Thursday, February 22, 2007

19 Gramercy Park.

233 Khetwadi Main Road where I grew up – and spent fifty three years of my life – had neither the glamour nor the grandeur nor the opulence nor the august lineage of owners of the 37-room, 18,000 square-foot mansion in New York (19 Gramercy Park) at the southeast corner of 20th Street and Irving Place, directly overlooking Gramercy Park. Here’s where Ben Sonnenberg, also born in 1936 like me, grew up. According to an architectural report at 19 Gramercy Park was built by a Whig politician in 1845. It was later owned by the Stuyvesant Fish family and, from1945 on, by the legendary “flack” (the father of modern PR and spin doctoring for which, according to his son, he was “scandalously well paid” by Philip Morris, Pan Am, Pepsodent, Texaco and Sperry-Rand among others) Benjamin Sonnenberg. This Russian Jew who came to New York from Brest-Litovsk in 1905 when he was just four turned into the most ardent capitalist. It was he who combined 19 Gramercy Park with the six-story apartment building next door at Number Twenty after evicting the tenants, the pacifist socialist leader and Socialist Party Presidential candidate in 1940, 1944 and 1948, Norman Thomas, among them. (Interestingly, Thomas also happened to be also a Conscientious Objector to the Great War which he thought was an "immoral, senseless struggle among rival imperialisms". His brother shared his views and went to prison for resisting the draft. By contrast, Ben dodged the draft by joining the “Company” as his handler called the CIA.) Both Ben and his father led what can be succinctly described as bizarre, make-believe lives. Ben confesses to hating his father. They spent time with each other taking long walks in the neighbourhood since the time Ben was ten till he was in his thirties. Apart from that, Benjamin joined from time to time the self-exiled Ben who was busy running up his debts and running down his trust fund in Cold War Europe of the fifties. The reasons for Ben’s hatred were never spelt out clearly. Benjamin paid most of Ben’s extravagant bills admonishing him from time to time like any normal father. Benjamin’s only fault seemed to be that he was overbearing and over acquisitive, a Collector, which made Ben “a Collector’s Child”. Both father and son quoted widely from various authors. On various occasions, Ben claimed to be living apposite roles of characters from exotic novels. A weird but fascinating tale of the listless and pointless life Ben led with too much happening to him too soon including the CIA and multiple sclerosis is what Lost Property by Ben Sonnenberg is all about. P.S.: In retrospect, it did remind me of Truman Capote's unfinished novel, Answered Prayers especially because of so many NHRN (Not His/Her Real Name) characters strewn all over it as also a "rootless, intelligent and detached" raconteur like Ben was once described by an ex-CIA operative whose name he promptly forgot after using his swimming pool for an entire summer. Ben wrote his memoirs with uncomparable grace, extreme economy and delicious irony - and sometimes lobbing at you obscure words like "banausic" (= merely mechanical or routine) and "emulously" (= with a desire to emulate or competitively) - and refusing to explain them.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cheerio, Titan.

My acquaintance with George Bernard Shaw is cursory and anecdotal at best. His only two plays I’ve read are Saint Joan and Pygmalion, the latter because My Fair Lady fascinated me. Of the Irish and self-confessedly communist playwright, Sean O’Casey, I know next to naught. My abysmal ignorance happened to be brought to an end pleasurably last week when my copy of Cheerio, Titan by Elieen O’Casey magically resurfaced. I must have bought it at least four years back from Lotus Book House which sadly is no more. This thoroughly enchanting account of the friendship between GBS and O’Casey with fascinating photographs of the chief cast of characters and key locations is a compact 154-page hardcover volume published in 1989 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. The pivotal incidence in the narrative is the rejection of O’Casey’s anti-war play, The Silver Tassie, by WB Yeats and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1928. The book title is taken from the last sentence of the letter GBS wrote to Sean expressing his admiration for and whole-hearted support of the play. Elieen O’Casey writes without guile and with total candour and sincerity. In her account, GBS stands out as charming, witty and human who befriended and defended Sean and admired Elieen to the extent of calling her to his death bed (she was practically the last friend to see him before he breathed his last). Try as I might I could not somehow warm up to Sean in spite of his steadfastly loyal wife’s best efforts to paint him in the most flattering colours – and my own weakness for left-leaning writers and artists. It’s a wonderful read all told, though.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Gruelling test.

I’m impressed, bro. Watching the kids going through a punishing regimen year after year to pass the Secondary School Certificate examination with flying colours is a truly humbling experience. In my times, I had neither such single-minded focus nor such persistence and stamina for studies. What’s more, I don’t remembering a rigorously planned study schedule. I vaguely remember, however, the shocking pink cover of a paperback book I had picked up around six months before my coming ordeal. That one was supposed to advice me on the best way to study, if memory serves. I guess I didn’t pay serious heed to its wise counsel and went about my studies haphazardedly and sporadically. I wasn’t a brilliant student by any manner of means. I managed to scrape my way through with a 70 per cent score and a school prize in English, though. In contrast, I see today’s kids – some of whom Ujwal tutors in English and Marathi – cheerfully slaving their lives in studies and in tuitions. In spite of having little free time for themselves, they are so well informed on what’s going on around them: the latest movies, the latest hits, the latest video releases, the latest restaurants and pizza parlours, the latest malls, the latest multiplexes, the latest cricket scores, the latest Bollywood gossip. When I was their age, I was hardly as knowledgeable. I must confess, though, that around the time I passed high school, there was not much happening except maybe Radio Ceylon, Binaca Hit Parade, Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Nat King Cole, The Platters, Gene Kelly and Lana Turner in The Three Musketeers and stuff like that. Being hip then was probably wearing jeans and reading comics and nibbling hot dogs and sipping coffee in the garden cafeteria of the Excelsior Cinema. How times have changed, bro?