Wednesday, December 23, 2015


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Petrichor and Angostura

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


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