Mercury Rising

BBC's old favourites Steptoe, Alf and Hyacinth all set to return with new  stars | Daily Mail Online
British comedian Tony Hancock with his home remedies

Just over a week ago, at around one in the morning, while I slept fitfully, I suddenly sensed that strange ague that comes only to those who are about to come down with something not very pleasant. Sleep-fogged as I was, I initially did not give it much thought and tried to go back to the land of Nod. Sleep, ‘that knits up the raveled sleave of care’ however, eluded me. I tossed one way, then turned the other but no dice. Calpurnia may or may not have heard her husband moan, but I said to myself, ‘this too shall pass.’ What passed as I clutched my stomach with unbearable cramps and ran to the toilet, I would rather not describe. Let it remain a closely-guarded secret between me and my toilet seat. When I went back to bed, Calpurnia drowsily muttered if I was all right. Which of course, I was anything but. When I described to her what was happening, her eyes widened and she uttered that unspeakable five-letter word beginning with C in an interrogative tone. You, dear reader, have every right to ask me how I knew my wife was wide-eyed when it was pitch dark and I had not turned the lights on. When one has been married for over four decades, assuming you have not changed partners, one just knows these things. It goes without saying that I did not sleep a wink for the rest of the night, I being the wide-eyed one, and the bright break of dawn brought no balm either. By this time my toilet seat had become an old friend given the number of visits I had lost count of. Bum chums, if you get my drift. I had popped anti-flatulent and antacid Gelusils like it was going out of fashion, drank tumblerfuls of Electral water, containing as it does, sodium citrate, sodium chloride, potassium chloride and anhydrous dextrose. It was printed on the packet label. Excellent stuff for if you’re having the runs on an industrial scale. My head was making a fine fist of doing ferris-wheel imitations every time I tried to sit up. Need I say more?

That I had been struck down by a vicious stomach bug leading to dehydration and fever, was a foregone conclusion. The jury did not even have to leave the courtroom. Food-poisoning could have been a facile (and hopeful) diagnosis. The burning question was, could it be that other dreadful thing whose name shall not be spoken? Everybody seems to be getting it. Why should I be the exception? But I have been such a good boy. Have not stirred out of the house for weeks, always wore a double mask whenever the doorbell rang, washed my hands 37 times a day, and strictly maintained the distance socially demanded from strangers, mainly in the form of delivery boys. Then I said to myself, ‘Pull yourself together, this is no time for panicking. Think clearly.’ Took my temperature. 100.1. Not earth shattering, but moderately high fever still. Oxygen saturation, where’s that little gizmo we bought online some months ago? The good wife knew exactly where it was, checked the batteries, shoved my right middle finger into it, the green digits oscillated wildly (which gave me palpitations), finally settled on 97 and a pulse rate of 58. Go straight to the top of the class. All is not lost. Think positive, or do I mean negative? We live in crazy times when positive means negative and vice-versa. However, the nagging fear would not leave me. Should I take an RT-PCR test, or some other test I am unaware of? And wait for six days for the results to come in and then not be sure if they were right? It was time to get expert medical opinion, and Calpurnia suggested just the man.

This is a good time for a light-hearted aside. Calpurnia, of course, is not my better half’s real name. Like you didn’t know! If there be those amongst you, and I do not wish to sound patronizing or presumptuous, who haven’t the foggiest who this Calpurnia is or was, I will put you out of your misery. She was, no prizes for guessing, Julius Caesar’s wife, and had this habit of waking up every time the great Caesar threw a fit while sleeping, which was often, given his epileptic disposition. And who can blame the mighty Caesar? I would throw several fits if I suspected that Brutus, Cassius, Casca and that lot were plotting and leather-stropping their daggers, the better to stick it to me at the Capitol the following day, the Ides of March to be precise. Shakespeare placed the murder at Rome’s imposing Capitol though gnarled historians swear the dreaded deed took place at the Curia of Pompey. I shan’t quibble. I just think the Capitol sounds so much grander.

 It’s all very well carrying on with your Friends, Romans and Countrymen speeches, but there’s blood on your hands, Brutus. I thought Caesar put it rather well with his snappy one-liner, Et tu Brute, then fall Caesar. Talk about famous last words. I am surprised he had the strength to say even that after being stabbed 23 times! That’s on record.Incidentally, dear reader, if you decide to search Wikipedia to learn more about Calpurnia, the first entry you will come across is, ‘Calpurnia. Canadian Indie Rock Band.’ Only when you scroll further down will you come across Caesar’s fourth wife. Or it might have been the third. Pop groups and boy bands must trump over literature and history. A sign of the times.

I do crave your forgiveness, dear reader, for that diversion but it was all in a good cause. Now that you are abreast of the situation, let me get back to my stomach infection and how I dealt with it. I am fortunate enough to have this very nice, and very knowledgeable doctor friend, whom I turn to whenever I think I am in trouble. If we had not been living in SARS-CoV-2 times (I will not utter the C-word), I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Leafed through my diary where my wife meticulously notes down every ailment we have ever suffered and the medication prescribed thereof. I would have simply popped the said pills, slurped the recommended syrup, plenty of hydration, inhaled steam till I choked, a bit of gargling (highly overrated) and as they say in England, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’ In case you haven’t guessed by now, I am a bit of a hypochondriac. However, since there was every possibility that it could have been something more sinister, I buzzed my good medico friend. I shall call him Ashish (not his real name) to avoid an army of patients beating a path to his door.

‘Good morning Ashish, hope I did not catch you at a bad time.’

‘And good morning to you, too. Everything all right? You don’t sound terribly bright.’ I told you he was good.

‘Ah, you clever man. Nothing escapes your razor-sharp ear. Well, apart from running a moderate temperature, mild body ache and running to the loo with stomach cramps all through the night, I am perfectly well.’ Ashish understood irony.

‘Hmmm…’ went Ashish. I hate it when doctors go ‘Hmmm…’ Ominous.

‘Listen Ashish, enough with the humming and hawing. Tell me the worst. Have I got it? I can take it on the chin. I am talking to you from my toilet seat. You can’t upset me or my stomach any more than I already am. So, fire away.’ I was trying to affect a bravado I did not feel.

‘My friend, I know you are nervous but if you keep babbling on incoherently, I can’t get a word in edgeways. I realize it’s nervousness, but you are sounding delirious. So take a deep breath and answer these questions.’ That sane tone again. So reassuring.

‘From my toilet seat, or shall I move to my bed? And would you like a video conference?’ I wished to take no chances.

‘For God’s sake, no. I would rather visualize you sitting comfortably on your bed than on your throne. And no video, please. Now tell me. Fever, check. Body ache, check. Loosies, check with knobs on. Let us now go through the full laundry list. Blood pressure? 130 /80. As normal as it gets. Headache? No. Unexplained rashes? No. Toes turning blue or green? No. Loss of appetite? Slightly, understandable. Sense of smell? Can’t stand the stench from your toilet? That’s a great sign. Nausea? Feeling nauseous but didn’t actually bring anything up. Super. Watery eyes? You cried? That doesn’t count. Dizziness? Only when you stand on your head? Ha ha. You can’t be that bad if you are making jokes. Not very good ones, but still.’

‘Enough with the questions and the symptoms, my friend, do I need to take further tests to get at the truth? Going for a test might involve its own risks. I might catch the bloody thing which I may not be having in the first place. It’s happened to others.’ A bit of paranoia showing through, methinks.

‘For the first time you spoke some sense. Going purely symptomatically, I would not recommend any further investigation. I believe in differential diagnosis. For now, you seem to have caught a nasty bug and that’s all it is. I will prescribe a three-day course of antibiotics and vitamins and you should be right as rain on the fourth day.’

I was still unsure. ‘You mean it’s not that disease starting with C, ending with D and two vowels and a consonant in between? I could jump with joy.’

Ashish was quick to gently admonish. ‘I wouldn’t advise any jumping, unless you wish to pass out. This is my present diagnosis. If you are not better after three days, I may have to revise and review my opinion.’

That sobered me up like a shot. I am happy to report that on the fourth day, I rose again (like JC) feeling a bit woozy, otherwise perfectly normal, all parameters up to scratch. Importantly, the bowels were on their best behaviour and the plumbing system in shipshape (mine, not the toilet’s). On a serious note, these are difficult times, but the lesson I learnt is not to panic (pot calling the kettle black). And if you personally know a doctor who is wise and experienced, and his adoption tried, grapple him unto thy soul with hoops of steel. That was a paraphrased gag from Hamlet, but fit for the purpose. Finally, remember this. Even Lady Macbeth advocated washing your hands thoroughly, though in her case, the damned spot would not go.

Neville Cardus. In His Own Write.

Knights Of The Round Playing Arena – An XI Of Cricketing 'Sirs' | Wisden
Sir Neville Cardus – 1888 to 1975

There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this the best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass. Neville Cardus.

The celebrated Trinidadian Marxist historian, cricket lover and writer, C.L.R. James, famously paraphrased Rudyard Kipling in saying, ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ in his seminal book Beyond a Boundary, an eloquent rumination on the game of cricket as it was played and viewed from a social milieu in the West Indies and in his transitory place of residence, London. Replace the word cricket with England, and you have, pretty much, the original Kipling quote. This particular quotation came to mind while I have been enjoying Cardus on Cricket, a book of essays and recollections of arguably the finest writer on cricket, since men of letters started taking this game seriously enough to pen their observations for newspapers, magazines and for their own delectation. Sir Neville Cardus was a turn-of-the-century writer who loved cricket as much as he loved English literature, poetry and western classical music, and his well-documented pieces on this King of Sports have now become part of literary folklore. I am aware that in ascribing this grandiloquent honorific to the game of cricket, I trespass on the game of football to which the title rightfully belongs. That is a solecism I am willing to live with.

The strange thing is that this particular tome, Cardus on Cricket, I blush to admit has been gathering dust in my bookshelf for well over a decade, pristinely untouched, and the prominent spine of the book has been glaring at me admonishingly for not having the good sense or taste to pick it up and start reading it. As an ardent lover of cricket and good writing myself, it is a mystery why I did not reach out for the book much earlier than I actually did a fortnight or so ago. True, there were many other books and authors vying for my attention, but that is a lame excuse. Therefore, I lost no time in making amends and finally turned the last page, with a sense of repletion hard to describe.

Let me first spend a few words on Neville Cardus. Born in 1888, Cardus was a prolific English writer and critic. His multifarious skills as a journalist, albeit self-taught, were so extraordinary that at one time, he held the positions of the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent and its chief music critic, straddling these two portfolios with Bradmanesque ease. He was widely and deservedly lauded for his contributions to both these distinct, if apparently contradistinctive fields before the Second World War, firmly establishing him as one of the foremost critics of his generation. However, my preoccupation with Cardus has more to do with his cricket writings during the heady days of the Ashes battles between the traditional rivals England and Australia, county cricket and the personalities that ruled the game during this period. I am particularly struck by the fact that here in the 21st century, when we open the newspapers of a morning to read about the previous day’s happenings on cricket, we are bound to be confronted by a prosaic recounting of who scored how many runs and who took how many wickets, accompanied by a scorecard, if you’re lucky, and the plates haven’t been put to bed for printing. Any descriptive comment or opinion on the day’s play is as rare as rocking horse manure.

Cardus covered the glorious game during the time of legends such as Woolley, Ranjitsinhji, Rhodes, Trumper, Constantine, Hammond, Hutton, Bradman, McCabe, Verity, Larwood and their ilk. Cricket aficionado Cardus, as already stated, was a highly respected music critic, and could count among his close friends the likes of world-renowned conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and the peerless Sir Donald Bradman. Such was the stature of Sir Neville, the éminence grise of cricket and music authorship that both musicians and cricketers opened their morning newspapers with some trepidation after their performance the previous evening. Here is a description of the inventor of the leg-glance, the India-born Ranjitsinhji who played for England. ‘His style was a remarkable instance of the way a man can express personal genius in a game – nay, not only a personal genius but the genius of a whole race. For Ranjitsinhji’s cricket was of his own country; when he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East.’ If that was just the appetizer, here’s the thrilling description of the birth of the leg-glance. ‘And then suddenly this visitation of dusky, supple legerdemain happened; a man was seen playing cricket as nobody born in England could possibly have played it. The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! the straight ball was charmed away to the leg boundary.’ As an English cricketer famously said, ‘Ranji, he never made a Christian stroke in his life.’ In pre-television days, it needed such powers of description to bring alive the genius of unique individuals. When you hear one of the contemporary writers or commentators employ a phrase like, ‘He dismissed the ball from his presence,’ you can be sure the provenance and copyright belongs to Cardus. Today, we may consider ourselves fortunate to be able to revisit the genius of Cardus’ flowing prose.

Cricket's turning points: Ranji's innovations
Ranji’s patented leg-glance

Given Cardus’ abiding love and deep knowledge of western classical music, it would be remiss on my part not to share this lovely passage describing Wally Hammond’s late cut. ‘The swift velocity of his late cuts seemed an optical illusion, because of the leisurely poise of his body. The wrists were supple as the fencer’s steel; the light, effortless, thrilling movements of his bat suggested that he had now reached the cadenze of his full-toned and full-sized concerto with orchestra.’ Perhaps a trifle self-consciously, Cardus then goes on to add parenthetically, ‘I apologize to the purists who resent musical analogies in a cricket report. I have forsworn them for years, but when the game is lifted into music by the art of a glorious cricketer, then I cannot deny the habits of a lifetime.’ The defensive tone is very un-Cardus-like and, in my humble view, quite uncalled for. Music can be analogous to almost any endeavour (in this instance, cricket) where art and craft co-mingle, and Cardus has wielded his lyrical pen with equal felicity across both genres.

MaxBooks - Neville Cardus Archive
A man of letters

As I reach the closing stages of this appreciation, I reckon it would be perfectly in order for me to dwell on a couple of examples of Neville Cardus, the music critic. While I have been exposed to the wondrous world of western classical music, I claim no knowledge deep enough to be able to appreciate the subtle nuances of a performance. Given that the genre is strictly written and notated and played accordingly, the free jazz spirit of improvisation must necessarily be limited. That is how a novice such as myself to the world of Mozart and Chopin would tend to generalize it, but those with a trained and keen ear can be far more constructively critical of how an orchestra essayed one of Bach’s magnificent Brandenburg Concertos or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Only a Cardus could have said, ‘A great composition to me is… an incarnation of a genius, of all that was ever in him of the slightest consequence.’ And here is another gem. ‘Even an ordinary broken chord is made to disclose rare beauties; we are reminded of the fairies’ hazelnuts in which diamonds were concealed but you could break the shell only if your hands were blessed.’ I could go on, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.

The legacy of Neville Cardus as a fair and trenchant commentator on the game of cricket has lived on. However, with the passing of such stalwarts as John Arlott, Jim Swanton, Brian Johnston, Alan McGilvray and others of their ilk, who were not born cricketers but revelled in describing the game in writing as well as over the air, and with radio commentary now largely consigned to ashes, the mantle of this highly respected vocation has fallen on past cricketers, who have found a fresh and gainful avenue of employment through our television screens. A handful of them are good but for the most part, pedestrian. We recall with fondness the regular reports of Jack Fingleton, who played for Australia under Bradman, but one swallow does not a summer make.

In the final analysis, Neville Cardus, every bit a staunch and unabashedly biased Englishman who wished for his country to win every game he witnessed, particularly against the old enemy Australia, was always fair and unstinting in his praise for the opponents. One would hardly wish to read Cardus to glean the score. It was never what he said, but how he said it. Rather like legendary ad guru David Ogilvy’s inspiration when he encountered a blind mendicant standing on a street corner begging for alms. A sign read I AM BLIND and the average onlooker may have walked on with nary a glance. However, had he pleaded as Ogilvy suggested, IT IS SPRING AND I AM BLIND any passer-by would almost certainly have reached deep into his pockets.

Neville Cardus unfailingly knew what to say. And how to say it.

Mad Men

Better Business Writing: Ogilvy and Rolls-Royce
David Ogilvy’s immortal Rolls-Royce advert, circa 1957

 I started my professional career during the early ’70s when I entered the rarefied world of advertising. To put it more precisely and succinctly, I successfully applied for, in response to a newspaper advertisement, and was recruited by a reputed advertising agency in Calcutta. As more than 50 years have elapsed since that first, hesitant step into the whirlwind, heady world of copywriting, art direction, media planning and account management, it was time to press the pause button. In short, a longish career which took into its ample bosom jobs in other household-name corporate houses, as well as a stint in brand consultancy. I am now enjoying a life of well-earned leisure. Time to reflect and reminisce. Put my feet up and light a pipe. Speaking metaphorically, of course, as I don’t smoke. Naturally, I am not alone in this. Most of my colleagues from that era, now scattered across different parts of India and the world, tend to similarly wallow in the past, wearing rose-tinted glasses. Still others have shaken off their mortal coil and are probably looking down at us benevolently from their heavenly abode, wondering when we’ll be joining them! It is but logical that at our age, there is more for us to recall nostalgically, than to look forward to with keen anticipation. Not that I wish to be maudlin. It is what it is.

To get back to advertising, when I was fresh out of university looking for a ‘management trainee’ job, the one profession I was blissfully unaware of was that of the activities in the beehive cauldron of an advertising agency. I was, like any other human being living in the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, fully exposed to advertising, both consciously and sub-consciously. Or as the ad gurus might put it, subliminally. Wills Filter – Made For Each Other, Lipton Means Good Tea, Come Alive With Nescafe, Dunlop Tyres – Make Your Money Go Farther, You’ll Wonder Where The Yellow Went When You Brush Your Teeth With Pepsodent and many more such seductive messages were hard to miss. Newspapers, Hoardings, Cinema, Radio, they were all in our ubiquitous line of vision. Television was still a fledgling medium during the ’70s. The Asian Games in New Delhi, which opened the floodgates to the television industry was well over a decade away. As I said, we were aware of the brands thanks to advertising in our capacity as consumers, but many of us never gave a second thought to the complex machinery that went behind the creation of the advertising. Until, as I say, I landed the job. Business News: Check tobacco companies' brazen adverts, urges  anti-smoking body

A quick admission here. After half a century, I don’t mind conceding that while I got the appointment thanks to my performance in the interviews, written tests and group discussions conducted by the agency, the fact that my father held a senior position in a large nationalized bank that had a year earlier selected this particular agency to handle its advertising, must have helped in no small measure. This was par for the course in those days. A word in the management’s shell-like ear that ‘the boy is so-and-so’s son’ did no harm to the candidate’s chances of being appointed. Other things being equal. To be fair to my old man, he informed his superiors that I was being recruited by their agency, entirely on merit! He even made it clear to me that I cannot accept the offer if his bosses demurred. Fortunately, that did not happen. Furthermore, getting the job ‘under the influence’ is one thing. Making a decent fist of it as a career is altogether a different proposition. In any case, my dad retired a few months after that and I was pretty much having to paddle my own canoe thereafter.

In such circumstances did I commence my career in advertising. While I had opted to be a copywriter, the management persuaded me that my all-round communication skills could be better employed in the area of client interface. The much-loved, late British comedian Tony Hancock, had he been sitting on the interview panel, might have said, ‘He has such a nice face.’ Thus, I became an Account Executive Trainee, and worked my way up slowly and steadily in the agency’s ladder of progress. Something that always stayed with me was a poster, partly torn, stuck outside the door of one of the agency’s creative honchos. It was an Oscar Wilde aphorism – ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

Over the decades, I worked in a couple of other agencies before joining a tyre major of world renown in their marketing division, looking after brand advertising. This is not intended to be an autobiography pertaining to my professional career. I just felt a little bit of sketching in of the background would help in better understanding what is to follow.

The thing is the creation and placement of advertising as it obtained during the ’70s and ’80s was a far cry from what it is today. I could dwell at length describing, point by point, the various ways in which life has changed in an advertising agency. For instance, agencies don’t entertain clients any more. The legendary Oly’s pub in Calcutta would have gone bust, but for the ad agencies’ patronage. What’s a client agency relationship if you can’t do some serious elbow-bending, and chalk up the expenses towards art charges and incidentals? Unthinkable.

Olypub entrance from Park street - Picture of Olypub Bar and Restaurant,  Kolkata - Tripadvisor
Ad men’s watering hole of choice

Instead, I decided to meet a lady, who shall remain anonymous at her request, who is one of the top creative brains in one of India’s leading advertising agencies today. Let’s just call her M, shall we? With due apologies to Ian Fleming. It is worthwhile for the reader to understand that M is a product of the millennium and speaks that language. She is being interviewed by me, a product of the ’70s, virtually a fossil by comparison. The resultant roadblocks in communication, though we were both conversing in fluent English, could be attributed to this huge chasm in the different eras in which we operated. Without further ado, I’ll just dive into the conversation.

I waded in breezily. ‘Good morning M, thanks for sparing the time. You must be “up to here” in campaign presentations, brand launches and so forth. During my time we used to be engaged in long, liquid lunches.’

She didn’t get the joke. ‘Things have been hectic, as you suggest, but it’s all in a day’s work,’ replied M without breaking a sweat, adding, ‘much rather be “up to here” than staring at the wall and wondering where the next assignment is coming from, don’t you think?’

‘Oh yes, quite, quite. Tell me M, as I entered your snazzy, open plan office, I noticed banks of state-of-the-art computers on every work station. Is that where all the bright advertising campaigns are created?’

‘Well, it’s actually created in the human mind first. The computer is only there to make it easier to render it quickly into a visual format. Today, clients want everything yesterday, you know.’

‘The definition of “yesterday” was very different yesterday, if you get my drift M. Back in the day, harking to the ’70s, we had slanted wooden boards with plenty of drawing and tracing paper, marker pens, pencils, erasers, rubber solution and all kinds of other implements for the visualizers, art directors and finishing artists to work with. Everything was done by hand, and we could not rush things. Even if the client was in a hurry, and when was he not? These hard-working beavers slaved away day and night, slouched over their desks, with no guarantee that their work would see the light of day. The creative head called the shots, and we in account management were putty in their hands.’

The beauty of a line drawing

‘Wow, sounds quite antediluvian. Nowadays, our clients will throw a fit if we took anything more than 6 hours to revert with a workable idea, and another 12 hours to render it in finished form for media release. Not just print, but television as well. Welcome to the millennial world.’ M was clearly revelling in her post-modern euphoria.

‘Ha, so you clearly did not first come up with what we called a pencil rough for internal assessment, followed by a finished rough for client approval and then the final artwork for block making.’

‘Block making?’ queried M.

‘I see you are stumped. Yes, those days printing involved processing from copper or zinc blocks, which were supplied to the newspapers or printing houses for final release. All this took time, but the end product was a work of art. Tell me M, I am curious. Can good ideas really germinate when you work in such unseemly haste nowadays on your Apple Macs or whatever?’

‘Easy come, easy go, I say. This is the way it is. Our clients are not bothered if the campaign with “the big idea” does not last for over 3 months. Longevity is passé. We just have to keep coming up with new big ideas, as often as it takes, in tandem with competitive pressure.’

‘But Wills Made for Each Other and The Marlboro Man are still fondly remembered today, are they not?’

‘Remembered yes, but the tobacco industry went up in smoke and so did the ad campaigns. They are all museum pieces now. So, kindly refrain from repeating catchy slogans from the ’60s and ’70s.’ She was being quite haughty. She didn’t quite say, ‘We are not amused,’ but I could sense it.

I played my trump card. ‘Yeah, but what about David Ogilvy? Or for that matter Satyajit Ray? Did you know Ray started off as a visualizer in an ad agency in Calcutta, an agency that was the forerunner to the one I worked in, and that he once made a documentary film for Dunlop India? Sadly, no one can find the film.’

M was quite riled by now. ‘Why am I not surprised? Yes, and Ogilvy was a chef in a French restaurant. So what? You old fogies will keep prattling on about Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce campaign till the cows come home. Satyajit Ray will always be celebrated as a great film maker, but not because of some Dunlop documentary no one has ever seen or heard of. Charulata, yes. Pather Panchali, definitely. Jalsaghar, indubitably. Let’s just leave it at that.’

Frankly, by now I had had it ‘up to here’ with this insufferable woman. M, indeed! I could have taken a lot of her nonsense, but old fogies? I think she gets all her pre-conceived biases from watching too much Mad Men, the hit television serial that captured the advertising zeitgeist of the ’60s. I stood up and said rather frostily, ‘Yes, let’s,’ and stalked out of her open plan room, my steaming cup of good Lipton tea not having passed my lips.

Vax Populi!

A crowd of Hindu devotees covered in multicolored dye raise their hands above their heads in prayer.
God help us from superspreaders!

India has been on a vaccination drive to tackle the rampant Coronavirus for several weeks now. In terms of numbers achieved of those who have got the first jab, never mind the second, we still seem to have barely scratched the surface. The more our healthcare workers keep injecting from the two brands of vaccine available in our country, the more there are people who are yet to be vaccinated. We are still eons away from achieving anywhere close to herd immunity levels of vaccinations administered. To be fair, this is not for want of trying. It is just the humongous magnitude of the task and millions in our country are still overcome by the Hamletian dilemma, ‘To do or not to do,’ if you’ll pardon me paraphrasing the Bard. I guess this is only to be expected in a densely populous country ‘boasting’ a head count of around 1.4 billion. And counting.

That’s the grim news. The grimmer news is that most of our people don’t seem to be taking a blind bit of notice towards ensuring adequate precautions, despite constant reminders over all our media channels by the medical fraternity to observe the three cardinal rules, which at the moment is being observed more in the breach.

Wear a mask. Of course, I wear a mask, but I refuse to cover my nose. I have to breathe, dammit!

Maintain social distancing. What does that mean, exactly? How many feet away from the nearest person are you talking about? What about all these crowds at election rallies, weddings, rave parties and religious festivals? And that includes all our preachy politicians. Flying kisses are back in vogue amongst the hoity-toity, and that is not entirely a bad thing.

Hand hygiene. Look, I wash my hands when I get back home, but oftentimes, I am gadding about on some work or the other, and soap, water or liquid sanitizers are not always ready to hand, in a manner of speaking. So, I have to take my chances. I’ll try not to rub my eyes or pick my nose, but I make no promises.

That’s the common man spelling out his not very uncommon position on what he thinks about health and social observances during the medical crisis that has engulfed the world and is paying a stirring second visit to India. One year has now passed and the average Joe on the street appears to have ‘had it up to here’ with all the enforced discipline. He, and quite often she as well, seems to be saying that I will go out there and have myself a ball, and the devil take the hindmost. It’s a sticky situation for the Central and State Governments to tackle, and though they are making a decent fist of it to fight the virus, the virus invariably seems to have something up its sleeve. The word mutation springs to the lips. Lockdowns are no longer an option, what with the economy showing stuttering signs of recovery. Government agencies are also in a quandary when they find their own ministerial masters jousting at the hustings during the ongoing state elections, with nary a care about crowd control or distancing of any kind. It’s a nightmare. A young, incensed doctor in Tamil Nadu took to social media and asked the public if they had clay in place of brains. The question may have been rhetorical but I think it applies literally, as well.

At this point I felt it would be a good idea to buttonhole one of my friends from the medical fraternity and get his views on how we are going to come out of this hole. I know we are witness every evening to Dr. Guleria, Dr. Devi Shetty and others of their ilk giving us the benefit of their views on television, but I felt I might get a scoop or two by discussing this with my doctor friend. At his express request, I am not revealing his name.

‘Good morning, Doc.’ I always called him Doc despite his being a close buddy. It was a bit of a tease but also displayed a modicum of grudging respect. ‘I spoke to you nearly a year ago, and in between as well, when the pandemic had all of us in a right, royal spin. During this period, we in India have released two vaccines in the market, one more visible than the other and we seem to know a lot more about our friend Covid19. That said, we now find ourselves in the same, if not worse, position than we were a year ago. Pretty funny, don’t you think?’

Doc narrowed his eyes and said, ‘You might think it funny, but I am not laughing.’ Doc was a bit literal-minded but I let it pass. He continued. ‘Yes, I agree the vaccinations have filled a lot of people with hope, but it is not a cure-all panacea. If our youngsters insist on attending all-night parties, dancing cheek-to-cheek, boozing the night away and God knows what else, a hundred jabs on both arms won’t help. As it is these kids are jabbing all kinds of other substances into their arms and veins, and the vaccination drive in some parts of our population is, unsurprisingly, going in vain. If you’ll excuse the pun.’

‘Good to see you haven’t lost your sardonic wit, Doc. I agree, it’s all very frustrating, but surely, we are getting there. I understand India is now the second largest vaccinator in the world after Uncle Sam. That should be enough to encourage people like you.’

‘Look my friend. Anyone with an ounce of common sense will tell you that the only way to beat this virus, or at least to keep it at arm’s length, is to observe the basic, simple rules. Wear a mask, keep a distance from other people and wash your hands regularly. Surely, any village idiot can follow these instructions. Even the Prime Minister repeats these rules ad nauseum whenever he is not giving Didi the third degree.’

‘True, true but the Prime Minister is speaking from the ramparts of Nandigram or Cooch Behar to thousands and thousands of people. He wishes to spread the good word, but the huge crowds are becoming superspreaders. Is that safe, Doc?’

‘It’s certainly not safe for the thousands and thousands of people who have come to listen to their leader. As for the PM himself, he seems to have been born with a built-in immunity against any virus that dares to go against him.’

‘Does that include Mamata Banerjee, Doc? Ha, ha. Speaking of Didi, what’s the official word on her leg injury? Was it a fracture? She is certainly getting full value out of her wheelchair.’

‘Now, now, don’t be naughty. Look, the Calcutta doctors said it was a “bone injury.” Make of that what you will. A strange and unique diagnosis. There was also some talk of abrasions, but the F word was never used.’

‘F word?’, queried I, perplexed in the extreme.

‘Fracture, you dolt. What did you think I meant? Except that no one admitted to a fracture, but the doughty CM is wheelchaired through the heartlands and hot lands of Bengal during this unforgiving summer. I am also given to believe that she has given strict instructions that her leg plaster should not be removed till the elections are over. I understand the high and mighty in the land, or at least in her own party, are autographing that leg plaster, which the good lady wears like a badge of honour. Might fetch a fortune one day at some auction house.’

‘That’s all very well Doc, but haven’t we digressed from the main topic, namely, vaccinations and the virus’ progression? A quick question before we wind up. Can you throw some light on this gapping confusion? Should it be 4 weeks gap between the two jabs or 12 weeks? Many knowledgeable folks, including Adar Poonawalla of the Serum Institute are in favour of 12 weeks. What say you, Doc?’

‘Well, the Prime Minister has split the difference and taken his second dose after 6 weeks. My advice is, after 4 weeks, go by what your instinct tells you,’ he concluded, rather dubiously.

‘Sorry Doc, we digressed from our original digression of politics and the elections. Let us now re-digress.’

‘I am glad we did. Digress, I mean. Re-digress, if you must. Frankly, I am fed to the back teeth talking about the virus and the vaccinations. Much more interesting to talk about politics, elections and leg fractures, or rather, bone injuries. If you are up to it, I am game to talk about the upcoming IPL. Do you think Dhoni still has it in him to provide one last hurrah for the men in yellow?’

‘Doc, I’d love to sit with you and discuss the IPL but I have better things to do. Thanks for all your valuable inputs. Next time I want to talk about Covid, its treatment in sickness and in health, I’ll contact Dr. Guleria.’

‘Or Dr. Devi Shetty. You do that my friend. Only, you’ll have to get in line behind some 50 television channels waiting to interview them. I fear for their health. Now you can vamoose. I have 100 people sitting outside waiting to be jabbed. And I am running out of vaccines. Bye.’


The magic of the cinema

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Mr. Bean and his date at a horror movie

When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them ‘no, I went to films.’ Quentin Tarantino.

As far as one can remember, the cinema has always held us in thrall, young and old alike. The air-conditioned auditorium, the large screen, clutching popcorn and soda pop or ice cream soda as we used to call it, securely in our arms. Way back when. As the lights dimmed and the velvet screens parted, we had this feeling of being enveloped and transported to another world. The commercials would come on first (Beauty beyond compare, Yera glassware), then the trailers and finally, the advertised film would commence. The 5-minute interval witnessed more commercials and trailers before the movie recommenced. This was our prime source of entertainment and excitement, before home theatres and movies on the go, took over our lives. Liberty, Rex, Plaza and BRV in Bangalore. And in Calcutta, Globe, Metro, New Empire, Lighthouse and Tiger. Tiger Rag, the Dixieland standard, was the signature tune that played incessantly in this small, charming theatre on the crossing of Chowringhee and Lindsay Street, back in the day. Those were the two cities where I have spent most of my formative years. I am back in Bangalore for my sunset years, as I have heard it described, but now it’s all shiny, shiny home theatre with Netflix and Amazon Prime leading the way. Popcorn and beer can be arranged.

As I look back over the best part of 70 years, what were the films and who were the actors that made an instant impact on my sponge-like mind and why? The following is a personal list, by no means complete, but landmarks in my cinema watching life that I can never forget. Films that left a lasting, indelible impression. It is significant that my choice of films spans across the period from the early 60s to the mid-70s, which would represent my early teens to late 20s, easily the most impressionable years in one’s life. I do realize that for every film on my list you, dear reader, will have 10 others. Fair enough, I say. Live and let live.

Becket (1964)

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I first saw Peter O’Toole as Henry the Second in Becket, alongside the great thespian Richard Burton in the title role. This was not O’Toole’s first film, which of course, was David Lean’s magnum opus, Lawrence of Arabia. However, his essaying of the role of the star-crossed King was so mesmerizing when I first saw it, that even Lawrence paled in comparison. Many will disagree, but that was the kind of impact Becket and O’Toole in particular, had on me. A pluperfect English diction, blue, blue penetrating eyes, the quivering lips, the myriad panoply of emotions – all these to a young teenager was grist to the mill. I must have seen the film on half a dozen occasions on the big screen, and times without number at home on DVD. These characteristics stood O’Toole in good stead in many of his other films, though he did tend to become a bit predictable and typecast in later films. Both Burton and O’Toole were Oscar nominees for Becket, but neither of them won. The Academy has much to answer for. O’Toole had to be satisfied with a consolation Lifetime Achievement award from the Academy a few years before his passing. Favourite quote – ‘Oh Lord, how heavy thy honour is to bear.’

My Fair Lady (1964)

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Rex Harrison, in his Oscar winning role as Professor Henry Higgins swept us off our feet in the celebrated musical, My Fair Lady, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Close to three hours of wondrous music, scintillating dialogues, a beguiling Audrey Hepburn and an impressive support cast – all made for a package you could watch repeatedly and not get tired of. All this in magnificent 70mm and Technicolor. But it is Harrison, as the querulous professor of phonetics, who ultimately steals the show. He spoke more than he sang, the songs written for him, but it was no less unique and listenable for all that. Many of us in school would reel off these songs from memory, and My Fair Lady, as much as Shakespeare, became a benchmark and contributed to our love of the English language. The opening song, ‘Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?’ was in itself a microcosmic and scathing reflection on the declining values of the language. I won a plastic mug for reciting this at the South India Club in Calcutta!

An interesting footnote. Julie Andrews, who played Eliza Doolittle on the Broadway stage version, was passed over for the more marketable Hepburn, despite the former’s outstanding singing credentials. Word on the street was that the producer Jack Warner felt Hepburn was a more ‘bankable’ proposition, and who is to say he was not right. Hepburn did a brilliant turn as Eliza. However, there is a twist to this tale. Though Hepburn sang all the songs for the shoot, unbeknownst to her, a professional singer, Marnie Nixon actually recorded the playback. Evidently, Hepburn was beside herself on learning the truth. Not long after, Andrews got her own back with the blockbuster, The Sound of Music. Favourite quote – ‘Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?’

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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Winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for British director, John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy will rank among the all-time classics. Featuring Dustin Hoffman as a low life pimp and Jon Voight as a small-town hustler, looking to sell his body to rich and lonely women in the seedy underworld of Lower Manhattan, the film captured the imagination of film goers the world over. Strangely, it was X-rated at the time, though no eyebrows will be raised if you saw it today. It was probably heavily censored here in India. The Oscar nominated performances of Hoffman and Voight are remarkable, and despite its dark theme, the film leaves you alternately in tears of joy and sorrow. Hoffman’s portrayal of the grungy, limping Rizzo ‘Ratso’ has many scene stealing moments, but none more memorable than when crossing a crowded Manhattan street and yelling at an onrushing car, ‘I am walkin’ here! I am walkin’ here!’ Mention must also be made of the movie soundtrack featuring Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Everybody’s Talkin’, which everybody was singing as they left the cinema hall. Favourite quote – ‘The two natural items to sustain life are sunlight and coconut milk. Did you know that?’

The Godfather (1972)

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If ever a film was made, that kept you riveted on the edge of your seat for close to three hours, where every scene and sequence was so artfully crafted that you wanted to see it over and over again, The Godfather had to be that film. Under Francis Ford Coppola’s expert baton, this mafia masterpiece tops the list of virtually every all-time great film list in most categories. With Marlon Brando heading the cast, brilliantly supported by James Caan, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall amongst others, the epic gangster saga set a unique benchmark for the genre, where even the violent scenes (and there were plenty) were so realistically picturized that you kept asking for more. The inevitable and worthy sequels, The Godfather Part 2 and 3, in themselves were brilliant, but could never quite match the operatic grandeur of the original. Favourite quote – ‘I am gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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Although Al Pacino hit the big time with Coppola’s The Godfather, I first saw Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, based on a true story of a botched-up bank robbery in New York. I was never a great fan of American actors, much preferring the dry wit and understated portrayals of their British counterparts. However, Pacino in Dog Day changed that perception, and in his wake, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Jack Nicholson hove into dramatic view. But it was Al Pacino, as the restless Sonny, caught in a web of his own ineptitude, trying to manage the stupefied bank staff and the New York police at the same time that makes for a film that is at once, comic, tragic and taut. Pacino had to be satisfied with an Oscar nomination, though many felt he should have lifted the statuette. His pathetically comic telephone chat with his gay partner, under the cops’ close supervision, was in itself worth the price of admission. Favourite quote – ‘Wyoming is not a country.’

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Why haven't we found a better name for electroconvulsive therapy?

Jack Nicholson’s Oscar winning performance as the crazy and rebellious patient, Randle McMurphy in a lunatic asylum, will forever be etched in the minds of those who saw this wonderfully directed film by Milos Forman. Unsurprisingly, the film bagged all the major awards at the Oscars – Best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. As much as it was Milos Forman’s direction that lifted the film, it is Jack Nicholson as the crazed, sane but insane mental patient, who attempts to extract revenge on Nurse Ratched (Oscar winning performance by Louise Fletcher) who steals the show. The ending is cruelly sad and touching, but Nicholson’s amazing performance will stay with you forever. Favourite quote – ‘Jesus, I must be crazy to be in a loony-bin like this.’

Taxi Driver (1976)

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“You talking to me?” Who can ever forget Robert De Niro’s mirror monologue in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Taxi Driver? A grim, seamy portrayal of New York’s underbelly, through the eyes of a mentally disturbed Vietnam war returnee turned cabbie, who seems frustratingly helpless to fight the evils of the city. The ultimate, bloody climax has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, but the film is notable for its many tender and gentle moments, notably De Niro’s attempts to rescue an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster in a stellar debut) from the clutches of her procurer boss (Harvey Keitel), and a failed attempt at romance with a political party worker (Cybill Shepherd). But the film is De Niro’s all the way. In turns sensitive and thoughtful and deeply troubled, he single-handedly carries the film on his shoulders. Favourite quote – ‘One of these days, I am gonna get organezized.’

There you go. That is my list of the most impactful films in my life. Others will have their own favourites. There are some who might cavil, ‘Why no Indian films?’ I can only offer a weak response that there’s nothing invidious intended in leaving out Indian films. It’s just that that was the way the cookie crumbled when I was growing up. Maybe, just maybe, another day might see me waxing eloquent about Sivaji Ganesan or Dilip Kumar, but for now you’ll have to make do with this. That said, let me throw you a dare. Dear reader, draw up your own list of seven of the best Hollywood films that stick in your mind. I’ll wager at least three from this list will show up, if not more. As for the youngsters who consider the ‘60s and ‘70s the stone age, get the DVDs, go to YouTube or stream on cable and watch these films. You won’t regret it.

That’s Entertainment!

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That’s torn it!

I was reflecting ruefully on things that will keep me entertained over the coming months. Why ruefully, I hear you ask. The thing is, domestic big-ticket cricket is winding its weary way down in India. We have rejoiced in our boys’ stirring performances in Australia (excluding the 36 all out aberration) and we have put it across England in our own backyard without straining a sinew. Just three one day games on the anvil and the smart money is on another Indian triumph. This will be closely followed by the interminably long IPL. Ho hum. It’s all getting a tad predictable and tedious. But that’s just me. ‘Give me excess of it,’ many instant cricket fans cry. Sooner you than me, say I.

Gone are the days when we felt all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds if a Gavaskar or a Viswanath, or better still both, scored hundreds in a Test match. We did not worry too much about who ultimately won the game. We knew an Indian victory was as rare as hen’s teeth. If, however, one of the two little masters played a defining innings or a magical spell by Bedi or Chandra took India over the line, as happened at Port of Spain and the Oval in that magical year 1971, we ran around the streets like boys or men demented and punch-drunk. Joy is unbounded when it occurs once in the proverbial blue moon. Nowadays, when you learn that Kohli has just smashed another ton, you tend to go, ‘Yeah great. Look, I am working on my tax returns, can we keep this for later?’ See what I mean? Blasé is the word that springs to the lips. As the King of the Blues, the late B.B. King said, The Thrill is Gone. Well alright, I am exaggerating here, but most of us who are looking at six decades and more behind us, tend to be that way. Tired and cynical. To set the record straight, I do enjoy watching the modern masters, be they Kohli, Stokes, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Ronaldo or Messi. However, the eyes do mist over a bit when I start talking about Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Ramanathan Krishnan or Rod Laver. That’s nostalgia, with rose-tinted glasses.

If sport has, in a manner of speaking, played itself out for the time being, what do we have to look forward to in order to keep ourselves royally entertained? Particularly when you consider that, thanks to Covid19, Carnatic music lovers in India and the world over have been denied their annual pilgrimage to that Mecca of the art form, Chennai, if you’ll excuse the mixed religious metaphor.  Ah well, there’s nothing to worry about there, me hearties. The cupboard is full to overflowing. We have the upcoming assembly elections in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry (I greatly prefer the romance of Pondicherry, but try telling that to our inveterate name changers). While the actual voting is still to get under way and will go on for several weeks, our television news channels are already buzzing with speculation, panel discussions and general argy-bargy. We expect matters to get hotter and hotter, in tandem with the mercury rising in simpatico with the country’s relentless summer. Beats me why elections in India are always held during our unforgiving summer months. Then we have the post-electoral exit polls to look forward to prior to the results being announced, and if the past is any indicator, the actual results may leave many of our psephologists and electoral pundits red-faced. Notwithstanding all that, keep your beer chilled and popcorn popping in the microwave. Let the madness begin.

If politics is taking top billing on our television screens thanks to the forthcoming elections, a bit of shame and scandal in the family amongst the political top brass can help the TRPs fly northwards, if not actually going through the roof. Our television news anchors, always on the lookout for something seamy and scaly to get their teeth into are having the time of their lives. Some of the anchors have themselves become the news. The current political imbroglio in Maharashtra, with ministers mixed up with the guardians of the law, i.e., the Police and finding themselves in the soup, is providing rich fare for television watchers. ‘Vazegate’ as the scandal has, not very originally, been dubbed, is keeping everyone enthralled. I tell you, Watergate has much to answer for. Officers from the top echelons of the Maharashtra police are being accused of placing bombs and gelatin sticks (with a love letter) in a car near the residence of a top industrialist, the cops in turn are hitting back and pointing accusing fingers at their political masters, opposition parties are licking their chops with an eye to the main chance and so much more. As the late cricketer turned commentator Tony Greig used to intone, ‘It’s all happening.’ Perhaps the original copyright to that phrase belonged to former Aussie skipper, Bill Lawry, but you’ll just have to cut me some slack here. Tony Greig was equally partial to that exclamation.

More unintended hilarity from our political masters. The Chief Minister of the state of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat has been dropping enough bricks for him to be able to build a farmhouse to retire in. Which may not be long in coming, given some of his more outrageous statements. His first clanger came when he went after the modern-day casual dress code for girls, deploring their wearing jeans and fulminating against said jeans being deliberately ripped and torn after the modern fashion trend. He tried to partially recover and assuage hurt sentiments by explaining that he had no problem with jeans qua jeans but tearing them and wearing them seemed, in his view, rather pointless, putting a fresh spin on the term ‘wear and tear.’ A view many elders across the country share but have wisely decided to fatalistically shrug their shoulders with a weary and philosophical ‘girls will be girls.’ Or indeed, ‘boys will be boys,’ but the CM specifically had girls in mind. Our parents acted similarly when we wore drainpipes and bell-bottoms. Or grew our hair long. Apropos nothing, the Chief Minister’s comments on torn and ripped jeans put me in mind of yesteryear Hollywood character actor, the late Rip Torn. How on earth did he come by such a name? Forgive me for that irrelevant aside. I’ll save that for another piece.

Not quite finished yet with Tirath Singh Rawat. As if his torn jeans comment had not raised enough hackles among the student community, he dived headlong into yet another faux pas. He pompously announced, in some context not relevant to elaborate, that India was ruled by the United States of America for over 200 years! We know that much of our history, seen as having been deliberately distorted by previous dispensations, is being sought to be rewritten by our present political masters, but this was a bit much. Perhaps the honorable Chief Minister will attempt to wriggle out of this dropped brick by attributing it to a slip of the tongue. He probably meant Britain, but it came out as America, to place a charitable, if ironic, construction on it. It would be wiser if our politicians check their facts out with their secretariat before shooting from the hip. Always assuming, of course, that the babus in the secretariat know their history and their geography and can tell the difference between Great Britain and the United States of America.

Thus, in some way, shape or form we are provided adequate entertainment on a daily basis. While sports, film and music treat us to a genuine celebration of physical, dramatic and artistic skills, it is the daily foibles of our fellow human beings, be they politicians or policemen that often keep us glued to our small screens. The various hues of villainy, stupidity and avarice are played out in full view of an avid audience, who lap it all up and gird their loins for the next instalment. I cannot find a better way to conclude this essay than to quote one of Germany’s greatest literary titans, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, Our foibles are what make us really lovable.

Gut gesagt, Herr Goethe! Or, in everyday parlance, ‘You said a mouthful there, Herr Goethe.’

The Bathtub in cinema

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The terrifying shower scene from Psycho (1960)

Splish splash, I was taking a bath / Long about a Saturday night, yeah / A rub dub, just relaxing in the tub / Thinking everything was alright.  Bobby Darin (1958).                                                                 

This piece is about the bathtub. Or more properly, The Bathtub. To put it more plainly, it’s about how we have been fed, over the years by Hollywood and at times Bollywood, an endless diet of scenes depicting the untold ecstasy of luxuriating in a bathtub. Be it Marylin Monroe or Meryl Streep, Robert Redford or Al Pacino, Hema Malini or Zeenat Aman, Shammi Kapoor or Rajesh Khanna – invariably in some movie or the other you would have seen some of them blowing soap bubbles, sipping champagne or even smoking a cigar, and only the bubbling, foaming soapsuds to cover their modesty. Sex and orgies come into it at times (though that is a Hollywood preserve) but seeing as this is a family column, I will spare you the sordid details. Some actors have even concealed deadly weapons under the soapy water and let fly if an unexpected enemy popped in. Witness Eli Wallach in the spaghetti western classic, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), who makes short work of the grimacing villain with his hidden weapon prior to loosing off with a volley of bullets, while the bad guy is giving an extended speech. A fatal error, which our celluloid villains never seem to learn from. Wallach’s famous throwaway line, ‘When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,’ still rings in our ears.

Who can ever forget the famous or infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic-noir suspense-thriller, Psycho (1960). The comely Janet Leigh steps in gingerly and turns the shower tap on, enjoying a refreshing bath, probably humming a cheerful tune as well, as most of us tend to do while under the shower. Then all the unpleasantness starts to happen. Give Hitchcock a bathroom scene and all hell breaks loose. His memorable anti-hero, the literally shadowy Anthony Perkins, draws the curtain and does all the nasty business with a bread knife. The scene ends with Janet Leigh lying prone in her bathtub, looking very dead, while the shower continues to run with force, draining away the blood. Filmed in black and white, the dark deed has a heightened, monochromatic quality about it. Perhaps Hitchcock was throwing in some symbolism here. If so, I missed it. In those days, film makers went in for that kind of thing. They wanted their audience to think. By the way, did I say bathtub? Indeed, I did. You see, despite the fact that the heroine tip-toes delicately into the tub to turn the shower on, she has no plans to fill the tub and wallow à la Eli Wallach. It’s possible she contemplated doing so after the shower, but we shall never know because of Hitchcock’s obsession with the bread knife accompanied by plenty of blood and gore. By the way, my reference to the murder weapon being a bread knife is just poetic license. It could have been any old knife that can inflict deep gashes. Nevertheless, that bathtub shower scene from Psycho is now part of movie folklore.

You want unpleasantness in a bathtub? Let me tell you, it does not get more stomach-churning than that scene in the 1983 edition of Scarface, starring Al Pacino. The director, Brian De Palma decided to take Hitchcock’s shower scene and turn it on its head. Pacino and his lackey turn up at a baddie’s place somewhere in Havana, drugs and money having something to do with it, and before you know it, our hero’s pathetic partner is hand-cuffed to the shower curtain railing, while Pacino is held down by other nasties to watch his pal being given the first degree with a huge, electrical buzz-saw. Blood and gristle all over the place. Putting all that nastiness to one side, I have a question. If the villain had our hero and his partner-in-crime by their short and curlies, why did he not finish Pacino off as well? I think De Palma will have a sound answer to that one. The notorious bathtub scene was very early on in the film, you see, and he could hardly eliminate the highly bankable cast-header Pacino, to whom doubtless, millions would have been paid. Also, letting the hero off gives the director plenty of opportunity for action-packed payback scenes, like the climactic ‘Say hello to my little friend’ sequence, as a frenzied Pacino fires away from his grenade launcher at about a hundred villains, in a coke-and-heroin smothered scene and falls tragically to his own death. Very Shakespearean. Lest we forget, it all started in a bathtub.

On a more pleasant note, the scruffy flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in the brilliant musical, My Fair Lady (1964) is boisterously welcomed to Professor Henry Higgins’ home with the mother-of-all-baths while she screams and yells from her steaming bathtub during all the soaping and loofah-ing by the housemaids. She vents her spleen later with that great dream sequence song, Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait.

Yes, the bathtub is a well-entrenched part of world cinema and has been used time and again in varying situations. The term ‘wallowing in luxury’ could very well have emanated after the invention of the bathtub. That said, I have a couple of questions that have always bothered me about sitting around in a bathtub full of scented water, at times with flowers strewn about, and the bather, be it a he or a she, breaking into song. I grant you there’s a bathroom singer in all of us, but even a normal shower could be equally inspiring to the Muse.

Apart from the violence and gore, there is something else about bathtub sequences in films I have never quite understood, particularly the Hollywood offerings. More often than not, the actor paddling his pinkies in the tub, literally sinking in soapy foam, will suddenly decide that his ablutions have ended, step out of the tub and towel himself, and that’s that. End of bath. I mean, the bather has been swimming around in a confined space in his or her own sweat and grime, notwithstanding the soap or shampoo, with nary a thought of rinsing it all off with clean water. If I have seen this unhygienic travesty once on film, I have seen it at least 50 times. So, there must be some truth in the way some of our much-vaunted heroes bathe themselves. I cannot recall similar scenes in Indian films, but that could be because of censorship and prudery issues. Doubtless, in response to this, the faithfuls who read this will helpfully shoot off a list of Hindi or Tamil films featuring some of our stars who had a ball in a bathtub.

To round off this light-hearted contemplation on filmy bathtubs, I conclude with what has been widely regarded as one of the definitive bathtub scenes ever shot on film. And that is saying a lot. Glenn Close and Michael Douglas form an incendiary couple in Fatal Attraction (1987). The stunning Glenn Close, who preys on the married Michael Douglas after a brief dalliance, threatens to disrupt his home life. It all ends in a frightening climax with Close and Douglas in a life and death vicious struggle in, you guessed it, the bathtub. Close rises from the dead and flails a kitchen knife at her ex-lover but Douglas’ wife miraculously finds a gun and blam, blam, Glenn is Closed out, her body lying inert in the tub, looking like Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin – an inappropriate simile, I grant you, but it is what it is.

So you see, I don’t much care for bathtubs for obvious reasons. Bad things happen there. The only time I actually wallowed in a tub was on a bitterly cold November evening in my hotel room in New York. The hot water was so comforting I almost fell asleep and nearly drowned. Thereafter, I virtually caught my death of cold and suffered untold agonies, including an interminable coughing fit after returning home. Which is why I say, ‘If they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that is their problem. An efficient shower or even a bucket of water works just fine for me.’

Tom, Dick and Harry

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In a recent case heard in the Delhi High Court, a single-judge bench consisting of the estimable Justice Prathiba M. Singh ruled, inter alia, that the use of phrases like ‘any Tom, Dick and Harry’ constitutes slang and goes against court procedures in the conduct of its weighty affairs. To pretty much put the lid on it, the Honourable Judge gave it as her considered opinion that ‘such language is not permissible in pleadings before the court.’ So saying, she dismissed the petitioner’s plea. At which point, I am assuming the petitioner, suitably chastised, slunk off tail between legs, to redraft his plea.

Now, it is of supreme indifference to me and the purport of this piece to go into the details of the abovementioned case. The merits or otherwise of the petitioner’s plea is of precious little consequence to my area of concern. As my English master in school might have acutely observed, ‘it has nothing to do with the price of fish.’ As a lover of the English language, however, what set my brows furrowing and teeth grinding was the ruling itself and why an everyday, common or garden phrase like ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ should give rise to a stern rap on the knuckles in judicial corridors and raise the hackles of the sitting judge.

 Purely on a technical point, would our courts find the Indian equivalent, ‘Amar, Akbar and Anthony’ more acceptable? Just curious. Also, I worry about this ruling setting a dodgy precedent, a principle on which jurisprudence the world over has relied on for ages. Let me hasten to add that the principle here qualifies the term ‘precedent’ and not ‘dodgy precedent.’ It is prudent to clarify these things before some judicial beak pounces on me with a tort or malfeasance or some such unintelligible charge.

To put it more lucidly, if the phrase ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ is considered improper today, will it be something else that irks the judiciary tomorrow? To take a random example, will the expression ‘burying your head in the sand’ be deemed objectionable to some sitting or standing judge, who got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning or is unfavourably disposed towards ostriches? We enter the grey world of subjectivity here, where interpretation and reference to context can determine the outcome of the decision. One man’s meat could be another man’s poison, depending entirely on one’s dietary preference. I guess one should not beef about it. There I go again! Tilting boldly at the windmills of acceptable judicial phraseology.

All this cogitation led me to muse on an imaginary situation in one of our courts where the judge and lawyer concerned appear to be ranged on opposite ends of the linguistic spectrum, leading to unintended or intended gaffes and verbal jousting. While this is being contemplated mainly in jest, it is directly inspired by the recent judgement outlined above, from which it can be speculated upon that such objections to how we employ phrases and epigrams may not be all that far-fetched.

‘Your Honour, my client has been charged with ill-treating his wife. They have been married for six years. Every time he asks her for money, she tells him to go take a flying jump. To add fuel to the fire, she also tells him to get lost. I am translating loosely.’

The judge struck an admonishing tone. ‘This court does not appreciate the use of phrases like “take a flying jump” and “get lost,” even if loosely translated. I consider it an insult to these proceedings. We caution Counsel and ask him to have a care.’

‘But Your Honour, that is what the good wife actually said. How am I to defend my client if am not permitted to quote verbatim the obloquy that his wife hurled at him? For crying out loud! Your Honour.’

‘Counsel, kindly do not use big words like “obloquy,” in my court. I am not impressed. Also, please do not start a sentence with “but.” It is discourteous and not grammatically acceptable. Wren and Martin would have frowned. What is more, I consider employment of the phrase “for crying out loud” inappropriate and bordering on coarse slang. You are skating on thin ice, Counsel.’

Defence Counsel muttered under his breath, ‘Is “obloquy” a big word? It has only three syllables. What about “skating on thin ice,” is that permissible in these hallowed portals?’

Cupping her right ear, the Judge inquired, ‘I did not quite catch that, Counsel. Would you repeat what you just said, please?’

‘It was nothing important, Your Honour. Merely commenting that there are a few thin mice scurrying around on the premises. Please don’t get all hot and bothered about it. Incidentally Your Honour, who are Wren and Martin? Pals of yours?’

‘How dare you suggest that I was getting hot and bothered about anything? I will not allow such off-hand references to my mental state. This is a hard enough job, as it is. My patience has its limits. Anyhow, you are straying from the subject on hand. Your client is accused of slapping his wife around in an inebriated state, simply because she refused to part with Rs.200/- so he can go out and get another bottle of country liquor. What does he have to say for himself for such abominable behaviour? Before you answer that, if you have not heard of the revered grammarians Wren and Martin, you are beyond help. Further, I would advise you to say “friends” rather than the casual and slangy “pals,” and no, they are not. Friends of mine, I mean.’

Matters were getting a bit hot and heavy now. Counsel took a gulp of water and responded. ‘I don’t mean to be flippant, Your Honour, but how could my client have obtained another bottle of country liquor if his own wife did not part with some cash? Stands to reason, does it not? He is sadly unemployed, she is a housemaid, and the man needs his drink. It’s an open and shut case. Tinkerty-tonk.’

‘Open and shut case? Counsel, if you keep opening your mouth to talk nonsense, I will have to shut it for you. Tinkerty-tonk? Tinkerty-tonk? Good heavens, man. Where do you pick up these corny phrases? Enid Blyton? Look, you might fancy Noddy in Toyland for your literary allusions, but you may treat this as a final warning. Any more stupid comments or schoolboy slang and I will find you in contempt. Samjha?

‘Your honour, with the greatest humility I must strongly object to your suddenly and without notice, introducing the interrogative, ‘Samjha?’ We are not all familiar with Malayalam. I am from Bengal.’

‘Very funny, Counsel. Malayalam eh? I cannot believe you do not even have a working knowledge of our national language. I have a good mind to have you disbarred. I think these proceedings are turning into a farce, and I intend to put a stop to it. For the last time, tell me why this alcoholic husband should not pay damages and be put behind bars for an extended period. That should sober him down and he may come out a contrite and penitent man. And with luck, a better husband. What say you? And don’t say, “That’ll be the day.”’

‘Duly noted. Although you are speaking Your Honour, I clearly sensed that you started a sentence there with the word “and.” Twice. To commit such a solecism once may be regarded a misfortune. Twice seems like carelessness. Forgive me Your Honour, I was merely paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. You were intolerant of my beginning a sentence with “but.” What price “and,” then? Craving your indulgence, perhaps you will allow me to quote Mrs. Susana Centlivre, who coined the phrase “but me no buts” in 1709 in her play The Busie Body. However, as Bernard Woolley, the PM’s Principal Secretary clarified in the celebrated British television comedy series Yes Prime Minister, it was Walter Scott’s employment of the phrase in The Antiquary in 1816 which made it fashionable.’

‘Have you quite finished Counsel, or do you have more such hilariously improving literary references to regale us with? We are not running a lecture here on The History of the English Language. Kindly step on the gas. I haven’t got all day. Why are you smirking?’

‘Sorry, your Honour, merely smiled appreciatively. Liked your “step on the gas.” Begging your pardon. Got carried away by my own eloquence. I was merely making a point to impress upon you that I can, if the mood takes me, string an uninterrupted set of sentences without resorting to, in your memorable phrase, coarse slang.’

‘Very considerate of you, I am sure. If I am ever invited to the Old Bailey, I will make sure you accompany me. Well, we are done for the day, I think. I shall pass sentence tomorrow. The case itself appears to have taken a back seat what with Counsel’s pyrotechnics with the Queen’s English, which has so enlivened these staid proceedings.’

‘Thank you, Your Honour. I am sure no Tom, Dick or Harry could have conducted this case with the ready wit and aplomb that you have exhibited in such stellar fashion.’

Touché Counsel. Or for that matter, any Amar, Akbar or Anthony.’

Touché right back at you, Your Honour. In conclusion, let us not forget that Harry has been disowned even by the Queen.’

An unusual call from the I.T.O.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten things to do before I snuff it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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