Deepavali and Diwali. The North – South divide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extracted from ‘A brush with Mr. Naipaul (and other pieces)’, first appearing in Deccan Chronicle in November 2017.

The pugilistic idiocy of world sports

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Aiden Markram and Mitchell Marsh, names that don’t lightly trip off the tongue, but two promising cricket internationals representing South Africa and Australia respectively, simultaneously hogged the sporting headlines recently. Incredibly, for almost identical reasons. Each of them decided to take out their frustrations over their own poor performances, by punching their fists on hard surfaces, thereby rendering them hors de combat for an extended period of time. Markram, on a tour of India where the South  Africans have been punched almost unconscious by the rampaging Indians, apparently went on a ‘self-flagellation’ exercise after his poor show, and rammed his fist into a ‘solid object.’ I put that in quotes because that is what all the media dutifully reported. As to what the solid object was will presumably remain a closely guarded secret. It could have been the nearest concrete pillar or his bathroom mirror in the hotel. Perhaps he landed a juicy right hook on his coach’s jaw, which meant a new set of dentures (for the coach, that is), but we can only hazard a guess. All we know was that Markram was told to pack his bags, his right hand in plaster, and put on the next flight to Jo’burg. Or perhaps, Cape Town. Who knows? Who cares?

Then there’s Mitchell Marsh, a middling all-rounder, younger brother of the talented southpaw Shaun Marsh and son of former Aussie opening batsman, Geoff Marsh. The younger Marsh sibling, after being dismissed in a Sheffield Shield game against Tasmania, rammed his fist with considerable velocity against the dressing room wall. Result? A fractured right hand complementing his fractured career, which literally lay in tatters. Australia’s manager and former opening batsman, Justin Langer, understated while dubbing Marsh ‘an idiot’. One understands Langer’s ire, but under the circumstances, it was a mild rebuke. Perhaps the ‘idiot’ comment was meant for the media and something far more unparliamentary and unprintable followed, which would have been fit and proper. We expect nothing less from an incensed Aussie coach.

What is it with many of these sportsmen that they keep getting into street fights and bar room brawls? Not so long ago, England’s premier all-rounder and World Cup winning hero, Ben Stokes, put his career in serious jeopardy when he got into a most unpleasant scuffle with some roughs in a pub. The police took a keen interest in the matter, and things had to be finally settled in court. Stokes had to sit out a few matches to nurse his mental wounds. Presumably he took time off to reflect on the folly of his ways and is now fully rehabilitated. Now that England have won the cricket World Cup for the first time, by the skin of their teeth and in somewhat dubious circumstances, all is forgiven and Stokes can go swanning around the world in hero’s garb.

Then we have the fat cat, super egotistical tennis players. It would appear that the only way they know how to vent their spleen when things don’t go their way, when a close line call goes against them and they have exhausted their referrals, when they double fault at a crucial moment, and horror of horrors, when the chair umpire calls ‘foot fault’ or docks a penalty point for bad behaviour – all hell breaks loose. And nearly always, it is the super expensive, state of the art racket that bears the brunt. Bang, bang, bang goes Djokovic, Kyrgios or Medvedev on the court surface or against the chair at the change of ends, shattering the poor racket to smithereens, for no fault of its own. I guess there are plenty more where that came from! A lesser evil is to violently and frustratedly smack the ball high into the stands. Even the great Federer has been found guilty of such a misdemeanour. I dread to think what happens in the locker rooms, post the game.

What about top level football? This is virtually a contact sport, played at a frenetic pace, with opposition players eyeballing each other pretty much for the entire duration of the game. The referee is holding both the red card and the yellow card, ready to fish one of them out and hold it aloft, spelling curtains for the player, who only poked his opponent violently in his left eye, or deliberately tripped him up in the penalty box, thus earning his team the double whammy of instant dismissal and a penalty kick for his opponents. Are you not aware of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), you great oaf? The funny thing is, every time a player is booked, he will go into a massively exaggerated and dramatic, ‘Moi? What me?’ placing his hands piously to his mouth, gesticulating wildly while protesting his innocence. It is true that once in a blue moon, the referee might get it wrong, but usually the errant player has been served his just desserts.

Finally, it does not get more physical or contact oriented than boxing. I mean, the whole raison d’etre of boxing, the defining reason, is to bash the living daylights out of the opposing pugilist. This is one sport where you are paid millions to be nasty and violent. All perfectly legal, a blood sport with brains. Of course, there are rules like not hitting below the belt, behind the head and so on, but no one takes a blind bit of notice. The crowds, who are allowed to drink while watching, go atavistically bonkers, though it seems a crying shame when someone is knocked out in the first round in less than a minute. Quickest way to make a fast buck. Talk about spectators getting short changed! Betting is legally rampant, which adds to the unbearable tension. Nowadays the boxers are compelled by the rules to wear a helmet, which somehow misses the whole point of this violent sport. Imagine Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier or Mike Tyson, wearing helmets. Ugh! Mind you, Tyson is no oil painting even without a helmet. That said, there is artistry involved in boxing. Ali was the master craftsman – ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’

As for all this ‘got up’ world wrestling stuff we get on television, it is a gross insult to the human intelligence. Just trying to watch it gives me peptic ulcers. My 102 year old father-in-law is a WWF addict. He thinks the wrestling is genuine and wonders how those obscenely fat slobs keep getting up and ready to go, when they have just been hurled right across the ring into the waiting arms of the insane spectators! I don’t have the heart to tell him it’s all fake. When I once tried to disabuse him of his naively idealistic take on this mindless sport, he merely popped another chocolate bomb into his mouth and said, ‘You youngsters think you know everything.’ Youngsters? I am pretty long in the tooth myself, but I guess when you’re 102, everybody else is a youngster.

I’ll leave the final word to that brilliant British comedian, the late Tony Hancock. His ironic take on wrestling. ‘It’s a marvellous sport. Sitting back in the ring side seat, a big fat cigar, watching two great idiots thumping the life out of each other. Marvellous.’

Those idiots again. I couldn’t agree more.

The Visit

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Today’s generation may find it strange, almost incomprehensible, that when I was growing up during the ’50s and ’60s, avenues for entertainment were severely restricted. International cricket matches and other sports were unavailable on television. Come to think of it, television itself was going through birth pangs. We were big on live commentary on the radio, and in hindsight, listening to the great describers of the game was even more pleasurable than watching it on the box – but that’s just me. My home base was Calcutta, and if a Test Match was being played at the Eden Gardens, obtaining a ticket was akin to seeking the Holy Grail. We were taken to the cinema now and then, provided the genre was wholesome comedy or family drama. Absent Minded Professor, Parent Trap and My Fair Lady spring to mind. The evening show was invariably followed by ‘dinner’ at the homely Hindustan Restaurant on Lindsay Street, specialists in north Indian vegetarian delicacies – a much sought after culinary diversion from our daily rice and sambar routine. A Sivaji Ganesan starrer was a Sunday morning treat at Menoka or Basusree in south Calcutta, theatres that traditionally screened only Bengali or Hindi films.

Being brought up in a Tamil Brahmin environment, Carnatic music concerts by leading artists, whenever they visited the bustling metropolis, was something the family patronized avidly. Madurai ‘Somu’ Somasundaram and violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman were eternal favourites. There was never much else to do other than hanging out with friends, striking up impromptu singalongs featuring Kishore Kumar and Mohd Rafi hits. Pots and pans provided percussion support. In those days, you had to take your pleasures where you could.

The only other diversion was ‘the visit’. This needs explaining. My parents’ friends, collectively dubbed ‘family friends’, tended to live within a 5 km radius of each other. Accessibility was easy, just a short drive or a brisk walk away. All it took was for my father or mother to put a call through to make the appointment. If phone lines were down, which was often the case, we simply barged in. This usually happened over a weekend or a public holiday and the time of the visit was invariably early evening. We would never presume to land up during dinner time. This enabled the host to serve the ubiquitous filter coffee and a plate of toothsome crunchies. Not to forget, the visit had to be reciprocated and eftsoons. That was the etiquette.

All that was fine and dandy. The problem was we children had to be lugged along, like excess baggage. It was a necessary part of the ritual. ‘Nathan Mama and Saraswati Mami are very keen to meet both of you, and you can play with Ravi.’ This Ravi being their teenaged son. Problem was my brother and I found the aforementioned Mama and Mami crashing bores, and they always served the same plateful of stale, ribbon pakodas. And if we politely declined their coffee, you can bet your bottom dollar a tepid tumblerful of Horlicks or ‘Oval’ will be thrust upon you. As for the lad Ravi, he was an obnoxious snob, having stood first in his class for the umpteenth time, the achievement fulsomely repeated by the nauseatingly proud parents. A feat beyond my academic capabilities. Thus, some of these outings were more visitations than visits.

That particular routine, with minor variants, pretty much held sway wherever we landed up. If it was not Nathan Mama, it would be KS or JB Mama. Many of my father’s friends were referred to by their initials. En passant, the terms Mama and Mami generally meant Uncle and Aunty, not necessarily related by blood ties. Once in a way, we would come across an Uncle who would introduce us to Wodehouse or some comedy tapes from the BBC (The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour), which he had brought along from England, and we couldn’t wait to make a beeline to his place. At times he would even offer us a sip of the smooth, brown nectar from Scotland! My mother took a dim view of this corrosive Uncle. People like him were shining exceptions to the rule.

Among the more unsavoury prospects of these visits was that I was invariably called upon to sing. I was learning Carnatic music at the time and was thought to have a penchant for it. Sadly, my reputation had preceded me, not without some gratuitous help from my mother! After much fussing and squirming (‘Don’t be such a fusspot’) I had to face the inevitable. ‘I have a sore throat’ was utterly useless for an excuse. I thus took the easy way out and belted out Cliff Richard’s ‘Dancing Shoes’ or ‘Bachelor Boy’, much shorter and easier to render than, say, ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ in the raga Hamsadwani! And a fresh plate of stale ribbon pakodas was proffered for my troubles! If you’ll pardon the contradiction in terms.

Besides attending Carnatic music concerts, as and when music soirees were held, the South Indian community had their own clubs and associations that periodically staged plays. Mostly in Tamil, given the largeness of the expatriate Tamilian diaspora in the city. Oftentimes, well-known drama companies from Chennai were invited to perform. We were regaled by a feast of plays in various genres like Comedy, Satire, Historical, Social etc. The likes of the late Cho Ramaswamy’s troupe were a massive attraction and the halls would be jam-packed for days together. Stage sets and choreography were primitive with microphones hanging from the rafters atop and across the stage, which the actors would inadvertently bump into, providing unintended mirth. The make-up, to say the least, was garish with a tendency to smudge in the non-air conditioned halls and extreme humidity of Calcutta. As we didn’t know any better, our enjoyment of the fare on offer was not diminished.

Religious discourses by famed messiahs were another big attraction for most of the families. I well remember attending a few lectures by the entertaining godman, the late Swami Chinmayananda (not to be confused with the present  Chinmayanand, the swami with the glad eye), who was spreading the good word across the length and breadth of the country. Though I drew the line when my parents insisted that we should touch his feet and seek his blessing. My protests, however, fell on stony ground as the Good Book says. Kicking and screaming (metaphorically speaking), I duly prostrated before the great man while being shoved from the back by an interminable queue of ecstatic ‘blessing seekers.’ That I came down with a severe bout of viral flu the same evening, and was declared hors de combat for the next fortnight may or may not have been down to the Swamiji, but I continue to harbour dark suspicions.

That was pretty much the way it was, till I entered college. We are talking early ’70s now. University campus exposed us to a slightly more eclectic and cosmopolitan circle of friends. All of a sudden, one was being invited to the odd party at somebody’s place which necessarily involved returning home late. My mother’s interpretation of ‘coming home late’ was 9 pm at the very outside. It was a gargantuan struggle to make her understand that the party hadn’t even started before 9.30 pm! The thought of her lying in the drawing room, pretending to be asleep, eyes tightly shut while I stealthily let myself in through the front door well past midnight, was hardly conducive to my having a good time. A frosty grunt was as much as I could expect by way of a greeting. To her credit, she did not insist on a breathalyzer test. The generation gap never narrows, only widens.

In college, we strutted about in faded blue jeans, puffing on our Charms, talking of Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. When it came to books, we were into Kafka, Camus and Salinger, but that was more to impress the Eng. Lit. girls from the neighbouring colleges. (‘In the room, the women come and go / Talking of Michaelangelo’). Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix were considered more ‘in’ than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Also, early exposure to Hindustani classical music with the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Vilayat Khan and Kumar Gandharva provided an alternative take on Indian classical music.

It was about now that we kids were, mercifully, kept out of having to visit our parents’ friends. Grown to man’s estate, as it were, the parental apron strings were gently severed. Which is not to say that I was completely averse to tagging along if I particularly liked a family whose personnel were good company, across the age spectrum. And if they had children, so much the better. Sometimes, we kids were invited to spend the night at their place, if the next day was a holiday. Whether it was the novelty of sleeping somewhere else or what I am not sure, but there was a peculiar thrill attached to the prospect of a long night of gossip and waking up late in a strange ambience. Can’t put a finger on it but there it was.

Times have changed. Most kids are quite happy being alone, with their smartphones, Facetime, online groupies – truth is, you’re never alone these days. To answer Elvis Presley’s plaintive question, ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ No Elvis, we may be alone but never lonesome.

‘Tut-tut, you did wee-wee on the carpet?’

              

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‘Tut tut, it looks like rain’ – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Ever since I retired from active service, precluding my having to take a tedious drive to some drudge of an office in unendurable traffic conditions, leaving me scarcely fit to be of any constructive use once I arrived at my place of work, and the same torturous routine repeated all the way back home, I took up reading in right earnest, and writing in even greater earnest. The former complements the latter and helps me write long-winded sentences like the one this essay begins with. At the present time, I am ploughing through a rather elaborate novel by that modern stylist extraordinaire, Martin Amis. Suffice it to say that no sentence written by the son of the late Sir Kingsley Amis, can be taken lightly. You need to read it at least twice over to appreciate the tone and felicity of language, even if you’ve lost the plot after the 50th page. Is it any wonder that Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow has described Martin Amis as the new Joyce, the new Flaubert! More pertinently, Martin Amis does not simply indulge in grandiloquent linguistic puffery to impress the hell out of his readers. That comes naturally. Push comes to shove, he is quite happy to get right down and dirty if that is what it takes to convey the way in which Mr. Everyman expresses himself, if moved to profanity.

Let me add that this piece does not purport to represent a critique of Martin Amis’ style. I can claim no level of competence to even attempt such an onerous task. The reason I brought up the subject of Amis Jr. (an Americanism Sir Kingsley would have cringed at) is that, in common with his fellow distinguished contemporaries such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, I found an appealing tendency to introduce words that aren’t actually words at all. At least, not in the sense in which we understand words. They are more like onomatopoeic sounds that eloquently express a person’s emotions in a specific context. All of us, unconsciously, indulge in this habit in our daily conversations. If Martin Amis’ indulgence is à la mode, P.G. Wodehouse was the original Master. So much for genuflection to British writers.

Before I get down to the heart and soul of this piece, here’s some amazingly nonsensical gems from Amis, justly celebrated as the modern master of flawless prose. ‘Puckapuckapuckapucka. Bar bar dee birdle dee boom: ploomp!’ And just to round it all off nicely, ‘Derdle erdle ooom pom.  Meemawmeemawmeemaw.’  (Source: London Fields). I’ve read that in context seventeen times and still flailing and groping to grasp. That’s genius for you. Not that Amis can claim pioneering status to this kind of literary gobbledygook. I recall, several decades ago, cracking up at The Goon Show on Radio and TV, starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe when they sang in joyful disharmony, ‘Ying tong iddle I po.’

Thus inspired, I fell to thinking about how most of us, who converse daily with our family and friends, use expressions almost without thinking, and if I were to painstakingly list them out, it would cover the entire English alphabet. A challenge I decided to take up. Not all the words, and I use the word ‘words’ loosely, contained herein are to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Some of them will qualify, others will be pidgin derivatives from local languages, particularly Indian languages. I am acutely aware that covering all the 26 letters of the alphabet might be viewed by some as a trifle contrived. Poetic licence is taken by exception. As this is a stream of consciousness effort, I am not yet in a position to know if everything will turn out just so. If not, that’s just ‘my bad’, to use another cringe-worthy Yank colloquialism.

With that wordy introduction, we will start with the letter A and work our way assiduously, putting one foot in front of the other, all the way through to Z.

Ayyayyo! – Microsoft Word, in that snarky way it has, shoves in a red squiggle to caution me that there is no such word. Well, Mr. Gates, I have news for you. Wherever the ancient tongue of Tamil is spoken, ‘Ayyayyo’ is an expression used to denote extreme anguish, despair and disappointment. If someone called you to say that a dear friend has kicked the bucket the first sound that will escape your lips would be ‘Ayyayyo.’ Ditto if you’re told India have lost five wickets for 20 runs in the first hour of a Test Match. It is the equivalent of ‘Oh my God,’ but not a direct translation. With internationalism on the rise, I fully expect ‘Ayyayyo’ to gain global currency. ‘Are you listening, OED?’

Bleah! – Those of you who follow the Peanuts comic strips will be familiar with Charlie Brown’s all-knowing star beagle, Snoopy. Whenever anything upsets Snoopy, he will make a face and go ‘Bleah’, now an integral part of comic book lexicon.

Crikey! – Commonly used exclamatory interjection generally denoting surprise, amazement or any intense surge of emotion. Bernard Woolley from the memorable Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister TV serials frequently went ‘Crikey’ when agitated.

Duh! – A sarcastic and derisive conversational term to indicate what somebody has just said is stupid, dumb or inane.

Eeeks! – Mostly screamed by members of the gentler sex whenever a rodent, lizard, cockroach or any creepy crawly scurries past.

F**k! – My upbringing and innate prudery prevents me from spelling out the entire word, but this is an all-encompassing, comprehensive and commonly employed expletive to denote any extreme negative emotion, but can also be employed in a positive context. As in, ‘F**k, you’re a genius bro.’

Gadzooks! – This old-fashioned exclamation dates back to the early 1600s but remained in vogue through to the late Victorian era. It’s an example of what’s known as a ‘minced oath.’ That is to say you actually want to say ‘F**k,’ but need to water it down to ‘Gadzooks.’ Add ‘Grrrr’, if you approach Snoopy gnawing on a bone.

Ho-hum – Indicates extreme boredom or resignation. Nowadays, people just rudely interject with ‘boring.’

Ick! – Gross.

Jiminy cricket! –  An archaic muted oath for ‘Jesus Christ’, expressing shock, horror or revulsion. Today, we just say ‘Jeeez-us.’

Ka-boom! – ‘I heard an explosion, “Ka-boom.” Like a gas main going off. It was only a car backfiring.’

La-di-dah – Pretentious and snobbish. ‘She and her Gucci bag and la-di-dah accent. Makes me sick.’

Mar gaya! – You’ve just got news that the Sensex has tanked 1000 points. That’s when you go, ‘Mar gaya!’ If it tanks 2000 points you go, ‘F**k my brains.’

Nyet – ‘No can do’ in Russian, which we often employ to impress others of our knowledge of a foreign tongue!

Ooh-la-la! – Very French, very Maurice Chevalier. When you want to appreciate anything beautiful, especially the female of the species, you go ‘Ooh-la-la.’ Then there’s ‘Ouch’ when your finger is caught in a door jamb, and ‘Oops!’ when you spill hot tea down your guest’s shirtfront.

Pssst! – The hissing sound you make when you wish to draw someone’s attention without anybody else noticing. Also ‘pooh pooh’, when you’re being dismissive, and dog ‘poo’ for you-know-what.

Quack – derived from the sound made by ducks, and also used to describe a doctor who doesn’t know his arm from his elbow. Arm can be substituted with a colloquial term beginning with ‘a’, to describe the human bottom.

Rah-rah – to display exaggerated fervour and excitement as in, ‘a great deal of rah-rah was witnessed during Modi’s visit to the US.’

Shush!As the sound of the word suggests, indicating to someone to ‘shut the f**k up.’

Tut-tut – A traditional sound of disapproval, as in, ‘Tut-tut, mind your language.’ Or Winnie the Pooh’s memorable ‘Tut tut, it looks like rain.’ In India when a baby does its No. 2 business, one would say ‘Baby tuttee kiya.’ Forgive the frequent scatological references. Needs must.

Ugh! –  You go ‘Ugh’ when something disgusts you, like Snoopy’s ‘poo’ on your front doormat. There I go again!

Voila! – Magicians say ‘Voila’ when they pull the rabbit out of a hat or cleave a hapless woman in twain. Common folk use it to let others know they know one word in French.

Wee-wee – Your three-year old has done its No.1 business on your friend’s Persian carpet. ‘Mummee, I went wee-wee on the carpet.’ And let’s not forget the pig that ‘cried wee wee wee all the way home!’

XXX – Do not smuggle in a DVD into your home with an XXX rating. Waste of money. You can get it all on Netflix.

Yuck! – Same as ‘ick’, only more gross.

Zap – A non-word denoting utter and startled surprise. ‘I was “zapped” out of my mind when Beyonce wafted into my room.’ And if you’re famished, you can order a ‘Zinger’ from McDonald’s.

That’s it. I am done. ‘Phew.’

gandhi 150@bapujimail.com

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Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday came. On October 2nd. As it always does. And went. As it always does. A bit low key, I thought, the celebrations. I have known previous birthdays of the Mahatma celebrated with greater gusto, as indeed has been the case with Chacha Nehru’s birthday, marked down for posterity as Children’s Day. This may only be my imagination, but what with all the incessant chatter about the Modi / Trump affair in the US, the Modi / Imran joust at the UN, Imran doing all the jousting, and the threatened face-off at the LOC, the Gandhiji birthday landmark has been pushed to the background somewhat. There have been snide words from the Opposition about the present BJP dispensation using the occasion to cynically push their own Swacch Bharat campaign at the very home of Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram, and questioning if that was in decent taste. Seeing as Gandhi himself was a great advocate of cleanliness and tried to get across the message to all his fellow Indians by setting a stirring example (not sure how successfully), our Prime Minister’s attempt to fast track the Clean and Open Defecation Free India agenda even further and seminally on October 2nd, was an apposite idea.

We will doubtless read and hear from historians, politicians and journalists, all about Gandhi’s relevance in this day and age, if he is only a fading memory or a shining beacon of inspiration. Gandhi’s benign face, now a brand logo, is pinned to lapels of jackets only as a shoddy badge of honour by the leaders of our nation, with nary a thought to treating him as a true Father of the Nation. Only lip service and cosmetic acknowledgment is paid to the values he espoused. The problem is that Gandhi has been elevated to the status of a Godhead (some might say deservingly), but that exalted position at times precludes an objective debate on the pluses and minuses of his mammoth contribution. Some distinguished thinkers in the past have asserted that one should critically assess the role of Gandhi as a great human being, that he was subject to human frailties, and not blindly deify him. That school of thought was given short shrift by the powers that be and did not have many takers. You might as well try and find fault with Lord Rama. As indeed, some have and not without reason. With little to show for it.

It therefore leaves not very much for me to expand on the Mahatma’s influence on India and the world. Sadly, Gandhi was shockingly slain just as India was beginning to preen itself to the world as a free country, a much longed for status that he fought so valiantly to achieve. ‘Fought’ is not the mot juste when speaking of the peacable Gandhi, but you get my drift. It helped that the British were themselves finding things too hot to handle in India and were desperately seeking avenues to beat a hasty retreat, but Gandhi’s relentless non-violent Satyagraha movement which included the statement making Dandi March, were the main triggers that opened the doors to let in fresh breezes that Indians had not experienced for centuries. Leading to millions revering him. In my constant quest to try and imagine what Gandhi would have thought about how things have turned out in his beloved country over the 71 years since his passing, I have attempted an apocryphal interview with him in the fond hope that my mind reading abilities have not completely deserted me. So, dear reader, imagine if you will, the Mahatma seated comfortably on the floor in his clean and spotless ashram, spinning assiduously his charkha or chakra, as some prefer to erroneously call the spinning wheel.

Question – ‘Bapu, you tragically left us, totally bereft, on January 30th 1948, victim of a shockingly successful assassination attempt. Now that 71 years have passed since that monumental tragedy, what are your thoughts on a day when the nation is celebrating your 150th birthday?’

Gandhi – ‘My young friend, is it not magical that at the age of 150, I can see and hear you so clearly? And that I continue to spin this charkha with so much dexterity? It is as if my age was frozen at 79 years when I fell to Nathuram Godse’s bullets. You may think all this is unreal and that you are in a dream and will suddenly wake up. Let me just say that as long as you are dreaming, accept my words as reality. Clean living and pure thoughts will also keep you young. Not just mentally, but physically. That is the message I would like to give all my beloved brothers and sisters, no matter what their age.’

Question – ‘That is so amazing, Bapu. If this is a dream, I fervently hope I will never wake up. Tell me Bapu, does it pain you to see that after toiling so hard for India’s freedom, we are still struggling to fight corruption, petty political squabbles, poverty and hunger on such a large scale?’

Gandhi – ‘Of course these things you mention fill me with great sadness. But you know what they say, “Rome was not built in a day.” It takes time. The 72 years since we achieved Independence, is just a grain of sand or a drop in the ocean, in terms of a country’s ability to lift itself up from foreign bondage, become self-reliant and hold its head up in the comity of nations. Patience is required. And I am very glad to see that things are moving in the right direction. You have a point about political squabbles. It happens all over the world. I won’t worry too much about it. Corruption will gradually vanish once prosperity for all is experienced. It is a matter of time. Plenty of time.’

Question – ‘So well said, Bapu. Changing the subject altogether, I thought I should bring you up to speed on some technological developments since your departure. We have these things called computers, mobile phones and the internet. Extraordinary gadgets and services. For instance, if I were to send you a mail or a message, it would reach you instantly. Blink of an eye. If you permit, I would like to open an email account for you (gandhi150@bapujimail.com), as well as a Facebook account and Twitter handle. The ‘hits’ you will get will beat all internet records. Just say the word Bapu, and I will take care of the rest.’

Gandhi – ‘You appear to be speaking English, though I cannot follow a word. But if these new-fangled things you speak of enable me to communicate with my people from my heavenly abode, I will not come in the way of your initiative. Though I will need guidance. Speaking of “hits” I guarantee you Hitler will get far more “hits” than I can ever hope for!’

Question – ‘Ha, ha. That is so cool, Bapu. They always said you were a modernist. Incidentally, I don’t know how you are placed for entertainment in heaven, but did you get a chance to see Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi? It won a pile of Oscars, and Ben Kingsley looked more like you than you do yourself. If that is not an absurd statement.’

Gandhi – ‘It is an absurd statement, but I understand what you are saying. Though I don’t know much about the internet, I did see Gandhi at a special private screening arranged by Attenborough himself. And I must say, I was truly impressed. You are right about Ben Kingsley’s “dead ringer” looks and brilliant portrayal. If I must cavil, his body was much too taut and well-muscled compared to my rather frail frame. I thought Nehru and Jinnah were a bit contrived, but then you can’t have everything. They were a bit contrived in real life as well.’

Question – ‘I shall refrain from responding to the contrivance comment. People back home are very thin skinned. Finally Bapu, what do you feel about the celebrations down below on your 150th birthday?’

Gandhi – ‘I am very glad it is not being overdone, and that my memory is being celebrated by dedicating the day to cleaning up India, in every sense of the word. Please convey my warm regards to Prime Minister Modi, a man from my state of Gujarat and a man after my own heart.’

I raised my head from my Note Pad and, lo and behold, Bapu had vanished into the ether. At the same time, my mobile alarm went off. It was 5 am and I was in my bedroom, rubbing my eyes in disbelief. Was it all an impossible dream? Then this happens. When I switched on the room lights, I saw a pair of spindly wire spectacles lying on my bedside table and a bamboo walking stick leaning against my work table. ‘It can’t be’, I said to myself.

Happy birthday, Bapu.

Elvis Presley, the Father of India

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The redoubtable President of the United States of America Donald Trump, went head to head, in the nicest possible way, with the indefatigable Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. At Houston, Texas. There were hugs and kisses, and a few near misses. But at the heart of the mammoth, fanatical and hugely impressive gathering of the Indian diaspora, Modi and Trump made nice with each other. Amul butter wouldn’t have melted in their mouths. The love feast continued in New York, on the side lines of the UN General Assembly.

 In the midst of all the bonhomie and backslapping (let’s hope there’s no backstabbing), what stood out most, making for great copy and banner headlines, was the US President’s stunning double whammy of calling our PM ‘the Father of India’ and likening him to ‘America’s version’ of pop icon and rock star, Elvis ‘The King’ Presley. What he probably meant was India’s version of Elvis Presley, but we will let that minor solecism pass. Trump’s contemporary description of Modi as ‘the Father of India’ came perilously close to the time honoured ‘Father of the Nation’ label, exclusively reserved for Mahatma Gandhi. Whether Trump was aware of this and cleverly substituted ‘Nation’ with ‘India’ or if it was just a fortuitous happenstance, we shall never know, but for now Big Daddy has a new avatar, and his opponents are not amused.

It then occurred to me that, had Donald Trump carefully planned to introduce the Elvis motif deliberately into the conversation, which was not the case (it was clearly spontaneous), he might have summoned his think tank in advance to name check a set of Elvis the Pelvis’ major hits and cleverly juxtapose them with both Trump’s and Modi’s respective political scenarios. It has now fallen to yours truly to take up the slack and do something about it. In my callow youth, I was a big fan of Elvis Presley’s oeuvre, and I thought it would be a bit of a blast to see what I can do with some of his fabulous numbers and relate them to our topic of discussion. So here goes:-

Jailhouse Rock – ‘The warden threw a party in the county jail / The prison band was there and they began to wail.Those are the opening lines of that blockbuster hit, and what better way for India’s version of Elvis, our beloved Prime Minister to visit Tihar Jail, than with a song on his lips and a word of good cheer to his dear friends, P. Chidambaram, D.K. Shivakumar and several other detainees with a huge price tag on their heads. This being the festive Navaratri and Diwali season, he could distribute sweets, light a few lamps, all just to show there’s no ill feeling. Also sending out a message to Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi that their cells are being kept warm for them in Tihar.

It’s Now or Never (‘O Sole Mio)We will never know whether the PM and his Home Minister had this wonderful Elvis song in mind when they decided to abrogate Article 370, but they certainly did not allow the grass to grow under their feet when they took the bold call on the vexatious Jammu and Kashmir issue. They discussed, decided and declared. And Parliament (both of them – Rajya and Lok), roared in assent. Macbeth would have approved, ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’

All Shook UpStill on Article 370, many people across our borders and indeed, even in this country, were ‘all shook up.’ India’s avatar of Elvis would have been fully aware of this, but as he himself might have put it had he been aware of the phrase, in this case paraphrase, ‘you cannot make an omelette without shaking up a few eggs.’ Being a strict vegetarian he might have employed a more acceptable culinary reference, but you get the picture.

A Little Less ConversationMany critics of the Trump / Modi tête-à-tête in the United States felt there was too much chatter on both sides, and fretted if the leaders would be able to put their money where their mouths were. Cynics will always be cynics, but with Elvis as their abiding inspiration, I feel confident that in the months to come, there will be more action and less conversation. Which may or may not suit Im the Dim from across our western borders, but we can only wait and watch. What was that unforgettable line from Eli Wallach in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? ‘If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.’

Return to SenderThis well-known postal terminology, which Elvis (Presley, that is) put to good use in his frustrated love song, has acquired a new meaning and gravitas in the present world geo-political environment. Essentially, the song title captures the policy of the nuclear deterrent to a nicety. Trump and his soul mate Modi, are pretty much saying the same thing to their adversaries. ‘We have the bomb, but have no wish to use it. We want peace. Should you, however, in a moment of sheer madness, decide to press the button, rest assured it will be “returned to sender”. With interest.’ That’s telling them.

SuspicionMany decades ago, the singing sensation from Memphis, Tennessee warned the world that constant mutual suspicion can only torment your heart. Not too many world politicians took heed of the words of this sage with the golden voice. And most of them came to grief. Today, India’s answer to Elvis (at least in Modi’s opinion), is eloquently fighting not just for world peace, but also for climate change and a clean environment. ‘Swacch Bharat’ is his clarion call, and he is being heard loud and clear. If only more people were less suspicious.

Suspicious MindsAnother brilliant hit from Elvis, with the same sentiments as ‘Suspicion.’ I am only featuring it to show how dedicated the great man was to remove this cancerous emotion that he had two hits with the same theme. No wonder world leaders like Trump are quoting him at every turn.

The Wonder of YouWhen Trump and Modi were introducing each other to the 50,000+ crowds in Houston, you could have been forgiven for blanching just a wee bit at the overblown praise, bordering on hero worship, gushing back and forth from both leaders. Many watching this on television here in India may have been squirming in their seats. But then, this is politics baby. In their defence, it must be said that the bosses appeared to be truly in awe of each other – a Mutual Admiration Society. The crowds loved it, and Elvis hit the nail on the head again with ‘The Wonder of You.’

(You’re the) Devil in DisguiseThere are many in India and the United States who would be only too ready to concur with this particular Elvis song title, with reference to the two towering heads of state we are discussing. Good thing is if you are elected to be the captain of the ship, you have to learn to take storm tossed seas and hurricanes with equanimity, a quality both Modi and Trump possess in spades.

Always on my MindAs Modi and Trump took leave of each other from Houston, as they waved goodbye, they seemed to be telling each other that they will always be on each other’s minds. I am not sure if Trump, applying his handkerchief to his left eye was to staunch impending tears, or to take care of an errant gnat, but the scene was high on emotion. Like Elvis’ song.

I would like to conclude this essay by thanking Donald Trump for bringing Elvis Presley into the equation. From an American President showering praise on an Indian Prime Minister, there could not have been a more telling compliment. Bob Dylan wouldn’t have cut it. Nor would Babe Ruth. But Elvis? You betcha!

A celestial get-together of friendly spirits

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The Annual Convention of India’s Celebrity Ghosts happened recently at the lavish Seventh Heaven Resort somewhere in the Milky Way. The fact that such an extraordinary gathering was taking place at all, became known to me through an Ouija board seance in which I decided to participate with some of my madcap friends who, I was convinced, were doing this for a lark, a throwback to our carefree, nostalgic boarding school days. Shades of Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five’ and their crazy capers. My lunatic pals went a step further. Having fixed a precise time in which to activate the planchette and contact our angelic forefathers and mothers, not in the biological sense, the time to meet was fixed at the witching hour, between 2 and 4 am. Although we treated the whole thing as one big joke, a couple of stiff drinks did help us face an uncertain prospect and wipe away our silly, scared-out-of-our-wits grins. And settle our rumbling stomachs. In order to please the invited ‘ghosts’, a plate of sumptuous chicken or veg biryani (depending on the intended angelic recipient’s dietary preference) was to be placed next to the planchette. That was the accepted practice. Purely as a symbolic gesture. Guess what? The plate was licked spotlessly clean when the housemaid arrived the next morning! As to ‘who ate the biryani,’ the maid was in indignant denial, and it wasn’t the resident cat either. Eerie.

While I was still sniggering, my mind doubtless clouded over by the intake of spirits and being in an inexplicably happy state, I suddenly found myself thrown violently into some other dimension. Just like that. One minute I was very much earth bound, the next minute I was transported to some nether world I was trying to come to grips with. When I came to, I could not believe what I saw. I materialized out of thin air and found myself gazing at the imposingly crafted iron gates of the Seventh Heaven Resort, the place awash with a sea of great and late Indians standing in groups enjoying their heavenly nectar, along with some toothsome starters. A silk banner proclaiming the ‘Annual Convention of Celebrity Ghosts – India Chapter’ was draped across the gates. I had, unknowingly, gatecrashed into this incredible get-together. It was time to get to work.  

I spotted Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore straightaway and buttonholed him. ‘Tell me Rabi da, it’s all very well writing feelingly about the mind being without fear and knowledge being free. Have you any idea what it is like to get admission into a good school in India these days?’

‘Arre Babu moshai, don’t rub it in,’ said the great Bard stroking his flowing white beard. ‘I tried to push my great, great, great grandson into St. Xavier’s School in Kolkata last week. I paid a surprise visitation to the Principal’s office to put my two pice bit in. But before I could say anything, he saw my apparition and collapsed in a heap, dead as a door nail. For all I know, he might be amongst those present at this party. Khub kharab awastha.’ So saying he simply wafted off into the ether, muttering something unintelligible about ‘Keep me fully glad with nothing. Only take my hand in your hand.’-

I decided to keep my hands to myself, left the dead poet’s society and looked around for another prey, and hey presto, whom do I run into but Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. I sidled up and ingratiated myself to India’s first Prime Minister by adjusting the rose on his patented, eponymous jacket. ‘Good evening, Panditji,’ I hesitantly greeted. ‘You look spiffing in your Nehru jacket. But what is happening to the party you led with such pride and panache? I mean, Soniaji, Rahulji, Priyankaji – do you think they have the stomach for a real fight in the trenches? That too against Shah and Modi, with no one to turn to but the likes of Mamata, Mulayam, Akhilesh, Chandrababu and Stalin?’

‘Stalin?’ Panditji expostulated. ‘Surely, he died long before me. 1953, if I am not in error.’ I quickly put him right.

‘No, no Panditji, you misunderstand me. I am talking about the DMK leader, Karunanidhi’s son.’

‘Thank God for that’, cried the relieved former PM. ‘For a moment, I thought the Russian supremo had ghosted in here, uninvited. Incidentally, why should a leader from Tamil Nadu be called Stalin? Beats me.’

‘That’s Tamil Nadu, Panditji. Almost another country.  They even have a cricketer named Washington, who plays for India. To get back to the Congress Party’s present parlous state, Panditji’ I said, steering the conversation back on track.

‘Don’t worry my fine, feathered friend, the Congress Party will survive and come back strongly,’ declared Panditji, motioning to a serving wraith for a refill. ‘I am sitting down after this party with Indira beti, Rajiv baba and Sanju baba and drawing up a master plan for all future elections. Narasimha Rao is also here, but I’ll keep him out, for the sake of domestic peace. And if you’ll pardon my quoting myself, “at the stroke of the midnight hour, India will awake……”’

I couldn’t take any more of that. I had had it ‘up to here’ with that midnight hour stuff since my school days. But I did have one more question for Nehruji. ‘Tell me Panditji, everyone is blaming you for heeding Lord Mountbatten’s ‘request’ not to annexe POK, which you could so easily have done. Instead, you ran to the UN for a solution. Has the UN ever solved anything? And now look at the pickle you have landed us in. And why did you give up the offer of a prestigious seat at the UN Security Council to replace China? Hindi-Chini bhai bhai? That Zhou Enlai pulled a real number on you! What were you thinking, Panditji, if you’ll pardon the cheek?’

Bristling, Nehruji riposted, ‘That’s two questions and I will not pardon the cheek. What is more, I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me and my progeny. What’s even more, Sheikh Abdullah is approaching this way and I wish to make myself scarce. So be off with you, you silly earth man.’

I know when I am beaten. Smartly avoiding Morarji Desai, who appeared to be sipping on a straw coloured cocktail of his own concoction, I spotted Bharat Ratna and Nobel Laureate for Physics Dr. C.V.Raman. The place was crawling with Nobel Laureates and Bharat Ratnas. Nursing a glass of masala buttermilk, as is his wont, he seemed lost in thought muttering to himself, ‘virtual and vibrational energy states, infrared absorption leading to the Stokes and Anti Stokes Raman scattering….’

I butted in. ‘Sorry to intrude on your flow, Raman Sir, but I couldn’t help noticing that there’s plenty of crackling static in India about Ramanujan. Biopics are being made, and the media can’t seem to get enough of him. Why are you being ignored?’

Dr. Raman was peeved. ‘Siva, Siva, you are a real Narada, aren’t you, my mischievous friend, whose credentials I haven’t the faintest notion of. Trying to sow discord between me and the estimable Ramanujan. By the by, is he here? I wish him well, and may he shine in Bollywood as well. You see, I have nothing against Ramanujan, other than the fact that he was obsessed with numbers and could dazzle everyone with his brilliant calculations. Like our recently joined colleague, Shakuntala Devi. There is also this Iyer Iyengar thing, which your simple, uncomplicated mind will not comprehend.’ So saying, he trailed off, humming Tyagaraja’s immortal classic in the raga Reetigowla, ‘Dvaitamu Sukhama, Advaitamu Sukhama.’

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was well versed in Carnatic music, and fully au fait with ‘this Iyer Iyengar thing.’ Luckily, I was saved from further musical snatches from The Trinity, when I spied with my little eye, former Indian cricket captain, the great Lala Amarnath raising a toast with Vijay Merchant, C.K. Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali. And as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi joined them, swirling a Glencairn glass of Balvenie, all the other celebrities surrounded them for selfies. Cricketers! Everyone wants a piece of them. And you could have knocked me down with a feather, when I looked at the selfie on Tiger Pataudi’s Samsung I10. I was not in the picture, though I know for a fact I was sitting right in front, at Panditji’s feet! That was scarily weird. As I was leaving the party wondering how to access the gravitational pull back to earth, I thought I heard Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s voice from a distance speaking on his mobile. ‘Howdy, Modi’, he seemed to be saying, though I couldn’t be sure.

I was almost past the magnificent gates of heaven when I beheld the Mahatma approaching slowly. And as if by divine intercession, all the drinks in everybody’s hands had turned to masala buttermilk. Pataudi was not best pleased. ‘Hey Ram’, sighed the Mahatma, and wearily sat down cross-legged and asked for a glass of goat’s milk, his favourite tipple. He then gestured to Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi, standing demurely in a corner, to come forward and render his favourite Meera bhajan, ‘Hari tum haro.’ Everyone else stood stock still.

Fly me to the dark side of the moon

It’s not often one can manage to weave in Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd in the same headline and achieve a happy serendipity vis-à-vis the subject on hand. What can I say? I shall affect a false modesty, shrug my shoulders and go, ‘It just came to me.’ Those of you not quite in tune with the oeuvre of western popular music may approach Google search for enlightenment. So much for preliminary pourparlers.

Now then, listen up everyone. Please gather round and let’s hear it for all our heroes and heroines from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who worked their socks off and burned the candle at both ends, to say nothing of the midnight oil, to put Chandrayaan 2 on the moon. Well, more or less. To be precise, the Vikram Lander was tasked with the touchdown, and the Orbiter living up to its name – orbiting the moon and taking pictures. There have been some minor hiccups, but let’s put that to one side. For now, you can raise your glasses, holler three cheers, shout hip-hip hooray, blow squeakers, jump up and down, in fact all the things you are accustomed to doing whenever India wins the World Cup. Which is twice, last I checked.  I am referring to cricket and not football (that’ll be the day). Seriously folks, getting back to Chandrayaan 2.0, to accord it its fashionably current terminology, this is one achievement about which we can all be fully justified in going over the moon. Sorry folks, but this is moon puns time. That said, let us pause for a moment, gather our thoughts and try to recollect what it was that Chandrayaan 1.0 accomplished. Stands to reason, if there’s a C2, there ought to have been a C1. And this is what my snooping around yielded.

In simple layman’s terms, eschewing all the scientific gobbledygook which most of us will struggle to comprehend, C1 was primarily involved in orbiting the moon and gathering loads of information including sophisticated imaging and to see if there’s any spare water on the lunar surface that we thirsty earthlings are so concerned about. I may be guilty of oversimplification, but that’s as far as I am prepared to go. C2 has been doing pretty much all that its older sibling achieved, but with one major exception. Its remit was to actually land on the south or dark side of the moon, a feat not attempted so far by the other space heavyweights. Vikram was to be the Lander. The promised landing did not actually take place, at least not at the first time of asking, the blip vanishing off ISRO’s radar screens some 2.1 kms shy of the surface of the golden orb. The whole of India was hoping and praying that this devoutly wished consummation would eventuate, putting India firmly on the moon map, with the rest of the big boys involved in the space race. While that did not quite happen to ISRO’s complete satisfaction, our scientists have still shown they’ve got what it takes to keep India striving for greater things in the future. Take a bow, ISRO.

One issue to ponder over C1, which was launched in 2008. Official sources are silent as to what exactly happened to this satellite, and one version has it that it went off the radar at some point in 2009, after concluding much of its appointed tasks, and was never heard of since. Probably sucked in by what Isaac Asimov might have termed ‘the third dimension’, akin to the Bermuda Triangle. We shan’t speculate any further on C1 as our thoughts are currently engaged with the supreme challenges of C2.

 Our indefatigable Prime Minister was with the scientists at ISRO HQ in Bangalore all the way through the ebb and flow of tidal emotions that must have buffeted everyone involved. That we fell just a wee bit short of the ultimate goal of a perfect landing did not deter the PM in the slightest. He had stirring words of encouragement to all those who had toiled sleeplessly for months on this immense project. Displaying his inimitable chutzpah, the leader of the nation exhorted all concerned to hold their heads high and be proud of what they’ve achieved – and that more exciting challenges are on the anvil. Narendra Modi has certainly shown a thumbs up to foster the scientific temper of the nation. His emotional and extended embrace with the humble head of ISRO’s operations, K. Sivan, was touching. He appeared to be echoing Kipling’s immortal words, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; and treat those two impostors just the same; yours is the earth and everything that’s in it; and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!’

While we continue to await more information on what C2 has been able to achieve (ISRO claims a 90 to 95% success, a claim swiftly mocked by the Cassandras), there are a couple of things which happened here on earth that left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth. Opposition firebrand, Mamata Banerjee had to put her maladroit oar in to criticise the government, the PM in particular, for spending so much time on the C2 project when more pressing matters here at home needed urgent attention. She dubbed it a ‘distraction’, a comment that did not go down well with most denizens of the country. Methinks the lady doth protest too much! She did attempt to make amends later on by joining several luminaries in lauding the efforts of ISRO (taking care to keep the PM out of the encomiums), despite the project falling fractionally short of attaining its stated objective. That said, her attempts to soften the blow appeared more like a case of ‘damning with faint praise’.

Media coverage of the C2 event, as the hour of reckoning approached, was disproportionately over the top. All the television channels were clearly playing the usual game of one-upmanship which we have grown accustomed to. However, most channels seemed to have puzzlingly pre-decided that the operation was an unqualified success. The grammatical tense in which the hyperventilating anchors talked up the event, with exaggerated nationalistic fervour and rah-rah-ing, was that it was a done deal. All this while C2 was still on its way to the lunar surface, and no one had any fingernails left. Talk about counting chickens before they are hatched! If one can adduce a cricketing analogy, it was rather akin to popping the champagne corks while the last wicket was still at the crease. If you’ve been following the ongoing Ashes series, you will know the last wicket can often prove to be a stumbling block. Everyone put on a brave face when the final denouement became agonisingly apparent, and for once, most of the opposition members joined the government in lavishing plaudits for the sterling efforts of ISRO. The praise was tinged with a touch of consoling, but that was kosher under the circumstances. Anything to the contrary would have landed them firmly in the soup. They have plenty of other sticks to beat the government with.

In sum, the nation was fully engaged in Chandrayaan 2’s brilliant tilt at the lunar windmills, the populace waxing and waning, like the moon, as it neared its target. The jury is still out as to the level of success it achieved and is still to achieve. The situation is ongoing. As we go to press, there is some susurration over reports that a thermal image of the Lander Vikram has been spotted by Orbiter, but ISRO is loath to give away anything more. Understandably playing its cards close to its chest. They have, however, confirmed touchdown, though not with the pinpoint accuracy hoped for, which has led to some communication issues with the Lander. All hands are on deck to try and solve the problem, but with each passing day, hopes are receding. Fingers are being kept firmly crossed.

This much we can say. The moon mission kept Kashmir, the economy, the auto industry crisis and mind-numbingly boring, domestic politics out of the headlines for a while. That’s something to cheer about. Despite the setbacks, ISRO has come out of this smelling of roses, which no one will begrudge. To importunate questions on why we spend so much time and expense on the moon, the answer is, ‘Because it’s there.’ As singer songwriter Joni Mitchell so simply puts it, ‘At least the moon at the window, the thieves left that behind.’

Illustration kind courtesy of Raghupathy Sringeri

One set off Federer does not a summer make

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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.’