Wednesday, October 22, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dead Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

Romance in the Rain

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

Monday, October 06, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Of Monickers and Distortions

My final years of schooling were in Cochin (now Kochi). Hajee Essa Hajee Moosa Memorial High School, Mattancherry, to be exact. My favourite teacher was Venceslaus. He was very proud of his name and would announce the fact very often. I have not met a man bearing that name before or after him. And I am prepared to wager ten to one that you too have not.

'One of the few things that you can call your own, something nobody can take away from you, is your name,' he would say. True to his word, he was fiercely protective about his name. He would react quite strongly to people who misspelt, mispronounced (Ven-slaus) or abbreviated his name (Venchy).

Perhaps some of this trait has rubbed off on me too. After all, he was my hero of the time. And that is the reason why I am a stickler when it comes to names. When a stranger is introduced to me, I make it a point to commit his name, complete with initials, to my memory. Often I find out what the initials stand for and remember that as well. 

This habit of mine has helped me, a former banker, professionally. The way the face of a stray customer lights up when he realises that the Branch Manager recognises him (not forgetting the mandatory 'her') by name has to be seen to be believed. Countless are the times when a former junior colleague phones me up years later and the dialogue goes something like this

'Sir, I am Desai speaking. H G Desai of Veraval (South) Branch.'

'Yes, Hasmukhbhai Govardhandas Desai, how are you?' 

'Sir, you remember my FULL name! You served State Bank of Saurashtra for hardly one year and yet! I was reporting to the Regional Manager who was reporting to the Zonal Manager who in turn was reporting to you. Still you remember my name!'

Perhaps because of this, I expect people to remember my name. And remember it correctly. Failure to do so upsets me no end. (My friend Manimury used to say that half the problems in the world would get resolved if you do not expect others to behave the way you would have behaved  in a similar situation, but his advice has not chastened me one bit - at least in this matter.)

We were in a conference of  senior Branch Managers. Among those present was my colleague Guruswamy with whom I had worked in the Head Office for about three years. We were now heading  branches in two district headquarters. I had just made a point and sat down when Guruswamy got up and remarked, 'There is merit in what Rajasekhar has stated, but I beg to differ with him when he says that ...'

It was my turn to respond. I concluded my response with, '... To this limited extent, I would agree with Ramaswamy.' Whereupon Guruswamy leapt to his feet and corrected me, 'My name is GURUswamy!' and I replied, 'And mine is RajaGOPALAN!' I rested my case.

It was when I was working in State Bank of Patiala that my son recited a new doggerel he had learnt from his friends in the school. It went thus: ' Nattha Singh and Buta Singh, One and the same thing!' There I had a boss there who seemed to believe in this dictum. I had a colleague there by the name Balagopal and when the boss wanted to meet one of us, he would often send word for the other. On discovering that he had the wrong General Manager before him, he would say, 'Rajgopal, Balgopal, sab ek hi baat hai.' I have not forgiven him for the number of times he had made me get up from my seat, interrupting the work on hand, and walk to his chamber.

It was widely reported that our Prime Minister, during his recent US visit, said Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi when referring to the Father of the Nation, but can one buy the excuse that it was a slip of the tongue? 

This disdain for the names of people gets my goat. I have my own views about the RSS supermo Mohan Bhagwat being given airtime by Doordarshan, the government-owned television channel. I did not watch the programme, but later read the full text (or what is purported to be the full text). I found it quite inclusive and, shall we say, cosmopolitan, despite the RSS credentials. He certainly did not spew venom harboured in several hate speeches by political bigwigs and practitioners of several religions I have heard. In fact, I did not find anything that would offend one's sensibility except for the ban on beef. He can eat the food of his choice, but how can he decide what others should ingest?

But what I found difficult to stomach was the utter disregard for accuracy that he has displayed when referring to the erstwhile kings of certain parts of the present Tamil Nadu. He referred to a king called Rajrajinder Chol. My history books tell me that during the last part of the 10th and the early part of the 11th centuries, a king called Raja Raja Chozhan (changed to Cholan by the English) reigned over the kingdom for nearly three decades and that he was succeeded by his son Rajendra Chozhan/Cholan. What the RSS chief did was, I think, to combine the two names into Rajarajendra Chozhan/Cholan, thus creating a fictional character. Then he distorted the resultant name by 'Hindi-izing' it into 'Rajrajinder Chol'!

How would he like it if the thorough-bred Mallu that I am were, like my friend Hari Prahlad, to refer to him as Mohanan Bhagavathar? (For the non-Mallus, I will give a rough translation: it would mean Mohanan, the exponent of classical music.) 

Thursday, June 12, 2014


A few months back, a puzzle enthusiast asked me: 'What is special about the surname of the first US President? You have to give me the answer I am looking for. It has something to do with the surnames of all his successors.' I confess that it did take me a while, but solve the riddle I did. 

As I do not want to be a spoilsport and deprive you of the exercise your brain needs, I am not giving the answer straightaway. Those who give up can highlight the next few lines and see the answer for themselves.

The answer: The surnames of all the US Presidents have at least one letter in common with the surnames of all his successors. (No big deal, coming to think of it, because hardly a surname can be formed without a vowel and WASHINGTON has three of them. And it hasm to boot, the letters H, N, S and T at least one of which would be present in any surname.)

was reminded of the puzzle this morning when I chanced upon the sonnet 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' by a little-known poet called David Shulman in 1936. Here is the 14-liner. 


A hard, howling, tossing, water scene:
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When general's star action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands - sailor crew went going,
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens - Winter again grows cold;
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can't lose war with 's hands in;
He's astern—so, go alight, crew, and win!

In this fully metrical and rhyming sonnet, Shulman does paint a vivid picture of the violent waves and the wild wind lashing, but it is not without its faults, purists might argue. The rhyme-scheme is not exactly perfect (the 'anger'-'danger' bit), I agree.  In the second line, it should have been 'the hero'. The contraction in the penultimate line ('s for 'his') is a bit outlandish, to say the least. It is hard to parse lines like 'Redcoats warn slow his hint engage'. There are several points where the construction jars.

Yes, granted, it is not exactly the model verse, but did you notice that every line, like the title, is made up of the same letters as the title of the poem? (A Scrabble player will be quick to notice that the high-value letters - Q, Z, J and X - as well as many of the mid-value letters - K, F, V, Y, B, M and P - and the poor U are missing.)

That was quite a feat, considering that the bard had a self-imposed constraint of 16 letters to work with. And each line had to be an anagram of the title!