbakonam denizens are razor sharp. I should know. Being a TamBram myself, and all.’

‘Who haa!’

‘You’ve been watching Pacino in Scent of a Woman again, haven’t you? Hoo haa indeed! To get back to WHO and India, we now also have our Union Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, who has taken over as Chairman of the WHO executive board. Decent bloke, Harsh Vardhan. Was a doctor, I believe.’


‘God, give me patience. Harsh Vardhan. He is our health minister, now a big dad on WHO’s board. With him and Soumya leading the way, it’s a big feather in the cap for India and bodes well for our campaign against the wretched Coronavirus.’

‘In other words, Harsh Burman and Sukanya Subramanian are the who’s who of WHO. My hearing may be slightly impaired, but I thought that was a bloody good one. Don’t you agree?’

‘It’s Harsh Vardhan and Soumya Swaminathan but you were near enough, for a deaf adder. Well if you must insist on earning cheap brownie points with your pointless puns and poor jokes, who I am to stop you?’

‘Who indeed? By the way, I heard that Trump is withdrawing his contribution to WHO because of what he sees as an unacceptable tilt by the organisation towards the yellow dragon. What say you, Narayanan?’

‘By Jove, you’ve certainly boned up on your current affairs, Chatterjee. I am impressed. Trump may have dumped WHO, but Xi Jinping is playing Chinese Checkers with them. Like he is doing with us in Ladakh. What’s more, apparently they have the vaccine as well.’

‘WHO has the vaccine? Wow!’

‘It is China who have the vaccine, not WHO. Well, fry me for an oyster!’

‘Then why does WHO keep saying the vaccine will take more than two years, if ever, to arrive?’

‘Good question, Chatterjee. I shall shoot off a mail to ICMR and ask them for a true assessment on the subject.’



Postscript: This enlightening discussion would have dragged on interminably, but our reporter had to leave at this point, leaving the two senior adversaries jousting in animated banter. Which left him pondering on the question, ‘Who is in charge of the world’s health? WHO?