Appassionato

Follow your own passion – not your parents’, not your teachers’ – yours.
~ Robert Ballard.

Now let me tell you, straight off the bat that I had no idea who Robert Ballard was until I came across that snappy quotation. For the record, he is a retired US naval officer and an expert on oceanography. And going by his views, I am sure he was an extremely competent oceanographer. Any scrap of marine life that escaped Mr. Ballard’s minute attention was probably not worth knowing about. Amongst his many substantive achievements on ocean exploration and underwater archaeology, Ballard is widely credited with the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic, the battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. I well remember the Hollywood film, PT-109 during the early ‘60s starring Cliff Robertson as Kennedy. It ran to packed houses at a time when the young, flamboyant President of the United States, who captured the world’s imagination, rose like a Phoenix from the ashes and fell like Lucifer from heaven.

So much for Robert Ballard, whose contribution to this essay was primarily to kick off this subject of being ‘driven by passion’, such that you would go to any lengths to achieve your life’s ambition – even down to the bottomless depths of the ocean bed. Consequently, it occurred to me to discuss some luminaries in certain fields of endeavour close to my heart, a purely subjective list of my own making; individuals who have pursued their goals with unswerving commitment. Of course, for every person I choose to talk about, the reader could well have a fistful of alternative options. Invidiousness does not come into play here and many names will be conspicuous by their absence. The idea is to demonstrate what undiluted passion can do to elevate a person from the humdrum to the humdinger.

Let’s take a subject that all of us in India are only too familiar with – Cricket. Over a hundred years and more, cricket-playing nations around the world have produced outstanding sportsmen with great inborn skills. The passion of a cricketer shines through when he fights the odds, inspires other team members to play above themselves and seal victory. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman were passionate about representing India, making worthy contributions towards India’s wins. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli have all been inspirational and driven leaders, having their own, unique way of displaying their passion. Gavaskar wore his patriotism on his sleeve, Kapil Dev was just a happy, preternaturally gifted individual, Ganguly and Kohli, emotional and demonstrative, while Dhoni was a monk – totally understated. It must be said that when representing the country, players find an additional boost of adrenaline and testosterone to spur themselves. I mean naturally, and not through aided substances! Similar stories demonstrating passion abound in tennis, football, athletics and other sporting endeavours.

Let’s turn to music. Musicians, their genre notwithstanding, must necessarily deal with emotions when they perform – be it their own or the audience for whose benefit they are strutting their stuff. It is the nature of the beast. Whether you are a singer or an instrumentalist, bringing out the emotional aspect of music that touches the listener’s heart is an extremely difficult task. There is a difference between conveying emotion and merely emoting. Many musicians resort to playing around with the lyrics, which have an in-built emotional quotient, without the requisite musical heft or skills. If it is an instrumental piece, then one tends to rely on the quality of the composition. If you sit and listen undisturbed to Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony or the peerless Violin Concerto in D, your emotions soar to inexplicable levels – that which cannot be articulated. All you can feel is a lump in the throat. When you further consider that Beethoven was deaf, imagine the passion and the frustration that must have gone into producing something so ethereal, the fruits of which only his audiences could enjoy, and Beethoven himself could only hear in his head!

Pop and Rock music, the experts aver, arouse the senses rather than genuine passion. I am not sure what the difference is. It all depends on the skill sets of the artists. Listen to some of Eric Clapton’s elongated guitar solos (Layla), or Duane Allman and Dickey Betts (dual guitars) jamming together in a jazz-rock magnum opus, Mountain Jam, or the ineffably beautiful acoustic Little Martha, and you will feel your spirits soar. The dexterity and plucking involved are indescribable. Even a simple song, with beautiful backing, composed and sung feelingly, will elevate you. Key in Van Morrison’s Village Idiot (he’s got a simple mind) or Tired Joey Boy (of the makings of men), and tell me your heart didn’t miss a beat.

Finally, on music and passion, let me come closer to home. Top gun Carnatic maestro Sanjay Subrahmanyan literally moves audiences to tears of joy, particularly when he launches into his impassioned renditions of Tamil songs and poetry. There are many musicians who sing well and are hugely respected and admired, but Sanjay provides that indefinable X factor, that brings men and women of all ages in droves to his concerts. They feel at one with him, and his intensity, joie de vivre and single-minded ability to ‘stay in the bubble’ for the entire duration of the concert. Qualities that keep audiences spellbound and emotionally glued to their seats. Is he passionate in his renderings? Does the audience experience rollercoaster emotions during his live concerts? That’s a no-brainer, to employ a present-day argot. Those of you who are not too au fait with what I am talking about, just take in one of Sanjay’s concerts next time he is in your neck of the woods. That is, if you can manage to cadge a pass.

I would like to round off this dialectic on passion with a few thoughts on fine art. In particular the paintings of the great masters are worth looking at from the point of view of their ability to stir emotions and in many cases, drive wealthy people to spend millions to obtain some of these masterpieces for themselves. After all, owning a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh canvas places you in an exclusive and exalted league of gentlemen! What is it about some of these paintings that moves one so? Let’s dwell briefly on Van Gogh’s impressions. I have been fortunate enough to visit the master’s museum in Amsterdam. One blinding canvas after the other, the daubs of paint, the brush strokes – Wheatfield with crows, Starry night, Irises – the reality of the unreality in the impressionism, makes you go weak in the knees. To say nothing of the Dutch master’s disturbing self-portraits. Was it pain or passion that drove Van Gogh, with no thought of pelf or profit, to produce these magical paintings? That is a question for the ages. There is a scene in the 1967 film Night of the Generals, when the protagonist, Peter O’Toole (he of the blue, blue eyes) cast as a German general, stares intently at a Van Gogh self-portrait and goes through a plethora of heaving emotions. A moment of extreme and controlled passion, brilliantly portrayed by the late Irish thespian.

I conclude with a brief observation on the written word. Can something as sterile and dry as mere text move people to extreme emotion? I exclude news items of death, crime and destruction which is merely reportage that could propel people to take to the streets. I am talking about using language that lifts your spirits and makes you go, ‘I wish I could write like that.’ This one example from Shakespeare would suffice:

Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears / Moist it again, and frame some feeling line / That may discover such integrity.
~ Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Reproduced through the kind courtesy of Spark Online , 10th anniversary issue, January 2019.

Happy New Year, India

Christmas is upon us and the New Year is just around the corner. 2020, there is a nice symmetry, roundness and ring to the sound of the coming year. Doubtless some smart aleck advertising copywriter will dub it T20. In keeping with the usual custom, just about every one you know along with many you don’t know, keep sending you messages, to which you are obliged to respond. Whether you actually do so or not is another matter. In pre-digital and social media times, we trotted off to Archies, Hallmark or some such establishment with a carefully selected list of people you cared about, and spent a pretty penny on UNICEF cards which made you feel good about having contributed to something worthwhile. Signing each one of them was a bit of a pain, though the easy option of having your signature pre-printed in royal blue on hundreds of cards was the coward’s way out. I know many people who did this, especially in corporate offices. Just not done, old chap. One must also make mention of the funny cards. You know, the ones with jokes, cartoons, pop-ups and generally puerile one liners – these were best avoided, but the kids loved them.

Anyhow, my inbox has started swelling with these electronic greetings from my bank managers, mutual fund houses, business associates, political parties I have supported and political parties I have shunned. What was The Godfather’s famous one liner? ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ Add to this my car service outfit, my physiotherapist, my dentist and a clutch of restaurants I may have patronised over the years. There are more but those will suffice for now. At least, that is what I thought at first.

 Closer inspection revealed that some unusual personages had also sent me season’s greetings through email. How they obtained my mail id will forever remain an enigma. Unusual in the sense that these were not just normal friends and relatives or bank managers. They were VIPs, people who are newsmakers and would be classified as ‘top-of-mind’ celebrities across categories – Politics, Sport, Films and Media. At first I could not believe my eyes. First time in years people of such eminence have deigned to recognise my existence. Me, a humble columnist hack, who hacks away every week simply because he loves his pastime of juxtaposing words in such a way that they make for amusing reading. Naturally, my joy knew no bounds and, unlike the other messages, I started opening these mails breathlessly, one by one. Of course, I then discovered that these were not actually goodwill missives but exculpatory statements on various issues, and likely circulated en masse. Even you, dear reader, might have received these mails. I am sharing the contents of some of the gems I unearthed from the morass that was my inbox.

Before I actually get into these VIP mails, I must issue a caveat. I have absolutely no means of ascertaining if they are genuine or just put out by pranksters who have nothing better to do than send fake messages to all and sundry. I therefore accept no responsibility for the authenticity of said messages, and the only reason I am sharing them is because they make for amusing reading.

Sourav Ganguly  – ‘The only CAB I know is the Cricket Association of Bengal. Now the country is going bonkers over CAB, NRC, CAA, whatever that is, and everyone thinks I have something to do with it. For God’s sake, leave me and my family alone. Even my daughter Sana has been dragged into this messy affair. She is supposed to have tweeted some message, when I know for a fact that she has not. All fake. Baaje kotha!

Sana Ganguly – ‘I don’t know how to tell Baba, but I did send that message that is creating so much disturbance. Actually, I didn’t compose any message. Just retweeted something someone else had said many years ago. Somebody called Khushwant Singh. No idea who he is, or was. Now my parents have gated me for one week. What about my Christmas and New Year parties? Sarbonaash!’

Derek O’Brien (Trinamool Congress)‘See my tee shirt? It’s got “NO NRC” and “NO CAA” scrawled in B-L-O-O-D. No, I tell a lie. It’s just red paint. I tried to get some volunteers to slash their wrists and donate some blood for the greater cause, but they just told me to go slash my own wrists. As I am anaemic and faint at the sight of blood, I took the easy way out. Though I must say it looked pretty dramatic on television. I was once an ad man, you know.’

Mamata Banerjee – ‘What nonsense this BJP is doing with CAA, CAB, BCCI, NRC ETC? I am now approaching United Nations to organise a referendum in India so that the real voice of our peoples will be heard. My party will not accept any of this, mind it! And why our Bengali cricket champion Sourav should get involved with Amit Shah’s son? Very worrying. Plus that Babul Supriyo fellow is also giving me headaches. Why can’t he just sing? His singing is much better than his politics. Even I am nowadays leading chorus singing. BJP CHI CHI, CAA CHI CHI, CAB CHI CHI, NRC CHI CHI , KA KA, KI KI. Ki korbo, bolo to!’

Arnab Goswami – ‘I have in my studio 27 people to talk about this CAB / NRC stir. Actually there’s not enough room on the television screen to accommodate so many people, so I have decided that they will all be huddled together in the same room and all of them will talk (read shout) at the same time. I believe in democracy, and if we can’t all listen to each other, we will talk at the top of our voices together. I will lead the chorus. All together now, let’s have some lung power…’

Rajdeep Sardesai – ‘Every time I attack the ruling party, my colleague Rahul Kanwar queers the pitch by coming up with a strong defence on the government’s behalf. Once or twice, he even checkmated me. This must stop. I will speak to our boss, Aroon Purie, and try and convince him that you can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. At least, not on the same channel.’

Nidhi Razdan – ‘Both Srinivasan Jain and I are fed to the back teeth trying to go one up on people like Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and Harish Salve. Despite all our homework and background checks, they seem to have all the answers. That does not make us look very bright. How can we attack the government if we keep talking to brilliant people like this? I am trying to approach Prannoy to get us some dullards to interview, but he is always relaxing somewhere in some beach resort with his pals Dorab and Shekhar with a cameraman in tow, trying to buttonhole some unsuspecting evening walker about pre-election polls. Nice job, if you can get it!’

Cyrus Broacha – ‘I am giving our Prime Minister 10 on10 for his overall performance. I am proud to be an Indian. People who say nasty things about him are all afflicted by that jealous green-eyed monster. Which reminds me, I must call the U.S. Consular office to check if my Green Card is ready. Gotta rush. Ciao!

Rahul Gandhi – ‘Let me get one thing straight. My name is not Rahul Savarkar. Truth to tell, my surname was actually, originally Ghandy and not Gandhi. But that’s another story. Half the time I wake up not knowing who I actually am, which country I belong to, what with my mother being an Italian and everything. One guy in Rome asked me if Mahatma Gandhi was my grandfather. I confused him, saying the Mahatma was my father, and the father of 130 crore Indians! That shut him up. Is it any wonder I have an identity problem?’

Amit Shah – ‘We may be losing some state elections here and there, but have no worry. We will not budge an inch on CAA, CAB and NRC or any other acronym you wish to hurl at me. And don’t smirk. I do know words like ‘acronym.’ And ‘smirk.’ Thanks to all you English channels, my English has improved. Thank you. Vande Mataram.’

The Prime Minister – ‘I am working very hard to achieve our target of becoming a US 5 trillion economy. To this end I will be visiting 10 countries over the next 15 days. Domestic issues? No problem. I have a strong team handling all such matters. What was that? You like my new glasses? Great, they are rose tinted. Jai Hind.’

Yesudas fluffs his lines

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 Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Blaise Pascal.

The vexed question of whether women of a certain age group should be allowed to enter the hallowed portals of the Sabarimala temple and pay obeisance to the resident shrine, Lord Ayyappa, has been exercising the minds of men, women, government officials and judicial beaks for quite a while now. The latter two categories, of course, will also necessarily be classified under men or women. The judiciary pronounced initially in favour of women being allowed to enter the temple, but the verdict’s acceptance by the temple authorities as well as dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists of both sexes, is conspicuous by its absence. On the contrary, battle lines have been clearly drawn, and ardent devotees have boldly announced that any attempt by women to enter the temple premises will have to be, literally, over their dead bodies. Footage on our television screens showing a man chasing a woman outside the temple premises, spraying chilli powder made for abhorrent viewing.

It must be said that the highest law of the land, having given its verdict, has been strangely muted in its advocacy of the ruling being implemented pronto. They have been sitting on the fence, stating that it is not for them to get involved in the actual carrying out of the judgment. That the matter is now under a review petition and referred to a larger bench means the matter continues to hang in the balance. Doubtless a sensitive issue, the buck has now been passed by the gavel wielding wise men. I believe in the old Biblical dictum of ‘let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.’ Where will we common folk go if the courts start prevaricating and let ‘“I dare not” wait upon “I would”, like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?’

Which is why I was somewhat discomfited when one of India’s most popular, polyglot singers in the film playback and devotional segments, Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, known simply as Yesudas to his legion of fans, elected to hold forth on the powder keg issue of women’s access to the Sabarimala temple. Now, let me state outright that I yield to no one in my admiration for Yesudas’ mellifluous singing and dulcet tones. Some of his film songs have indelibly imprinted themselves in the annals of Indian film music. If not quite rubbing shoulders with Mohd. Rafi and Kishore Kumar, certainly pretty close to doing so. His devotional songs, particularly in his native tongue of Malayalam and other Indian languages, have sold in their millions worldwide. Apparently he has recorded well over 80,000 songs. That’s a lot of songs during a blazing career spanning over five decades. Yesudas certainly does not have to sing for his supper. He is also a Carnatic musician of some standing, but I will reserve my judgment on where he stands in the pantheon of stalwarts in this art form.

That said, where does my discomfiture spring from? It has to do with a recent newspaper report in which Yesudas gave it as his considered opinion that women devotees entering Sabarimala will ‘distract’ the devout males who throng in their millions for a darshan. Apparently during their period of worship, they are required to remain both abstemious as well as self-abnegating from any physical relationship with the opposite sex. Which is not to suggest that same sex dalliance is kosher, but you get my drift. Before I critique Yesudas’ stated position, it should be emphasised that the man with the golden voice, though belonging nominally to the Christian faith, has had no problem in embracing a plethora of religions during the course of his hugely successful musical journey. This theological multiplicity is an ambiguity he has lived quite comfortably with. More importantly, his army of fans have accepted his versatile position wholeheartedly, and one must doff one’s hat to his singular status in India’s music world because of this. Some cynics might scoff that this is nothing more than a brilliant marketing gimmick, taking advantage of his musical ability, to gain pan India recognition. That, however, would be uncharitable to a musician who has won the hearts of millions purely through his variegated attributes as a singer.

However, I must express my reservation at Yesudas’ ingenuous statements on the Sabarimala issue. To bolster his contention that women visiting the Sabarimala shrine will distract male devotees from their undivided obeisance to the deity, he goes on to say, ‘If a beautiful girl goes to Sabarimala with the kind of attire they wear today, Lord Ayyappa will not even open his eyes and see. But other Ayyappas (devotees) will see (the women) and it is not good. Their intention would change. That is why we tell them (the women) not to go. There are other temples and they can go there.’ He concludes by saying that times have changed from the days when a man would not even glance at his wife during the 41 day vratham (abstinence)period before visiting the shrine – rounding off with an earnest plea to women devotees, ‘Please don’t tempt Ayyappa’s devotees.’

I find Yesudas’ statements completely out of whack at so many levels. The naivety is incomprehensible. If it is his contention that men will be distracted by women during their prayers at Sabarimala, why should it be all right for the women to go to other temples? Will there be no men to disturb women’s peace of mind there? I am aware that there are a handful of temples in the country that allow entry only for women, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, before Yesudas provided his piercing insights on the subject, the temple authorities’ view was that the godhead Ayyappa will himself be disturbed and they will not countenance such an awful eventuality while prayers are being offered! Excuse me? There is also something quite misogynistic about these arguments. Women are being portrayed as sultry temptresses driving the men to distraction, whereas there is no suggestion that women can be equally put out if they are so inclined, by ubiquitous bare-chested men in places of worship. If the inference is that women have greater self-control over their emotions, I am happy to go along with that view, for the simple reason that that is verifiably true. And pray, what is this business about ‘with the kind of attire they wear?’ As far as I can tell, women who visit temples are nearly always attired properly in keeping with our best traditions of modesty and appropriateness. In the unlikely event that a young lady is misguided enough to visit a temple in a mini skirt, tight jeans or a skimpy dress, I am sure she will be quietly asked to go home and return after changing into something more suitable. The assumption is galling, leave alone the conclusions being drawn on that basis. Other issues to do with women being ‘out of doors’ (read periods) and so on, I do not wish to touch upon as it is not strictly relevant to the primary thrust of this discussion.

Over the centuries traditions across the world, including our Hindu forms of worship, the restrictions and control lines imposed, have seen many fluctuations in keeping with changing mores and times. Tonsured widows being a prime example, leave alone the barbaric practice of suttee. Which is why a democratic country like India proudly boasts of an enlightened citizenry and a robust judicial system to help us manage these vicissitudes. However, fat lot of good having a robust judiciary does if implementation on sensitive issues such as the one under discussion becomes unimplementable. The matter is fraught enough without all and sundry, including the Yesudases of the world giving free rein to their gauche opinions and the media only too happy to lap them up and add their own spicy twist.

I can think of no better way to conclude this reflection than to quote cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, ‘Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man.’

It is that time of the year again

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Sanjay Subrahmanyan in full flow

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible, is music. Aldous Huxley.

The 2019 Chennai Music Season is upon us. The 2018 Season seems just like yesterday. A pleasant aural illusion. Over recent decades, we have witnessed a massive upsurge in the interest and enthusiasm evinced in Carnatic music. Those who brought about this tectonic shift to the Carnatic music scene at the turn of the millennium are today’s superstars. In their wake, another clutch of youngsters has put their hands up, and are packing the audiences in. The sabha managements are deliriously happy, and for a brief period of 3 or 4 weeks, the secretaries and committee members rule the roost, possessively handing out tickets and passes like they are going out of fashion. Yes, we are aware that full houses are the sole preserve of a few big names, but that has always been the case.

It is therefore a challenge to write a refreshingly original piece on the Season, because most of the observations, once considered novel, now appear trite. However, one thing can be said. In more recent years, we have had happenings (not always savoury) that have riveted the public’s attention. The ‘Me Too’ brouhaha had everybody talking about things other than Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s Todi or Ranjani Gayatri’s abhangs. Fortunately, the pruriently exaggerated interest shown in these salacious news reports were relatively short lived, and the named and shamed appear to be carrying on with their professional lives with insouciance. Speaking of ‘savoury’, the only savouries worth giving a once over are those to be found in the sabha canteens.

If you ask me it is a good thing that public memory is short. Nobody went to court, nothing was demonstrably proven but a bit of muck stuck. Doubtless it is now completely washed off and consigned to a rapidly distant and fading memory bank. Let me hasten to add that it is not my case that those who were the alleged victims of these alleged misdeeds should not be given a sympathetic and fair hearing. The same applies to those charged as well. The problem is, once you start talking to the media in high dudgeon and play the victim card, you’ve got to be prepared to go all the seamy way, if you’ll pardon the unintended double entendre. That involves muck raking and finger pointing which no one, least of all in this environment wants. My best advice to anyone who knows for sure that she is being harassed, just administer a tight slap with plenty of wrist work and follow through, or a swift kick at the offender’s nether regions and move on, and make sure he does not darken your doors ever again. You will feel elevated about it and the glad-eyed Casanova will never bother you. Caution: You had better be right and not merely vindictive, else retribution will be swift.

On to more pleasant subjects. While Carnatic music is the dominant presence on display during the Season, other art forms find their own dedicated space. There are classical dance performances, primarily Bharatanatyam which most sabhas try to fit in. In fact, the Music Academy has an entire fortnight dedicated to a classical dance festival close on the heels of the music series. Then there are Tamil dramas staged by some sabhas during the festival, plenty of lecture demonstrations every morning where experts go into the theory and practice of Carnatic music. Unlikely as it may seem, some of these lecdems can get quite tense at times, with gnarled veterans crossing swords over some obscure technical issue. The moderator has a hard time maintaining the peace.

 In recent times, programmes of a more eclectic variety have begun to make their presence felt. The likes of Anil Srinivasan (The Piano Man), Sikkil Gurucharan, Jayanti Kumaresh and U.Rajesh (to shoot a clutch of names off the cuff) think outside the box to perform and discuss various aspects of Indian and global music to entertain and enlighten the audience. The coup de grace, (I have said this before, and I will say it again) is historian Sriram V’s morning illustrative lectures on past masters:  always a blockbuster. Even standing room is not available if you’re tardy in arriving. He has an easy, jocular, laidback, conversational style of presenting his celebrated subjects, speaking ambidextrously in English and Tamil. He is unfailingly introduced to the audience as ‘the Neville Cardus of Carnatic music.’

At the end of the day, however, it is the music that must take pride of place during what everybody and his uncle refers to as ‘the Music Season.’ A frenzied air of anticipation and excitement is palpable in the ether. If you hang around in the portals of the venerable Music Academy, Madras (I am glad they didn’t change the nomenclature to the populist Chennai) during The Fortnight, the corridors will be buzzing with self-appointed experts, poseurs, academics, young hopefuls, music lovers and, of course, the odd sprinkling of foreign culture vultures who visit to take in what is arguably the biggest classical music festival of its kind. Groups of aficionados can be seen huddled in corners or in the canteen (always the canteen) animatedly discussing some arcane points of music. The sweet strains of Kalyani and Kambhoji literally suffuse the air. Lately, some of the bigger stars, if seen in public view, are avidly approached for selfies and autographs. Last year, Sanjay Subrahmanyan T-shirts were being worn by a large group of fans (bhakts), many from across the seas. Move over, Ed Sheeran.

As we slip into December, and as the musical tempo rises, a whole phalanx of supremely talented musicians, who have been laying down a marker this past few years, is making its presence felt. There are many such potential stars on the horizon, and subjectively naming a personal selection would be invidious. Suffice it to say that the health of Carnatic music is sound and in tune. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of Carnatic music are greatly exaggerated.

Kind permission of Deccan Chronicle 11/12/2019

When foes become friends

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Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton.

I was attempting to explain the recent, messy Maharashtra imbroglio to my English friend, John. He lives in London and travels frequently to Mumbai and Delhi. He is something of an Indophile. We were chatting on WhatsApp, and he was posing some awkward questions on the murky, political goings-on in India’s richest state. One of the problems of long distance conversations is that you cannot always find the right words, particularly when your friend has been following the Indian political scene closely. He is well prepared, shooting from the hip, and I am respondng on the hoof as it were, trying not to sound like an ignoramus. To obviate this problem I suggested we ‘type chat’ over Skype or some such, giving me time to frame considered responses. John thought it was a sound idea. So there we were, tapping away furiously on our keypads. I had made a decent fist of educating my friend on the rapidly shifting political sands that we have been wallowing in with voyeuristic delight these past few weeks.

John – ‘I say, old fruit. Can you put me wise on what exactly has happened in the just concluded Maharashtra assembly elections? I got the gist, that no single party won an absolute majority. That the pre-poll alliance of the BJP and the Shiv Sena came a cropper and all hell broke loose. To start with, why did the   alliance go kaput?’

SS – ‘One word. Greed. I can add more words. Naked, self-serving ambition. The whole shebang was about sharing the Chief Minister’s post over the five year tenure. The minor player in this dodgy coalition Shiv Sena, claimed the BJP had promised two-and-a-half years of the CM’s seat to them. The BJP said “balderdash”, or words to that effect. The long and short of it was the BJP told the Shiv Sena to take a long walk off a short pier.’

John – ‘And I understand the Shiv Sena supremo, Uddhav Thackeray wanted his son to be the Chief Minister during their period of ascension to the throne.’

SS – ‘That is correct, but the young man is barely out of his teens, completely wet behind the ears. It was an absurd demand. All that, however, was neither here nor there. The BJP firmly refused to entertain the idea of a split Chief Ministership, never mind if their alliance partner’s candidate was a gnarled veteran or a baby in swaddling clothes. Devendra Fadnavis, the erstwhile and incumbent CM made it clear he will take some shifting. In short, we had what you Brits call an impasse. They tried to stare each other down, but to no avail.’

John – ‘That much even I could follow. It’s what came after, that was baffling. It would appear that the Shiv Sena now started talking to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) to forge a workable alliance with a view to government formation. Which would have left the single largest party, the BJP, high and dry. Incidentally, can you tell me the difference between the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress?’

SS – ‘Good question, John. The NCP is a breakaway group from the INC and was formed in 1999 under the leadership of Sharad Pawar. They were booted out from the apex Congress Party.’

John – ‘Pawar. Hmm. The same guy who was the Chief of the International Cricket Council some years ago?’

SS – ‘The very same.’

John – ‘My word. He does get around. From politics to cricket?’

SS – ‘In India, politics is cricket and cricket is politics. Most of our leading politicians have a finger or two in India’s massive cricket pie. And do you know why this Sharad Pawar-led rebel group was expelled from the INC? Because they objected to Italian-born Sonia Gandhi being made head of the party! Now it’s all hunky-dory and they are back together again.’

John – ‘Mamma mia, that’s rich. So both the INC and NCP came from the same Congress stable, split up acrimoniously and have joined forces in a Faustian pact with their perennial bête noire the Shiv Sena? Just to keep the BJP at bay?’

SS – ‘That’s about the size of it. You might call it “an unholy congress.”’

John – ‘I might indeed. I have another query. The Shiv Sena are, if anything, even more rabidly pro-Hindu than is attributed to the BJP, and by definition, anti-Muslim. They did not even allow the Pakistan cricket team to play in Mumbai. So how come this sudden bonhomie and keenness to make nice with the supposedly more egalitarian parties like the two Congresses?’

SS – ‘Wah, wah! You have certainly boned up on the political landscape in India. The only answer to that question is that politics makes strange bedfellows. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that sort of rot. Mao Zedong said “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but in India “Power grows out of the slit of a ballot box.”’

John – ‘I can see that plenty of puns and jokes on the “Pawar” name (Pawar Play, Pawar hungry, Sharad Power etc.) are doing the rounds in your social media circles, with ‘horse trading’ an oft repeated term. A gross insult to our equine chums. Which brings me to the other Pawar. Ajit, Sharad’s nephew. What the hell was he up to with all his “Spy vs Spy” shenanigans?’

SS – ‘Yes, John. We are now approaching the climax of this amazing real life soap opera which kept the whole country glued to their televisions sets. What followed was mind boggling. Ajit Pawar, who is (was) the head of NCP’s legislature, in what seemed a kamikaze act, ups and runs to the BJP with a list of signatures from a majority of the members of his party, supposedly swearing allegiance to a newly forged BJP – NCP alliance. In return for this munificence, he is awarded the post of Dy. CM under CM Fadnavis.’

John – ‘Goodness me, real cloak and dagger stuff.’

SS – ‘You had better believe it. Party members from the BJP and the NCP are roused from their beds even before the break of dawn and rushed to the Governor’s residence at the imperially splendiferous Raj Bhavan. The poor Governor’s beauty sleep was ruined as well. Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar are sworn in as CM and Dy. CM respectively. The nation woke up to this unreal reality, flabbergasted. Those of us who saw it first on our mobile internet, were convinced this was fake news. We should have known our politicians better.’

John – ‘And, as I saw these bizarre events unfolding, with MLAs being herded from hotel to hotel in luxury buses, there was a further twist to the tale, yes?’

SS – ‘Absolutely, John. To cut a long story short. Ajit Pawar had clearly taken Fadnavis and the BJP for a jolly good ride. Sharad Pawar and the rest of the family shed crocodile tears on Ajit’s shoulders and this oleaginous man melted, resigned from his newly appointed post, and slunk back to the NCP fold. All was forgiven. Leaving the BJP red faced. At which point, CM Fadnavis had to put in his papers as well. To his credit, Fadnavis served Maharashtra well during his 5 years and 3-day tenure.’

John – ‘All rather nefarious. As you say, this one beats all soap operas. So now we have the two Congresses who could not stand the sight of each other, and the Shiv Sena who cannot stand the sight of anyone other than themselves, who are all ideologically violently opposed, getting together to form a government. The Sena gets the plum CM’s post and together this bizarre troika cock their snooks at the BJP.’

SS – ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself, John. The BJP are left to lick their wounds, but as they say, beware the wounded lion. They could have held the high moral ground by abstaining. Alas, greed and unwonted naivety won out. We have not heard the last of this saga. 5 years is a long time in politics. Expect action in just a few months from now. Watch this space. The long and short of it is that no one came out of this smelling of roses. More like horse manure. There has been no winner.’

John – ‘One last thing. Who is this Chanakya character everyone in India talks about?’

SS – ‘Ah. The original Chanakya (371 BC – 283 BC), the author of the definitive Arthashastra and the original master of statecraft, is our equivalent of the scheming Machiavelli, who famously said, ‘Politics have (sic)* no relation to morals.’ Chanakya was a master strategist and manipulator. In the present context, there are many claimants to the nom de guerre ‘the modern Chanakya.’ Sharad Pawar and Amit Shah to name but two pretenders, with the former presently leading by a short head.’

John – ‘Tell you what. I thought British politics right now was getting pretty confusing, what with Boris (Johnson), Jeremy (Corbyn), Brexit and the forthcoming general elections. But when it comes to political chicanery, India stands alone.’

SS – ‘We had good teachers, John. The British taught us for 250 years. Rubs off. Good night, John.

John – ‘Touché and good night.’

*For the pedantic, I have inserted a (sic) because Machiavelli’s exact quote, ‘Politics have no relation to morals’ sounds wrong, as opposed to ‘Politics has no relation to morals.’ However, grammarians aver that in the quoted context, ‘have’ is more correct than ‘has’. I am sticking to my guns.

The Pink City – a reprise

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The city of Calcutta (a moniker I greatly prefer to Kolkata) recently went pink. We know that the present ruling dispensation’s favourite colour is blue. However, needs must. When a cricket crazy city like Calcutta decides to host the first ever day / night Test Match in India at the storied Eden Gardens, to be played with a pink cricket ball, the powers-that-be have little option but to go pink in the face. From what we could see on television, pretty much the entire city was gaily converted into a brilliant profusion of pink buntings, banners and floats. Doubtless the brainchild of some marketing guru’s fertile mind, the local administrators went to work in feverish haste to get the city all dolled up in garish pink before the first pink ball was bowled. Building facades, lampposts, streetlights, public transport – you name it, they had ‘pinked’ it.

As for the stadium at the Eden Gardens, no effort was spared to ensure that the arena metamorphosed into a sea of pink before the game commenced. Public response was brilliant for a Test Match, and the day night affair ensured a full house. People were face-painted and decked out in pink attire of every possible description, and the ‘festival of pink’ was truly joined. Sourav Ganguly, Calcutta’s favourite son, recently crowned supremo of the BCCI, and a former India captain of no mean provenance, basked in the pink afterglow. The gentlemen and ladies of Calcutta were in the pink of health and good cheer.

Rumours that the political bigwigs at the original Pink City, Jaipur were planning to take the state government of Bengal to court for wrongly appropriating its legally protected nom de plume, proved to be just that – a false rumour. Just some well-timed spice by social media mischief makers.

It is entirely incidental, almost trite, to report that India vanquished the brave, but ill-equipped Bangladesh team comprehensively by an innings, well inside three days. That the spectators at the Eden Gardens were deprived of a further two days of play in this Test match in no way dampened their spirits. In retrospect, perhaps the occasion warranted a stronger opposition – an Australia or an England, but we will let that pass. This particular game was more of an occasion, a celebration to inaugurate an exciting new innovation aimed at reviving public interest in Test cricket, and that objective was achieved in spades. That captain Kohli essayed another brilliant hundred and India decimated the opposition through a troika of fearsome fast bowlers was a novel and invigorating sight. Let us doff our hats to the city of Calcutta, its sports mad denizens and its administrators. When it comes to putting on a sporting show, few cities in India can match the passion and élan with which Calcutta trundles its wares.

There was much erudite discussion on television by self-appointed experts about how the pink ball would behave, the extra lacquer applied on it allowing the proud seam ‘to talk,’ that it will swing more after twilight – on and on went our commentators. Given half a chance the Sanjay Manjrekars and Harsha Bhogles can talk the hind legs off a donkey. To add spice, the two worthies crossed swords as well. Still and all, they had something new to talk about, and we must cut them some slack. After all, they are paid to do just that.

As I had suggested earlier, it was not just the cricket that was subject to this striking wave of pink. Elsewhere in the city, there was much brain picking on how the ‘pink fever’ can be taken advantage of to add to the frisson. I can only hazard an educated guess as to what might have happened in the City of Joy. I am speculating that the most popular drink in clubs, pubs and other watering holes of Calcutta would have been pink gin or pink champagne. The establishments would have announced a ‘one for one’ offer and Calcutta’s casual imbibers and serious topers would have been raising merry hell. Themed parties across the city would have exhorted guests to arrive in predominantly pink attire.

Baby girls born in the city during Test match week would have, without exception, been named Pinky. This would have greatly added to the already existing profusion of Pinky Bagchis, Pinky Bhattacharyas and Pinky Boses. The baby boys would have had to make do with sucking their thumbs and being called Pintu. The pious nuns at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity might have considered wearing pink saris during the week, which would have cheered the inmates up no end, though Mother T might have turned in her grave.

The once famous, but now closed discotheque in Calcutta, The Pink Elephant, would have reopened on the wave of an emotional upsurge over the pink Test Match. Giant screens featuring the game would have streamed continuously while the young men and women danced to golden oldies such as Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Theme from the Pink Panther, Lily the Pink, Pink Moon and Pink Cadillac.

A specially curated film festival with a ‘Pink’ theme would have played for a week at the Nandan theatre. The following films select themselves – Pink, The Pink Panther (the entire Peter Sellers and Steve Martin franchises), Jonah and the Pink Whale, and Pink Floyd – The Wall. Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who starred in Pink and Pink Panther 2 respectively, would be the chief guests. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would have cut the ribbon, clad in a white sari with a pink border. A pink sari with a white border might have been striking, but the strong lady might have thrown a fit at the idea.

As a final coup de grace, a grand dinner, under the auspices of the BCCI with Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly as mine host, would be arranged at one of Calcutta’s swank hotels. The who’s who of the city would be invited. Again, pink being the primary dress code. The cricketers from India and Bangladesh would be the cynosures. Selfie seekers would be well advised to take Dada’s help in identifying the largely anonymous Bangladesh cricketers. All the dishes would be garnished with pink topping. This might be off-putting turning the guests a bilious pink, but the sensation will pass. Pink rosogollas and pink mishti doi will go down a treat.

The greeting protocol for the evening would be to cross or hook pinkies (little fingers), instead of the conventional handshake. So there you go. Calcutta, as is its wont, will leave no ingenious stone unturned to mark the inauguration of the pink game. As the party winds its weary way to an end, the band strikes up the well-known Indian nursery rhyme, Inky pinky ponky. Padma Shri Usha Uthup, decked up in a brilliant pink sari, her forehead adorned with a large pink bindi, with the Bengali letter ‘ক’stencilled in, leads the chorus and all the guests join in lustily. As the guests troop out of the hotel, Sourav Ganguly is overheard stage whispering to wife Dona, ‘If I don’t see the colour pink again, it will be perfectly all right with me. Boledilam!*

*Boledilam! (Bengali) – Literally, ‘I’ve told you.’ Idiomatically, ‘Just watch it.’ Or in Rajinikanth’s immortal phrase, ‘Mind it.’

The Mousetrap

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‘I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well.’ – Bertie Wooster / P.G. Wodehouse.

The world can broadly be divided into two discrete parts. Those who have seen the play, The Mousetrap, and those who have not. In the fashion of today’s argot, let’s call it ‘The Mousetrap Binary.’ This Agatha Christie classic has been playing in the United Kingdom for more than a millennium. Forgive the exaggeration, but it does seem that way. Though I am reliably informed that it made its debut in London’s West End in 1952, and has staged well over 25,000 shows worldwide (and counting), and thousands of actors have trod the boards under its banner. Any tour operator, herding holiday makers on a chartered flight to London, must necessarily include The Mousetrap (tickets pre-purchased), along with compulsory visits to the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Kew Gardens, National Museum, Buckingham Palace, the West End and other well-known attractions. Shopping at Oxford and Bond Streets is a must to lighten your wallets. I have travelled to London, several times over the decades, but have shrewdly managed to avoid The Mousetrap, like the plague. A serendipitously apt description.

However, my singular sense of overweening and inverted pride in claiming to be among the very few not to have seen this two-act whodunit, came to nought recently. The British, being British, still smarting from having lost their ‘Jewel in the Crown,’ constantly seek to keep their ‘subjects’ entertained and reminded of the grandeur that once was. And most of us are suckers for their smooth sales talk. Some of us even talk and write like them. C’est la vie, if you’ll pardon the French. It is entirely possible that the average Englishman, some more average than others, does not want to have anything to do with The Mousetrap. One must doff one’s hat to his sound common sense and judgement. Then again, he may have been stricken by a crushing ennui, having watched it so many times, including having to escort friends and relatives from all over the world, come to visit. One sympathises. Even the avid tourists to the UK are beginning to blanch every time someone mentions The Mousetrap. Phantom of the Opera, Cats and The Lion King are now the pre-eminent favourites and even these wonderful musicals are starting to fray at the edges.

However, the determined management of The Mousetrap franchise is not about to curl up and die. No way, Jose. I should have said James, but it doesn’t rhyme. Undeterred, they have decided to take the play to the far corners of the globe, particularly to areas where large swathes of the population continue to hold dear, all things British. And what better place to start than right here in India, a country that was in British thrall for over 250 years. Catering to the thousands of Anglophile Indians who may or may not have seen it in England, who may or may not have read the play, who may or may not have watched it on YouTube – but all of them keen to be seen at the venue. A peer group thing. (Were you at The Mousetrap on Sunday? Which row?) After all, in a few decades from now, Indians may not even be conversing in English any longer, if the present ruling dispensation had its way.

Thus it came about that, when we saw the advertisement in the newspapers, here in the once garden city of Bangalore, tickets online sold like hotcakes. ‘The longest running play in the world,’ ‘The original production from London’s West End,’ screamed the headlines. Never mind that the price spectrum of the tickets ranged between Rs.1000/- and 7000/-. Give or take (I gave). I must bow down and confess that I was among those who went online and did the deed. I bought the cheapest available tickets for the family. It turned out to be a wise call.

We were seated in the balcony which was all right. The ticketing information did warn us that these were seats with ‘partially obscured view.’ I had no idea what that meant, precisely. On taking our seats we discovered that this in no way hindered a full view of the stage. It’s just that a mottled glass fencing, about four feet high at the front of the balcony, could prevent a perfectly clear view. The glass barricade could also prevent people from falling over to their instant deaths on to the ground floor. At least, that’s my best guess.

There was, however, one problem. While the glass barrier did not block our view completely, it did present us with a strange viewing sensation. The top half of the actors was clear of the glass, while the bottom half had to be viewed through the glass. As the glass itself was of dubious quality, the bottom part of the actors’ anatomy was somewhat distorted. We were thus treated to watching a play where all the protagonists looked like something out of a ‘Hall of Distorted Mirrors’ in Disneyland. Comic it was but we hadn’t come to watch a slapstick affair. Can’t blame the organisers, though. They gave us adequate warning that if we wanted to go on the cheap, we had to be prepared for a partially obscured view. Distorted would have been a more apt description.

Then there is the inevitable nuisance. The mobile phones. They do request us over the tannoy, to switch off our mobiles. An instruction that is scrupulously observed in the breach. The over-excited members of the audience frantically WhatsApping messages to friends and relatives worldwide, along with photographs and video snippets of ‘their unforgettable evening at The Mousetrap.’ At one point the darkened auditorium looked like a gathering of mourners at a silent candlelight vigil for the loss of their favourite pop idol! Predictably, someone gets strangled in complete darkness. In the play, I mean. All we hear is a scream and a dying gargle. The stage is pitch dark so we don’t know whodunit.

At this point, a twenty minute interval is announced, during which half the hall disgorge themselves to do those things people do when they disgorge themselves after being strapped to their seats for over an hour. Most of them trot off to the loos, others for a snack or smoke, and quite a few to call their homes to check with their domestics if their pet dogs have had their din-dins and walkies. Everyone then rushes back when the second bell rings just before the curtain goes up. It’s time to reveal the murderer.

The final denouement takes an age. Everybody is assembled on stage and we ‘suspect everyone’, as the advert advised us. We know who was ‘done in’ because she is no longer among those present on stage. As to who did the dastardly deed, nobody has a clue. In keeping with all Agatha Christie stories, we look for Opportunity and Motive, which all the characters appeared to have had in spades. And we are still clueless. Remember, there’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in the play to handhold us. Finally, all is revealed. Goodness me, so that was the culprit. Fancy that. I would never have suspected him, not in a million years. I always thought it was the butler, only to learn after the play was over that there was no butler in the cast! That’s how well I followed the play.

So there you are. The Mousetrap was presented to us with much advance fanfare and grossly overpriced tickets, not to forget that the play’s reputation greatly preceded it. For all that, I felt the play was a bit of a let-down. An anti-climax. When it came to the curtain call, the actors took their customary bow, curtsying elegantly to rapturous applause. One of the actors then proceeded to tell us not to reveal the murderer’s identity as it might spoil it for those coming to the subsequent shows. He needn’t have worried. I still have no idea who the murderer was.

Book Cricket

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‘It’s not cricket’ – Anon.

In India, cricket is all-pervasive. Kipling’s ‘flannelled fools’ are to be seen day in and day out on our television screens. Though, apart from being attired in pure whites, you will also find them in blues, yellows, greens and a variety of rainbow hues, depending on the variant of the game that is being dished out – Test cricket, ODIs, T20s, Indian Premier League (IPL). Give me excess of it, is the cry. It is not traditional cricket, however, that presently engages my attention. For that matter, it is not even French Cricket we played in school that concerns me. Remember French Cricket? You stood still, your feet unmoving with only a bat to protect your legs, and a ring of fielders to throw a worn tennis ball at your legs. If the ball catches any part of your leg without first touching the bat, you are out. If you manage to hit the ball, eluding the fielder, you twirled the bat round and round your legs, as fast as your hands would allow, and each successful circular motion earned you a run. The fielder, retrieving the ball, can also attempt to ‘run you out’ by striking your leg while you essayed a roundhouse swing without moving your legs. A skilful and challenging game, French Cricket, but my thoughts are on an entirely different cricketing pastime, one that required no skill whatsoever. If you were born after 1970, chances are you may not have heard of it.

I am talking of Book Cricket. The beauty of Book Cricket is that two of you can compete against each other, or you can just play all by your dog self. As I said before, skill is the last thing you require to be a champion in Book Cricket. Dame Fortune is the overriding factor, and if you are playing solo, you can even cheat! No one will be any the wiser. Allow me to explain the simple rules of the game.

The first requirement is a reasonably thick book. Around 300 pages is ideal. Agatha Christie may be too thin, and The Complete Works of Shakespeare too fat. I would go for something more manageable like Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves or any of Dick Francis’ equestrian mysteries. This is not to be taken literally. Naturally, whatever is readily available on your bookshelf should suffice. A word of caution. Avoid Hitler’s Mein Kampf. You simply cannot play Book Cricket, or any form ofcricket, knowing you are holding a book by an author who couldn’t tell the difference between Buchenwald and Bradman. Incidentally, paperback or hard cover will do equally well, if the earlier criteria are adhered to.

On with the game, then. There’s just the two of you. And the book. After tossing for who bats first (inserting the opposition is futile), we start the game. Let’s assume you are taking first strike. You place the book on your lap, say a little prayer and open the book, completely at random. This is how the runs are scored or a wicket taken. When the book is open, two sets of page numbers confront you, left page and right page. You go with the left page first, followed by the right page. If the page number is 124, the last digit, 4 in this case, counts as runs. So you have scored a boundary, and if the last digit is a 6, say page 86, then you’ve cleared the ropes – sixer. Bravo! Likewise for any numeral under six. If you happen to cop a 7, 8 or 9, that will count as a wide or a no-ball, giving you an extra run and an additional turn. Then comes the biggie. If the last digit, woe betide, happens to be a 0, as in 170, then you are OUT! Back to the pavilion. Caught, bowled, LBW, run out, makes no difference. In a nutshell, that’s the game.

Bearing in mind these simple rules, you are all set to play Book Cricket. A sheet of foolscap paper or an exercise book, if you are a stickler for maintaining records, is a must to keep score. The two of you can then decide who wants to be India, or toss for it. The opposing team can be anyone – Australia, Pakistan or England, whoever you hate more. You then write down, in batting order, the names of the playing XI of both sides, and the names of the opposing bowlers as and when the captain throws them the ball, speaking metaphorically. The game can be of one innings duration or two, choice is yours. The rest is easy, if you follow the rules adumbrated earlier. One last point. The batting captain gets to open the pages and the bowling captain keeps score and a hawk eye on the page numbers, to ensure no funny business takes place. In other words, he is the umpire. The roles are reversed when the second team bats.

If you cannot find a partner to play with, you can play the game solo. How cool is that? There are great advantages to be accrued from this solitaire version of the game. Say your favourite batsman, Tendulkar, takes strike. First ball, left hand page, 140. Ayyayyo! Damn and blast. Tendulkar, out, golden duck. ‘I cannot allow this.’ So you pretend as if nothing has happened, look around you guiltily and start over again and do whatever you like till the great little man gets a hundred. During my younger days, the likes of Umrigar, Hazare and Pataudi would regularly score double and triple hundreds. I only allowed Bradman or Sobers to score centuries for the opposition, provided they did the decent thing and got out immediately thereafter. Otherwise a page number ending with 0 was only a flip away! India had to win, at all costs. By the time my book cricketing days were over, I was easily the most well-read person in town!

‘Ayyayyo!’- Tamil colloquial expletive for ‘Omigosh!’

I write, therefore I am

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Will the things we wrote today, sound as good tomorrow? Elton John

I don’t know what it is, something in the air perhaps, some non-malignant bug that seems to affect (in a nice way) most people I know. In case you’re wondering what this incoherent babbling is all about, I am referring to the hobby of writing. I employ the word ‘hobby’ advisedly, as this is aimed at amateurs such as yours truly, and not the gnarled professionals who receive obscene advances from publishers even before they have put pen to paper, or finger to keypad. Everyone I know seems to be afflicted by the writing virus. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. As is self-evidently true, I am doing it myself even as I write this. If that makes any sense. Persiflage apart, I have not known a period of time, this past decade, when so many people from all walks of life have been smitten by the act of committing their thoughts and feelings to the written word. Blogs, newspaper columns, short stories, full length novels, biographies, translations of little known, albeit notable, vernacular efforts into English – the list is endless. Journalism and authorship are taking mincing steps, hand in hand, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. And those steps appear to be morphing into giant strides. Fiction or non-fiction, they are all grist to the budding writer’s insatiable mill, even if the harried readers are hedging their bets. And a very good thing too.

Part of the reason for this flurry of literary activity can be put down to a friendly ecosystem, to employ a very au courant expression, that has made it easier for the armchair writer, so to speak, to find his or her efforts instantly on the printed page. If not actually on paper, as in a magazine or a newspaper, then certainly in the online space, where you are constantly being exhorted by a plethora of blogs and other digital platforms to write, write and write. What is more, if your vaulting ambition runs to publishing a book, there are a number of organisations that are ready to extend a helping hand. There is a cost attached to this, and not too much rigour goes into the assessment of quality, so before you can say ‘Midnight’s Children,’ your book is out – both in printed and digital formats. Goosebumps time. These publishing outfits are also well organised and anyone can buy your book through one of many online shopping sites.

The presence of Google search and similar engines precludes the risk, for the budding writer, of committing silly mistakes by way of spelling, erroneous quotations and the like. Unless you are doing it deliberately. Though you need to state a clear preference towards either American English or the Queen’s English, if you get my drift. I tend to lean towards the latter, but that’s just me. If your taste runs to saying ‘My bad’ instead of ‘I am sorry’, that’s your funeral. Though Microsoft Word gives you an option to plug in to British English, the software reverts to the American default setting, when your attention is drawn elsewhere. Sneaky devils. Which is why I find it inexcusable when errors abound like a rash even in established newspapers. Double negatives, apostrophes wrongly placed, the colon /semi-colon confusion and much more. Lazy is what I call it. For a highly readable tutorial on the subject, get hold of Kingsley Amis’ The King’s English. It should reside permanently at your workplace.

That being the case, there is a profusion of wannabe writers who are putting out their material at a phenomenal rate. During the course of the last few years, it has been my experience that I cannot throw a stone at a large family or social gathering without beaning someone who is either in the process of commencing a novel, or someone who has just put out a novel. ‘Pssst, have you read my new novel?’ is a standard conversational ice breaker. If not a novel, certainly a book of some description or the other. Uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews, nieces, they are all at it. The same goes for friends. As I am tapping at the keys of my desktop, I have at least four good friends who have mailed partial drafts of their recent efforts for me to give an ‘unbiased opinion.’ As I belong to the same fraternity, I am honour bound to go through the material and offer my free and frank views. Be warned, however. It’s always a challenge to divine how frank is frank! If you’re too frank, you may find yourself one friend short! Oftentimes, this can eat into your own writing time, but hey, that’s what friends are for, as that famous hit song tells us.

Speaking for myself, I prefer to keep my writing counsel to myself, and unleash the verbiage on an unsuspecting audience, and the devil take the hindmost. I am essentially a writer of columns, like this one, so I do get fairly swift feedback which I can either take serious note of or loftily ignore. The general rule of thumb being that if you do get a response from friends, it is bound to be constructive, and if others have not responded, it’s a bummer or worse still, it has not even been read. Sometimes, not always, I ask my wife to cast her beady eye over the material, she being a student of literature and a former publishing and advertising workaholic. To such a one, proof reading and informed comment come naturally. As a former advertising professional myself, I can vouch for that. Those long hours burning the midnight oil at sweaty printing houses in Calcutta, proof reading annual reports and corporate brochures, did not go to waste. What is more, the distaff side is quite adroit at pointing out inconsistencies in logic or dodgy development of an idea, and I usually defer to her delicately expressed nolle prosequi.

There is a much touted school of thought that youngsters don’t read any more. This is a gross exaggeration, even patently untrue. They may not read the newspapers, but they do all their reading on their mobile phones, which, admittedly, is done more functionally than to in any way enhance their literary appreciation. Books continue to be sold in large quantities worldwide and there is no evidence to suggest there is a general falling off in the reading habit. Cynics have commented that the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings tomes, while grandly adorning bookshelves across the world, don’t actually get read. Kids, so say the naysayers, watch the subsequent movie releases and all their knowledge comes from the celluloid versions. Anyhow, neither Rowling nor Tolkien are complaining. The marketing mavens at the publishing houses are doing a sterling job and the cash tills are ringing like every day was Christmas. To cap it all, the books come in handy if the famous author is visiting your neck of the woods, and you can cadge an autograph! Not to mention, a selfie.

That’s another reason why so many people want to write. You never know. You could, out of the blue, luck it and hey presto, you’ve written a best seller. Here in India, the Chetan Bhagats, Amishes, Shobha Des and quite a few others of their ilk are providing inspiration to so many to sit in front of their computers and await the Muse. And I haven’t even mentioned the Arundhati Roys, the Amitav Ghoshes and the Vikram Seths whose literary avoirdupois is on a higher plane than those mentioned earlier.

All in all, I can think of worse things for people, young and old, to be obsessed with than writing. If you have a penchant for it, go grab a pen or start depressing those keys on your word processor. And don’t fret yourself over writer’s block. What was that someone said about the monkeys? That the law of probability will see to it that The Complete Works of Shakespeare will get typed up if a clutch of monkeys kept going at it long enough!

Finally, there are many eminent writers who have said some wonderfully inspiring things about the art and craft of writing. I settled on this quote from Franz Kafka, who wrote some pretty grim stuff in his time, but he was brilliant at it. ‘Don’t bend, don’t water it down, don’t try to make it logical, don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.’

You said a mouthful there, Comrade Franz.

Breaking wind is breaking news

Ready, steady, go.

‘….full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

Are you the squeamish type? Then you should read no further. People close to me are beginning to click their tongues admonishingly over elements of smut creeping into some of my blogs. The fault, dear reader, does not lie with me. Not guilty. Ergo, I would not have, in a million years, contemplated the idea of doing a piece on the subject of breaking wind. Clearly, my reticence was misplaced. I needed to change my tack and get rid of my inhibitions. Let us not get all coy about it. Let us call a spade a shovel. I am talking about farting. And why pray, am I talking about farting? Simply because India’s largest circulated daily newspaper, The Times of India (TOI), the Old Lady of Bori Bunder chose in its infinite, if misplaced wisdom, to report in excruciating detail the goings on at a ‘farting contest’ that was held recently in Surat. I kid you not, cross my heart and hope to die. The competition was branded ‘What The Fart (WTF)’. Not an awfully inspiring title for this awfully conceived contest, but there you go. It takes all sorts. The TOI report is silent, unlike the farting, on whether this extraordinary event was live telecast. Given man’s unspeakable taste for prurience, the programme could have grabbed millions of eyeballs, and there would have been no dearth of sponsors from the pharma and Ayurveda industries.

 While the world was spinning round and round with tales of Trumponomics, Modinomics, BoJonomics, Brexit, Kashmir, Hong Kong, Greta Thunberg, bank frauds and potential global Armageddon, here was our No.1 daily, leading off with three columns devoted to an admittedly curious contest in the Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat. Was this some sort of sly, underhand, opposition inspired message directed at the PM? I wouldn’t have thought a handful of people getting together to determine which breaker of wind achieved maximum decibel rating, thus walking away with the dubiously coveted First Prize, rated top billing. A piffling Rs.2500/- was what the winner took away. Not worth farting over, I should have thought. They even had a machine (pic) in front of which the stupefied contestant had to stand and ‘let fly.’ Obviously, some form of meter gizmo was programmed to measure wind velocity, sound barrier and, I can’t be sure of this, olfactory issues as well. The report was strangely shy on this cardinal aspect of the competition. I smell a rat.

I shan’t go into all the gory details of this unusual contest – about how the contestants prepared for the event, the actual response (which was unsurprisingly poor), and the overall performance levels one expects at a match- up of this magnitude, which was underwhelming. The competition was open to men and women. Evidently the women chickened out, and who can blame them? Actual number of performers compared to the number of entries received was unflattering. Last minute butterflies in the stomach, one surmises. Though a family of lepidoptera fluttering around in your belly should have aided churn and flatulence in the equatorial belt, but I am no expert. The details are available to any interested reader at TOI’s website. Just key in ‘Farting Contest, Surat.’

Nevertheless, I would like to quote Dr. Rajesh Chandnani, a surgeon who was invited to the event ‘in case of an emergency.’ Meaning what, exactly? Muscle tear? Exploding rectal fissures? Loss of consciousness due to noxious gases reeking to high heaven? We are but mere mortals and can only guess. Here’s what the estimable Dr. Chandnani had to say, speaking with his nostrils smothered with a scented handkerchief to keep the all-pervading pong at bay. ‘People think it’s bad to fart. It is socially unacceptable, but it is not good to hold a fart long-term. It can lead to dementia and early forgetfulness.’ He went on to helpfully add, ‘Women don’t fart less. They just speak about it less.’ Thank heavens! We can only applaud the good doctor for his invaluable insights into this little-known and little-discussed subject. I do have a query though. What does the doctor mean precisely when he says it’s not good to hold a fart long-term? What are we talking about here in terms of timelines? An hour, three hours, 24 hours, a few days? Come on Doc, out with it. The suspense is not just killing me, but causing all kinds of unrest in my intestinal regions.

While we await clarity on many of these quasi-medical issues, I blanch at the thought of what would happen if other states in the country decide to follow the Gujarat Model. The States and Union Territories of the country all holding a farting contest simultaneously could not merely raise an almighty stink, but the resultant gas emissions could imperil the ozone layer and cause an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportions. The United Nations, which holds a pathetic record in intervening on any substantive issue anywhere in the world, can at least find it within its limited capacity, to try and talk some sense into those responsible for this contest, which can only be of interest to the Guinness Book of World Records. Congress MP, that loquacious windbag Shashi Tharoor who is a champion gasser himself, by virtue of having served at the UN in the past, could be persuaded to do all the coordinating. It will be a bi-partisan portfolio and should be perfectly acceptable to all political parties. A job that will suit the suave debater down to the ground. One can even now visualise Tharoor clearing his throat to address Parliament on the subject. ‘Mr. Speaker and Members of the House, with regard to the subject of tackling a matter of great delicacy, to say nothing of pith and moment, namely, the human proclivity to multivibrate  the molecules of the air, consequent upon gastric upheavals, and its possible concomitant worldwide environmental consequences, I deem it a great honour…’ I think you get the picture. We will never hear the end of it.

All this leaves me wondering. How low will our brethren sink, in order to adorn the sacred pages of TOI? After all, the publication seems only too eager to cover such inane stories of ‘human interest.’ The Kashmir issue appears moribund, our Defence Minister auspiciously broke a coconut on the Rafale jet (which may need a small paint job costing upwards of Rs.50 lakhs), South Africa is being slaughtered by India on the cricket fields, watched by about 100 people, the PMC scandal will soon cease to be newsworthy….. So what else is new? Or rather, news? Enter stage left, WTF, to fill the void.

What can we expect next? A burping contest? That will definitely draw a great many more contestants than WTF, because in India, the sign of a satisfied trencherman is to let out an almighty belch. The louder, the more grateful and happy the hostess will be at the satisfaction gastronomically derived and expressed by the guests. There’s also a free meal involved to aid the process, so everyone is happy.

In conclusion, I will be the first to acknowledge that, while nature has endowed us with great natural beauty is so many different ways for us to feast on, the reality is that there is a not so endearing but necessary side, involving our personal habits and ablutions that we would like to keep to ourselves and our toilets. We used to hold the same view on sex, but that went out of the window eons ago. Watching a movie with the family is no longer an idle pastime. The family head has to be alert and ready with his finger on the remote, in case the screen suddenly and without warning, turns from Mary Poppins to Emmaneuelle, or its equally pornographic sequel, Emmanuelle 2. Or even 50 Shades of Gray. There is a fun side to this. Just when a censorable, steamy bedroom sequence is about to commence, the television screen suddenly becomes an ear-splitting Tower of Babel led by Arnab Goswami. ‘Daddy, I want to watch Emmanuelle,’ wails your 8 year old son. ‘Chup, go and do your homework and straight to bed.’ That’s telling the little tyke!

Point to ponder. Do we really need a farting contest? And does our leading newspaper really need to give the subject prime space? Which old fart’s brainwave was this? A discreet footnote, or fartnote, would have sufficed – if that. Begs the question –‘Did I have to write this piece?’ Well, what can I say? At the end of the day, we are all gas pots.