More than the sum of his parts

Stephen Fry delivering the MCC Cowdrey Lecture

My morning newspaper brings me glad tidings. The MCC or Marylebone Cricket Club to give it its full nomenclature, has just announced that its next President will be none other than the celebrated English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, polemicist, television presenter and film director, 64-year-old Stephen Fry. Not to mention that he is a gripping and side-splittingly witty public speaker. My research on the man also reveals that Fry has been a long-time advocate for mental health and has been President of Mind, the mental health charity, for well over a decade. The more astute and observant among you are probably reading this and going, ‘All that is very well but we do not detect the word cricket anywhere in that brief, though awesome, resume of MCC’s somewhat unusual choice for such an exalted position.’ On the face of it, dear reader, you would have made a telling point, but you would have been guilty of missing the wood for the trees. The MCC is not a body that takes decisions on a whim, even if this particular choice bears close scrutiny.

Around 20 years ago, on BBC Radio’s much-loved Test Match Special broadcast at the Oval, Stephen Fry was invited to the commentary box to have a chat with Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew at The Oval, a day on which Sachin Tendulkar made 54 on his 100th Test appearance. Amongst other things, including high praise for India’s little master, Fry shared his world view on the game. ‘It’s a whole cultural world and the marvellous thing is it’s not just a British one. I can’t bear the snobbery that says real cricket is cricket played within sight of a spire and an English field. It’s wonderful, village cricket, but cricket on a coir mat or on a beach or in an alleyway in Calcutta – that’s cricket as well. It’s a game that’s much bigger than its roots. That’s what’s so wonderful. Rather like the English language.’

That pretty much sums up Stephen Fry. A lifelong cricket lover, supporter and a patron of the MCC Foundation, the multi-faceted Fry was invited last year by the MCC to deliver its prestigious annual MCC Cowdrey Lecture, a sure sign that the once undisputed headquarters of world cricket had Stephen Fry in its sights for bigger things. Expressing his overwhelming emotions at the invitation to speak, Fry pointed out that he was only the second non-cricketer to be so invited after the Reverend Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa – ‘big shoes to fill.’ Fry will take over as President of the MCC from former England women’s captain, Clare Connor in October this year. Connor had notched up a unique distinction when she became the first woman president of the MCC in 2021.

While Fry’s love for the game of cricket needs no elaboration, his appointment to this august position underscores his deep concern and anguish at some of the darker aspects that have bedevilled the game in recent years. Yorkshire cricket’s infamous racism row last year, when Pakistan-born cricketer Azeem Rafiq had to face racial abuse in the dressing room, had the British thespian feelingly expressing his solidarity with the victim. ‘When he (Rafiq) said today that he didn’t want his son to go anywhere near cricket my heart fell to my boots. But actually, that simple statement crystallises everything, it gives us a clear human image that says it all. It is a rallying cry.’ In a typical example of Fry flamboyance, he described the handling of that abhorrent incident in Yorkshire as having exuded a ‘mephitic stink.’ He rounded off his observations on this unsavoury incident thus, ‘Unless all our nation’s sons and daughters with the talent and desire to have a life in cricket are confident that cricket will want to have a life with them, the spirit of cricket, its very flame, will flicker and go out. Let’s dedicate ourselves to ensuring that that will never happen.’ That is the kind of language one would like to hear from a president-elect.

While I was driven to hastily pen this appreciation of Stephen Fry’s rise to cricketing stardom, in a manner of speaking, I cannot but take this opportunity to recall some of his brilliant moments on print and television. His comic double act with fellow British actor Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry & Laurie and the same partnership delighting fans the world over in their televised interpretation of P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal creations, Jeeves and Wooster, his hilarious partnership with Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson in the memorable Blackadder series – we can watch these again and again and never tire of them.

Fry’s atheistic views on religion saw him take on the high and mighty of theology without taking a backward step. He often stood solidly side-by-side with friend and fellow non-believer, the brilliantly coruscating late Christopher Hitchens. You, dear reader, could do a lot worse than spend a relaxed evening watching these titans at their eloquent best on YouTube. Lest I forget, Stephen Fry’s role in the film Wilde, in which he portrays the protagonist, author and playwright Oscar Wilde, is so eerily uncanny. That Fry is a dead ringer for the controversial Wilde and given Fry’s own unabashed sexual orientation which meshes with Wilde’s, one could be forgiven for mistaking the one for the other. Fry is happily married to British comedian, Elliot Spencer, who is 30 years his junior. Stephen Fry even gained a brief period of notoriety when he was sent to prison for three months for a credit card fraud at the age of 17. Never a dull moment.

As a writer, Stephen Fry is an unmitigated delight. From his hilarious columns which are available in book form (Paperweight, The Stars’ Tennis Balls), his autobiographical works (The Fry Chronicles, More Fool Me), his magnificent retelling of Greek myths (Mythos, Troy and Heroes) – just a few dishy morsels from a wide and impressive body of work.

There you have it. Stephen Fry, a man of many parts and I may even be guilty of merely scratching the surface in describing his astonishing variety of achievements. In inviting such an extraordinary personality to helm the affairs of the MCC for the period 2022-23, the cricketing mavens at Lord’s should be warmly congratulated for their choice. One is confident Stephen Fry will carry out his responsibilities as MCC’s President with erudition, compassion, skill and above all with his renowned wit and humour – qualities the game and the world need more than ever, right now. The silver-tongued orator and soon-to-be cricket boss once famously said, Better sexy and racy, than sexist and racist.’

May the force be with you, Stephen.

(This article appeared in Deccan Chronicle dated May 8, 2022).

The Interview

Waiting to be called in

As far back as I can remember, my first job interview happened when I was around 20 years of age. ‘Management Trainee’ was the buzz word going around, and I am speaking of the late 60s. The recruitment pages in the newspapers were crammed to bursting with adverts for management trainees, fresh out of college and wet behind the ears. The elite Indian Institutes of Management were still finding their feet. Talent spotting with a vengeance were well-known corporate houses along with private and public sector banks. Not to be outdone, candidates with good deportment and communication skills (in English naturally) were avidly sought for jobs in tea gardens. I lived in Calcutta and the tea garden contiguity was fertile ground for employment. Today, there is a great deal of furore over whether Hindi should be considered the link language for the nation or not, but that will keep for another day. At the time I am talking about, a job in a reputed tea garden was a particularly well-paid billet, primarily to compensate for the lonely life one was expected to lead in remote and hilly even if beautiful, surroundings.

 From the little I could gather via third party sources, a management job in a tea estate largely involved driving around in a jeep through lush vegetation and supervising crop rotation (whatever that meant), tackling a few labour issues and returning home to a lovely bungalow with a private garden; a quick shower and off the to the nearest club, about a 90-minute bumpy drive; play darts and drink the house down with your colleagues. An early marriage was highly recommended, at least by anxious parents. No worries about being stopped by the local cops on the way back home asking you to breathe into a tube. If anything, the cops would have shoved you into the slammer had you turned up sober! That was the kind of job it was. Nice work if you could get it, some might say. Well, I nearly got it, were it not for a couple of inadvertent missteps during the interview.

Unlike in the other sectors mentioned earlier, like banks and well-known business houses based in our bustling metros, the entire interview process for an executive trainee job in a tea garden was not particularly rigorous. The short essay you were asked to submit along with your application form, appeared to suffice. Why am I seeking a professional career in tea? in not more than 300 words was the task given, and I felt I had got it all down pat, including a couple of quotes from Shakespeare. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this essay, because nearly all the questions at the interview were drawn from what one wrote about why a career in tea appealed to one. So there I was, along with twenty other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants, clutching a file folder containing my precious certificates, waiting to be called in for the grilling.

As I was somewhere around 7th or 8th on the list of interviewees, some of us eagerly crowded around the candidates who came out after the interview to ascertain the nature of the questioning and the personalities of the officers seated on the other side of the table. This was a waste of time and effort because the candidates just interviewed never gave you an accurate account of the proceedings for fear you might gain an unfair advantage and pip them at the post. I just sat back, waited patiently while muttering, under my breath, some material I had read up about Assam, Darjeeling, CTC, Earl Grey and so on. Frankly, I have no idea why we candidates did this. Mugging up some stuff at the last minute, depending on which company you are being interviewed by, in the hope of impressing. The managers do not expect you to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the business they are in, neither are they going to question you on the same. They are there to assess potential, personality and bearing – the crease of your shirt and the knot of your tie, that sort of thing. Let me stress once more that I am talking about what used to happen over 50 years ago. Things are very different to-day.

Soon enough, the bell tolled for me. I quickly adjusted my Half-Windsor knot and walked in a nervous gait to the conference room. There were three gentlemen seated comfortably, two of them smoking. One of the trio motioned to me to sit across the table in a straight, hard-backed chair. To be perfectly clear, I was asked to sit on the chair, not across the table. After the cursory good morning, I did as I was bid. What is it about job interviews that you always feel the chaps who are asking the questions are out to get you? Stuff and nonsense, of course. They are probably very sweet guys, who go home to their wives and children and read a good book or watch something wholesome on television. I think it’s just some sort of paranoia that afflicts the candidates. The bloke sitting in the middle (I marked him down as the leader of the pack) kicked off the proceedings.

‘Right Mr. Subrahmanyan, or let’s keep things informal, shall we? Suresh it is. Why have you applied for a job in our company?’

I thought that was a stupid question, but I didn’t show it. ‘Well Sir, I am in the market for a decent job and you had advertised in the papers looking for candidates with my kind of qualifications.’

The man in the middle looked a bit muddled but he pressed on. ‘Yes, we can see that. I was looking for a less obvious answer. What I meant was why our company in particular. Do you have a special fondness for the tea industry?’

‘Actually Sir, I am not sure how to answer that. At home we don’t even drink tea. Filter coffee is the beverage of choice. As you might have guessed, I come from a Tam-Bram family. We are big on filter coffee. However, I heard tell that this advertised job is for a position in the tea gardens. I thought a change of scene from the usual city-based jobs, not to mention a change of beverage, would make for a diverting experience.’

The gentleman to the left of centre now piped up. ‘Tell me Suresh, if I’ve got your name right, have you ever drunk tea at all? And before you answer, let me assure you that coffee is also available at the tea gardens. Not sure about the filter, though.’

Smug character. What’s not to get right about a simple, two-syllable name like Suresh, I thought to myself. I bashed on. ‘In our college canteen Sir, we all drank tea because we could not afford coffee. However, we only had the canteen staff’s word for it that they were serving tea. For all we knew, it could have been warm water with some brown sludge mixed in and a sprinkling of sugar. College canteens! I am sure you have experienced it, Sir.’ A touch of levity, I felt would go down well.

Nobody laughed, not even a semblance of a smile. ‘Never mind about us,’ continued the smug one, ‘where do you see yourself ten years from now in our company?’

That was the killer. Every person who has interviewed me has had this horrid question tucked up his sleeve. I saw it coming but could do nothing about it, like one of Bumrah’s slower deliveries. I mean, this was my first job potentially, and I was not even sure about landing it and here was this guy asking me about ten years down the road. I decided not to hold back.

‘With due respect Sir, I know nothing about your company. Not yet anyway. I don’t even know if you will be offering me the job. Right now, I am unable to think beyond that, and my thoughts are all about my interview tomorrow with a Delhi based multi-product conglomerate. Ten years from now? Who knows? Maybe I’ll be sitting where you are right now.’ I was pretty certain I had blown it. The sheer effrontery! The interview was all but over. I had nothing to lose. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought to myself. I proceeded to ask, ‘Excuse me Sir, but may I ask a question?’

‘Shoot,’ said the middle man. Ah, if wishes were horses.

‘I see that the person on your left has not asked me a single question. Looks like he was trying to stare me down, while blowing perfect smoke rings. Why is that? Is it some sort of passive-aggressive, psychological strategy to put me off my stroke?’ The person on the left merely smiled enigmatically and scribbled something down on his notepad. The man in the middle said ‘Thank you, we’ll let you know.’ The magic words, ‘we’ll let you know,’ meaning my goose had been well and truly cooked.

I then went through the rounds of some well-known companies. One of them asked me to draft a mission statement for them. I quietly demurred as I did not know what that meant. I was on a mission myself, namely, to find a job to suit my temperament. That is how I stumbled into advertising. They said the tea garden job involved too much drinking and having a good time. Guess what? Advertising had all of that, and more. And lots of exciting work at the ad agency. At the end of the interview, they asked me one question. ‘You speak and carry yourself well, but can you hold a drink?’ They were pulling my leg and my response matched their spirit, ‘Certainly Sir, I’ll be your bartender at all the agency parties. I’ll hold as many drinks as you wish.’

I got the job.

How about some Stricken Born Poop?

Scanning the menu

There are things that happen to us at various points in our lives on a consistent basis, simple and apparently inconsequential things, that we never give a second thought to. On reflection, however, and with the passage of time, these little happenings begin to acquire a somewhat deeper, philosophical tinge. Things that are sent to try us. In case you are wondering what this orotund introduction is all about, let me quickly cut to the chase. Take for instance, an everyday matter of ordering food at a restaurant. There you are, seated comfortably, along with your wife (or partner) and another couple, oblivious to some gormless fusion music playing in the background. A happy foursome, enjoying the liberty of post-pandemia, to coin a term. While you are still giving the menu the once-over, the waiter hoves into view with a cheery, ‘And how can I help you with the menu this evening, Sir? Some wine to start with, perhaps? I could recommend the Burgundy red. Or the Sauvignon blanc, if white is your preferred tipple.’ A vintner in the making, our waiter. Fact of the matter is while you’ve been intently studying the menu, you haven’t actually been paying any attention to the items. It is possible that the obscene amounts mentioned on the right-hand column, particularly the wine section, have distracted your attention from the actual offerings on the menu. You then turn to the waiter with a ‘We are still studying the menu, please come back in ten minutes, thanks.’ And the waiter vanishes, like he was never there.

Before I get to the actual ordering, a quick word about the menu itself. Barring a few sensible eateries, most restaurants have now decided they will not waste good money designing and printing lavish menus, where frequent, blotchy redactions have to be made for items currently unavailable for some reason or the other, as well as to incorporate frequent price changes owing to cost escalations, GST and unbridled greed. ‘Sorry Madam, we are fresh out of avocado, but might I recommend the Waldorf salad?’ Shades of Basil Fawlty!

 Instead, what they do now is to digitize the menu. So, when you ask for the outsize printed thing, the waiter points to a glass-encased card prominently displaying a squiggly design, like a QR Scan. In fact, I am informed it is a QR Scan, silly old me. Then you go through the elaborate and embarrassing process of holding your mobile phone in front of the display. When nothing happens, the ubiquitous waiter, reappears miraculously. He obligingly takes the mobile from you, ever so gently, turns the phone round the other way and says in an unctuously superior tone, ‘This way, Sir.’ You are tempted to tell him tersely that you were not dropped on the head as a child, but hey presto, the menu, all 125 pages of it, is in the palm of your hands in a type font and size that is barely readable. Let me rephrase that, it is completely unreadable. You now enter the rarefied world of scrolling – up and down. The process is repeated for all the four of us, and we are now ready to order, our mobile phones just a click away. Sadly, the establishment does not provide a magnifying glass to enable easier reading. One can, of course, expand the type by the simple expedient of the employment of your thumb and forefinger, but then half the text goes out of the screen and you are back to square one!

Given that we are not enjoying the first flush of youth, the digital menu is the cause for much squinting and removal and replacement of spectacles. If you ask me, we end up making quite a spectacle of ourselves. The waiter is still hovering obsequiously.

I clear my throat and announce, ‘I think I will have the Stricken Born Poop for starters,’ thus setting the ball rolling for the others to follow.

The waiter, looking puzzled, says that there is no such item on the menu. I give him a stern look. ‘Look, my friend, it clearly says Stricken Born Poop on your digital menu. Under Soups and Starters. I have no idea what it is but I am feeling adventurous, so let’s have some steaming hot poop, pronto.’

‘Sir, what you have ordered is Chicken Corn Soup. Perhaps the lettering was not very clear on your mobile. Try increasing the brightness, Sir.’ Tactful chap.

‘Ah, I see. Right then, Chicken Corn Soup it is. Pity. I was so looking forward to some stricken poop, just born.’ The waiter smiles patronizingly and turns to the others, who he hopes would be blessed with keener eyesight.

‘No starters for me,’ declares my wife. ‘I’ll go straight to the mains. Chicken a la Kiev sounds good, if I’ve read that right. And by the way, should that not be spelt Kyiv, or are my eyes also deceiving me? I read about Kyiv every day in the papers.’

‘Sorry Madam, that item is banned ever since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. The management is sensitive to the feelings of our Russian and Ukrainian clients. Never mind how you spell Kiev. Or Kyiv.’ And cheeky, as they come.

My friend pipes up, ‘That’s taken care of my Molotov cocktail, I guess. And my Russian salad goes up the spout as well. Why did we choose this place, anyway? How is it you haven’t banned falafel, shawarma, hummus and all those Middle Eastern dishes? They are forever at war in that part of the world, aren’t they?’

Before the harried waiter could frame a suitable response, my wife rejoins the discussion with a curt ‘I take it you can manage the Shepherd’s Pie on digital page 79? Please place the order immediately before Britain declares war on Russia. And don’t spare the mashed potatoes.’

The waiter scribbles something on his pad and looks expectantly at my friend’s wife, who has remained silent thus far. She, fortunately, does not seem unduly fussed about the political ramifications on the restaurant’s food menu. Easy come, easy go was her motto in life. She then places the mobile phone very close to her eyes, adjusts her spectacles and pronounces gaily, “I’ll settle for, to start with, Honey Chirri Flied Potatoes followed by that old-time classic, Chicken Flied Lice.’ Let me quickly add that it was a multi-cuisine eatery.

The waiter then gets into the spirit of things and responds with a smart ‘I am afraid we are fresh out of lice madam, flied or otherwise, but I can get the chef to do you a plate of delicious Chicken Fried Rice. But if you insist on lice, there’s that louse of a street dog sitting outside the gates that might be willing to delouse himself in exchange for a marrow bone. ’And we all have a good chuckle, though I felt he was overstepping the limits for a waiter. I told myself I should tip him handsomely for the unsolicited entertainment. One rarely comes across hotel waiters with an ironic sense of humour.

That said, cuisine life in a touchy-feely-menu-less world is nothing to write home about. It has its uses if you are ordering food from home online. Seductive photographs of various dishes in all their lip-smacking splendour serve a purpose, enabling us to tap our fingers on the chosen item. Notwithstanding the fact that more often than not, the pictures flatter the actual items that arrive an hour later, often cold and unappetizing. However, when you are seated comfortably in a restaurant, the last thing you want is to bury your head in your mobile phone, squinting tightly, asking the waiter if Camel Custard under ‘Just Desserts’ on digital page 124 is veg or non-veg, not counting the eggs. Even the poor waiter stops seeing the funny side of things.

Thus, I return to my original premise. Apparently insignificant things in life happen for a purpose. It may not be immediately clear what that purpose is, but some unseen power that directs our destiny, moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform. Today it is menu cards in restaurants that gradually disappear from our lives. The anticipated death of the newspaper has been greatly exaggerated, though environmentalists may ensure that eventuality in the not-too-distant future. Thanks to the internet of things, the ominous signs are already there. Cassette tapes, vinyl records and CDs are fast becoming one with the dinosaur, the rarity only adding to their false snob value. Hullo Spotify. In the meanwhile, menu or no menu, I am making a beeline for quality restaurants in the company of close friends, before food as we know it and conviviality, disappear altogether. We could be swallowing ‘food pills’ three times a day that provide all the vitamins and nutrients our bodies need. Like our astronauts in space. Convenience foods will acquire a completely new meaning. I hope by then, I will be one with the dinosaur.

Here comes the bride, all dressed in…

I am gutted. Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor tied the nuptial knot in Mumbai a few days ago. Our television news channels, who have an uncanny sense of what the public wants to see and hear, went ape over the affair. Zelensky and Putin can continue to go hammer and tongs at each other, communal clashes in various parts of India can rage, Boris Johnson tries to save Rishi Sunak’s blushes, Covid appears to have been a closed chapter in India, at least for now and the reverberating IPL has become a bit of a yawn. However, the power couple #RanLia’s (preceded by the compulsory hashtag) power wedding gets top billing. Incidentally, coupled, hash-tagged acronyms (#RanLia) are all but de rigueur.

That’s all very well, two young and charismatic stars of our silver screen, hearts aflame, go riding off into the sunset for their honeymoon, while the end credits roll to the schmaltz of A.R. Rahman’s music. The pertinent question is, why am I gutted? What is it to me if a high-profile Bollywood couple decides to walk down the aisle, in a manner of speaking? Or, as some of my Bengali friends in Calcutta might have inimitably put it, ‘What goes my father?’ I’ll tell you what goes my father. The simple fact that I was not invited.

You, dear reader, can very well ask why I should consider myself eligible to feature on the wedding invitation list of Bollywood stars. Virat and Anoushka (#AnoRat) ignored me as did Ranvir and Deepika (#RanIka) and several others before them, so why all this mooning about feeling sorry for myself? That is a valid question and my answer may not satisfy your slavering curiosity. Be that as it may, this is how I view the entire scenario. The image managers of the Kapoor and Bhatt clans decide that they must have the entire country drooling over the various stages of this big-time affair. Pre-publicity commenced well over a month ago. Plenty of social media chit-chat, and a spot of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, then the hyperventilating newspaper reports, the colour supplements and glossies full of specially orchestrated photoshoots – all carefully planned and executed to whip up the idolatrous fans’ insatiable appetite for more of the same. At which point, the ground is well laid out for the television channels to take over.

Once the audio-visual medium gets into the act, with its ability to go the whole hog with son et lumiere, all hell breaks loose. Each channel tries to go one over the other, and they all go over the top. I sit and watch all this incredulously, while my heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. I was feeling the kind of melancholy that Keats must have experienced, not because he was not invited for a big-ticket wedding but for other reasons not relevant to this discussion. One of the news channels devoted well over half-an-hour chattering about what happened at the wedding with stills and moving pictures, often repeating themselves. Even informal dance rehearsals for the reception jamboree were not left out. Here’s Ranbir lifting Alia clean off the ground, there’s Alia and Ranbir in a tight embrace and yet again (wait for this), the sexy couple kissing each other. Not just any dainty peck on the cheek, oh no, but a full-on, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Bollywood morphs into Hollywood. Not sure which of the two needed the resuscitation after that, but there you go. The blushing Bollywood bride, side-by-side with her uxorious Bollywood husband. This is the New India. At least, the way Bollywood sees it in real life and on celluloid. As for the smooching, I am no prude. If Bollywood feels it’s time India went for the Full Monty, so be it.

Pressing on, I was quite tickled by how some of the television girls (it was mostly girls who were assigned this task), standing outside the imposing gates of the Kapoor residence, kept describing all manner of irrelevant and self-evident minutiae as events unfolded. ‘We now see Ranbir stepping out of the car, oh sorry, that was Saif Ali Khan and out the other door comes Kareena. Wow, they look gorgeous. Saif is wearing a special outfit designed by Manish Malhotra, wow he’s so hot, while…’ She was about to say something about Kareena’s sari, but just then she had to rush in another direction as a swank vehicle drew up. Off screen, you hear voices screaming things like, ‘Kareena, where is Karishma?’ and other similar inanities. The girl with the microphone could not have been more than 17 years old and her camera person ran after her puffing and panting. ‘Look, look. I think that’s Alia just arriving. Look at that unbelievably brilliant sari she is wearing. Your channel has learned that it was designed by Sabyasachi. No other channel knew, we are the first to bring this breaking news to our viewers. We will try and get Sabyasachi later for an interview, if he is here.’ If he is here and been invited, the excitable girl might have added.

At this point, we cut back to the studio anchor, who is breathlessly conducting affairs from HQ. She takes the viewer through an audio-visual slide montage of the burgeoning romance between Alia and Ranbir, who their mutual friends are, how Ranbir’s mother, yesteryear star Neetu Singh simply dotes on Alia while providing a choked tribute to her late husband and Ranbir’s dad, Rishi, how Ranbir went down on his knees, filmy style (what else?) to propose to his sweetheart and then literally swept her off her feet. The storyline goes into an endless repetitive loop during this televisual feast, and the only thought that goes through my mind is, ‘Perhaps it is just as well that I did not receive that gilt-edged invite.’ In all probability, I would have scanned the bottom of the card for the RSVP mail id, sent out a polite regret letter (‘Down with the flu, could be Covid, better not take a chance, blessings etc’), and sent them a cheque for Rs.21/-. The additional rupee is down to superstition, to ensure continued prosperity. And if you think Rs.21/- is a pathetic sum to gift, I assure you, for Ranbir and Alia even Rs.2 lakhs would have been pathetic. Erring on the side of caution was a wiser option.

It would be appropriate to add at this juncture that pretty much all the news channels had locked on to this glam wedding story. Irrespective of which channel you were hooked on to, the logos on rival microphones jostling for space were all too visible. Anyhow, while I was surfing, one of them had managed to get a famous fashion designer to talk to them and the brief interview went something like this. I cannot mention the name of the designer because I could not recognize him and the channel felt it was superfluous to display his name, given that he was a national celebrity. That tells you how much I know about fashionistas.

‘We are thrilled to speak with one of India’s foremost fashion designers. He is a very busy man, but he has condescended to spare a few minutes exclusively for our channel,’ crooned the anchor.

‘Actually, I can spare just three minutes because 12 other channels are also waiting to interview me exclusively. So, less with the introduction and on with your question.’

‘Right. Tell us, how did it come about that you were selected to design Alia’s trousseau for the wedding.’

I switched the television set off. I had had enough of this. On and on they’ll go about the mehendi, the wedding, the reception, the challenges of choosing the right material and colour to match the skin tone, blah, blah. blah. I am surprised they didn’t interview the celebrity chef and run through the entire wedding menu for us to salivate over. Or perhaps they did and I missed it altogether. Boy, am I glad I did not get that invitation, and don’t say ‘sour grapes.’ I turned the TV on again and switched to CNN. Putin was mumbling something unintelligible in Russian. His skin tone was not looking awfully bright. The dark suit only accentuated his desiccated pallor. I think he should have retained a fashion consultant. Or stylist. Or something.

Wanted: Jeeves and Wooster in Jail

Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage / Minds innocent and quiet take / That for an hermitage. 17th-century English poet Richard Lovelace from his poem To Althea, from Prison.

My heart goes out to the well-known human rights activist, Gautam Navlakha. I shan’t go into the whys and wherefores or the rights and wrongs pertaining to the justification or otherwise of his confinement in a prison in Mumbai, where he is holed up in a high security cell. Let the lawyers and the judges break their heads over matters that go over my head. That is not part of the mandate I have set for myself in setting out to pen this piece. Reports tell us that he is allowed a 30-minute constitutional ‘in the open space’ and must clean his own cell. So far so bad, but it gets worse and this is where my heart does its bleeding act. Mr. Navlakha has been denied, on the face of it a most reasonable request for a copy to savour of one of master humourist P.G. Wodehouse’s books, evidently from the Jeeves-Wooster canon. That went through my heart like a flaming arrow.

Now anyone who knows me even remotely or have read some of my weekly outpourings, will surely be aware that I am more than an avid Wodehouse fan. During my callow, wet-behind-the-ears phase of writing, I would unabashedly imitate the great man. Like any avowed fan, I would read many of his books over and over again (and still do), sitting quietly somewhere and chortling uncontrollably to myself while the rest of the household or fellow passengers on a train or flight, would conclude that I have become discombobulated, disoriented or even slightly demented. The more perceptive, bless them, will turn to me and say, ‘Another Wodehouse fan, I see. Which one is it?’ There’s a man after my own heart. Any Wodehouse devotee will relate, word for word, to what I have just said.

Under the circumstance, it should come as no surprise that I was shocked to the core on learning of this insane refusal, on the part of the jail authorities, to allow this incarcerated activist his daily fix of Bertie Wooster’s imbroglios while his personal gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, pours oil over troubled waters. All Mr. Navlakha wanted was some respite from the gloom of his darkened cell, and who better to provide that relief than Wodehouse? To add to the ridiculousness of the prison authorities’ position, we learn that the Maharashtra government argued that this request by Mr. Navlakha for a Wodehouse novel happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it was the postal department that viewed this request as a ‘security risk.’ Thus, a case was made out that it was not the jailers who had anything against Wodehouse, but the postal department. A wag noted that neither our jail wardens nor the boffins at the post office would be able to tell a Wodehouse tome from a hole in the ground. The matter was laughable, only no one was laughing. Certainly not Gautam Navlakha. As the court asked the prison administration tersely, ‘Why was he not given the book? Is humour banished from jail?’ That’s telling them. On being told that there are only 2800 books in the jail library, the court observed pithily if ungrammatically, ‘That is very less.’ However, they went on to add that something should be done, and right speedily, to obtain more books of greater variety to keep the feast of reason and flow of soul in good order. Those are not their exact words of course, but you get the idea. They did conclude, in that admonishing tone which judges tend to adopt, that access to books is an important step towards the reformation of cell inmates. Well said, Your Honours. Bravo!

This strange plight of Mr. Navlakha’s set me thinking. What if I decided, one fine day, to stick a knife into someone I could not stand the sight of? Then, like Dostoevsky’s anti-hero in Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who takes an axe to a corrupt, elderly lady pawnbroker’s head, resulting in a messy, gory murder. Having done his dread deed, consumed with guilt and remorse, he walks into the nearest police station and confesses. It takes all sorts. The punishment? Nothing short of a lifer. There is much stuff about subsequent redemption in an existential kind of way, and you can expect Russian authors to go on forever wallowing in that vein. Dostoevsky was no exception. Putting myself in Raskolnikov’s position, I visualised sitting in a cell and wondering, between the daily plate of cold gruel, liberally sprinkled with crawling insects, with some friendly bandicoots scurrying around for company, and only a mugful of turbid water to slake my thirst. Not a very pleasant situation, I grant you, but surely nothing a good, cheerful book can’t set right. So, at the appointed hour, one of the reprieved prisoners (for good behaviour) who has been given library duty, wheels into the cell corridors with his trolley full of books. He is whistling a happy tune from some obscure Hindi film I am unable to recognise.

‘Good morning,’ this cheerful dispenser of books greets me. ‘Any particular book you fancy reading over the next few days? Has to be returned inside a week mind you, otherwise your sentence will be increased proportionately by a week.’

‘Ha, ha. Very funny. You mean they will keep my body in the cell for another week after I die? I am here for life, you know.’

‘Just kidding. Where’s your sense of humour? Speaking of humour, any funny books you want to borrow? I can give you Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, if you wish.’ He was beside himself, laughing.

‘You are in fine form this morning, aren’t you? Look, my convict librarian friend, I am in no frame of mind for black humour. In Cold Blood indeed! How about good old P.G. Wodehouse? Have you any of his books in that miserable trolley of yours?’

‘Sorry mate, Wodehouse is banned in this prison. No can do.’

I was flabbergasted. ‘Why, for heaven’s sake? Because the authorities are worried that I might laugh myself to death? I see you have Enid Blyton’s Noddy in Toyland, A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and an illustrated comic book of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I didn’t know we have convicts under the age of ten serving extended sentences here. Come on, fish out Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. I have read it only twenty-five times. Dying for another go at it.’

‘You are a glutton for punishment. I am sorry mate, but the big nobs at the office think Wodehouse is a pernicious influence,’ he said rather pompously.

‘Where did you learn words like that? Pernicious? I can see you’ve been reading too many Noddy books.’ I was feeling quite sardonic. Prison can do that to one.

My mobile librarian found his voice again. ‘Look, I do not know or understand the details. Come to that, I do not even know why people think this author is funny. Can’t understand a word he writes, but each to his own. However, I did read somewhere that Wodehouse once made some controversial broadcasts on behalf of the Nazis when he was under house arrest somewhere in France during the Second World War. That led to him being virtually blackballed in his home country, England, and he went and settled down in America. That is the story they tell about this funny man.’

I was beginning to get exasperated. ‘I am very impressed by your knowledge, but my good man, what has all that got to do with my wanting to read his book in prison. His works are not banned in India. In fact, my information is that there are more Wodehouse readers in India than anywhere else in the world, including the United Kingdom. Can you pass that on to your bosses?’

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a while and said, ‘Tell you what, I’ll slip through the bars a copy of R.K. Laxman’s cartoons. They are pretty funny. Even if the courts decide to hear your appeal, the prison management will have to get a budget approval for buying some new Wodehouse books through Amazon, Flipkart or whoever. That is going to take time. Plenty of papers to be signed in triplicate and all that bureaucracy stuff. For the moment have some fun with R.K Laxman, and I’ll see what I can do next week about Wodehouse.’

I sighed resignedly and said, ‘OK, I’ll take the Laxman, and while you’re about it, give me that Charlie Brown and Peanuts hardbound volume, plus two of those Amar Chitra Katha comics on the Ramayana and Mahabharat.’

‘Coming up right away Sir, and you can keep them all for an extra week on the one ticket. Only don’t tell anyone.’ And off he went, humming a tune I recognised from that old Raj Kapoor blockbuster, Sangam. Jolly jailer.

The PM phones in

I have been informed, by those in the know of these things, that the Prime Minister is always ready to talk to the common man. Or woman, come to think of it. One has to be ever so mindful of how you employ these gender terms nowadays. If I had not hastily slipped in that ‘Or woman, come to think of it,’ I would have had to face an avalanche of angry mails from the gentler sex. Always trusting to fate that they have no violent objection to being described as ‘gentle.’ Sorry, haring off at a tangent like that. I was reflecting on the Prime Minister’s desire to speak to India’s common citizen at prescribed times on prescribed days. I am excluding his weekly wireless fireside chat Mann ki Baat from the purview of this discussion. This, if it is true, involves a person-to- person chinwag over the phone with people like you and me, and it shows how the leader of this impossibly vast and amorphous nation has his ear to the ground and, evidently, to the phone as well. The common touch, to borrow a phrase. The number given to me was obviously encrypted, this for the PMO to be able to trace any crank calls that are bound to be made, just for a lark. Like this one. ‘Hullo, good morning Prime Minister, this is Rahul Gandhi. I have underground connections in Sicily, through my relatives in Italy. For your own sake, take me seriously. I strongly suggest you had better watch your back. Say hello to my little friend. Capice?’

Any Mafia film buff would tell you that was a phony call. However, the PMO was taking no chances. A trace was placed on Rahul Gandhi’s mobile number, but after a couple of days of snooping and listening in, all they could get was, ‘Mamma mia Mama, how many times have I told you I hate Coco Pops? Where’s my fluffy, cheese omelette? I WANT MY FLUFFY CHEESE OMELETTE.’ Every day it was the exact same line that was being repeated ad nauseum, and the PMO’s telephone sleuths finally concluded that this was a recorded voice and that they had been had by the short and curlies. More likely it was a ring tone put in by some nutter with a corny sense of humour. Even Rahul Gandhi wouldn’t stoop to something like that,

However, I am not one to throw in the towel that easily. I kept trying, those powerful words of Kipling ringing in my ears, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. My perseverance paid off, eventually. And before any of you clever dicks jump out of your skins to tell me that it was not Kipling who said that but one T.H. Palmer, let me quickly assure you I am fully seized of the fact. At heart I am a bit of a tease and just wanted to have you on. Begging your pardon. Seriously though, this T.H. Palmer’s name should have been up in lights for just that one memorable line he composed, but he was one of those poets who was born to blush unseen and waste his sweetness in the desert air. Thomas Gray. Once again, I am guilty of veering off from the subject on hand, but what the heck? Nobody ever told Shakespeare that he was using thirty words when seven would have served the purpose. My best friends keep telling me that my essays are too long. My philosophical response invariably is, ‘How long is a piece of string? Go figure.’

In case you are wondering, I am having to indulge in all this meandering small talk mainly because getting through to the PMO was no simple task. I was placed at number 375 on the call waiting list. Then all of a sudden, before I could say, tongue-twistingly, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, my mobile started ringing in that familiar shrill ringtone.

‘Good afternoon, are we speaking to Mr. Suresh Subrahmanyan?’ intoned a strong male voice. Not to miss the royal ‘we.’

‘We are, we are,’ I responded with an eagerness that was partly genuine and partly affected. ‘Is that the Prime Minister? Sir,’ I added as a respectful and precautionary afterthought.

“Not yet,’ continued the voice. ‘This is the Prime Minister’s Office, and we have some questions for you before we can put you through to Him.’

I could sense the capital H. ‘Does the Prime Minister’s Office have a name?’ I enquired somewhat cheekily. ‘It is rather unfair that you know my name, I need to keep addressing you as an office. A bit weird, don’t you think?’

‘We do not appreciate your tone. The PMO does not take kindly to smart alecks who make tasteless wisecracks. One more remark like that and you will be taken off the list and your mobile number duly recorded for posterity and future reference.’

Gosh, now I had to worry about my posterior. This was going nowhere, and if it was going anywhere, I did not care for the destination. ‘Sir, Mr. PMO, I did not intend to be smart. My apologies for the unintended solecism. Or gaffe, if you prefer. It’s just that I am number 375 on the call waiting list, I have dropped every other normal household chore that I am expected to perform on a Sunday morning, blocked calls from my entire contact directory and have been sitting and staring at my mobile for “The Call.” My eyes are hurting like blazes from the staring. I was merely anxious to know how much longer it’s going to take before our leader comes on the line to exchange a few friendly words with me.’

‘By and by, and if you keep on jabbering like this, it may never happen. Please answer these simple questions as briefly as you possibly can. How old are you?’

‘That’s a personal question. What’s my age got to do with anything? Let’s agree on 16. I know he likes to speak with youngsters.’ I was bridling.

The PMO was beginning to sound irritated, but no more than I was. ‘You do not sound like a teenager. If you are 16 going on 17, you know that you are naïve, in the words of that famous song from The Sound of Music. Once again, I must caution you. If you do not declare proper and correct information, there will be consequences. For the last time, what is your age?’

‘99. Happy?’

‘We need proof. Send me a scanned photo of you in standing position.’

‘I am 99, I cannot stand. I have a picture of me in standing-erect position when I was 43, but what use would that be to you? Later on, I developed a bad case of scoliosis and my spine is bent. And if I sent you a photo of my grandfather standing in crouched position with a walking stick, how would you know the difference?’

The PMO was by now at the end of his tether. Exasperation was clearly evident in his voice. ‘I have never come across such an ornery person. You wish to speak to the country’s most powerful person and you behave like a juvenile delinquent. I am afraid I cannot waste any more Government time, when there are 625 others waiting in the queue. So kindly…’

Just then a sonorous, authoritative voice chimed in. ‘Secretary Saheb, I have been listening in to your conversation with Mr. Subrahmanyan on the hotline. Please keep the line free. I will speak to him now.’

‘Yes Sir, Yes Prime Minister. Right away, Prime Minister. I am connecting you Sir.’

Next thing I know, I was on the line with none other than the PM himself. ‘Hullo,’ he said, very friendly and everything. What do you say after someone says hullo? Not just someone, but India’s leader extraordinaire.

‘Hullo ji,’ I responded, my voice barely above a croaking whisper.

‘My office will allow me to entertain just two questions from each caller, because there are so many on the waiting list, so please ask both your questions one after the other and I will try to answer them to your satisfaction.’ He was ever so courteous and polite. He didn’t say “Shoot” but I was ready with my two questions.’

‘Prime Minister Sirji, whom do you consider your greatest opponent on the Indian political scene? Second question. Who will take over from you as your party’s leader once you decide to retire? Thank you, Sir.’

‘Very good questions, Subrahmanyan ji. My greatest opponent is myself. I am fighting myself everyday to be a better leader for my people. Other opponents from all parties are also fighting – amongst themselves. I hope that is a good answer.’

‘Brilliant answer, Sir. Jawaab nahin. What about my second question, Sir? Who are you grooming to be your successor? And Sir, please don’t call me Subrahmanyan ji. I am underserving.’

‘You are 99. That demands respect. Recently I honoured someone who was 125. As to your second question, I will follow our veteran cricket captain, M.S. Dhoni’s footsteps. No unnecessary talking in advance. In our party, anyone can become the leader, but not till I retire.’

‘But Sir…’

The PM was now off the air. The PMO was back, ‘Your two questions are over, which is more than you deserved. Your time is up.’

Needless insult from the officious PMO. The PM was nice, but I still nursed doubts. Was this real or fake? He sounded like the PM but his English was faultless. Hmmm….

I’ll check later with number 376 on the call waiting list.

Lend me your ears

I think I am going deaf, and if I am not sure, I am reminded of it on a daily basis. ‘Deaf as a doorpost,’ is my wife’s pet phrase when giving me an earful. I’ll take her word for it that doorposts are hard of hearing. My better half is given to histrionic hyperbole, and I suspect there is more than a smidgen of exaggeration to her exasperated expostulation. As you can see, I might be deaf, ‘might’ being the operative word, but I can hold my own with anyone who wishes to engage with me in an alliterative combat. Just this morning, I was in the shower and the water, after a slow start came out in a noisy, powerful jet stream. It is the way with showers – strong and hot one minute, limp and cold the next. While I was wallowing in the pretend waterfall, singing a particularly catchy snatch from West Side Story, I faintly heard my wife shout to me from the en suite bedroom (actually it is the bathroom that is en suite, but you know what I mean). ‘Your bugger is falling, shall I bake it?’ That caught my attention. Well I mean, how do you respond to that? I knew only one way. I had to stop singing Maria in mid-verse, turn off the shower and shout, ‘WHAT?’ After further admonitions pertaining to the efficacy of my auditory canals, I finally understood that what the good lady wife was communicating through my own Niagara Falls was, ‘Your brother is calling, shall I take it?’ By now, the brother had rung off. After further recriminations, I told her not to worry, he is probably calling just to tell me that Nadal lost in the finals at Indian Wells. He is a tennis freak and his hearing is also somewhat impaired. Perhaps the malady is genetic.

Nevertheless, I thought it best to visit an ENT specialist in my neck of the woods, now that the pandemic is in recession, and have him check out if everything was in ship-shape condition as far as my tympanic membrane and the good old ossicles were concerned. Naturally, as is the habit with ear doctors, he fiddled around the innards of my ears with some instruments I couldn’t see, tut-tutted at the amount of accumulated earwax. ‘Gaunt you spleen your peers properly?’ he grunted. I am not sure I liked his tone, but I had to be polite. Also, I could not follow a word he was saying. I was strapped in one of those swivel chairs so favoured by doctors at their clinics. And that set of instruments which I did not get a proper sighter at, sounded ominous. I was helpless. ‘Didn’t quite catch that, Doc. What exactly do you mean by spleen my peers?’

‘Oh dear, this could prove to be more serious than I thought,’ moaned the doctor, looking concerned. Not that I heard it, of course. He then moved close to my left ear and said in a loud voice, ‘I asked if you, as a general rule, clean your ears properly. Nothing to do with spleen or peers.’

‘Why are you shouting, Doc?’, I shouted back. ‘I can hear you perfectly well. I have just returned from an invigorating trip to the Coorg hills (elevation 4000+ feet at its highest point), and the popping in my ears is yet to fully subside, which accounts for the slight hearing deficiency.’

That’s another thing about incipient or advanced deafness. You think the person to whom you are speaking is deaf, so scream at the top of your lungs. Let me hasten to add that all this does not, on my part, admit to any actual problem with my hearing faculties. I speak academically. I was then asked to listen to some bell-like sounds at varying volume levels, with the aid of a pair of ear phones, while a young lady, with a monitor screen in front of her, kept asking me to make a gesture when I could hear the sound no more. I cheated once or twice, pretending to hear sounds when all was silent. At which point she said archly, ‘Sir, the sound has stopped. If you are still hearing things, we may have to deal with some other problem.’ I bashfully admitted to my trying to pull a fast one and was forgiven. ‘Everyone does it,’ she smilingly said, the good sport. Anyhow, the upshot of it all was that while I was not quite in the deaf adder or doorpost category, my hearing capacity was a touch below par, but nothing to worry about at this stage, taking into consideration the ear-popping issue. We paid the extortionate bill and as we were getting into the car, my wife said, ‘It’s betting grate for crunch. Let’s lick up a granbitch on the way.’ I agreed right away. A granbitch for crunch was just what the doctor ordered. Preferably leg and fleece, laced with a dash of custard. If you couldn’t pick that gobbledeygook up, I could recommend a good ENT chap.

That said, if you do have a hearing problem, it is as well to have it taken care of the moment you hear ‘clean’ as ‘spleen.’ That is the warning sign. I am also aware that we are not supposed to address victims of these handicaps as being deaf or blind. Aurally or visually challenged is the accepted, polite terminology. Why something should be addressed employing two words when one is readily available is beyond my understanding. Imagine pulling up a distracted person with an ‘I am shouting at the top of my voice. Are you aurally challenged or what?’ See what I mean? Lacks punch.

I once had the misfortune to be sitting next to a person who was stone deaf and tone deaf at a Carnatic music concert. He was conspicuously sporting a hearing aid, a bilious pink earpiece, but appeared not to have turned it on. Else, it was malfunctioning. Either way, every time the musician essayed a song my aurally challenged neighbour vaguely knew, he would expand his lungs and burst forth to sing along in joyous disharmony. Eyes tightly closed in fervent ecstasy, he was blissfully unaware of hostile rubbernecks and craned heads attempting to shut him up. The collective shush, shush, was to no avail. When I shook his arm and woke him up from his heightened state of nirvana to make him aware of the disturbance he was causing, he turned to me, smiled beatifically and said, in a very loud voice, ‘He is essaying the raga Amritavarshini. Can’t you hear the thunder and lightning? Legend has it that this raga will bring copious rain. Don’t disturb me again, we are trying to listen to the music.’ I wondered how this handicapped music lover could hear thunder when nobody else in the audience heard it. Also, how on earth could a deaf man, or anyone for that matter, ‘hear’ lightning? It was futile to speculate on matters beyond my ken. At which point, I got up and found another seat. Why members of the audience seated nearby were throwing dirty looks at me was a mystery.

It is a matter of puzzlement to me why some ailments or handicaps are viewed with considerable pity and sadness, and rightly so, while others appear to be a matter for risibility. While the terrible affliction of blindness is generally dealt with in a sombre, grave manner, deafness which is the main thrust of my thoughts, provides much scope for a jolly good laugh. To a deaf person, it cannot be funny that he or she is oblivious to most conversations and other normal sounds we experience on a daily basis. It does help that there are professional deaf interpreters who use sign language to allow deaf people to follow what the news reader is saying. Then again, it would be a blessing not to be able to hear all the tripe that is dished out on our news channels. On a relative or comparative scale, one can take the position that, given a choice, deafness would be greatly preferable to blindness. Incidentally, how did the expression ‘blind as a bat’ come about? Bats are perfectly capable of seeing and are preternaturally gifted with sharp night vision. That said, the world continues to treat those hard of hearing as objects of good-natured comedy and the objectionable thing about that is that so many people do not find it objectionable. It has been that way for eons and will likely remain so.

 Thus, I continue to wonder if my own issues with hearing are the result of a genuine medical condition, or if it is just that my powers of concentration have tended to wane. What that means is that I can clearly hear what my wife is telling me when she asks me if this month’s electricity bill has been paid. However, the sound of the words emanating from her has not been processed by my grey cells into intelligible meaning. The hearing part is fine, the listening part is dodgy. That is a function of focus and concentration. I am probably deeply ruminating on the likely result of a Test match and missing the finer aspects of the settlement of the electricity bill, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth and needless references to doorposts and deaf adders. And that is good news. Why? Because it means I am not going deaf. Probably just mildly batty and senile. And given to repeating myself. Phew! What a relief.

   a full stop to all punctuation marks

this piece cannot be read in a hurry stop suggest keep two tablets of aspirin and a glass of warm water by your side to ward off a sudden onset of migraine stop you have been cautioned stop

i have been wanting to do this for a long time stop namely comma to write an entire piece without capital letters and punctuation marks stop this business of pressing shift to register capitals or to generate punctuations and other symbols was getting a trifle tedious stop let me quickly hasten to add that i am not the first person to try out this crazy comma lazy method stop a leading newspaper i know has eschewed capitals on the letter open single quote i close single quote  for many years now comma for reasons never explained stop initially comma i thought it had something to do with a software glitch comma but now i realise it was a not so clever ploy to draw attention to themselves stop clever dicks comma i don apostrophe t think exclamation mark and while i am typing this on my keyboard comma i keep getting reminded by my dell desktop that the word realise should be spelt comma not with an open single quote s close single quote but with an open single quote z close single quote stop my dashed computer is programmed to a default american setting and not british comma which i greatly prefer comma but there does not seem to be much i can do about it stop america trumps again exclamation mark i realize that stop see question mark i have let the yankee open single quote z close single quote remain stop i have succumbed stop incidentally comma I hope you realize open bracket there we go again close bracket how difficult it is to write like this stop

i thought i will let the entire article run on without any paragraph to break the tedium comma then thought better of it stop i am not a sadist and have no wish to torture my readers comma who are probably giddy reading this anyway stop therefore comma altruism being at the foremost of my thoughts comma i decided to make an exception and at least retain paragraphs wherever appropriate and cling on to the precious few friends i might still have after this piece has been completed stop

now i am fully aware that people are going to dismiss this piece as just a silly comma juvenile gimmick only to draw attention stop be that as it may comma sometimes comma not always comma it does challenge the reader into going through a different reading experience stop as I have already said before comma this may not be a completely original exercise and some crazy nerd somewhere may already have tried it out stop chances are he met with utter failure comma slipped into a deep depression comma took to drink and was found lying unconscious in an open drain stop that comma of course comma would be a state of coma comma as opposed to the rash of commas infesting this piece stop i am not saying it actually happened comma but there’s more than an even chance of such a happenstance stop rest assured comma dear reader comma i will not fall into such a morbid comma manic and mindless trap stop nice alliteration that comma open bracket morbid comma manic comma mindless close bracket stop when inspiration like that comes about unknowingly comma as it did just then comma it gives you quite a thrill stop the sub hyphen conscious takes over and apposite words just tumble out without your even trying stop as a writer comma albeit a modest hack comma such serendipitous word associations give one an adrenalin rush stop as to where all this leaves the semi hyphen colon comma we haven apostrophe t a clue stop speaking for myself comma I just tend to shove colons and semi hyphen colons wherever the fancy takes me stop just to show there’s nothing personal involved stop if you are punctilious about your english comma you would be well advised to get your hands on kingsley amis apostrophe book comma italicize the king’s english stop

i then got to thinking comma what if punctuation marks never existed question mark that is to say comma grammarians were aware of commas comma full stops etc comma but for whatever unfathomable reason comma punctuation marks were never discovered or invented comma what then question mark it is an interesting area of speculation stop point being comma what would some of the greatest passages in english literature comma poetry and popular song lyrics sound like when read without any punctuation marks comma but all the punctuations actually spelt out comma as in this speculative comma if painful hyphen to hyphen read article question mark rather than merely speculating on the subject comma I thought the best thing would be to actually rewrite some of these passages on the lines of this article comma and judge for ourselves how they read stop i ask readers for forgiveness in advance comma as this is bound to test your patience stop if you apostrophe ve come this far comma you might as well go all the way stop

can there be a better way to start than shakespeare question mark all the world apostrophe s a stage comma and all the men and women merely players colon they have their exits and their entrances semi hyphen colon and one man in his time plays many parts comma his acts being seven ages stop A quick explanatory note is in order comma to avoid confusion stop the word colon here refers to the punctuation mark comma and not to open single quote exits and entrances close single quote through which the colon deals with human waste matter etcetera comma or do I mean excreta question mark

moving on to oscar wilde comma one of our greatest wits comma elegantly caustic on newspapers and art comma a view this scribe completely subscribes to stop there should be a law that no ordinary newspaper should be allowed to write about art stop the harm they do by their foolish and random writing it would be impossible to overestimate dash not to the artist comma but to the public comma blinding them to all but harming the artist not at all stop

nobel laureate rabindranath tagore colon do not say comma  open single quote it is morning comma close single quote and dismiss it with a name of yesterday stop see it for the first time as a new born child that has no name stop

singer hyphen songwriter comma poet comma nobel laureate bob dylan colon may you always be courageous comma stand upright and be strong stop may you stay forever young stop i conclude by referring to the estimable sir isaac pitman, who developed the shorthand bible for secretaries comma to whom bosses dictated letters open bracket eons ago close bracket exactly as i have attempted in this piece exclamation mark quod stop erat stop demonstrandum period

Booked for life!

The Bodleian Library, Oxford

I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card. Laura Bush.

The library card: Laura Bush, former first lady of the United States of America hit the nail on the head in assigning to this precious ticket such a generous accolade. Madam Bush’s claim to fame was not merely as the better half of George W. Bush (few would argue with that), but in her own right, she was widely regarded as an author, librarian and memoirist. Enough to be getting along with, I should think. When I came across this quote, quite by chance, it set me thinking about my college years in Calcutta. My wallet, if I did possess one, contained pocket money of around Rs.20/- in notes and coins, my college identity card and, you guessed it, my British Council and U.S.I.S. (United States Information Service) library membership cards. I had not the faintest what a credit or debit card even looked like, if at all they existed in the early 70s. I did have a driving licence, a bulky, little red booklet which permanently nestled in my dad’s car glove compartment. Having crossed 18, I got to zip around in the legendary Ambassador about twice a month, not without the family driver usually in tow. Failing which, transport meant Calcutta’s smoke-belching buses, its sedentary trams and brisk perambulation, if the distances were not forbidding. In sum, the two library cards, liberally date-stamped, were my sole prized possessions (if two cards can be characterised as ‘sole’).

In hot and steamy Calcutta, during the late 60s and 70s, with power cuts all day long being the norm, the library was a cool and cloistered haven to spend pleasurable hours in. For one thing, the air-conditioning ran even during what was laughably referred to as ‘load shedding,’ thanks to these foreign-funded   establishments being able to afford back-up generators. That alone was worth the price of the membership card. Our college too had a well-stocked library on the premises, but to move to the library in the same building complex where you had just spent five stultifying hours was not a pleasing prospect. You wanted to get the academic fug out of your system once the closing bell rang.

The British Council, being located in tony Theatre Road, later renamed quite appropriately to Shakespeare Sarani, was a mere ten minutes stroll from my college in nearby, swinging Park Street. The Council may not have been quite The Bodleian Library of legend, but good enough for us students. Wasting no time, off I would trudge to BC, as we fondly nicknamed the best library in town. Walking into the precincts of the library with the ‘whoosh’ of the air-conditioning washing all over you, was nothing short of ecstasy. Once inside, you took things as they came. No unseemly rush. Studious looking bookworms were bent over their tomes, some making feverish notes. Others would be strolling along the book racks, randomly picking up a book, putting it back and walking on to the next corridor of shelves. There were usually two or three librarians on duty, located in the well of the library, busily date stamping books being borrowed or being returned. If you were late in returning a book, even after the grant of an extra week’s extension, a small fine had to be paid, which the librarian accepted somewhat apologetically, as if to say, ‘Sorry, I understand you were down with chicken pox, but those are the rules. The due date is sacrosanct.’

Speaking of the librarians on duty, invariably there would be an attractive lady doing the honours along with a couple of earnest looking gentlemen. The younger male visitors to the library would invariably try and make a beeline for the fetching lady librarian, often repeatedly going back to her to ask silly questions.

‘Excuse me Madam, but where would I find Kingsley Amis?’ That’s about as silly as it gets in a library.

‘Did you try the A to D Section?’

‘Ah thanks, I was looking at the K section. You know, Kingsley.’

‘Books are stacked as per the author’s surname and not first name,’ she replies tartly. ‘You’ve been a member long enough.’

The poor sap is not sure if he should be blushing at the unmistakable ticking off or be happy that she remembers him to be a long-time member. He is not finished, however. Glutton for punishment.

‘And what if I am looking for a book title, and not sure of the author’s name? Say, The Code of the Woosters. Do I go to C and hunt for Code of the Woosters, The or should I go to T looking for The Code of the W? Sorry to bother with you all these silly, but necessary questions.’

‘Not at all. I have all day and nothing better to do than to answer all your silly questions. You said that. There’s only another twenty people standing patiently behind you in the queue. Tell you what, go to the W section and look for Wodehouse P.G. You’ll find it there, unless it’s out. I take it you have heard of that author, since you seem to know the book title. And further, I could also recommend, if you visit the C section, The Body in the Library by Christie, Agatha.’

The young visitor couldn’t put a finger on it, but felt she sounded quite threatening. There was an edge to her voice and she spoke through clenched teeth. He took the hint seeing as she was getting quite shirty, and responded calmly.

‘Thanks a lot. I shall visit the W section and look for Wodehouse and not Wooster. I shall give The Body in the Library a wide berth. Be ready with your date stamping machine, miss. And if you are not a miss, do forgive me.’ He was now blabbering. He could have added, a la Tony Hancock, ‘I suppose Lolita is still out,’ but thought better of it.

I guess the point I am attempting to make is that the library was not just a quiet, comfortable place to browse, borrow and return books but was also an excellent forum for enlightening exchanges like the one I just narrated. The Council recruited librarians who were more than just mechanical dispensers of books. They were lively personalities who had something about them. Lest we forget, young boys and girls often met surreptitiously in the library, pretentiously pretending to be reading The Catcher in the Rye or The Lord of the Flies, books that were not only in vogue, but calculated to impress the hell out of your girl or boy friend, as the case may be. From there to popping round the corner for a cup of cheap tea and a puff of Charms was but a simple step.

Another section in the library that many of us made a beeline for was the newspaper section. All the main English newspapers from London were filed in long, wooden slats for us to be able to read in comfort. They were back issues, of course, but it was always a pleasure to read The Guardian or The Times, particularly the Sports pages and some Opinion columns. The Sunday editions were so thick you had to lift them carefully if you suffered from a bad back. Excellent reportage and incisive insights. Mind you, what Margaret Thatcher thought of the Labour Party was of scant concern to me, but it was great fun reading her quotes. ‘The lady’s not for turning,’ being one of her memorable one-liners.

Later on, BC added a selection of long-playing records at a nominal additional charge. Not The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, not on your nelly! However, audio recordings of plays by G.B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde and their ilk were made available. I do fondly recall borrowing Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest with a superb cast headed by the likes of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, playing it at home on our Grundig radiogram till the grooves almost ran out. Nowadays all this and much more are freely available at the tap of a key on YouTube. The pleasure of obtaining something rare one experienced in the days when YouTube was not even remotely visualised, can only be experienced wearing the proverbial rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

I mentioned the U.S.I.S earlier in this piece. The American library was not my favourite destination of choice. Unlike the British Council, it was located in a very busy and crowded area of Calcutta. Every area in Calcutta was crowded and this one even more so. Nevertheless, they had an outstanding collection of records of American jazz and popular musicals. So once a month or so, I would set out to the U.S.I.S and go home with an armful of Broadway musicals like West Side Story or Camelot and some rare vinyl records of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Once in a way, the U.S.I.S also organised film shows of rare classics featuring the likes of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca. The small auditorium was invariably packed to the rafters.

I do not know when I last visited a library. Do today’s young generation even know what the inside of a library looks like? I have wondered about that. As one wise man recently said, ‘Many authors are selling books by the truckloads, but most well-furnished households have books on their shelves which have not even been opened, leave alone read. The expression ‘well-thumbed’ book has ceased to hold any meaning. I mentioned Tony Hancock a little earlier in this column. To those who are unaware, go to YouTube and punch in ‘Tony Hancock – The Missing Page.’ If you do not laugh your guts out, you are not a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. Albert Einstein

In the year 1966, when I had just started my university education, and Hollywood films were very much a part of our entertainment and distraction, a film titled The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming had just been released. A fictional war comedy, it dealt with a Russian submarine that is inadvertently stuck in a sandbar just off the coast of New England in the United States of America. The resultant capers involving Russian soldiers getting entangled with the local island citizenry (pop. 200) provided much cause for cinematic merriment. Those were the days when Russia was America’s public enemy number one and vice-versa, long after Hitler’s Germany was laid to rest. Sounds familiar? Being a Hollywood production, I offer no prizes for guessing who the good guys were. It set me thinking. Things are no different in 2022. The Russians are coming, have come, with a vengeance to Ukraine while the United States and the rest of world do not seem to have the foggiest notion of what to do about it. Plenty of collective head-shaking and hand-wringing but little else. What’s more, this is no flippant war comedy on celluloid. This is the real thing with state-of-the-art fighter jets, bombs, T-14 armoured tanks, AK 47s and hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers; to say nothing of the ever-present danger of a nuclear attack looming. Whatever else it may be, it is not funny.

However, the purpose of this piece is not to delve deeply into the whys and wherefores of the present conflict in Eastern Europe, its global ramifications, the subdued role of NATO, trying to second guess canny China’s likely response, where India fits in, if at all, in this axis of meaningless and bloody conflict. Our television screens and newspapers are so full of the Ukraine-Russia battle that we have actually become inured to it. If it were not for India’s young students being unfortunately caught up in Ukraine and our government’s efforts to ferry them safely home, our thoughts could have so easily turned elsewhere. State elections and the Covid situation, which so occupied our media space, are all but forgotten. I daresay they will resurface again when poll results start coming in shortly, along with the clamour over the steep hike in fuel prices, which is as certain as night follows day. Hopefully, a forlorn hope at that, the Russian aggression by then would have started receding and the warring factions will sit across the table and start talking to each other, even if they will be talking from the side of their mouths. Hope springs eternal.

So much for serious stuff. Let me get back to what prompted me to write this column in the first place. It was a movie title of over five decades ago that spurred me to think of the present imbroglio. Or perhaps the other way round. More to the point, I thought it might be an interesting idea to look at other movie or book titles and examine what relevance they have for us today. Writers and movie producers have no idea when they launch into their creative efforts that, several years down the road those selfsame books, songs and films would strongly resonate with a public, most of whom may not have even been born when these magnum opuses were first released for public consumption.

A popular song by The Beatles during the late 60s that instantly springs to mind, in the present scenario is Back in the U.S.S.R, a jaunty number with a resonating chorus line that goes like this – The Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia’s always on my-my-my-my-my-my mind. Well, I guess when The Beatles wrote that song way back when, things were quite hunky-dory and oojah-cum-spiff, to pinch a Wodehouse copyright, between Ukraine and Russia, as they were all part of the homogenous Soviet Union bloc. And speaking of songs, how can we forget Sting’s feelingly sung ode Russians, in which he says, We share the same biology / Regardless of ideology / What might save us me and you / Is that the Russians love their children too.  Prescient.

Still staying with the 60s, which was probably a decade that made the greatest impact on me for a variety of reasons, director Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy classic from 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, made a deep impression. Shot in evocative black and white and starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (of Patton fame), the storyline deals with an unhinged U.S. general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and how the best brains of the American and British defence establishment try and prevent the crew of a B-52 bomber from unloading its deadly arsenal on the Soviet Union and start a disastrous nuclear war. The film was widely considered to be one of the best satirical films of its genre ever made. If you, dear reader, are a film buff and have not seen Dr. Strangelove, you could do worse than search your cable networks and reel it in. It will be time well spent.

Then there was Russia’s venerated writer Lev Tolstoy, whose first name was conveniently changed by the English-speaking world to Leo Tolstoy. Now what is so dashed difficult about pronouncing Lev that it needed to be changed to Leo, even if the anglicised equivalent is justified? Beats me. It’s the same baffling non-reasoning behind why Chennai became Madras, and reverted to the original name later. I have Google-searched and spoken to a couple of notable historians, but to no avail. Some say the city was named after a fishing village called Madraspatnam, but no rigorous, historical facts of substance are adduced to support the claim. Even Wikipedia is stumped. I am open to being corrected by superior minds on this subject. But I meander. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, a novel of such prodigious length that you were better off watching the film version, of which there are many. Even then, I got the distinct impression that there was much more war than peace in the narrative. At the risk of being cynical, one must conclude that the blood, gore and pumped-up, rah-rah patriotism makes war a far more saleable concept than somnolent peace. What is it with the Russians that at the least pretext they decide to take up arms and go to war? Vladimir Putin is merely keeping the hoary traditions of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev alive. Remember Cuba? One can quickly add that their arch rival, the United States is no different. The world is their theatre of conflict.

To continue with my random thoughts on war as a mode of entertainment, what about those handy, little illustrated war comics that were freely available during our school days? In tune with Hollywood war movies, these comics invariably celebrated the bravado and brilliance of the allied forces during the Second World War, making the Germans look like grotesque, villainous caricatures of themselves. We kids lapped it up because we were well and truly brainwashed. ‘Take that, you nasty Krauts. BLAM, BLAM, KA-BOOM and KAPUT.’ Not to mention the German commander threatening a captured allied soldier with a pair of live electrical cables, ‘Ve haf vays to make you tok, you Yankee pig / English dog. ACHTUNG! ACHTUNG! SCHNELL! SCHNELL!’ Naturally, the brave American or British soldier is daringly rescued, more BLAM, BLAM leaving behind a pile of dead German corpses. KAPUT. Didn’t we just love it! I have little doubt that Russian muscle-flexing and aggression will soon become the hottest theme for a slew of forthcoming Hollywood releases. Step forward, Steven Spielberg.

Lest we forget, that brilliant satire that lit up the 80s on the British government machinery, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, in one of the episodes, did a rib-tickling send up of the possibility of a hypothetical nuclear confrontation between Britain and Russia. Fictional Prime Minister James Hacker’s utter confusion on being questioned on how he views the concept of a nuclear deterrent involving Russia, or even Germany and when would be the right moment ‘to press the button’ makes for arguably some of the funniest scenes one can wish to witness, superbly scripted and acted, as only the British can. Speaking of which, one also recalls with fondness BBC’s hilarious Dad’s Army television series, loosely based on the UK’s Home Guard during the Second World War, that so captivated audiences during the late 60s and 70s. The present-day Ukrainian common man and woman taking up arms against the mighty Russian invaders put me in mind of Dad’s Army’s doddering village folk who attempt to stave off the invading Germans with hilarious results.

I guess what I am trying to really get at is this. Rather than watch our dreary television news channels gloating about flying out a slew of correspondents with a camera and telling all of India how brave they are to be right there in the thick of things, and how each one claims to be the first to reach the scene of action, you are better off reading the newspapers and getting a more informed view. There’s simply too much sound, fury and noise on the TV channels, such that the viewing becomes painful in the extreme. Instead, divert your attention during the long evenings by watching some great war films like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Bridge on the River Kwai, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hurt Locker, The Dirty Dozen and so many more.  Not to be outdone, the Russians recently produced a hagiographic biopic on Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man who designed and developed the iconic AK-47 assault rifle, and after whose name the weapon is sanctified. It is now an accepted axiom that war benefits not only the armaments and allied industries but the film world has also done very well by conflicts that have occurred since time immemorial. If American singer-songwriter Edwin Starr is known for nothing else, he will be remembered for his 1970 hit, War / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing.

I think we can all sing along with that. Altogether now…