One set off Federer does not a summer make

Image result for sumit nagal images

Up until a few weeks ago, only a handful of Indian tennis buffs and those involved in running the game in India, had any inkling who Sumit Nagal was. Speaking for myself, I had not heard of him and I follow the game closely. Then the young man qualifies for the main draw at the ongoing US Open and he is drawn to meet Roger Federer in the first round. So even before they stepped on court, the Indian media was already abuzz – the little known Nagal going head to head with the God of tennis. Had he been facing someone like Bautista Agut or Alex de Minaur, no one would have taken a blind bit of notice. Then the young hopeful takes the first set off the GOAT.

Madness time! Tennis followers were receiving early morning WhatsApp messages that a great upset was in the offing, so wake up and watch the magic unfold. Remember it was crack of dawn in India and well into late evening in the Big Apple. By the time I switched on the television, Federer had taken the next two sets and swept through the fourth set. The match swiftly sewn up. It wasn’t quite a case of ‘one small step for Nagal, one giant leap for Indian tennis.’ There was a momentary flutter of anticipation and excitement, but Federer soon extinguished the embers with his customary, ruthlessly elegant efficiency.

Flashback time. In 1969, the handsome Premjit Lall played the then undisputed numero uno of world tennis, the peerless Australian Rod Laver in the second round at Wimbledon. Laver, amazingly twice the holder of the calendar Grand Slam. Before anyone knew what was happening, Premjit had pouched the first two sets! Was the mother of all upsets about to happen? Flattered to deceive alas, our Premjit. Laver came roaring back and took the third set, and the last two sets without the loss of a game. After the match, this is what Laver had to say, ‘I was very fortunate to come through that match. I pretty much underestimated him playing so well on the grass courts. He had a good serve and I was struggling. My confidence levels weren’t there.’ Premjit Lall was involved in many a stirring battle, particularly in Davis Cup encounters alongside the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaidip Mukerjea, but most tennis buffs will remember him by that near miraculous upset that didn’t happen at Wimbledon against Laver.

In other Grand Slams, Vijay Amritraj took out Rod Laver, now in the evening of his career, in the 1973 US Open 3rd round but could not get past Laver’s ageing compatriot Ken Rosewall in the quarter finals in consecutive years, 1973 and ’74. Ramesh Krishnan was a set up against John McEnroe, again at the US Open quarter finals in 1981, but the left handed, temperamental genius had his way. In his autobiography, ‘A Touch of Tennis’, co-authored with his father, Ramesh self-effacingly recalls McEnroe’s famous post-match comment, ‘The guy serves at 10 miles an hour and I still can’t return it.’ And we all know how Ramesh’s father, Ramanathan Krishnan twice entered the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1960 and 1961, going down on both occasions to the ultimate winners, Aussies Neale Fraser and Rod Laver respectively. Both Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan are multiple Grand Slam quarter finalists and they have earned the undying admiration of Indian tennis lovers. As indeed, have Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza for their many doubles conquests. Above all, India’s magnificent Davis Cup triumphs against Brazil in 1966 in Calcutta, and France in 1993 in Frejus are indelibly emblazoned in our sporting history, both ties going right down to the wire.

The purpose of elaborating on these sporting minutiae was to draw attention to how starved we are when it comes to sporting attainments, that a player taking one set off Federer had the Indian media going berserk for the next 24 hours. And we celebrated P.T. Usha’s creditable 4th placing in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics 400 metre hurdles like she had struck gold. P.V. Sindhu saved India’s and her own blushes by finally winning the World Badminton Championships, and the media clamour that followed was completely understandable. To put things in perspective, we have had our moments under the sun in fits and starts. Padukone, Nehwal and Sindhu in badminton, the Krishnans, Amritrajs, Paes, Bhupathi and Mirza in tennis, Mary Kom in boxing and our forgotten hockey heroes from several decades ago and of course, the Indian cricket teams in recent decades who have put us well and truly on the map.

Let me get back to the Nagal / Federer story and what one learns from that result. That as a nation, we the people and our hyperventilating media need to display a sense of proportion and be more circumspect in the way in which we talk up our sportspersons at the least pretext. In this case, no blame attaches to Nagal who did creditably well to qualify for the main draw, was then up against the Fedex. He can take some consolation from the fact that Roger didn’t exactly wipe the floor with him and had to work hard for his win. We need to raise the bar when we go gaga over small moments of thrills and spills though the result is a foregone conclusion. Had Nagal actually beaten Federer, we would have had something to exult and go over the moon about, provided he was not beaten in the next round by some relative unknown, as happens often to unseeded players who play momentary party poopers. Beware of the false dawn.

If I have concentrated mainly on tennis in this piece, the main provocation was that Nagal / Federer encounter. Let me turn briefly to India’s favourite sport and pastime, cricket. When India stunned the world with those twin Test series victories, back to back against the West Indies and England in 1971, giving birth to India’s first cricketing superstar Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, our legion of star-struck fans could not contain themselves. That is the level of achievement that should properly be celebrated, albeit slightly over the top. India announced themselves as a force and several decades later, we are among the top cricketing nations in the world across all formats, having won everything there is to win and producing one icon after another in the process.

So my earnest plea to all our sports followers and particularly the media is to rein in their unbridled rush of adrenalin when a young tennis player manages to capture a set off a legend. I fervently wish young Nagal will achieve great things in the future. Till then, let the young man just play the game and let us all hold our horses. For myself, I shan’t be holding my breath.

For the nonce, raise another glass to P.V. Sindhu.

The gospel according to Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Warren Buffett get 1 more thing in common after India's ace investor's Star Health deal

Every now and then, I ponder on the mysterious ways of our stock market. Try as I might, the erratic ways of Dalal Street defy comprehension. If bank fixed deposits or government bonds would unfailingly yield us 10% annual interest post tax, I don’t think I will even look at the bourses. Or, indeed, mutual funds which are directly linked to the vagaries of the Sensex and the Nifty. Since numbers of that sanguine nature belong to the ‘those-were-the-days-my-friend’ era, we have no option but to try and get our heads round the complexities of the here and now. If you belong to the super rich category, I don’t really think it matters one way or the other. Ironically, the same logic holds if you are languishing somewhere at the bottom of the rich-poor pyramid, to employ a fanciful jargon. It’s always the poor sods in the middle who find themselves in a muddle.

Middle class investors in India have nowhere to turn to but the stock markets. What with bank fixed deposits offering a measly 5 to 7% annualised returns pre-tax, most of us are pushed to ‘play the markets’, with a promise of 30% returns and a delivery of -10%. The problem is ‘we don’t speak the lingo’. When your investment consultant lands at your doorstep, conspiratorially whispering into your shell like ear that he has received a tip that ‘should make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams’, you are not sure if you should roll out the red carpet or slam the door in his face.

The well-off middle class is a myth. There is no such thing. Study the budget speeches over the past couple of decades, and if you find anything sympathetic to the urban middle class, I’ll buy you a ‘one-by-two’ tumbler of coffee at the local Sukh Sagar. Which is all I can afford. A last resort is to become a farmer, in which case you need pay no taxes at all. That piece of governmental munificence to agriculturists I have never been able to fathom. Is the farmer’s currency, stuffed in trunks under his charpoy, of a different hue? Why this extraordinary partiality towards a sector that boasts some of India’s wealthiest individuals, many of them going on to become ministers at State and Central levels? Seek and ye shall not find, the answers that is, about sums it up.

 Nevertheless, my fleeting thoughts about turning my hand to tilling the land, raising livestock, milking cows and growing potatoes does not hold out much promise and I have junked the idea. Mind you it’s not roses, roses all the way being a farmer either. Instead of following the stock markets, you have to closely monitor the weather patterns. Singer songwriter Sting tried to be a farmer once and ended up composing a memorable song, ‘Heavy clouds but no rain.’ Clearly he made more money with that one song than he would have ever done growing spuds in his back garden!

Then there are other issues: the ubiquitous oil prices conundrum, Trump playing footsie with North Korea and China to fret about, volatility at our borders post the 370 abrogation, the Brexit imbroglio, the automotive sector in dire straits and I haven’t even touched on inflation. All this and more are part of our daily lexicon if we are to keep pace with what’s going on universally. Not merely to improve our general knowledge, but because the welfare of our finances is driven by these global, earth shattering events. We are unsteady of feet in shifting sands. Try reading the Finance Minister’s budget speech and if you can follow any of it, ‘you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.’ Watching the minister live on TV is no better, though you can snigger at some of the weak jokes he must necessarily indulge in, to soften the blow. To say nothing of the statutory Ghalib or Tiruvalluvar quote, depending on whether the FM was Jaitley (RIP) or Chidambaram (RI/CBI/ED).

I am therefore doing what most ‘knowledgable’ experts in India do when they are at a loss to plumb the mysteries of the market. Which is to turn to the Bull, the oracle Rakesh Jhunjhunwala (RJ), he of the cherubic countenance to match his sunny optimism. As I could not actually obtain an appointment with him, I shot off an email questionnaire, to which I received a well worded, if characteristically outspoken, response. I can only surmise the great man himself authored the replies but if it was some underling from his office trying to save his boss some trouble, given that he must be receiving truckloads of mails, I take no responsibility for the authenticity of the mail. Though I must say it sounds a lot like RJ.

SS – ‘First off Rakeshji, what do these investment bozos mean when they say buy long and sell short? That’s a real bummer. I am afraid to display my ignorance lest they take me for a solid ride.’

RJ – ‘My friend, the long and short of it is that you should beware of short covering. If the short is covered, then the long will take care of itself. Samjha? Long term perspective is crucial. Be patient for 20 years and you’ll make pots of money.’

SS – ‘Hmmm, I think I am grasping the gist, but I am still confused. 20 years eh? I will be 90 years old, if I still have a pulse. How does that help?’

RJ – ‘Age is only a number. You can live in a very posh old age home. They are all the rage now. You see, you can never time the market. I have said this so many times, but nobody listens.’

SS – ‘And I guess I could also afford a 21-gun salute funeral. But Rakeshji, why was everyone saying the market will go through the roof if the GST bill was passed in Parliament? That did not happen. What has GST got to do with the price of fish?’

RJ – ‘Price of fish? What rubbish you are talking? I am a strict vegetarian. Please stick to price of onions. Or tomatoes. Or potatoes. I am not fussy. Anyway, you are asking about GST. See, the stock markets are very emotional. They work on sentiment. Sensex is even more sentimental than Nifty. The fact is nobody actually knew what GST entailed. All they knew was share prices will zoom if the bill was passed. But then Demonetisation came along, providing a double whammy. Get my meaning?’

SS – ‘Sort of, Rakeshji. Warren Buffet is quoted as saying, “Wall Street is the only place that people ride to in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway.” What exactly did he mean by that?’

RJ – ‘Arre bhai, this is the problem with you smart alecks. How does it matter what Warren Buffet said in America? Listen to Dhirubhai Ambani who said, “As a school kid, I was a member of the Civil Guard, something like today’s NCC. We had to salute our officers who went round in jeeps. So I thought one day I will also ride in a jeep and somebody else will salute me.” That is desi akalmand. Homespun philosophy, mere dost. Forget about your Buffet shuffet. In India, it is only buffet. Self-service!’

SS – ‘That was so moving and inspiring, Rakeshji. Pardon me while I brush away a tear. One last question. What is your secret, that X-factor for making money in the stock market?’

RJ – ‘Ha ha. If I reveal all my secrets why would you come to me for interviews? But seriously, it is very simple. Strike a good balance between debt and equity, avoid automotive and bank scrips like the plague, mutual funds are ok but the thrill is in buying and selling shares, listen very carefully to what your investment advisor is saying, and do precisely the opposite. Never watch CNBC, Bloomberg, NDTV Profit, ET NOW and all those channels, except when I am on the show. Sure recipe for a stroke. Listen to my friend Bejan Daruwala, who has Lord Ganesh on his side. Above all, remember what Mark Twain said, “never invest on any day of the week that ends with a Y.”’

SS – ‘Thank you, Rakeshji. You have been very helpful, and I am even more confused.’

Sabre-rattling is fine, but don’t forget the sheep

I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion. Alexander the Great.

The world is going through turbulent times. India is contributing its mite to the turbulence with a great show of truculence, with the Jammu and Kashmir saga being played out mutedly, thanks to the deafening silence of media censorship and blackout, only serving to fan the embers of wild speculation.  Hong Kong is simmering and could reach boiling point. The United Nations’ expanded Security Council got together at Pakistan’s instance to discuss the fallout of the abrogation of Article 370, and the resultant dribs and drabs communication to the world, such as it was, from some of the 15 members of the Council was ambivalent. We always knew where China stood, but the United Kingdom’s too-clever-by-half chicanery is redolent of Mountbatten’s shenanigans at the time of India’s Independence and the painful partition. The Brits are backtracking with hasty denials, but they should tell that to the marines. And our dear friends Russia have not exactly been gushing in their support for India, more humming and hawing than clearly articulating their stand. Yes, yes, we all know it’s a bilateral issue, but which side of the bilateral divide are you morally supporting? Spit it out, man. As the Good Book says, ‘let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.’

 Then again, typically, both India and Pakistan have been ‘celebrating’ the UN meeting outcome, each claiming the other has been sent to Coventry. Familiar strains! Donald Trump is, well, just being Donald Trump. Having dropped a brick once during his talks with Imran Khan and falsely dragging India into the equation, decided to keep his counsel. Which is a blessing. China has its hands full with the Hong Kong imbroglio to tackle, and to side with Pakistan in the latter’s never ending sabre-rattling with India. The bright new face in Parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal has expressed immense joy at Ladakh being part of the conversation at the UN, when it hardly ever got a mention in the Indian political discourse over the past 70 years. Understandably, Namgyal (get used to that name) hails Prime Minister Modi for putting Ladakh on the map, quite literally. At least, someone is happy at the turn of events.

While everyone is waiting with bated breath to follow the unravelling drama in J&K, while 95% of India is fully behind the PM’s bold steps, while Home Minister Amit Shah refuses to rest on his laurels and is already exhorting his party members to action with crucial assembly polls in the offing, while Shah’s temporary hiatus from the mainstream provides the relatively low profile Defence Minister Rajnath Singh a chance to flex his muscles in chaste and stentorian, Vajpayee-ish Hindi and tell the Pakistanis where they get off, while a handful of Indian activists, who look good on television and speak the Queen’s English, are getting their knickers in a twist, trying to move the courts against the Government on the ubiquitous Kashmir issue (with friends like these….), while much loved former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley battles for his life at the AIIMS and not helped one bit by a raging fire breaking out in that very hospital, while smug-faced Chidambaram plays footsie with the cops in Delhi only to succumb, while all these earth shattering events are happening even as this missive is being word-processed, there are other things in our country to worry about. Very important things!

I am talking about sheep. Not the human kind, but genuine quadrupeds who provide us with wool, meat and when in a good mood, go baa baa. If they are black sheep, that is. En passant, let me add that no one seems to care two hoots if I conjoin the words ‘sheep’ and ‘meat’. But if I tried to attach the word ‘meat’ with ‘cows’, the whole country (nearly 85%) goes ballistic and starts beefing about it, if you’ll excuse the serendipitous pun. It’s a crying shame none of our epics records sheep worship as an integral part of the storyline. Shame for the sheep, that is. No wonder these animals look so sheepish, like so many lambs to the slaughter. But I digress. Let me get back to my sheep story.

The news item that caught my eye involved a separated couple, the woman running off to live with another man and his 71 sheep. Allow me to be more lucid. This happened in a remote hamlet not far from Gorakhpur in Eastern UP. On learning that the woman would prefer to enjoy conjugal bliss with her not-so-secret lover and not her legally married husband, the local panchayat was in sympatico with the runaway lass and told her that the arrangement will get its approving nod with one proviso. That the woman’s lover should return half the number of sheep he owed to her heel of a husband. The panchayat was silent on whether the eloping girl should marry her new lover, or if they can just ‘live in sin.’

Apparently the husband readily agreed to this arrangement. I am guessing he was not awfully sold on the idea of conjugal bliss with his wife either, and may have cast his glad eye on someone else’s wife. So he gains twice over – loses his recalcitrant wife with a clear conscience and gains a pen full of fat sheep. And a new wife, to boot! Everyone is happy. Or are they? There were more complications to this sheep story with more members of the respective families staking all manner of claims, but that is not germane to this piece. We can only bow in respect that problems in our rural belts are solved swiftly with such sagacity and wisdom. Even the wise King Solomon would have been proud. Watch and learn, you spoilt urbanites!

 And hot off the presses, another gem of real life hilarity from UP (what is it with this state?) A man has sought divorce on the grounds that his wife has decided to feed him only laddoos for all meals, this on the sage advice of a local tantric, the better to help them achieve wedded nirvana! Paraphrasing the old ad jingle, ‘laddoos in the morning, laddoos in the evening, laddoos at supper time.’ Fat lot of good the laddoos did for their nirvana. The man was literally sick to his stomach. Far from sweetening the deal, this story is headed for a bitter end.

The limited point I wish to make is that in the general scheme of things in the world, India, Pakistan, Kashmir, POK, Hong Kong, Trump, Putin and some Chinese bigwigs whose names I cannot spell – these are not the only important issues and personages that people should be grappling with. The little people in remote Eastern UP with their lovers’ tiffs and sheep barters are equally important. Go and ask them their opinion on the Kashmir issue and they will stare blankly at you. Engage them in a discussion on sheep farming and they will be unstoppable. Or lovers’ tiffs and how to solve them, come to that. Mostly amicably, but if pushed to the edge, they won’t think twice about beheading you while you sleep. Justice is meted out swiftly in our remote parts.

Is there a lesson in this? Yes. Our television channels should spend more airtime on subjects like these. Imagine, sheep today, cows tomorrow, dogs the day after – our dumb chums from the animal kingdom can provide endless fodder for some pretty heated exchanges on one of Arnab’s interminable Sunday morning talk shows. What say you, Arnab? You can even consider bringing the animals to the studio to participate. Tether them to the feet of those pathetic Pakistani generals you invariably invite, merely to roundly insult them. And don’t fret yourself that they will dirty your studio (animals that is, not the generals) when nature calls or things get animated. It will at least be pure, honest, if a trifle smelly, excrement as opposed to some of the stuff your panelists spew out on a daily basis. Just make sure you have enough dry grass, hay and dog biscuits in the studio.

Postscript: I thought this article was concluded. However, it just occurred to me that one particular news channel has, over the past couple of months, been doing precisely what I am advocating. They have been loftily ignoring any news item of current interest. Let Chandrayaan 2 do its stuff, let J & K hit the headlines elsewhere, let Kohli hit another hundred, let Chidambaram sweat and squirm under the glare of his alleged misdeeds, this channel will remain supremely aloof, instead showing us an endless pre-recorded loop of India’s wildlife, its glorious temples and places of interest, interviews conducted many moons ago with people of no great significance – all this in an aesthetically wrought blurred and hazy offering. Dear reader, please join me in a smart salute to Tiranga TV, for showing us that life is not all about politics. Or cricket. That the big cats, if not the fat cats, and historical monuments are all that matter. Not to mention the bakras.

‘Kindly confirm the exact location of your birthmark’

          

Image result for telephone service providers cartoons

I don’t know about you, but I am frequently, almost constantly, pestered over my mobile phone by people I do not know from Adam or Eve, trying to dragoon me into buying something I am not in the least bit interested. Like investing in an apartment complex promoted by builders I have never heard of, banks or some shady financial institution attempting to get into my ribs for a few lakhs of rupees promising mouth-watering returns without even my having read the small print, membership of a proposed new club in my vicinity at dirt cheap rates for first movers (never mind that the club will take five years to come up, if at all it does, and that’s beyond my sell-by date) and all that is merely scratching the surface. The new age marketing mavens have found all kinds of innovative ways in which to keep you occupied over your mobile. Of course, a lot of the blame for this abominable nuisance is down to me. I unthinkingly keep giving out my mobile number to all kinds of shops and establishments whenever they prepare the bill. They just ask you, very casual like, ‘Mobile number, Sir’, like it was a piece of information you were legally obliged to provide. My response is Pavlovian. The mouth starts working before the brain kicks in. ‘98765 43210’ you respond mechanically. And you do this in several different places over the days, months and weeks. And it all adds up, the multiplier effect. Incidentally, if you thought that was my mobile number, you’ve got another think coming.

For a number of years now, I have been attempting ways in which to answer these calls with a brilliantly witty, cutting and telling put down. But when the nuisance of a call actually comes, you’ve forgotten the punch line and mumble something pretty tame like. ‘I am busy, kindly call later.’ That, of course, is a terrible mistake. That ‘Kindly call later’ is clearly surplus to requirements, for the next question inevitably is, ‘When will it be convenient, Sir?’ Never a good option, asking them to call later. Much better to bark, ‘How about never and stop bugging me’ and slam the phone down. Speaking metaphorically, of course. You’re on your mobile and can’t ‘slam’ the gadget down, risking irreparable damage to the instrument. You can violently press your forefinger on the touch screen, but it’s a waste of effort with only a sprained finger to show for it.

I have been thinking long and hard about this pestilential problem all of us face on a daily basis and I decided, after careful consideration, based on my personal experience, to share a typical mobile telephonic exchange with my bank (actually it is some remote service provider who probably can’t tell the difference between an FD and an SB account) and how I tend to tackle such untimely calls. If you must answer the call when an unknown number flashes on your screen (you never know, it could be that lottery company from Nagaland from whom you blithely bought a ticket, informing you of an unexpected windfall – hope springs eternal), you can at least have the satisfaction of having delivered a few great snubs that will, hopefully, put the caller off for at least a couple of weeks. They are possessed of very thick skins, these service providers. So here goes.

I was calling my bank to inquire what my meagre bank balance was as on date. After tapping 2 for English, 6 for account inquiries and 8 to talk to a representative and being told ‘all our service staff are busy attending to other customers, kindly hold the line and we appreciate your patience’, I patiently wait for 12 minutes while a nameless, hotel lobby tune (sounded like an unrecognizably watered down version of Beethoven’s Für Elise) keeps reverberating mesmerizingly in an endless loop, interspersed every two minutes with a recorded message asking me to invest in one of the bank’s new Fixed Deposit schemes offering 5% pre-tax annual interest. Like I was born yesterday! What’s more, that ‘service staff busy, appreciate your patience blah, blah’ keeps repeating itself every three minutes. Finally.

‘Good morning, Mr. Subrahmanyan, you have reached the National Bank of India, and this is Shweta. Can you kindly confirm your mobile number?’

‘Look, after 12 excruciating minutes of waiting, I was about to hang up. Listen Shweta, you have just correctly identified my name by the simple expedient of linking it with the mobile number I called you from. What further confirmation do you want? And can you please do something about that dreadful Yanni-type music?’ I was quite irritable. With just cause. After asking me what ‘expedient’ meant, she continued.

‘It’s standard procedure, Sir. You could be somebody else speaking from the same number. Can you please confirm your date of birth?’ I did as bid. It could still have been somebody else who knew my birthday! She completely ignored my Yanni wisecrack. Probably never heard of him.

‘Thank you, Sir. Please answer this simple question. What is the name of your favourite musician, as recorded in our KYC?’

‘For crying out loud, I can’t remember what I entered in the KYC 15 years ago. Does it matter? Could be anyone, John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Sanjay Subrahmanyan. And definitely not Yanni. For heaven’s sake!’

‘There’s no call to be rude, Sir. We are only doing our job.’

And not very well, I might add. Forget about it. I’ll call again and hope I will be connected to someone who will not insist on my revealing the location of my birthmark. Where that is, of course, is not to be divulged to an impressionable, young lady. It’s bad enough that you can read it on my KYC.’

I promptly hung up. Thought I heard a snigger from the other end before the line went dead. I allowed matters to stay that way for a couple of days, felt a cooling off period was in order. I might have been a bit harsh with young Shweta at the bank, with good reason mind you, but really she was only doing her job, and I should have been less crotchety. For all I know, she may have been crying on her boyfriend’s shoulders over a cappuccino at Costa’s that evening. I resolved to be more conciliatory next time.

A few days later, ‘next time’ arrived. The call came at 3 in the afternoon on a Sunday. Siesta time. I was not best pleased and reacted angrily at some other lady from the same National Bank.

‘Listen, it’s Sunday afternoon. Don’t you have any consideration when to make a sales call. For the last time, I am not interested in your latest Fixed Deposit offer, your pension-linked mutual fund scheme with a freebie insurance plan thrown in or any other hare-brained idea your boffins at Head Office keep pulling out of their hats. Please do not call me again. And how come you’re working on a Sunday?’

‘Just one minute, Sir’, the lady cooed icily. ‘I am Mrs. Bhide, Assistant General Manager – Portfolio Management, calling from Head Office. I rang to inform you that your last long term investment of Rs.10 lakhs has matured accruing a cumulative interest of 9.75%, and I wanted to know if you wished to redeem the same or reinvest at a much lower interest. However, if I have disturbed your beauty sleep, we can forget all about it, and the amount will automatically be locked in for another 10 years. And I am working overtime on a Sunday because people like you can’t be bothered about your own investments. Goodbye!’ Would you believe it, she actually slammed the receiver down. She was calling from a landline.

Hoist with my own petard. These things obviously cut both ways. I had to eat humble pie and call her back immediately with craven apologies. Mobile telephony. Can’t make up my mind if it’s a blessing or a curse. Whatever happened to the days when you could walk into your local branch, sit in the manager’s air-conditioned ‘chamber’, and discuss the latest cricket scores and political upheaval over a cup of weak tea and a thin arrowroot biscuit? Now it’s Shweta one day, Sita the next, but keep your ears open and eyes peeled for the dreaded Mrs. Bhide!’ Never mind if you’re enjoying a nap. You ignore her call at your own peril.

Did the earth move under your feet?

Family, Love, Rainbow, Boy, Child

                   Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein (1889 -1951) bequeathed to us an armful of quotations like the one above, which were often opaque, which only he understood, and took a dim view of those who didn’t. It is said that even Bertrand Russell struggled to figure out Wittgenstein, which is saying something. Happily, we are free to make our own interpretation, particularly when the man who wrote it is no longer there to contradict us. Which brings me rather neatly and delicately to the subject I wish to touch upon – Indians and our strange attitude towards sex. A topic on which we would rather remain aloof and silent, ‘Whereof one cannot speak.’ Thank you, Herr Wittgenstein.

As a general rule, Indian women do not discuss sex. Come to that, neither do Indian men. I may be accused of generalizing, but that comes with the territory. However, with a population of 1.3 billion and counting, Indians can hardly be ignorant of the missionary position. If population is to be used as a criterion for sexual awareness, only China can claim bragging rights for the gold medal with India snapping at its heels. So you see, we are right up there with the best. Now I am fully aware that there are these so-called liberated types in urban conglomerations in our country who keep talking and writing about sex in a studiedly open and self-conscious manner. However, one Shobha De does not a summer make. And I am not even going to touch on the subject of multiple religious denominations and their attitudes towards sex, protected sex, family planning et al. The Kama Sutra has been done to death. There’s enough stuff about that doing the rounds in academia. The government even has a ministry devoted to family planning, and doubtless they keep spreading the good word about the birds and the bees to the huddled masses. Trouble is the huddled masses are not taking a blind bit of notice, and continue to huddle, which is part of the problem.

It is in this context that my attention was drawn to a recent report in the newspapers (some of us still read them), about a well-known manufacturer of condoms, Durex India, who aggressively took to social media to awaken women to their sexuality. Hitherto largely considered a self-imposed taboo subject, Durex roped in a number of prominent women to air their uncloseted views openly about sexual pleasure, or the lack of it, amongst women in India. The blame for this unfortunate deprivation was laid squarely at the door of ‘The Indian Male’, his inflated ego (if nothing else), seeking pleasure only for himself. Singer-songwriter Carole King famously crooned about the earth moving under her feet and we’ve all read about a billion stars exploding in our brains, but these myths have largely been confined to the novels of Judith Krantz, Harold Robbins and their ilk. The new-age, ‘aware’ Indian woman, who is not afraid to speak her mind, has dismissed all this as just so much bunkum and hogwash. The whole point the women interviewed seem to be making is that sex cannot be a self-serving one-way street, with nary a thought to the ‘gentler sex.’ It takes two to tango about sums up the female point of view. Quite right, too.

Point eloquently made, one would have thought, but not quite game, set and match to the ladies. The men are now up in arms and Durex India is facing plenty of flak with some danger of their sales curve threatening to go into limp mode. Hashtags are sprouting like a rash with all kinds of appellations among the twitterati. One of the more risible consequences of the twitter war was a call to all right thinking men to switch to another brand, Kohinoor, to punish the errant Durex, little realising that Kohinoor and Durex belong to one and the same parent company! Clever sods. ‘Heads I win, tails you lose.’

Here’s something that bothered me particularly. Durex India, as part of its social media initiative, put out this tweet – ‘Nearly 70% of women in India don’t orgasm during sex.’ I was deeply offended by this tweet, despite its drawing 5.2K likes and 850 retweets. Why am I offended? You may well ask. After all, they were just stating a statistic that came out of research. No, my problem was one of grammatical usage laxity. ‘….don’t orgasm during sex.’? How can you convert the noun ‘orgasm’ into a verb? You can experience or fake an orgasm, but you can’t just orgasm. It might be pedantically correct, just doesn’t sound right. The late Dr. Kinsey would have concurred. I wasn’t going to take this lying down, if you’ll pardon the serendipitous double entendre.

The news report further talks about an actress, Swara Bhaskar, whose provenance is a closed book to me, who was quite forthright in demanding equal rights of pleasure while indulging in a spot of slap and tickle, to employ a quaint British expression. Good on you, Swara. Sorry you got trolled badly by a handful of MCPs. You have displayed courage above and beyond. And I am not being patronizing. Had I been wearing a hat, I would have gladly doffed it to you.

As a former advertising professional, I am now wondering if all this hullabaloo, involving bouquets and brickbats, was not just a cunning plan by the brand boffins at Durex and their ad agencies to create a ‘doctored’ storm in a tea cup, getting their brand name into the print and social media for about 24 hours of fetid fame. Negative publicity need not always be bad publicity is a misguided notion some marketers harbour. Perhaps the Durex and Kohinoor condoms are flying off the shelves. Stranger things have happened. And get this. Some of the angry male tweets were reportedly even tagged to the PMO and the Home Ministry! Allegedly heard in the corridors of power. Amit Shah – ‘Narendra Bhai, should I tackle J&K or D&K?’ Modi – ‘D&K? Woh kya hai?’ Amit Shah – ‘Durex & Kohinoor.’ That little exchange between India’s two most powerful men may or may not have taken place, but it’s a near thing. In the light of recent, momentous and earth-shattering developments in J&K, it would be perfectly safe to assume that D&K would not have featured prominently in the Government’s scheme of things.

In conclusion, experts will tell you that there can be no sex without love, or vice-versa. I am no expert, but Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine had some words of wisdom to impart in this excerpt from their duet, ‘Let’s do it’, from the musical Can Can.

The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it / Not to mention the Finns / Folks in Siam do it /Think of Siamese twins / Electric eels, I might add, do it / Though it shocks them, I know / In shallow shoals, English soles do it / Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it / Let’s do it (Let’s fall in love)

An open letter to Jacob Rees-Mogg Esquire

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Note: For the benefit of readers, I am giving below the so-called banned words and phrases shunned by Mr. Jacob Rees Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons under the Boris Johnson administration, to enable you to better appreciate the contents of the letter.

Very / due to / ongoing / hopefully / unacceptable / equal / too many ‘I’s / yourself / lot / got / speculate / invest (in schools etc.) / no longer fit for purpose / I am pleased to learn / meet with / ascertain / disappointment / I note / understand your concerns / And a few rules: provide double space after a full stop / no comma after ‘and’/ use imperial measurements, not metric etc.

Dear Mr. Rees-Mogg,

I am not sure I can address you thus, given that I have already bestowed upon you the recommended ‘Esq.’ appellation in the heading to this open letter. But a repetition of the term ‘Esquire’ might have meant too much of a good thing – even for a man of your ancient linguistic proclivities. That’s three more ‘I’s in that opening sentence than might meet with your approval. Further, I am not quite sure what an ‘open letter’ entails, but the phrase is oft employed these days, meaning presumably that any hobbledehoy who has access to this blog can read it. As very (another one of your bete noires) few people actually read my blogs, there is every chance it will not come to your notice. And, that would be a disappointment. That last sentence begins with ‘And’ and a comma after it. Woe is me! You have every right to squirm, JRM.

 You will have further noticed that I prefer to provide just the single space after a full stop. The eye has grown accustomed to this apparent aberration. What’s more, if I were to provide a double space after a full stop, as advanced by your good self, it looks wrong and Microsoft Word flashes a red squiggle to remind me that I must close the gap. Or, in the immortal phrase of the London Underground, Mind the gap. Do I then go with the Rees-Mogg method or the Bill Gates manual? While I yield to no one in my admiration for your passionate, if antiquated, obsession with 18th century English, on this matter I must come down on the side of Mr. Gates, or William Gates Esq. Just to show there’s no ill feeling.

While I note and understand your concerns, Mr. Rees-Mogg, I find it strange, ironic and (this will get your goat) unacceptable that under the forward-looking, dynamic dispensation of Mr. Boris Johnson Esq. (note that I shoved in a Mr. and an Esq. to bookend BoJo’s name, not wanting to take chances with the PM), you should be so dogmatic and obtusely single-minded in sticking to Dickensian English, when the world is attempting to inject new life into Anglais. As an Indian, I could have also said Angrezi, but knowing how much you love the French, I felt that would have got your attention more readily. And what have you got against lot? Or, for that matter, got? I can understand your concern if I were to convert lot into Lot, with your Biblical worries about being turned into a pillar of salt, as was the case with Lot’s hapless wife. However, no such threat looms here.

Hopefully, you will reconsider your position regarding this ongoing controversy which has led to many people around the world wondering if you are equal to the onerous task of being the leader of the House of Commons. Will a beep go off during Parliamentary debates every time an MP utters any of the ‘banned’ words or phrases? Like that old, wonderful BBC radio programme, ‘Just a minute’, when a loud hoot would indicate that the speaker has hesitated, deviated from the subject or repeated himself. Should be fun. While I have no wish to speculate on what may or may not happen in Westminster’s Lower House, I am invested in the beauty of the English language and would be disappointed to see it stuck in a subjectively selected time warp of English history. I mean, why 18th century, why not Shakespeare’s English? All those stirringly rousing speeches written by the Bard, just waiting to be rephrased and regurgitated. Churchill’s We shall fight on the beaches springs to mind. Perhaps you feel, in your infinite wisdom, that Shakespeare’s English is no longer fit for purpose, but you should speak to all your fellow MPs and ascertain their opinions first.

A quick word on your exhorting your colleagues to revert to imperial measurements, which I am pleased to learn. You have a point there, I readily concede. I mean, I have always felt that Mike Powell’s world record for the long jump of 29 feet 4.25 inches sounds far more impressive than 8.95 metres. Ditto Javier Sotomayor’s high jump record of 8 feet 0.46 inches, as opposed to a piffling 2.45 metres. This is perhaps the only point from your linguistic ‘Style Guide’ that I find myself in consonance with. Style Guide, lovely moniker for your new age / old age language guide! Professor Henry Higgins would have approved. Coupled with your own impeccable sartorial elegance to complement your plummy voice, the terminology is apt.

Finally, something you have not thought of, Mr. Rees-Mogg. No, I am not referring to whether people should any more be burdened with hyphenated, double-barrelled names, which brings to bear its own redolence of imagined regality, urbanity and sophistication, just as your distinguished pater, Lord William Rees-Mogg so grandly sported and, which you have inherited. I daresay as Editor of The Times, he could have punctuated his name whichever way his Fleet Street fancy took him. After all, he was a ‘belted earl,’ to pinch one of Wodehouse’s phrases. No, no. Rather, I am speaking of an Englishman’s (that should properly be English person’s) unvarying habit of introducing strange wordless sounds when he or she speaks, yourself not excluded, Jacob old chap (forgive the informality but after all this, I feel we’ve become close chums). For instance, the sound ‘uurrmm’. Listen to some of your speeches, or Boris Johnson’s, or Cameron’s or even Thatcher’s. I could go all the way back to Churchill or Chamberlain. When they are not reading from a prepared text, this is how they are likely to sound. You may cavil and nitpick that Thatcher was not an Englishman (‘man’ being the operative word), but many will disagree. In common with Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher has often been described as ‘the only man in the cabinet.’ 

‘Mr. Speaker, I have uurrmm, come to the inescapable conclusion that Britain, uurrmm, is not yet ready to leave the European Union. Europe and Britain are, uurrmm, inextricably joined at the hip, and we should, uurrmm, be ever mindful of this. Brexit has placed us, uurrmm, squarely on the horns of a dilemma.’ I realise those words, with or without the ‘uurrmms,’ are from a ‘Remainer.’ As a confirmed ‘Leaver’, those words could never have issued from your lips, but you get my drift.

There you go, Mr. Jacob Rees-Mogg. What’s an ‘uurrmm’ between friends, eh? If you’re partial to ‘eh’ that is. You have been burning the candle at both ends, to say nothing of the midnight oil, waxing lyrical and warning us of words and phrases we should not use. Here’s an ‘uurrmm’ you can and do use and should be formalised and officially enshrined in the Oxford Dictionary.

Speaking for myself, I come from India and there are many of us who feel there are more Indians who speak English better and more chastely, even if a tad archaically (as this missive exemplifies), than do many denizens of the UK. And if you have a smidgen of doubt on that score, we can set the dazzling, silver-tongued Oxford Union debater (he of the exaggerated British accent) and present MP from India’s Congress Party (no longer fit for purpose), Mr. Shashi Tharoor Esq. on you – a man who runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds with equal felicity.

I remain, yours faithfully,

Suresh Subrahmanyan Esquire

Yesterday. Once more.

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My last blog was a celebration of all things bright and beautiful in an English summer full of sport, with Wimbledon and World Cup cricket taking pride of place. Something else happened on that brief and hectic holiday that went almost unnoticed. An English friend of mine and his good lady wife took me to see Danny Boyle’s latest hit film, Yesterday. Most film buffs in India will know Boyle as the Oscar winning director of the hugely successful Slumdog Millionaire. I was so enraptured by this new release, Yesterday, that I felt I should share my thoughts on it. As I need hardly tell you, the movie title is taken from one of The Beatles’ most successful ballads. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Paul McCartney’s Yesterday has been covered by over 3000 artists, including Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin! The Beatles could have lived happily ever after on the royalties of that one song alone.

This is not intended to be a film review, but if that’s the way it turns out, let the chips fall where they may. First off, it would help in your appreciation of the film if you happen to be a fan of the music of the Fab Four from Liverpool, even if you’re not a full-on Beatlemaniac. I don’t think there are too many people out there, even from today’s generation, who are completely oblivious to the songs of The Beatles. There are even a couple of Hindi film songs that ripped off their hits set to vernacular lyrics and Mohammed Rafi’s voice! As for me, I grew up with The Beatles and if you wake me up at the dead of night and asked me to sing Hey Jude backwards, I can do it. Scout’s honour. The band was an integral part of the warp and woof of my upbringing. So I was dying to see the film. With a little help from my friends.

So when my English friends asked me if I would like to go and see the film, in which the music of The Beatles plays an integral part, I did not need a second invitation. Before actually seeing the film, I had no idea about the storyline. I therefore erroneously assumed it was another biopic of great pop icons, a recent trend that has seen Freddie Mercury of Queen and Elton John being featured in films that were warmly received. Having no foreknowledge of the film was a blessing, as Yesterday turned out to be a delightful surprise in so many different ways. Like the original eponymous song.

Firstly and mercifully, it was not a biopic of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Instead it was about a struggling pop singer, Jack, played with great conviction by newcomer Himesh Patel, whose character happens to be a fan of The Beatles. The story takes off vertically when Jack gets hit by a bus and the world turns topsy turvy. On regaining consciousness, he is the only one on earth who can recall The Beatles and their brilliant songs. While everything else remains the same, The Beatles have been completely erased from the collective memory of earthlings. Even a Google search for The Beatles turns up ‘beetles’ and the insect kingdom.

As to why young Jack is a person of Indian origin is never explained. His parents, played by the celebrated comic duo Meera Syal and Sanjiv Bhaskar, are like any other English couple. Jack could very easily have been a white English boy, but choosing an Asian youth was a touch of genius and inexplicably adds to our enjoyment of the movie. There are two other people in the film who remember The Beatles after the accident, but I won’t spoil it for you.

To cut to the chase, Jack goes through many vicissitudes, sings Beatles hits everywhere and becomes an instant star in England and across the Atlantic in the United States. The songs are believed by everyone, including record producing companies, to be original compositions of Jack’s. His strenuous efforts to persuade his friends otherwise fall on deaf ears. Jack thus becomes a reluctant superstar with a guilty conscience. How the film’s narrative goes on to unravel is something I would prefer you to discover for yourself. I may have already given away too much.

Other highlights in Yesterday include a cameo by today’s mega pop star Ed Sheeran as himself and his being awestruck by the fresh and revolutionary music of this unheard of singer who sings unheard of Beatles songs. An American producer even suggests to Jack that he loves the demo tape of Hey Jude, but strongly feels the song has a much better chance of searing the pop charts if renamed Hey Dude!

With Danny Boyle at the helm, you can expect a tight script laced with typical English humour and excellent acting from the stellar cast. Jack’s love interest is played convincingly by Lily James who will be remembered by those of you who’ve seen the wonderful Downton Abbey series on cable. The cast do a great job on the whole, but it is newcomer Himesh Patel who announces himself with a subtly understated performance. The fact that he is not portrayed as a token Indian with all its attendant clichés, makes the character truly genuine. A terrific debut.

Above all, the music of The Beatles strings the entire film together. So many hit numbers we all know and love. Every time a song came up in the film, it had the audience tapping their feet and singing sotto voce, along with the soundtrack. A few voices were out of key but no one seemed to mind.

One last word. We went to see the film at the Olympic Studios in Barnes in south west London. Before this building was reconverted to a cinema hall, it was a recording studio and some of the greatest rock stars had recorded here including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The corridors of the theatre were full of framed pictures of stars of yesteryear who had plied their trade at this venerable establishment. An appropriately redolent venue to watch Yesterday, bolstered by its magnificent 3D Dolby Atmos sound system. All in all, if Yesterday comes round to your part of town, don’t miss it. Particularly if you are a Beatles fan. Like The Beatles, the film is funny and irreverent in a nice way. Like this ditty at the end of the Abbey Road album.


Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day

I want to tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a bellyful of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah,
Someday I’m going to make her mine.

That’s if for now. Hello Goodbye.

Luxuriating in William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’

My bucket list gets shorter. Having frequented London over the decades and not taking in SW19 (Wimbledon’s affectionate moniker) has been a sore miss. Regrettably, my work or holiday schedules precluded a trip to the sylvan grass courts of the Grand Slam of them all. Mind you, even if I wanted to go, I am not sure my shallow pockets would have run to the price of a ticket. So this year, I planned well in advance, approached friends in the right places and lo and behold, I was let in to the pearly gates – a proud bona fide ticket holder for the first Friday and the second Monday. And to be sitting adjacent to the Royal Box at Centre Court and Court No.1, now also adorned with the amazing, hi-tech retractable roof. That meant, getting to watch Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, as well as Kvitova and the precocious Coco Gauff. Even if the latter names don’t trip off the tongue, the first three were a mouth-watering repast fit for kings. And kings and queens there were aplenty at Wimbledon. Federer is royalty in his own right, never mind Kate, William, Harry and Meghan.

The long walk from Southfields station to the hallowed grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, along with hundreds of other tennis buffs, is a heart pounding experience. Partly because of the deceptively steep gradient of the broad pavements and more because of the breathless anticipation, the thought of entering the holy of the holies. Once you’re in, a magical world opens up. We have seen it on television year on year, but nothing comes close to being there. I shall eschew talking about the tennis. All of you know the results and how the matches went. If you don’t, please cease reading.

From the outside courts where the lesser mortals slug it out, the souvenir shops to the several food courts offering a wide variety of eats and drinks, to say nothing of Henman Hill (or Murray Mound), it was a rollercoaster ride. One simply had to savour the legendary strawberries and cream. Pimm’s cocktails was the most in-demand drink to slake your thirst. Players from the past and present were constantly seen strolling about or relaxing in the ‘Last 8 Lounge.’ Indian stalwarts like the Amritraj brothers, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes were spotted. The superstars of today could only be seen on court. They were preserved in mothballs!

Which brings me nicely to my first experience of Centre Court on a day when both Federer and Nadal were bookending British hope Konta and former champion Kvitova in fourth round singles action. All in spotless whites. The Centre Court is more a temple than a tennis court. The ivy-covered exteriors are brilliantly contrasted with the blue and purple petunias and hydrangeas dotted all over the 42-acre property. Despite the packed house, spectators were guided to their appointed, numbered seats by polite, but firm and knowledgeable stewards. If you stepped out for a toilet break, you had to wait in queue for the players’ change of ends before getting back in. Speaking of stewards, one of them, David Spearing, 83, has been serving Wimbledon for 46 years. I have watched him sitting in the players’ box with his black suit and hat for several years now, a minor celebrity. I had the pleasure of buttonholing him outside and having a friendly nostalgic chat, talking of Borg, McEnroe, Billie Jean and Graff.

As for the play itself, the crowds are scrupulously correct and hardly ever do anything not ‘proper.’ When an incredibly exciting rally ends, the applause and wolf whistles are deafening, but when the Chair Umpire admonishingly intones ‘Quiet please’, the eerie silence can make you hear a pin drop. I was aware of all of this before I stepped on to Centre Court, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless the live experience defies description. I spoke to some Wimbledon regulars and a couple of officials, and all of them were in unison that you don’t get this kind of unique audience participation in any of the other Slams. The spectators religiously follow their own unwritten code of conduct, a tradition honed and perfected over a hundred and forty years.

Then there’s the ever-so-alert ball boys and girls, scurrying hither and thither in pursuit of stray balls, like cats after pigeons. Not to forget the blazered linespersons, some of them a tad overweight but swift enough to duck and weave out of the way when a blistering ace is headed right between the eyes. The scoreboards, simple, elegant and functional, brighten and dim conversely with the fickle English weather. Finally, the Chair Umpire, the master of all he surveys, who wouldn’t think twice about rapping one of the top seeds on the knuckles if the player’s behaviour so warrants. A place of worship, this Centre Court. A devout Djokovic knelt and consumed a tuft of grass from the court after his monumental vanquishing of Federer. He did the same last year. After all, grass is for GOATs.

Tailpiece: A quick word on the cricket World Cup. In between my two Wimbledon days, I scooted off to Headingley, Leeds to take in India putting it across Sri Lanka. A historic ground Headingley, but honestly I could have been at the Eden Gardens Calcutta. India’s sea of blue was all-pervasive with fans screaming and yelling boisterously in Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali and other Indian tongues, while wolfing down khababs and khachoris. A human Hanuman was seen prancing around. A touch of Ramayana to remind the Lankans! A small plane kept circling over the ground displaying a changeable banner with anti-India slogans, but this was loftily ignored by the Indian diaspora. And the train journey back to London reverberated with incessant chants of India jeetega. Though we didn’t quite jeeta, the Bharat Army lit up the World Cup.

That said, my green and pleasant English summer was all about ‘Game, set and match, Wimbledon.’

The puerile offer autobahn corrigendum

                               

 ‘The perils of the auto-correct’ was my intended headline, but the all-knowing auto-correct took matters in hand. More of that soon. The smartphone is a godsend. We have become craven slaves to its bidding. You can send messages, emails, photographs, videos, order food (one day you’ll eat straight off the phone screen), book movie tickets and restaurant tables, video chat with your near and dear ones across oceans, binge-watch movies and stay up to speed with the latest news. All good. Or is it? I know many people moan about how the fabric of our society has been ruined, how we’ve become self-absorbed outcasts in civilized company, thanks to our smartphone addiction. All this has been analyzed to death by sociologists and other busybodies, like yours truly.

There is a funny side to this social malaise, namely, the auto-correct mechanism installed in all smartphones. Some think it’s a boon, others a bane. The idea of introducing this tool stems from pure altruism on the part of the smartphone brands. However, in my opinion and that of half the world, this keenness to spell check is totally misplaced. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. After all, whether it was the trusty Remington typewriter or our sturdy desktop, we are not badgered with three options for every single word we type, as is the case with smartphones. At least Microsoft Word discreetly underlines words or phrases in red, if they think we may be erring in spelling or using words they don’t recognize. It is entirely up to us to decide whether we take heed of their quiet alerts or not. But they do not, like our too-clever-by-half smartphones, catch us in an unguarded moment and slip in a ‘Henry’ instead of a ‘Hennur’, or a ‘Tooting’ instead of a ‘Thoothukudi’. It is only after you hastily depress the ‘send’ key that you discover the value of the adage ‘haste makes waste’. Or, as my smartphone might sadistically put it, ‘taste lakes Bates’. The receiver of the missive is doubtless wondering if this is some top secret coded message, and spends the rest of his day attempting to decipher it. Bates? Bates? Alan Bates? H.E.Bates? Jeremy Bates? Have a good day.

It then occurred to me that it might be fun to indulge in a spot of contemplation as to what the harvest might have been had some of the greatest passages in English Literature and Poetry fallen prey to the dreaded auto-correct. What if the likes of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, John Keats, T.S.Eliot and their ilk been unmindful of this pestilential technology, had it existed during their time, and the publishers / editors of their books ditto?

Let us, absolutely at random, take a well-known passage of Shakespeare’s from Julius Caesar. Mark Anthony’s memorable opening lines at Caesar’s funeral, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar.’ Among the Bard of Avon’s innumerable famous speeches this one by Mark Anthony will rub shoulders with the best of them. And yet, if William Shakespeare had keyed in those lines on his smartphone circa 1599, those seminal words may forever have been mauled beyond recognition, changing the course of history and literature. Imagine if you will, Shakespeare’s auto-corrected passage for posterity, ‘Glands, Rheumatism, concubines, lentil manure earplugs; I congratulate berry seizure, non-plussed hymn. The Evelyn that menopause delivers after thermostat. The gluten esophagus intricately withered boney; Salted bee will geyser’.’ Come to think of it, now that I read those auto-corrected lines, they have a certain strange, mesmeric ring to them. ‘I congratulate berry seizure’. Even Shakespeare would have struggled to top that. After all Caesar was known to suffer from epileptic seizures!

    Then there’s the unforgettable opening lines of one of the great poems of modern times, T.S. Eliot’s immortal ‘TheLove Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ‘Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table’. And the haunting refrain, ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’. How would Eliot’s lines have fared under the tender ministrations of auto-correct? ‘Lettuce Gotham ennui / When the weening is spirited angst the eye / Lick of paint ethereally unstable.’ Followed by the reverberating punch line, ‘Infra broom the vermin commando / Tracking of myocardio’. Once again, the auto-correct produces its own whimsical cadence. A kind of nonsense verse or Poetry of the Absurd. Though Thomas Stearns Eliot could be turning fitfully in his grave.

    Equally memorable are the first two lines of John Keats’ ‘Ode to a nightingale’, ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’. And like many of us, if Keats had been less than hawk-eyed while tapping in those lyrically lugubrious words, he might have ended up saying, ‘My part achtung a lousy bum pains / Licence through Hemmingway I shrunk’.

Finally the romantic works of Jane Austen. Her wonderful novel of manners, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ opens with these lines, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Would the estimable JaneAusten not have been horrified to read the final auto-corrected version? ‘Its tooth university accidents, that mingles a posse of good farting, must go get a life’.

The smartphone, along with the dreaded auto-correct, is here to stay. Let us learn to live with it, and understand its strange mental processes. That way lies more peace of mind and less tearing your hair out. Enough said, methinks. Or in the words of my trigger happy smartphone, ‘Enema strikes methane’.

(First appeared in the Deccan Chronicle, I greatly enjoyed writing this)

About myself

I am a greenhorn to this blogging business, but I am diving headlong and the devil take the hindmost. I have been an advertising and brand marketing professional all my life. Retired now and avidly taken up writing columns for leading publications. I write, by and large, in a humorous and satirical vein, even when I am being serious. P.G. Wodehouse is my all time favourite author, which should not surprise you. Generally, I favour the British style of understated humour, and many of my other favoured writers and entertainers are mostly British. This will become quite apparent to you, dear reader, when you read my posts. And that is what I intend to do to start with. Will keep posting many of my already published columns which most of you may not have read, and also some fresh material. I am based in Bangalore and welcome people to read my posts and send in their comments. That’s about it. As they say, here goes nothing!