Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I belong to the tribe endowed with what my friend Manimury refers to as ‘staircase wit’.

Picture this: the boss has just administered you a severe dressing down. Without a murmur, you stomach all that is said. You slowly emerge out of the corner office with downcast eyes. As you walk down the staircase to your table, like a revelation comes the appropriate, if mildly insubordinate, response that you ought to have given to the boss. (Maybe you may even tell your colleague or wife that you did, in fact, mouth those words.) That is staircase wit.

It always happens to me. Somehow, at the material time, all the right words and expressions give me a miss but a little later, they come to me, with a vengeance, as it were. And I am not talking of the expletives and invectives of the Nixon variety which we, in the four-letter age, use when we wish to retort or rebuke. The crude, even the lewd, dominates our response. We tend to swear and curse. If the speaker is not a prisoner of the Punjabi blasphemy, F-word trips off our tongues with frightening fluency. Sadly, we’ve bid goodbye to the use of wit and repartee.

How different was the world of our forebears! The English — and those who enjoy imitating them — delight in witty ways of putting the rapier in and giving it a turn ever so very lightly. They don’t bludgeon but they delicately carve and slice. Consider the following put-downs. They make their point with great effect, yet it is difficult to be offended by them. (I am not certain if all of them are factual. That some of them may be apocryphal does not taken away from their charm; on the contrary, one pays a silent tribute to the inventive mind the fashioned the comeback.

“He has all the virtues I dislike but none of the vices I admire” (Churchill)
“He has no enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends” (Wilde)
“He had delusions of adequacy” (Walter Kerr)

Some of them start off deceptively with a what looks like compliment, and it takes a while to realize that it is left-handed. Consider these:

"He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them." (James Reston about Richard Nixon)
“He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” (John Bright)
“A modest little person with much to be modest about” (Churchill about Attlee)
“Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go” (Wilde)
"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." (Moses Hadas)
"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." (Mark Twain)
“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts … for support rather than illumination” (Andrew Lang)

And some are unambiguously humiliating:

"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." (Thomas Brackett Reed)
“Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without an address on it?” (Mark Twain)
“He’s not only dull, he’s the cause of dullness in others” (Samuel Johnson)
“In order to avoid being called a flirt she always yields easily” (Talleyrand)

It’s not just authors or politicians who have a way with words. Occasionally even Hollywood celebrities can be remarkably witty. Billy Wilder dismissed an unkind music with, “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.” Robert Redford once said of a fellow actor: “He has the attention span of a lightning bolt.” And Mae West of a suitor who was less than ardent: “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” My favourite, however, is Groucho Marx's legendary comeback to a man who said he had ten children because he loved his wife: "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every now and then".

In my college days, the audience at debates applaud repartees far more than weighty and serious argument. The better debater always had a quiver full of arrows aimed at his opponents. A regular used to be: “He’s a well-balanced man with a chip on both shoulders”. Another was this comparison: “The difference between Mr. X and me is a question of mind over matter. I don’t mind and he doesn’t matter.”

Stories featuring Winston Churchill and Lady Astor who seem to have been habitual sparring partners are indeed numerous and though almost a century has passed, they are still as popular as they are delightful. I cannot resist the temptation to quote these classic exchanges though I am sure you would have heard them.

Once, when a tipsy Winston Churchill stumbled down the stairs of the House of Commons, he fell in front of a disapproving Lady Astor. “Winston”, she reprimanded, “you’re drunk”. “And you’re ugly”, he shot back. Then, rising to his feet, he added: “But tomorrow I’ll be sober.”

At a dinner where Lady Astor was pouring coffee, she handed a cup to Winston Churchill with the words “If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee”. Accepting, he replied “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

But it wasn’t just Winston Churchill and Lady Astor who used their wit to keep the other in his or her place. Gladstone and Disraeli did the same in the 19th century. Gladstone, who was more proper and less flamboyant, was frequently at odds with Disraeli. “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” “That depends, Sir”, Disraeli responded with a flourish, “on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

I suspect Disraeli usually got the better of their exchanges but Gladstone’s description of him has achieved a certain rhetorical immortality. He called him “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity”.

Sadly, the art of well-crafted repartee seems to be dying a slow death.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Mr Chandran, the enterprising science teacher of our village school, believed in inculcating scientific temper in children and sensitizing them about ecology though environment and bio-diversity had not yet become buzz-words. He had novel ideas to make even the drabbest subject appealing. Rather than rely on the illustrations in the book, he would ask bring live specimens of plants and insects. Not for nothing that his peers thought him to be a bit queer.

Items got added to the school laboratory, an apology for one till his advent at little or no cost. On hearing of a snake being killed, he would rush to the site with a jar of Formalin, collect the dead reptile which would then be a hot addition to the laboratory. The nest of the tailor-bird, dried leaves and flowers of every description mounted on cardboard, all came in handy.

It occurred to Mr Chandran that the interest of the children in ecology could be kindled by setting up a Nature Club. The children were awash with ideas: they could go to the nearby wooded area and collect samples of the flowers and the leaves, to the riverside and identify the fishes and undertake a trek to Tirunelli during Onam holidays to see the diverse flora and the fauna.

When it came to the brass tacks, however, there was a problem: money. These projects needed funds. The idea would not get past the Headmaster who had always thought of Mr Chandran as an eccentric with new-fangled ideas. Even if that was accomplished, there was no chance of getting financial support from the school manager for whom the school was more a profit-centre than a temple of learning.

One of the boys suggested that funds could be mobilized through a collection drive. Some teachers contributed their mite and children chipped in with small change, All that added to a sum too small for their needs.

Perhaps the affluent people of the locality could be touched, someone said. After all, it was a good cause, was it not? So, off they went, to Kumaran Vydyar who ran a thriving Ayurveda clinic, Sankaran Namboodiri the landlord and ‘Vyaghram’ Subbu Iyer the moneylender. Though all were not equally forthcoming, the response was positive.

The next person to be approached was Mammu Haji, who made money by trading in the cash crops of the village. Barely literate though he was, good causes brought out the benevolent man in him.

The children briefly explained their mission to the affluent Haji: founding of the Nature Club in the school which would meet every Monday. Not one to shirk his responsibility to the society, the Haji fished into one of the pockets of the broad green-and-red belt that held his chequered lungi and his corpulent person together, extracted a Rs 1,000 note, thrust it into the leader’s hands, saying, “Why stop with just one ‘neychore’ club? You youngsters should eat well. Set up a Biriyani club which can meet every Friday!”

Footnote: For those uninitiated in Malayalam, the word 'neychore' is a combination of 'ney' (rhyming with ray and meaning ghee) and 'chore' (rhyming with bore and meaning cooked rice) and the dish is exactly that - rice cooked in ghee with the hint of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. One of the delicacies in North Malabar, specially popular in Muslim households, its aroma is tempting and, to translate a phrase used in such contexts in Kerala, the mere thought of it would leave one salivating enough to 'launch a thousand ships' - like good ol' Cleo's face is supposed to have done. So what is if it adds a couple of thousand calories and a centimetre or two to your girth?

Friday, November 14, 2008


Saramma kochamma had a green thumb. She had always nurtured dreams of having a patch of green and a beautiful garden in front of her house. For years, the dream did not materialise because her husband, Joyichan, an engineer in the steel plant in the north Indian town, was only entitled to a flat for most part of his career. She had, however, kept her interest alive by having potted plants in the balcony.

Ten years before his retirement, Joyichan was promoted to the next cadre which entitled him to a bungalow. For Saramma kochamma, the fact that she could now have a proper garden was more interesting that the position or the pelf the elevation would bring. And she made most of the opportunity. In less than six months of shifting to the bungalow, there were daisies and lilies, chrysanthemums and begonias and sunflowers in the garden in front. The birthday gift Saramma kochamma would value most, the children and Joyichan knew, was a packet of seeds of astorias or gladioli bulbs.

On winter Sunday afternoons, the entire family would be out in the garden, basking in the sun, the patriarch catching up with the reading and the children Susanmol and Sunnykutty engaged in a game of Scrabble. Saramma kochamma would be there too, of course, talking to her plants. The neighbourhood envied the well-manicured lawn and the vegetation and the blossoms.

In course of time, Susan was married off to a doctor in Canada and Sunny got a good job in a reputed software firm in Bangalore. Joyichan was retiring in a few months and Saramma kochamma could not bear to part from her plants. She was delighted that her husband changed his earlier decision to settle down in their flat on the Marine Drive in Cochin. They would let out the flat and move in to Joyichan’s ancestral property in the village near Kottayam, he had said. Saramma kochamma’s joy knew no bounds: after roughing it out for decades in the dry steel city, she would get back to the pastoral life. She decided that in the fairly large parcel of land that was theirs, she would have a kitchen garden behind the house and a good garden in front.

The sprawling house got a fresh coat of paint, the furniture a good polish. A cousin who lived nearby helped her landscape the compound and prepared a layout for the flower beds and the lawn, the perennials and the annuals, the creepers and the bushes. Soon enough, the hitherto neglected habitat was the cynosure of all eyes. The aging couple was enjoying their new-found loneliness in the new ambience.

Sunny soon found himself a bride in Molly, a research scholar. After a wedding in the church in May, they were soon off to Ooty for their honeymoon. The Queen of the Hill Stations was at her colourful best, getting ready for the Rose Day. Molly had been told of her mother-in-law’s love for the flora and bought packets of seeds of flowering plants and put them in a medium sized envelope made of kraft paper.

Sunny, a career boy, had decided what the future would be for his wife and him. She would let Molly complete her research, and armed with a Ph D, she would be in a better position to find a job in the Silicon Valley where he planned to migrate to. So, it was no children, no pregnancy till the Ph D was awarded. Sunny, an ecology-conscious youth, was averse to flushing the used condoms down the toilet. He put them in an envelope to be thrown out discreetly.

A fortnight after the wedding, the couple returned to the parents. As soon as they reached, Molly, in a bid to please the mother-in-law, pulled out the envelope from the pocket of the soft baggage and presented it with a flourish to her with the words, “These are some seeds we brought for you from Ooty.”

That evening, the young couple took an evening walk in the countryside when they planned to dispose of the prophylactics. Sunny felt that the feel and the weight of the packet seemed different from what he expected. Further probe revealed sachets marked ‘carnation’ ‘azalea’, ‘peony’ and ‘aster’ in the envelope.


Whoever said we dream in black and white was not right. I can say that with a great degree of certainty because last night I had a dream in several mega-pixels per inch (Oldtimers who are not computer-savvy may replace the last four words with ‘Technicolour’.0 It was special not just because of the variety of hues. It was like ‘The Bible’ by Cecil de Mellow: notable because of the number of characters who appeared in it. Like a mega-serial, it went on and on and on.

I dreamt that I had died. I was transported to a place that was neither awash with luxury nor miserable. It was neither heaven (Plush furniture, euphonious music, good wine, sumptuous repast, white sands, long legs) nor hell (Fire, boiling oil, sharp spears with red-hot business ends). It was a no-man’s land where people of my kind who were neither saints not sinners were consigned to, I presumed.

While I was wondering why none of our thinkers had mentioned only about heaven and hell and not about this area, the Supreme Judge appeared. After quickly completing what I suppose are the usual formalities, He pronounced my verdict: Hell.

To say that I was disappointed about the verdict would be a gross understatement, but I found several familiar faces there.

M was first one I met. He was a General Manager of the Bank I used to work for.

My boss G made some adverse remarks in his annual Confidential Report (CR) on me. I must concede that he was considerate (which, as you will learn later, is not a virtue that those who claim to be great men possess) to convey those comments in writing to me. Aggrieved that these comments were unfair and apprehensive that they may impede my career, I put in a request to the General Manager under ‘grievance redressal procedure’. The letter was drafted using facts and figures to demolish the observations of the boss in the CR.

Deafening silence is the only response for months. I send a reminder. Followed by another. Suddenly, I get a call from the Head Office: The General Manager wants to ‘interact’ with me in his office regarding my submission. I reach the venue on the appointed date. I am summoned in.

M surveys me from tip to toe and toe to tip. He remarks, ‘Just as I thought! A young officer with aspirations to rise in life threatened by a wily boss who is out to mar his career just because he has a pen in his hand. I see your point. I understand your predicament because I have faced such situations myself.

‘Mr Rajagopalan, I have gone through every line of your letter. Personally, I appreciate the way you have argued your case. You have marshalled incontrovertible evidence to support you. And arguing the case logically, you have put across your request. I must compliment you on your drafting skills.

‘I see that you have been hurt, and hurt deeply. And with good reason. I will ensure that justice is done. I will see that the CR is corrected and the damage is controlled.’

All I can do is to mumble a ‘Thank you, Sir!’

M then resumes, ‘Whatever I said so far was on a personal plane. You must remember that I am the General Manager of the Bank and am responsible for official propriety. I observe that certain words that you have used smack of insubordination. I cannot ignore your intemperate tone. There is enough in that letter to proceed against you for insubordination. Notwithstanding that, I want to get you out of this mess because you are an officer with a spark within.

‘I have thought a way out. I will address a letter to you pointing out the offending words and asking you why action should not be taken against you. You can send me a reply that you did so because you were worked up emotionally and request me to view the facts presented, ignoring the offending words for the use of which you may apologise. On receipt of your reply, I will neutralise the remarks. It’s a deal,’ he said reassuringly.

‘Fair enough,’ I tell myself. ‘Okay, Sir, I will do that’, I thank him for the intervention and leeve.

True to his word, I receive a letter the following week on the lines indicated. I shoot off a reply on the indicated lines and wait for the letter informing me that the adverse remarks in the CR had been neutralised and justice done.

A letter does arrive in a fortnight. It reads: ‘Though there are sufficient grounds for proceeding against you for insubordination, in view of the apology tendered by you and having regard to the fact that you are in the early years of your career, we are inclined to take a lenient view and you drop the matter.’

Not a word about the CR or the adverse remarks, not to mention correcting the injustice.

I deliver a hard punch on M’s belly and walk ahead.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


AN ADVANTAGE of having been a banker for over a good three decades, Viswanathan says, is that people regard you with a lot of respect. You are the poor man's Alan Greenspan. People consider you clued-up about the nuances of high finance. True, they might be consulting you on matters financial. Though it might be a simple issue, you put on the grim demeanour matched only by that of the World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

Viswanathan came to be a `consultant' of sorts to the residents of the colony on matters financial. While he was in service, he had offered service at the doorsteps of his neighbours. Even after he retired, several of his neighbours had stayed with the old private bank he used to work for. Some, however, had opened accounts with branches of nationalised banks in the vicinity of their offices.

The number of those who had been lured by the gleaming glasses and the shining chrome of the new kids on the block was not small. These banks were one-stop-shops (It might be old-fashioned not to say `shoppe' or its variants such as shopee and shoppee ) where you could buy insurance policies, get yourself a credit card, a car loan, a home loan, or whatever.

Chacko was a votary of the new generation banks. He was impressed by the smartly turned out young men, in pin stripes and navy blue neck ties and speaking with an accent, working in plush environs with piped music. When he opened an account in mid-2002, he was given a debit card. And a few weeks later, a sweet voice on the telephone told him that a pre-approved credit card with a drawing limit of Rs. 50,000 would be his.

The joining fee had been waived and there would be no annual fee for the first year. Would he please come and sign the application and complete certain simple formalities? He did. And in due course, the credit card arrived. Not given to purchases on impulses, he had no chance to use it even once. Every month, the courier would religiously bring bills demanding payment of Rs. 0.00. His wife, Aleyamma, used to tease her husband about the bills: you never use the card and make the company incur cost for sending you bills! Unfortunately, Chacko succumbed to a massive heart attack within nine months of the arrival of the credit card.

Nevertheless, bills for Rs. 0.00 continued to arrive, which she ignored.
The grieving widow was surprised when the courier delivered a bill from the credit card agency, this May, for Rs. 2,000. It covered the annual fee of her late husband's credit card from the ensuing year. No other amount was due, as the card had not been used. Aleyamma consulted

Viswanathan and replied to them that she had already informed the bank of the demise of her husband in February. Would they therefore please drop the claim? Next month, she received a bill for Rs. 2,250 (The annual fee, the late fee and the interest on the annual fee. She scurried to Viswanathan, and on his advice, sent another letter explaining that no amount may be demanded, as she had already intimated the fact of her husband's death well in time to the bank.

In July, she was again given a bill. The balance which had been Rs. 0.00 had risen to somewhere around Rs. 2,560. Viswanathan was away in the U.S. with his son, but Aleyamma, tutored well by him, sent a proper response.

She ignored the next two bills, which showed inflated amounts - Rs. 3,040 and Rs. 3720, respectively. Then, one day, she received a phone call from the credit card agency. She told the voice at the other end, "I had written to you more than once that Chacko died in February." The voice replied: "But, ma'am, the account was never closed and the late fees and interest charges still apply."

Viswanathan, who was back after his U.S. trip, happened to be there on a social visit when the call came. He took over and tried to reason with the caller. The response was, "Since it is three months past due, we are handing over the matter to our recovery department." Viswanathan asked, "So what? We'll tell them that he is dead."

"Then they'd report the account to the frauds division, or report it to the credit bureau...maybe, both!"

"Do you think God will be mad at him?"

"...Excuse me ...?"

"Did you just get what I was telling you...the part about his being dead?"

"Sir, you'll have to speak to my supervisor!"

Now, he told the supervisor the same things he had already said.

"I'd like to repeat to you that Chacko died in February."

The supervisor would have none of these: "The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply."

"You mean you want to collect from his estate?" Viswanathan obviously knew his ropes.


"Could you send us a certificate of death?"


Aleyamma sent a photocopy of the document and thought the matter would rest there. She was therefore surprised when, a few days later, they called again.

"Our system just isn't set up for death..."

"Oh..," she couldn't care less.

"I don't know what more I can do to help...", the other end was desperate.

"Well... if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing him, I suppose... I don't really think he will care...." Aleyamma was at her tether's end.

The caller was adamant, "Well...the late fees and charges do still apply."
"Would you like his new billing address?" Aleyamma felt like teasing the girl at the other end.

"That might help."

"Vault No... , ... Cemetery, ... Church, Trivandrum 695 ..."

"Ma'am, that's a cemetery!"

"What do you do with dead people on your planet?" Aleyamma asked.

The rest of the story is not pleasant.

Ouseph in Mumbai

Incidents that take place in the lives of some people are narrated over and over again till the person concerned is transformed into a minor legend in his own lifetime. Apocryphal stories start getting attributed to him. Ouseph is one such person.

It is true that Ouseph was a little absent-minded, but he was not dim-witted or daft as some of the stories in circulation suggest. He was a bright student in college (good at debates and quizzes). And, yes. He could render the Mukesh numbers mellifluously. History and literature were his passion. Ouseph was quick at work and could put in long hours of work. But he needed work to keep him going. At the slightest hint of inactivity, he would nod off and the return trip from the world of dreams would take time.

The number of stories made up by the ingenious minds with Ouseph as the central character, is large. There are so many of them that it would be tough to sift the real from the fictional.

According to a true story, he was looking for a house to live in as a bachelor. He had asked some friends to be on the lookout, but they could be of no help. Thiruvananthapuram was as conservative as ever and landlords would say, "We have a house to let, but we have a young daughter and do not want to let out the house to a bachelor."

Ouseph, however, did not give up easily. He himself went round the city in search of a dwelling place. A few such sorties convinced him through a process of deductive elimination that if he were to get a house, it had to belong to a person who did not have a young daughter.

So, when he called on another prospective landlord, he introduced himself, and said: "I work for a P.S.U. I hear you have a house to let out. I am a bachelor. Do you have young daughters?" It took a little bit of explanation to extricate him from the thick soup he had landed in.
While personal knowledge can vouchsafe the truth in that episode, there is a lurking suspicion that the following is a product of the fertile imagination of some pals: Ouseph had joined a large oil company and his first posting was in Mumbai. The year was 1975 and it was still called Bombay. The company had thoughtfully provided him with a residential flat in Malad, in the suburbs.

His first journey by the suburban electric train to the office in the morning was an experience he dared not go through again. He was punched and squeezed and dealt with in many other ways. The return trip was worse. He baulked at the thought of a similar adventure. A colleague suggested the BEST bus as an alternative till he got used to the metro.
So he got into a bus the next morning. As the vehicle trundled along the busy roads, the conductor came to collect the fare. The bus was passing through Goregaon. Ouseph was watching the proceedings with an air of detachment.

A uniformed schoolgirl in pigtails told the destination and the fare in paise (Yes, there was a time like that!) to the BEST conductor, "Jogeshwari, 15." A young woman (still in her bridal finery) who had just got into the bus, offered the conductor a rupee note (It had not got into the list of endangered species by then) and told him, "Prabhadevi, 25".
The conductor moved on to a gentleman with a neatly manicured grey beard, wearing a fez cap and dozing with a rosary lightly held in his hand. He nudged the passenger on his shoulder and asked, "Ticket?" The elderly citizen woke up and replied, "Haji Ali, 65", proffering a rupee coin. Handing over his ticket, the conductor approached the next passenger.

She was an old lady bent double with age and perhaps hard of hearing.
He asked her twice, but she did not respond. The conductor asked her, a little louder this time, "Haan, maaji, aap?" She replied, "Kalbadevi, 85".
An anglicised gentleman, complete with his hat in his lap, had meanwhile opened his wallet and announced, "Elphinstone, 45", followed by a middle-aged and plump Gujarati lady, who said, "Mahalaxmi, 50".

It was Ouseph's turn now. He said, "Ouseph, 23".


"Neither a borrower nor a lender be" was the advice of the Bard. "Go, tell it to the bees," says today's youngster, for he believes in making his rupee go a little farther. Like the double-income family that had often found to their consternation "there was much of the month ahead at the end of their salary".

Asokan is a relieved man after he got himself a credit card. "My daughter's birthday gifts in the past were all bought out of borrowed money, because she was born in the last week of July," he says, explaining his predicament. "Meeting urgent expenses at the month-end is no problem now. And to top it, the credit on the purchases comes free if you pay the bills promptly," says Meena.

Mohan carries a clutch of credit cards in his wallet -- Citibank, HSBC, TimesCard, BOBCard... When he makes a purchase, he does not pull out a card at random. Some deliberation goes on before he selects the card. If it is the first week of the month, he uses the SBI card because it will get billed only in the first week of the next month and the amount will be due only in the last week of that month. In effect, Mohan gets a credit period of 50 days at zero interest. The same logic prompts him to choose the HSBC card for he may pay only in the second week. He takes advantage of the fact that the billing cycles of the cards are different.

But then there are others who have been bitten by the credit card bug and have a different tale to tell.

Shaji, a medical representative, pays his Diners' Club Card bill using his BOBCard in the first week of the month and his American Express Card bill using his SBI Card in the last week of the month. And the cycle goes on. Not quite smoothly, though, because cash draw against credit cards comes with a hefty price tag. The result is that each time this recycling takes place, the amount due under the bill snowballs fast and the cardholder falls, inexorably and irretrievably, into a debt-trap.

The anonymity that the credit card provides is a feature that attracts many of the users. They find that one's self-esteem does not become a casualty in the act of borrowing from an amorphous corporate lender. "It is embarrassing to be a debtor to someone I know. Why should I let her know how much or how frequently I have to resort to borrowing, or how long I take to pay it up?" asks Jayshree, who works with an insurance company.

The `cash-on-tap' feature -- the ready availability of money -- is what others are enamoured of. "If I do not have a card and need some money, I have to go round scouting for a friend who should not only be willing, but also have the cash in liquid form to spare. The credit card is ever ready to come to your rescue," gushes Rajan, who finds this a great charm. Is he not bothered about the cost? Rajan is quick to respond, "Yes, but this is the price I have to pay for the ready cash. I do not mind the cost. There is nothing called a free lunch."

Ashraf, who travels extensively within the country and abroad on business, finds his international credit card a great convenience, for he can avoid the hassles of carrying wads of notes and visits to the bank for foreign exchange. He settles all hotel bills, pays for entertainment and most purchases using his credit card, which is honoured across the globe.
"The notion that plastic money is widely accepted is a myth," says Raveendran Nair. The Railway timetable and the website say that reservation of tickets can be done at select counters (including Thiruvananthapuram) against credit cards. The young woman at the counter who drew his attention to a notice that said, `Only Cancards were accepted', turned him away. The complaint, which Nair had posted on the website of the Railways in early April, is yet to be acknowledged.
The credit card issuers use all the tricks in their bag to sell their wares.

`No joining fee' is a common bait. Some waive the annual fee for the first year or offer add-on cards at concessionary rates for your spouse or child. Whether you request for it or not (for a fee, of course, which gets billed), cards are renewed automatically. If they find that you use the card regularly and are not a defaulter, the cards are upgraded, higher credit or cash draw limits are offered. You can accumulate reward points that can be exchanged for goodies such as cosmetics, CDs, casual wear, travel goods, and other lifestyle products or services such as stay in hotels.
Co-branded cards are relatively new, but they have caught on. Leading the pack is Citibank cards that have tie-ups with the Jet Airways, Welcome Group of Hotels and even unlikely candidates such as The Times of India. Some petroleum retailers have tied up with credit card issuers. Apparel manufacturers, upmarket jewellers, restaurants, department stores... they are all queuing up to take advantage of the synergy by tying up with card issuers.

It is not as if you can get a credit card at will. Many do not entertain requests from those who are on the wrong side of 60, though existing cards are renewed even beyond this age.

The power of networking among the card companies and banks seems strong. Seven requests submitted by Ramesh for credit cards have been declined, apparently for the reason that the loan obtained by a firm in which he was a partner had turned sticky.

A defaulter gets hot-listed and might not know about it. If the girl at the counter returns your card to you after referring to the thick booklet, you might have to fork out currency notes with a sheepish grin and an apology.

This, though, is not foolproof, as Vijay Menon found out to his chagrin. No amount was due, but when the travel agent swiped his card, the control centre declined to authorise the transaction. Luckily, he had another card with which paid for the ticket. When he confronted the credit card company, they were apologetic, but the damage to his image could not be repaired.

Sundararaman, a disciplined user of credit cards says, "It is a boon if only you know how to use it. If you splurge just because you have a card, you'll end up paying for it dearly. On the contrary, you can stretch your money just that wee bit if you use it judiciously."


"YESTERDAY, I ran into a disciple of Charles Ponzi," announced the economics professor in the staff room. "Charles who?" asked Alice, professor of zoology. "I'm sure you've seen many of them," Professor Kumar answered, "though you might not have recognised one."

Ponzi could be an adult of any age, but the typical member of this ilk is on the wrong side of 30. As the grey hairs, if not the balding pate, lend his words an amount of credibility, an older person fits the bill eminently. You know him casually. He is an affable, respectable person.
You run into him at a wedding reception or a public meeting where he renews the contact. A few days later, you receive an unexpected telephone call from him. In stray cases, it could be a surprise visit to your home. The initial move has been made. The conversation follows a predictable pattern: exchange of pleasantries followed by comparison of notes about loneliness in old age or the need for an active life that naturally leads to the topic of interaction with the other members of society. He would strike the unsuspecting prey at this moment.

"I have just what the doctor ordered," he will tell you. "You can meet respectable people on equal terms, you can lead an active life, you can keep fit and earn some money in the bargain," he tempts you. Who would complain if, in exchange of some effort, you get good health, active life and respect in society, with small change as the icing on the cake? Lets face it, if someone flashes money in your face, you're bound to take it. It is thus that you get into the wonderland of multilevel marketing (MLM), also called network marketing or pyramid marketing.

It is all very simple, he assures you. There are some world-class companies making top quality products that are not sold through the conventional route of distributors and retailers. In fact, these are not available in the market at all. These products are sold only through direct marketing (DM). As the quality is excellent and the products are frequently advertised in the media through catchy advertisements, you do not have to walk around selling your wares like a salesman. All you have to do is to buy and stock goods worth a few thousands of rupees and sell it to people you know.

You are invited to a small gathering where you are introduced to a few successful entrepreneurs who have made a neat pile doing this.
The rewards are not all monetary. There are other bonuses for performers. Usha shows off the umbrella gifted by the company and the other gifts such as perfumes she has been plied with as incentive for her sales. You are told that Albert, the star performer, could not come because he is in Naples -- the aggressive sales pitch and the figures he clocked fetched him a free family holiday. A housewife buttonholes you and tells you that the price tag of the items is apparently heavy, but you can make do with less quantity, and in the ultimate analysis, it works out to be less expensive.

To `see the quality of the product for yourself', you are given a sample sachet of car shampoo or detergent. Though the product is on the pricey side, the results are satisfying, you find. Be it wax polish, protein supplement, toothpaste or car wash, each of the products is excellent. The modern buzz word, VFM (value for money), sums it up. You might face difficulty in selling shoddy stuff, but vending quality products is no big deal. You can do it.

So you decide to join the network. You will distribute sample sachets, sell the goods among friends and relatives, buy more goods and continue the trade. You will experience, like the celebrated carpenter who built the better mousetrap, that those who have used it once will beat a path to your door. Your mind goes into overdrive; you get visions of Lindt chocolates, Tanishq jewellery and Pattaya Beach. You will get a handsome commission. Not just that, when you induct a new person into the system, you grow in the hierarchy and are entitled to an over-riding commission on the sales he canvasses. And on the sales of the persons he inducts. And so on. Every fortnight, you will get a hefty cheque and a computerised statement indicating how the amount has been worked out. You'll laugh all the way to the bank. Reads like a dream, doesn't it?

The tragedy is that it is destined to remain a dream because of the way MLM works (read `does not work'). The paradox is that it is very easy to understand how a Ponzi scheme (see `House of Cards' on MP-3) should work; it all seems so simple and so obvious. It is, unfortunately, somewhat more difficult to understand why this kind of scheme does not work. The truth is, this scheme does not work, except for those who get in at the first few levels. The vast majority of participants in such a scheme will only lose their original investment, and make no profit at all.

Why is this so? Simple arithmetic and common sense: there aren't so many people who would be willing to participate and the potential market for these goods is given. Most will not be able to get any buyers and therefore will make no money at all. "I ended up using all the toothpaste and had to give it away free to friends," confesses Aswathy.

All legitimate business activities, in some way, create wealth, or contribute to the creation of wealth. When you create a product that is worth more than what it cost to produce, you've created wealth. When you perform a service that is worth more than it cost to provide, you've created wealth. If you spend Rs. 50 for some tea leaves, sugar, water and kerosene, and then use these to make sufficient tea that can be sold to 30 people for Rs. 3 a cup, you've created wealth. You've taken ingredients worth Rs. 50 and used them to create a product worth Rs. 90. You've created new wealth worth Rs. 40.

Pyramid schemes produce goods of no significance, and they provide no service. In MLM, as in Ponzi schemes, no new wealth is created, the only wealth gained by any participant is the wealth lost by other participants. All they do is move existing wealth.

MLM or network marketing does exactly this.

There are, however, scores of loyalists who swear by network marketing.
They have made oodles of money, received expensive gifts and been treated to paid holidays by the company they work for.

Talk of the offensive mounted against MLM, and they are quick to dismiss it as the ranting of peeved retailers. The reason, they say, is not far to seek: having been kept out, they lose out on their profit and are, understandably, cheesed off. This is their truth!


Literature, regardless of time and clime, is replete with stories of people resisting the stranglehold of age on them.

Take for instance, `The Picture of Dorian Gray', by Oscar Wilde or our own Yayati, whose son Pururavas had to grow old on behalf of his father. What do those who have not been bestowed with such arrangements for ageing through a proxy do?

The filthy rich get their facial skin pulled, in a bid to improve their looks. Others meekly submit to the process rather than valiantly battle on. Though they staunchly believe in Baruch's Rule for Determining Old Age: `Old age is always 15 years older than I am', some of them, however, try to use anti-wrinkle creams and hair dyes. It is only the truly brave who do not seek recourse to these cosmetic aids.

For every person who tries to look younger than s/he actually is, by using herbal creams and other cosmetics, there are some people, who resort to no such methods.

Look at the shock of white hair of Amjad Ali Khan or Leela Naidu. Or Sunil K. Alagh of Britannia Industries or Azim Premji of Wipro. Then we have Medha Patkar, Naseeruddin Shah, Salman Khurshid and many others.

There might be merit in looking natural, but there is a hidden danger in this, for most people seem to believe that like accidents and death, ageing is something that happens only to others. As Anamma found out last Thursday.

Annamma had not yet entered her mid-fifties, but her teeth started troubling her. One of the upper molars had developed a cavity. She was worried because genetically speaking; she was prone to severe toothache. She did not want to go through the misery her father had undergone.
The problem required immediate attention, she decided. Her husband's secretary fixed up an appointment with Dr. P. S. Menon, a dentist of repute, for 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.

On the appointed day, she reached the clinic by quarter past four. The doctor was attending to another client, the receptionist told Annamma, but it would not take long, please be seated. She scanned the newspaper headlines and leafed though the magazines on the rack. She looked at the diagrams showing the set of teeth, the cross-section of a tooth, a poster with diagrams on root canal treatment etc.

Then her eyes fell on the doctor's professional certificate laminated and hung on the wall. It was about 35 years old. It bore his full name: Panasseri Sukumara Menon. Suddenly, she remembered that a tall, handsome boy with the same name had been in her high school class some 45 years ago.

Quite soon, the patient emerged through the half-opened door. She caught a glimpse of the man in the white coat in profile, Annamma, however, quickly discarded any such thought. This balding, grey-haired and pot-bellied man with double chin and furrowed forehead was too old to have been her classmate. It must be a namesake.

After he had examined her teeth, Annamma asked him if he had done his SSLC from the Kunnamkulam High School.

"Yes," he replied.

"Which batch do you belong to?" she asked.


"Why, you were in my class!" she exclaimed.

Dr. Menon looked at Annamma closely, and then asked, "Madam, what subject did you teach us?"


In his early thirties, Mukundan is broad-shouldered and big-built. He is a peon in one of the non-descript departments in our large office, which employs over a thousand pen pushers at different levels. Even a stray visitor to the office complex cannot miss his towering presence (for, most of the time he is seen outside the office building lost in thought, puffing at a cigarette or talking to someone).

Not many, even in those working in the complex, know which department he works in. According to the gags doing the rounds in the office, when God made him, His inventory level of grey cells was running rather low. Jokes apart, his actions have demonstrated over and over again that his brain is not proportionate to his brawn: he is slow on the uptake and definitely dim-witted. So many are the stories in circulation about Mukundan that a new genre like Sidhu-ism seems to have become popular, at least in the close circle.

I have personal experience of only two Mukundan-isms. One was when a couple of thousand envelopes had to be sent by registered post. This was before the postal department had started dreaming about the image makeover as Indiapost. The nearby post office put an unofficial ceiling of 50 envelopes a day. So did the others in the neighbouring localities. Yet others refused to accept any beyond their limit. The General Post Office, being a larger outfit, was prepared to accept 200 envelopes a day. The despatch took a whole week. Friend Mukundan walked up to the boss and offered a simple solution for the coming year when the exercise would have to be repeated: "We'll get the envelopes registered well in time, say in the previous month, put the contents and mail them the same day!"

The locality he lived in had a shortage of running water. There was no supply during the day. During the night, water would trickle down drop by drop from the only tap in his house. It would take hours to collect a decent quantity of water. To solve the problem, Mukundan called a plumber and had three more taps installed at different points in his house!

Not for nothing that Mukundan is the butt of all the jokes in the office. Many of the blonde jokes and the sardarji jokes circulating on the Internet get slapped on to Mukundan: the net-savvy and creative colleagues borrow the core idea from the cyberspace and attribute these to the poor soul! Those who are gracious enough not make fun of this giant with his `upper storey to let', ignore him.

But come Onam season, and Mukundan is in great demand. The Staff Club Secretary would be placating and humouring him. Mukundan is an integral part of the Onam celebrations, for he dons the role of Mahabali. Nobody else can fit into that role as well as he can. He is the Man of the Day and it is his say. He can poke fun at anyone and get away with it for it is all in fun.

Mukundan shaves off his stubble and grooms his flourishing moustache. A dhoti with a rich golden brocade drapes his torso and below in the conventional style. Gold necklaces would be adorned, and there would be rings on practically all the fingers. Complete with silver anklets, gold wristbands and bracelets, ornate bangles gripping his well-developed biceps and a crown perched on his head, the ample persona of Mukundan would look every cubic inch a Mahabali.

As the members of the office choir sing the Onam songs, as the girls who are usually seen in the ubiquitous salwaar-kameez, now in the traditional set-mundu, sway to the strains of Kaikottikali songs, in would stride Mahabali, nay, Mukundan, colourful and sequinned umbrella protecting him from the smiting sun.

Sitting on the throne, he would survey the assembly, bless the boss, exchange patronising pleasantries with the senior executives and crack some jokes with those who poke fun at him on the other days of the year.
And he is entitled to it, for Onam is Mukundan's day! Tomorrow, as with other days, he will again be at the receiving end, till the next Onam.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


What is common to the words smog, brunch, fantabulous and mizzle? They are all portmanteau words. The French word "portmanteau" means a travelling bag or a large suitcase. Can you guess why these words are called portmanteau words?

These words often result from the need to have just the right word to describe something. Those who have lived in north India would have seen the fog in wintry evenings blending with the smoke from the coal-fired chulhas. That is smog, a combination of the words smoke and fog.
Even so, a midmorning meal served after breakfast time but before the lunch hour is called brunch (breakfast + lunch). Now, you know why portmanteau words go by that name. Sometimes, the best way to convey two meanings is to combine two words into one!

Portmanteau words mash together the sounds and meanings of two other words. Some portmanteau words paint vivid mental pictures, such as mizzle. This word, first used by Jane Austen in her novel Emma, is a combination of the words mist and drizzle. It is a perfect word to describe very fine rain. So perfect that when you chance upon the word, you can almost feel the weather condition that is being described! Mizzle is indeed a fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous = marvellously good) word!

It is not always that the word coined follows the same order as its constituents. Take, for instance, the word infomercial (a lengthy commercial chock-full of product information). You might not find several of the portmanteau words in the dictionary because some are almost nonsensical. Also, many have only recently become familiar. Others, like mizzle and dramedy (drama and comedy) make perfect sense but are used only in some regions.

Many portmanteau words are labelled as "slang", but many, like smog (smoke + fog), guestimate (guess + estimate), infotainment (information + entertainment) and chortle (chuckle + snort) are accepted. Several brand names like the card game Pictionary (Pictures + Dictionary) are portmanteaux.

If you are a Lewis Carroll fan, you will have encountered many portmanteau words. In fact, he is widely accepted as the person who gave the name portmanteau to these blends. While many portmanteau words can be "figured out", some of them really challenge one's imagination. How would you decipher the Carroll word "slithy"?

How do you make a portmanteau word? Let us hear the master. In The Hunting of the Shark, Carroll says, "Take the two words fuming and furious. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it undecided which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards fuming, you will say fuming-furious; if they turn, even by a hair's breadth, towards furious, you will say furious-fuming; but if you have that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you'll say frumious."

Why not try making up your own portmanteau words? Is there some thought you've been trying to express that's really two thoughts in one? Are there two words that just seem to flow together well? Be serious, silly or totally off the wall. But most of all, be creative.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


A quick quiz for those intimidated by Mathematics. What is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter? Pi, you may say. Numerically, it is 22/7, most may agree. But, it is an irrational number, math whiz kids will protest. For those decimally oriented, the value of Pi translates into 3.14. But that too is an approximation, the sticklers will object. It is a non-recurring decimal. The value of Pi correct to 10 decimal places is 3.1415926536.

Ten-year old Aditya can remember the value of Pi correct to 20 decimal places. Not a great feat, incidentally, considering that the value has been calculated correct to several thousand decimal places. But how does Aditya do this? He just remembers the doggerel:

Sir, I know a rhyme excelling

In sacred truth and rigid spelling

Numerical sprites elucidate

For me the accurate-most amount.

That is an example of a mnemonic: a device, such as a formula or rhyme, used as an aid to remember facts. The classic mnemonic, of course, is the one that goes "30 days hath September, April, June, and November."

Trigonometry is a bugbear for beginners. We all know that Sine, Cosine and Tangent are ratios of two sides of a right-angled triangle, but which is which? Help is at hand: just remember: "The Old Arab Carried A Heavy Sack Of Hay." The initial letters in groups of three represent "Tangent = Opposite / Adjacent; Cosine = Adjacent / Hypotenuse; and Sine = Opposite / Hypotenuse." Can anyone make it simpler than that?

The greatest use of a mnemonic is for remembering the order of things like the planets and the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. For those who find it hard to remember the BODMAS rule, it is easy if you memorise "Buzz Off, Daisy, Mary And Sarah" and you have "Brackets, Of, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction" in the right order!

It is not as if mnemonics are used only in mathematics. The initial letters of the sentence "My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets" helps you recall the names of the nine planets in the increasing order of their distance from the Sun — Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.*

In Biology, the animal kingdom (and the plant kingdom) is divided and subdivided. The hierarchy is not easy to remember, but the sentence "Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach" comes to our rescue. The initial letters represent the classification: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. A variation is "King Philip Came Over For Good Sleep." Talking of royalty, `King Henry Died Gently Drinking Chocolate Milk' signifies Kilo, Hecta, Deca, Grams (or meters, litres, hertz, watts, bytes or whatever) Deci, Centi and Milli.

The six wives of Henry VIII were Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Kathryn Parr and they all met with different ends. History does not record if he faced any difficulty remembering their names but we have a rhyme to remember their end: 'Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived'!

This rhyme is to remember the names of the twelve disciples of Jesus: "This is the way the disciples run:

Peter, Andrew, James and John,

Phillip and Bartholomew,

Thomas next and Matthew, too.

James the less and Judas the greater;

Simon the zealot and Judas the traitor."

Some mnemonics are quite interesting. The credit-card sized slot found mostly on portable computers for cards such as modems and network interface devices had an incredibly long acronym PCMCIA, which stands for Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. A mouthful, isn't it?

Most of us cannot memorise the acronym, leave alone its expanded version. "People Can't Memorise Computer Industry Acronyms" is as good as mnemonics can get!

Orthopaedic doctors might find it useful to remember "Some Lunatics Try Professions That They Can't Handle" for the order of the bones in the wrist: Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetral, Pisciform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate, Hamate. Whew! One needs to take a big breath to say all that!
Some people scoff at the attempt people make to remember some `inane-sounding sentence' just to remember something else you already know; but then do they realise the fun they are missing out on?


*Obviously, this was well before August 2006 when Pluto was demoted.

Monday, August 04, 2008


The class was in progress. Professor Shantaram Rao had given an assignment to the students. Everybody was busy writing. I could not proceed beyond a few sentences because my fountain pen (Yes, this was in the 1960’s when ball-point pens had not found their way into the colleges) dried up. I had no spare pen or pencils (Remember, those were the days of shortages). Nor did my neighbours on the bench. The only option before me was to stop writing.

The Professor noticed me in my inactive state and asked me, ‘Hey there, you in the blue shirt, why aren’t you writing?’

I knew I was caught and expected to be sent out of the class. Standing up, I stammered, ‘I… I… My … My…’, unable to complete the sentence. I could not converse easily or fluently in English. How do I tell him (in English) that my pen had dried up? I was at a loss for words. Finally I managed my best and said, ‘Sir, My pen is on strike.’

The whole class broke into a loud guffaw as these words tumbled out of my mouth. The Professor too laughed, benignly, I thought, and remarked, ‘That is a rather cute way of putting it.’

And went on to liken me to a student who, when asked to write a poem in Latin on the Miracle of Cana in Galilee where Christ turned water into wine, wrote just two lines: Nympha pudica Deum vidit, et erubuit. (The modest water saw its God, and blushed.)

Decades have passed by after that episode Professor Shantaram Rao may not recall today, but I cannot forget.

I remember my first day in college. One was overawed by the change in the ambience. Instead of the humble thatched school building in the village, it was the imposing decades-old two-storeyed city landmark in the sprawling campus abutting the waterfront.

The college was a melting pot where students from different types of schools – municipal, government, aided, private, convents – converged. Most of my classmates had studied in English medium schools. They were from affluent homes, wore trendy clothes and had a cushy lifestyle. I came from a rural school where the medium of instruction was Malayalam.

My exposure to the city was limited and the awe for the new environs was perhaps writ large on my face. That I wore a low profile befitting my ‘status’ would be an understatement. I was diffidence personified.

The veteran teacher had quickly comprehended the plight of the likes of me. He was not one to accept that we were any less equal than the cityslickers. He had realised that the self-esteem of these youngsters needed to be resurrected, or else, for the whole year if not the entire college life, they would be the butt of jokes and harassment. On the first day, he had encouraged us the country bumpkins to speak up, if only to demonstrate that we were as good as, if not better than, the city counterparts.

Prof Rao’s compliment regarding the ‘cuteness’ of my excuse when I was expecting a (figurative) rap on my knuckles was one of the greatest morale-boosters in my life.


Prof Madhukar Rao was one of a kind. He free-wheeled in his classroom sessions, unfettered by the rigour the syllabus imposed. Only the discerning students knew that he was indeed broadly guided by the syllabus. By the end of the academic year, all the students would have learnt what needed to be learnt – and much more!

Lean, tall and very fair (His cheeks were pink, I recall), Prof Rao was always immaculately attired. His gait, demeanour and clipped accent set him apart. He stood and walked erect, surveying the surroundings rather closely. Snatching the initiative to wish those he met a cordial ‘good morning’, he would move ahead towards the teachers’ room in the English Department.

My first brush with Prof Madhukar Rao was in the year I joined the college. He used to teach us what went by the nomenclature ‘General English’. This paper was supposed to familiarize the students with the nuances of grammar and composition. That there was no specific textbook prescribed for the paper gave him greater leeway. He believed that parsing and scansion would ‘come’ naturally to students.

He was extremely creative when it came to teaching. We were not yet one week into the college. In the first interaction he had with our class, he picked one of the girls at random, gave her a piece of chalk and asked her to write the words he dictated. The words were simple enough – college, chalk, money. Then he called one of the boys and asked him to write the same words – in Malayalam this time. Prof Rao turned to us and asked, ‘Do you all agree?’ The chorus of ‘Yes’ met with a ‘But Madhukar Rao doesn’t.’

Drawing himself to his full height, Prof Rao said, ‘The fact is that none of these words can be written in Malayalam.’ That was the first lesson that he taught us – no English word can be written in Malayalam, or for that matter, in any Indian language. The point was driven home. This was just one of the innovative methods in his repertoire to send messages loud and clear.

We would learn the subtle nuances of grammar and style through stories and jokes in the Professor’s collection. His favorite story was the one about the wife who told her husband she was ‘surprised’ to find him in bed with the maid, prompting the husband, a stickler for correct words, to reply, ‘No, my dear. I am the one who is surprised. You are astonished.’

It was not very difficult to learn the difference between the pronunciation of the words ‘pray’ and ‘prey’ when he pointed it out. But I have not, for the life of me, been able to catch the distinction between ‘prayer’ and ‘prayer’. The way you pronounced the word, he told us, would determine its meaning – the act of praying or the person praying!

Had there been a few more of his tribe, the several ‘Spoken English’ shops that have sprouted in the State would have been out of business. And there would have been fewer phonetic jokes like ‘Why was the Mallu bissi? Zimbly because his ungle in the Gelff had come on leave’!


'Hickory, dickory dock
A mouse ran up the clock.'

My neighbour's grand-daughter is practising her nursery rhyme, in a sing-song style.

My mind takes me back to a wintry Sunday afternoon seventeen years back in Patiala. It is our first winter. We are sunning ourselves in the lawn in front of our house in Punjabi Bagh. We are all busy in our own pursuits: Hari and Gautam are at play and my mother is tending the plants; Bhawani is giving the finishing touches to the navy blue cardigan and I am trying my hand at the crossword puzzle.

A sudden and hearty 'Hullo!' makes us all stop on our tracks and look up. Beyond the high wall, we can see only the golf cap, grey eyebrows and beady eyes of the owner of the gruff voice with a thick Punjabi accent. We return the salutation and stand up.

The sprightly old gentleman, in a sports jacket, black trousers and sneakers opens the gate and strides in, his wife in tow. The couple presents a study in contrast. Tall, swarthy and well-built, he is every inch the rugged Jat. Petite, frail and fair, she is exquisitely beautiful, though a bit sickly.

'I am Prem Bhasin. And this is my wife, Ava. Moved in recently?' the gruff voice again.

I nod and introduce myself. And then my family.

'We live on the next road.'

'We've been here in Patiala for three months, but haven't seen you so far.'

'Been away in Bangalore with our son for the last three months.' Ava's accent was impeccable and her sweet voice stood in stark contrast against that of Mr Bhasin. Her diction reflected her cultured upbringing.

After spending half an hour with us, they get up to leave. 'Drop in some time, the house number is 153.'

'We will, Mr Bhasin.'

'See you later, then. By the way, call us Prem and Ava.'

I found it odd to address these octogenarians by their first names, but they insisted.

We found Prem and Ava great company. We would meet every week, mostly on Saturday evenings: either the Bhasins would drop in or we would go over. All those evenings were greatly entertaining. Nursing a stiff shot of whisky, Prem would regale me with stories about his young days in what is now Pakistan. Ava would take us to her childhood. She was an instant hit with the kids.

She was the only daughter of an ICS Officer, an Englishman who had married an Indian. Her mother had inherited the family business of supplying coal to the Indian Railways. Born into such an affluent family, Ava had nannies to look after her, charged with the responsibility of grooming her.

The nannies who were in charge of the children had learnt the nursery rhymes from the British women they had worked for. They had their own versions of the nursery rhymes. Some of them were Indianised. Ava would recite them:

Hamti-Damti chadh gaya chhat,
Hamti-Damti gir gaya phat.
Raja, paltan, Rani ke ghodey
Hamti-Damti kabi na jode.

If that was Humpty-Dumpty, see the transformation that Little Miss Muffet undergoes:

Mafiti Mai
Dal main malai
Ghaas mein baithke khai.
Jab bada sa makra
Uski sari ko pakda
Bhagi Mafiti Mai.

Well, I almost forgot the 'Hickory Dickory Dock' one which triggered this piece. It was rendered as:

Dekho-re, dekho-re, dekh
Ghadi pe chadh gaya chooha.
Jab ghanta hua
Ghadi bajayi ek.
To kood pada chooha.
Dekho-re, dekho-re, dekh.


Maniettan died last night.

He was my cousin, several times removed. I knew we were cousins only because elders told me. We must have been precariously perched somewhere on the family tree. More than cousins, we were friends. Maniettan was a good fifteen years older than me. He taught biology in our village high school. That was for a living. His interests lay elsewhere – in literature, music, puzzles, riddles.

My memories of him date back to primary school days. My uncle and he went to the same college and spent weekends together, ostensibly for 'combined study'. On such occasions, Maniettan used to spend a lot of time with me. He would ask me to 'recite' our class attendance register. I would oblige: Abbas, Aravindan, Bharati, Bhaskaran, Chandran, Damodaran, Ebrahim, Geeta, Govindan, … till Yashoda, Zubair and Zuhara.

Then he would ask me to list them in the order we sat in the class, which was: Parthan, Mohamed, Chandran, Hari and so on. Much later, when I had grown up, I realized that it had been his home-grown method to sharpen my memory.

Maniettan would make me recite the multiplication tables. When I nearly reached the end, he would pretend I had made a mistake and challenge me: 'Thirteen sevens make …?' And I would have to recite the whole table all over again – his method of making sure that I had the tables pit-pat.

When I grew up, I learnt that Maniettan used to pen poems and short stories. He read a lot – from Nietzsche to Bhasa. He sketched and painted too. His rendition of 'Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen' on the mouth organ had enlivened many a night I had spent with him. He would also sing the Saigal numbers in his deep baritone.

Teaching was Maniettan's passion. He was a great organizer too. He would take his students for treks in the nearby hills and forests where they would see for themselves live specimens of aerial roots, alternate leaf arrangement, multiple fruits, chameleons, warblers, weaverbirds, camouflages, …

The school biology lab was always in his thoughts. Immediately report instances of any snake having been killed, he had told his students. Come hell or high water, he would rush to the site with a glass jar and formaldehyde and return with the prized catch.

A few months after joining the school as a teacher, this natural leader mobilized the senior students and exhumed the skeleton of the temple tusker which had been buried a couple of years earlier. The bones were then joined together with thick copper wires. Koodali High School lab must be the only one with the massive skeleton of a pachyderm occupying a place of pride in the lab.

He smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish. When elders said he was a bad influence on the young, he brushed it off with a 'They had said that about Socrates too.' It was he who lit my first cigarette. It was he who poured me my first drink. It was also he who stoked my interests, showed me the world beyond academics and made me what I am.

Maniettan was my professor at The University of Life.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Anyone who has been to a college or a school will testify that at least a handful of his classmates and teachers had nicknames. It is no secret that it is the teaching fraternity that falls victim to the ‘name-game’ oftener than the taught. In fact, a few of the victims, whether teachers or students, would be known better by the monickers assigned to them than what the fond parents had christened the cherubs as!

To differentiate me from the lanky ‘Bamboo Rajan’, everyone in school referred to me as ‘Unda (Rotund) Rajan’, a tribute to the short and stocky figure that I was in my schooldays. Though I have shed a lot of my puppy fat and stand a good 5’ 10” tall, I am still ‘Unda Rajan’ to my classmates, teachers and villagers!

One of my classmates was Govindankutty who later rose to become a senior bureaucrat authorised to speak from the South Block on behalf of one ministry or another. Known in official circles as Mr Nair, he had three initials before the surname and three appended to indicate his cadre. Govindankutty, the only child of a Colonel, had been named after the grandfather, a famous ayurvedic physician in Malabar.

When Govindankutty joined us in Class VII in the school in Calicut, we were already two weeks into the academic year. Most of us had been classmates from earlier years and a few were seniors who had failed. All of us classmates knew each other by name.

Govindankutty was the ‘new kid on the block’. Very much unlike us who came from middleclass homes, in wrinkled shirts, fraying knickers and carrying a schoolbag made of the old canvas of the grandpa’s easychair. He had a duckback waterproof schoolbag and was turned out in smart starched white shirt and navy blue trousers. At first sight, we did develop a secret jealousy for him which we nursed.

He had already studied in several schools from Chennai to Meerut to Chandimandir to Mhow. It was the last lap of his father’s career and he had opted for a posting in the NCC so that the family which had moved with him due to frequent transfers could finally settle down.

Exposure to varied environs had had their impact on young Govindankutty. He was more comfortable in English and Hindi and spoke Malayalam haltingly. He was perhaps not too happy about his conventional name amid scores of ‘modern’ ones like Ashok, Sunil, Vinod, Suresh and Manoj. (This was before the advent of the post-modern era with names like Baiju, Siji, Linto, Prijesh and Shinu.)

As the newcomer, Govindankutty had to introduce himself. He did so, with an affable, “Hi! I am Govindankutty. Drop the Kutty, you can call me Govind!”

And sure as death, the nickname ‘Drop the Kutty’ stuck! He might be ‘Dash Dash Dash Nair IAS’ to others, but to us, he is still ‘Drop the Kutty’.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Chaudvin ka Chaand

This story is set in the late 1950's in the Malabar region. Hindi, touted by Mahatma Gandhi as the token of nationalism and promoted by the centre as the national language, was an emotive issue, as its 'imposition' was resisted by a majority of the Tamil-speaking public.

Pursuant to the national policy, it was prescribed to be studied as the third language in schools. However, in deference to the sentiments of the detractors, no pass mark had been prescribed: irrespective of the marks you scored in Hindi, you passed. It had no role in determining whether you passed with distinction, or in the 'class' you were placed in or the rank you secured. Small surprise that Hindi, like the teachers of the language, commanded lower esteem than, say, Mathematics, Science or English.

I still remember the frail frame of Ramachandra Menon Master in his white full-sleeved khadi shirt. He used to like me a lot, I think, because I used to give equal prominence to the subject he used to teach. (Little did he know that it was out of fear for my father who taught us that what is worth doing is worth doing well!)

In the half-yearly examination in Standard X, I secured 78% in Hindi. What surprised me was the marks scored by the back-benchers Jabbar, Devassy and Rajappan. Being members of the school football team, they had to miss the Hindi classes which were mostly in the afternoons from Monday to Thursday when they had to go for the practice matches. On Fridays, there would be a new movie in the matinee show at the nearby Star Theatre. The trio could just not miss the 'first day first show'. It was not a secret that they barely knew the Devanagari script. And still they scored 'high' marks!

On our way back home from school one evening, Rajappan confided to me that he had written the answers to the questions in Malayalam. One could not fault Ramachandra Menon Master on his generosity: Rajappan could read Hindi and needed to be rewarded.

My investigation revealed that Devassy had copied the question paper in Devanagari script. Obviously, Ramachandra Menon Master was fair: Devassy had established that he knew how to write the script, and he did deserve more marks than Rajappan.

But that Jabbar who knew no Hindi scored 35 baffled me. One morning, in exchange of allowing him to copy my homework, he let me into the dark secret: in his answer sheet, he had just written down the words of the lyric of the title song of the 'Chaudvin ka Chand', the Waheeda Rehman-Guru Dutt starrer box-office hit.

Why do I recall this story today?

Kerala SSLC results are due tomorrow. A recent press report based on the information gathered from the Education Department says that the pass percentage this year is 92%. I believe the pass percentage just five years back was 60-65%. This quantum leap was made possible, thanks to the grace marks and the moderation system.

Will our Education Department confirm or deny the suspicion lurking in my mind that my respected Ramachandra Menon Master is one of their advisors?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Though we were from a rural background, my father’s frequent transfers took us to cities. My father was keen that in the process, the children should not become urbanised. Don’t forget the tradition and the culture we come from, he’d say.

Towards this end, during long summer holidays, he would send us to our grandparents. We too looked forward to these breaks when we could free ourselves from the tyranny of textbooks, homework and a Martinet of a father. Unadulterated merrymaking: goodies to eat, games to play; cart-wheeling, cavorting and swimming in the pond in our village home.

Though we were on a holiday, dad had dictated a regimen for us: a bath in the morning, a visit to the temple, a few pages of the Sidhharoopa, Amarakosha and Subhaashitaani (so that we could brush up on our Sanskrit) and a few pages of Wren and Martin’s English Grammar. Selected parts of Kerala Paanineeyam by Raja Raja Varma on Vrittas and Alankaaras were also mandatory. We could go out to play only after these tasks had been completed.

In the evening, we had to turn in by half past five and have a bath. After the prayers, we had to recite multiplication tables, mathematical formulae, days of the week and months of the year (three versions; Malayalam, Gregorian and Saka) and an assortment of other things we were supposed to remember. Grandpa was asked to ensure that we stuck to this regimen.

Our cousins, unfettered by such shackles, would be ready for fun and frolic soon after breakfast until after sundown. Not us. It was not until 11 am before we finished the chores even if we skipped a few pages and rushed through the job. And 5.30 was our deadline.

Naturally, our native cousins, not bound by such restrictions, were objects of our envy. (It is a different matter that in our later life, this regimen gave us a great advantage over our rivals in competitive examinations.)

My father had also asked grandpa to take us to the performances of art in the village, of which there were plenty. These were mostly folk arts, temple festivals etc which took place at night. We would spend a couple of hours at the venue and return, having gained a glimpse into the rural legacy.

A couple of times in a year, there would be a performance of Kathakali, Ottan thullal or Krishnaattam in the large courtyard in the house of the local janmi (landlord). All this was a part of the economy and social welfare, Grandpa would explain: the working class was provided with a night of entertainment; the artistes with some remuneration, grains and new clothes; housewives a change from the routine (And the chieftain got an ego-trip!)

Grandpa himself was well-versed in the nuances of these art forms as well as mythology. Before the performance, he would narrate the story to be staged. During the performance, he would ‘introduce’ the characters to us and patiently explain the meanings of the verses and the significance of the mudras.

It was one such occasion. The Kathakali performance scheduled for the day was Duryodhana Vadham. In the afternoon, we were told the outline of the story. That evening, dad came lugging his suitcase. His visit marked the beginning of the end of the holidays.

The performance began after dinner and would go on till early morning. The tall brass lamps were lit, the euphony of the musical instruments and the scent of incenses filled the air. The entire village thronged the place, their eyes shining with expectation. The black, red and green curtain came down, with the scene where Dharmaputra and Duryodhana play dice.

The sagely former did not impress my young mind as much as the wily Duryodhana did: his colourful make-up and his gear complete with the mace as opposed to the plain Dharmaputra must have done the trick. Duryodhana was at his vicious best when he screamed, “I’ll not give you even an inch of land.” After that, the decibel level declined, as it was life in the forest for the Pandavas and Draupadi that was featured.

I felt sleepy. I must have nodded off momentarily, but woke up with a start when I thought of my father: he would take me to task if I were caught napping. I tried to keep my eyes open, but tired as I was from the day-long frolicking with my cousins, I nodded again. My grandpa understood my plight and asked me to go to sleep.

I was more than willing to obey. I made some space for myself and lay down on the mat, my head on his lap, trying to sleep. Two things stood in the way. I was scared that my dad would find out that I was sleeping when I should be ‘getting my education on tradition and culture’. And I was keen to see Duryodhana in full cry.

I requested my grandfather: “Please wake me up when my dad or Duryodhana comes.”

The elders sitting around us broke out into a loud guffaw. I could not understand why.

Monday, March 31, 2008


For my first shave, like that of practically every man who was born, I used my father’s razor. ‘Stealthily’, I must add, to set the records straight. Actually, were I not mortified by its looks, my grandfather’s razor would have been my tool. The business end of the thing looked menacing, but it was the most basic of implements: three inch-long gleaming steel with a dark grey-and-tan handle made of buffalo’s horn. He would sharpen it by rubbing it against a small grey slab of slate, a drop of water smoothening the movement.

My father, having been exposed to the city, used a safety razor. Unlike my grandfather’s lethal weapon which daunted me, this one inspired courage because its cutting edges were both nearly masked. The all-metal, double-edged blade needed to be changed once a week. But, in my father’s view, the blade was meant to last for e-v-e-r. When it lost its edge, he would sharpen it by rubbing it along the inner face of a glass tumbler, lubricated by a drop of water.

One of my first purchases from my salary was a safety razor made of gleaming metal and a clean sharp blade. It had doors on the top and the handle had a knob that needed to be rotated gently to open the doors on the top. It was one of the most advanced contraptions that I had handled till then. The replacement cost of the blade was nominal, probably much less than a rupee.

Then Wiltech ushered in a revolution of sorts: it came forth with a model with just one cutting edge. The apparatus was light and you had to buy a cassette containing five blades. When the handle was slid into the cassette, a blade would get engaged to it – and, hey presto, it was at your service. The cassette cost a fiver, I guess.

Gillette entered my life with its spring-loaded blades that claimed to retract if the blade came into contact with the facial skin rather than the hair. This was a quantum jump in comfort as well as price. I think the blades cost Rs 10 each. I used to feel so guilty at this extravagance.A few years passed and, sure enough, Gillette introduced the Sensor Excel, which had two blades. More comfort, more money, more guilt. Possibly Rs 25 apiece. I bought this hi-tech product, was extremely satisfied with it, and thought that I had found my life partner. Once you used a Sensor Excel, there was no going back to cheaper stuff. You stayed wedded for life.

I had to eat my hat soon, as Gillette, the serpent, dangled the apple in the garden again. In the form of Mach 3 that exploded on the scene. It was the first 3-blade razor and was the ultimate in shaving comfort. It required fewer strokes as it gently caressed the face. I tried to resist the temptation to buy one, but succumbed to the marketing blitzkrieg of Gillette.

I found the trade-off, between a Rs 100 note and mornings of pure delight, to my advantage. I have squirmed in remorse everytime I bought them. But, not once in the last 4 years, have I been disloyal to Mach 3.

Famous last words they turned out to be. The new Gillette Fusion has – has hold your breath - 5 blades. Gillette says that “the combination of adding more blades and narrowing the inter-blade span creates a ‘Shaving Surface’ that distributes the shaving force across the blades, resulting in significantly less irritation and more comfort”. A friend tells me they even have a battery-powered model which has a vibrating head that will make the hair stand up and be slaughtered. And the price, a whopping Rs 300/- for a blade.I have been eyeing this beauty at Spencers’ for quite some time. I know that sooner or later I am going to buckle under the strain and buy one, I can see it standing there, staring at me, egging me to give it a try, daring me to move on … …

In a few years, I am afraid, Gillette will introduce the ultimate version of the shaving razor. A model with thousands of micromotion blades that will be guided by laser. Each micro-blade will seek out individual facial hair and destroy it without a trace. It will have a micro-chip loaded with a thousand mp3 files and can sense the mood of the face’s owner and play the appropriate music. It will sprinkle after-shave lotion on its reverse stroke.

And, all these features will come at a price of Rs 10,000 a blade. I will spend 10 minutes every day shaving my face with this masterpiece of a razor and the remaining 23 hours 50 minutes, slogging my butt out to earn the money to pay for the blades, in a deadly vicious spiral that will last for eternity … …

My management-educated son says there is something called the ‘razor and blade business model’ where the marketers sell an initial ‘master’ product or the hardware (the razor-handle in this case) at a subsidised price (even at a loss) and make their profit on the high margin consumables (blades in this case) without which the master is useless. Am I going to succumb to the strategy? I can’t tell.


The pre-Independence era. ‘British Malabar’ was part of Madras Presidency. A Legislative Council was formed by the government representing different segments of the ‘subjects’. My uncle K was elected by the landed gentry to represent them and protect their interests. He was on the right side of 40 then.

K’s life had an interesting twist. He was studying medicine at Madras Medical College. When he was his 2nd year, his uncle who was looking after the affairs of the affluent matriarchal family died of snakebite. This put an abrupt end to his education because there was no other male member to control the vast estate and huge assets. He was all of 21 when he ascended to the position of ‘Karanavar’.

Having been exposed to urban life unlike his predecessors who had lived all along in villages, K thought differently. He joined the Indian National Congress and involved himself in the independence movement. He constructed a small building close to the market to house a reading room and library. A dispensary was opened with a compounder in attendance who could handle minor indispositions; a doctor would attend the clinic twice a week.

He took pains to upgrade the primary school set up by his ancestors to upper primary and then high school levels. All this was achieved through efficient management of the estate and assets of the family and by deploying the surplus wisely. He toned up the collection of arrears of rent and other receivables and this alone was enough to meet these expenses.

He was benevolent and humane. He would walk distances rather than be carried in palanquins. He had to walk to the nearest railway station in Cannanore to catch the trains to places like Kozhikode, Payyannur and Palghat to meet leaders like K P Kesava Menon, K Madhavanar, Kunhikanna Poduval, et al and to attend meetings. The number of such trips increased when he became an MLC.

As he found the long walk of twelve miles in the hot sun or in the rainy season taxing, he bought a car. In those days, that was one of the few dozen cars in the whole of North Malabar. The bus operator who plied the only bus in Cannanore-Tellicherry route lost his driver Kannan when K poached him offering handsome incentives.

Though it was his private car, K would not hesitate offer lift to passers by. Only, they were not allowed inside the car: they were to stand on the footboard of the 1942 Chevy. Though exposed to the elements, they did not at least have to trudge the distance and saved considerable time.

It was the month of July. Monsoon had unleashed its fury and for two days, there had been no let-up in the rain. The car was on its way back from Cannanore after picking up K who had arrived from Madras after a session of the Legislative Council. The country road was slushy and it was pouring.

On the way, they saw a figure walking in the rain. A basket covered by banana leaves to protect the contents from the rain rested on his head. As they neared him, they identified him as Kumaran, soaked to the skin, obviously on his way back from the town.

Kannan, aware of the boss’ habit of offering lift to pedestrians, enquired, “That is Kumaran on his way home. Shall I offer him a lift?”

“Well, Kumaran? he hasn’t kept his promise of clearing the arrears before this monsoon,” observed K.

“In that case, shall I splash some mud on him?” was the instant response of Kannan. It won’t ever be said that he does not have presence of mind.

Oranges, Anyone?

As was the custom those days, my grandfather moved into his bride’s matriarchal household near Cannanore when they got married. He was used to hard work, physical labour and a tough life. By contrast, the men in her family, traditionally the landed gentry, were not used to physical work; they only supervised the farm-related activities.

For the young man newly inducted into the affluent joint family, this was traumatic. He had time on his hands, a lot of it, and nothing to do. Control of the farm labour was the portfolio of the men of the family, and the sons-in-law were not to be burdened with such responsibilities.

The forenoon’s schedule began with an early morning bath and a visit to the temple followed by a hearty breakfast. After that, there was precious little to be done. He had to be generally busy, doing nothing during the daytime. Couples were allowed each other’s company only after dinner.

Grandpa was not alone in this predicament. There were other such young men married into the family. They would engage themselves in pastimes like jokes, gossip, aksharashlokam (a precursor of the present day Antakshari), siesta and such other harmless activities.

But how long can you put an enterprising young man down, tying him down to an epicurean life? He was raring to go. And he did. He bought himself a second hand truck (A Buick, a Chevrolet or a Leyland, I do not recall) and learnt how to drive it.

Grandpa would buy coconuts from the village and sell them in Mysore, a couple of hundred kilometres east. Early mornings on Fridays, he would set off on his truck, with Kittan, his Jeeves, for company. After the sale, he would buy oranges from the wholesale market the next day, bring them to coastal Cannanore and sell them there. It made sound economic sense.

This went on for long. During one of those trips in an October, the orange-laden truck developed some trouble. He tried to move ahead. It went on for a couple of kilometres but the engine stalled.

It was nearing noon. There were no workshops nearby. Did I say this was in the early 1930’s? Someone told grandpa help would be available only at Virajpet in the west or Nanjangud in the east. The former, another informed, was ill-equipped and it may be better to engage the Nanjangud mechanic. As there were no telephones, the only way was to go and fetch him. So Kittan was assigned the task of fetching the repairman with his equipments.

Kittan hopped on to a truck going Mysore-wards. After six long hours, he returned in another, alone. When he reached Nanjangud, the only mechanic was winding up for the day. He was leaving for his village, and would return only on Monday when he had some pending work to attend to.

It was the Dussehra season. On Monday evening, the tools would be kept away for worship, for that was the Aayudha Pooja day and he would not touch the tools till Vijaya Dashami on Wednesday morning.

That was bad news. Kittan and he would have to keep watch over the oranges for three days. And exposed to the elements for three days, the ripe and succulent oranges in the hold of the truck would be useless.

Several trucks sped past the disabled and stationary counterpart. Drivers of some trucks were more compassionate: they would slow down and stop to enquire, say a few words of commiseration and move ahead. Grandpa toyed with the idea of persuading a driver to carry the oranges to Cannanore for sale, but that would mean abandoning the truck.

Sensing that grandpa had no choice except a distress sale of the oranges, some enterprising truck drivers offered to buy the oranges at prices about ten percent of the cost. Incurring a ninety percent loss was not grandpa’s idea of doing business.

Villagers were going back to their homes after work, with bags and baskets containing the purchase of rice and provisions made by them from the local market and shops. He had a bright idea. He announced to the passers by: they could pick up as many oranges as they wanted and carry them home for their kids.

Rather than incur a 90% loss, he would be a Santa Clause for the kids. Would you call that ‘making a virtue of a necessity?’