Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A HERO IN MY LIFE

I confess that ever since I can remember, I have had a hero. It was, admittedly, not the same person all the time, but there was always one nevertheless. Someone who made a profound difference, one who changed my life, so to speak. The impact he made might have been in a hard-to-notice way on an insignificant aspect of my character, but change me they all did.

I was barely sixteen when I met him in 1963. Prof Veeramony (He was not a professor yet, then) taught us calculus in Sanatana Dharma College, Alleppey. The first day I met him, he told me to my immense delight that we had something in common: he was an alumnus of the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam from where I had migrated to the college where he was teaching.

In the early days of my association, it was his style of dressing that attracted me. Unlike other teachers, who wore the western attire, some of them complete with a jacket, he was a desi in his appearance: a shirt and a dhoti.

Those who know about the 1960’s would recall that terylene was the fabric in vogue. And the Professor had an enviable collection of those shirts in all pastel shades, subtle stripes and self-design material. And his dhotis were an immaculate white, sheer cotton from the then coveted mills in Ahmedabad of the likes of Arvind and Mafatlal.

He was on the wrong side of thirty, but the youngest of our teachers. Tall, lean and fair-skinned, he sported a moustache and WAS the hero of the college. He had a resonant voice and even a lecture on differentiation would sound musical, with a mellifluous flow of cadences, rises and falls. He lived not more than a couple of miles from the college and would travel riding his shining new green Hercules bicycle, a burning cigarette between his index finger and the middle. A bachelor, he stole many a heart, predictably.

Not all students came to the college excited to learn Calculus; many were there because they could not make it to the Medical or the Engineering College. Some were using it as a stepping stone or biding their time. The professor was the type of teacher who could make his class not only exciting, but memorable. So much so that they would fall in love with the subject.

The concept that any constant, on being differentiated, reduces to zero while the exponential function remains unchanged was etched into the memory of the dumbest student when he narrated the case of the mathematician who went insane and believed that he was the differentiation operator. His friends had him placed in a mental hospital until he got better. The other inmates of the asylum were all constants. All day he would go around frightening the other patients by staring at them and saying, 'I differentiate you!'

One day a new patient arrived in the sanatorium. True to form, he stared at him and screamed, 'I'll differentiate you!' For once, his threat had no impact on the victim.

Surprised, the mathematician marshalled his energies, stared fiercely at the new patient and said even more loudly, 'I differentiate you!', but still the other man had no reaction. Finally, in frustration, the mathematician screamed out 'I DIFFERENTIATE YOU!'

The new patient calmly looked up and said, 'You can differentiate me all you like: I'm e raised to the power of x.'

I have seen none who could draw a perfect circle on the blackboard with the help of no instruments. Absolutely straight lines were child's play. It was sheer beauty to watch the way drew the 'dotted lines' (to indicate that they were part of 'construction'): he would hold the end of a long chalkpiece rather lightly and 'jump' it along the blackboard. You could hear a muted 'Tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk...' as the chalkpiece hit the blackboard in regular beats and see the 'dotted line' emerge.

The professor was a martinet within the four walls of the classroom. He set out his terms during his first lecture: ‘I demand undivided attention. If you cannot provide that, you have no place here.’

And he was true to his words. If he caught someone engaged in an activity he was not supposed to be doing at the moment, he would quiz him, ‘Hey, there, what are you doing, Thomas?’ A petrified Thomas would naturally mumble a feeble ‘Nothing’ but the Professor would show him the door, saying ‘This is not the place to do nothing.’

If you caught him breaking his chalk into a tiny bit, the action not in the least interrupting the process of working out a problem on the blackboard, you knew that the tiny bit of chalk would soon turn into a projectile and land with some force on the head of someone who was nodding, or doing something non-academic.

Professor Veeramony was as cordial and affable outside the classroom as he was strict within. In my days, I had never seen a teacher or a professor on backslapping terms with his students. They were a bunch of people to be respected, if not afraid of.

With his resonant voice, he could sing very well. I guess he must have had some training in classical music. Whenever I hear a particular Malayalam film song (Shankupushpam kannezhuthumpol…) from Shakuntala, I remember him because of his soulful rendering of that all time great on the day we bid farewell to the college. In response to or request for an encore, he sang ‘Jalte hain jiske liye, teri aankhon ke liye …’ from Sujata ‘better than Talat Mahmood’, as a classmate commented.

On Saturdays and Sundays, he would be sighted in the college ground playing cricket with students. After that, he would go for movies and take some student or other with him. He used to frequent restaurants, particularly, the Indian Coffee House.

A lot of stories about him, some of them possibly apocryphal, were in circulation: how he came from an ordinary family, how brilliant he was as a student, how his father had given him total freedom, how his parents gave him the freedom to smoke at home, how he was free to spend all the money he earned, and the like. Given the salaries college teachers were paid (in those pre-UGC Scale days) and his munificence, the Professor needed more money. And he earned it through tuitions.

It was natural for teachers to have a soft corner for those who took tuitions, but Professor Veeramony was different. No special treatment for them. On the contrary, there seen to be a hint of derision in his approach towards them: ‘you have to lean on the crutch I provide because you are slow on the uptake’, he seemed to say. (That was one important lesson I learnt from him – not to treat someone better because his relationship with you went beyond the official realm. This lesson has stood me in good stead in my later life: not once in my career have I been charged with nepotism.)

One Sunday evening I was ambling along Mullackal Road, possibly running some errand for the house, when I heard a tinkle of the bell of the bicycle and his voice. He invited me for a cup of coffee. That was the first time I stepped into the hallowed premises of the Indian Coffee House – ‘hallowed’ because eating out was not the done thing for a boy from the middleclass background as much for disapprobation by the elders as for lack of pocket money.

He talked to me for some time about my plans in life. The bearer who came for taking the order seemed to know him well. The professor too knew all the bearers, something only to be expected of a person who visited the eatery every single day. He ordered a masala dosa ghee roast and a tall glass of cold coffee for me – again, another first time experience for me. After a while, we parted company, but the aroma of the ghee, the taste of the mashed potato, carrot and beetroot filling in the masala dosa, and the sweetness of the coffee still linger.

On our last day in college, he had said, ‘A teacher's greatest joy is seeing his students attain success.’ It was after the lapse of over two decade of my leaving college that I ran into the Professor again. He had got married, switched jobs and relocated. He was delighted that I was doing rather well for myself in the job I had found myself. I thanked him, not for courtesy’s sake, but from the bottom of my heart. ‘You made my day!’ said the Professor. To which I replied, ‘Sir, you made my life!’

Sunday, November 21, 2010

MAKING HAY WHILE ...

To say that I am bored this weekend would be an understatement. Coming after the extended weekend (November 12-14) when Trivandrum was treated to an extravaganza (The Hay Festival), this weekend is indeed dull. Those were over three action-packed days when one heard the likes of Vikram Seth, Simon Schama, Shashi Tharoor, Basharat Peer, William Dalrymple, Nik Gowing, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Marc du Sautoy, Manu Joseph, N S Madhavan, O N V Kurup et al.

For a certified sucker for books like me, it was a problem of plenty. I was spoilt for choices. Who do I choose – Tishani Doshi or Adoor Gopalakrishnan? Basharat Peer or Sonia Faleiro? Jaishree Misra or Tarun Tejpal? Where do I go to? The Palace Hall? The Bandstand? The Reading Room?

It was a gorgeous setting – the newly-renovated brick-and-white Kanakakunnu Palace (the summer palace of the erstwhile royal Travancore family) set in the emerald green lawns, with the rain-washed trees on the hillock providing a contrasting background. In the Year Dot, as the organizers preferred to call the first year of the Kerala avatar of The Hay Festival, it was a massive turnout, going by the numbers quoted and comparing it with the Kovalam Lit Fest held only over a month before. Not for nothing that Bill Clinton once famously described it as the Woodstock of the Mind.

I gave the inaugural a miss – who wants to hear the politico’s predictable blah-blah about the cultural heritage and the high literacy rate of Kerala? In the process, I ended up the loser. I was told some of the speakers were surprisingly refreshing. The Hon’ble Minister for Culture, I was told, made a poor attempt at humour: the next year’s edition should be called The Strong Hay Festival (as distinguished from The Week Hay Festival – named after The Week Magazine, the sponsors).

The first session I attended was an interview with Vikram Seth by novelist Anita Sethi. Though, thanks to her accent, I could not quite catch a lot of what she asked him, she must have done a remarkable job, for Vikram entertained the audience talking about fiction in verse, reciting his first poems (starting from his first couplet Cat, Rat conceived at the age of three, he said!) read a few verses and chatted on and on. He spoke of A Suitable Girl, expected next year. His sparkling wit was pure delight.

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was incredible. He theorized on why Real Madrid and other football clubs should stick to prime numbers on their jerseys. Sautoy held the audience by their collar, so to speak, chatting about lemmings, David Beckham, his own football club and the lottery. The journey he took us through the magical world of numbers was marvelous.

One imaginatively structured event was an Alphabet Game in which Historian Simon Schama participated. Peter Florence, the founder of the famous Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales, would name a word beginning with A, B, C, … in that order and give Schama a couple of minutes, give or take a few seconds, in which the latter would sum up his thoughts on that topic. Schama tackled subjects as far-ranging as Afghanistan and Obama to Krakow, Rembrandt and Tarantino! Not only did he not disappoint, he was amazing - I even thought the whole thing was rigged, but that would be uncharitable. Schama gave an incredible performance, with Florence clearly playing to his strengths.

Tehelka’s Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury’s interview with the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar was the highlight of Day One. Shoma’s questions flowed smooth and uninterrupted like honey and Aiyar, known for his outspokenness, responded enthusiastically. At the end of the no-holds barred exposition of his passionate convictions and the grand follies of public policy, one knew why the Congressman was in political wilderness: no party honcho would stomach his nerve.

Shashi Tharoor, who has been associated with the event ever since its inception over two decades ago as the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales, was a darling. The highlight of his session was the way he lambasted Arundhati Roy. He hit out at the Booker prize winner-activist: she has 'gone too far to the left' and 'unfortunately chooses to write about those who carry guns'.

Do you see some familiar faces?

The dialogue with Michelle Paver took one to the wonder world of the boy within you. She explained how she happened to write the story of Tarak and his wolf-brother in the pre-historic age.

The most charged session I got to attend was The Intelligence Squared Debate. The motion was ‘Indian Economic Growth at the Cost of Social Development?’ Speaking for the motion, Tarun Tejpal, the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, crossed swords with the redoubtable economist Lord Meghnad Desai. Articulate and rational both were, but it appeared that the audience was not moved. The house which was split half way before the debate remained that way even after the debate.

The sad part of it all was that unless you are a superman, you can attend only a third of the events. I missed the petite Sonia Faleiro, Charu Nivedita, Manu Joseph, Kishwar Desai, Tishani Doshi, Hannah Rothschild and Pavan Varma, to name a few.

The usually reticent Adoor Gopalakrishnan was at his eloquent best, a friend who attended that session said, explaining the logic behind some of his films, frame by frame as it were. He added that Adoor fielded some fairly tricky questions with élan.

I missed it, but was told Mexican writer Jorge Volpi had a lovely session, talking about the post magic realism wave of writers in Latin America. The world knows Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but there's so much else going on besides that, he emphasized, fairly gently.

Another session I missed was that of Tamil writer Charu Nivedita, who, I am told, was excoriating in his (Yes, HIS!) criticism of the political establishment in his home state. A subversive writer, he confided to the audience that he's better known in Kerala than in Tamil Nadu.

Sister Jesme, who wrote Autobiography of a Nun, said next work is based on being a Bride of Christ. Speaking about his memoir Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer dwelt on the fractious and fragile situation in Kashmir, and some of the many challenges that remain, pushing for credible engagement by the government, as the only way forward. I missed Manu Joseph came fresh off his book, Serious Men, winning the Hindu Best Fiction Award.

I was told Bob Geldof spoke amazingly well about using rock 'n' roll as a political lobby. His work in mobilizing support to end third world debt goes back more than 25 years, and he sounded passionate. ‘He spent so much time passionately evangelising for the world’s poor that it came as something of a surprise when he morphed back into the rock star he once was,’ said a friend after his concert.

On show were some breathtaking pictures by M(adhavan) Balan, celebrated wildlife photographer, a former colleague of mine. He had a novel idea: to get the photographs autographed by celebrities in token of their commitment to the cause of conservation of nature and wildlife and present them to the Chief Minister and his important colleagues for display in their rooms. By the end of the third day, the white mounting of the snaps bore signatures in myriad colours, languages and handwritings. A great initiative.

Now, to the negatives. There were some no-shows, like Anita Nair and Shobhaa De. This, and perhaps some other imponderables resulted in some last-minute changes in the schedules, but that was inevitable in a do like this.

The catering arrangements were woefully inadequate. The cafeteria on the campus was poorly stocked, those who manned the counter as tardy as inefficient and the prices exorbitant. The toilets in the main building were reserved for authors, and the one for readers were far away and ill-kept.

Even this was fine, but what one could not bear was the interminable wait for a minister who wanted to make a speech. He kept organizers guessing about the time he would arrive and made them announce three times at five-minute intervals that the worthy ‘would be here with us in five minutes’. Fed up, they gave up the wait and finally started the session fifteen minutes late. That was when the dignitary strutted in, escorted by his minions. He wasted no time, though. He interrupted the session which was in progress, pulled out a piece of paper and read out a speech, obviously ghost-written, dwelling on – need I say? – the cultural heritage and the high literacy rate of Kerala. Educating those present, he said the famous writer Aubrey Menon (sic) spent his twelfth (sic, again – I guess he meant ‘twilight’) years in the city. After making a few other gaffes, and setting the record for making the most mistakes per minute, he mercifully left in ten minutes.

I missed the concert by Beb Geldof, not to mention the Sting guest appearance who was apparently sitting nonchalantly in the audience before getting up onstage. ‘Geldof, of the Pink Floyd fame, in Trivandrum?’ asked a jealous offspring. ‘Sting? No way … Was his flight re-routed?’ asked another. My children have not forgiven me for passing up that golden chance. But then sitting cooped up in a chair for seven hours does unmentionable things to your back and I had to call it a day.

After wowing literary audiences around the globe, this was the first time Hay Festival came to India. The organizers of the 23-year-old coveted festival are impressed: they have decided to make Trivandrum a permanent venue.

On the sidelines: Shutterbugs chasing Sunanda Pushkar who was mobbed and young literature students seeking her autographs in preference to the likes of Miguel Syjuco and Paul Zacharia was was an amusing sight, if there was one, at the Festival.

Caught in the net: Hay is a small town in Wales, on the east bank of the River Wye, It has a population 1,900, but has 30 second-hand bookshops. It is twinned with, would you believe it, Timbuktu, the ancient city in Mali, West Africa.

Monday, November 15, 2010

BOND WITH THE BEST

There was a time when I used to be an avid quizzer. My scrapbooks contain all sorts of authentic but useless (or, useless but authentic, if you prefer) information on a variety of men, women, things and places. It has a lot of trivia and information about James Bond. Here are some:

James Bond has two large cups of very strong black coffee in the morning without sugar, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex.

For breakfast, he has two slices of whole wheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter and three squat glass jars containing Tiptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry jam; Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum's and a single egg (very fresh, speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen) in a dark blue egg cup with a gold ring round the top, boiled exactly for three minutes and twenty seconds.

On occasions he chooses to have scrambled eggs, this is how 007 likes them:
Ingredients for four people: 12 fresh eggs, salt and pepper, 5-6 oz fresh butter. Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork and season well. Melt 4 oz butter in a small copper (or heavy bottomed) saucepan. When melted, pour in eggs and cook over a very low heat, whisking continuously with a small egg whisk. While eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add rest of butter, and continue whisking for a minute, adding finely chopped chives of fine herbs. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes with Taittinger and low music.

The coffee pot and the silver are Queen Anne and the china is Minton.

Who does not know that Bond’s preferred tipple is 'vodka martini, medium dry, shaken not stirred'? But many may not know how it is to be made. Take 4 measures Vodka and add 1 measure dry Vermouth. Shake with ice. Do not stir. Add one green olive. Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel

'Vesper' is another cocktail designed by Bond and named after the girl with him in Casino Royale. It is prepared by adding 3 measures Gordon's Gin, 1 measure Vodka and 1 measure blond Lillet vermouth. Shake very well. Serve ice cold, garnished with a slice of lemon peel.

If he opts for champagne, it is Dom Perignon (Preferably 1953) and Bollinger. Bond believes that feels drinking Dom Perignon '53 above a temperature of 38 degrees farenheit is as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.

He smokes custom made Mooreland’s cigarettes with 3 golden stripes and writes with a Mont Blanc pen. James Bond prefers suits by the Italian Brioni.

Though Bond has a marked preference for a 1933 4.5 litre Bentley car in the novels, in the movies, its mostly an Aston Martin DB5. (The number on its licence plate is BMT 216A, except in Golden Eye where it is BMT 214A)

What is Bond without a gun? He has wielded several, though. 0.25 Beretta, Walther PPK (and Walther P99) as well as Heckler & Koch P7.

What use is trivia? I don’t know!

YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES

When did I first hear the word ‘prequel? It was the answer to a direct question to a team in a quiz I had participated in, I think, in 1980. They had no clue. Nor did I. My partner Jacob, a never-say-die type and a great one for making ‘intelligent guesses’, answered it right, working back from the word ‘sequel’.

It was in 1986 that I bought my first prequel – Alan Arnold’s Young Sherlock Holmes. It is based on Chris Columbus’ (not the explorer of the 15th century!) screenplay of a film of the same name produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Barry Levinson. Arnold holds Holmes as an ideal, stating in the epilogue that Holmes is as much the chivalric medieval knight as a Victorian and Edwardian gentleman.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the best known fictional detectives in the world. So famous that he, rather the house at 221b on Baker Street in London where he is supposed to have lived, continues to get mail a century after he would have died, had he been a real person. There are fans who delight in retelling the tales; the story in this book fills in the gaps of Holmes' childhood, education, interests, traits and bachelorhood.

The story attempts to foreshadow the life of Conan Doyle’s adult Holmes. The author does take considerable liberties with the legend, but largely succeeds in his bid in ‘implanting’ the Holmesian props – his pipe and deerstalker hat are shown as trophies collected during the adventure in this story – and hints of his interest in violin and chemistry as well as traits like the prodigious powers of observation and deduction. Likewise, Watson too is imbued with the characters and interests that the latter-day Watson had. The other major characters in the ‘Adult Sherlock Holmes’, like Inspector Lestrade and Prof Moriarty too make their appearance in the story.

The story begins with the first meeting of the teenaged Holmes and his latter-day sidekick Watson at boarding school. Young Watson joins Brompton School. At the very first meeting, the reticent Watson is impressed by the intellectual Holmes’ deductive reasoning. Holmes speculates as to Watson's origins, his diet, his father's profession, etc. Holmes guesses Watson's first name to be James, but when Watson says he is off the mark, Holmes says John, the correct name, was his second option.

Watson befriends Holmes and Elizabeth who is Holmes’ girlfriend of and niece of retired schoolmaster Rupert T Waxflatter. The eccentric Waxflatter who lives on school grounds and performs flight-tests on a recumbent bicycle-like aircraft he has designed is Holmes’ mentor. Watson also meets Dudley, Holmes’ snooty nemesis, and Rathe, the enigmatic fencing teacher, who regards Holmes as a favourite.

Meanwhile, two local prominent citizens, Mr. Bobster and Rev. Nesbitt kill themselves after suffering hallucinations induced by poisoned darts, shot from a blowpipe by a hooded and cloaked apparition. This is a mystery very much in the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The clues are there – one merely needs to follow them to a logical conclusion. Some purists may balk, but this is an intriguing addition to the body of post-Conan Doyle literature, a worthy pastiche. Young Lestrade, as a junior policeman in this story, dismisses the possibility of foul play.

Holmes is expelled from school when Dudley frames him for cheating in an examination. Waxflatter stabs himself after being shot with a dart. Holmes discovers that the Rametep, an Egyptian death cult, may be responsible. Together with Watson and Elizabeth, he tracks the cult to a London warehouse, where all three suffer hallucinations while escaping the cultist horde. Lestrade is convinced to investigate.

Holmes realises that the dead men were members of a group, one of whom survives – Cragwitch. Arnold's research into the Egyptian lore, as well as details about London and Holmesian detail is impressive. The boys visit Cragwitch, who reveals that the cult is revenging itself upon the men for their youthful desecration of an Egyptian tomb. Holmes belatedly identifies the cult leader as Rathe, and the hooded assassin as a woman named Mrs Dribb.

Rathe and Dribb carry Elizabeth off to the warehouse-temple for sacrifice. Holmes and Watson give chase in Waxflatter’s machine. Elizabeth is rescued, and Dribb dispatched by fire, in a swashbuckling climax. Elizabeth receives her death wound, interposing herself between Holmes and Rathe’s bullet. (
Elizabeth's death, and Holmes' promise to wait until the day they are re-united, does provide an explanation for Holmes' bachelor life.) Holmes and Rathe duel with swords until the latter falls through the ice on a frozen Thames. The bereaved Holmes leaves the school, and Watson, the two promising to meet again.

Of the things that impressed me in the book is the subtle references and allusions or build-up to the other works featuring adult Holmes. In the opening chapter, he has started learning to play the violin and is quite frustrated that he has not mastered the instrument even after three days of practice and wants to smash the violin because it drives him insane! His pipe is originally bought by Watson to allow them to question an antique shop dealer; in the conclusion, Watson presents it to Holmes as a parting gift. The Inverness cape of Holmes originally belonged to Rathe, and is also his first trophy. His deerstalker cap belonged to his mentor Waxflatter, who later dies. His niece, Elizabeth, gifts it to Holmes who refuses to don it at first but due to Elizabeth's and Watson's persistence he puts it on, and by the end of the adventure, Holmes has started wearing it regularly, to remember Elizabeth. He also picks up his trademark phrase ‘Elementary, Watson. Elementary’ from Waxflatter. Holmes uses a magnifying lens to catch the slightest details of anything he investigates. He also makes a mention of his elder brother, Mycroft.

I am amazed at Arnold’s dexterity. Not for nothing that he is read even today.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

FUN IN FIVE LINES

Kaushik Chatterjee, you made my day*! The good words you wrote about my post "What do you want to be when you grow up?" cheered me no end. A good turn deserves another and I dedicate this post on limericks, with great affection, to Kaushik.

.

Bland or bawdy, clean or raunchy, prim or rib tickling, ditties and doggerels are great fun. Anyone can recite one. Don't believe me? Hickory, dickory, dock. Little Jack Horner sat in a corner.

.

A limerick is a couplet (the third and fourth lines) sandwiched within a triplet (the first, second and the fifth lines). The lines in the couplet rhyme and have six beats; so do those in the triplet which have nine beats. The anapaestic rhythm – two short and one long beat – is what gives it the swing.

.

Classical poetry in Sanskrit and most Indian languages is all about cadences and rhythms, the long and short; so I feel comfortable with verse forms that demand strict adherence to meter.

.

The best limericks should rhyme (and delight the reader by innovative rhyming solutions, if somewhat contrived) and like the O’Henry stories, have a surprise ending. If the punch comes too early of the climax can be anticipated before it is reached, half the fun is lost. Verbal felicity, metrical perfection and a quick turn of wit – and you’re done!

.

I always enjoyed limericks. A limerick is a simple narration of events in five lines of verse. Often, the first line sets the scene and gives us the main character. The rest are narration, and the fifth line is the punchline. There is something about the meter that begs for irreverence and wordplay. It is almost as if irreverence is a prerequisite. It seems indeed impossible to write a limerick without approaching the indelicate. Why, it may be asked, should anyone want to write such an indecorous form of verse as the limerick?

.

The word ‘limerick’ is supposed to have entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1898, defined as a 'form of indecent nonsense verse' and seems to have nothing to do with the small town Limerick in Ireland or its doppelganger in Pennsylvania.

.

We’ll start with some limericks about limericks.

.

An anonymous writer describes limericks thus:

The limerick packs jokes anatomical

Into space that is quite economical.

But the good ones I’ve seen

So seldom are clean

And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

.

Conrad Aitken describes a limerick thus:

The limerick’s, admitted, a verse form:

A terse form: a curse form: a hearse form.

It may not be lyric

And at best it’s satyric

And a whale of a tail in perverse form.

.

There’s a warning in this one by Morris Bishop, that great master of contemporary limerick:

The limerick is furtive and mean;

You must keep her in close quarantine,

Or she sneaks to the slums

And promptly becomes

Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

.

Just one more:

The limerick’s an art form complex

Whose contents run chiefly to sex;

It’s famous for virgins

And masculine urgin’s

And vulgar erotic effects.

.

Limericks aren't just funny or bawdy. They reflect times and mores. They reflect the social climate and point to changes that are crying out for attention; they comment on issues. Limericks are insidious. You always have an apposite limerick to quote. But there are always prudes, and limericks take potshots at them. Predictably, several of the bawdy limericks are about women and therefore it should not come as a surprise that most women loathe limericks. Gershon Legman attributed it to ‘the same reason that calves hate cookbooks’.

.

Yet, this normally frivolous and often immoral form of verse can be amazingly highbrow at times. Like this one composed by Prof Harvey L Carter:

’Tis a favourite project of mine

A new value of π to assign.

I would fix it at 3

For, it’s simpler, you see,

Than 3 point 14159.

.

Or very clever, like this one:

. She frowned and called him Mr.

Because in sport he kr.

And so in spite

That very night

This Mr. kr. sr.

.

Innovative people have devised variations like the six-line limerick, for instance:

There was a young fellow named Skinner

Who took a young lady to dinner;

At half past nine

They sat down to dine,

And by quarter to ten it was in her.

What? Dinner? No, Skinner!

.

And those whom the Muse did not quite oblige and could not compose the aabba did not give up without a fight.

There was a fat lady from Eye

Who felt she was likely to die

But for fear that once dead

She would not be well-fed,

She gulped down a pig, a cow, a sheep, twelve buns, a seven-layer cake, four cups coffee and a green apple pie.

.

Everyone, of course, could not make such a valiant effort at rhyming and succeed. Their memory in enshrined in:

The limerick, peculiar to English,

Is a verse form that’s hard to extinguish.

Once the Congress in session

Decreed its suppression

But people got around it by writing the last line without any rhyme or meter.

.

A less-known fact is that P G Wodehouse wrote a limerick, one of my favourites, but it was in prose: it was about the 'young man called Grover, who bowled twenty-two wides in an over; (which had never been done, by a clergyman's son), on a Thursday in August in Dover.'



PS: Murphy's Limerick Law I define:
You've decided your limerick's divine...
Since it can't be improved
To your web site it's moved —
Then you think of a much better line!





* I started writing this some time in March 2010 but finished it only today!