O! For a horse with wings

Pegasus: The Winged Stallion - Greek Mythology Explained - YouTube
The magical and mythical Pegasus

They sway’d about upon a rocking horse / And thought it Pegasus. John Keats, Sleep and Poetry.

The three wise Gods of Asgard, in the Kingdom of Norse decided to get together at Valhalla to discuss a matter of great pith and moment. They were all double-masked to keep away a strange and unknown pestilence, christened Covidicus, that was threatening to decimate the entire populace of Norse. Though all three of them had gulped down two silver goblets each, at the recommended twelve-week interval, of the Astracus  Zenecus Covaxicus potions, which the medicine men of the Apothecary had promised would provide full protection against the dreaded Covidicus, including the wretched Deltalus variant. Had the magic nectar failed to do its stuff, heads would have rolled down Valhalla’s majestic, winding marble stairway. Not quite the Stairway to Heaven of legend and song, but almost half way there. Divinity’s winsome threesome was huddled together at an emergency meeting. At the head of the table sat the wisest of them all, he with the long, flowing white beard, Modicum the Mighty. He was joined by two of his most trusted lieutenants, Shahftus the Handyman and Naddalus the Everyman, their blank, polished, granite tablets and sharpened stone writing implements at the ready, to inscribe every precious commandment of their leader. Imagine, if you will, Moses (or Charlton Heston) on top of Mount Sinai hugging a tablet of commandments on each arm.

Having taken the Chair, Modicum the Mighty called the meeting to order. ‘Order, order,’ he cried, in the time-honoured fashion, which is the sole preserve and copyright of high court and supreme court judges across the land, and in particular, their honourable wig-wearing justices from the celluloid world.

‘First off, may I suggest we remove our masks right this minute. We have all been twice dosed. Shahftus and Naddalus, both of you are rotund and well-endowed in shape and size and of similar build and complexion. It is virtually impossible to tell you apart. Which makes it difficult for me to address you by your proper names if you insist on wearing the masks, in the absence of any recognition software. I am, of course, easily spotted owing to the fact that my long, flowing, white beard extends well below my mask, the luscious outcrop fully obscuring the determined jut of my chin. As a courtesy to both of you, however, I shall also take off my mask and you need have no qualms about dealing with an impostor. I am the head of Asgard, the venerable Odin, better known as Modicum to my friends. The Mighty is optional.’

Shahftus and Naddalus were both sitting at a precise 45-degree angle to the right and left of Modicum respectively. There was an attractive and precise symmetry to this disciplined triangulation. Modicum was extremely partial to symmetry in everything he did. Whichever hand he stuck out, the two heavyweights were at hand, in a manner of speaking. He liked to be even handed. The twosome nodded vigorously in assent after Modicum’s brief introductory remarks.

Shahftus, being the senior of the two lieutenants, was the first to respond. ‘We are waiting to hear from you with bated breath, Modicumji. To what do we owe the honour of this sudden meeting at the witching hour of midnight? Is our land under attack? Has Covidicus mutated out of control? Has Rahulus the Gandalf developed mumps? What is it? Do tell, Modicumji. I am bursting with anticipation.’

Modicum smiled benignly wagging his long forefinger avuncularly. ‘That is the last thing you want, Shahftus. Bursting, I mean. I’ve had occasion to chastise you about your weight before. Your brain is overly exercised, perhaps your body too should take inspiration from your grey cells. There is, however, a grain of truth in some of your well-founded questions. We are under attack, but not from Covidicus which we have, for now at any rate, brought under control in most parts of our kingdom, barring a few errant states. If we behave ourselves, and consume more potions, we can ward off any wave that tries to engulf us. Speaking for myself, I am more concerned about the ever-present threat of a wave from our western borders, rather than this bug that bugs us. As you know, they are led by a man, Imodium Khan, who once played a strange game called cricket, and this leader could swing a red cherry wickedly, much like a banana. As for Rahulus the Gandalf coming down with mumps; no such luck, I am afraid. As far as Rahulus is concerned, Mum’s the word, ha ha. Geddit? And you won’t get much change from his sister Priyantarantulus, either. No. no, it’s something else. What do either of you know about this Pegasus?’

After a hearty chuckle at the Imodium and Rahulus’ mumps crack, both Shahftus and Naddalus looked blank. ‘Sorry?’ they said in chorus.

‘Don’t apologize, just answer the question,’ retorted Modicum.

‘When we said sorry, we didn’t mean sorry, we meant sorry? As in, beg your pardon?’

‘You are pardoned for now, but if you carry on like this, you could be trying my patience.’ Modicum was not amused. ‘Now tell me about this Pegasus.’

‘Pegasus? Pegasus?’ they intoned in chorus. Naddalus added respectfully, ‘If you could elaborate, Modicumji.’

Modicum looked left and right symmetrically, at both of them. ‘You are beginning to sound like an Abbott and Costello double act. I expected better from my lieutenant. And my rightenant. I ask again. What do either of you know about Pegasus? Are you keeping something from me? And before you answer, look carefully under the table, your chairs and your tablets in case there are strange listening devices implanted.’

Shahftus butted in quickly. ‘Modicumji, the room has been swept for any such device. You have nothing to worry about. So, what is this Pegasus?’

‘I am asking you, Shahftus,’ returned the Mighty One, archly.

Naddalus, who was up-to-date with the latest technological developments, had a ready explanation. ‘I did a quick Googlinctus search on my Itablet. It’s a horse, Modicumji. A white horse with wings. My friends tell me it has mystical powers. Like being able to listen and see things over very long distances.’

‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse, eh? I always thought White Horse was the name of a whisky brand, though I do not touch the stuff myself. It is banned where I come from,’ chimed Modicum, ‘but I am still confused. Why is everybody in the land chanting the name of Pegasus, as if it’s a crippling disease like Covidicus and giving all of us dirty looks? Shahftus, you usually have an ear to the ground. What are your men telling you, and what are you not telling me?’

Shahftus shifted uneasily in his chair. Took a few chips off his tablet with his stone writing implement. ‘Word on the street, Modicumji, is that someone from our ruling elite has been hiring some foreign body to plant listening and viewing devices onto our country’s people, the better to figure out what mischief they are up to.’

‘Is that not a desirable thing? Surely, that is standard practice?’ roared Modicum rhetorically. ‘Should we not be kept in the loop, as I have heard our media friends and enemies describe it? And anyway, why have I not been told about this? Our opposition parties are clamouring for some joint committee to probe this matter, and I am still clueless. Naddalus, what say you?’

After scratching something furiously on his tablet with his stone stylus, Naddalus responded. ‘Modicumji, you will still be clueless and so will Shahftusji and myself when you learn who will spearhead this joint committee. It is that puffed-up poltroon, Shashticus Thoroughbred, who speaks a form of English only he and the Bard of Avon can even remotely follow. He also uses words like Snoopgate, Spyware and Watergate. To say nothing of acronyms like NSO. And quite recently, ‘pogonotrophy,’ with a not-so-veiled reference, Modicumji, to your glorious beard.’

When Naddalus saw that Modicum had blanched deathly pale, he rushed furiously to clarify, ‘Pogonotrophy Modicumji, not pornography.’ The colour quickly rushed back to Modicum’s face as he took a long draught of coconut water and continued.

‘By all the Gods of Norse and all the ancestors of Odin, surely not Shashticus. I will need all the 5000 marble tablets of the God Roget and his Thesaurus by my side to refer to while this fellow is holding forth. And fifth. What was that again Naddalus? Puffed-up poltroon? Very good. Perhaps you can take this Thoroughbred head-on. I’ll give him a pogonotrophy he won’t forget.’ So saying, Modicum let out a bellow of raucous laughter.

The two underlings laughed in unison. When the Boss laughs, the world laughs with Him. At this point, Shahftus struck a conspiratorial note. ‘Modicumji, evidently a foreign power has financed this entire Pegasus project worldwide. It is feared that anyone with a talking device could be subjected to being heard and seen at all hours of the day or night. This has made many of our women folk extremely nervous, lest they should be sighted in a state of déshabillé if you get my meaning.

‘You are not doing too badly yourself, Shahftus. Déshabillé eh? Meaning what, exactly? Naddalus, what does your Googlinctus say?’

Naddalus looked distinctly uneasy. He knew exactly what déshabillé meant but he was taken aback that his colleague Shahftus had heard of the word, though he murdered the pronunciation, what with the French and everything. He cleared his throat and attempted an explanation. ‘Modicumji, the word is French in origin, like many fancy English words, and it means when someone, particularly a woman, is in a state of, um, how I shall I put it, in the privacy of her boudoir, not modestly clothed.’ Naddalus let out a huge sigh of relief, mopping up the beads of perspiration on his forehead.

Modicum broke into a smile. ‘That was not so difficult, was it Naddalus? I am equally surprised that Shahftus knew this word, when I would have thought it was more in the vocabulary range of our erstwhile friend, Shashticus Thoroughbred. Déshabillé indeed! Utter nonsense. We have full respect for our women and men, and while I am at the helm, which will be till our holy cows come home, there will be no deshabilling. Go and tell that to the people.’

As it appeared that the meeting was winding down to a close, Shahftus wanted to know what exactly should be done about this Pegasus issue. Modicum replied firmly. ‘Look my friend, I still don’t know what Pegasus means other than that it is a white horse with wings, which might or might not be a brand of whisky. I suggest we just ride this one out, and the horse will just fly away. It has wings, has it not? We have survived far more tricky issues. So why worry about something no one seems to know the meaning of.’

‘Yes Modicumji, thank you Modicumji,’ the two strong men spoke in practiced unison. Far off, a winged white horse neighed, as it took flight.

It was just another day at the office.

Pleased as Punch

File:Punch magazine cover 1916 april 26 volume 150 no 3903.png - Wikimedia  Commons
An early Punch front cover

During the early 70s, when I was fortunate enough to land a job as an executive trainee in one of Calcutta’s leading advertising agencies, I had precious little idea of what I was letting myself in for. The hurly-burly, non-stop excitement of working shoulder to shoulder with bright-as-buttons creative copywriters and art directors; tough-as-nails, smooth-talking bosses, some of whom grandly toted cigars and if I allowed my imagination to run wild, a snifter glass of Hennessy cognac swirling about in their free hand. Not to be outdone, pretty much all your colleagues, men or women, smoked a variety of cigarette brands like chimneys. I meant they smoked liked chimneys, not that the cigarette brands were like chimneys, if you get my meaning. These transferred epithets are a pain to the unwary writer. Forgive the digression. Smoking was not merely a habit, a bad one, but a fashion-statement, an equally bad one. If you didn’t smoke, you were not quite ‘with it.’ Incidentally, if you were game for extremes, then the humble ‘bidi,’ favoured by rickshaw-wallahs and their ilk, took you to the top of the pecking order – inverted snobbery! This was before the spoilsports from the health ministry started insisting that all cigarette packets must carry dire warnings stating that the inhalation of noxious fumes from tobacco could lead to an early grave. Not being copywriters, they adopted the more prosaic line, ‘Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.’ Some of the packs, not taking chances, even had a skull and crossbones graphic alongside. Not that anyone took a blind bit of notice.

Anyhow, it was the done thing those days, walking around looking pensive, with a Wills Filter or Charms dangling from your lips. Think: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. And if the midnight oil had to be burned, which was often, to meet client presentation deadlines, you could count on a never-ending supply of Old Monk rum on tap. Hardly the sort of atmosphere my strictly conservative parents would have envisaged or desired for their quiet, obedient son. I have had occasion to touch upon this licentious aspect of my early days in advertising in some of my other missives, so I shan’t go over that well-trodden path again. Except, perhaps, to add gratuitously that I was a total disgrace to this accepted template of the rising ad man. One small rum I could just about manage. The second, forced down my glass (if not my throat), invariably watered the nearest potted plant when my colleagues were looking the other way. They were too sozzled to notice, anyway. As for cigarettes, my father thought them sinful, and I had visions of Purgatory whenever I took a tentative puff. It came as no surprise when my boss angrily exclaimed, ‘You don’t smoke, you can’t drink, what the hell are you doing in an advertising agency?’ Touché. That said, it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors at the agency. Merely the preliminary pourparlers preceding a more elevating aspect of those early days of my advertising career.

The wonderful thing about our agency was that it had a well-stocked library. Apart from the classics and many of the more modern authors of that period (Salinger, Kerouac et al), the agency also subscribed to a number of Indian and foreign magazines. The idea was that reading books would never be a waste of time in a profession where the English language was deemed a primary sine qua non for success. In later years, books and periodicals in some of India’s major vernaculars were also added to the subscription list, as language advertising became a prime requirement.

One of the many magazines that adorned our library was the British humour and satire weekly, Punch. This venerable magazine, which was founded in 1841, and sadly downed its shutters some 151 years later in 1992, was one of the most sought-after publications in our library. Even if you were not amongst the first to ‘get at it’ as soon as it was delivered, there were plenty of back issues to go through. However, a word in season with the librarian, along with a packet of fags always helped to receive that early tip-off. Apart from the wondrous content, both written articles as well as rib-tickling cartoons and illustrations, the magazine gave us an insight into high class advertising in Britain during the vibrant 70s. Tobacco, liquor and top-of-the-line automobiles were the primary categories heavily advertised in Punch, reflecting the exalted target group that constituted the magazine’s core readership. My little cubicle was refulgent with colourful adverts, stunningly photographed (and airbrushed) cut out from the magazine’s pages – an inspiration to any aspiring advertising executive. The librarian was none too pleased with my vandalizing the magazines thus, but he took the broad view and looked the other way – the fags doing their stuff!

The 1966 Beatles issue in 2021 | Cartoons magazine, The beatles, Poster  prints
Punch’s 1966 The Beatles issue

More than the advertising, I was hooked on to the legendary columnists who regaled me week after week with their ability to bring down politicians and venerable institutions with extraordinary style and elan, such that you could hardly take offence. America’s mirror image magazine, MAD, crude by comparison, could scarcely hold a candle to Punch. Editors and contributors to Punch were legends in their own right.  Basil Boothroyd, Alan Coren, E.S. Turner and Miles Kington were among the regulars that kept me entertained over an idle hour. Some of my senior colleagues and bosses would pop round to my ‘cabin’ on hearing my uncontrolled chortling, wanting to know if I was having an apoplectic fit. And if not, what the dickens was I doing reading magazines when I should have been working on that Dunlop truck tyre presentation. Well, it was a small price to pay, earning my bosses’ indulgent wrath against the literary enjoyment I derived from Punch. Incidentally, occasional celebrated contributors to Punch, historically, have included the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Keith Waterhouse, A.A. Milne, Somerset Maugham and Sylvia Plath. The last named took me by surprise. The celebrated poet and author of the classic roman-à-clef, The Bell Jar and the poetic Ariel, Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression and tragically took her own life. Wouldn’t have thought she was the right fit for the happy-go-lucky Punch, but I will need to read her contributions, if I can source them, before arriving at any definitive conclusion.  Although the magazine no longer exists, the works of many of its brilliant contributors, most of them no longer with us, are available in book form. Now in the relaxed evening of my life, I have been ordering some of these wonderful collection volumes online, ecstatically poring over them all the livelong day. I was also fortunate to get my grubby hands on some of the Punch annuals at select second-hand book shops in places like Portobello Road in London during some of my memorable visits to the UK. You can’t get these now for love or money. And to anyone reading this who is entertaining ideas of borrowing some of these treasures from me, let me put you straight. You are most welcome to come home and spend a few hours leafing through them, as you would at the British Council library, but the books shall not leave my premises. So there. You have been duly cautioned.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is punch_final_issue.jpg
The final cover – April 1992

In conclusion, I would like to share an interesting personal experience I had with Punch. During my callow advertising agency days, I would spend some of my spare time attempting to write articles of a humorous nature, inspired by Punch. I would submit these to some of the local newspapers in Calcutta for favour of publication. They did me no favours! More often than not, I would not hear from them. On the rare occasion when I did, it would be a bland pre-printed rejection slip without even the courtesy of a signature. I then decided that I would go the whole hog and try my luck with Punch. In for a penny, in for a pound. Remember, these were pre-email days. I slaved for weeks, carefully typing and retyping the draft, checking for misplaced apostrophes and errant punctuations, and wrote a thoughtfully worded covering letter to the Editor and bunged it off Par Avion to London. Set me back a pretty penny in postage stamps, I can tell you. I expected nothing, and nothing happened for close to a month. Just when I had given up the ghost, a buff envelope arrived with my name and address neatly typed and the Punch rubber stamp proudly displayed along with the Queen’s philatelic mug shot. My pulse raced. I felt like the poet Wordsworth; ‘My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.’ ‘Can it be?’ I asked myself, holding my breath. I did not dare open the envelope for a good fifteen minutes. Finally, with the aid of a kitchen knife, I carefully slit the envelope and fished out the letter. It was from Miles Kington from the editorial board of Punch. Clearly handwritten with a biro it said, ‘Nice idea, but it could do with a bit of reworking. Keep writing. Best wishes. Miles.’

It was the nicest and most treasured reject letter I have ever received. If only I can find the blessed thing! A few days ago, I ordered from Amazon and received ‘The best of Miles,’ a collection of Kington’s finest columns, along with another volume of his distinguished colleague, Alan Coren’s choicest pieces. My cup runneth over. Pleased as Punch, in fact.

ECC Cartoonbooks Club: Larry on Larry: My Life in Cartoons
From one of Punch’s great cartoonists, Larry.

Going bullish in Ahmedabad

May be an image of 1 person
Dancing till they’re blue in the face

I’ll make my stand like a buffalo, / Make my way to higher ground. Ted Nugent.

In one of my recent missives, I had occasion to bemoan the fact that our media, be it print or television, generally tends to provide us with an overdose of ‘same old, same old.’ You know what I am talking about. Politics and everything else like Elections, Covid or Cricket generously peppered with political overtones. Or even undertones, come to that. Not that I can tell the difference. I had also been at pains to dig out information of a more interesting and entertaining nature that abounds in a brilliantly variegated country like ours, but goes largely unnoticed under the media’s selective glare. Some of the human-interest tidbits, now and then come to light much to our delight, in spite of our communication channels’ reluctance to air them. As indeed was the case when I was riffling through my daily a few days ago.

It was a strange tale of what happened at a suburb of Ahmedabad recently. Alcohol, as anyone who has tried to get a drink in Ahmedabad (or anywhere else in Gujarat) will tell you, is banned in that state. Home of Gandhiji, Modiji and all that. Which is the surest way of ensuring that a flourishing underground industry for the banned product grows by leaps and bounds. I am also advised that some establishments may offer alcoholic refreshment in Gujarat if you can produce a doctor’s certificate prescribing the intake of said libation for medical reasons. Incredible as that may sound, it is true. Cross my heart and hope to die. Brandy, from time immemorial, has been a highly recommended specific for those feeling a bit under the weather. As you would expect, the topers take undue advantage of this liberating license, often feigning sickness. ‘May I have another large brandy please, preferably neat,’ groans the malingering patient weakly from his sick bed. For the most part, however, those sorely in need of a quick one, can be seen loitering about the towns and cities of this prosperous (some might even say preposterous) state, their tongues hanging out wondering where the next large peg or cold beer is coming from. It is precisely to cater to such misguided nirvana seekers that the more enterprising and savvy operators obtain all kinds of liquor from sources of a very dubious nature. The black or red label might say Johnnie Walker, but the brown liquid in the bottle could be anything from locally produced arrack or something even more spurious like denatured spirit or methyl alcohol. ‘10 die of liquor poisoning in remote village’ is a headline we have become quite accustomed to.

To get back to our story, a bunch of entrepreneurial and well-heeled brothers who were throwing a party at their cottage somewhere on the outskirts of bone-dry Ahmedabad, had stashed away hundreds of bottles of the stuff sunk in a small pond just outside their home, away from the prying eyes of the law. It is conjectured that many of these bottles, which were probably hurled into the pond in a hurry to evade the approaching police vehicles, were broken and the flowing liquor got nicely mixed in with the natural water, giving this watering hole a yellowish hue, to say nothing of the heady odour that emanated from it and wafted for quite a few metres around the vicinity.

As it happened, a small family of three buffaloes and a calf happened to be grazing close to the pond, ‘lowing here and there’ as the poet had it, unmindful of the fabulous treat that awaited them nearby. The steady intake of dried grass had given the bovine creatures a right, royal thirst as they ambled up in a gentle gait to slake their parched throats. As they got closer to the pool of water, a strange odour assailed their olfactory senses. The buffaloes found the smell not entirely unattractive. ‘What ho, what ho,’ exclaimed the senior male buffalo. ‘Looks like our thirst-quenching pond is offering us something more than just H2O. Let us investigate further, shall we?’ So saying, the adult buffaloes avidly lowered their heads to the refreshing liquid and slurped as never before. Not to be outdone, the little calf joined the party with gusto. All they needed was a few plates of cocktail canapes and spongy dhoklas (a speciality of Gujarati cuisine) and the animals’ cup of joy would have been overflowing.

Having generously partaken of what was pleasantly offered in their ‘poisoned well,’ the buffaloes began to feel quite happily drowsy. Before you could say moo to a cow, the buffaloes were all horizontal on the ground, dead to the world but still in the land of the living. If that was all it was, things might have been all right. They would have woken up after a few hours, wondering why they seem to be afflicted by a sore head, hunted around for an empty foil strip of Alka Seltzer or Gelusil, and contentedly gone about their favourite pastime of chewing grass (or foil), their tails swishing this way and that. However, the dumb chums had to learn their lesson the hard way.

When the domestic staff of the manor awoke the next morning, doubtless in search of the buffaloes to milk for the household’s morning cuppa, they were greeted by a bewildering sight. The three adult bovines and the little one were found jumping up and down making strange noises, not consistent with the standard ‘moo’ that one knows and loves, if one is a bovine fancier. Clearly something was amiss. The local vet was sent for. When the good cow doctor turned up, astonished to see the buffaloes performing Salome’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, he could make nothing of it. Muttering to himself that now he has seen everything, he proceeded to approach the extremely difficult task of administering anesthetic injections to the inebriated animals. It is never an easy task to plunge a needle on to the rump of a dancing buffalo, but the vet managed it. Soon the animals were all sleeping peacefully, and he was able to conduct his examination. After about twenty minutes, he was ready to pronounce his verdict.

The brothers who were responsible for this tragi-comedy of errors were called in and the vet grandly announced that the household cattle family had gone on a massive binge, having imbibed more alcohol than is normally recommended for your average adult buffalo, to say nothing of the calf. Naturally, the siblings correctly jumped to the conclusion that the hidden alcoholic treasure at the bottom of the pond was at the bottom of all this. Not wishing to bother the vet with needless incriminating information, they paid him handsomely and sent him on his way. The domestic staff, who knew exactly what had transpired, were told to seal their lips on pain of flogging. The pond was cleaned immediately, the bottles destroyed and no more was heard on the subject, leaving the local gendarmes deeply suspicious but clueless.

The buffaloes took a few days to recover and get back to their normal routine. There is however a twist to this strange tail, or rather, tale. During the following days, the animals were taken to the pond but flatly refused to drink the clean, clear water. The leader of this small pack, if buffaloes do hunt in packs, was heard murmuring to his fellow bulls, ‘I demand that we be provided with the same water we drank a few days ago from this pond. This water is tasteless, colourless and odourless. Let them come for their milk early morning, and our ladies will show them what’s what. They want a bullfight, I’ll give it to them.’ So saying, he shook his head in an aggressive fashion, showing off his horns like his Spanish counterparts do to their matadors. The staff tried telling the bulls that’s how clean, drinking water is meant to be, but the bulls went on an indefinite strike. ‘If you give us odourless water, we shall remain udder-less,’ they seemed to be saying.

Moral of the story – if you are told buffaloes don’t like a stiff drink, that’s a lot of bull.

I’ve got news for you

ServiceFriday: Newspaper Industry Evolution – Salt Lake Tribune Shifts to a  Nonprofit – Center for Services Leadership
When newspapers ruled the world

There’s news. And then there’s news. In India, our television channels and newspapers are presently overrun with subjects on the following lines – Covid, The Prime Minister’s views on Covid, The Health Minister’s views on the Prime Minister’s views on Covid, Rahul Gandhi’s views on the Health Minister’s views on the Prime Minister’s views on Covid, Vaccination statistics, Infections, Recoveries and Deaths statistics, Rahul Gandhi’s views on said statistics, all the bigwigs from the Indian Council of Medical Research and the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences – their views on Covid, sundry doctors’ and nattily dressed surgeons’ views on Covid and the World Health Organization’s Secretary General, who can always be counted upon to pour some very sticky oil on Covid’s troubled waters. Then there’s Mamata Banerjee who all but blames the BJP for bringing Covid to India, and Yogi Adityanath who feels his state has set the finest example on how to manage the pandemic. While the numbers endorse the Yogi’s claim somewhat, his boast flies in the face of all the human carcasses, post Covid, that were seen floating on India’s most sacred river. To all this we add the disjointed ramblings of godman Baba Ramdev, who first pooh-poohed the efficacy of our vaccines, aggressively pushing his ayurvedic concoctions instead to combat Covid, did another about turn (as yoga practitioners are so adept at doing) claiming he was misunderstood. If you ask me, the Baba has turned the whole subject of Covid on its head. Last heard, he himself was standing on his head, refusing to speak to the media. More recently, the media has been droning on about some unidentified flying drones from across the border, but I will put that to one side for now.

 I think that pretty much covers the ground, unless you wish to include the resurgent and fully resurrected Arnab Goswami and his Tower of Babel channel, the ominous Rajdeep Sardesai, who is always looking for tidbits of information to push the government on the backfoot, India’s men of letters like Chetan Bhagat and Suhel Seth, who can be counted upon to air their silver-tongued oratorical skills on television, their primary focus on being flamboyantly eloquent and giving the less literary folks who misplace their apostrophes or split their infinitives, an inferiority complex. Shashi Tharoor, where have you been hiding? You are being upstaged, my good parliamentarian from Thiruvananthapuram. To be fair to Tharoor, he gained a few brownie points by referring to the Prime Minister’s ‘pogonotrophy,’ which had all of us reaching out for our Oxford or Cambridge tomes. (I tell a lie. It’s Google). The ‘p word’ denoting the PM’s meticulous styling and cultivation of his flowing white beard. Well done, Shashi! Your reputation as India’s wordsmith nonpareil, survives. Meanwhile, Congress-blackballed Sanjay ‘end-of-day’ Jha who is forever prevaricating on his stated position vis a vis his former party and the ruling dispensation, holds forth and fifth every evening on national television. One has to wonder if it is the end of days for Jha’s political career.

Now and then, the indefatigable Subramanian Swamy will shoot his mouth off on just about anything that glides into his field of vision, never mind if it is the ruling party which he represents or just about anyone else. They are all grist to his insatiable, garrulous mill. I believe the ruling party reckons it is wiser to have a loose cannon within its fold than outside it. Of course, the Swamy is constantly emboldened by the fact that he has taken just about anyone and everyone in the country to court, demanding justice, real or imagined. That being the case, I am always in a state of bafflement as to why anyone should take a blind bit of notice of this veteran, ageless politician’s minatory finger-wagging.

Paresh Rawal fan on Twitter: "Arnab has more panelists in his debate than  the total of viewers NDTV has.… "
The Tower of Babel

I seek your indulgence, dear reader, for that unforgivably orotund introduction. I can only plead, in extenuation, that needs must. The purpose of highlighting matters that headline our newspapers and television news channels on a regular basis is to lead me into areas our worthy vendors of news rarely foray. I have therefore taken it upon myself to seek out what I believe to be little ‘human interest’ stories that reveal eloquently that India is more than just about politicians, news anchors, doctors and Covid. Not to mention, cricket. And how do I come by these stories? The internet is a good place to start for unravelling strange goings-on in our country. Sometimes, a little column tucked away on page 16 of your newspaper will carry a gem or two. Equally, word of mouth pearls of wisdom from everyday people like domestic staff and sundry visitors to the old homestead, add to our storehouse of recherché and lightweight knowledge.

Take this brief news item I came across just a couple of days ago. Somewhere in north India, in one of our remote villages, a marriage had been arranged, and was slated to take place a couple of weeks down the road, when all the planetary signs were perfectly aligned. Just a few days prior to the big day, the bride’s father had visited the groom’s home, doubtless to put the finishing touches to the dowry and wedding arrangements. On entering the groom’s house, he was shocked and taken aback to find the young groom-in-waiting, hands outstretched, head shaking this way and that like Stevie Wonder, trying to feel his way around the home, periodically bumping into chairs, pillars and so on. If the bride’s father did not know any better, he would have jumped to the conclusion that his impending bridegroom was blind as a bat. ‘My good man, my son-in-law-to-be, you are as blind as a bat,’ exclaimed the stricken father of the bride. ‘Why were we kept in the dark, like you?’ Shocked to the core, the groom replied, ‘No, no Sir, I am not blind at all. And who told you bats are blind? Not true, check with the National Geographic channel. It’s just that I misplaced my high-powered spectacles and I’ve got soap in my eyes owing to coming out of the bath suddenly on hearing the doorbell, so I am floundering a bit.’

This did not wash with the bride’s family, any more than the soap did. On being told that her beau has four eyes, the bride-to-be screamed ‘Nahin, nahin,’ in the accepted and time-honoured Bollywood fashion. ‘Yeh shaadi nahin hogi. This marriage is off. You can go look for another girl wearing powerful bifocals. You can both dance around the house, arms outstretched, soaped to the gills and have the time of your lives.’ At which point, in high dudgeon, the bride’s old man demanded the generous dowry of one scooter, two kilos of gold jewellery and two buffaloes to be duly returned, on pain of terrible vengeance to be wrought. The groom’s father told them to whistle. At the time of going to press, the village elders were still haranguing over the affair under a banyan tree, but the bride-to-be was firm. ‘I had my suspicions during the engagement ceremony when he cozied up and whispered into my mother’s shell-like ear that she was sexy and beautiful and could they sneak off and take in lamboo Bachchan’s latest hit, but I had put that down to his strange sense of humour. Many grooms flatter their mothers-in-law. Now that I know he can’t see beyond the end of his bulbous nose, I quit. Let him look for someone else with a better than 20 / 200 vision.’ All this may sound far more colourful in her native patois, as we lose a bit in translation, but you get the picture.

Now that is the kind of story I would like to read more of in our newspapers, and view on our television sets. While I keep whining on about television and print, we must rejoice in our PM’s attempt to revive the joys of a long forgotten medium – the radio. His monthly address to the nation under the banner of Mann ki Baat, has that homely, grandma-story-telling, fireside-chat feel to it which all Indians who understand Hindi will warmly welcome. Whether a dubbing or sub-titling arrangement is in place in regions where Hindi is foreign, I do not know. Given the PM’s shrewd instincts to reach out to the masses, I should be vastly surprised if that minor, though important detail, has not been addressed. The ironic thing is, for the PM’s weighty words to scatter to the four corners of the nation, the radio broadcast is also played on television (that’s where the sub-titling comes in), with a static picture of a transistor radio and the PM’s cherubic visage, flowing white beard and all. Pogonotrophy personified! As Sigmund Freud said, and he said a lot, ‘Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.’

Right now, my money is on despair.

Postscript: As I am about to put this piece to bed, news filters through that some startled and terrified citizens in certain parts of Bangalore, a few days ago, were seen scurrying hither and thither on hearing a loud bang, or boom or blast. Or whatever. The source of the bang (or boom) is still unexplained and unaccounted for. Deepavali is well behind us and we have not won an international cricket match recently. Elections have also come and gone. It’s a mystery. The best explanation some scientists from this garden city, also considered the home of scientific temper, are able to provide us with is that it has something to do with the Big Bang Theory. As the hypothesis behind BBT goes back some 14 million years, I have no wish to plumb the depths of its arcane mysteries. If you ask me, the boom (or bang) was due to several rear wheel truck tyres from a large fleet somewhere in Bangalore bursting at the same time. Heat can do that to tyres. I am a firm believer in the maxim of reductionism – when all else fails, always go for the simplest explanation. You will sleep the better for it. As I do.

Going bonkers over a cricket match

Virat Kohli Shares Picture With "Good Man" Kane Williamson, Fan Comes Up  With Fitting Caption | Cricket News
Captains fantastic – Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli

So, we lost a cricket match. Big deal. The earth did not cave in. Armageddon did not strike us. We are still battling Covid. Can we get some sense of proportion, please? ‘But it was against New Zealand,’ I hear you wail, as if New Zealand is some Johnny-come-lately, pushover outfit. And before you go on to cry that the mere notion of a country of barely 5 million people putting it across a humongous nation of 1.4 billion gives you severe dyspepsia, indigestion and the creeps, kindly put a sock in it. I have heard it all before. All right, this was not any old Test match, I’ll grant you. This was the biggie, the first-time final played in weepy, wet Southampton when two of the best met in a one-off, winner-takes-all to decide who will hold the stunning mace symbolizing ‘Test Cricket Supremo.’ Sadly, for Indian fans it was the estimable Kiwi skipper, Kane Williamson who triumphantly held aloft the glittering mace along with his joyous Black Caps teammates. The normally, almost unbearably effervescent Virat Kohli was left holding the baby, having to fend off awkward questions from his Indian media wolf pack, baying for blood and possibly, for the baby to be chucked out with the bathwater. The game barely lasted three and a half playing days, with two days washed out and a prudent reserve 6th day enabling a result.

Kane Williamson after New Zealand winning WTC Final vs India: It's a proud  moment in our history - Sportstar
Williamson and his mates with the magnificent mace

‘Why, of all places, Southampton? Why not Chennai where we could have boiled and melted them down to abject defeat?’ Look, I am aware that you are terribly upset, but frankly, you are beginning to get on my nerves. The Indian cricket bosses may be the world’s wealthiest fat cats, but they cannot decide everything. Some give and take is called for. We take too much. Too much for granted. If you ask me, I think it’s a good thing we lost. We were getting too big for our boots anyway. Fair enough, we beat the Aussies in their own backyard Down Under with a second-string side. This in spite of skipper Virat Kohli’s absence, who had flown back to India to hold his baby, taking leave of absence from the remaining three Tests. Else Anushka would have been very cross. Tough being an Indian cricket captain. How many babies can a man be reasonably expected to hold? That was rhetorical, so please don’t answer.

Parenthetically, let me add that some years earlier, when he was leading the Indian team in Australia, M.S. Dhoni’s wife delivered herself of a bonny, wee lassie. The great man, however, did not wing back home to do some coochy cooing with his baby and radiant wife, Sakshi. The BCCI would have gladly bank rolled his first-class trip. He stayed back with his boys, watching Instagram videos of the new arrival late into the wee hours in his hotel room in Melbourne, Sydney, Wooloongabba or wherever. Which partly explains why Mahi could not sight the ball very well the next day. Sleep deprivation through long-distance remote parenting!

Still on babies, a little-known cricketer who made a strong impression in Australia last year was rookie Thangarasu Natarajan, who was originally among the reserves. ‘Natarajan who?  I hear you ask. Go and do your own Google search, you lazy sods. I only brought his name up to highlight the fact that he too received the ‘good news’ about the patter of little feet in his homestead somewhere in Tamil Nadu, just prior to winging his way to Australia with the Indian team last year. Can’t these chaps time these things more prudently? To the best of my knowledge, however, no one from the team management asked Natarajan if he wished to fly economy to India to see his baby. All right, fair’s fair. Dhoni, Kohli, they’ve earned their stripes. Natty, you’ll have to wait a tad longer. Provided you are still in the team. And provided you have taken 300 international wickets by then. And provided you have another baby while you are on tour. That’s a lot of provisions and imponderables. So much for cricketers and babies.

I realize I have been flitting hither and thither while musing on India’s recent defeat, but it’s all in a good cause. Virat Kohli and his boys now have a three- week break before the long Test series against England gets under way. For starters, they will be praying for much more sunshine, so that their batsmen can move their feet with greater assurance against England’s quicks. Putting runs on the board is the cricketing equivalent of putting food on the table. An absolute sine qua non. The bowlers can then go to work against an England batting line-up that has looked distinctly shaky and vulnerable during their recent defeat against New Zealand. There you are, the Kiwis are not quite the minnows many Indians seem to think they are. All to play for then and Kohli’s passion and pride will need to be reflected more in his performance than in his vaunted hyper aggressive body language. Difficult for Kohli, but he could try to be just a tad understated? One or two tips from MSD might help. The champion batsman should also be aware of where his off-stump is, else Anderson, Broad and company will be all over him like a rash. Happened before. No déjà vu please. That said, Kohli has not been the world’s best batsman, across formats, for nothing. He needs to make it count over five Test matches. Others in the team are also short on form and confidence but that is coach Ravi Shastri’s job to earn his not inconsiderable pay check.

My call to all those twits on Twitter (under plenty of heat themselves in India) and other social media platforms, baying for Kohli’s blood is to leave well enough alone, as the skipper himself should be doing outside the off stump. ‘Off with his head’ may have been a popular cry in England once upon a medieval  time, but untimely and inappropriate right now. Failures may be stepping stones to success, but our cricket mad countrymen want our boys to win every single match we play. Failure is not an option. Evidently, barring Test series (as if that does not count), we have not won a limited overs or knock out championship tourney since 2014. And here’s the hilarious bit. It was in the year 2014 that the BJP came to power in India with much fanfare, led by the indefatigable Narendra Modi. Those who are opposed to the BJP style of politics and who worship the game of cricket, have found a ready whipping boy in our Prime Minister, claiming he has brought bad luck to our team as we have not won anything of note since he took over the reins of government! Last I heard, Ravi Shastri is still India’s coach and not the Prime Minister. Let me repeat, we have won a number of Test series during this period, but highlighting that won’t suit the politics of those opposed to the Modi dispensation. Selective amnesia is the name of the game. Twit is such a supremely apposite word for so many of our social media pundits.

Tell you what. I am happy we are getting a long break from India-specific international cricket for a few weeks. I’ve had it up to here with all the carping, cavilling and moaning over our losing a cricket match. I realize cricket is our religion and we are all children of a lesser god, so I am pleased to see the back of cricket for a while. Apart from anything else, I can turn my undivided attention to Wimbledon starting Monday week. Oh, what undiluted joy! And even if the weather gods turn their dark and baleful glare on the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships at London SW19, the show courts – Centre Court and Court No.1 – have been provided with roof coverings that are technological marvels. What’s more, Federer, Djokovic, Serena and Barty closely hotfooted by the rising brat pack will play uninterrupted for our viewing delectation. And no tension about any Indian player getting past the third round, if that. Which gives us Indian tennis fans the full license to be as promiscuous as we like in supporting our favourite stars. We tennis buffs will lap it all up on our giant television screens from the comfort of our homes to enjoy grass court tennis at its pristine best. Some cold beer and junk food will not go amiss.

Who wants cricket? Anyone for tennis?

Top Gear

Montreal Green Is Your New Favourite Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Colour
The Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio

The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.’ Sir Henry Royce on the value proposition of the Rolls-Royce automobile.

A very good friend of mine texted (is that even a word?) me the other day, all the way from Toronto, to tell me about a new car he is about to become the proud owner of. I could sense by the tone of his message that he was quite chuffed about the prospect. Although one could not actually see him, one had little doubt that he was preening. Given that he is a self-confessed ‘absolute automotive car nut,’ that he has never missed a ‘serious auto show’ in London, Europe and the United States, his bubbling anticipation came as no surprise. To round off this little true tale, my friend was about to trade in his Audi S6 in exchange for an Alfa Romeo, model name Quadrifoglio (four-leaf clover). If that sounds distinctly Italian, that’s because the famous Alfa Romeo brand is made in Italy. Any Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton can tell you that. It should come as no surprise that the Alfa Romeo has been a popular choice with Hollywood movies. Depending on the vintage, the brand has appeared, amongst others, famously in The Graduate, The Godfather and a brief cameo with James Bond in Octopussy. James Bond’s car brand of choice, of course, was the British made Aston Martin. Naturally, old fruit. My pal from Toronto described his new acquisition as ‘a real beauty with the sweetest V6 turbo-charged and fuel-injected engine you’ll ever see.’ Well I mean, he was head over heels. What can you say after that?

I felt absolutely delighted for this car buff. Anything that makes him happy is kosher with me, was the way I saw it. If cars are what he gets his jollies from, who am I to cavil? The only problem was I knew very little about cars. Although I don’t hold with libertine, genius footballer of yesteryear, the mercurial and sadly late George Best who famously said, ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, women and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’ By implication and a process of elimination, that would suggest money spent on booze, women and fast cars is money well spent! Manchester United’s pride and joy, the brilliant midfielder’s stunning good looks and heady lifestyle earned him the sobriquet, ‘El Beatle.’ The Beatles even composed a hit song, ‘Baby you can drive my car, yes I’m gonna be a star.’ There was the inevitability of a Greek tragedy in George Best’s untimely demise.

Speaking for myself, I see the motor car as a utilitarian vehicle that should safely transport you from point A to point B. Particularly in the Indian context, any car that can achieve this modest goal negotiating impossible traffic conditions, while providing you with decent mileage for your unconscionable spend on a litre of petrol. Nearly one hundred rupees, last time I checked. And rising. Something to do with whatever is happening in the Middle East, unless I am much mistaken. Failing which, blame it on Covid. That said, my own ambition has always been to own a car that is fuel-efficient at a steady 40 kmph and unlikely to break down without warning. Which was often the case in the 60s and 70s in India, and never mind which town or city you happened to be happily tooling along in. My father always maintained that anybody driving slower than him is an idiot and anyone going faster than him is a maniac. I have seen him wave on bullock carts to overtake him! In your sturdy Ambassador, Standard Herald or Fiat as you chuntered along in stately fashion, your car can and did, without so much as a by-your-leave, down tools and screech to a grinding halt. At which point, two or three grimy faced urchins miraculously turned up and promised to set your car straight for a nominal consideration. There are conspiracy theories behind the altruistic machinations of these roadside ‘mechanics,’ but that is another story.

In more recent times in India, we have moved away from those antediluvian days. Today, if your Skoda, Ford or Hyundai should give up the ghost at the dead of night in the middle of the highway, no spotty-faced kids will rush up to help with spanner and sundry tools. Even if they did, you would do well to shoo them away. Unless you wish to bung a spanner in the works! No, no. Nowadays, you call the helpline of your car brand’s dealer franchise and their service chappies will rush to your aid. In about four hours. I am being uncharitable here. Sometimes they make it in less that two hours. Fair’s fair. They know their onions and usually solve your problem. In a worst-case scenario, they will tow away your car to their well-appointed garage to attend to its ailment. Depending on the terms of your service contract they may even provide you with a badli vehicle till your car is ready. You will also be served with an invoice that will give you severe indigestion and peptic ulcers needing urgent medical attention, but then, you can’t expect everything. You want your fluffy omelette? You had better be prepared to break some eggs. Serves you right for driving at that time of night.

Anyhow, to get back to our original subject of cars and the pride of ownership, let me narrate my own experience when I went to look at some swank dealer showrooms to get a feel for contemporary models. I did, of course, speak to some of my friends who are quite au fait with the automobile world, to seek their opinion. The trouble with that is that if you ask ten people about their preferred choice of car model, you will get ten different views. ‘If your budget is modest, get a mid-range Maruti. Excellent value for money and wide service network.’ ‘Why go for a Skoda when you can get a Volkswagen. Same company, same car, only more expensive. But you can flaunt the VW brand!’ Enough to confuse even the most knowledgeable, leave alone a novice like me.

Sure enough, I walked into this luxury showroom of a well-known car brand and all their models (to suit every pocket) were brilliantly displayed, shining in multi-coloured resplendence. Before I could say Alfa Romeo, a young lad proffered a tray of orange juice which I hesitantly accepted, making it clear that this committed me to nothing. Soon enough, a bright young sales person, dressed smartly in house colours and sporting the dealer franchise’s logo, sidled up and spoke in a confident tone.

‘Looking for a car, Sir?’ was his opening gambit. I could not say I was just browsing as it was not a book shop, but I still came up with a good riposte.

‘No, I am actually in the market for a high-end mobile phone but now that I am here, I may as well look for a car.’ I thought I’d cut him dead, but he was made of sterner stuff. They train them well, these car dealerships. Whether he caught my ironic shaft or not I can’t say, but he bashed on regardless.

‘Ha ha, Sir. Nice one. Now this particular model you happen to be looking at is an absolute peach.’

‘If you say so,’ I replied guardedly. ‘Anything else you wish to tell me, other than that it’s a peach or a plum, or whichever fruit takes your fancy?’

‘I can see you are in good form, Sir. Everything from the middle of the bat, if you’ll forgive my cricketing analogy. This is a mid-range car, Sir. The petrol engine is 999 cc. It is available with the manual and automatic transmission. Depending upon the variant and fuel type this model has a mileage of 16.47 to 18.24 kmpl. It is a comfortable 5-seater and has a length of 3971mm, width of 1682mm, a wheelbase of 2470mm with matching state-of-the-art radial tyres. Air conditioning is efficient and is not a drag on petrol consumption. Wi-fi and GPS enabled, excellent sound system for radio and music, hands free mobile phone facility, you will lack for nothing. All this for just Rs.7.50 lakhs, all inclusive.’ You could see from his spiel, he had mugged up the sales manual by heart.

‘Gosh, just seven and half lakhs, eh? At this price you’re practically giving it away. Looks like Diwali has arrived early for me. As for all the technical gobbledegook, you could easily have saved your breath. I followed not a single word. Went clean over my head. Nevertheless, there was something sincere about your sales pitch. I will consider your proposition seriously.’

‘That’s great to know, Sir. When can I call you to follow-up? If you can confirm by tomorrow, we can even throw in a free Bose surround sound system for this car. Plus a 5% cash back.’

‘And if I confirm right this minute, will I get a 25% cash back? Don’t answer that. Just pulling your leg. Look, I’ll have to bring the good lady wife to give it the once over. She too drives you know. I’ll bring her along, and if she gives us the thumbs up, we are in business. So please, no follow-up calls.’

I left the showroom, leaving the sales chap looking hopefully, and somewhat dubiously, after my retreating back. As for me, I was already on my way to a rival car showroom not two kilometres away.

Smell the coffee

Hot steaming coffee in a glass cup - stock photo | Crushpixel

In a recent suo moto case hearing on the vexed subject of the Government of India’s handling, or rather, alleged mishandling of the Covid19 pandemic, the honorable justices of the Supreme Court came down heavily on the central government for the manner in which the dreaded disease and its trail of continuing destruction has, in its judicial and judicious opinion, been handled. ‘We have a strong arm to come down on this,’ one of the judges admonished, threatening strong-arm methods. Be it the vaccine dual pricing or procurement policy, oxygen management, health infrastructure, the alarming escalation of mortalities, the apex court did not appear awfully impressed by the way in which the disease and its aftermath has been tackled. If one were to suggest that the court took a dim view of the whole affair, one would be understating the case. Among several scathing remarks, the Bench exhorted the Solicitor General (SG) representing the government, who the Court felt was divorced from the grim reality of the crisis, to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ This caused quite a stir in legal circles. Not least because many of them did not quite get the meaning of the aphorism employed. The SG and his able assistants were unable to grasp what the senior judge was trying to convey. While I cannot confirm this, I understand they sought a 30-minute recess to consider their position. The judge settled for 15 minutes and told them to get on with it. Quite right, too.

Our television news channels were quick to pick up on this. Before you could say ‘What’s happened to Arnab Goswami?’, anchors were falling over themselves asking their panelists to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’ I kid you not. I distinctly heard at least three well-known anchors saying precisely that to a puzzled set of invited speakers from various political affiliations. ‘What coffee, what smell? I am sitting at home sipping fresh lime soda. Kindly explain yourself, Madam.’ See what I mean? The Supreme Court has started something and it’s catching like Covid19.

This chronicler cannot swear as to what exactly passed between the SG and his bright-eyed, bushy-tailed colleagues during the brief recess, but a smart fly on the wall, blessed with an excellent sense of hearing passed around a scrap of paper with some hurriedly scribbled notes. Some of the writing was indecipherable, probably in Pitman’s shorthand, but we tried our best to fill in the blanks.

‘Smell the coffee? Smell the coffee? What could he possible mean?’ wailed the agitated SG. ‘Any of you have a clue?’

One of the bright sparks piped up. ‘Perhaps he was inviting you to his home, Boss, to have an offline discussion on the subject, and a steaming cup of delicious coffee was on the menu. Filter coffee, mmm. I can smell it even now. Redolent of MTR Bangalore! Could be his way of offering you a peace pipe, to make up for his peremptory remarks without conceding too much ground. And perhaps to ensure that the discussion is maintained at an even keel and not allowed to spiral out of control. I mean, it is the highest court in the land taking on the powerful central government. Decencies of debate and a level of decorum need to be observed.’

Riposted the SG, ‘In your dreams, my fine-feathered friend. You are getting carried away. Judges don’t invite you into their homes, not for all the coffee beans in Brazil. They may invite other judges, but not the likes of us. No, no. There is more to this than meets the eye. I am thinking coded message.’

‘You lost me there, Sir. Coded message? Are you speaking in code, Sir, or do we take your word at face value?’ The junior assistant looked bemused.

‘Look, surely you know what coded messages are. Haven’t you seen any spy films? You have to read between the lines, juggle around with the letters, equate numerals to the position of each letter, hold it up in front of a mirror, then read it in reverse, some of the letters or numerals may even represent morse codes. You know. Dot, dash, dash, dot, dot, dash, dot, that sort of thing. I thought they trained you chaps on all this. Come on fellows, let’s have you.’

‘Wow, Sir. All this was not part of our syllabus. Carlill vs Carbolic Smoke Ball, yes. Morse code, no. Perhaps you could solve this mystery, Sir. What with all your in-depth knowledge of dots and dashes.’

The SG was miffed. ‘Go ahead and laugh at my expense. You’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth when your life depended on decoding “how now brown cow.” Now let’s get serious. We have to face this relentless judge in five minutes. And I need to anticipate what more strange words or expressions he is likely to throw at us. I need to be sharpish. Right now, I am at my wit’s end. I refuse to be caught off-guard again. Not another sarcastic, smirky “smell the coffee” with plenty of top spin on it.’

One of the SG’s smart, young lady assistants, fresh out of law school, put forward the interesting and plausible theory that the good judge was probably suggesting that if you can’t smell the coffee, you could be a ripe candidate for Covid, and that you should go and get tested immediately. ‘Deadening of the olfactory senses is one of the symptoms, Sir,’ she added helpfully.

‘Thank you very much, doctor. I am fully aware of what the symptoms of Covid are. I am up to my eyeballs on Covid symptoms. Even our good judge was down with Covid but thankfully, fully recovered. As is clearly evident. Look team, this is taking us nowhere. We are up the creek without a paddle.’

‘Brilliant Sir. You should use that in court. Up the creek without a paddle. Their lordships or justices or whoever, will be foxed. You will have won a psychological blow. The judge who asked you to smell the coffee will be stymied. He will be clearly on the backfoot. He might switch to drinking weak tea.’

‘God, give me strength. Backfoot eh? Now I have to put up with your cricketing similes. This meeting has been about as useful as a one-legged, blindfolded man with severe astigmatism attempting to break the 100 meters world record. The judge will have me for breakfast.’

‘Perfect. It will then be your turn, to ask his lordship to smell the coffee.’ The young assistant was beside himself with his own, corny cleverness.

‘You carry on like this, young man, and the judge will send you down to a place where you will have to smell extremely unpleasant things. You may almost wish you had Covid to deaden your olfactory senses. Ha ha! Right, end of this nonsense. Thanks for nothing. Let’s make tracks to the court where the beaks are awaiting us with their knives out.’

‘Another good one, Sir. Almost Wodehousean. You can hold your own with these “beaks.”’

Back in court, one of the judges addressed the SG. ‘I trust you have had adequate time to consider your position, as you so delicately put it. How soon can we expect the Government to submit to us its detailed nationwide vaccine rollout plan?’

‘With respect your lordship, “adequate time” is a relative concept. I asked for 30 minutes and you gave us a quarter of an hour. How long is a piece of string? It is a metaphysical question worth pondering on. I am sure your lordship will recall Albert Einstein’s quip on time and relativity, “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” What a man!

The judge interrupted the SG sharply. ‘Do you plan to come to the point any time soon, Sir?’

‘Sorry judge, if you are put out by my meandering style. Meaning no disrespect, I am sure you are accustomed to long speeches by prosecution and defence counsels. In fact, I well remember on one occasion, 1979 I think it was, when you yourself, Sir, full of youthful energy and enthusiasm, went on for an interminably long…’

‘And now you are getting personal.’ The judge was livid. ‘For the last time, if you continue in this vein, I might have to find you in contempt. Get to the point.’

‘My profuse apologies. But you see, your lordship, I can’t get to the point because, right at this point, I don’t have a point. Can you not find it in your large heart to give us a week and we will come up with a plan to your satisfaction?’

‘The country is in the throes of a monumental medical emergency. I cannot give you a week. I’ll make it four days. That’s it.’

The Solicitor General bowed obsequiously. ‘Take it or leave it? Thank you, your lordship for small mercies. I can see where you’re coming from. Never give a sucker an even break. I can live with that. My philosophy is, what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts, if you get my drift your lordship. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, as it says in the Good Book. We shall revert with a subtle but effective plan that should satisfy the courts, the government and above all, the people of India. Speaking of subtle plans, your lordship, I am sure you will indulge me if I shared this quote by that fictional curmudgeon Edmund Blackadder, in that side-splittingly hilarious television series starring Rowan Atkinson. Edmund responds to his goofy, congenital idiot of an assistant Baldrick’s offer to come up with a subtle plan, “Baldrick, you wouldn’t recognise a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsicord singing ‘subtle plans are here again’.” Forgive me judges, these are tears of unrestrained joy. Just wished to end on a light-hearted note. Once again, thank you kindly your lordships, and enjoy the aromatic smell of fresh coffee at home.’

As the judges trooped out of the court, our resident, inquisitive fly on the wall distinctly heard one of them muttering under his breath,‘If I never see this man again, it will be too soon.’

Note: This piece is entirely a work of fiction barring the initial premise based on the Supreme Court’s observations.

Literature’s ‘unwashed phenomenon’

Bob Dylan & His Creative Process. Steve Jobs took some heat when he said… |  by Alex Kliman | Medium
Bob Dylan, circa early sixties

All I can do is be me, whoever that is. Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan celebrates his 80th birthday today, even as I go tip-tap in real time on my keyboard. 24th May to be precise. By the time you read this piece, a week would have passed since the seminal date of his birth, but the hoopla would have barely begun. The whole western world and much of the rest of the planet will, in some way, shape or form mark this milestone with much fanfare. Deservedly so. Dylan’s songs will be sung in concerts by celebrated musicians and also by lesser-known acts in far-flung areas around the globe. Social media will buzz incessantly with families from three or four generations crooning Blowin’ in the wind from their drawing rooms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (if these platforms have not been told to pack up and leave our shores). In India, for instance the great poet-troubadour, singer and songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota is worshipped in Assam and the surrounding north-east’s hilly terrain, apart from many of our more cosmopolitan metro cities and towns. They have been singing Dylan songs for decades. One much-loved veteran rocker from Shillong, Lou Majaw, refuses to cover anybody else’s songs but Dylan’s. If you were to be told that they offer prayers to Dylan’s graven image in their homes every evening, that would seem just about credulous.

In my personal opinion Bob Dylan, along with Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison have been the greatest singer-songwriters the world of western popular music has known. And Bob Dylan is arguably the first among equals. There are those who would be quick to cavil, citing the undoubtedly sterling claims of Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and others of their ilk.  To those who would ask, ‘What about Elvis Presley?’ my riposte would be that he was not a songwriter, iconic performer though he was. Let me say, straight off the bat, that I love The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Springsteen as well as Simon and Garfunkel but I reserve the right, as the chronicler of this piece, to place them just a shade below the other four mentioned. There are many reasons for this subjective assessment, but this is neither the time nor place to get into that argument. Dear reader, you will doubtless proffer a dozen or more names to be placed among the pantheon of musical greats, but that debate will have to wait for another day. Today is Robert Allen Zimmerman’s aka Bob Dylan’s day.

Bob Dylan Joni Mitchell Bon Jovi INXS I Shall Be Released Japan 1994 -  YouTube
Dylan jamming with Joni Mitchell

Among the four greats that I had made mention, Dylan’s claim to be the numero uno is helped in no small measure by the fact that he is American. Cohen and Mitchell are Canadians while Morrison is Irish. In matters such as popular art, being an American gives you a head start. The traction you are able to generate because of the United States’ huge cultural footprint across the globe in itself assures this. (In 1970 American poster-hulk and sentimental favourite John Wayne, whom nobody could ever accuse of being a great actor, pipped to the post for Best Actor at the Oscars the likes of brilliant thespians Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and the Midnight Cowboys, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. That should tell you something about Yankee clout). Leonard Cohen’s passing in 2016 brought his music once more to the forefront, and fans like myself set out to rediscover the magic of his lyrics and renderings steeped in gravitas. The supremely talented Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday a couple of years ago went largely unnoticed barring a few celebratory shows in Canada. The Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison turned 75 a few months shy of a year ago, and his country did him proud with radio and TV stations rounding up musicians from all over Ireland to sing his songs over several weeks. Even the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins performed one of Van the Man’s memorable speak-song poems. However, outside of Ireland the landmark only received cursory attention.

Bob Dylan on stage with Van Morrison. | Bob dylan lyrics, Bob dylan, Dylan
Dylan and Van Morrison – mutual respect

Bob Dylan is a different kettle of fish altogether. Not that Dylan’s fame needed any further boost, but his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,’ added to the lustre. In a strange way, his declining the invitation to attend the Nobel Prize presentation banquet in Stockholm only enhanced his allure. If some cynics characterized his refusal to personally present himself as inverted snobbery, he quickly made amends by accepting the Nobel medal a few months later from the Nobel committee at a private ceremony. The 900,000 US greenbacks that went with the award, was not to be sneezed at either. In a recorded speech made public later, Dylan mused, ‘When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how exactly my songs related to Literature.’ He then went on to describe how the classics he read in school influenced his music. ‘When I started writing my own songs, folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it. But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world, and I’d had that for a while. I learned it all in grammar school: Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, all the rest.’

Dylan and Leonard Cohen – men of letters

If one needed any further proof of Dylan’s literary talent or of his being a rightful claimant for the Nobel Literature Prize, just read his book Chronicles Vol.1, a brilliantly observed tome on his approach to music and his love of the language. Volume 1 would have naturally presaged a second volume, but it has yet to see the light of day, apparently stuck somewhere in the machinery. There has been much heated debate amongst the cognoscenti on the merits or otherwise of a musician being awarded the Nobel for Literature. If T.S. Eliot, Harold Pinter and V.S. Naipaul are worthy Nobel Laureates, Bob Dylan’s name nestles comfortably alongside.  I think the Nobel committee should be lauded for getting round the issue of not having a category for music by honouring a person whose songs were more poetic than perhaps many contemporary poets and writers, and whose words flowed incessantly like a series of cascades. This may pave the way for more musicians being similarly honoured in the future or, better still, a separate category being created for musicians. The Times They Are A-Changin’. Time and the Nobel committee will tell, now that a precedent has been set.

Bob Dylan to receive Nobel Prize - WWAY TV
The Alfred Nobel medallion

Bob Dylan the musician, in my considered view, played second fiddle to Bob Dylan the poet. If Van Morrison used his amazing voice to squeeze out unique musical expressions (‘singing syllables, signs and phrases’ as he once memorably put it), where the words were merely a vehicle to transport the Irishman’s musical flights of fancy, for Dylan it was the other way round. He was the quintessential poet – Blake, Donne, Keats and Coleridge all rolled into one. With a dash of Eliot, Freud and Shakespeare tossed into the mix. Having started life out as a folk and protest singer and as his interest in music deepened, Dylan felt his innate penchant for lyrical beauty could be greatly enhanced by the astute melding of music. His voice had a limited range but his phrasing was just right to convey the idealism of his words. In his case music was the vehicle that carried his stirring lyrics to all parts of the world. As you would expect from a performer who has been going at it for over six decades the range of his songs and the canvas on which he paints them is vast. Like A Rolling Stone, Blowin’ In the Wind, Tangled Up In Blue, Mr. Tambourine Man, Just Like A Woman, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Positively 4th Street, Masters Of War, All Along The Watchtower, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Shelter From The Storm, Desolation Row, I Shall Be Released – I could go on forever. And these were mostly from Dylan’s earlier oeuvre, the songs that really made him a universal icon.

To the statistically minded, Dylan has composed in excess of 600 songs, and over 2000 artists have covered his tracks. He is also arguably the most mimicked artist, that patented nasal drawl is like catnip to a cat to so many famous singers who have covered his songs. In later years his voice, inevitably, became gravelly and lost the innocent timbre of youth. If you listen to his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be speaking most of the time with just the barest hint of anything musical to support, barring the spare background instrumentals, culminating in a seventeen-minute rambling dirge on the murder of President John Kennedy, Murder Most Foul.

Bob Dylan at 80: Why “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is his greatest  protest song - Prospect Magazine
Dylan’s inspirational muse, Joan Baez

Which brings us to the obvious question. What is Bob Dylan’s legacy to the world of popular music, or indeed, to the world of literature, given that he has been awarded the Nobel encomium for that very subject? It can be safely posited that no single musician has spoken or sung more eloquently for an entire generation, and then some, reflecting the behavioral mores as well as the political and social quirks of diverse peoples around the world, but particularly of his home country. To be relevant as an influential artist for over six decades, riding the crest of the ebb and flow of rapidly changing times, is more than ample testimony to the achievements of Bob Dylan. Enough said, methinks. I’ll leave the last word to Bob Dylan’s muse, sometime lover and wondrous singer, the dazzling Joan Baez who memorably described him in song as ‘the unwashed phenomenon’ and ‘the original vagabond.’ Here’s the last verse from Baez’s Diamonds and Rust.

Now you’re telling me
You’re not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
‘Cause I need some of that vagueness now
It’s all come back too clearly
Yes I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid.

Happy birthday, Bob. May you stay Forever Young.

I could have danced all night

Pygmalion/My Fair Lady: arts, book reports, eliza doolittle, en, film  report, language, language arts, movie, my fair lady, pygmalion | Glogster  EDU - Interactive multimedia posters
Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. Friedrich Nietzsche.

My subject this week is Dancing. Hence the bestowal of the capital D. Before you jump to conclusions, let me hasten to add that I am not about to launch on a learned treatise on Bharatanatyam, Kathakali or Kuchipudi. Or even Odissi, come to that. While I have admired the svelte and expressive grace of a Balasaraswati or a Kelucharan Mohapatra on stage during my childhood, I can’t say I naturally took to the art form, though the accompanying music sometimes held me in thrall. In other words, what I know about these classical dance forms can be written on a pinhead with a pneumatic drill, as I once heard my English teacher in school describe the state of being a total ignoramus. The same goes for Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn and their balletic brilliance. Tchaikovsky’s music for the immortal ballet Swan Lake, I could appreciate, but the soaring magnificence of the ballerinas, literally swanning about the stage, often escaped me. My bad, to employ that cringe-worthy, au courant expression. The fault, dear reader, is not in our stars but in ourselves, as Shakespeare might have put it.

However, I am talking about a completely different kind of dancing. The sort where the boy and the girl hold hands outstretched, the girl’s hand on the boy’s shoulder and the boy’s unoccupied hand resting lightly on the girl’s waist. Those were the essential hand positions for the foxtrot, one of the oldest western dance forms known to us. Of course, the feet have to move in a precise way in time with the music. It is significant that the boy keeps moving forward while the girl keeps striding backwards. Marking territory and asserting male dominance? Pull the other one! No girl I know takes a backward step these days. I hasten to add that I have no desire to expand on the nuances of the foxtrot. It is a very traditional pas de deux, and that’s all I am willing and able to trot out on the subject. The reason I brought it up is to share with you a colourful vignette from my boarding school days, one which involved the foxtrot. Elsewhere, I have dwelt at length on the joys and tribulations of boarding school life, but I have not really talked about how our masters and teachers gently made us feel comfortable in mixed company. Under their strict watch, of course.

It came about that our school, which had a boys’ and a girls’ wing, would host once a month, for the senior boys and girls, a ‘social’, also called for reasons unfathomable, ‘games evening.’ The venue was our school hall. The boys, 9th standard and above would troop in and sit on benches on one side of the hall, while the senior girls, far less in number, would sit themselves down on the opposite side. The boys were all turned out in smart, pressed shirts and drainpipes, shoes polished so you could comb your hair in the reflection, hair slicked back and Brylcreemed, Elvis Presley style. The girls, demure in multi-hued frocks and hair carefully coiffed. As only to be expected, plenty of stolen glances accompanied by titters and giggles galore, the odd teeth brace glinting at times. Remember, the average age, if you exclude the teachers present, was around 15. Giggling was the order of the day.

The teachers on duty at these socials were like informal masters of ceremony. They stood on stage and ensured that nothing came in the way of the smooth flow of the evening’s proceedings and that matters did not get out of hand. No funny business. The evening itself usually started off with a song or two by the girls and the boys, just to warm things up (Let’s get together from the film Parent Trap and Side by side being particular favourites). A comic sketch was a must, carefully rehearsed for timing and delivery of the punch line, a recitation of a dreadful poem composed by some bright spark from 9A. Then came the moment everyone was waiting for with bated breath. The Dance. This was a bit tricky. The first dance was termed a ‘tag dance.’ I am getting ahead of myself here. Let me backtrack. When the first dance was announced, the received custom required the boys to go up and ask the girls to dance with them. There were several problems to be faced here. First off, shyness. No one wanted to be the first, so we sat where we were, stock still and doing a fair imitation of our own statues. At which point the teachers would come round, hectoring the boys not to behave like blithering idiots. Ever so hesitantly, some of the boys would start walking towards the girls, legs like jelly.

Now comes problem number two. The boys invariably outnumbered the girls by a factor of 2:1. Therefore, when the boys perked up enough gumption to approach the girls, you had this farcical situation of two or three boys approaching the same girl and it was a question of who got there first. The laggards had then to pretend they were asking the girls who sat on either side of the first-choice girl. The reason for this nonsensical parody was that, out of the 30-odd girls seated, perhaps 10 were identified by the boys as being ‘the lookers.’ Thus, most of the initial surge went after these10 beauties and the poor Cinderellas were left pining with the others. My young heart bled for them. Happily, in the end all the girls were ‘picked up’ and the first tag dance was well under way. The master on duty slips in a 78-rpm vinyl of Elvis Presley crooning Love me tender or It’s now or never, the gait ideal for the foxtrot. The floor is full, the boys start tripping over their partners’ legs, most of us with two left feet and there is much mocking laughter from the boys who are still sitting on the benches waiting their turn.

This is a good moment to explain, on the off-chance there are some who may not know, what a tag dance is. The tag dance, by definition, ensures no one boy is stuck with the same girl for the entire duration of the song, an impossible strain to bear for any newcomer to the dance floor – boy or girl. So, while you are dancing, any other boy is free to come and tap you on the shoulder (the tag), and you have to make way for him to take over and dance with the girl you were tripping the light fantastic with. Incidentally, it’s only the boys who do the tagging, not the girls. This augurs much potential hilarity. For example, Mahesh has just asked Rekha for a dance. While Elvis is barely into the chorus, he (Mahesh that is, not Elvis) is tagged by Mathew. Poor Mahesh then has to withdraw with a ‘Thanks Rekha’ while Rekha responds coyly with a ‘Thanks Naresh’ and Mahesh tries to bleat, ‘Not Naresh, Mahesh,’ but the magic moment passes. Mahesh or Naresh has disappeared into oblivion. Conversation also has to be necessarily staccato and brief. ‘Hi Rekha, I am Mathew. I am in 9B, Sharon’s brother.’ ‘Oh, Sharon’s my best friend. What is your favourite…?’ What was Mathew’s favourite whatever will forever remain a mystery as just then, Mathew is tagged by Vikram. Mathew stalks off, hoping he didn’t suffer from bad breath. And so the long evening wears on. Elvis Presley gives way to Cliff Richard who puts on his Dancing Shoes much to the delight of all the Bachelor Boy(s), who in turn makes way for Connie Francis’ Lipstick on your collar, and no boy or girl is any the wiser about who exactly he or she was dancing with. Some of those songs were of a more upbeat tempo, which did not make it any easier for us to execute the foxtrot. The dancing thus became more and more impressionistic.

When the early 60s morphed into the mid-60s, the music got more raucous. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones hit town, and our teachers were broad-minded enough to allow us to move from the gentle foxtrot to the twist, the rumba and other vigorous dance forms. However, they always ensured that matters did not spin out of control. One other slightly awkward issue had to be tackled by the school authorities. Despite doing everything they could to ensure democracy with boys dancing and mixing with as many girls as possible, they could not avoid a handful of boys getting ‘fixed’ to some girls of their choice. Word quickly got around. ‘Pssst, don’t tag Wally when he is dancing with Maureen. They are fixed.’ This, of course, became a red rag challenge to the other boys with bets freely taking place. ‘Who will be brave enough to tag Wally?’ Krish of 10A puts his hand up and walks bravely across to the dance floor and taps Wally on the shoulder. ‘My dance Wally, if you don’t mind.’ Wally looks daggers at Krish and spits out of the side of his mouth, well out of Maureen’s earshot, ‘Get out of my face Krish, or you’ll be eating a fistful of knuckles after this.’ Krish trudges back, tail between legs. Tells the boys Wally agreed to give him the next dance, but nobody was buying.

   It was a strange rite of passage, this ‘getting to know the girls’ on the dance floor, and frankly, some of the crazy dance moves by the boys were not compatible with live brain activity. Then again, who cared? Over the weekend, some of our class mates brought back a clutch of autograph books from their sisters (and their friends) with a list of names to sign and write sweet nothings on. And if your name happened to be on that hallowed list, Kipling captured the emotion best. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it / And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!’

Mothers-in-law: fabled bête noire.

Mother-in-law — Stock Photo, Image

It goes without saying that one is reluctant to open the newspaper early in the morning these days. The news is uniformly depressing and experts tell us it is going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better. And if the venerated Lancet is to be believed, India has botched things up right royally and disaster will rain down on us. ‘Apocalypse,’ Lancet screams, hell hath no fury like a virus scorned. And that doomsday merchant, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) routinely predicts gloom and catastrophe for India. Fortunately, I give a flying toss for what the Lancet or WHO says. Dr. Randeep Guleria, Dr. Devi Shetty and Dr. Sanjeev Bagai, all good men and true are good enough for me. Happily, they think things will get better (provided). The chorus of an old Beatles song reverberates, ‘I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time (it can’t get no worse).’ There is a smidgen of mordant irony, if you look closely for it, in those Lennon-McCartney lyrics, and we wait for that day, somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we could all sing those lyrics, or whatever equivalent we can find in our own respective tongues. If you wish to be merely ironical, you can sing it even now.

That said, reading the newspaper of a morning, along with a steaming hot cuppa, is a lifetime habit for many of us, who are not inextricably wedded to the claustrophobic, spondylitic confines of our mobile phones causing painful changes to our cervical cord. In order to delay casting my weary eye over the inevitable missives about vaccine shortage, patients breathlessly waiting for oxygen concentrators and ventilators, running counts of the infected, the recovered and the deceased on a daily basis, I start by turning to the sports pages. Not much to cheer about there either, unless you are a Manchester City, Nadal or Djokovic fan. Charlie Brown, Hagar the Horrible, not to mention Calvin and Hobbes provide much-needed light relief on the entertainment pages, except if you favour reading about film stars frolicking with their golden retrievers and cocker-spaniels or telling us how to make chicken stroganoff (beef will be frowned upon) and gabbing on about their pets’ treatment in sickness and in health.

That being the broad scenario as far as the news pages are concerned, I did not pay much heed to a news item headlined, ‘Woman kills children and commits suicide.’ It happens all the time in our benighted country. Sadly, one has become blasé about such headlines, tragic as they are. This ghastly incident occurred somewhere in the rural heartlands of Bihar. Where else? I assumed straightaway, with good reason, that it must have been virus-related and the suffering woman decided to end it all in one fell swoop. Her husband was evidently a truck driver, and as truck drivers are wont to do, was unmindfully driving his truck somewhere in India’s broad highways, a bottle of country liquor keeping him in a cheerfully inebriated state, while his unfortunate family were doing themselves in. Horrific as this case reportedly was, and there are many more like that, it had nothing to do with the rampaging disease that is ravaging our nation. This was a simple case of the poor housewife being badgered and harassed by her mother-in-law. That old trope again, one that we have witnessed in so many Indian pot-boiler films during the 60s and 70s. Which is not to say that it does not happen in real life, as witness the abovementioned incident. As to a matter of pertinent detail, it was not very clear to me whether she poisoned all her children (there were four of them) and poured the deadly hemlock down her own throat, or in the more time-honoured fashion, threw all of them into a nearby well (there’s always one handy) and dived in right after them, or perhaps a bit of both. Now that is a poisoned well, if you’re looking for one. This lack of important detail would have rightly infuriated Sherlock Holmes, or for that matter, Hercule Poirot. I merely shook my head cynically at the pathetic quality of reportage that has permeated the newspaper industry. Superficiality is the order of the day, and that includes glossing over details.

Thus I found myself stranded in a strange quandary. Should I feel sorry for this woman in rural Bihar who was forced to end her own and her children’s lives due to mother-in-law troubles, or feel relieved that it was not a case of another lot of virus victims? It was then that I concluded that I shan’t waste any more time cogitating over the reasoning for this tragedy and instead, ponder over this mother-in-law syndrome that so afflicts our society. Let the virus do its damnedest, the vaccine will take care of it, in God’s good time. I am, for the nonce, hooked on this mother-in-law thing.

What is it about mothers-in-law that makes them a shoo-in for the role of the villainess in our scheme of things and the spiteful darlings of our film world? I often feel that the clan as a whole has been hard done by. Grossly misjudged. My own mother-in-law, may she rest in peace, was the embodiment of all that is good and kind in a person that you could wish for, and she could cook a storm in the kitchen. Then again, I am biased. Any one who can produce the kind of desserts she could, gets my vote for Mother-In-Law of The Century. I daresay there are hundreds of others who would place their hands on their hearts and swear undying allegiance to the virtues of their respective mothers-in-law. However, in broad generic terms in the Indian landscape, she has been, rightly or wrongly, portrayed as an intensely vile harridan. Vilified is the word I am groping for.

Naturally, nasty jokes abound about mothers-in-law. Let us bear in mind that someone’s mother is somebody else’s mother-in-law and that every mother-in-law was also once a daughter-in-law. Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi. That is the immutable law of nature when you decide to enter the state of wedlock. For instance, did you know that ‘mother-in-law’ is an anagram of ‘Woman Hitler,’ if you exclude the hyphens? Here’s another. First man: ‘I took my dog to the vet today because it bit my mother-in-law.’ Another asked: ‘Did you put it to sleep?’ The first replied: ‘No, I had its teeth sharpened.’ And here’s one for the road, my favourite. Bill: ‘I was sorry to hear that your mother-in-law died. What was the complaint?’ George: ‘We haven’t had any yet.’ I could go on and on. The brilliant polemicist, writer and speaker, the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens once talked of a religious text’s promise of 72 virgins for the pious when they entered paradise, ‘My only hope is that for every 72 virgins they get in paradise, they also get 72 mothers-in-law,’ Hitchens quipped.

I personally think the mother-in-law is more sinned against than sinning. Let me hasten to add that I do not, not for one nano second, claim that we don’t have a gaggle of monsters, à la our Indian film portrayals in the mother-in-law space. I am just griping about the over generalisation that reduces the whole category into a silly shibboleth. A crass cliché, if you will. Can we have a bit more discernment please? Are daughters-in-law and sons-in-law all angels in human shape? Of course not. Faults on both sides, and all that. To err is human, and mothers-in-law, most of them, are human, more or less. Let us not tar all of them with the same brush. I fully expect the ten-and-a-half readers of my blogs to bear down on me, raining verbal blows and obloquy. ‘What do you know about mothers-in-law?’ they will scream. ‘You are one of the few, lucky ones.’ Fine, I shall effect a dignified withdrawal from this unseemly brawl. Each to his or her own. I cannot arrogate to myself the right to speak for others but try stopping me speaking for myself.

In the final analysis, I make just one, humble request to all those who think they are being unfairly targeted by their mothers-in-law. Spare a thought for her background. Perhaps she was given a tough time by her mother-in-law and knows no other way to get her own back. Those of us who studied in boarding schools will know what I mean. When we were juniors the prefects and monitors would mete out punishment routinely, simply because they faced the same hardship when they were juniors, from their seniors. ‘Wear that dunce cap and stand in the corner.’ And so it gets passed on in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Likewise with mothers-in-law. Give them a break, and if you find it unbearable, break some crockery (not the Wedgwood bone china). You will find it immensely relieving.