Ring out the old, with those year-end rankings

2021 End-of-Year Plan Amendment Deadlines and Other Considerations
Ring in the new

New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions. Mark Twain.

With columnists and bloggers such as yours truly, it almost seems an article of faith that as the dawn of a new year approaches, we are honour bound to indulge in some form of ranking of the highlights and lowlights of the year just gone by. Not quite a shopping list (though that can also be conveniently squeezed in), but a kind of run down of all the things that caught one’s attention during the course of the year. There are the meticulous types who will do this chronologically, starting from January and ploughing their way through to December. This would have involved some painstaking jottings in their digital diaries during the course of the year. Hard working beavers. Others, like me, take the random approach, shooting off the cuff as it were, and trusting to a dodgy memory. Incidentally, new year resolutions have become passé. Still and all, I can claim that my somewhat impressionistic, stream of consciousness approach carries with it the benefit and charm of spontaneity, if not pin-point accuracy. My simple method is, if I can’t remember some event or the other with absolute clarity, I just colour in the blank spaces with my own invention. Who is to know? In case you are wondering, I shall studiously avoid mentioning the C word and the O word. I’ve had my fill of them, thank you very much.

Depending on your particular area of interest our intrepid writers fill our newspapers during this time of the year with all manner of lists. You will come across eminent writers who will talk about their favourite films (separate sections for Bollywood and Hollywood). ‘I distinctly recall Shah Rukh Khan emoting 17 different facial expressions in the course of one thirty second close-up. Shades of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia,’ opined one well-known writer of Indian pulp fiction, and clearly a film buff. Conversely you will pore over the inarticulate ramblings of film stars who will fill our pages with books they would take to their graves (or ghats) with them. This is to let their readers and fans know that they are not just pretty faces. This book list is invariably an artfully chosen combo of Indian and western writers – Amitav Ghosh and Chetan Bhagat blending in seamlessly with Nadine Gordimer and Jeffrey Archer. It is not beyond our ken that a Bollywood action hero may say something like, ‘I read Archer not merely for his brilliantly inventive plots, but for the way in which he uses multiple metaphors to illustrate a single, telling point. Check out “Kane and Abel.”’ Thank you Ranveer, I’ll make sure to remember that the next time I visit the book section of Amazon.

Then of course, we must not forget the gourmets and the gourmands. Given half a chance, firebrand television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai could consume three columns of precious newsprint telling us all about what he is planning to cook up for family and friends this new year (that could include Yogi Adityanath and Asaduddin Owaisi at the same luncheon table, Ye Gods!). Will the belligerent Owaisi settle for bland, vegetarian fare out of respect for the saatvik Yogi? And will the Chief Minister of India’s largest state scrunch his face in utter disgust when a delicious aroma wafts in as the mutton biryani is wheeled in for Mr. Owaisi’s delectation? Mr. Sardesai will countenance a seriously contentious problem. We would love to read all about it. It would also be instructive to speculate on what the suave and gracefully ageing Prannoy Roy would serve bosom buddies Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramaniam, who one would presume are from vegetarian stock but whose culinary preferences may have turned eclectic thanks to their peripatetic, globe-trotting ways. However, Prannoy’s wine cellar ought to contain some vintage stuff. Perhaps the NDTV czar can fill a couple of pages on his Word.doc for one of our leading journals as we move inexorably into 2022.

There’s also a section devoted to music, mainly popular music in the western and Indian space. When I say Indian, it’s mainly Hindi film oeuvre. In keeping with the contrarian trend, the person putting this selection out is not likely to be from the music fraternity. The publishers will try and get hold of, if they can, someone like Virat Kohli or Sania Mirza to regale us with their favourite songs of the year we are waving goodbye to. As my pop music knowledge came to a screeching halt after Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, S.D. Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, Lata, Rafi and Kishore, I ignore this page completely. As a Tamilian, I could add the names of playback legends like T.M. Soundarrajan and P. Susheela, but I can visualize huge question marks over the head tops of a majority of my readers. Himesh Reshammiya? Who dat? Never heard of him. Arctic Monkeys? Only by reputation.

As a sports mad nation, the year’s highlights from the world of cricket, cricket and other important sports like cricket, will be exhaustively covered. Footnote references to athletic events such as javelin throw and badminton will get passing mentions, as will Neeraj Chopra and P.V. Sindhu.

Lest we forget, no newspaper or periodical worth its salt can let the last week of December go by without a bit of inspired star-gazing. How are the planets aligned in relation to our individual future? Enter stage left, the many local avatars of the late Linda Goodman and the equally late and much-loved Bejan Daruwalla. Will there be a tall, dark stranger in your life? Will you clean up on the bourses if you invest your ill-gotten gains in a couple of little-known scrips which only ‘those in the know’ are privy to, between February 15 and March 11, 2022? How about health? Will I remain in the pink throughout the year, and should I stay rooted to the broken pavement for God-knows-how-long before I can cross the road, lest I be knocked base over apex by some ‘high-on-speed’ lunatic astride a Harley Davidson? All this and more will be revealed on the paper’s full page where every sign of the Zodiac will be closely analyzed and you will know exactly where you stand. You could be an Aries, a Gemini, a Virgo, a Libra or a Scorpio. No matter, your future will be laid bare in pitiless detail. Have someone strong nearby to hold on to while you read threadbare your particular Zodiacal sign. The signs are not always good, and you must possess an innate ability to read between the lines. I have been frequently told that my favourite colour is blue, whereas I am quite partial to green. That is when I see red.

In India, of course, we cannot escape the lavishly bearded rishi type who has studied the scriptures backwards and is possessed of an invisible third eye. His combined knowledge of astronomy, astrology, palmistry and Sanskrit make him a formidable presence in the occult firmament. He is frequently approached by politicians, particularly when elections are just round the corner, to predict their party’s chances at the hustings. There are a few such people who have acquired genuine skills by sheer dint of diligent study of the sciences. Not that they always get it right. However, a majority of them are charlatans, out to make a quick buck. The strange thing is many of our leading newspapers are quite happy to give these pretend godmen free space, and depending on the publication’s political leanings, the ‘expert’ will predict gloom for one party and doom for another.

Television is not to be left behind. Being a visual medium, the sight of a man in holy orders, eyes closed in frenetic ecstasy, holding forth on the immediate future of our Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition, provides for plenty of harmless entertainment. That said, I am quite happy to listen raptly to the rishi’s considered views (at least he provides some theological value with his sonorous sloka recitations and similar), whereas so many trained psephologists and other self-proclaimed gurus on the idiot box frequently make idiots of us viewers and voters, to say nothing of themselves. That said, it makes for digestible fodder as the new calendar year approaches.

So much for the fourth estate’s obsession with ranking everything under the sun, as we sing Auld Lang Syne to the year just receding into the ether of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (with apologies to Keats). Between you, me and the gatepost, I would much rather consult the colourful fortune teller under the banyan tree with a couple of caged and garrulous parrots, who can be found in every Indian town and village; the polyglot, and at times foul-tongued, birds unerringly pick out the correct tarot card that tell me my dubious prospects for the year ahead. And it’s cheap at the price.

 2022, I have two words for you. Behave yourself.

Where have all the greeting cards gone?

Card Factory fills its shelves with Christmas cards EIGHTEEN weeks before  the festive day

It is that time of the year again. Whether we want to or not, whether we mean it or not, whether we have any genuine feelings for a particular individual or not, we feel obliged to send out all manner of overly cheerful and at times, even soppy messages of good cheer as the last couple of weeks of December comes around. Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with trillions of messages criss-crossing the globe over the ether wishing all and sundry a merry Christmas and a happy new year. In a world beset with bad news and little to cheer about, why deny folks the opportunity to spread some goodwill around like largesse. Kings and Queens do it, Prime Ministers and Heads of State do it, Popes and Pontiffs do it, it’s all part of our need to feel good about ourselves and nurse fond hopes about the next twelve months to come.

The cynics will tell you that these fond hopes are misguided and that if history teaches us anything, it is that every succeeding year brings worse news than the one we just, with great relief, waved goodbye to. Ah well, cynics will be cynics. We shall give them the lofty ignore. We shall turn to the optimists. Writer and lay theologian, C.S. Lewis said, ‘There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.’ William Shakespeare, who hates to be left behind when it comes to quotable quotes, had this to say on the subject, ‘If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.’ That was the problem with Shakespeare, he could never say anything readily comprehendible.

I do not have, conveniently at hand, statistics pertaining to the decline in sales worldwide of The Greeting Card, but the drop must be precipitous. The capital letters are deliberately placed to invest the item in question with the gravitas this dying breed deserves. To step into a book shop and look for greeting cards suitable for any occasion, particularly during festive seasons of good cheer, was a special delight. We browsed with nary a care for time pressure – birthdays, festivals, anniversaries, special occasions like exam results or notable achievements and even condolences – they were all provided for. As our budgets would permit, we would have carefully made a list of people who really mattered and bought just that many cards, with a few more to be kept in reserve. So, when someone thanked you for sending a ‘thoughtful card,’ they actually meant it.

In today’s age of social media domination, we find ourselves in the grip of innumerable messages from hordes of contacts you barely know, and quite a few you have heard neither hide nor hair of. That is without including the 32 banks, 27 mutual fund companies, 17 insurance firms and several retail houses and online portals you have purchased items from (Leathercraft Footwear wishes you a happy new year). The messages come in all shapes and sizes, as befits the technical versatility and wizardry characterized by the genius of present-day information technology. Moving images, pulsing hearts, firecrackers and starbursts, family audio-visuals with specially selected songs, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas being a particular favourite. Not to be outdone, many popular Indian film songs of a saccharinely sentimental nature find a natural billet on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

If this sounds like a rant, I apologize.  It’s not intended to be.  I know most of the good wishes are genuinely well-meant, and if the technology is there for our benefit, why not use it? I get that logic. After all, I do it myself all the time. It’s just that when the same message with the same moving image comes from thirty-five different persons, it ceases to be very moving – if you follow my reasoning. Somehow, the ridiculous ease and lack of any real effort or thought involved in receiving and sending messages greatly detracts from the warmth of feeling one seeks to convey. We live in times when stepping out of the comfort zone of hearth and home poses unseen dangers, and we remain collectively blameless for not buying greeting cards, be they Archies, UNICEF, OXFAM or just plain FUNNIES. Affixing stamps and sealing envelopes with a couple of licks, and trotting off to the nearest post office to send them off par avion is a pleasant chore presently denied to us. In the words of a Steely Dan song, ‘Those days are gone forever, over a long time ago.’

Under the circumstances, one must doff one’s hat to those near and dear ones who take great pains to design and make their own greeting cards at home, a labour of love wrought with not a little sweat of the brow. When such cards arrive at your doorstep from a caring aunt or grandmother, with a thoughtfully calligraphed message, you wrap them in cotton wool till the end of days.

That said, one does so miss the avalanche of Season’s Greetings cards that used to arrive and jam our letter boxes, to say nothing of the domestic joys of stringing them up in cheerful festoons across the length and breadth of the rooms in our wee homes. In passing, it occurs to me that we should be ever so grateful that good old JC, Mary’s boy child, was born just a few days prior to our calendar New Year’s Day, viz., January 1. Christmas morphing into new year is a continuous double delight, not to mention the double hangover! Had Christmas Day fallen on, say, May 25th, how tedious everything would have been. No snow, sleigh and reindeer, while Santa Claus would have had to be togged up in a red tee shirt with white trimmings, huffing and puffing his way up and down chimneys in a profusion of sweat and grime. Even the false, flowing white beard would have been out of the question in the middle of summer. His cheery ‘ho, ho, ho’ would have turned to ‘oh, no, no.’ That said, how do the Australians and the New Zealanders manage, the Antipodean countries’ climate being the wrong way round, their summers being our winters and vice-versa?

Meanwhile, we shall all be Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagramming and WhatsApping goodwill messages by ‘selecting all’ in our contact sheet. To a handful we may draft special messages, just to show there’s no ill feeling. Our mobile phones will be pinging all day and all night long, as quite a few of these messages will arrive from different time zones. Pretty much the entire population of the globe will be wishing for 2022 to quickly rid itself of Covid and its mutant siblings, so that we can start visiting shops to buy greeting cards of our choice next year. Come to think of it we are all wishing to administer 2021 a swift kick in its retreating backside. Many wise men and women hold the view that it is all in God’s hands. Tell you what, if God (in whichever avatar) is masterminding all that has been going on in the world this past couple of years, then there is a dire need for the Almighty to recalibrate strategies and tactics pretty swiftly. Right now, God is way behind the eight ball. My own sense is that it is Beelzebub that is holding the upper hand on things and firmly ensconced in the driving seat as we go to press, and God needs to make a final, desperate dash on the straight, Usain Bolt style, if the all-seeing one is to show a clean pair of heels to his dark rival.

Here’s wishing you all a happy, if guarded, new year.

Games people play

Nidhi Razdan reveals her Harvard University job offer was fake | Kashmir  Despatch
Former NDTV anchor, Nidhi Razdan

Oh the games people play now, every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say, yeah never saying what they mean

Joe South, 1969

Former NDTV news anchor Nidhi Razdan is in the news. Again. Let me rephrase that. Nidhi Razdan is the news. Till a couple of years ago, the personable face of the well-known English news channel had been, not just bringing us the news, but keeping her guest participants from all sides of the political, social and cultural divide honest and on their toes. Her deceptively easy manner often put her invited panelists off guard, while she seamlessly went for the kill. Always thorough with her homework, she came well prepared and for the most part, had even obstreperous politicians eating out of her hand. Else she was quick to shoot from the hip, Left, Right and Centre to refer eponymously to the name of the programme she anchored. Left of Centre was more her channel’s stated position, and Nidhi was unwavering in holding on to that stance.  She was sharp, shrewd, articulate and always one step ahead of her often-troublesome invitees. In short, Nidhi Razdan is not, or was not, one of those anchors whose eyes you could pull the wool over.

Which is why her much-touted embarrassment over being taken for a huge, academic ride comes as an unexpected surprise. The details of the case will be well known to all those who have been following the Nidhi Razdan story. Having announced that she is quitting her high-pressure, high-profile job at NDTV and moving on to the rarefied world of academia, she was the talk and toast of academic and intellectual circles in India. After all, it’s not every day that one receives an invitation to take up a teaching assignment at the redoubtable Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the toast before she became toast. An unfortunate victim of online chicanery from a bunch of spiteful, cybercrime nerds whose only objective was to embarrass her, the offer from Harvard proving to be a royal hoax. Poor Nidhi Razdan, red-faced, is nursing her wounds. As she herself put it, ‘How could I be so stupid?’ Indeed Nidhi, how could you? Had she been aware of the works of the late P.G. Wodehouse, she might have agreed with his description of a lost soul, He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.’

Apparently, she is not the only one to be victimized by such phishing attacks, there have been other bright ladies who fell headlong for this kind of trickery. Speculation is now rife as to who might be behind all this, and the Razdan sympathizers are making no bones about their suspicions. Those who wish to know more on the subject can read all about it in the International New York Times, which decided to dredge up and regurgitate the story last week. The NYT has been a relentless baiter of the Government of India, or at least of the present dispensation, and their needle of suspicion with regard to l’affaire Razdan is barely disguised.

All this, naturally, got me in a right, royal tizzy. If the likes of Nidhi Razdan can be so easily led up the garden path, what possible chance could someone of my ‘bottom of the barrel’ status possibly have? Being a writer of essentially light-hearted, satirical and possibly, humorous columns, I have for some while now been entertaining grandiose dreams of winning some major literary award dedicated to my genre of writing. Nothing too grand mind you, not a Nobel or a Booker but something more modestly suited to my oeuvre. I’ve heard tell that if you thought long and hard about some fancy wish-fulfilment, it might actually come true. I was literally floating away in a wonderful day-dream.

   I settled comfortably in front of my desktop, booted it up and went directly to my mail inbox. Lo and behold, the first item in my unopened mail was from the P.G. Wodehouse Literary Society. Would you believe it! My heart, like the poet Shelley’s, was one with the skylark.  Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Before half a blink of an eye, I had opened the mail, and was disbelievingly looking at a letterhead cleverly designed with the logo of the creator of the comic Master’s bust smoking a pipe, and the Society’s full name beautifully calligraphed. The letter was music to my ears.

Dear Mr. Suresh Subrahmanyan,

It gives us, at the P.G. Wodehouse Literary Society, considerable pleasure to inform you that our panel of eminent judges has awarded you the 2021 Wodehouse Humourist of the Year Award. The Award was instituted in 2015 and the recipients have included some of the finest writers the world of satire and humour has known. You are the first writer outside of the United Kingdom to have received this honour. Our warmest congratulations.

Apart from the specially crafted gold commemorative medal and scroll of honour you will also receive a cash prize of £35,000 generously contributed by the family estate of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. The Awards function will be held at The Dorchester in London on August 15, 2022. We have invited the great comic actor, writer, thinker and avowed Wodehouse admirer, the remarkable Stephen Fry to give away the Award. We are awaiting confirmation from him. While further details will be communicated to you in due course, we would appreciate receiving your acceptance of this Award and confirmation that you will be attending the function. We will be sending you two round-trip first-class air tickets, compliments of British Airways for you and your wife. A suite has already been booked for you at The Dorchester for five nights. You will be received at Heathrow by one of The Dorchester’s fleet of luxury cars.

We look forward to hearing from you at the earliest.

With our very best wishes.

Sincerely yours.

Gareth Fowler

Trustee

 P.G. Wodehouse Literary Society

London.

Well, well! And another ‘well’ for good measure. I mean to say! I sat stock still, as if carved out of stone. I re-read the missive twenty-seven times, and could detect nothing suspicious. In fact, you might say I was too stunned to be able to react intelligently. Questions there were aplenty, of course. How did they get to read my blogs? I did not enter any literary competition. Did someone from the judging committee get hold of one or two of my book compilations? And the August 15th fixture, coinciding with India’s Independence Day, seemed too pat. The whole thing was a dashed mystery, as Bertie Wooster might have put it, and I did not have the services of Jeeves to help me out. 35,000 smackeroos, eh? That’ll come in handy for a rainy day. Keep the wolf from the door and all that.

However, something kept gnawing at me. This can’t be right. Is the Nidhi Razdan fiasco playing out all over again? I did not want to get at the truth. Then again, why should I undersell myself. Surely, I can craft a funny sentence same as anybody else? Dear, oh dear. I was beset with doubts and possibly a smidgen of low self-esteem. Enough of all this nonsense, I said to myself. Let me put a call through to this Gareth Fowler chap from the P.G.W. Society and put an end to my misery, once and for all. I braced myself as I tapped the keys on my mobile.

I got through first crack out of the box. ‘Good morning, am I speaking to Mr. Gareth Fowler?’

‘I am he,’ responded this Fowler in pedantic English.

‘Hello. I am Suresh Subrahmanyan from India, and I have received your mail.’

‘And what mail would that be?’ That was a warning shot across the bow, if ever there was one.

‘The mail informing me of my having bagged the Wodehouse Award.’

The Fowler sounded a tad mystified. ‘I am sorry but what award? And who is this?’

‘I just told you who I was. You are Gareth Fowler, Trustee for the Wodehouse Literary Society, are you not?’ My throat was beginning to dry up.

‘My dear Mr. Whatever-your-name-is, somebody has been playing a huge prank on you. I am Gareth Fowler, yes, but I am employed by the British Gas Board in their Public Relations department. Sorry, wrong number.’ And the line went dead.

My legs turned to jelly. My depression was beyond description. The onset of the south-west monsoon could not have exhibited a deeper depression. I referred to Shelley’s joyous skylark earlier, but now I was more in tune with Keats’ nightingale. My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.

Nidhi Razdan, if you are looking for a shoulder to cry on, you don’t have far to seek.

No sex please, we’re Customs

Two impersonators faking as Customs officials arrested - India News

Sex toys hit city Customs barrier, end up in godown. The Times of India.

Honestly, I am fed up to the back teeth with our newspapers these days. All they ever talk about is the pandemic, border skirmishes, petrol prices, Modi and Putin bear-hugging, Sidhu, Channi and the Captain squaring off in Punjab, and some guy from Bollywood called Vicky getting hitched up to some gal named Kat, what the trousseau will consist of and who the lucky ones will be on their guest list. All right, so we thrashed New Zealand in a meaningless two-Test series at home. Big deal! In the midst of all this silliness, the tragic helicopter crash that took the life of India’s CDS General Bipin Rawat, his wife and other officers, was an extremely shocking change from the everyday, anodyne script.

It’s the same thing on television, only it’s impossible to follow the storyline thanks to everyone on screen striving to break the sound barrier in disharmonious unison. Which is why I was startled to come across this extraordinary headline about sex toys being seized by Customs officials in Bangalore. Naturally, I ignored everything else in my daily paper and gave the full weight of my attention to this earth-shattering piece of news. Here’s the gist of what this very enterprising reporter filed. Apparently, the pandemic has forced many of our denizens to look for diverting ways to take care of their claustrophobic idle hour. The Customs chappies were taken aback at the rapid increase in imports of a mind-boggling variety of titillating items, the primary aim of which was to satisfy man’s basest instincts.

It occurred to me that if I am to obtain reliable information on the subject, I should go straight to the horse’s mouth. I was certain the Customs office in Bangalore would be having in their employ a Public Relations department who could fill me in on the details. Having got the helpline number from Google search, thither I rang. After the usual interminable wait, and having punched several digits to choose language, subject matter and ‘if I wished to speak to one of our helpline officials,’ and ‘our lines are all very busy and we have limited staff owing to the pandemic, and we apologize for the long wait,’ I finally reached a human voice. In between, I had to put up with some stultifying Kenny G type of music.

‘Namaskar. This is Swati, how I can be of help?’ Given the subject matter I was absorbed with, I would have preferred to speak with a man. No offence, I am a bit queasy that way, but I pressed on.

‘Yes Swati, thank you. I am referring to a newspaper report this morning about which I wish to ask a few questions.’

‘Are you from the media, Sir?’ 

‘Not exactly. I am a columnist. Blogger, if you prefer. The news item I am referring to came from the media.’

‘And what is this news item about, Sir?’

‘Ah, well it’s a bit delicate.’ At this point, for some inexplicable reason, I dropped my voice to a barely audible whisper. ‘Sex toys.’

‘What? Sex boys? What are you saying, you dirty, old man. I shall complain to the higher…’

How could she have known I was old? No quaver in my voice. Anyhow, I interrupted her hastily. ‘No, no. I was whispering, there were people about and you heard me wrong. Total misunderstanding. There was a news item about confiscation of some material at Customs, broadly classified as Sex Toys. Please forgive me if I was not clear. Blame it on the poor line.’

‘Oh, sex toys. Why didn’t you say so, loud and clear, in the first place?’ She was quite blasé. ‘Let me connect you to the concerned department. Please hold. It may take some time. Lines are jammed today with calls on that subject. Sorry for the inconvenience.’ Gosh, they even have a dedicated department for this sort of thing! I was impressed.

After being put on hold for about seven minutes, while I was entertained to several recorded messages of the kind of punishment I could face if I brought in banned drugs, Chinese aphrodisiacs and pornographic videos, a tired sounding male voice finally answered.

‘Yes? What is it that you want?’ He sounded abrupt and vaguely threatening, as if daring me to bring up the subject of sex toys.

I decided to brave it out. ‘Good morning, I wish to speak with you about these sex toys you have confiscated and are threatening to destroy. Can you give me some details?’

‘What are you, a pervert, into kinky stuff? Don’t you have anything better to do than to get cheap thrills first thing in the morning?’

‘My dear Customs Manager or whatever your designation is, I am not seeking cheap thrills. I am not that kind of chap. I listen to Carnatic music. It is you who have proudly announced to the press about this haul of sex toys that you and your colleagues at Customs are sitting on, waiting for instructions to burn them. Like the cops do when they come across lethal arms, bombs, leopard skins, ivory tusks and the like. Usually, they pose proudly for photographs with the haul and the smugglers.’

‘So, you want me to pose for the camera in front of a cache of inflatable dolls, S&M whips with thongs, floggers, vibrators, triple X videos and other such dubious items?’

He was clearly well-informed on the subject. ‘Wearing a broad, triumphant smile, of course. And say “cheese.” By the way, one thing about your statement to the press intrigued me. You said that after the pandemic struck, the import of such items has greatly increased. And that you have approached higher authorities for directions. Presumably to incinerate these degrading items of sexual gratification.’

‘It has too. Increased after the pandemic, I mean. What is so intriguing about that? And your mocking, leering tone is not appreciated. We are doing a difficult job here. What do I go home and tell the wife and kids about how my day went at the office?’

‘You have my sympathies, Sir. However, when you say imports have increased it means, ipso facto, you have been allowing such items to come through in the past. Why get all cagey about it, now that more people are going in for such diversions? And you’ve been shouting from the rooftops about your capture, anyway.’ I could see that he was beginning to get hot under the collar. Before he could respond, I came up with another salvo. ‘With due respect Sir, my heart goes out to this bloke you have identified as Sid from Bangalore.’

‘Who?’

‘Sid. Not his real name, of course. He is heartbroken that, after paying 140 USD from an online Dutch portal for one of those thingummies I would rather not mention, you are now throwing the rule book at him. Have a heart, Sir. He is just a restless teenager with raging hormones. Just like Shirley (name changed) from Mathikere as well, who faced similar problems having imported some dicey stuff from the US. It’s not just the boys, you see. They all have their needs, same as you.’

‘Stop getting personal. You are skating on very thin ice. Look, I don’t have to answer all these idiotic questions from a two-bit, deviant blogger like you. You don’t even represent a third-rate, yellow-journalism rag. As it is, I have wasted too much time on you. As for this Sid and Shirley double-act, raging hormones, eh? Tough. They’ll just have to do what all of us did.’

‘And what is that, Sir?’

‘That’ll be all. End of.’

‘Just one last thing,’ I pleaded, ignoring all his insults. ‘Do you actually burn all these items, or just claim that you do? My own sense is that they ultimately find their way into…’

At this point, the line went dead. After a week or so, I received a registered letter (with acknowledgment due) from the Customs Department, asking me to explain an online purchase of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and would I appear at their offices the following week with both the books in question. I replied to them, through my lawyer, that they will be wasting their time poring through these great works of literature looking for cheap, salacious thrills. Much better if they can get hold of Shobhaa De’s Starry Nights or Sultry Days to burn. Paperback editions, naturally. More combustible.

Omigosh! It’s Omicron!

Omicron Covid Variant, Covid Variant In South Africa, Delta Variant: First  Image Of 'Omicron' Covid Variant Shows Many More Mutations Than Delta

It’s a bird, it’s a plane. No, it’s the super-spreader, Omicron!

I had vowed to myself, several months ago, that I will not write another word on Covid, the virus that has been the blight of our lives this past couple of years. I have had to go back on my word. Literally. The fact that Covid19, along with its many variants, appeared to be losing its potency over the recent past with more people getting vaccinated, more people developing anti-bodies, sports stadiums beginning to fill up again, concert halls bursting at the seams, people flying to all parts of the world – all this lulled us into a false sense of security. In fact, I recently attended, with some misgiving, a wedding reception at a swank hotel in Bangalore. We sauntered in, fully masked up, when mine host rushed up to me with a crushing bear hug and commanded me to remove my mask. ‘Bangalore is now Covid-free,’ he declared grandly. ‘Sez you,’ I muttered to myself. Many of us were looking over our shoulders warily, wondering when the next Covid avatar was set to pounce. We were pretty sure it was merely lurking round the corner, taking a water break, and getting its breath back. Infecting millions of people over such a long period can be a tiring job: even for an invisible virus. And right on cue, it happened. I crave your indulgence for starting a sentence with ‘And.’ These are trying times, and pedantic grammarians should cut us hack writers some slack.

What happened, at the stroke of the midnight hour, was the arrival of this unbidden, viral guest. Presenting the new, vastly improved variant of Covid19, the dynamic Omicron. The medical boffins tell us, and who am I to go against them, that Omicron has 32 mutations on the spike protein, is very easily transmissible and this slippery new variant can even bypass the efficacy of the double-dosed vaccine that many of us have armed ourselves with.  Very slimy piece of work, this Omicron. ‘When are we getting our booster shots?’ is the universal cry ringing out. That’s rich, coming from many who were conscientious objectors to taking even the first shot!

So, there you go. Not one to allow the grass to grow under my feet, and not entirely convinced by whatever was being peddled on our television news channels by hyper-ventilating anchors, I thought it best to approach my close doctor friend, whom I have had the pleasure of chit-chatting with in my columns on earlier occasions. Given the sensitivity of the subject being discussed he agreed, on condition of anonymity, to speak with me. For the purposes of this piece, I have decided to address him as Dr. No. It never occurred to me that the good Dr. No was not much of an expert on the subject either, but he was the only medico who was willing to give me the time of day. I bashed on regardless. Having just seen off a patient, he had me ushered into his gloomy chamber.

I breezed in with a cheery ‘Morning Dr. No, why the long face? Or is it just the long mask? What gives?’

‘First off, where did you get this idea of giving me the Dr. No moniker? Wasn’t he the eponymous villain in the first of the James Bond films? Is that the best you could come up with?’ The doc was clearly below par. Probably got up from the wrong side of the bed.

I was at my acerbic best. ‘Would you have preferred Dr. Jekyll? Or Mr. Hyde? I think not. Every time I asked to meet you, you kept saying no. Dr. No was the hands-down choice to preserve your precious anonymity. Selected itself. Look, stop moaning and let’s get down to business. We can’t have you going under the weather. Physician, heal thyself and all that. I came to talk to you about Omicron. You know, to get some precious insights into this B.1.1.529 variant of concern. As opposed to variant of interest.’ I had done my homework.

Dr. No was impressed. ‘You’ve certainly mugged up all the jargon, but what insights do you want from me? All those nattily dressed doctors on television have been spouting forth about the virus before it has even made a proper entry. You probably know more about it than I do.’

‘Come, come Doc. Modesty does not become you. Will Omicron be as dangerous as the Delta variant, which has been plaguing us thus far? Tell all, your secret is safe with me.’

‘What secret? No cloak and dagger stuff here. Trouble is you’ve been reading too many James Bond books or watching the Sean Connery movies. It’s all out in the open. Those prophets of gloom and doom from W.H.O. have been predicting fire and brimstone to befall us. Of course, they prefer the understated ‘variant of concern.’

‘Gosh, you’re getting all Biblical on me. Ok, if you want to be so cagey about Omicron, let me tell you what I have gleaned as a lay person and you can correct me if I have missed anything out. The bloody thing is a super spreader, transmissibility going through the roof, so far not proved to be fatal, symptoms include mild fever, deep exhaustion and a scratchy throat. How am I going, Doc?’

Dr. No looked peeved. ‘Go to the top of the class. If you know all this, why come here and waste my time? I have patients waiting outside. And you could be risking infection yourself. Did you ever think about that? And you call that a mask? It’s like gossamer. You might as well be rolling out a welcome mat to all the viruses floating around. Come in Omi, it’s open house today. Free drinks all round. Honestly!’

‘Look Doc, I know you’re under a great deal of stress, but there’s no need to get personal. What is the point of having a doctor for a friend if he is going to come over all sarcastic and bitter? Cheer up, my friend. That lady doctor from South Africa, the one with a funny name and a funnier accent, was all smiles. Nothing to worry about, she said.’

‘I presume you are referring to Dr. Angelique Coetzee. What is so funny about her name? Not half as crazy as Dr. No, that’s for sure. Why didn’t you call me Goldfinger? And don’t mock her accent either. Better than affecting a put-on Oxbridge brogue like that Tharoor chap. Anyway, she was quick to point out that her observations were made on the spur of the moment, and that things can change.’

‘Hedging her bets, eh? One can understand where she is coming from. But Doc, give me a final answer. Omicron, will this be the last of the variants? Or is a more deadly B.1.2. 530 in the offing? You can give it to me straight up.’

‘I am not pouring you a shot of whisky, damn it. Straight up, indeed. I am not a soothsayer, either. Beware the Ides of March. You really are a card you know. Don’t know why I tolerate you.’

‘Because you are my buddy, Doc. By the way, one last quiz question. Do you know why they junked the idea of selecting the name ‘Xi’ for the new virus, which is also part of the Greek alphabet like Beta, Delta, Epsilon and Omicron?’

‘Don’t tell me. Fearing the wrath of Xi Jinping? Really? Shucks. After Wuhan, that is exactly what they ought to have done. What a golden opportunity missed!’

‘W.H.O. developed cold feet. Understandable. Hullo, why are you sounding a bit hoarse?’

‘Don’t know pal. My throat is feeling a bit scratchy and a mild fever and body ache is coming on. And I am feeling terribly exhausted. Do you think…?’

I pushed my chair back violently. ‘Omigosh, you had better go and see a doctor, Doc. I don’t like the look of this one bit. I am out of here. Gotta fly.’ I rushed out of his chamber as fast as my wobbly legs would take me.

As I was leaving, I thought I heard a low chuckle and Dr. No telling his 2IC, ‘That got rid of him fast enough. He won’t bother me anymore. Call in the next patient.’

The Great Indian Debate

1,041 Politicians Arguing Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images -  iStock

The art of debating was actively encouraged when most of us were still in our early teens. In its barest essentials, the way we defined a debate as practised in schools and college campuses was roughly on the following lines. The House proposed a motion, as in ‘This House believes that bullying in schools should be punishable by rustication.’ Three speakers would be selected to speak ‘For’ the motion and three ‘Against.’ Each speaker would be given three or five minutes to present his or her argument for or against the motion and a final summing up would be given by a pre-selected speaker from each side. The debate was presided over by the Speaker of the House to ensure that timing was strictly adhered to and that matters did not spiral out of hand. The Speaker was provided with an old-fashioned bell which was pressed frequently to indicate to the debater that time has been called. Thirty discretionary seconds grace time was allowed after which the Speaker’s irate ringing made it clear for whom the bell tolls. Finally, after all is said and done, the motion is put to vote by a show of hands by the audience and we will then know if those nasty bullies ought to be dismissed or retained with suitable punishment meted out. All very parliamentary, civilized and above board. Sadly, our Parliament today is anything but.

It strikes me as ironic that a handful of those very proper boys and girls, now grown to (im)mature adulthood, show themselves on our television screens, during what is broadly termed the news hour, prime time debate, to be little more than crass boors. Or at best, bores. More often than not, the anchor for the programme is barely able to maintain even a semblance of control over his delirious guests, who are drawn from opposing political spectrums. Every subject is reduced to political binaries. Speakers, for the most part, have little to say from their own point of view, resorting to what is now fashionably termed ‘whataboutery,’ at every turn. I grant you that there are notable exceptions, but they only serve to prove the rule.

The madness cuts across political affiliations and many of our channels seem to go out of their way to invite speakers blessed with bloated lung power and shrunken brain power. The ability to talk ad infinitum, ad nauseam over each other without compunction would seem to be a sine qua non. ‘Off the wall’ does not even begin to describe the charade. Push comes to shove, the anchor will turn some recalcitrant, bull-headed speaker’s volume to zero, and we are witness to the comic spectacle of the poor, unaware wretch mouthing sweet nothings! It’s a farce that some of us watch some of the time, in the forlorn hope that we might learn something of value with regard to our nation’s momentous happenings. Gluttons for punishment, we are.

Let us take a topic completely at random, being debated at one of our late evening debates, and see how the proceedings unfold. I choose a hypothetical subject for this piece, but one that surely would have featured before. The subject, introduced by the anchor, discusses India’s policy towards Pakistani aggression across our northern borders, with particular emphasis on what our strategy should be.

Anchor Guy (AG) – ‘I am introducing a very serious topic this evening, that of Pakistan’s untrammeled incursions across our borders. As there are more than twenty guests on my show, I cannot waste time introducing all of them. You already know most of them. However, those three miserable, uniformed persons at the right end of your screens, with a bilious green backdrop, are my guests from Pakistan. They will not be allowed to open their mouths; they are merely present to be roundly abused by me and anyone else, other than Navjot Singh Sidhu followers. If they do try to say anything, I shall switch their microphones off. I am paying them well, so they can lump it. Right, is it time for our army to go on the offensive against the Pakis? That is the topic for the evening. Let’s debate.’

BJP Rep – ‘Thank you AG. My friend from the Congress….’

Congress Rep – ‘I am not your friend. Let me make that very clear. We would rather be friends of Mussolini……’

BJP Rep – ‘But of course, you will admire anyone from Italy, even a dictator like Mussolini. Runs in the family. How about Hitler? Further….’

Congress Rep – ‘Führer? Oh, further. Right. That really cracks me up. Who is talking about dictators? Let me tell you something about authoritarian Indian dictators who, after repealing the farm laws, are now lame duck dictators. You are nothing but…..’

AG – ‘One minute, one minute, one minute, one minute. I will not allow this kind of rubbish on my programme. Please stick to the subject. We are talking about Pakistani aggression on our soil. Where do Mussolini and Hitler come in?’

Pak Rep – ‘Mr. AG, we strongly object to this subject. It is an insult to our country. We shall take this matter up strongly with our PM, Imran Khan Saheb. Or with Navjot Sidhu Paaji.’

AG – ‘Listen my friend from Rawalpindi or Karachi or whichever hell hole you crawled out from, who are you to object? This is my programme. And you think this is an insult? Thanks for the compliment. I am just getting started. If you carry on like this, you won’t get paid. As our superstar Rajini Sir would say, “Mind it.”’

AAP Rep – ‘Listen AG, this is not fair. I did not interrupt and I have not even uttered a word. Our leader wants me to be in my Karol Bagh constituency in 30 minutes to distribute free rice to all the citizens there.’

AG – ‘Don’t be silly. You have now uttered more words than I am inclined to allow you. I will not be upstaged. If you wish to distribute free rice, electricity, water or bus and train passes, be my guest. While you’re at it, ask your driver to leave one sackful of Basmati rice in my office. I have guests coming home this Sunday, beer and biryani lunch. Now enough of all this nonsense. Let’s hear from the TMC lady.’

TMC Rep – ‘Thank you AG, mishti chele. That’s mean sweet boy in Bengali. Amar Sonar Bangla. This Pakistan business, I don’t know much. But Bangladesh, we welcome so many, many, many peoples. They are very good cooks. Some are also crooks, but theek aachhe. We give them walk-in visas. But Imran he is sooo handsome, no? Daarun personality. In fact, Didi wants to invite….’

AG – ‘That’ll do. I’ve heard enough from you. Calling me names like mishti chele won’t take you far. I am beyond flattery. And if there is one thing I am most definitely not, it is sweet. You want Imran? Ask Didi to send Navjot Sidhu to go and invite him. A few hugs won’t go amiss either.’

TMC Rep – ‘I laav it when you get angry AG. You must come home for cha bishkoot with nolen gurer sandesh when you visit Kolkata. I have nice flat in Ballygunge Circular Road…’

AG – ‘Will someone please cut this ridiculous lady off screen and sound? This is turning into a farce. I want to hear from our defence expert. Go ahead, General.’

Defence Expert – ‘I want war. Enough of this pussy footing and namby-pamby approach. Why are we tip-toeing on egg shells? If I was not 85 years old, I would have been out there in the front lines, happy to take a bullet for my country. It’s a pity those guys you have invited from Pakistan are not here live, sitting in front of me. I even oiled my rifle this morning. And that TMC lady with her half-baked Bonglish was really getting on my nerves! My finger was itching on the trigger.’

AG – ‘You’re telling me! I know exactly how you feel. Easy General, easy. You will collapse with apoplexy. There’s no doctor in the house. I am running out of time. Those 10 others who did not get a chance to speak, don’t worry. You’ll get your appearance fee. Now stop yelling and screaming all at once. I’ll see what I can do next time round. And remember viewers, if there’s anything you or the nation want to know, you know where to come. Good night.’

Programme ends. Off screen, AG’s voice – ‘I say, where’s that AAP chap. Left already? He’s forgotten my Basmati rice. Bloody hell! Cheapskate. I’ll never call him again.’

Farming the strike

India: Farmers celebrate repeal of farm laws — in pictures | All media  content | DW | 19.11.2021
A sweet day for farmers

A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus. E.B. White.

The government has finally decided to repeal the contentious farm laws. After close to a year of backing and forthing, accompanied by plenty of bickering and frothing at the mouth, threats, dharnas, morchas and eyeball to eyeball confrontations, it would appear that the BJP government has been the first to blink. Truth to tell, the only one to blink after what seemed an interminably long stare down. The opposition parties, predictably, are already playing this up as a huge loss of face, this volte face, for the ruling party. The latter are doubtless devising their own strategies and tactics to put a brave and noble face on this imbroglio. They may have had to eat humble roti, but they are not showing it. There are those who firmly believe that our Prime Minister and his aides have something up their sleeves, which will be unleashed on an unsuspecting citizenry at some unspecified future date. Debates will rage over the next few weeks on our television screens, and with important state elections just a few months away, the timing of this announcement will also be viewed with skepticism by the naysayers. In fact, the future tense is redundant. It’s already happening, with knobs on. That’s politics, baby!

Your chronicler was taking his evening constitutional the other day, when he overheard an animated conversation between two very senior citizens sitting on a park bench. No prizes for guessing, but they were having a chinwag about this very subject viz., the PM’s repealing of the farm laws. As I was not keen to be spotted eavesdropping, I pretended to be deeply involved in some standing exercises. You know, hip rotation, toe touching and a spot of yogic breathing as well. This was somewhat embarrassing because I have never been able to reach within a foot of my toes, but I decided to soldier on, as the conversation held me in thrall. Clearly, one of the two elders was deeply in simpatico with the farm lobby, while the other, possibly a right-wing retired journalist, took a more cynical view of what he saw as little more than brazen blackmail by some sections of the farming community. They spoke pretty loudly, both of them probably quite hard of hearing. This suited me fine as I could hear every word as clear as a bell.

‘I say Bhatia, you must be celebrating. You have been cribbing about what you call the draconian farm laws. You’ve got your way now. You saw the PM on television, did you not? So, when are you throwing a party?’

‘I daresay you speak figuratively, Chandru. I cannot remember ever throwing a party. Thrown many a fit, yes. In any case, I am not sure what there is to celebrate. The farmers might have won an important round, but you can never count the Prime Minister out. He must be furiously working on Plan B. That is a nagging worry.’

‘I thought you were not overly fond of the ruling party, and that’s putting it mildly. Yet you seem to have a grudging admiration for our admirable Modiji. Do I detect a change, Bhatia?’

‘You detect no such thing, my friend. That was not admiration. That was more a deep concern, knowing the Prime Minister’s capacity and muscle power to hit back when and where you least expect it. By the way, I am not a very close follower of present-day political trends and catch phrases, but what is this 56-inch jibe that the young pretender, Rahul Gandhi keeps talking about all the time?’

‘Dear me Bhatia, you are a bit out of step, aren’t you? That is actually a reference to the PM’s muscle power you just referred to. It is a metaphor, expressed with much irony and sarcasm, not that Rahul Gandhi will recognize irony if you handed it to him on a platter. The not-all-that-young Gandhi scion has also hectored the PM mockingly and inelegantly; chowkidar chor hai being his favourite pot shot.’

‘I have heard that one as well, Chandru, but it all seems to be so much water off a duck’s back. The PM, much to his critics’ annoyance, never seems to react. He simply gets on a plane and pushes off to some international conference where Boris Johnson calls him “one sun, one moon, one earth, the one and only Narendra.” Or words to that effect. That really gets my goat, this wallowing in foreign leaders’ appreciation, when back home we are trying to give him hell.’

‘To get back to the farm laws retraction Bhatia, you can never keep the opposition happy. You get my drift? I mean, this past year they were all yelling and screaming “repeal, repeal” but no sooner has the government done precisely that than they start shouting that this is just an election stunt, what with many important state elections just round the corner. You just can’t please some people. In fact, the word jhumla is frequently heard on our television screens.’

‘When you are involved in a slanging match, all bets are off. Anything goes. Look, I think many of these barbs are quite justified. The PM’s sleight of hand is now legendary. Now you see him, now you don’t. A consummate politician. And he has all these heavyweights like Shah and Nadda to face the flak while he himself is traipsing around the globe. And you know what, the thing that really bugs me is that he invariably turns it all round to his benefit. My fear is this might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the farmers.’

‘Come, come Bhatia, don’t lose heart. Pyrrhic victory, indeed! Good phraseology but stuff and nonsense. There’s still the MSP issue to be sorted out. That Tikait chap says he won’t remove his soup kitchens from the Delhi border till the government nails the MSP issue. If I can paraphrase that old Beatles hit, our government has a tough Tikait to ride.’

‘Nice one, Chandru. Tikait to ride, ha ha! Where do you dredge up these things from? Yes, I keep reading and hearing about this MSP affair, but what exactly is it and why is everybody getting into a right royal twist over it? Why don’t you explain it to me in plain English, Chandru, you being a respected journalist and all?’

‘Was, Bhatia, was. Retired now. And by the way, journalists are never respected. Not anywhere in the world. As a clan collectively, journalists are a byword and a hissing, as I have heard some of my friendly hacks from Fleet Street describe us. One politician even called journalism the second oldest profession in the world!’

‘Good grief. I will not ask you what the oldest profession is, but you are digressing. I wanted to know what exactly MSP stood for and why it has become such a sticking point between the farmers and the government?’

‘I digressed because I am myself quite clueless about this MSP affair. Beyond the fact that it is an acronym for Minimum Support Price, why this Tikait gawdelpus and his cohorts are insisting that MSP be guaranteed under law is a closed book to me. Something to do with middlemen, they tell me. You know what Bhatia, I think there is more to this than meets the eye.’

‘And what exactly does that mean, Chandru? You speak in riddles.’

‘It means neither of us has the foggiest what the palaver over the farm laws is all about. It’s just something for retired people like us to sit on a park bench and gas away till the cows come home. Which reminds me, the wife will be getting restless. It’s time to make tracks.’

‘I hate conversations that are left open-ended like this. It’s like reading an Agatha Christie novel and finding that some sadist has torn out the last page which would have revealed the murderer’s identity. Listen Chandru, will you do some ferreting around, like a good journalist, and let’s meet again tomorrow and you can tell me all about this wretched MSP in words of less that four syllables. All right? Is that a deal?’

‘All I can say Bhatia, like a good journalist, is ‘watch this space.’

‘Oh, and one last thing Chandru. This stand-up upstart Vir Das everyone is raving about. Is he for or against India?’

‘Good question, Bhatia old top. They were raving about him at the Kennedy Centre in New York. Not sure back home. I think he is hedging his bets. He speaks of “Two Indias.” He is for one and against the other. That clear?’

‘Clear as mud.’

As the two octogenarians parted company, I too completed my pretend exercise routine and headed homewards. I hate to have to say it, but I am now a bona fide member of that club of millions in our country who has not the faintest what the farm laws and its many twists and turns are all about, but at least I was privy to a most entertaining, if confused, exchange of ideas by two of our senior citizens, even if I had to remain incognito. As the fellow said in the Paul Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke, ‘What we have here is failure to communicate.’

‘Clicket, rovery clicket!’*

Children playing cricket in Chongquing, China
Catching them young in China

*The title of this piece provides an Oriental twist to the memorable calypso, ‘Cricket, lovely cricket’ by Lord Beginner, celebrating the West Indies’ first ever Test victory over England in 1950 at Lord’s.

The game of cricket and its pundits are spread out like a rash. They are everywhere. Well, perhaps not in North Korea or Easter Island and the like, but certainly in most of the Commonwealth nations, and by a process of osmosis and great migratory movements, even the United States and Canada. They have, notwithstanding their obsession with baseball and basketball, after a fashion taken to the game of ‘flannelled fools.’ I am intrigued by China, and since that country has spread its unwelcome tentacles all over the globe, it won’t be long before the Chinese start discussing cricket seriously. They never do anything by halves, the Chinese. In fact, the incipient signs are already there, as I will reveal presently. We are quite accustomed to seeing Chinese brands sponsoring major sporting events the world over. In India, the IPL and many other high profile sporting tourneys bear the names of Chinese brands of mobile phones and other mass marketed products. Skirmishes on our north-eastern borders continue unabated, but clearly that does not hamper the free flow of commerce.

It should therefore come as no surprise if the popular cricketing term, chinaman, takes on a more literal interpretation once the Chinese start spinning their sinister web over this game. Speaking of the cricketing chinaman, which is a kind of left arm wrist spinner’s mirror image of the right-handed googly, should not the International Cricket Council rename this tricky delivery chinaperson, to keep in step with their own decision to officially change the term batsman to batter? All in the noble cause of gender neutrality, of course.

For now, India continues to rule the roost in terms of world domination of the gentleman’s game, a misnomer if ever there was one, barring some rare exceptions. Domination here refers to the depth of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s pockets. They are, after all, the fat cats of world cricket. As for the game itself, India’s fortunes have been waxing and waning – top of the class in Test cricket, and inconsistent laggards in white ball, limited overs engagements. Management changes in the coaching and leadership areas point to the churn that Indian cricket is presently going through. The Chinese corporate sector is pumping in massive amounts of Yuan into the game in India but unpronounceable Chinese names are yet to figure in the IPL franchises’ batting order. Some day, in the not-too-distant future, one of the IPL scorecards might well bear the following legend, Ting Shao Xi – caught Kohli bowled Lao Tse Feng 37, but I think that day is still a long way off.

It would not have taken you long, dear reader, to conclude that those Chinese names just mentioned were entirely a figment of my imagination. That said, it might interest cricket aficionados to learn that one Ellis ‘Puss’ Achong of Chinese descent, hailing from Trinidad and Tobago, played 6 Test matches for the West Indies during the 1930s. Interestingly, he was described as a slow left-arm chinaman bowler, who took 8 wickets in his Test career. He boasted a modest batting average of a fraction over 8 runs per innings, and was permanently ‘rested’ thereafter, having got into the history books. I don’t know if the tale is apocryphal, but apparently the Middlesex all-rounder Walter Robins of that era, referring to Achong’s mystery ball expostulated, ‘Fancy being bowled by a bloody Chinaman!’ And that is how the cricketing term chinaman was born. And stuck. The upper and lower case distinction (Chinaman / chinaman) is self-explanatory.

Fancy being bowled by a bloody Chinaman!”: How “Puss” Achong did not invent  a new delivery | Old Ebor
Ellis ‘Puss’ Achong

While Ellis Achong was of mixed blood, the Chinese stream of which greatly intrigued and interested cricket historians, Jiang Shuyao is of blue-blooded Chinese stock, the genuine article. He has impressed one and all playing club cricket in England and his batsmanship (battership) has caught the eye. Scoring oodles of runs for Cleethorpes Cricket Club in England, the Chinese star has been clearly enjoying himself. As he says, ‘I like training for one or two hours here. In China we train for four hours, have some rice and then train for another four. And here you can say ‘hello’ to another player in training. If you do that in China you must run 10 laps of the pitch.’ Hard task masters, the Chinese. Whether Jiang Shuyao actually said ‘hello’ or ‘herro,’ is neither here nor there. Can you blame him for preferring the green and pleasant land that is England, to the strict and forbidding regimen of the Chinese proletariat?  

Jiang Shuyao in action for Cleethorpes. He is the club's top run scorer this season. Photo: Tengai Media
Jiang Shuyao – inspiring a Chinese cricket revolution

Nevertheless, Shuyao is said to be at the forefront of China’s cricket revolution, and the experts are beginning to describe China as the ‘world’s greatest untapped source’ for our favourite game. Heavens preserve us! Rahul Dravid may be India’s Great Wall, but our new head coach will have his hands full if and when faced with opposition from the real Great Wall of China. As I said earlier, watch out everybody. The day is not far off when India’s leading cricketers, in a reverse flow of talent, could well be signing up for the ultra-lucrative Chinese Premier League. I can even now hear Ravi Shastri’s Chinese counterpart getting excited in the commentator’s box, ‘Tsi En Ting luns in to bowr to Vilat Kohri, who dlives beautifurry as the barr laces to the extla covel boundaly rike a tlacel burret.’ I can hardly wait.

On a more serious note, the ICC has been burning the midnight oil to spread the gospel of cricket to the far corners of the earth. They have worked tirelessly and their efforts are steadily beginning to bear fruit. Countries from Continental Europe and Africa have been taking rapid strides in becoming an integral part of the world cricketing community. Even if it does not quite match the phenomenal progress football has made, it is slowly but surely, getting there. Some of them will fade in and fade out. Others, like Afghanistan will plant their flag firmly on the most sacred of turfs in the world. Frankly 10 or 12 countries battling it out routinely and dubbing it a world championship is laughable. That must change over the coming decades. And if the sheer logic of numbers suggests that the People’s Republic of China is going to have the greatest influence on the game in the future, so be it. They are currently ranked 81 in T20 cricket, but I see that ranking showing a strong upward curve in the near future. They have in recent years produced a Grand Slam champion in tennis like Li Na and there’s plenty more in the pipeline. They are already cock of the walk when it comes to other racket sports like table tennis and badminton and a force to reckon with in football. To say nothing of gymnastics.

China’s entry into the highest echelons of cricket might even foster hope for greater amity between them and the rest of the world, forcing the Americans and the Russians to take to the game. As for our Indian cricket fans, let’s have a little less of the spleen-venting during India – Pakistan encounters. Save your energies for a possible India – China clash at the Eden Gardens. Now that would be spleen well worth venting. One thing we know for sure. Indian cricket fans will never stop watching cricket. Not for all the tea in China.

Feelin’ groovy

Get in the groove and welcome the 1970s: Vinyl records make a comeback -  The Economic Times
Where have all the records gone?

Death is pretty final….I am collecting vinyl. R.E.M.

78 rpm, what is that? 45 rpm, haven’t a clue. 33 rpm, give me a break. 16 rpm, is this a physics question paper? Something to do with turbine speeds? And it’s nothing to do with one of those Latin American countries that boast of 45 revolutions per minute. Hint: think back, think vinyl. Those of you above 40 years of age, no make that 50 years of age, are probably straining at the leash, eager beavers and quiz-toppers putting your hands up and going, ‘They are all gramophone record speeds.’ You can go straight to the top of the class. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to explain, to those under 30, or perhaps 40 years of age, what gramophone records are. Come to that, one might even have to launch into an involved explanation of what gramophones are. Or were. However, as I am running against the clock to meet a deadline, I will save the lecture on gramophones (or radiograms) for a later date. For the nonce, I shall stick to vinyl records. Vinyl records, what is that, I hear you ask. Now look here my friend, I admire your insatiable thirst for knowledge and your gargantuan ignorance on matters more than four or five decades previous, but you will simply have to let me narrate this story my way. So please, no more interruptions. All, hopefully, will be revealed.

To the smart-aleck who responded to the opening sentence of this piece by identifying those mystical numbers as gramophone record speeds, I doff my metaphorical hat. By the abundance of grey, thinning hair on your pate Sir, I am rightly guessing that you are closer to sixty years old, and thus your familiarity with vinyl records and their speeds comes as no surprise. To those of you who were born during the early 50s or prior to that, all this will be old hat, if you’ll pardon the hat parallel again. That would include me as well, as I am now well stricken, having entered the serene seventies. As for those amongst you of the present generation who consider even compact discs as one with the dinosaurs, pin your ears back, peel your eyes, listen carefully and read concentratedly.

Traditionally, there were always records in my household, as far back as I can remember. That would take me back to the early to late 50s when we were stationed (my dad was an itinerant banker) in Rangoon, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. At the time they were all 78 rpms, each side ran for not more than three minutes or so and if you dropped them, they broke. I am proud to say I have broken a few records in my time! The stylus attached to the record playing arm had to be frequently changed, else the music would jump scratchily, much to our annoyance. If you had a slightly advanced radiogram, Grundig for instance, you could stack eight 78 rpm records at the same time, and they would play one after the other. Incidentally, these radiograms were designed to blend in nicely with the rest of the drawing room furniture. For the record (sorry about the double entendre again), the music in our home that predominated with the 78s were mainly Carnatic music and Tamil film songs with a distinctly Carnatic flavour. We kids were too young to have a say in what records were purchased, as that was entirely my parents’ province. With the benefit of hindsight, I am glad of their choice of records as that stream of music has always stayed with me, never mind influences that came later on.

A few years down the road, the mini 45 rpms, standard and extended plays came into being. By now, I was in school and being exposed to pop music of the Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard vintage. If it wasn’t the former’s Teddy Bear, it would invariably be the latter’s The Young Ones. These records were made of some durable piece of plastic and were unbreakable, unless you took a hammer to them. As were the 33 rpm long-playing records, LPs, which played for upwards of 45 minutes. Incidentally, I have never come across a 16 rpm ‘plate,’ though the gramophone provided for that speed as well. By now The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and their long-haired rivals had stormed the staid bastions and we spotty-faced teenagers were over the moon, twisting and shouting to the adolescent sounds of Liverpool and London. LPs, however, were expensive at around Rs. 35 a go and not easily affordable during those days. Once in a blue moon, a birthday present from my parents or some generous uncle digging deep into his pockets made my day.

So how did we music-hungry souls go about getting access to these records? Rich friends, if they happened to share your taste in music, were a good source for borrowing records. The BBC World Service radio, with their weekly updates on the latest Top Twenty hits were ‘must-tune-in’ shows and a reliable guide to which bands or singers to look out for. Best of all, in Calcutta (and other metros), we had these well-stocked and well-appointed record shops which we would visit ever so often, primarily to browse and pore lovingly over the new releases. Many of the LP cover sleeves were truly works of art. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band springs immediately to mind. What’s more, many of these shops had cozy private record-paying booths where you could take a record of your choice and listen to it quietly with headphones provided. I particularly recall, with much fondness, Harry’s Music House on Calcutta’s main street, Chowringhee. They had a wonderful collection of western music – pop, jazz and classical. The well-informed Anglo-Indian lady who presided over the shop, let’s call her Mrs. Harry, was most kind and indulgent. She knew only too well many of us could not afford to buy these records, but she would let us sit and listen to them in these booths for hours. However, if well-heeled customers started trooping in, she would turf us out with a stern, ‘That’ll do for today, young lad, you can come back tomorrow and listen to the rest of it.’ On occasion, she even chided a couple of us for being obsessed with The Beatles. ‘What’s this Beatles, Beatles all the time man, listen to some Frank Sinatra or Connie Francis, no?’ ‘Next time, Mrs. Harry’, we would bleat as we trotted out of the shop sheepishly. Of course, there is no Harry’s Music House any more, or for that matter, New Gramophone Stores on Lindsay Street near New Market and many other similar, friendly establishments. All one with the dodo.

With Spotify and Amazon Music pervading our lives now, any kind of music that we want is available at the tap of a key and for the most part, free to air. Brilliant sound quality, as well. You might say it’s a bonanza, leaving many of us in the now familiar quandary of trying to figure out what to do with all the CDs we graduated to after vinyl records went out of fashion. I am still clinging on to my CDs, and will do so as long as my CD player is still on oxygen and responding to external aids. Did I say, vinyl records went out of fashion? I tell a lie. Ironically, the most expensive items on Amazon, if you go to the music section, are vinyl records. It has great snob value, and there are those who swear that the true genuine sound of music can only be derived from the grooves of the vinyl and a diamond stylus. It’s rather like drooling over a vintage Rolls Royce, the older the better. Perhaps I should rummage in my cupboard to see if there are any old bell-bottoms lying around. I could have them dusted off, altered to suit my present generous girth and have them dry-cleaned. I will cut quite a dash at the next old school boys’ reunion, with Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes trembling on my lips.

  Deepavali and Diwali.  India’s ‘son et lumière.’

Preface: This is not my usual weekly blog, which is generally slated for Sundays. It being Deepavali (or Diwali), I am reproducing, out of turn, a piece I wrote on this festival a few years ago. Some of you may have read it (you are free to re-read it or skip it), many of you probably not. Either way, I felt like sharing it with my readers on this auspicious occasion. Read on.

I was born into an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, and nowhere are the hallmarks of orthodoxy more strictly observed than in our religious festivals. The plethora of rituals almost every month kept me in a constant daze, but the culinary feast that followed each auspicious day, was mouth-watering.  Deepavali, or the festival of lights (and noise), perhaps best typified the rigours and rejoicings in households such as ours. In Indian mythology, in this case the Ramayana, Deepavali, amongst other things, symbolically celebrates the villainous Ravana getting his comeuppance against the virtuous and heroic Rama – good prevailing over evil.

Let us examine these rigorous obsequies more closely. Deepavali dawned for our family well before the sun broke blearily over the eastern horizon. We were woken up at about 3.30 am or some such ungodly hour, our faces still deeply sleep lined. Before we realised what was happening, my mother would pour a ladleful of hot nalla ennai (gingelly oil) on our heads, and thereafter over the rest of our bodies. After allowing the sanctified unguent to soak into our system, we had to have our ‘oil bath,’ and try as we might the sticky, oily feeling never left us for days. The shikakai podi (Acacia concinna powder, expressed botanically) in lieu of soap, only added to the pungent, but not unpleasant, odour we carried around for days on end. By half-past four, we were dressed to kill in our brand new clothes, usually a bush shirt and a veshti, which were kept in the prayer room for divine blessings, liberally smeared with sandalwood paste and kungumam (kum kum) the stains of which, like the oil, never left our clothes. After paying our obeisance to all the Gods displayed in the puja room, it was time for some fun, though we were still groggy from sleep deprivation. The cuckoo clock had just tweeted five.

The ‘fun’ consisted primarily of lighting sparklers and bursting crackers, and various other exciting but potentially dangerous playthings like rockets, chakras and phooljadis (flower pots) that could have been seriously injurious to health. I have never known a single Deepavali pass without some poor child sustaining grievous bodily harm. If not properly supervised, irreparable damage could be done to one’s eyes, and the loudness of the crackers’ bursting has caused many a child’s hearing to be permanently impaired. I still believe my brother’s hearing problem was a direct consequence of a pataas going off before he realised the wick had even caught. Thereafter, stuffed with earphones and listening to the brilliant GN Balasubramaniam’s Todi or Kamboji all night long, could only have hampered his auditory canals further. For myself, I exercised adequate caution during the festival, keeping a safe distance from all incendiary objects, even at the risk of being branded a sissy. Discretion was the better part of my valour.

Somehow the time had now crept up to 7 am, time for some toothsome bakshanams – crispy crunchies and a variety of sweet meats. Any other kind of meat was unthinkable! After prostrating before our parents, we were expected to visit neighbouring friends and relatives and seek the blessings of our elders. Our house was also constantly visited by a number of family friends. It was more like a visitation. It must be said that the feeling of gaiety and good cheer was manifest, and the air reeked of a heady admixture of sulphur (from the crackers) and the medicinal but tasty lehiyam, a highly concentrated paste made of clarified butter and all manner of spices, deliciously sweetened with jaggery – a most efficacious digestive. The Ayurveda chappies are making a fortune out of lehiyam.

As the clock crawled towards 10 am, we were all ready for the traditional Deepavali lunch, with all the usual Brahminical fixings topped off with a delicious paayasam. By noon, after the exertions of a long morning, we could not keep our eyes open. The post prandial afternoon siesta was sound and deep. It also marked the end of the festivities, leaving us at a loose end. This is pretty much the way families like ours celebrated Deepavali.

Outside of south India, particularly in the northern states, and through poetic licence, that can be extended to include east and western parts of India (in fact, anything that is not the south of the Vindhyas), Deepavali metamorphoses into Diwali. Diwali, to the best of my knowledge, involves no rigours whatsoever. Only rejoicings, and how! They can wake up whenever they want, do whatever they like, and all the action happens after sundown. While some superficial concession is made for religious observances, the general idea is to have a good time. Good food, teen patti, the Indian equivalent of the well-known gambling card game, Flush or Poker. The traditional Indian milk based stimulant, bhang, is consumed in large quantities and pretty much everyone gets sloshed to the gills. It’s all a bit Bacchanalian, but a rollicking time is a given. Dinner is late and the feast royal, and almost certainly not vegetarian. The sweets are rich and massively calorific. The north Indians don’t believe in doing things by half. They spread themselves high, wide and plentiful. And why not? It is supposed to be a fun festival after all. Rigour is strictly for their southern neighbours.

Days after the festive fireworks, our streets tend to resemble the blood spattered detritus of a battlefield. The red wrappings of the crackers, mangled sparklers and blackened flower pots turn our roads into a red sea. To say nothing of the sulphuric fumes and pollutants that remain heavily laden in the atmosphere. Small wonder the Supreme Court put the kybosh on the use of firecrackers in the capital till November 1.

So there you have it. Deepavali or Diwali, one festival in the same country, but celebrated in vastly different ways. The way I look at it, each to his (or her) own and there is no room for being judgmental. If the sense of unctuous religiosity is palpable amongst south Indians but missing in the north, the latter makes up for it by celebrating the festival in a markedly Rabelaisian and boisterous manner. Either way, it’s a public holiday and a splendid time is guaranteed for all. Just mind the fireworks.

To all our readers, I extend a very happy, bright, colourful and safe Deepavali. And Diwali.

Postscript: Wherever possible, I have provided instant translations for specific Indian terms pertaining to the festival. If I have missed out on a few, any search engine will unfailingly provide the answers.