Wednesday, December 23, 2015


I am a member of an online group of quizzers. I came across question the Santa Tracker which is used for following his progress through U.S. military radar. What also caught my attention was an interesting story behind it.
Col. Harry Shoup's of the Continental Air Defense Command, now known as NORAD, had two phones on his desk, including a red one which was a hotline. Only a four-star general at the Pentagon knew the number (ME6681). 
It was the time of the Cold War, and the  straight-laced and disciplined Colonel would have been the first to know if there was an attack on the United States. The hotline was use in such emergencies.
The airmen had a big glass board with the maps of the United States and Canada on it, and when airplanes would come in they would track them.
One day in the second half of December 1955, the red phone rang one day. An anxious Shoup answered it.
At the other end was a small voice that just asked, 'Is this Santa Claus?' 
The stern soldier was annoyed and upset by the call. He thought it was a joke and yelled back profanities into the mouthpiece — but then, he heard the little voice crying.
It was then that he realized that it wasn't a joke, after all. So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho'd and asked if he had been a good boy and, 'May I talk to your mother?' 
Things cleared up after talking to the mother for a while. She asked, 'You haven't seen the paper yet? There's a phone number to call Santa. It is ME6681. It's in the Sears Toyland ad.' 
The Santa Tracker tradition started with this Sears ad, which instructed children to call Santa on what turned out to be a secret military hotline. Kids today can call 1-877 HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) to talk to NORAD staff about Santa's exact location.

The Santa Tracker tradition started with this Sears ad, which instructed children to call Santa on what turned out to be a secret military hotline. Kids today can call 1-877 HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) to talk to NORAD staff about Santa's exact location.
Courtesy of NORAD
The Colonel looked it up. There it was, his red phone number. 
It got to be a big joke at the command center. Before they could say 'Sorry, wrong number', they had children calling one after another.
So the Colonel put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus. The airmen were amused that the old man had really flipped his lid this time and they were answering Santa calls at the Continental Air Defense Command. 
It did not end there. On Christmas Eve of 1955, when the Colonel walked into his office, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole.
The Colonel winced. 'What is that?' 
'Colonel, we're sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down?' The airmen asked.
The Colonel looked at it for a while, and next thing you know, he called the radio station and had said, 'This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.'
Well, the radio stations would call him every hour and ask, 'Where's Santa now?'
And later in life he got letters from all over the world, people saying, 'Thank you, Colonel,' for having this sense of humor. And in his 90s, he would carry those letters around with him in a briefcase that had a lock on it like it was top-secret information. He was an important guy, but this is the thing he's proudest of and known for. 
To think that all this started in 1955, with a misprint in a Colorado Springs newspaper!


I was on a short three-day trip to Malappuram. I was not too eager about a stint there because we consider is a 'less developed' town compared to other 'civilised' municipalities and corporations in Kerala.
I was put up in the best accommodation available here for people visiting the town, but that is not saying much. As the restaurant attached to it was closed, I chose to walk down to the eatery nearby rather than ask the room boy to get me my dinner.
I had a quick bite. As I stepped out, my eyes fell on a small contraption on the outer wall. The legend it bore - Food on Wall - was intriguing. It was a wooden box with two compartments, both open at the top. On one was written 'Breakfast' and on the other 'Meals'.

I was curious. Two young men who looked like locals were standing nearby. I asked them about this. They said it was a recent initiative of the Municipality. Jointly launched in association with the local hotels and restaurants owners' association, one of the two told me, the objective of the Scheme is to ensure that nobody in Malappuram goes hungry.
Anybody can buy a token or more from the restaurant - Rs 30 for a Breakfast token and Rs 50 for a Meals token - and drop them in the respective boxes. Anyone who cannot pay for his food can come, pick up a token, walk into the restaurant and order food after surrendering the token.
What a dignified way of offering and receiving charity! The donor does not know who the receiver is; the beneficiary does not know whose act charity fills his stomach.
Another initiative of the Municipality in the same direction, the other young man explained, is the installation of refrigerators at a few points in the town. They are accessible to anyone: those who have food to spare - restaurants, individuals hosting parties etc - can leave the surplus food there in the containers provided and those who need it can pick up what they want from the fridge.
All 'developed' towns can take a leaf out of this, but will they?
I had read about the 'Coffee on the Wall' project in some cities abroad, but to think that our humble Malappuram can emulate it!


They say that people in this world can be divided into two: those who have read P G Wodehouse, and those who haven’t. The second category may not be disgruntled at the loss, but, to use a PGW phrase, will surely be “far from gruntled”.
PGW is often described as “greatest musician of the English language” and has indeed made a world for us to escape into and delight in. When life shoots its arrows, many of us, like Bertie, would retire to The Drones Club, or Blandings, if you prefer.
The unfortunate beings know not what they have missed. Some sample quotes:
“An apple a day, if well-aimed, keeps the doctor away.”
“You are one of those guys who can make a party just by leaving it. It is a great gift.”
“She had a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.”
“He came in and went out so quickly that he met himself at the door”.
“She had more curves than a scenic railway,”
“She has got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity that the girl who marries you will need.”
“Everything in life that’s any fun, as someone has wisely observed, is either immoral, illegal or fattening.”
“She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when’.”
“I always advise people never to give advice.”
A caveat: I should not be blamed if anyone belonging to the second category is induced to beg, borrow or steal any one of PGW’s oeuvre.


Most of us don’t understand the difference between single malt and blended whisky except that the former is considered (Mind you, just 'considered') more 'classy'. Most of us even do not know the difference between whiskey and whisky. The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey, with an 'e'. Whiskey with the 'e' is also used when referring to American whiskies.
This article I found this somewhere on the net tells us much more. I thought that it is worth sharing because it contains information one may not find elsewhere.
Blended whisky, which comprises more than 80% of the market, including brands like Johnnie Walker and Dewars, is a mix of malt and grain whiskies that come from multiple distilleries. Single malt, which Scottish drinkers often refer to as malt rather than whisky (and never Scotch, like it’s known elsewhere around the world, is whisky created from malted barley at one distillery).
Single malts aren’t necessarily always better than blends, but most of Scotland’s highest regarded and most expensive whiskies are the former. Blended whiskies are smoother and easier to drink; malt can be almost overwhelming in flavour, a drink most work their way up to.
The vast majority of malt comes from three major whisky-producing regions. The Highlands (roughly the northern half of Scotland) and Speyside (in the country’s northeast) are both easily accessible from major cities, and their whiskies are relatively accessible to the malt novice, characterised by smooth, floral, often delicate flavours.
Then there’s Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, about 32km off the coast of Northern Ireland. If you’re a seasoned malt drinker, chances are you have a bottle from Islay in your liquor cabinet. If, on the other hand, you tried Scotch whisky for the first time and hated it, thought it was too smoky, or tasted like medicine or ashtrays, it probably came from Islay.
Islay whiskies get their signature flavour from smoking peat – the same vegetation that Scots have long been burning to heat their homes – in order to dry the malted barley used to create whisky. The results are polarising; some purists believe the peat takes away from the true flavour of the whisky, others become addicted, perpetually searching for something peatier.
Laphroaig, on the other end of the island and the other end of the peat spectrum, unapologetically overwhelms the palate with peat. Laphroaig’s recent “Opinions Welcome” campaign received feedback that varied from “like chewing on a well-tarred fishing boat” to “drinking the inside of an antique store”. The opinion that resonated most with me reads, “It’s like fighting a peat bog monster that is on fire, but suddenly you both pause, look in one another’s eyes and kiss.”
Wine drinkers like to talk about terroir: the environmental condition, geology and geography that give a wine (and the grapes that make it) its unique flavour. However, it takes a connoisseur of snobbish proportions to know a wine’s exact origin from a blind taste. Even an amateur drinker would probably know in one sip whether a whisky came from Islay. The whisky truly tastes like Islay, distilled – of the peat bogs that cover the island, of the smoke and fire used to stay warm during a seemingly endless winter, of the salty aftertaste of the sea.
Distilleries are near magical places, where alchemy meets science to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. They are also museums of smells, where each room has a beautiful and distinct scent.
There is a certain protocol to ordering malt in Scotland. First, please don’t call it Scotch. It’s whisky or malt. Second, unless you want to be the subject of ridicule, don’t order your malt on the rocks. Ice numbs the tongue and melts too fast. You either drink it neat or with a drop of water to open the flavours. Drinking it on the rocks is only acceptable if you’re drinking a blended whisky (or whiskey, if you please).


The other day I went to a shopping mall and was dismayed by the array of clothes on display. What range of colours, textiles and styles! You would just not find two identical pieces, if, for some weird reason, you wanted them.
The experience reminded me of what my mother, nearly ninety now, used to tell me of her childhood. After the schools close for the summer vacation in March every year, her father would start the exercise of 'upgrading the wardrobe' of the family. That, incidentally, was normally the only set of clothes that would be bought during the year. The timing was significant: it was festival time, Vishu being round the corner; and the schools being closed, and there being no occasion to wear them, the clothes would 'remain new' for a few more months than they otherwise would!
It must have been a herculean task for him to mobilise the funds needed to buy enough cloth for the entire extended family. He perhaps had to sell of a chunk of the coconuts harvested or use the proceeds of the cashewnuts or arecanuts or whatever.
Once the resources required for the project were garnered, my grandfather would set off for Tellicherry, which had still not been overtaken by Kannur, the present capital of the district. He would
catch 'the first bus' as was his wont - he believed that if one had to take a bus, it had to be the first. The conductor would offer him his favourite seat - in the front row, next to that of the driver. If that
seat was occupied by some lesser mortal, the conductor would have it vacated for 'Bavunnor' - the corrupt form of his title 'Vazhunnavar' conferred on his forebears by the Pazhassi Raja, meaning 'the one who administers'.
Though he was not expected back until lunchtime, everyone at home would wait, breakfast onwards, with bated breath in anticipation for his return. The ears would perk up for the horn of any vehicle
cruising along the Kannur-Mysore road and, for the next ten minutes - the time it would take for him to walk from the main road, through our private road, to reach the gate of our compound - all eyes would be riveted on the gate.
Finally, he would emerge, by 2 pm, followed by Kittan or Chanthu or Chaatthan carrying two huge rolls of cloth. Each would contain about 30 meters (called a 'kutthu', I think). It was often small checks - white and blue - or white and red; or white and black; or white and grey. That was my first lesson of the economies of scale. Everyone in the family - male, female, young or old - would get an apparel from the same fabric. In an unwitting demonstration of socialism in that feudalistic society, servants too would get clothes from the same roll!
Checks were not de riguer, though: there were, of course, occasions when deviations were permitted. I have an old group photograph at home taken in a year when the theme was possibly the stripe. All men and boys were in striped shirts, all women wore striped blouses and all girls were dressed in striped frocks or skirts. The snap being a sepia print, one cannot tell what colour the stripes were, but my mother distinctly recalls they were blue stripes.
There were no trousers because they were not in vogue among men then: every grown up man wore a white 'mundu' and trousers for boys had by then been 'invented'.
Ananthan was the village tailor. He would make shirts, blouses, frocks and skirts for whoever approached him. Alterations and repairs too were part of his services on offer. It was his practice to pay a visit to the speak-easy on his way home after work. The couple of bottles of the frothy white liquid he would imbibe would loosen his strained muscles and a relaxed Ananthan, now a happier man, would walk back home, a song on his lips.
On the day he returned from Tellicherry, my grandfather would send word for Ananthan. On such days, Ananthan would not visit the toddy shop. Dare he appear before Bavunnor in an inebriated state? He
would come by nightfall and take the measurements for the different garments that needed to be made.
I think there was always the lurking suspicion that the tailor would 'swallow' some of the cloth. Therefore if cloth was enough for, say, eight shirts, order would be placed for nine: 'after all, these are
small boys!' The tailor, who had acquired wisdom from experience, knew this very well, and therefore he would ask for 18 yards where 16 was enough.
One of the greatest applications of averages, I think, was in making shirts for boys. Ananthan would be asked to make a shirt that both the 12-year-old Unni and his 10-year-old cousin Dasan could wear. The
obliging Ananthan would make a shirt that would suit a 11-year-old which would be too tight for Unni and too loose for Dasan! The frock made according to the direction 'Make Vanaja's frock a little longer; she's shooting up!' would tickle her ankles in the first year and her knees in the last year of its life - and fit her exactly for a few months in between!
Shirts being of similar material and more or less the same size used to be the grounds for disputes which were not unusual when a brat, having stained his shirt (cashew fruit being the main culprit) would
stealthily replace it with that of someone who hadn't stained his. The ownership of the shirt was often established by the nature, size and location of the stain: 'That shirt with the small stain of tender
mango on the left pocket is Bhaskaran's.'
Another standing instruction to Ananthan was to make the sleeves of shirts 'a little longer'. The rationale was simple: boys would grow fast.
After all these agonising exercises, the tailor would say that the all the garments would be delivered on 13 April. 'No!' would be the collective scream. That would be too late because Vishu falls on 14 April and we would not be able to wash (How can you wear clothes touched by others?) and dry them before wearing the new clothes on the festive day. 'Give it back at least on 10 April', all would plead. Finally, after. Lot of haggling, he would agree to deliver it on 12 April.
Ananthan's woes would start from the day collects the cloth. Every day we would pass by his shop one by one to see the progress: has he started the job? has he at least cut the cloth? We dared not enter his workplace, peer into the wooden cupboard and find out the status. He might not even have opened the bundle of cloth! As the promised date neared, we would gather more courage and start pestering him. At last, he would open the bundle and cut the cloth for stitching. It did not matter whose shirt - or blouse or frock - he stitched first because my Grandfather had given him strict instructions against piecemeal delivery of the finished product because that would destroy peace at home!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Petrichor and Angostura

In the first half of the 1970s, I was posted in Calcutta. After trying out a few lodging houses, hostels and paying guest arrangements, I moved into the Chowringhee YMCA in Calcutta where I stayed for well over three years. It was on a hot Saturday evening in April 1973, when the city was reeling under the sweltering heat of the summer of Calcutta that I checked in.
Dark clouds had occupied the skies, promising imminent rains. I was afraid the suitcase with my belongings would get drenched, but I was lucky: it started drizzling only after I got out of the cab with my belongings.
As the young Mr Russell, the Assistant Secretary at the reception, went through the admission formalities, I waited in the lounge with the high ceiling, admiring the portraits of the past leaders of the YMCA movement worldwide.
It was pouring by the time I was through. The nor’westers had cooled down the atmosphere, bringing immense relief. “Room No 5, Mr Rajagopalan,” announced Mr Russell matter-of-factly. As if as an afterthought, he added, in clipped accent, “Salim Ustad will show you the room. Mr Salivati will be your roommate. Have a good day!”
As I thanked him and withdrew, Salim Ustad, the bearer to whom the block my room was in was assigned, carried my suitcase and took me to my room through the broad corridor abutting the billiards room. It overlooked the inner courtyard. Stopping in front of the door which was ajar, he knocked deferentially. “Come on in,” a gruff voice responded from within.
There was nobody in the room. The door to the washroom was open, but there was none there either. ‘Who’s that?” the voice came from beyond another door which creaked open. It was a balcony and seated on a cane chair with a magazine in his hand and a glass beside him was Ramu, the man who would be my roommate.
Introductions over, he offered me a drink which I promptly declined, more out of politeness – I was meeting him for the first time – than any other reason. Ramu did not press. “Have your way, but there’s nothing like OMR and petrichor on a day like this,” he said. That was the first time I was hearing the word, but guessed that petrichor must be one of those potions like angostura, tabasco, orange bitters or grenadine added to hard liquor for flavor.
How wrong I was! Petrichor, I learnt later, is the pleasant smell that wafts in as the first drops of rain hit the parched earth baked dry after a long period of warm, dry weather. That was the only time I have seen the word used. In a conversation. Months later, he told me that he loved vellichor, adding that for a wordsmith, there is nothing more distinctive than the smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.
Ramu was always like that: a great one for quaint words. He used to like Tuesdays because the jentacular (breakfast) menu had porridge and french toast, his favourite. On Saturdays, he would say he missed the nudinustertian (day before yesterday’s) dinner because it was all ghaas-poos. He referred to the new team of cubs reporting to him at The Statesman as Yarborough. A keen bridge-player would know that it is a hand of thirteen card with no honours – cards above 9. Weekends sometimes were drab because he was cash-strapped and the tittynope (small quantity left over) of OMR in the bottle was too little.
Ha, we are back to OMR. Ramu used to describe it as the single malt of rums. "I love scotch, but it is way too expensive. This is the next best," he'd say. He was the self-appointed President of COMRADE – short for the Comity of OMR Aficionados, Drinkers and Epicures. Each has his own recipe for making his poison with OMR: with varying proportions of coke, soda, water, ice, etc. My favourite is OMR with a dash of lime, a lot of ice cubes and a little soda.
I read the other day that the market of OMR – variously called Buzurg Baba (Patiala) Muthumuni (Kerala) and Buddha Saadhu (Mumbai) – has been shrinking and it is facing the threat of being withdrawn from the market. It will indeed be a sad day if it happens.
Note: On reviewing this piece, I thought that this reads like a pot-pourri of two odes – one to Ramu and the other to OMR. I felt I should rewrite it, but on second thoughts, it is just as well: for, who can separate Ramu from OMR?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


I was in the railway station when the mobile phone rang. The screen displayed a number, not a name. I answered the phone. An unfamiliar voice. 'I am Nilanjan, son of ...' The rest was drowned in the roar of the engine of a passing goods train. Unable to continue the conversation in the cacophony, I disconnected and sent an SMS message to the caller: 'Will call back in a few minutes.'
When I returned the call, it all fell into place. Nilanjan is the younger son of my former boss. He is in town with his mother and would be leaving the next day. Before I could ascertain where they were staying, a train arrived, disgorging hundreds of passengers and with that the noise levels rose. So I sent another SMS message: 'Will be back by 7 PM. Can we meet around 8 PM? Regards to your father.'
The response read, 'Sure. We will meet in the lobby of the hotel. Also, my father passed away on April 05, 2009.'
I was stunned. Shocked. My one-time boss had been dead for six years and I did not know! How remiss on my part! Shame on me!
Mr Nirmal Chandra Banerjee was a perfectionist in matters. The impact of the changes he made to the letters put up to him for signature had to be seen to be believed. When I tended to draft letters with a flourish, he would advise me, 'Reserve your poesy for other occasions. To be effective, official letters have to be matter-of-fact.' The first thing that he would do to any draft was to spot and delete all the superlatives, the very's and the extremely's. 'These add not a whit to the letter,' he would say.
Mr Banerjee had a wry sense of humour. His instruction was, 'Give me all the easy-to-dispose files for my first hour in the office so that I can have a cup of tea at 11 AM after disposing sixty files.' When travelling by air, he would take some reading material - most often the latest copy of the TIME Magazine or The Economic and Political Weekly or The Economist - and eyes twinkling, tell me jestingly, 'One should not only be erudite, one should also appear erudite.'
He practised speed reading. He did not have to pore over files or read them line by line. One glance at the centre of the page, and Mr Banerjee would have grasped the essence of the contents. I have been astonished at the alacrity with which he would spot the crux of the matter. I might have spent half an hour reading the paper but completely missed the point.
At times, when he wanted to make sure of facts or instructions of the Government or the Reserve Bank, Mr Banerjee would tell me, 'I recall that there was a letter three years back from the Finance Ministry - or was it the Reserve Bank? I don't recall - on this subject. Please show it to me.' I would search high and low, and, having failed, finally go back to him saying that I could find no such letter. 'Then there may have been no such letter,' he would say, but in the process of making me search for that elusive letter, he had made sure that the paper on which he was affixing his signature was foolproof, what if it had made me turn the office upside down?
He had a mind of his own. Unlike several executives, he was never influenced by those who carry tales. He was dictated by his judgement of men, matters and circumstances, by his conscience. With the imminent superannuation of his Secretary, a vacancy was to arise in a couple of months. Mr Banerjee chose me to the position, though I had, in my then short stint, earned the reputation of being a rebel of sorts.
A week or two before I took up the assignment, a former Senior Executive who had retired and was heading a private bank called on Mr Banerjee for discussing some official matter. Towards the end of the meeting, this gentleman told Mr Banerjee that he had chosen the wrong person as his Secretary, a view that was endorsed by a General Manager who had a favourite of his in mind for the assignment.
Despite the fact that two General Managers - one serving and another retired - cautioned him that that I was unsuitable for the assignment, Mr Banerjee did not change his mind. He vetoed them and did not relent. I hope I did not belie the trust he reposed in me.
Mr Banerjee was a keen bridge player. People would talk in hushed tones about his obsession with the game, but I can say with confidence that his friendship with the senior bureaucrats making the foursome has helped the Bank on several occasions in solving intricate issues involving the government. Like Sir Winston Churchill who said that he had taken more out of whiskey than whiskey had taken out of him, I daresay that the Bank has taken more out of his bridge sessions than what the bridge sessions have have taken out of the Bank.
A little before retirement, Mr Banerjee was appointed a Member of the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction for five years after which he settled down in Gurgaon. I had appeared before him representing the Bank in several cases that came up before the BIFR. Later, I continued to keep in touch with him during my deputation to State Bank of Patiala. I had even called on him at his residence a few times.
He always had a special place for me in his heart. When I told him that I was being interviewed for the post of the Chairman of IDBI in 2000, he told me, 'You will not be selected, but don't lose hope. You're too young for the position. You will be chosen when the Chairman now selected retires.' Mr Banerjee was very cut up with me when opted for voluntary retirement in 2001 and put in my papers. 'Adversities will drift. Stay on,' he had urged me. That was the one and only instance when I disobeyed him.
I had sent an invite for my son Hari's marriage in January 2009 and was surprised that there was no response from him. Little did I know that in less than three months, he had breathed his last.
I have been remiss, sir, in not keeping in regular touch with you, but the fact that Mrs Sheila Banerjee and Nilanjan sought me out yesterday and connected me to your older son Anup (who, coincidental it may seem, works in the same bank as my own son Hari) tells me that you will not allow the tie to snap.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It was during a three-week holiday in Bengaluru with my son that I realised how addicted I was: four days in the Garden city, and I had already started missing my daily fix of Anantapuri FM.

The first thing that I do after our morning constitutional while in Trivandrum is to reach for the radio. Quite often, AIR would not have opened shop by then; or its signature tune might have just started wafting in. And my edition of the Marconi Machine remains on as long as we are at home. The radio is switched off only when we go out or at 11 in the night when Kabban Mirza (or Nimmy or whoever) closes the station with the ‘aap ki farmaaish’ programme wishing the listeners a ‘shubh raatri’, ‘shabba khair’ or ‘khudaa haafiz’. (I might go to sleep at 9:30, but the radio does so only at its designated time!)

The radio has been a habit with me for several decades. One of the purchases of mine from my first salary was a transistor radio. It worked fine in Trivandrum which has a radio station, but in the mofussil areas I was posted in, the signals were weak; unless one had nimble fingers that turned the tuning knob accurately, the radio would stay dumb or just emit static noises.

The first radio in my life was a huge Grundig which belonged to my grandmother. It had a perforated board on its hind through which one could sight valves (For the benefit of the pre-transistor generation, these were like glass bulbs with elements). When the radio was switched on, the valves slowly acquired a glow and after a long wait of about ninety seconds, the speaker would come alive with a crackle and static, and, if one was lucky, human voice or strains of instrumental music. 

It worked on a cuboidal 12 volts battery pack made by Estrela (or Eveready?) As it was quite expensive, an inventive uncle of mine reduced the recurring cost by making a contraption that could accommodate eight 1.5 volts A-size cells (the ubiquitous cylindrical ones) which was a good substitute.

Of abiding interest to us kids was its ‘magic eye’, the small translucent plastic part on the face of the radio. It acquired a pale green glow when the radio had been tuned to of the few stations it could access. As my grandma (not many others were allowed to touch it) turned the tuner-knob gently, ever-so-gently, the static noise would fade and the magic eye, so far asleep, would acquire a soft glow. As she zeroed in on the station, the intensity of the static would fall, to be overpowered by human voice or instrumental music, often in subdued tones. When the glow of the magic eye was at the greenest best, that was when we knew she was bang on.

The  radio station nearest to Kannur, in North Malabar, where I spent most of my boyhood was in Kozhikode, a good sixty miles away. The signals were often not as strong as one would like them to be and at times, the magic eye would not glow at all, spreading gloom all around. 

The heroes of MW were giants in the literary firmament and theatre like P Bhaskaran, Thikkodian, Uroob, et al who had a significant role in shaping the aesthetic sensibilities of a few generations. Trivandrum station had the likes of P Gangadharan Nair and T P Radhamony whose voices enthralled the listeners as much as the voice of their son Nanda Kumar​ does today. 

Newsreaders Ramachandran and Rani (For quite some time, I had thought her name, thanks to her nasal accent, was Nani!) read Malayalam news from the nation’s capital. How can one forget the 'pravaachaka: Baladevaanandasaagarah' of the 'yam aakaashavaani. samprati vaartaaha shrooyantaam'!

On the English news scene, there were several stalwarts: Melville DeMello, Surojit Sen and Barun Haldar to update us on the goings on in the country in their baritones. Complementing (and competing with) them were the sweet voices of Lotika Ratnam and Sphurti Sinha. 

As a teenager, I used to listen to the BBC. Country Music USA from 7:00 to 7:30 am on the VoA as a delight. I can never forget the sign-off line - ‘If you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours’ – but sadly, I cannot recall the name of the compere.

The Tamil Service of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was quite popular in the whole of South India. An hour-long Malayalam programme anchored by a compere called, I think, Sarojini Shivalingam, used to be aired in the evenings. The highlight of SLBC was the Binaca Geet Mala at 8:00 om on Wednesdays compered by the inimitable Ameen Sayani closely followed by Aaj ke kalaakaar and Ek aur Anek. He would pack ten songs from new films into a fun-filled one-hour programme.  The top songs of the year would be ranked according to the popularity they were able to rustle up.

This monopoly of SLBC was broken when Vividh Bharati was launched. They offered several bouquets of Hindi film songs. Places like Jhumritalaiya and Rajnandgaon, hitherto unknown to the rest of India, became popular because of the listeners’ choice programmes. Requests for songs were received from ‘Yavatmal se Ramesh Bijapurkar, unki Shreemati Aarti, beta Bittoo, bitiya Sonali aur unke dher saare dost’. I have a secret doubt that some of these names   were made up by the comperes themselves – as in ‘Kandivli Mumbai se Kishore Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Nutan aur Mukesh’, but who are we to deny some variety and fun to the Akashvani staff?

Perhaps as a matter of concession to South India, Vividh Bharati, most of whose programmes were in Hindi, broadcast fifteen minutes each of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada songs from 4:30 to 5:30 pm, with the five-minute news bulletin at 5:00 pm eating into the quota for one of the languages. Vividh Bharati was fair and rotated the sequence every month, so that if it was Tamil that had only ten minutes last, it would me Malayalam this month, Telugu the next and Kannada after that. I also discovered that this pattern of rotation extended beyond this: Vividh Bharati had twenty or thirty sets of four songs each in the four languages and these would be played in sequences – so much so that a regular listener, having heard a song, could predict what the next song would be!

Transistor radios brought in a revolution of sorts. Portability was a selling point with them. One could see men walking around or riding bicycles and listening to the radio. A lion's share of the credit for the popularity of cricket in India should, in my view, go to the transistor radio. The way cricket lovers strained their ears to listen to the live commentary needs to be seen to be believed. As one moved away from the ‘range’ of the radio station, one had to turn the antenna, the radio, or oneself in a direction that would enhance the quality of reception.

FM and mobile phones have changed all that. Now music is on tap, as it were. You can store more music in a tiny device than you can listen to in your lifetime. This easy availability has, I am afraid, taken away some of the charm of the music one coaxed out of grandmother’s old Grundig.


Countless is the number of meetings I have attended in my career spanning over three decades. Before every meeting, the secretarial staff place a pencil before my name plate on conference table. When I see a pencil, I MUST have it. I do not know if you will brand me a klepto, but I confess: one thing that I cannot stop myself from is acquiring – beg, borrow or steal I will – pencils.

So, at the end of every meeting, I invariably take the pencil and put it into my pocket. I do not feel guilty about it because I know that the pencil is meant for me.

Likewise, I am not, for once, smitten by the pangs of conscience when I recall after checking out of a hotel room that I could not resist the temptation to ‘steal’ the pencil they keep next to the scribbling pads on the bedside table, the writing table and the toilet. (Why one in the smallest room, I have always wondered. Maybe the brightest of ideas spring forth in the loo, as good old Archimedes demonstrated in the third century BC.)

I have my collection of Parkers and Sheaffers, Crosses and Watermans, DuPonts and Mont Blanc Meisterstucks, oodles of them, but I love pencils. Why pencils, you may ask. That is a million-dollar question.

Coming to think of it, it is not just the pencil that catches my fancy. I like those scribbling pads too. I jot down ideas or thoughts that flash in my brain, in the scribbling pad which doubles as my organizer. I want to use these ideas later . I always have a scribbling pad nearby, to note down phone numbers or messages, or a list of things to do the next day. This pad is where I arrange my daily life.

I am not partial to these items: I love the entire range of hotel stationery – letter paper and envelopes. I like to impress my mother by sending a letter in the thick manila envelope containing a missive written on the letter paper of a five star luxury hotel.

How can I forget toiletry – shampoo and hair conditioner, moisturiser and talcum powder, soap and disposable razor which I help myself to? I do not lay my hands, however, on napkins, bath towels or bath robes. Some hotels pin a notice on the bathrobe exhorting the guest to contact the front office if he (or she) would like to ‘buy’ the bathrobe. Clever guys, aren’t they? Ditto with the luxury leather folio in which the letter paper and envelopes are placed.

As long as they do not attach such labels on pencils, stationery and toiletries, my inner voice won’t hold me back!

A Dead Letter

serendipity ser-ən-dip’i-ti, n. the faculty of making happy chance finds. –adj. serendip’itous. [Serendip, a former name for Sri Lanka. Horace Walpole coined the word (1754) from the title of the fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ whose heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were in quest of’.]
Chambers 20th Century Dictionary

Yes, serendipity it indeed was. I was in front of my computer searching for something on the ‘net’. As it happens to most of us, surfing soon gave way to ‘wilfing’ (For the uninitiated, WILF stands for ‘What was I Looking For?’) – and I lost my way, hopelessly.

It was in those labyrinthine mazes that I found you – by serendipity. A happy coincidence indeed it was that this lovely word, with a beautiful etymological background to it, is what I associate with my first contact with you a little over five years back. Because your vocabulary, your felicity with words, your easy erudition, have all held me in your thrall ever since.

Wait a minute! Did I mention that we have not met? I mean physically. We have met only in the cyberspace. The byline of your blog was ‘Madly in love with words’. And did it show! Among your first posts was one on the daily crossword puzzle in the Guardian. The thrill you experienced when you cracked a clue was palpable when one read your post. Only a numskull of unexceptionable merit could, after having stumbled on your blog, have gone ahead, overcoming the urge to read on or without making a mental note to come back.

To say that I was impressed by the range of topics that you were at ease with – from classical music to poetry to Sanskrit to Scrabble – would be the understatement of my life. You wrote about human frailties and miseries, about nature, about caterwauls, about parrots. You wrote about the most ordinary chore of a housewife like making tea with as much seriousness as about the nuances of how the Carnatic raaga Gamaka Saamantam is similar, but not identical, to Multani, a Hindustani one. Your everyday experiences like the travails at a bank branch, the passport office, etc found as prominent a place in your blog as the one on the different sounds a cat makes mean different things.

Your posts entertained as much as they educated the reader. Only one out of 117 readers of a blog take the trouble of posting a comment, I have read somewhere. Going by the dozens of comments a post of yours would elicit, the number of readers you have would make any blogger green with envy.

I had not bothered about the names of cruciverbalists like Aurcaria (Rev John Graham) of the Times, Paul, Bunthorne, Bremmie… which would roll off your tongue. In your blog, you talked of special crosswords, like theme crosswords (Christmas, Chemistry, Western musicians, Greek gods), crosswords with solutions consisting of the same number of letters, crosswords with only one vowel, crosswords with no anagrams ... the works!

You never gave out much details of your family except that your husband was a mathematician and you have a grown-up son employed in Bangalore. I got the impression that you prided yourself upon your innumeracy – ‘I get cross-eyed when I see three-digit numbers’, you had confessed in a post.

You were transparent and made no secret of the fact that you enjoyed a drink of two – something a Bharatiya naari would never confess to. A schooner of cold beer on a Sunday afternoon with your husband, you wrote, was your idea of a perfect Sunday, made more perfect if followed by a game of Scrabble with your son.

You would often rave and rant about the liberties the Indian painter of signboards would take with Queen’s English. That brings me to your spelling and grammar. One thing you could just not tolerate was typos and grammatical errors, irrespective of who committed them. Armed with a reputation of being the best proof-reader this side of the Suez, I scoured your blog for a solecism. When I did spot one (Let me confess, the only one I could in over three years), I pointed it out to you with a ‘Gotcha!!’ expression with infinite glee that I could hardly suppress.

You responded, matter-of-fact-ly, rather, in a dignified manner, that both versions were listed in the dictionary and added that I must have consulted an American lexicon. If I were you, I would have cocked a snook at a critic who was not on sure grounds, but you were too decent to do make the ‘opponent’ eat humble pie.

Many (I, for one, was one such) found it difficult not to fall in love with you, but some could not make a secret of their infatuation. I particularly recall one who kept on with his thinly disguised professions of affection. You never got cross with him; you simply replied back with a puzzled civility. In many of his subsequent posts, he kept paying you compliments and getting a word edgewise about the prospects of spending some time with you, but the unflappable you responded correctly, rather, frigidly.

Some readers would make extravagant statements, sometimes sexist, sometimes just plain stupid, to prod you out of your prim manner but you would to maintain your cool, composed self.

In one of your posts, you talked of having woken up in the middle of the night with a severe headache. A doctor had to be called in; it must have been an emergency, but it passed. A fortnight later, you wrote of a day in a nursing home. After that, the frequency of your posts fell. You wrote once about your tonsured head and chemotherapy. No, that was not how you did it: you joked about having had your head shaved for nothing because it was ‘anyway too late for the chemo, after all’.

You didn’t whine. And for some reason, I could never make bold to ask you how you were doing. I knew I could never deal with the truth. It’s in selfishness that I miss you. Because in your love for words, and your anagrams, I saw flashes of such strength and compassion one could learn a lot from.

Mortified as we were by the unspoken C-word, all the readers prayed. Your next post was after a longer spell in a hospital. Rather than dwell upon sordid details of the stay there, which merited just a casual mention, you wrote of the bough of the laburnum and the birds perched on it, silhouetted against the blue sky as seen through the window of the hospital room.

Then there were no posts for long. I would go to your blog, see no fresh posts, and, disappointed, shut down the computer. One did not now whom to ask.

Several people, it transpires, did. They were in touch through the comments page of your blog. It was by accident that I opened that page. By then, the worst had happened.

I’ve known you for just over three years. Too short a time to know someone so wonderful. You know how it is, sometimes you sort of adopt someone and make them a part of your life. I have your blog open in another tab, and for some reason, I choke.

I know what happens to people when they die, I mean, to their mortal remains.  But what happens to the virtual ones? Do they perish? When? Or, do they get irredeemably sucked into a black hole in the cyberspace?

I can see you in my contact list. There you are, I can see your name - but there’s never going to be a round green light next to it. I find myself wondering what happens to the online Scrabble games you have saved, your words, your blog… Does your email account get purged at some point? I am tempted to mail you.  

PS This, again, is the rehash of an old post. Updated and expanded, as they say.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Romance in the Rain

(An old post rehashed - with fewer typos, I hope!)
There are a lot of things I hate doing, but have to do. Like writing up the accounts and preparing the tax returns. (Is death better than taxes? The former troubles you only once!)
And there are several things I love doing, but don’t have to. Yet, I love doing it because the satisfaction you derive from performing these tasks. Like ironing clothes or doing the dishes: you can’t go wrong, and you can do it well – the joy of doing something well and correctly has to be experienced to be believed.
There are some things I love doing, and do get to do: like solving Sudoku and crosswords and other puzzles. Going out in the rain is one such.
As a child, I used to love going out in rain because the whole area gets 'drownded', as Huckleberry Finn says. Rain in our contry home was nice not just when you stood in the verandah watching the tall coconut palms and the slender arecanut trees swaying in the wind and the myriad rivulets falling from the grooves of the tiled roof. It was greater fun when you were outdoors, road glistening, an occasional car whooshing by. Streaks of lightning followed by rolling thunder and the muddy water gushing down from the hillock proved to be the proverbial icing on the cake.
My fascination with the rain in my childhood has grown with me. But the rains these days are different. Sewers in the city are invariably choked with plastic and garbage, causing water-logging. And water-logging means having to wade in slush and filth, and I absolutely hate that.
We live in an area which has natural drainage for the storm-water; so we are usually spared. Unless we venture out. On Friday morning, we had to go out and get a railway ticket cancelled before noon; or else the cancellation charges would be heavy. It could not be done on the internet which was down because the modem was down because there was no electricity because an uprooted tree had fallen on the power lines because ... 
It had rained the whole night and was still drizzling. The sky seemed low, the clouds sitting on treetops almost. There was a misty look to the city. The trip was a welcome proposition because of the rain, but was an unpleasant idea because the overnight flooding wouldn't have receded yet.
The trip to the railway station could not be put off. Is there a lot of water logging near the railway station, I enquired anxiously before setting out. The area won't be so bad, I was reassured, because intensive drainage work had been done over the last few years. Let’s brave the water-logged roads, we decided.
The streets were more like rivers than roads, we discovered soon. As soon as we turned into the Museum Road, we knew it was going to be bad. Traffic was slow, the streets were awash and inconsiderate drivers splashed the pedestrians and sheets of water rolled and heaved in waves. It got steadily worse.
It was a nightmare under the fly-over and near the Town Hall, but, as I had apprehended, the Railway Station area I had to go into was not knee-deep as it was in some parts of the city, but this was water I'd have to wade through. No way out, so I rolled up my jeans and stepped out. There was garbage floating. There was muck and more. And the booking office I had to go into had water sloshing against the steps. Again I had to wade.
Did I mention I hate wading in the slush? I did?
Mission accomplished, I climbed back into the car and set off for home. In the thirty minutes I spent in the booking office, it had poured. The roads were flooded, but of course. And it got worse. The car felt like a metal coffin buffeted by the water that was churned up by the traffic. Each time a car moved the water thumped the cab. When a large SUV moved alongside, water entered the interior.
Some cars had stalled. Traffic was at a standstill. Turn in to the side roads, more water logging. It was the worst yet. Laboriously crawl along the street and re-enter the College Road.
Did I tell you I dislike having to get intimately acquainted with sewage and garbage and overflowing drain water? I think I did.
I was miserable. The traffic crawled, we moved a few meters ahead. I was doing what I usually do at such times to alleviate boredom. Looking at number plates and thinking about numbers. There, ahead of mine was a two-wheeler. It had the number 2357. It is the sum of a set of three consecutive primes: 773 + 787 + 797.
Try spending an hour in a car tucking your knees to your chest because water, rain excess and sewage all mixed up, is lifting the car, rocking it, and threatening to come in and making good on the threat. I realised that the number of the motorbike is the sum of a set of five other consecutive primes: 461 + 463 + 467 + 479 + 487.
Despite the discomfort, despite the hated water logging, sodden footwear, cold and clammy feet and drenched day, I smiled.

Monday, October 06, 2014


This story was told to me by Raku, an old friend of mine on one of those beery Sunday afternoons during my visit to Calcutta in the early 1980s. He was then a ‘junior’ to Mr Shashank Moitra, a famous advocate who was on the panel of several corporates. He also gave legal advice to banks, which mainly was examination of the title to immovable property offered as collateral security.

For the benefit of those who have heard the word ‘collateral’ only in the context of damage (Recall the expression ‘collateral damage’ popularized by 9/11), let me explain what constitutes collateral security. It stands for an asset which is not the primary security for a loan. It may belong to the person who applies for the loan (or a relative or a friend of his) and is mortgaged or otherwise charged to the bank as further security for the advance.

When a customer approaches a bank for a loan, he would be told that the loan would be granted if he could offer adequate collateral security. If he agrees, he has to procure a certificate from a lawyer that he has satisfactory title to the property. The bank would address a letter to the lawyer, hand it over to the applicant with a request to take it to him, along with the title deed and the several supporting documents – land tax receipts, building tax receipts, prior deeds, non-encumbrance certificates, location map, site-plan, and a host of others. The hopeful applicant would darken the doors of the banker again, armed with the report and ready to avail the loan.

Moitra used to provide this service to banks as a matter of routine. Being a busy lawyer, he would assign the work to Raku. After examining the documents, Raku would prepare the report, get it signed by Moitra and hand it over to the applicant. The Bank would rely on the report and proceed to give the loan.

The routine changed when the Manager of the bank was transferred. Vaidyanathan, the new incumbent, believed in the concept of abundant caution. He was not satisfied with the routine title-clear certificate of lawyers. ‘You can’t be too sure, you see,’ he would tell Raku. ‘The primary security can vanish any time. At the end of the day, this is the only security we can fall back upon. Therefore you need to be satisfied beyond doubt that the title is absolutely clear.’ Raku would be asked to track the prior transactions and confirm that the title was indeed clear.

Abdul Buhary who owned a tannery in Tangra was one of the first to approach Vaidyanathan for a loan. Anticipating the demand, he had the title deeds of the collateral security handy. Vaidyanathan addressed the usual letter to the lawyer seeking his legal opinion and handed it over to Buhary, ‘Take it to Moitra-moshai along with the title deed and the supporting documents and get me his report.’

In a week, the report was ready. Vaidyanathan had a look at it and shook his head, ‘This covers the period from 1947, but I need the lawyer to look at the prior documents and the legal opinion should cover earlier periods.’

Buhary went back to Raku who informed Moitra of the banker’s demand. He asked, ‘Why? A report covering thirty-five years should serve the purpose. I’ll speak to the manager.’

He put the pipe in his mouth and took a few puffs of the unlit tobacco. Putting a lighted match to the weed in the bowl of the pipe, took a hard puff. Relaxed, he let the smoke out through his nostrils and dialled the six-digit number.

Vaidyanathan lifted the telephone. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, Moitra went into the business.

‘Mr Vaidyanathan, this is about the title certificate of Buhary’s property.’

‘Yes, your certificate covers only the last thirty-five years, but for me to sanction the loan, it need to be sure.’

‘Mr Vaidyanathan, take my word: Mr Buhary has a clear and marketable title. If anyone else has any claim on it, he is supposed have raised it within thirty years. I have examined the documents for the last thirty-five years and there are no issues. You can proceed on the basis of my certificate…’

The banker interrupted the lawyer, ‘But one cannot be sure. Better safe than sorry, you see.’

A visibly annoyed Moitra chewed on the tip of his pipe and responded rather curtly, ‘Mr Vaidyanathan, it will take a while to explain, but I will walk you through the prior deeds chronologically.

‘You have my certificate which covers the period from 1947. This property is located in Calcutta, the capital city of the state of West Bengal, which was created when India gained freedom in 1947 and the country got partitioned. Till 1912, Calcutta was the capital of India, when the British moved the capital city to Delhi.

‘It was in 1772 that Calcutta became the capital of British India, and the first Governor General Warren Hastings moved all important offices from the then capital in Murshidabad about 60 miles away. Calcutta was captured in 1757 by Robert Clive when the British defeated Siraj-ud-daullah on the battle field of Plassey. Actually it was a re-capture because Siraj-ud-daullah, Nawab of Bengal, had attacked the city in 1756 and captured the fort.

‘Going back further, in August 1690, Job Charnok, an agent of the East India Company, chose this place for a British trade settlement. The site was carefully selected, being protected by the Hooghly River on the west, a creek to the north, and by salt lakes about two and a half miles to the east. There were three large villages along the east bank of the river Ganges, named, Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. These three villages were bought by the British from the local land lords. The Mughals granted East India Company freedom of trade in return for a yearly payment of 3,000 rupees.

‘Now, East India Company was an agent of the Queen. As all of us know, the Queen of England was charmed by India and treasures it held which is why in 1492 the then reigning monarch, Isabella granted a sea captain named Christopher Columbus the privilege of seeking a new route to India. The good queen, being a pious woman and careful about titles, almost as much as the manager of Bharat Bank, took the precaution of securing the blessing of the Pope before she sold her jewels to fund Columbus' expedition. Now the Pope, as I'm sure you know, is the emissary of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And God, it is commonly accepted, created this world. Therefore, I believe it is safe to presume that He also made the part of the world called Calcutta. I hope you are satisfied. Now, may Mr Buhary have the loan?’

Raku, being at the other end of the phone, could not hear the reply of the Manager after this edification. His greatest regret is that he was not at the Bank to see the face of the Manager.