Peaks and troughs with a fistful of Fingers

India-China dispute: What is the significance of Galwan Valley ...

For several weeks now, we have been waiting for something to happen that would grab the headlines away from the Covid19 crisis engulfing the world. Or more pertinently, India. Well, something did happen – on India’s forbiddingly mountainous terrain of Ladakh bordering China. This was not the diversion one was seeking from the pandemic problem but, as Shakespeare had it, “’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but’tis enough, ’twill serve.” He had a way with words, did old William. The Bard of Avon also fulminated, ‘Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war,’ as he was clearly in a very bad mood, a sentiment I heartily endorse when I think of the present conflagration in the Galwan valley or Pangong Tso or wherever the hell it’s happening. My geography is, at best, dodgy. In sum, while we can raise a feeble one and a half cheers that CV19 has been temporarily pushed into the background, I am not sure the Galwan issue hogging the banner headlines gives us much cause for the balance one and a half cheers. If anything, it has only added to our misery. The one bit of good news amidst the mayhem is that the stock markets, against all conventional wisdom are on the upswing, though no one seems to know why. No matter. For now, we will take whatever crumbs are thrown our way. For tomorrow they could plunge steeply southwards.

To revert to the skirmish with our Chinese brothers (some brothers), military experts have termed the June 15 fisticuffs and the bloody business with stones and wooden club thingummies embedded with nails and so on as a ‘watershed moment’ in the history of Sino-Indian conflict. Evidently for decades now, there has never been a ‘kinetic’ confrontation between the two sides, a term I am not contextually familiar with, but if ‘kinetic’ was good enough for the luxuriantly moustachioed Major General Bakshi, it is good enough for me. While on the subject of General Bakshi’s expressive moustache, I cannot help but be reminded of P.G. Wodehouse’s magnificent description of the Duke of Dunstable’s enviable, upper lip vegetation, in a moment of extreme agitation. ‘….his moustache, foaming upwards as if a gale had struck it, broke like a wave on the stern and rockbound coast of the Dunstable nose. A lesser moustache, under the impact of that quick, agonised expulsion of breath, would have worked loose at the roots.’

 It is quite amazing that in this day and age, when armies across continents are armed with the latest, state-of-the-art weaponry, here are two rival battalions in mortal combat going hammer and tongs at each other, quite literally, taking us back to the days of our Palaeolithic ancestors. Fists of fury, eyeball to eyeball – didn’t someone educate them on social distancing, particularly when you are up against a race that gave us Wuhan and the Coronavirus?

Our primary source of information, naturally, is the media. While newspapers, the online or the papyrus versions, give us an opportunity to read and absorb happenings over the previous day in a calm, reflective and collected manner, the real action is on our news channels on television. Particularly on the so-called debates, where the verbals get so violent some may almost term them ‘kinetic,’ if the good General Bakshi will be kind enough not to sue me for copyright. In the time-honoured fashion, our small screens at home are full of flailing fists, antagonists screaming blue murder at each other, while Arnab Goswami and his ilk attempt, infructuously, to maintain the peace. In actual fact, the anchors only add fuel to the fire. In all this excitement our Prime Minister and some of the opposition leaders become collateral damage at the hands of those elected to be mouthpieces of their respective parties. I am particularly tickled by one chap who is always reclining at the back of a moving car while spewing fire and brimstone. I can never remember his name, but it has always puzzled me why he can’t sit comfortably at home while spewing f and b.

These so-called debates, more often than not, give us much cause for mirth and merriment during these grim times. Still on the Indo-China kerfuffle, take the common or garden word, finger. Grammatically, it is a noun denoting the ten digits at the extremities of our upper limbs consisting of thumbs, forefingers, index, middle, little and so on. In more informal and somewhat rude parlance, the word can also be employed as a verb, as in ‘he was right royally fingered,’ metaphorically meaning the unfortunate ‘he’ clearly got the worst of the deal, drew the short straw. The expression can also, on very rare occasions, be interpreted literally, but that can get a bit anatomical, clearly unsuited to a respectable blog such as this. Suffice it to say that when the Americans ‘give someone the middle finger,’ the recipient of the offending digit has been told off in no uncertain terms.

In case you are wondering why I am going to all this trouble talking about the humble finger, you can place the blame squarely on whoever decided to name the several ridges descending from mountain peaks in Galwan or Pangong Tso or wherever, Fingers. A proper noun, with a capital F and everything. As in Finger 1, Finger 2 and going on all the way to Finger 8. If there are more than 8 Fingers in Galwan or for that matter Pangong Tso, then I am not in the know. Not that it matters, frankly. A Finger here, a Finger there, big deal. It’s just that when the conflict was first reported and all these retired decorated army and air-force types were scrambling over each other on our television screens to give their expert views, they started spouting sentences like, ‘China have taken full control over Finger 4, and unless the Indian forces can ascend Fingers 5 and 6, we could be in serious trouble.’ That’s when I first encountered the curious employment of the word and cottoned on to the fact that a Finger was a mountain ridge, which is where the Chinese were comfortably and strategically ensconced, looking down at us and yelling nasty things at our soldiers in their unintelligible tongue, while the Indian troops, for the most part were holed up in the troughs, looking up. Unsurprisingly, no proper noun has been ascribed to the troughs. Clearly, this was a situation unfavourable for our brave jawans, who needed to find a more strategic way to get the better of their opponents. Any soldier worth his salt will tell you that, given the choice, a peak is a much better place to be perched on, than to be craning from a trough. In the final analysis, it’s all a matter of who fingers whom first.

Finally, as I go to press, in a manner of speaking, still on China I was tickled pink to learn that a large number of Lord Ganesha idols have been made to order in Beijing, Shanghai or, Shiva forbid, possibly Wuhan. Had this not come to light during the Ladakh imbroglio when anti-Chinese passions are at fever pitch, Indian importers would have carried on in their merry ways flooding our markets with cheap, Chinese-made Ganeshas, and none of us any the wiser. It is only fitting then, that I end with the famous legend surrounding Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati and their two children, Ganesha or Vinayaka or Pillaiyaar (our Gods enjoyed multiple monickers) the elephant God, and his elder brother Subramanya or Kartikeya or Muruga, who looks more like a normal human being.

The story goes that Parvati came into possession of a divine mango with magical powers and told her two children that whoever circles round the globe three times and is the first to return home, will win the blessed fruit. Kartikeya hopped on to his pet peacock and set off on the long journey. Ganesha’s pet, the domesticated mouse, didn’t stand a chance against his winged rival. In a flash of inspiration, Ganesha merely traipsed round his parents thrice and bowed reverentially, explaining to them that they are his world and all that lay therein. Ganesha had the fruit and ate it too! For once Shiva, who usually hogs the limelight, allowed his good wife to take centre stage, along with the kids.

So what does that fable teach us about the present fracas in Ladakh? Simple. The Chinese may boast of fire-breathing dragons, but India’s canny elephant gods can stamp them out in a trice. If only we can gain access to the peaks of some of those Fingers!

‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’

Unemployment During the Great Depression | LoveToKnow
An evocative image from The Great Depression

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

(Taken from the song ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime?’, composed in 1932 during The Great Depression and made famous by Bing Crosby.)

One has often heard meteorologists and weather pundits prattling on about ‘V-shaped depressions’ when they gloomily predict the onset of a cyclonic storm about to hit the poor east coast or the rich west coast of India’s land mass, sending hundreds of thousands of people scurrying for cover. However, in recent months I have been auditor to many of our economic boffins talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery,’ particularly in the context of all the doom and gloom surrounding the Covid19 catastrophe. A quick aside is in order here. To those of you who are scratching your heads wondering what my being an auditor has anything to do with anything, let me offer an explanation. I am not a book-keeping auditor, thank heavens. At least, not in the conventional sense of a poor sap poring over balance sheets, expense statements and tax returns finding a clever way to effect another tax dodge for his client. I can think of better ways to earn a living. I mean no offence to the financial auditing community. You need them now and then like you need an enema now and then. My aim is different. I employ the word ‘auditor’ to denote its original Latin derivative – audire, meaning to hear or to listen. However, I digress for which I crave your indulgence. I am a rambling writer and the occasional meandering goes with the territory.

I revert to ‘V-shaped recovery.’ Being a close follower of a couple of our television channels which specialise in business and financial news, I am completely bowled over by the number of experts who hold forth on a variety of issues which have a direct bearing on our investments and the consistently erratic stock market. I have invested a pretty penny on the bourses, and consequently, what the business community’s thought leaders have to say on a daily basis is of paramount importance to me. If only I could follow what they are trying to say. All the while, my eyes keep darting to the bottom corner of my television screen where I am treated to a running live counter of the Nifty 50 and Sensex performance. Those numbers keep yo-yoing all day long, bar weekends and public holidays, moving from red to green and back to red again. My auditor (the tax planning guy), who is a good listener, cautions me against binge viewing of these channels on account of the fact that a) I won’t understand anything being discussed and b) my blood pressure will be showing an upward spike, unlike the stock market, which favours a sharp southwards slant. He has a point but do I listen or audire? No way, José. As to why I must torture myself by speculatively plonking my meagre ill-gotten gains on the mercurial mutual funds and share scrips, or seek customised investment strategies through Portfolio Management Services, the answer is self-evident. No other option, baby. Interest rates have plummeted, bank deposits are safe (or are they?) but closely wedded to the well-founded economic principle of the law of diminishing returns. More so when you take into account inflation. You see, even I have picked up the lingo. Further, if you happen to be a senior citizen, which I am, the banks offer an extra half percent interest which does not exactly make me jump up and down with unbridled joy. In any case, jumping up and down at my age, joyfully or otherwise, carries needless risks.

To try and obtain some clarity on what this whole investing lark is all about (bit late in the day, I admit), I decided to buttonhole one of my investment advisors who happens to be a bit of a guru in these matters and who is also to be seen every now and then on some of our television channels. Without wasting any time or beating around the bush, I came straight to the point. Let’s just call him Mr. Bose.

‘Now look here Mr. Bose, you keep asking me to take a long term view on stocks. That is a relative term. What is a long term perspective for a 70 year old? I have taken a long term view since I was 30 years old, and I am still being given the same spiel. Why don’t you change the script, if not the scrip? Ha, ha.’ I laughed at my own feeble joke, but Mr. Bose was not amused.

‘Sir, I think you’ve done reasonably well, all things considered,’ replied Mr. Bose, evenly. ‘This Covid19 is a black swan event which no one could anticipate. However, even as we speak things are picking up and we fully expect a V-shaped recovery.’ Clearly Mr. Bose was fully into his stride.

‘I can see you’re in form Mr. Bose but you can’t impress me with that double whammy. V-shaped recovery and black swan event, indeed. I have looked up the latter, which is repeated ad nauseam on TV and have come to learn that it denotes a very rare if impossible event, black swans not being extant. However, this V-shaped recovery I am still coming to terms with. Please do explain. I am all ears.’

‘Gladly Sir,’ continued Mr. Bose. ‘A V-shaped recovery is one which is, well, V-shaped, if you get my drift. It kind of starts at the top, hurtles down at a 45 degree angle and shoots straight back up again at the same angle. It’s a geometry thing, Sir.’ I looked at him dubiously but decided to be patient. I failed in geometry in school. All those set-squares, protractors and compasses had me in a right tizzy.

‘Right Mr. Bose, next you’ll start blathering about Pythagoras’ theorem, isosceles triangles and how they affect movement of shares. Kindly enlighten me, in words of less than two syllables, whether my investments are safe in your portfolio’s portmanteau. You see, I am getting the hang of this fund manager speak.’

‘You certainly are Sir,’ said Mr. Bose somewhat patronisingly. ‘Portfolio’s portmanteau, eh? Nice one, Sir. I must use it with some other client. As to your investments, when I take into consideration your cost of churning coupled with the dividend distribution tax, not to speak of the balance maturity tenure of your schemes and add to that the Alpha coefficient operating in a bear market along with indexation, I must say that the NAV of your combined portfolio is kind of holding its own. Always assuming the Nifty can break the 11k barrier soon. It’s quite simple really, when you think about it.’

My monumental patience (a saint could have taken his correspondence course from me), was beginning to wear thin. However, Mr. Bose bashed on regardless. I waited for him to finish and spoke to him as follows: ‘Now you listen to me very carefully, my fine, feathered, financial friend, who spouts gobbledegook clichés. I don’t know much about V-shaped or U-shaped recoveries. At this juncture, my investments are going pear shaped which I need hardly remind you, could turn me into a basket case, from which I am not sure I will recover – in U or V shaped form. Frankly, I’ve had it up to here with lock-in periods, entry and exit loads, brokerage fees, open-ended and close-ended schemes, bull market runs, bear market runs, causing me to run to the toilet with the runs. If you get my meaning.’

Mr. Bose was by now a spent force. He was ready to throw in the towel. ‘Sir, you accuse me of speaking “gobbledegook,” whatever that means, but with due respect Sir, have you heard yourself speak? It sounds like English but you lost me long ago.’

I smiled benignly at the man. ‘You poor, lost soul. That makes two of us, Mr. Bose. Me speakee English, you don’t follow. You speakee English, I don’t follow. Better you don’t speak.’

It was Mr. Bose’s turn to run to the toilet for a spot of the trots.

Postscript: Meanwhile, it has been reported that a 35 year old man in Bangalore revealed to his parents that he plans to bump himself off as his business had gone kaput, thanks to ‘financial problems.’ His ageing parents told their depressed son if he is set on this decision, he may as well kill them off first. It was probably a rhetorical plea but the young man, having been brought up to obey his elders, smothered them to death in the dead of night with a pillow. At this point he lost the plot. Hurling himself into a river from an insufficient height, he reckoned without a shallow rock bed, fell on it, sustained severe injuries, was rushed to hospital and sadly recovered, thus rendering his suicide plans abortive. And guess what, the young man was a professional auditor! Go figure.

Bertie, Jeeves and the rummy affair of India’s independence

 “I go in for what is known in the trade as ‘light writing’ and those who do that – humourists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at.” P.G. Wodehouse.

As a diehard fan of the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, I was idly surfing the net to see what kind of material one might encounter on the Master, apart from the standard Wikipedia synopsis. I was pleasantly surprised to come across a website specially created for followers of arguably the greatest humourist the world of English literature has produced. There are those who would scoff at describing the works of the ‘Master of Farce’ as literature, but I will treat them with the scorn they so richly deserve. Rather than attempting to describe the contents of the website to the lay reader, I felt it might be better to send an email to Bertram Wilberforce (Bertie) Wooster, one of Plum’s (Wodehouse’s affectionate moniker) greatest creations, and get the lowdown on what he and his personal gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves, might have thought about it.

Bertie Wooster – ‘I say Jeeves, old horse. Here’s the damndest thing. I was fooling around with this computer thingummy, when a line flashed across the screen. “You’ve got mail”, it said. So, as directed by you, I double clicked on the dashed contraption, and guess what, the mail was from Bangalore. Where the deuce is that? Some bloke from some software company informing me that they have been retained to design a website dedicated to our creator, old Plum, and would I be so good as to agree to be interviewed online. I couldn’t follow a word of all this gobbledygook. Fill me in Jeeves, and pour me a snifter of the brandy & w while you’re at it, will you? And go light on the w.’

Jeeves – ‘Very good Sir. Bangalore, now Bengaluru, is the capital city of the state of Karnataka, formerly the princely state of Mysore in southern India. The city’s locational coordinates are Latitude 12° 58’N, Longitude 77° 34’E, elevation above sea level 2998 feet and………’

Bertie – ‘I did not ask for a geography lesson Jeeves, a subject I failed to clear in school. Painful memories. Just get on with it, will you, and where’s my life saver?’

Jeeves – ‘Sorry Sir, here’s your restorative elixir. As I was just explaining Sir, when Britain gave India its freedom…..’

Bertie – ‘What! Dash it, when did this happen? Why was I not told? You keep things from me, Jeeves. Not cricket. Our jewel in the crown and all that rot. Which fathead decided to grant freedom to India? Reckless is what I call it. Now all the other outposts will start clamouring for independence. And then, what will the harvest be? There’ll be no end to it. Britain will become a pariah nation, Jeeves. A byword and a hissing. Doesn’t bear thinking. Next thing you know, we’ll be losing to the Indians at Lord’s’.

Jeeves – ‘If we can get back to this online interview, Sir. It’s pretty simple really. They will mail you a set of questions about Mr. Wodehouse, which you will need to answer briefly. They have also sent out similar mails to Lord Emsworth, Lady Constance Keeble, Mrs. Dahlia Travers, Mr. Augustus Fink-Nottle, Lord Ickenham, Sir Galahad Threepwood, Mr.Psmith, Mr.Ukridge and Beach the Butler, amongst others’.

 Bertie – ‘Gosh, what a rogues’ gallery, eh? I almost feel sorry for this Bangalore software whatchamacallit. Little does he know what he’s letting himself in for’.

Jeeves – ‘Quite so, Sir. They also wanted to correspond with the Empress of Blandings, but the noble sow declined on account of a slight tummy upset, which could put the kybosh on her chances of winning the Shropshire Fat Pigs class competition. She even turned away her morning bran mash.’

Bertie – ‘This is the thin end of the ledge, Jeeves’.

Jeeves – ‘Wedge, Sir. Thin end of the wedge, meaning…..’

Bertie – ‘I know what it means Jeeves. Spare me the English lecture. You’re always pouncing on my slips of the tongue. Curb this habit. Lord Emsworth will be crushed if the Empress declines her breakfast. Let’s hope she recovers. I don’t think this Bangalore chappie will get any satisfaction from the seigneur of Blandings Castle, not till the Empress gets her snout back into the dinner pail. He must have buried himself in that Bible for pig lovers, “Whiffle on the Care of the Pig”.’

Jeeves –‘Precisely Sir. One’s heart goes out to his Lordship. But if I might turn your attention to the questionnaire, Sir’.

Bertie – ‘Golly, you are a hard task master. A modern day Simon Legree. I shall not be slave driven in my own home, Jeeves. Not by my own slave, at any rate’.

Jeeves – ‘My apologies Sir, but these Bangalore boffins have already created something they call a website, exclusively dedicated to Mr. Wodehouse. In fact, I just went into the site and, inspired by the author, they have items like Wodehousean Cocktail Recommendations, Quote of the Day, clips from Wodehouse based TV adaptations starring people like Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Timothy Spall and many others. Of course, in order to view these, they say you require something called a “flash plug in”.’

Bertie – ‘For God’s sake Jeeves, will you stop babbling on in Double Dutch? I can see that you are speaking English, but beyond that, I am definitely up the creek without a saddle’.

Jeeves – ‘Paddle Sir, sorry. I understand your qualms. If not actually disgruntled, you are far from being gruntled. That is one of my favourite quotes from Mr. Wodehouse’s impressive oeuvre, Sir’.

Bertie – ‘Never mind about Mr.W’s impressive whatever it was, Jeeves. I am trying to make the point that I am not in the right frame of mind to be tapping all these keys, and pressing ‘send’, and this Bangalore fellow receiving it in the blink of an eye. It’s positively indecent, this haste. Whatever happened to post haste, letters arriving sedately by sea, being presented on a silver salver, with an elegant knife to cut open the buff envelope?  I shall ponder over this matter, and first write to the Prime Minister of Great Britain with a proper fountain pen, and engage him in a dialogue on how to get India back to Britain. That is my priority. Perhaps you should also bend your brain to this issue, Jeeves. Meanwhile please ask this software geek to take a long walk off a short pier. Hope I got that one right’.

Jeeves – ‘Perfectly. I shall attend to the matter post haste Sir, if I might borrow from your impressive lexicon’.

Bertie – ‘Right ho, Jeeves. Toodle-oo, pip-pip and all that. Before you go, one more b & w to restore my frazzled tissues, if you please. This India affair has really got me down amongst the wines and spirits. Like one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the wine cellar only to find the vodka bottle empty. Get my drift, Jeeves?’

Jeeves – ‘I’ll see to it in a jiffy, Sir’.

Murder in the Cathedral

Salome - Wikipedia
Salome bearing John the Baptist’s head on a plate

 A temple priest in Odisha recently beheaded his gardener in order to rid the world of the Covid19 virus. News Agencies.                           

I am involved in a losing battle every time I firmly resolve not to write about the Coronavirus ever again. I have taken this vow about four times already, but something or the other happens that compels me to return to the dreaded subject. Just when I thought I was running on empty vis-à-vis the Covid19 topic, along comes this village temple priest from the remote heartlands of Orissa, or should I say, Odisha. This temple priest, who shared digs with the temple gardener, apparently had a visitation during his beauty sleep from the presiding temple deity. The deity appeared before the priest in the dead of night and declaimed, in that rather pompous way deities have, that the pestilential Coronavirus can be single-handedly eliminated, and that the responsibility for achieving this monumental task lay in the priest’s hands – quite literally. ‘You are the Chosen One,’ proclaimed the Almighty. The temple God went on to elaborate. ‘All you have to do is behead the gardener who is sleeping soundly by your side in your humble temple abode, and next thing you know it will be “Goodbye, Coronavirus.”’ The priest stood rigid with an indescribable fear and excitement. A human sacrifice was called for and it fell to him to carry out this unpleasant but necessary task, in order to save the world. It was God’s will. If a passing thought ever occurred to the priest that this dastardly act might be considered contrary to the laws of the land and that he himself could be in line for the guillotine, he swiftly brushed it aside in the confident knowledge that God was on his side.

Thus instructed, the priest awoke to the grim reality to recognise his role as the Grim Reaper who must accomplish his task with missionary zeal. Clearly, he has been sent to this earth to finish off this Covid19 virus, and if that means one gardener has to die, so be it. After all thousands are dying every single day, of the virus. He consoled himself by reflecting that the gardener will surely go to heaven for his supreme, if unknowing, sacrifice. Whether or not a phalanx of vestal virgins will welcome him in heaven was a moot point.

So saying, the priest fished out one of the gardener’s machetes or whatever it is that gardeners employ to hack down trees and the like, and proceeded to decapitate the poor garden tender’s head from his parent body. It is of little consolation to the gardener that he felt nothing. Or so we hope. His dreaded deed done, apparently on the Divine One’s orders, the priest ruefully but proudly reflected on the fact that he has made a seminal contribution to Man’s fight against the killer flu. One thing is certain though. He ensured that the temple gardener will never be infected with Covid19 ever again, there being no living host cell in the headless body to take in a guest virus. It is as well to acknowledge at this juncture that this man of God, having accomplished his somewhat bizarre ecclesiastical duty, proceeded straight to the nearest police station, presumably with the gardener’s decapitated head held by the hair in one hand, and the bloody machete in the other. Shades of Salome of Biblical fame, bearing John the Baptist’s head on a plate. A nasty shock, the cops at the station received. Two of the gendarmes fainted on the spot and the station chief thought he was having a stroke.

Naturally the priest, who had come to confess his crime with all the incontrovertible evidence suitably provided (a decapitated head with unseeing eyes should be good enough evidence for most cops), was not expecting a cosy reception. Nevertheless, the police inspector sat the priest down, divested him of the murder weapon and the severed head, offered him a cup of tea and proceeded to question him. You need to treat your temple priest with care and courtesy, lest the awful wrath of God pays a visit to the police station. The priest’s pre-emptive confession could not be taken at face value. Some other bandit could have done the deed, drugged the priest and made him behave in this strange manner. Improbable, but not impossible.

‘Tell me, Your Holiness’ began the inspector somewhat hesitantly, ‘what’s with the head and the deadly instrument? Was this some sort of revenge killing involving your gardener and some of the local goons? Perhaps the gardener chopped down a few trees from the local Dada’s land and made off with the valuable timber and sundry cash crop? And you’ve paid us a visit to tell us that you found his body separated from his head in your quarters? All very unpleasant, but I am glad you did not shirk your duty. Drink up your tea.’

The priest’s chest was heaving and he was breathing heavily and stertorously, and after taking a sip of the local chai, he calmed down and proceeded to speak. ‘Inspector, I am trying to tell you that this deed was done by me. No goon or brigand involved. But you are not paying attention and gabbing on about local goondas and revenge killings. Perish the thought. It was I and I am prepared to sign a confession, with blood if required, and I have plenty of that right here with me.’ He then proceeded to emit a macabre giggle at his own sense of irony, which made the inspector’s blood run cold.

The inspector, having swallowed his own saliva several times, was having some difficulty processing this information. ‘Quite, quite Your Reverence, I get the picture. Let’s take it from the top, shall we? What prompted you to do this? If indeed, you did it.’

‘Haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve been saying, Inspector?’ wailed the irascible priest. ‘Read my lips. It was two in the morning. I was fast asleep despite the gardener’s snoring which could have woken up the dead. Anyhow, it certainly appeared to wake up the local deity, who stood right in front of my astonished eyes. I stood up in a flash and prostrated before the Godly vision.’

‘Then what happened?’ asked the visibly agitated police inspector.

‘I told you what happened. Don’t you pay attention to anything I say? Listen, Covid19 had to be slayed, en masse. And God chose me as His earthly instrument to carry out this task. A human sacrifice had to be made. One small gardener for Man, one giant leap for Mankind, capiche?’ cried the priest becoming a bit Neil Armstrongish and Don Corleoneish at the same time. To cap it all, he added, ‘I told God, “give me the tools and I will finish the job.”’ The priest knew his Churchill as well. Widely read man.

The inspector had had enough of this. He handcuffed the priest and directed him to spend the night in his lockup.

‘Oh, there’s one other thing,’ said the inspector to the priest, ‘where’s the body? We went to the crime scene and found the body conspicuous by its absence. One number head, right here with me. Check. Headless body couldn’t have upped and made a run for it. So where is it, my dear man of God?’ If the inspector had been aware of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, he would have readily identified with his predicament.

The priest just looked balefully at the inspector and smiled a beatific smile and replied somewhat enigmatically, ‘That I cannot reveal, I fear. My lips are sealed. The gardener’s body is now one with the elements.’

‘Meaning what, exactly?’ wailed the inspector.

The priest gave a broad grin, rubbed his stomach with great satisfaction, as one who has just enjoyed a fine repast and let out a huge belch. And promptly went to sleep. The inspector had to be rushed to the nearest hospital emergency.

Alas, poor Ashok!

Benedict Cummerbatch as Hamlet | Benedict cumberbatch, Benedict
‘Alas, poor Yorick.’ Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

                                A recent column in our leading newspapers was heart rending. The chief executive of one of India’s tallest and most respected corporations in the information technology space has had to take a haircut on his annual salary to the tune of around 15%, bringing his booty down to a measly Rs.12 odd crores. Other senior officials of the organisation have had to join the CEO in some heavy weight shedding, which would have left them a few crores lighter as far as their bottom lines went. I was deeply moved when I read this. What is poor Ashok (real name withheld) going to tell his family on this cruel blow when he gets home? The expression ‘poor Ashok’ is employed metaphorically. A lame ‘Covid19’? A sticky quandary. I mean, three family holidays a year to Europe or the US is clearly not on the cards anymore. Two, if they can stretch it. The head honcho may have to look at Thailand or Vietnam, with their dirt cheap hotel rates. There’s just so much one can do with Rs.12 crores, particularly after the tax man has done his hatchet job. ‘But Ashok dearest’ chimes in his distraught wife, ‘how can we go anywhere when all international flights are grounded?’ Fair point. Ashok’s grand gesture has left top gun executives from many other companies fuming. ‘Who does he think he is? If this sort of thing starts taking hold, the next thing to go will be our club memberships, and I’ll have to sell my Callaway golf clubs to make ends meet. I don’t have a problem with people taking salary cuts, it’s their business, but why make a song and dance about it and give other companies ideas?’ Ah well, one can but sympathize. If you don’t have golf, what have you got? Might as well turn into a monk.

Then there’s the matter of the cars. Ashok is at pains to explain to the love of his life. ‘Darling, I know we have four garages, doesn’t mean we must have four cars. I think we must make do with three. The kids will simply have to adjust to the SUV. The BMW will have to go. And stop that groaning. I am putting my foot down. I am surrendering the Audi to the company as well. We’ll take a raincheck on the Merc. There’s some talk of cycling to work, but I never learnt to ride a bicycle. So that’s out.’ The better half was not best pleased as she retorted, ‘Ashok, pin your ears back and listen. I am putting my foot down as well, on the Saab’s accelerator and not taking it off the floor. So there.’ Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

You have to feel for Ashok and his ilk. As the company head, he has to set an example. The salary cut will pinch and there will be strife at home, but at least, three square meals can still be managed, with some shrewd planning on the kitchen front. Thank God the cook is still there, though straining at the leash to get back to his home town somewhere in the Kerala backwaters. ‘They are running the trains to Trivandrum, Sir,’ he bleats. Gosh, Cookie has his ear to the ground and Ashok has to employ all his wiles, including handing out the threat of catching this awful Coronavirus infection in those crowded trains. Bloodied but unbowed, Cookie stalks back to the kitchen to rustle up some toothsome appam and stew for breakfast. Peace reigns, but only just. You can lose your wife, for a while. You lose your cook, and you’re in Doldrumsville. And your marriage could be headed for Splitsville!

 Corporate honchos everywhere are grappling with the problems of pruning and cost cutting during these straitened times. Look at Mukesh Ambani. He has given up an entire year’s salary, a figure that contains more zeroes than you and I can configure on ten fingers. The report, however, was foggy on whether the Reliance boss was giving up his dividends and other goodies that come with being the head of an awesome behemoth. Ultimately, it’s all very well for us mere mortals to be mordant about corporate bigwigs taking salary cuts. Try doing it. It hurts like blazes. So let’s doff our hats to Ashok and his intrepid band of brothers. To quote Othello via the quill and ink of Shakespeare, ‘Of one whose hand / Like the base Indian / threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe.’

Richard Gordon on the Spanish Flu. How eerily prophetic?

Photos show the history of the deadly 1918 flu pandemic - Business ...
A poster in the US in 1918. Nothing much has changed.

One would have thought enough material has been published and continues to be written and released on the malady we are all obsessed with at the moment, to wit, Covid19, or the new Coronavirus. Clearly there is a palpable fatigue factor at play. Literally and metaphorically. How much more of this virus can we take editorially? That is a good question, but it does not stop the media pundits, be they spouting forth with the written or spoken word. Speaking for myself, I have not exactly been a slouch, having published around three lengthy pieces coming from different points of view on the dreaded subject. Enough is enough, methinks. I vowed to myself that I will spend more time reading books of varied hues by a plethora of authors. There is, after all, little else to do at Containmentville bar the occasional writing, listening to some elevating music and a couple of hours of cable TV. To which end, amongst other authorial worthies, I started reading a book by Richard Gordon titled Great Medical Disasters.

Now just in case there are those amongst you who are not familiar with the works of Richard Gordon, here’s a quick introduction. An Englishman, a medical doctor by profession, whose fame spread far and wide when he started writing humorous novels on his chosen profession – Medicine. Once the first book was out, and the public lapped it up, Gordon knew he was on to a good thing. He followed it up with a series of hilarious novels with titles like Doctor in the House, Doctor at Sea, Doctor in Love, Doctor in Clover, Doctor at Large and many more in similar vein. Thus, a little known practitioner of medicine became a world famous humourist with the medical profession his satirical and scintillating target. More success was to come by way of movies based on many of his novels starring such luminaries as Dirk Bogarde and James Robertson Justice. If the British movie industry during the 60s struck a rich vein of form and success, Richard Gordon’s medical novels can take much of the credit. The films at times bordered on slapstick, but the public lapped it up.

To revert to Great Medical Disasters, to my delight I found a second hand hardbound version reasonably priced on Amazon and wasted no time in placing the order. The book has been well thumbed, but in good condition. Fifty real life cases of almighty goof-ups that have occurred in the field of medicine over the centuries, featuring kings and queens, ministers both cabinet as well as clerical (parish), hotshots from the medical world and just plain tuppenny-ha’penny criminals. Failed diagnoses, botched up operations, botched up hangings, diseases we have come to know and love and many more. As ever, brilliantly recounted with a potent combination of deep medical insight and humour that Wodehouse, at times, might have envied.

The immediate provocation for this piece is my decision to reproduce one particular chapter from the book titled, Bitter Victory – Spanish Flu. Many of you would have heard and read about the Spanish Flu, particularly as a counterpoint to our present global quandary with Covid19. Considering Gordon wrote this piece several decades ago about a worldwide outbreak during the turn of the 20th century in his gently acerbic style, there is so much we can identify with concerning our present predicament. If for nothing else read it for his flair, and you may be tempted to try and obtain the book (if you’re lucky) and enjoy the complete oeuvre. So without further ado, here is Dr. Richard Gordon holding forth on the Spanish Flu. If I have infringed on any copyright laws, I proffer my apologies in advance. I am sure the estate of the late Dr. Richard Gordon will be glad of the free publicity with a good chance that several more copies of this estimable book might move off the shelves or more pertinently, online stores.

 (Footnotes and asterisks are entirely mine and not to be attributed to the author of the article).

Bitter victory. Spanish flu.                               

At the eleventh hour, the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the killing stopped. The world rejoiced, the gods laughed.

The Great War killed 8,538,313 military personnel, 12.5 per cent of the 65,038,810 mobilized. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 0.5 per cent of the entire population of the United States and of England, 3 per cent of Sierra Leone’s, 25 per cent of Samoa’s and 60 per cent of the Eskimos in Nome, Alaska. In six weeks it killed 3.1 per cent of US recruits at Camp Sherman. Five million died in India, often untidily – the corpses needed removing from overcrowded trains on arrival. Liners docked with 5 per cent fewer passengers than embarked.

The big American push on the Meuse-Argonne front was checked by 70,000 flu casualties. So was Ludendorff’s last fling on the Somme. Woodrow Wilson got it, also Lloyd George, Clemenceau, German prime minister Prince Max and Colonel House.

Nature is a more efficient murderer than man. The war needed four years, the flu barely one. It killed 25,000,000, 3 per cent of all cases, our worst plague. A fifth of the global population caught it, it left serological fingerprints on many more who nursed subclinical attacks.

Flu fatalities usually lie in infancy and senility. This epidemic mocked the war by slaughtering the 20-40 age group. Influenza was the tiger, pneumonia the jackal for its unkilled prey. Antibiotics lay as far ahead as Chancellor Hitler.

Where had it come from? The milder first wave started in US military camps during the spring of 1918, to be transported with the troops to France. Thence to Spain, where the fright was so violent the disease found its name. There was influenza that spring in China, and Chinese labourers mingled with men from everywhere crowded into Europe, coughing over each other.*

A deadlier wave broke in the autumn, perhaps starting at Ashkhabad in southern Russia, crossing the Iranian border for an outbreak at Mashhad, in the corner against Afghanistan. That August, HMS Africa had sailed from Sierra Leone, losing 7 per cent of her crew before reaching the Channel. Like a malign Puck, infection girdled the earth with simultaneous outbreaks in the ports of Freetown, Brest and Boston. In the US it killed more new immigrants from rural Italy, Russia, Austria and Poland than from crowded Britain and Germany.

As Boccaccio said of an earlier scourge, ‘How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfasted with their kinfolk and that same night supped with their ancestors in the other world.’ People eyed each other with keener suspicion than during the war’s spy scares. To sneeze was like drawing a knife.** ‘Coughing, Sneezing or Spitting Will not be Permitted in the Theatre,’ said the notices outside. ‘In case you must Cough or Sneeze, do so in your own handkerchief, and if the Coughing or Sneezing Persists Leave the Theatre At Once. Go Home and Go to Bed until You Are Well. If you have a cold or are coughing and sneezing Do Not Enter This Theatre.’

Hospitals had patients in the corridors. Thousands were inoculated with useless anti-flu vaccine. Schools and libraries were closed. Men were advised to stop shaves in barbershops. Everyone was advised to wear fresh pyjamas, avoid shaking hands, take castor oil. The world wore white cotton masks, like surgeons’.  In San Francisco they were obligatory, on pain of gaol (the police complained they encouraged robbery).

Soldiers prudently dug graves for which there were not yet bodies. There was profiteering in coffins. The Washington DC health commissioner commandeered two railroad cars full of them, which a railwayman tipped him off to be lying in the Potomac freight yards. He stacked them under police guard, coffin theft being the crime of the moment.

The visitation lingered everywhere about six weeks. A less lethal wave came with 1919. By the spring, the flu had gone. Where? Perhaps into swine.

It could come back.

*The Chinese were at it even then.

** Ring a bell?

If it’s 4 PM, it must be Lav Agarwal

773 new infections, 32 deaths due to Covid-19 in 24 hours: Health ...

 We are well into the fifth week of the official lockdown brought about by the Novel Coronavirus, Covid19 to give it its formal appellation, and the one thing we can be certain about is that the uncertainty will almost certainly continue for an uncertain period of time. April 20th beckoned seductively, with something to look forward to, but various State Governments, after enticing us with vague indications of some level of freedom, developed cold feet and went back on their word (wisely perhaps), and now we wait with bated breath for May 3rd. As to what magic will occur over the next couple of weeks whereby the third day in the merry month of May will bring forth joy unbounded, is anybody’s guess. Chances are we will still be stuck in the ‘same old, same old’ situation with more infections, recoveries and fatalities, but the curve should flatten. However, as the poet had it, hope springs eternal and with most countries, including the World Health Organisation (which is not a country but a conglomeration of divided countries) giving their thumbs up to India for the way we have thus far handled the crisis, we might just about scrape through without humongous damage. That is the hope, and we will have to survive on a wing and a prayer over the coming weeks and months. A quick aside on WHO. Donald Trump, in a fit of heightened pique, cut off WHO’s fund supply for its apparent China tilt. However, help was at hand from a predictable corner. China, naturally, coughed up (cough being the operative word) several millions to make up for Trump’s parsimony. Who knows, WHO might move its HQ to Beijing sometime soon! Or, perhaps, Wuhan. In Al Pacino’s Oscar-winning expletive from Scent of a Woman, ‘Who Haa!’

This is the third consecutive column I am writing, if tapping on the keys of my desktop can be classified as writing, on Covid19. Some might say I am overdoing it a tad. If so I plead guilty as charged, taking comfort in the knowledge that I cannot find a single piece in any newspaper that talks about anything else. Even the ‘bare bones’ sports page, in its studious analysis of who will take over from the Big 3 of world tennis – Novak, Rafa and Roger – cannot help but make constant mention of the virus and how it may or may not have affected these giants of the game, their glorious backhands and lethal forehands. As for sundry actors from the celluloid world cooking up a storm in their fancy home kitchens, or Virat Kohli being given a haircut by his celluloid wife, ‘been there, done that.’

Herein lies the columnist’s dilemma. Should he choose to go clean off topic and write a column on, say, ‘Is Vishwanathan Anand’s lethal end game waning?’ or ‘Should M.S.Dhoni put us all out of our misery?,’ verbal blows will rain on him for indulging in sports frivolity when the whole world is beset with this beastly virus. On the contrary, do another piece, albeit from left field with a totally different perspective on Covid19, and the Cassandras will go, ‘Gosh, haven’t we had enough of this dreaded topic? I am sick to the back teeth with the virus.’ If indeed that is so, I could advise them to visit the nearest hospital, only to be condemned as a literal minded idiot. There you are, you see. It’s a classic writer’s conundrum, one that I have bent my feeble intellect long and hard to find a solution to, thus far with scant success.

The Eureka moment took its own sweet time, but when it did arrive, it was a snorter. The name ‘Lav Agarwal’ drifted into my mind, and I knew I had found a neat solution to write on the subject we humans around the world are presently obsessed with, and yet coming from an angle that will keep reader interest alive and afloat. If you haven’t cottoned on to where I am headed with this fresh tack, then you must be duller than I had imagined. I am talking about the daily 4 PM bulletin on all the news channels on our television screens, when a group of four or five worthies from the Health and Home Ministry provides us with the latest rundown on what has been happening over the past 24 hours all across the country with regard to, what else, but the Coronavirus. When I first tuned into these distinguished government servants sitting across a table and addressing the media, I found it all rather desiccated. However, with each passing day, I began to appreciate these masked officials who were providing us with detailed information on a subject every single one of us should be vitally interested and involved in. Our lives could depend on it. Thus, my afternoon siesta ended at 3.59 PM when I would wake up and sit bolt upright, to listen to their chief spokesperson, Lav Agarwal from Health, ably supported by a demure lady, who usually took the trouble to colour match her sari with her mask, followed by the ICMR gentleman sporting a walrus moustache, who had the unfortunate task of having to explain to the media why the special rapid testing kits from China were yet to arrive, or were diverted to Italy or, worse still, why many of these kits were found to have holes in them in the wrong places! He invariably put a brave and kindly face on it, this walrus-moustachioed gentleman, but you could see the strain was beginning to tell. As for the elegant lady from the Home Ministry, she generally kept her missives short and on point.

That said, the hero of the hour was, without a shadow of a doubt, our good friend Lav Agarwal from the Health Ministry. He was invariably given maximum screen time, and he did not waste a second of it. Fully informed, he would meticulously trot out the statistics pertaining to each state, would easily switch from Hindi to English and back, as the mood took him. A veritable fount of information, Lav Agarwal left no stone unturned or avenue unexplored to drone on with his inexhaustible fund of information on social distancing and contact tracing. Truth to tell, more often than not, I hardly took in anything of what he was saying, but I would yield to no one in my admiration for his saying all that he was saying. It was like a soother and would give me great comfort, often lulling me back to the land of Nod. On occasion, when the cameras did not pan on the estimable Agarwal for any length of time, I would get disturbed. Has he not come today, is he unwell? Surely he hasn’t contracted…no, no. Surely not. Perish the thought. And just as I was in danger of sinking into a slough of despond at Lav’s apparent absence, there he would appear, his cherubic face a symbol of reassurance! You gotta Lav this Agarwal. In case anyone thinks I am being frivolous, let me assure my readers that I have not missed a single day of the Government of India’s daily 4 PM bulletins, fronted by the patient Agarwal. I say patient because the Q & A session at the end of the conference can try anyone’s patience. But Agarwal and his team tackle all the queries with great meticulousness, and if they don’t know the answer, they don’t try to prevaricate. In fact the ICMR representative with the walrus moustache is particularly open and never tries to put one over the media. If he does not know something, he will be upfront about it. If there’s a hole in the testing kit where no hole should be, he will come right out and say so.

In sum, I think the Public Relations wing of the Government has done an excellent job of keeping the Indian public fully informed on a daily basis on precisely how things are developing on this terrible medical crisis that has taken a vice-like grip over all of us. Which is why I was startled out of my wits when there was no bulletin a couple of days ago on TV. I felt hollow and my mind was full of questions. I could not imagine an afternoon without these doughty sentinels of the Government having a cosy, fireside chat with us. Happily, they were back the following day (with graphs, charts, the whole shooting match) to give us an extended report on ‘one month after the lockdown.’ They were probably preparing the previous day for this, hence the absence.

Finally, if and when CV19 finally takes leave of us, and it can’t be too soon, the one thing I will miss most are these 4 o’ clock siesta talks on TV. Methinks I will record some of these programmes, and keep playing them later on to wallow in a sense of comforting nostalgia. It’s not what Lav and his team told us that matters as much as the fact that they were there to tell it.

Flatten the curve or be flattened

Garfield (character) - Wikipedia

One of the many incidental fallouts of the all-pervasive, all-consuming Novel Coronavirus, or Covid19 if you are a stickler for the mot juste, is that there is no shortage of free advice from all and sundry on this vexed subject. Given that most of us are claustrophobically house bound, experiencing the true meaning of American television serial expressions like ‘stir crazy,’ our options for diversion and entertainment are largely confined to reading, music, watching telly (no live sport is a crusher) or allowing social media to envelope us into its ample bosom, contradistinctively through our deceptively small mobile phones. What was that the poet Oliver Goldsmith said of the village schoolmaster? ‘And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew / That one small head could carry all he knew.’  The mobile or cell phone, warts and all, is our perennial if wayward schoolmaster, always at our side, and full of information which, for the most part, we do not require. Sadly, unlike the village schoolmaster, our mobile phones cannot admonish us when we start browsing websites that are clearly unsuited to people of any age. And I am not talking about sex or pornography. Sex is passé.  When you can learn how to make a lethal bomb in 6 easy steps on the internet, it makes one sit back and pause for deep reflection. Anyhow, as is my wont, I tend to veer off tangentially sometimes as the mood takes me. One thing leads to another and before you know it, I am scurrying back with a half-apologetic ‘Now where was I?’

I’ll tell you where I was. I was talking about the present, dystopian environment that we are living through, where fictional movies like ‘Contagion’ acquire a chilling, retrospective reality. So much so that we are even fearful of watching films of that genre. Take the dreadful Alien franchise from Hollywood for instance. I am not suggesting that horrible, gooey, spidery, leathery things of all shapes and sizes will suddenly start slithering out of our air-conditioning vents and water pipes (I have my hands full coping with lizards), with the sole objective of glutinously wrapping themselves round us in a deathly embrace. That said, neither did we think, not 4 months ago, that the whole world will be reaching near decimation thanks to some virus that masqueraded as the common cold, and was anything but common – confining us all to our homes and hearth. As I was about to explain till I started interrupting myself, the social media and its constant gratuitous advice has not helped matters. Doctors, neo-doctors, alternative medicine peddlers, dietitians, wellness teachers, yoga masters, physio experts, religious swamis, enlightened TV gurus – you name it, they are all at it, and looks like we can’t get enough of them. What can I say? We are all suckers for succour.

At this point I decided it was better if I had a long heart-to-heart natter with a doctor friend of mine on the dreaded subject of Covid19. Someone who knew me and who would not hesitate to blow the lid off the topic, if that was what was required. Confidentiality and the need to preserve and respect his privacy precludes my naming him. For the purposes of this missive, I am just going to call him Dr. No, inspired by Ian Fleming’s notorious James Bond villain. Why Dr. No will become apparent as you go through this interview, conducted on Face Time for reasons that need no elaboration.

SS (that’s me) – ‘Hey Dr. No, long time no see. Very busy time for you, I am sure. Thanks for making the time.’

Dr. No – ‘No sweat. That’s what friends are for. Tell me, what’s bugging you?’

SS – ‘Since you put it like that, nothing is physically bugging me. It’s this Covid19 that the whole world is sweating over and very bugged about. They are calling it a Black Swan event. The crisis teaches us new things. Like Social Distancing.’

Dr. No – ‘No, no. It’s being blown up out of all proportion. Look, I am not saying it’s not serious. It is. It’s just that panic is not the order of the day. I mean, more people in the world die crossing the road than from any virus. So we need to stay indoors, and keep washing our hands till you can actually see your metacarpals and phalanges. Above all, just keep cool. Black Swan? Haven’t a clue what that means.’

SS – ‘Fund managers love that term. It means a very rare event, in fact an event that can never happen is a Black Swan event, because there is no such thing as a black swan. Like hen’s teeth or once in a blue moon, that sort of stuff.’

Dr. No – ‘No, no. I don’t agree. We’ve gone through the Plague, AIDS, SARS. Ebola, Chikungunya, Swine Flu and so much more. Covid19 just feels scarier, that’s all. Black swan, slack swan. All nonsense. All media hyperbole. We just need to keep testing more people. These are testing times.’

SS – ‘I’ll have to look up “hyperbole.” “Testing times”, ha ha. Since we are now on idioms, how about “flattening the curve?” What do you make of that?’

Dr.No – ‘No listen. I am a doctor of medicine, not English. I have heard of “fattening the calf,” but “flattening the curve” is a new one on me. I grant you that if a dyed-in-the-wool Bengali said “flattening the curve,” it will sound a lot like “fattening the calf.” If I didn’t know any better I would have said the expression had something to do with getting your bulging tummy in shape. Anyhow, you are the writer, you tell me.’

SS – ‘Nice touch Doc, that Bengali thing. If you watch any of the English TV news channels they use that expression, “flattening the curve” at least 20 times in each programme. It’s to do with graphs, spikes in the number of infections, deaths, recoveries and the like, if you’re still with me. At the moment the curve on the graph is rising and if we can reduce the rate of infection (not be confused with inflection point), that rising curve will start flattening. Which will be good news.’

Dr. No – ‘Big deal. Why don’t they just say “we would like to reduce the number of infections or fatalities?” What’s all this flattening curve business? Jargon, jargon all the time with these media guys. No, no look here. I have enough problems dealing with cases without having to employ an interpreter to follow what you guys are saying. And to pre-empt you, don’t ask me if India’s hot summer months will kill the virus. It kills thousands of people every year, so who knows?’

SS – ‘What about masks?’

Dr. No – ‘What about them?’

SS – ‘Which part of “What about masks?” did you not follow?’

Dr. No – ‘Stop being a smartass. I have no view on masks. Wear them, take them off, wash them and re-wear them, give them to your kids to use as catapults, whatever. Makes no difference. Everyone is wearing masks with their nostrils fully exposed. So much for protection. Morons. Some television anchors pronounce masks as mosques, adding fuel to the fire.’

SS – ‘Look, I know you’re frazzled, what with the work pressure and everything. Let’s just take it easy for a bit, ok? Now tell me, how well do you think this national lockdown is working?’

Dr. No – ‘Stop telling me to take it easy and cool down and all that. Come and sit in my chair and you’ll know what it’s all about. Take it easy, indeed! This is a hot seat, my friend. Or should I say hotspot? And it’s getting hotter by the hour. My bottom’s on fire. No, no I will not take it easy. Anyhow, what was your question again?’

SS – ‘The lockdown all over India. Do you think it is working? And sorry, I won’t ask you to take it easy again.’

Dr. No – ‘How the heck do I know? About the lockdown, I mean. Why don’t you watch the daily Health Ministry briefing every evening? With scorecards and everything. No, I have no time to assess if the lockdown is going swimmingly well or if people are dropping like flies on an hourly basis. I have to deal with patients trooping in and out 24 x 7. When I get home it’s gone past midnight and I am in no mood to switch on the telly and watch a re-run of Arnab’s fist-flailing, insisting that the Nation Wants to Know. And if I so much as clear my throat, my wife hares off to the guest bedroom, covering her face with the blanket! Hey, I am sorry buddy, but I am on a short fuse here. My wife muttered, half asleep, that the lockdown is going reasonably well. I take her word for it.’

SS – ‘One last question, Doc. How is this Social Distancing thing going for you and your family?’

Dr. No – ‘I am glad you asked me that. I haven’t touched my wife in over a fortnight. People are drawing circles in front of banks and shops, and they generally seem to be going round in circles. Tell you what, though. If we can keep up this Social Distancing lark for long periods of time, our population growth will plummet. And that’s a curve I would dearly like to see flatten. And if you don’t call me for the next few weeks, it will be too soon.’

So ended this eventful Face Time interview. I think my irate and touchy doctor friend makes a good point about the unintended benefits of Social Distancing. If and when Covid19 finally bids a tearful adieu, sneezing and coughing the while, perhaps our indefatigable Prime Minister will once again address the nation and exhort us to practice Social Distancing at least twice a week. Family Planning will have a new arrow in its quiver.

Here is the news, and it’s not good

Has anyone heard any good news lately? Just asking, because if anything even remotely approaching good news has filtered through, then I clearly missed it. What was that some smarty pants said? No news is good news? I think it is safe to say that we appear to be in that unfortunate situation as this missive is being word processed. There you go. I can’t even say ‘as this is being written,’ because some literal-minded idiot will accost me on social media with a ‘How can you say “written” when you are tapping this on your keyboard?’ Life is hard enough without having to deal with these twits on Twitter. I do apologise for my crabbiness. Blame it all on the news, which does nothing to engender that elusive sunny optimism.

To get back to my point, I have been scanning the newspapers and news channels to check if anybody has something good to say about anything. You might as well be looking for an oasis in the Sahara. Here is a random list of news items that have been dominating the headlines, and if any of you can find anything good there, then you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Nirbhaya. The Nirbhaya rape and murder case has been dragging on for well over seven painful years, and our wheels of justice keep moving at a pace that would make a snail fancy its chances against the system. They have even had the time to make a television serial out of it. ‘Hang the rapists’, the country cries out. ‘In a while crocodile,’ responds the system. Appeals, counter appeals, mercy petitions and still the noose eludes the four guilty goons. Dates are set for the execution and re-set. When such dilatoriness happens over an execution, the public’s unsated, prurient interest only heightens. Remember those medieval times when the blood-thirsty public were invited to witness executions? Better these matters be dealt with swiftly and all concerned be duly informed once the dreaded task is over. Instead of all this shilly-shallying.

There is an interesting sidebar to the Nirbhaya case. Some months ago, somewhere in the heartlands of Telangana, another gang of murder suspects being held in custody for a heinous rape crime, was mysteriously gunned down in an ‘encounter.’ The cops claimed they had no option as the desperados snatched their guns and tried to make a run for it, but the smart money was on the cops ‘managing’ the shootout to their advantage. Some may say rough justice, but even those from the higher echelons of society were found to be applauding the local police. ‘Serve them right,’ was the cry of the vox populi, underscoring their disenchantment with the glacial movement of our justice system.

L’affaire Shaheen Bagh. Protesters gathering in Shaheen Bagh in India’s capital city have been grabbing the news headlines, and only recently has the noise died down. While it lasted, they were able to disrupt normal life in Delhi more than somewhat, to employ one of Damon Runyon’s pet phrases. I shan’t get into the rights and wrongs of their compulsion for so doing (CAA, NPR et al). The Central Government and the Delhi State administration were helplessly red faced. This movement gave rise to more Shaheen Baghs across the country, putting more pressure on the BJP led government. They in turn stuck to their guns, accusing the opposition of spreading falsehoods and innuendoes, all the while emphasising that the CAA was ‘good for every Indian citizen,’ if only the citizen cared to understand what the Act sought to achieve. The opposition parties were raucously gloating at their rival’s discomfiture. Meanwhile, with the onset of the warm weather and the Covid 19 (Coronavirus) scare, the protesters have reportedly dwindled, and the citizens of Delhi can, hopefully, soon breathe easy.

Coronavirus. When I said the Delhi denizens can breathe easy I was, of course, speaking metaphorically. The one thing they are not able to do, along with citizens all over the country, is to breathe easy. The Coronavirus pestilence, not unlike SARS and Swine Flu which took much of the world by nasty surprise, is now infesting various parts of the world, and anyone who so much as sneezes, hares off to the overworked hospitals. Travel and the world economy have taken a nose dive, and we keep opening the newspapers every morning hoping the dreaded virus shows signs of retreat. Face masks have gone underground, and a few hopefuls are running to Homoeopaths and sundry quacks for a miracle cure. I wash my hands with soap and water ten times a day! No shaking hands. Namaste is the order of the day. While Coronavirus continues to occupy centre stage, other news will for now, fade into the background. Had my mother been alive she would have said in chaste Tamil, ‘We are all paying for our sins.’ Hmmm!

The Delhi riots. Donald Trump came calling. Our Prime Minister pulled out all the stops in his home state to welcome the American President. Trump and Modi addressed a humongous gathering in Ahmedabad, with Donald trumping the Indian PM with his oh-so-cute references to Swami Vivecamundan and Soochin Tendulkar. While Trump visited Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and was feted royally, rioters went to work in parts of Delhi, the resultant communal clashes leaving many dead and many more injured. Damage to property and businesses was incalculable. Again, political parties blamed each other. Were the riots cynically timed to take away the sheen from the Trump visit? Or was it a powder keg waiting to explode? Who knows? The national media had to divide their newsprint space and airtime to both these happenings in a bizarre concatenation.

The bourses go berserk. With so much bad news taking pride of place, our sentiment driven stock markets went base over apex. The Sensex and the Nifty plunged southwards in simpatico with world financial markets, primarily driven by scare-mongering brought about by the Coronavirus and its deadly implications for world trade. The Yes Bank crisis was the icing on the cake. My fund manager called me to say that at these levels prices are attractive and this may be a good time to invest. At the time I had a worrying cough and could not respond. Which was just as well.

T20 Women’s World Cup. With so much bad news, the progress of the Indian eves, as they are fancifully referred to, reaching the final of the T20 World Cup in Australia raised great hopes of a famous win. Kohli’s boys had not covered themselves in glory earlier in New Zealand, and this was our chance for redemption. It proved to be a false dawn. At the packed MCG, Harmanpreet Kaur and her girls went down like nine pins against the fancied Aussies. Our cup of woe was overflowing, and the media resorted to the usual clichés whenever we lose.

A judge is transferred. The peremptory, and some might say vindictive, midnight transfer orders given to the estimable Justice S. Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court was received with anguish and anger by the judicial community and the intelligentsia – with just cause. The silver lining was the admirable composure with which the judge himself responded, without acrimony and displaying considerable dignity and grace under pressure. A much loved, respected and admired judge overnight became a national icon and treasure. There is hope yet.

So there we are, still waiting for some news to cheer us up. Perhaps I should stop watching the news channels or reading the newspapers. Like the fellow said, it’s wonderful when we are not supplied our dailies following a public holiday. ‘Nothing ever happens.’

This article appeared in the Deccan Chronicle dated 10th March 2020.

The book was much better

Gone with the Wind



‘The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to movies and say, “Oh, the book is better.”’ Paulo Coelho.
We are all familiar with the tired cliché, ‘The movie was good, but the book was much better.’ If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. There is a smidgen of scoffing pretension that goes with it. As in, I am well read, sophisticated, and I opine that the subtleties of the language can never be transposed adequately on to the silver screen. Movies are all right for transient, momentary thrills, but if you want to really get down to the nitty gritty, it simply has to be the written word. Reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, re-reading an entire sentence or paragraph, to gain a deeper understanding of what the author is trying to convey – none of this is possible when you’re at the cinema. I’ll grant you that if you’re watching a home movie, you can pause, rewind and start again, though it’s not quite the same thing. You’ll still hear the same lines, without discerning any change in the shaded nuances. Whereas with a book, the same descriptive sentence will trigger a different imagery for each individual reader.

Watching a movie is a collective process. At the cinema, all of us are viewing the same thing. This is true if you’re in a group at home, enjoying a DVD or the latest offering on Netflix. With a chilled beer, and a packet of crisps to keep you company. At times, it can even get a bit soporific. Flopped on your diwan, head thrown back over the cushions, you waft into a dreamy state. Next thing you know, your better half is upbraiding you. ‘I can’t follow the dialogue for your snoring.’ And your invariably weak riposte to that is, ‘I am not snoring, just closed my eyes because they were burning. Must have been a stray gnat or something. Ask me what Brad Pitt just said to Angelina Jolie, and I’ll repeat it verbatim.’ Nice try.

The consensus of literary opinion is that War and Peace was one of the longest, if not the longest book ever written. Rumour has it the author Leo Tolstoy was a fresh faced teenager when he started on this epic, hadn’t even thought about his first shave, and by the time he came to the last page and typed in ‘The End,’ he was a wizened old man with a flowing white beard, and the Russian priests readying themselves to read him his last rites. The story is apocryphal of course, but makes a telling point about the lengths, literally, to which Russian authors went to tell a story. The 1956 film adaptation of War and Peace, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, tested the audience’s patience for three and a half hours. The director must have thought since reading the book from cover to cover took him a year to complete, he must inflict some of the pain on his hapless audience. As P.G. Wodehouse famously complained, it takes nearly 400 pages of ploughing through a Russian novel before the first murder takes place in a remote petrol pump in an even more remote gulag! Posterity’s verdict on War and Peace, therefore, must be that it was touch and go as to which was more draining – the book or the movie.

Contrastingly, what about the shortest book ever written? According to experts, ‘The sex life of the British,’ if such a title exists, would qualify eminently. Again, the origin and veracity of this claim is shrouded in mystery. Thank God the British have the singular ability to laugh at themselves. It is instructive to quote from the Hungarian born, British émigré  George Mikes’ satirical meditation on the British, How to be an Alien, in which the chapter entitled ‘Sex’ is disdainfully dismissed in a single, telling line – ‘Continental people  have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.’ Making a movie out of this is clearly precluded.

 Notwithstanding Mikes’ caustic cynicism of the Briton’s sexual proclivities, or the lack of the same, in the world of British cinema, sex has been celebrated with gay (pun intended) abandon in such films as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, Fanny Hill, My Beautiful Launderette and for comic relief, the never ending, racy Carry On sagas. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita enjoyed critical acclaim as a book, though subsequent cinematic adaptations received muted response. The point is made that, even in the subterranean world of erotica, the literary power of suggestion is more likely to arouse than humans on screen in fake orgiastic missionary positions.

Indian cinema has its own unique way of dealing with love, marriage and sex – strictly in that order. All our heroes and heroines need is a well composed, hummable song that traverses time, some frolicking amidst sand and snow, hills and valleys, a tree or two to prance around, the scene swiftly cutting to an outlandishly garish bridal bed, camera quickly panning to a hideous painting on the wall of two love birds precariously perched on a twig, the song finally culminating to reveal a bedecked cradle with the cherubic, gurgling infant wreathed in spittle. The alternative, less pleasant, scenario involves the heroine falling suddenly, unaccountably and violently sick, followed by fainting fits, and everyone in a bit of a tiswas. Until the good doctor is summoned, and with beaming smile, announces the impending patter of little feet. Joy reigns supreme. Unless of course, God forbid, the nauseous heroine happens to be unmarried. Tauba Tauba! For then, all hell breaks loose and the pitiable leading lady breaks into an insufferably mournful, self-pitying dirge. In Harry Belafonte’s calypso-inflected words, ‘Woe is me, shame and scandal in the family.’

Adducing the Indian cinema example does not enhance the case for books being superior to film adaptations, other than to say that even the best novels would suffer at the hands of most of our directors, barring some notable exceptions. No better example of the film not quite living up to the book exists than some of the delightful Wodehouse sagas captured on celluloid. Over the decades, there have been many versions of the Jeeves – Wooster and Blandings Castle imbroglios adapted for screen and television. Some of the finest actors have portrayed key roles with great aplomb, the most recent being Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster respectively. In Stephen Fry’s eloquent words, ‘Wodehouse’s language lives and breathes in its written form. It oscillates privately between the page and the reader. The moment it is read out or interpreted, it is compromised.’ Here’s an outstanding example from the Master’s oeuvre of what Fry was driving at.

“‘Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?’ said Wilfred. ‘ffinch-ffarromere,’ corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.’” By definition, this cannot be transferred on screen. A clear case of ‘book trumps film.’ It’s another matter altogether if you have not read the book, on which the movie is based. You are then blessed by ignorance and can enjoy the film for its own sake, without having to carry the baggage of being a part of ‘the original sin,’ like Adam and the Tree of Knowledge.

It is not as if the book has always held sway over the film adaptation. Take Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a brilliantly crafted novel on the seamy underworld of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. The world, however, will forever celebrate and remember Francis Ford Coppola’s screen adaptations of The Godfather trilogy. Movie pundits have routinely voted the first of the trilogy as the best film ever made in the history of cinema. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and ‘a cast of thousands’ taking this film to stratospheric heights, few can argue with popular public acclaim. Mario Puzo’s place under the sun, however, was not to be denied as he wrote the screenplay for the film as well. The Godfather’s clutch of Academy Awards bears permanent testimony to its exalted status. Adding a dash of controversy, Brando boycotted the Oscars ceremony to receive the Best Actor award, in sympathy with what he felt was the ‘mistreatment of Native American Indians.’ But that’s another story.

While I have elaborated on a few examples to underscore my point of books being cinematically adapted with varying degrees of success or failure, we must pay homage to some magnificent honourable mentions in this genre. Dickens’ Great Expectations and Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago were sumptuously directed by David Lean. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provided Gregory Peck with an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins’ standout performances shone through in Thomas Harris’ noir, The Silence of the Lambs and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. And you ignore Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind at your own peril – the book and the movie vying for equal encomiums. Clark Gable’s ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ may arguably be the most famous throwaway line ever uttered in movie history. As the master of horror fiction Stephen King says, ‘Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.’

In conclusion, what I have shared is little more than a soupçon of the best and brightest that the wonderful world of books and the cinema offers us. So which takes pride of place – the book or the film? Or their convergence? You be the judge.

This article first appeared on Spark online magazine.