By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Conversion Blues : Centigrade >< Fahrenheit -- Lb. >< Kg. -- Miles >< Kilometres

The 1970s were a period when I was inclined to write with a heavy accent on humor.  Shankar's Weekly and Hindustan Times Evening News in New Delhi were ideally suited for this purpose.  (SW had a wide All-India circulation and a tremendous reputation, and HTEN was the only evening English paper in the Capital those days and was read by readers of all the morning papers.  I made my debut in SW with the following article:

Shankar's Weekly
22 July 1972
Centigrade and Fahrenheit

MORE than fifteen years after India switched over from Fahrenheit to Centigrade, I am still not able to come to grips with the new system.  I can feel the heat or the cold on my skin when you talk in terms of Fahrenheit, but Centigrade is still a matter of tough mental calculation with me.  I have a feeling that it is just the other way round with the younger generation.  The influence of high-school education, apparently, more formidable than one imagines!

One of my very young colleagues in the office told me the other day:  "So the heat wave is gone, Sir!  Yesterday's maximum was only 34.7 degrees."

I did not answer at once;  nor did I hear what he said next, for I was thinking: 

"34 into 9 is 306 by 5 is 61.2  --  .7 into 9 is .63 by 5 is 1.26  --  61.2 plus 1.26 equals 62.46  --  32 plus 62.46 is 94.46."

 "Yes, it was only 94.5 degrees yesterday,"  I said aloud.

"Excuse me, Sir!"  my colleague said, looking amused.  "I was saying that the progress report from East Zone has been delayed again!"

I refused to be ruffled.  "Do you think it won't get hot again?  Maybe we will hit 100  degrees today,"  I said.

It was the youngster's turn to go into a daze now, and he did not seem to hear my next question.  Obviously he was thinking:

"100 minus 32 is 68  --  68 into 5 is 340 by 9 equals 37.7  --  that's about 38."

"Well, frankly I don't think so, Sir!  Maybe we will go as high as 36, but not 38," he said at last.

"Forget the weather, will you?"  I ordered harshly, with great satisfaction.  "I was asking you why East Zone is delaying the report again!"

I have the same kind of trouble with kilometres, litres and kilograms.

The dashboard of my car is a constant source of despair to me.  It has a meter ticking off the speed and distance in kilometres, and another showing the engine temperature in Centigrade.  These dials don't make any sense to me, and I spend a lot of time de-coding their messages instead of concentrating on my driving.  And I have never really understood how my car has been performing after I stopped knowing how many good old miles it ran per good old gallon!

I insert a coin in a weighing machine in the grocery shop, and out pops a card which reads 59 kg.  "59 into 2 is 118 by 10 is about 12 plus 118 equals 130,"  I think as I walk away.  "Must put on at least 10 pounds."

But somehow I have managed to get the new coins into my head  -- probably  because small change exercises the mind more often than the weather or the weighing machine do.  I have, in fact, forgotten my annas, except that I still like to call 25 paise 'four annas', and 50 paise 'eight annas'.  (Remember there were 16 annas to the rupee, 12 paise to the anna, and 192 paise to the rupee?).  

But I find that there are other people in this country who cannot get used to the decimal currency any more than I can get used to Centigrade.  Take vegetable sellers, for example.  Wherever you go in India,  they seldom quote their prices in the present paise.  They still say 'this sells for 6 annas' or 'that sells for 10 annas.'

However, while I am still struggling with my lb. and my oz., they do seem to have got used to the kg.  Thus, you often hear hybrid expressions like "6 annas for 100 grams. or "8 annas for 250"  in the vegetable market.  No doubt this is so because there never was any standard weight in our market place before the kg. came along!


PostScript, 2013
In reverse gear!

Well, that's what I wrote in 1972.   But 30/40 years later, visiting America for long spells to be with my children and grandchildren, I've been facing precisely the opposite problem  --  because meanwhile I've absorbed the metric system into my bloodstream but America is still preserving its pounds and miles and Fahrenheit.  Of course, that's exactly like the trouble I have when I transcribe in American English all these old articles which I had written in good old English English!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Just Born : Bus Baby In China, Bus-stop Baby In America!

I  knew it!  I knew it!

When sharing with you a humorous article I had written in 1971 about a baby born in a bus in Madras, India, I had mentioned (23 Feb.) that it was an isolated piece of writing which wasn't connected with anything else I have ever written, so it wouldn't start a chain reaction in this column.  At the same time, I had prudently added a proviso:  "..... unless, of course, I Google Bus Baby and see where it takes me!"  

Well, I did Google, and quickly found a couple of recent cases which materialized within a few weeks of each other in a Chinese bus and an American bus-stop.  If you have the time and energy to look further and find any other equally intriguing cases, please do post a reference here!


 Nine News Online    

 December 15, 2012

 by Martin Zavan
Woman delivers her own baby on bus
Wang Liyang, 39, was travelling on a bus in Chengdu in China's Sichuan province on Wednesday when she gave birth to a boy.

A child believed to be her three-year-old son watched the delivery in awe. . . .

Once passengers realized what had happened they came over to help, giving the mother a blanket to keep the baby warm.

Other commuters notified the bus driver who changed course and headed to a local hospital.

On the way the bus came across an ambulance which picked up Ms Liyang and took her the rest of the way to the hospital.

The mother and baby are both believed to be in good health.

Source: Digital Journal



 Nov. 10, 2012     

North Carolina Woman Delivers Baby at Bus Stop, Mom Names Baby After Her



A University of North Carolina graduate student didn't let two toddlers, a language barrier and no medical experience get in the way of stepping in to help deliver a woman's baby at a bus-stop.

Emily Brewer's day got off to an odd start when her extremely reliable babysitter didn't show up to care for Brewer's 2-year-old son, Dylan. When she couldn't get ahold of the babysitter, she decided to take Dylan to the UNC campus, where he loves listening to the chimes from the bell tower.

After the noon chimes, Brewer, 36, headed back to the bus stop with her son. "I was waiting for the bus, and while I was waiting a woman I did not know, clearly in distress, comes and gets me and asks me to go into the bus shelter where her pregnant friend is sitting in a squat position and was holding open the hem of her pants," Brewer told

She . . . . .  immediately sprang into action by calling 911. The woman, later identified as Anguilar Lopez, spoke only Spanish. Brewer does not speak Spanish but used some Italian to find out that Lopez was 38 weeks pregnant.

"I have no medical training, but I'm a mom," Brewer said.

On the 911 call, Brewer can be heard saying, "Hi, there's a woman who's going into labor right now at a bus shelter at the corner of Cameron and South Columbia," according to ABC News' Raleigh-Durham affiliate WTVD-TV.  Moments later, she told the operator, "Oh my God, the baby was just born. The baby is here. . . ."

The dispatcher gave Brewer instructions, which she followed scrupulously as her son and another child who had been with the pregnant woman and her friend sat by patiently. . . . 

[Soon] paramedics arrived and took the mother and child to the hospital. . . .

Brewer later found out that Lopez had named her little girl Emily after her.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bale Out Please, A Baby Is Being Born!

If you have been looking at this column frequently, you would have noticed that many of the articles, essays and reviews I've written during my lifetime are linked to one another in a long chain, even if there had been intervals of 20 years or more between them.  That's because life seems to be an endless repetition and multiplication of the same or similar things and events, universally and timelessly.

Anyway, I do find it difficult to fish for a single article of mine which will stand alone without any connection with anything else I have ever written.   Here's one of those rare pieces  --  I can guarantee that it will not start a chain reaction --  unless, of course, I Google Bus Baby and see where it takes me! 

Indian Express, Madras
18 January 1971
Bus Baby

ONCE in a while you come across a news item which says that a baby was born in some odd place or other.  Usually it happens in a taxi or an aeroplane.  Trains and cinema houses have figured in the news sometimes, but a refreshing variation is found in the latest case, which concerns a bus.

You can't say the State Transport authorities did not anticipate the event.  Ever since they christened their Ashok Leyland coach 'Red Lady', they must have been preparing themselves for the day a baby would be born in a bus. It is not unreasonable to imagine that they might even have issued departmental instructions to all busmen in the matter.

In any case, there can be no doubt that on their own initiative, bus conductors must have been casting speculative glances on female passengers in the hope that one of them might bring them a cash award for showing great presence of mind in a peculiar situation.  Drivers too must be making a mental note of maternity homes and hospitals on their regular routes, just to ensure their own share of the prize money.

I wonder what kind of emergency might have induced the lady in the news to get into a bus of all things when she was expecting baby to materialize any moment.  Maybe the young one arrived much earlier than expected;  but even so, a bus journey on our roads is bumpy enough for the most impregnant passenger, and no unborn baby can reasonably be expected to fasten its seat-belt and forget the jolts!

But on second thoughts, I must say I am not really surprised by the happening.  In a country where more babies are born every minute than anywhere else in the world (except perhaps China), the surprising thing is not that some babies are born outdoors, but that many more are not.  For every baby born in a bus, after all, millions are born in bed, and the Health Minister might well say that our lady's getting into the bus was no more reckless an action than her getting into bed --  or getting in the family way in the first instance.

An intriguing aspect of the incident was that as soon as the lady was in labor, all the male passengers were asked to get down before the bus went on its way to a hospital.  I hope this doesn't set up a precedent.  If it does, I can no longer board a bus containing a lady with a laden look without feeling highly insecure about my own seat in the bus.  Nor can I ever travel by train again without worrying about when I would be required to change compartments, or be left behind at a wayside station.

And I shudder to think about the possibility of a mid-air announcement by a midwifely stewardess:  "Attention, please!  Will all gentlemen passengers kindly collect their parachutes from under their seats and bale out through the emergency exit?  We regret the inconvenience caused, but a baby is being born.  Thank you!"

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bill & Joe : Lunar Linguanauts!

Having talked in a tight sequence (from Feb. 7 onwards) about French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Copernicus, the Common Market, and the fine art of playing with words and names, I just can't resist the temptation to share with you an article I wrote 40 years ago, which was a delightful mixture of all those elements.  So here we go!

Shankar's Weekly
7 January 1973
Lunar linguistics  

IT is reported that newspapers in Italy went crazy over the fact  that Astronaut Harrison Schmitt spoke two words of Italian on the moon.

 All that had happened was that Schmitt, on spotting a nice little piece of moon rock, exclaimed "Mamma Mia!  (My mother!)"  in Italian instead of "My God!" in English.  But the editors in Italy apparently didn't think of it as a trivial event.  "Italian spoken on the moon!"  headlines seem to have screamed all over that country. 

Since one of the main objectives of the Apollo missions is to promote peace and goodwill among mundane men, it may not be a bad idea to require future astronauts to get a smattering of several foreign languages , for compulsory use on the moon.  If necessary, they can be supplied with phrase books appropriate to the lunar environment.  They can even be taught some songs in foreign languages during their training.

I hope the NASA  authorities will give serious consideration to this suggestion.  If they implement it, the whole world can have something to rave about!


Paris, July 27:

All France went wild with joy today, after Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise announced this morning that French has been spoken on the moon.

It happened when astronaut Bill Concorde stumbled and fell when negotiating a steep gradient near the crater Copernicus.  Astronaut Joe  Goodfellow told him: "Ne marchez pas si vite, mon ami! Vous vous casserez la tete!  (Don't walk so fast, my friend!  You will break your head!)".  Getting up, Concorde said:  "Cela m'a donne un vrai coup!  (That gave me quite a turn!)"

All evening papers in Paris today carried banner headlines proclaiming the news.  Meanwhile, crowds were already celebrating the event all over the city, and champagne flowed freely in the restaurants. 

A large procession of students marched along the Champs Elysees in the evening, shouting "Vive la France!  Vive l'Amerique!".  The procession ended in front of the Arc de Triomphe, where a Torch of Friendship was lit by the students.

An official spokesman said that fresh thinking was going on in Government circles regarding the question of admitting America to the Common Market.


Moscow, July 27:

There was wild jubilation in the Soviet Union today, following Moscow Radio's mid-day announcement that Russian has been spoken on the moon.

During their lunch at 8-30 hours GMT today, Cosmonaut Goodfellow told his colleague:  "Ya ochen goladyen.  Ya brassayoos na zakooski!   (I am very hungry.  I pounce on the meal!)".  Cosmonaut Concorde replied:  "Ya ne goladyen.  Oo menya galava baleet  (I am not hungry.  I have a head-ache)".

Shortly afterwards, a ground station in Siberia picked up the strains of the Volga Boatmen's song, which the cosmonauts were singing when they set out on their second moonwalk.

Reports pouring in from everywhere indicate that the Soviet Union rejoices that two Americans have spoken the moon's native language on its soil.

President Brezhnev has sent a cable to President Nixon, assuring him of continued Soviet hospitality in outer space.         


Buenos Aires, July 28:

Enthusiasm for the Apollo-18 mission ran high in most parts of Latin America today, as radio stations flashed the news that Spanish has been spoken on the moon.

The following conversation between the astronauts had been picked up this morning by a ground station in Chile: 

"Que hay, Bill?  (What's wrong, bill?)"

"No me encuentro bien, Joe.  Estoy mareado.  (I am not feeling well. Joe.  I am feeling sick)."

"Digiere Usted bien?  (Is your digestion OK?)"

"No se.  No aguanto el calor.  Yo quisiero banarme!  (I don't know.  I can't stand the heat.  I would like to have a bath!)"

"Por Dios, amigo! (For God's sake, buddy!)"

Wildly cheering crowds thronged the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires this afternoon, shouting pro-American slogans.  Senorita Eulalia Rosario, prima donna of Latin American cinema, has sent a cable to Apollo Mission Control, inviting Bill Concorde and his colleague to enjoy a luxurious shower in her Buenos Aires villa on their safe return to the earth.


New Delhi, July 29:

All Union Government offices were closed at 2 p.m. today to commemorate the fact that Hindi has been spoken on the moon. 

Announcing the Government's decision to close the offices, All-India Radio said in its afternoon news bulletins today that American astronauts Bill Concorde and Joe Goodfellow spoke to each other in fluent Hindi, two hours before the lift-off.

The following is the text of the conversation:

Bill:  "Dekho yaar, kitnee khoobsoorat hai hamaaree  duniya!  (Look, boy, how beautiful our world looks!)"

Joe:  "Haanji!  Bahut achcha hai.  (Yes, sir!  It is very good)."

Bill (singing):  "Chanda O Chanda!
                          Kiss ne choorayee
                          Teri meri nindeeya?
                           (Moon O Moon!
                           Who has stolen
                           Your sleep and mine?)"

Joe:  "Chchodo yaar!  Bahut kaam padaa hai baakki!  Thoda concentrate karo naa?  (Stop it, man!  There's a lot of work to do still!  Concentrate a bit, will you?)"


Postscript : 2013  
Space station and moon song 

There are several reasons why this is one the most memorable articles I have ever written: 

 (1)  The Apollo-17 Mission of December 1972, which was the specific context in which I had scribbled this text, was the last time men had landed on the moon.  Apollo-18 never materialized, so the expression exclusively remains a figment of my imagination.    

 (2)  On the other hand, my hilarious report that the Soviet Union had assured the United States of America of extending its hospitality in outer space (which was an inconceivable scenario in the scheme of things prevailing at that time) came spectacularly true before the end of the 20th century, in the evolution and operation of the International Space Station.  

 (3)  This was the first article in which I had featured the twin astronauts Bill Concorde and Joe Goodfellow.  (They went on to figure repeatedly in my writing later on). 

 (4)  The song Chanda O Chanda! from the Hindi movie Lakhon Mein Ek, which was reverberating all over India in the early '70s, is one of the most beautiful and memorable pieces of music ever figuring in Indian cinema.  I hope the first Indian astronaut landing on the moon will let the legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar's exquisite voice echo the song back to earth from the lunar surface!  Meanwhile, you can hear it right now on YouTube!  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Was Or Wasn't Rome The Center Of The World?

February 19 (today) happens to be the birthday of the famous Polish astronomer-mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 - 1543 AD) of the Renaissance era.  I remember this obscure fact well because 40 years ago, on the 500th anniversary of his birth, I had written an amusing article in the Times of India about his sensational discovery that it was the earth which was going round the sun, and not the other way round.

Perhaps today's intelligent young readers, unless they are strong in 2oth-century world history, may miss the intricate logic of this scenario.  But I think it will be obvious to the old-timers that what I had meant by Rome, the sestertius, and the era of Supernicus were actually America, the U.S. dollar, and the era of the Second-World and Vietnam Wars!  

The Times Of India
Bombay & New Delhi
22 April 1973
The Era of Supernicus

The National Museum in New Delhi deserves to be congratulated for organizing a splendid exhibition on the life and philosophy of Nicolus Supernicus, the Roman Emperor with revolutionary ideas.

As is well known, Supernicus had ushered in a new era by proving that Rome was not the centre of the world.

The intriguing idea had occurred to him when he was a very young boy;  but when he told his tutor about it, the latter warned him to be careful and not to mention it to another soul.

"Do not tell the Emperor in particular!"  the tutor said. "His Majesty may disown you as his son, assuming that he will not feed you to the lions."

Young Ni'colus took the advice seriously, and didn't mention the idea to anyone for a long time.  But when he succeeded his father as Emperor, he thought the time had come to speak out.

On the very day of his coronation, Nicolus Supernicus shocked the Senate by declaring that Rome was not the center of the world. 

The Senators cried that this was heresy, and demanded that the Emperor should withdraw his assertion forthwith.

"What proof have you that Rome is the center of the world?"  Supernicus asked them.

"Your Majesty,"  said a venerable Senator.  "The sun rises in India before it rises in Rome.  It sets in Rome before it sets in Anglia.  Therefore it is clear that Rome is the center of the world!"

 "But consider the following proposition,"  Supernicus said.  "The sun rises in Rome before it rises again in India, and it sets in Anglia before it sets again in Rome.  How could that be so if Rome were the center of the world?" 

This caused some confusion in the Senators' minds, and they consulted one another.  Finally one of them spoke up.

"Your Majesty,"  he said.  "The ships which come from India call at Rome and sail on to Espagna.  And the ships which come from Espagna call at Rome and sail on to India.  Therefore it follows that Rome is the center of the world."

"True!"  Supernicus replied.  "But do consider this also:  the ships which sail from Rome to Alexandria sail on either to India or to Espagna.  How could that be so if Rome were the center of the world?"

This answer caused still more confusion among the Senators, who asked for an adjournment of the discussion.  When they assembled again before the Emperor, one of them spoke up: 

"Your Majesty,"  he said.  "When there was war in Yuropia, Rome sent her legions there to fight for peace.  And when there was unrest iu Asia, Rome sent her soldiers there also to fight for peace.  Therefore it follows that Rome is the center of the world!  Can Your Majesty  prove otherwise?" 

Now it was he Emperor's turn to get confused, and he asked for an hour's time to think it over.  When they assembled again before him, he had no logical answer.

The angry Senators at once declared him deposed, and elected the seniormost Senator, Marcus Quostatus, as Emperor.  Supernicus was sentenced to life imprisonment, and he languished in a catacomb.

After a decade, however, a Roman sailor by name of Cristus Columbus lost his way in the Western Ocean, and discovered a new territory where the sun rose after it rose in Rome, but set before it set in India.

A few years later, a great Roman engineer called Deus Lessepus dug a canal there which connected the two Western Oceans, and Westbound ships from Rome began to sail on to India. 

Since all this seemed to support the theory of Nicolus Supernicus, Emperor Quostatus summoned his predecessor to the Senate and made him an offer.

"Your twin propositions stand proved now."  he told Supernicus.  "And therefore we are inclined to reconsider our views.  However, have you anything to say now about the third proposition advanced by the Senate at the time of your coronation?  If you can satisfy us on that score as well, we shall restore you to your original status as Emperor."

"I am grateful to Your Majesty,"  Nicolus Supernicus said.  I have thought about nothing else all these years, and I think I have a convincing answer now."

"What is it?" 

"Your Majesty, when peace was restored in Yuropia and a common market was established there, Rome had no place in it, and the sestertius lost its value.  And when peace was sought in Asia, it was Rome which sent its envoy to the Orient, and not vice versa.  How could that be true if Rome were the center of the world?" 

Marcus Quostatus considered the answer earnestly, and then stepped down from the throne. 

"Your Imperial Majesty's theory stands proved,"  he declared, with humility,  "And I beg for mercy!"

Rome was never the same again, for the era of Supernicus had been ushered in. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

When Paris Sold Its Soul To Development!

The presence of the French President, Francois Hollande, in India earlier this week led me to look for an article I had written about the world-famous French writer-statesman Andre Malraux when he had visited New Delhi in 1973 -- which I posted in this column a couple of days ago. When digging into the relevant old files, I found another humorous article of mine with a French accent. So here it is!

Shankar's Weekly24 June 1973
Jaunt to Paris

I should have heeded the warning, I suppose, but I didn't. And I paid dearly for it!

I had read earlier that Paris is no longer the City of Light, and is in the process of losing its soul. Quoting from the voluminous survey made by a study team in the French Ministry of Planning, the Press report had indicated that Paris is now run for the sole purpose of economic development.

Somehow I didn't take the news seriously. My travel agents had already made all arrangements for my jaunt to Paris , and I didn't do anything to cancel it.

My good friend Louis Larousse, who was the Director of the Alliance Francaise in Madras ten years ago, met me at Orly airport. I had a room in the Hotel de Veloppe, and we drove to the city in my friend's car.

"Let us see some interesting places on the way!" I told him. "As you know, Louis, this is my first visit to Paris, and I am not in a hurry to get to the hotel."

"What interesting places? I do not understand!"

I was surprised to hear this, for my friend used to speak very good English when he was in India.

"Interesting places" I said, "mean des lieux interessants. Let us drive straight to Notre Dame, s'il vous plait!"

"Oh, I haven't forgoten my English!" Louis smiled. "You did not understand me! There are no interesting places in Paris now!"

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I say! You will soon find out. There is no Notre Dame now!"

"What happened?"

"Oh, it was razed to the ground two months ago. One is building a skyscraper in its place, to accommodate the Ministry of Planning."

"What a pity!" I sighed. "Here I am, dreaming about Paris for 25 years, and you say they razed Notre Dame to the ground two months before I arrived!"

"I am sorry, my friend," Louis said. "It is tragic, but true! Shall I drive straight to your hotel?"

"Oh, please don't do that, Louis!" I begged. "After all, Notre Dame is not the only landmark in Paris! Allons au Louvre! I hope they haven't demolished the Louvre also!"

"No, they have not!" Louis said. "But I am afraid it will be a waste of time to visit the place now."

"Why? What happened?"

"The Louvre no longer accommodates the Museum," Louis said. "The Ministry of Industrial Development now occupies the whole building. All the objets d'art have been taken over by Christie's in London."

"Mon Dieu!" I exclaimed. "I remember reading something about Paris losing its soul, but I didn't think it would be so bad! But never mind, Louis, just take me to the Eiffel Tower!"

"I am sorry to disappoint you again, mon ami," Louis said. "But the Eiffel Tower has been dismantled and shipped to San Francisco. One is using the site for constructing a 60-storey building for the Steel Corporation of France."

"In that case, let us go to the Opera! Let me see the place where Moliere's spirit still lives on!"

"Impossible, my friend! Everybody's spirit is dead in this city! The Bureau of Foreign Trade occupies the Opera building now!"

"Can we at least have lunch at Maxim's?" I asked, not without hope. "After all, it's not a national monument, and they're bound to have left it alone!"

"I wish you were right, mon ami," Louis said, "but you are not! Maxim's were evicted six months ago, and they have merged with Rosati in Rome. Oil France now occupies the place."

"All right, then, let us go to my hotel!" I said in disgust, and we drove on in silence.

As Louis Larousse took my leave, I invited him to dine with me in the evening, and suggested he might like to show me the night life of Paris.

"I presume the Lido will be open tonight?" I ventured to ask.

"No, it will not be!" Louis declared. "The place now houses the Ministry of Tourism. The Lido people have shifted to Copenhagen!"


Postscript : 2013

Of friends and fancies

I closely missed seeing Paris twice in 1979, when I drove along the Ring Road on my way from London to Geneva, Rome and back. But the next year I stayed for a couple of weeks in the heart of the city, not far away from the Eiffel Tower. Of course, I found that Paris and its legendary landmarks were more or less what I had expected them to be. And those included the universal street-corner bistros, where the ordinary visitor could feel the true pulse of the ordinary Parisian!

The name of my imaginary friend in Paris, Louis Larousse, was derived from the famous French lexicographer Pierre Larousse, and his encyclopedic dictionaries which have imposing titles but are informally referred to as just 'Larousse'. It also echoed the name of a real-life former Director of the Alliance Francaise de Madras, Monsieur Robert Labare (pronounced Rowbare Labahr), with whom my old buddy Rangarajan had picked up a really close friendship 50 years ago (which I believe survives strongly even today, though they're living as far apart as Falls Church, Virginia in America and Amiens in France). Yes, that's the same old friend I had mentioned a few days ago in Teach Yourself French, Italian, Spanish!

By the way, did you notice anything amusing about the name of my hotel in Paris? Hotel de Veloppe, of course, is Hotel Developpe! It was in my Shankar's Weekly articles in the early 1970's that I de Velopped my flair for playing with words and names in fanciful ways, which too has survived till today!

Friday, February 15, 2013

When Andre Malraux Met The High Priest Of Hinduism

French President Francois Hollande arrived in New Delhi yesterday (Feb. 14) on a two-day State visit to India, to strengthen the commercial and strategic rapport between India and France.
Seeing him on the national TV network, I was reminded of a memorable interview which Andre Malraux (pronounced Mahlro) -- the world-famous French novelist, intellectual and politician -- had with India's first and single black-and-white TV channel in the Capital, 40 years ago.

Probably the interview was more memorable for me than for most other viewers, because I wrote a light-hearted article about it in Shankar's Weekly, which was India's unique humorous English magazine.

Shankar's Weekly, 1973
Illustrious visitors

(Two characters who figure in this article may need an introduction to readers who aren't familiar with Indian history. Chandragupta Maurya was an ancient Indian emperor of the 4th century BC, a contemporary of Alexander; and Sankaracharya was a venerable 9th-century Hindu pontiff).

IN a recent interview on Delhi-TV, M. Andre Malraux said that he would have liked to talk to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Chandragupta Maurya and Sankaracharya.

When M. Malraux returned from the TV studio to his five-star hotel, he was informed that a gentleman by name of Alexander had telephoned. The receptionist gave him a number, at which the caller said he would be available.

M. Malraux went up to his room and rang up the number.

"Hello!" said a massive voice at the other end.

"Andre Malraux here," the Frenchman said. "May I know wh is speaking?"

"Good evening!" the voice said. "I am Alexander!"

"Which Alexander?"

"The Great, of Macedon."

"Oh, really? What a coincidence, M'sieu! I was just telling those TV gens here that I would have liked to talk to you, and here you are!"

"This is no coincidence, my friend! I saw you on TV and you said you wished to speak to me. So I just telephoned. What can I do for you?"

"Oh, nothing at all, M'sieu! I merely wante to have the pleasure of your company, that is all! Will you join me at dinner tonight?"

"Impossible, mon ami! We shall meet some other time, maybe in Paris! Now, if you have nothing specific in mind, may I bid you good-night?"

"Good-night, M'sieu," M. Malraux said, and thoughtfully began to change for dinner.

Just then the bell-boy came in and said there was a visitor downstairs.

"Who is he?" M. Malraux asked.

"Mr. Caesar, Sir."

"Let me see!" M. Malraux said,dubiously. "All right, ask him to come up, if you please."

A well-built person walked in a little later. He was wearing a shark-skin suit, but he had a Roman nose all right.

"I am Julius Caesar," he announced. "I saw you on TV, and you said you wanted to speak to me. So I just came along!"

"Oh, I am enchanted, M'sieu!" M. Malraux found himself saying, in spite of his doubts. "Will you please join me for dinner?"

"I would love to, my friend, but I have another engagement. I just peeped in here to say hello to you!"

"It is very kind of you, M'sieu!" M. Malraux said. But after the visitor had left, he became very thoughtful.

During dinner he came to the conclusion that this was just a practical joke played by some mischievous viewers. He decided that if either 'Chandragupta Maurya' or 'Sankaracharya' turned up, he would call the bluff.

Nobody else came to see him that night, but early next morning a pious-looking South Indian gentleman turned up at the hotel and introduced himself at the front desk. When the receptionist asked M. Malraux on the intercom whether she could send Mr. Sankaracharya up, he told her that he would be descending to the lounge presently, and would the visitor meet him there after ten minutes?

M. Malraux, however, made no attempt to move downstairs for a long while. He hoped that the joker would get tired of waiting and just go away.

But when he went down for lunch after two hours, the visitor -- who had been waiting patiently -- walked up to him and introduced himself.

"You say you are Sankaracharya?" M. Malraux asked. "Impossible, M'sieu! I do not believe you! Now, if you will kindly excuse me, I wish to have my lunch alone."

"So that's it, ha ha!" the visitor laughed.

"What do you mean, M'sieu?" M. Malraux asked, his anger mounting.

"I was wondering why you were trying to avoid me, Mr. Malrocks," the visitor said. "But now I understand! I saw you on TV yesterday evening. So you thought my name is Sankaracharya?"

"Did you not say so, M'sieu?"

"No, Sir, I did not!" the visitor said. "My name is S.K. Sankarachari, and I am an Under-Secretary in the Department of Tourism. I have come to find out whether we can be of any assistance to you, Sir!


Postscript, 2013

Looking at this article after so many years, I can't help wishing I had sent a cutting of it to Mr. Andre Malraux! Who knows, he might have written back to me quite warmly; and, with his keen sense of humor, might even have asked me to "be so kind as to convey the expression of my affectionate sentiments to M. Sankarachari", as the French are fond of ending their communications with a colorful flourish!

By the way, the designation 'Under-Secretary' in the Government of India set-up refers to an officer at a relatively junior level -- unlike in the U.K., where it indicates a very senior status in the official hierarchy.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fifty Years Later, The Marker Lives On!

There was a time when gentlemen often enjoyed a frame or two of billiards at their club, and when they did, it was the billiard marker who attended on players, and  kept score.

On it's fiftieth anniversary, I present to you The Marker.

14 Feb. 1963
The Marker

THE MARKER is invariably a tragic figure.  He's the one who is supposed to have played the game better than anyone else, but who, for some mysterious reason, never won the championship.  He can recall feats which the club champion can never hope to perform, but which used to be child's play to him, the marker.  He knows every little intricacy of the game, and is always ready to enlighten you on how he'd have himself played this stroke or that one in the good old days.

     It isn't really that the marker is an empty boaster.  It's just that his playing days are sufficiently distant to acquire a certain color, and the continuous reverie in which he indulges to kill the monotony of his work leads him to believe sincerely in a substantial portion of his yarns;  in this, perhaps, he isn't unlike your sailor!  Besides, it's almost always true that the marker did attain a degree of proficiency superior to the average club member's.  But he never did have the means to take part in competitive games, and his skill soon began to fade.  He nurses a grievance against society for that, and attempts t find legitimate relief from his frustration in an exaggerated projection of his own image.  You really can't blame him for that.  And so far as the theoretical side is concerned, he certainly is no hoax;  he does know a thing or two about the game, and can be a pretty edifying coach when he's allowed to be.

     Withal the marker is a dedicated soul.  He has a genuine love for the game.  His earnestness when he elucidates its nicer points, or analyses a member's performance, is touching.  The game is part and parcel of his existence.  His greatest ambition is to see his son, the ball boy, become a champion some day;  but alas, more often than not the boy wouldn't show any great keenness for the game, for, of course, he'd seldom get a chance to play.  The marker never forgives him for it.  When he approaches a club member to ask for a job for the youngster, he wishes with all his heart that he could say, "The boy's good at the game, Sir!"  But poor marker, his ambition is seldom fulfilled.

     For one so whole-heartedly attached to the game, the marker shows remarkable tolerance towards those members who never seem to be able to shape well.  Maybe he can't afford to do otherwise, for the list of indifferent players would cover most of the club's patrons.  But no doubt he feels a secret contempt for the whole lot, though he's all politeness and encouragement even at the most provocative moments.  The marker has to be, and is, always restrained.  He just cannot understand why they wouldn't spend enough time to practice.  That they may not be having sufficient leisure for it is unacceptable to him, and he's convinced that it's lack of interest, and nothing else.  It's a painful thought for him;  but nevertheless he resigns himself to it stoically, and tries to be of help to the best of his ability.

     The marker's despair about the duffer is naturally matched by his veneration of the truly skilled player.  His admiration isn't so great if the player belongs to the club and is constantly aided by the marker himself;  for then his attitude is rather patronizing, though not without a touch of respect about it.  But it's really the flashing guest, who obviously knows more about the business than the marker does, and who plays better than the marker ever did in the wildest of his fancies, who excites his imagination.  But the better a player is, the more harshly he is judged;  and while the man who is just above the average creates a good impression on the marker, the club champion fails to do so, for the simple reason that the latter is pitted against the country's stalwarts, while the former is ranked only with the club's duffers. The marker, after all, is human.

     One of the most memorable days in the marker's life is that on which a national champion graces the club's premises.  As a rule the master plays too casually, and commits mysterious mistakes.  But although it's a big disappointment for the marker at the time, it's something for him to talk about for the rest of his life, how the champion failed to strike form.  But it's really when the ex-national champion turns up at the club that the marker's soul is stirred to its depths.  For this man's mistakes cannot so readily be attributed to recklessness, and it's obvious that he, like the marker himself, has become a relic of the past.  The marker recognizes a kindred spirit in him, and can never recall his visit without a choking heart.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When French Cuisine Turned Totally Vegetarian !

Chef Stephane Mathonneau of Le Bistro du Parc in Paris is currently on a hectic tour of India, giving demonstrations of French cuisine in five-star hotels, as part of the second wave of Bonjour India  --  a festival of French art, culture and lifestyles spanning 15 cities and going on from January to April, 2013. 

He's accompanied by Ms. Naïna de Bois-Juzan, also from Le Bistro du Parc, who will be organizing a bistro project in the Defence Colony in New Delhi soon, and who's taking the initiative on the gastronomic side of Bonjour India.

Today is the last day of their visit to a city called Thiruvananthapuram on the south-west coast of  India.  A few days ago, their instant initiative there was greeted with the following report in THE HINDU, under the glowing headline A culinary invasion with French flavours:

"[The visitors] wasted no time on arrival here late on Monday evening. They scheduled a meeting with a chef at Taj Vivanta and explored the kitchen, their senses tuned to the sights and smells of local ingredients and traditional cooking styles that can possibly be incorporated into the dishes they have in mind. . . ."

Which strongly reminded me of an article I had written 35 years ago in New Delhi, in the context of  the French Gastronomic Fete, which had clashed spectacularly with the World Vegetarian Conference.  Unlike Chefs Antoine and Udipi Krishna Iyer, who were imaginary characters, Chef George Aubriet who figured in the article was a real-life master cook from Paris, who was taking part in the food festival and had expressed great admiration for Indian cuisine.

Evening News, New Delhi
2 December 1977

Veg. 1989 !

I have a feeling that the World Vegetarian Conference in New Delhi, coinciding as it did with the French Gastronomic Fete organized by Oberoi Intercontinental and Air France, is destined to lead ultimately to a global culinary revolution.

Since India is the paramount vegetarian Power, world-wide gastronomic glossaries in future will be derived mainly from Indian sources.

So when I went to Paris in 1989, I wasn't very surprised to find, in the menu card at Maxim's, the following and other similar items:

Les Idlis a la Tchutney de Coconut  --  Dossa au Massala Udipi  --   Samossas Speciales a la Pantchquinne Marg  --  Paratta aux Galies de Tchandni Tchaouc......

I got talking to the waiter Henri, who said the Chef  de Cuisine was the world-famous Antoine.  After a memorable all-vegetarian meal, I went round to the kitchen and congratulated the great man.

"Felicitations, Maestro!"  I said.  "How did you learn our Indian recipes so perfectly?  Who is your master?"

Antoine's eyes became moist, and they rolled like Maaurice Chevalier's.  "Ah, M'sieu, my Master he callz'imslf Udipi Krishna Iyer.  He'z one of ze most amazing cooks in ze world!  And he has come to Maxim's in 1978."

"Oh, really?"  I exclaimed.  I know U.K. Iyer very well!  I used to eat regularly in his idli-dosa joint in New Delhi in the Seventies!  Is he here now, Antoine?  Can I see him?"

"No, M'sieu!  My Master he has now left Maxim's and has joined Air France."

U.K. Iyer was supervising the mass-production of idlis in the Air France kitchen when I called on him.

"Oh, it is Raja Vishnu Sir, is it not?"  he asked happily.  "How nice it is to see you again!  It is a long time after we saw each other, is it not?"

"More than ten years, Iyer!"  I said.  "I was wondering what on earth had happened to you!  I am glad to see you're doing so well!"

 "God is great, Sir!  When Air France went vegetarian, I had a big break."

"Tell me something, Iyer!  I've been wondering what exactly happened to make the French people turn completely vegetarian.  Do you know anything about it?"

"Do I know anything, ha ha!"  Iyer laughed.  "Why, Sir, I had a big hand in it myself !  There was this World Vegetarian Conference in Delhi in 1977  --  you do not remember, do you?"

"Oh yes, I remember!  What happened there?"

"I had the catering contract for that conference, Sir.  By a strange coincidence, Master Cook Georges Aubriet had come to Delhi from Paris just then for the French Gastronomic Gala at the Oberoi Hotel.  The French delegates to the Vegetarian Conference invited him to taste my masala dosa, and it changed the whole philosophy of French cooking!....

"But all that is an old story, Raja Vishnu Sir!"  Udipi Krishna Iyer said.  "Now please tell me what you will have  --  Les Idlis a la Molagappodi de Madras, or Pongalle  avec de l'Avialle Keralaise?"


(In same order as in article)
Idli :  Small white ultra-soft pancake, cooked by steaming (and not frying) fermented batter made from rice and cereal powders
Dosa:  Slim and soft pancake, made by spreading rice-cereal batter thinly on metal pan, sprinkling edible oil around it and heating till it becomes crisp and brownish.  I had spelt it 'dossa' in the French menu, to avoid sounding 'doza'.  Idlis and dosas are staple South Indian dishes for breakfast or light evening snacks.
Tchutney :  French for Chutney  --  hot green chillis and shredded coconut, ground together to form a thick, salty paste.  Standard accompaniment for idlis and dosas. 
Masala/Massala:  Hot and salty side-dish, with potatoes and onions as main ingredients, often stuffed inside a folded dosa, which is then called 'masala dosa' 
Udipi:  Town in south-western State Karnataka, famous for classic restaurants serving legendary light dishes 
Samosa/Samossa:  Staple North Indian light dish, with potatoes, onions, peas and hot green chillis and spices, all stuffed inside pear-shaped covering of wheat batter, fried in edible oil till skin becomes crisp and crunchy   
Pantchquinne Marg:  Busy street in a business sector in New Delhi, with roadside shops selling samossas, among other things
Paratta:  Staple North Indian pancake, made from wheat dough 
Gali/Galie: Lane, in Hindi
Tchandi Tchaouc (Chandni Chowk):  Ancient and famous street in Old Delhi and adjacent lanes, lined with shops selling various goods, including sweets and savouries made on the spot
Raja Vishnu:  Pen-name I used when writing my Delhiberations column
Molagappodi :  Hot, spicy powder with a fine grainy texture, made by frying red chillis and cereals and grinding them together  --  usually made into a thick paste with a teaspoonful of edible oil, when serving with idlis.  A standard alternative to Chutney
Pongalle  (Pongal):  Salty dish of boiled rice, with a sprinkling of spices
Avialle (Avial):  Salty mixture of small boiled pieces of several vegetables (such as pumpkins, potatoes, yams, carrots, green beans, etc.), generously laced with coconut oil

Keralaise:  French for 'of Kerala'

Kerala:  A State on the south-west coast of India, whose capital city is Thiruvananthapuram.   (By the way, can you pronounce that?  If you have a problem, try Thiru-Vanantha-Puram.... there you are!)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Teach Yourself French, Italian, Spanish!

Having grown up as a schoolboy in the British Empire before India became independent in 1947, I learnt excellent English very early in life.  Luckily India never achieved full independence from English, and that's why we Indians are able to  communicate so easily with the outside world today!

But other than English, foreign languages were not a popular field of study in India when I was a schoolboy or even a college student, and one always had to swim against strong currents of resistance even to learn French or Spanish, let alone Russian or Chinese (speaking only of the official languages of the United Nations).

I once wrote a light-hearted article in the evening paper in New Delhi, narrating how I learnt French in my college days. 

Evening News, New Delhi
2 June 1978
Lingua Italiana
A few weeks ago I had gone to see Mr. A.K. Damodaran, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who will be proceeding to Rome shortly as India's Ambassador to Italy.

I offered to give him a book which would teach him Italian within a month.  It was called Teach Yourself Italian, by Kathleen Speight, published by the English Universities Press.

"Oh, it's very nice of you to think of it!"  Mr. Damodaran said. "But I will be very busy winding up things here.  Thanks anyway!"

"But you have no idea how easy this book will make Italian, Sir!"  I insisted.  "In 15 days you can read a simple passage in the language, and within a month you can start reading Italian newspapers and magazines!"

"Oh, well, do send me the book then!"  Mr. Damodaran said.

I had bought the book in 1954, and how I discovered it is an interesting story.

In 1952 I had gone to the famous rows of second-hand bookshops in Moore Market in Madras, and asked for a French primer.

The first book I saw was a slim, attractive volume called Teach Yourself French, by Norman Scarlyn Wilson, published by the English Universities Press, London.
I took the book home, and believe me, within a few months I was reading the novels of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo in original, and listening to the French news from London, Paris, Saigon and Brazzaville!

Since then I've bought innumerable and far more costly French text-books and grammars.  But while they've all been good refresher courses, I don't think any of them would have given me the kind of rapid insight which the simple EUP book did.  My first shot had been the best!

Two years later, I discovered that the EUP book Teach Yourself Italian was modelled exactly on Mr. Wilson's French.  I bought a copy, and it took me only a few weeks to start reading the Corriere della Sera (which I surprisingly found in a small library in Madras),  and tuning to Rome on the radio.

Incidentally, if any of my young readers are interested, the EUP Teach Yourself Spanish is also written by Mr. N.S. Wilson, on  the same pattern, and I can guarantee that it is the best introduction to Spanish one can find anywhere in the world.

Anyway, knowing that my old copy of the Italian book was unpresentable, I went hunting for a new one for Mr. Damodaran.  I trekked into every bookshop in Connaught Circus, but while there were rows and rows of Teach Yourself books, I couldn't find the one I wanted.  I found Teach Yourself Finnish, Swahili and even Esperanto  --  but not Teach Yourself Italian.

I wonder why India's Capital is so unkind to Italian!  Or could it be that Delhizens are so fond of the beautiful language that they've bought up every available volume?

And so I finally gave my battered copy to Mr. Damodaran.  I hope he will soon create a sensation in Roman circles with his splendid Italian!


Postscript :  2013 
Father and friends  

It so happened that the very next year (1979) I met Mr. Damodaran in Rome itself, and he said he was finding the book immensely useful.  The reason why all these forceful memories come flooding into my mind now is that Mr. Damodaran passed away recently.

By the way, I was introduced to Mr. Damodaran by my old friend S. Rangarajan (alias RJ), who had borrowed my precious book Teach Yourelf French and learnt that language so well that he was called Frenchie in the office of THE HINDU, where he was a Sub-Editor.  In fact, it was RJ who smuggled me into the THE HINDU's inner circle, but that's another saga!

RJ went on to learn Russian even better, well enough to land a job in the Indian Embassy in Moscow, where he edited a superb pictorial Russian language journal called India.  Having joined the External Affairs Ministry set-up, he became a good friend of Mr. Damodaran, as well as his son Ramu Damodaran, who also joined the Indian Foreign Service in due course, and is now a Deputy Director at the United Nations.
Now, I had seen the young Ramu sometimes in the Evening News office, where I used to go every week to hand over the latest edition of Delhiberations personally to the Editor, Mr. Gyan Singh.  He would be there for the same purpose, to hand over his brilliant column as the Campus Correspondent for the University of Delhi! 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

India's Military Bands : Western Standard, National Style

Listening to the marvelous music of the massed bands of India's Defence forces on YouTube within hours after the performance on January 29 evening, I remembered with great nostalgia all those glorious sunsets I had seen for so many years in  the past, sitting with my family on temporary stands and watching the bands march up and down the Vijay Chowk in New Delhi and cast their magic spell.  And naturally I couldn't resist digging out and reading my own commentaries on this unique annual event.
Here's an extract from one of those articles, in which I had also reviewed an open-air concert of pop music given by the Band of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  (I shall discuss that context some other time):

THE HINDU, New Delhi
13 February 1987

Martial Music And Police Pop 

Republic Day is the day on which the whole nation pays special attention to its armed forces, and music for marching largely figures in the formal proceedings on this occasion.  Prominently featured in the Republic Day parade on Rajpath  --  which is watched by millions of people on the national TV network  --  are not only the country's superior war machines, but also the best of its military bands.
And martial music is the main attraction in the spectacular official ceremony called Beating Retreat, which brings to a close the Republic Day celebrations in the capital three days later as twilight sets in at the Vijay Chowk facing the formidable twin Secretariat Buildings.  So popular is this tour de force of the massed bands of the defence services that an advance recital is usually organized (with tickets sold to the public) at the same venue on the preceding evening.

The cosmopolitan Indian culture owes certain good things to the British influence, among which (like the English language) can be counted the standard military band, featuring a diversity of Western wind instruments like the trumpet, bugle, trombone, clarionet, oboe, flute and horn, with a percussive batteries of drums and cymbals.  Of course, the bagpipe band   --  which is Scotland's gift to the world  --  is in a very special class of its own, like Scotch whiskey! . . . .


                                   *                                   *                                    *

The origins of the European military band can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but there have been some significant landmarks in its development from time to time in the last three centuries, marked by the widening range of  instrumentation, as well as perceptible changes in performing techniques and even objectives and functions.
Till the end of the First World War, when the infantry and cavalry regiments had a crucial role to play in warfare, the military band was essentially an aid to marching and signalling, besides serving to entertain and encourage the troops on the battlefield or in camps.  It had also a ceremonial role to play, but this was incidental and not the main purpose of its existence.
Today, on the contrary, the military bands are by and large a symbolic unit whose utility is mainly ceremonial, though it does also constitute a source of occasional entertainment for defence personnel posted in remote and isolated localities.
Understandably, the traditional repertoire of the military band consists of music for marching, which is characterized by percussive rhythm of a recurring pattern, with simple melodic and harmonic lines to give it a definite shape and distinct color.
Many great composers of Western classical music  --  such as Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky  --  have effectively used march tunes in their works.  But these sophisticated orchestral works are not usually preferred by open-air brass bands, for which the true classical items are marches written by composers like  the Frenchmen Lully and Philidor of the 17th century, or J.F. Wagner (Germany), Gilmore and Souza (USA), or Alford and Bidgood (Britain), of the 19th and 20th centuries. 
                                  *                                   *                                    *
It goes to the credit of some innovative musicians belonging to or associated with our defence forces that the Indian military bands have access to a number of original and colorful march tunes based on the country's folk or ethnic melodies.  The undisputed leader in this area has been Harold Joseph, a former Director of Music in the Indian Army, who is also the permanent conductor of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra. 
Among others who have composed and arranged this genre of music are Captain H. K, Thakur of the Army, Chief Petty Officer G. Cardoza of the Navy, and Flt. Lt. K. R. Sawarkar of the Air Force.  Special mention must be made of Prof. A. Lobo, whose musical score of the popular tune for Iqbal's poem 'Sahray Jahan Se Achcha' is the most famous Indian march tune today. . . . .