Tuesday, December 30, 2008

PIs and I.

Detective fiction is a genre I've enjoyed all my life. I remember my father buying me a hardbound copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published by John Murray. This happened to be in one of my childhood summers at 233 Khetwadi Main Road http://digbig.com/4xyxy. I was recuperating then from a severe bout of tonsillitis. I used to suffer from this ailment not infrequently at that time and was a frequent user of glycerin acid tannic, "the throat 'paint' of choice". http://digbig.com/4yarg. Sorry for the digression. After devouring the first collection of short stories and getting well, I was hooked on Holmes. I rapidly ploughed through the entire "Canon": 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle between 1887 and 1927 - a total of 660382 words according to Charles E Lauterbach's calculation in 1960. Holmes had a special appeal for me because, like me, he preferred to sit down and ratiocinate. http://digbig.com/4yaty. I'm not saying my deductive logical ability was a patch on his legendary though fictional one, of course. To continue the story, I made a logical progression to Agatha Christie's inimitable egghead, Hercule Poirot and, thence, to Miss Marple http://digbig.com/4yatm in the last year of school and, later, in college. Ellery Queen, reputedly the American heir to the Holmesian legacy, happened somewhere along the way. I remember being particularly impressed at that time with the way a challenge to the reader used to be thrown towards the end of the earlier EQ novels when the reader was supposed to have been given all the essential clues. I had even read and enjoyed the four Drury Lane novels written by Queen under the Barnby Ross nom de plume. These, I recall, belonged to the locked room mystery sub-genre, a format of which John Dickson Carr was a leading practitioner. For a while around then, I was a steady follower of Mike Shayne, the Miami PI, as well. Then, the focus of my attention shifted to Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. I began to think that thinking on one's feet and wisecracking in a trial court was the height of sophistication. Then I discovered his Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series written under his AA Fair pseudonym and found it far more witty and entertaining. My meeting with The Saint http://digbig.com/4yfre I recall, was fortuitous. I happened to browse through a Saint novel at the shop on Lamington Road http://digbig.com/4ybgc where I used to borrow comics and other reading material when I was in college. I was taken in by the flippant style and tone. I went on a pilgrimage of Saintly reading borrowing all the titles in the circulating library and even buying a few second-hand titles. Another source of my detective literature supply was the JB Petit Institute at Flora Fountain of which my father and I were members. I read quite a bit of Edgar Wallace http://digbig.com/4ybge there, including a book of hilarious short stories about a race course tout. I remember its red binding distinctly but have forgotten its name. I read, if memory serves, almost all Dorothy L Sayers (Lord Wimsey) mysteries and some by Georges Simenon (Maigret is no PI, mind!) and Rex Stout, all borrowed from the Institute as well. Dick Francis came later and became for a while quite an addiction. The Institute also gave me the opportunity to enjoy Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for several years. Although I have not read much of Patricia Highsmith and Nicolas Freeling, I hold them both in high esteem. I must confess that although I read some of Ross MacDonald, he didn't appeal to me much. Neither for that matter did Raymond Chandler who considered himself a mere pulp writer but was the toast of the British literary and intellectual circles including notably JB Priestley, WH Auden, Cyril Connolly and Edith Sitwell. Maybe, I ain't no mystery connoisseur in verity.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gandhi, yet again.

This morning, I suddenly thought again of Gandhi. It occurred to me that he could never be at peace no matter what he was doing, no matter who he was dealing with. I was thinking particularly of his reaction to his son Manilal's infatuation in 1914 for Jeki (Dr Jayakunwar Mehta). She was Gandhi's "only adopted daughter" and the real daughter of his affluent and generous friend from his London days, Dr Pranjivan Jagjivan Mehta. The latter had left her in Gandhi's care in Phoenix Farm, South Africa. As was his wont http://digbig.com/4yaae Gandhi simply would not let things get back to a semblance of normalcy. He was unwilling to forget and forgive. Sex was his big obsession. He spoke again and again about the transgression in his prayer meetings, went on a fast, and generally raised hell. He also made Jeki shear off her hair, go off salt and so forth. http://digbig.com/4yaaf. In his letter to his associate, Kallenbach, he called the young woman "a liar, a wretched hypocrite, without pity, without remorse, full of evil passions". Earlier, when Kasturba had complained bitterly against Jeki, he had defended her and turned on his wife labeling her "the most venomous woman I have ever met" again in a letter to Kallenbach. He had even expressed his wish for her death at one juncture. As for his own reaction to the man-woman interaction: "I have often wanted to take out the knife from my pocket and put it through the stomach," he confided in a letter to to another friend. "Sometimes I have felt like striking my head against the wall opposite, and at other times, I have thought of running away from the world." This kind of behaviour was a recurrent theme in Gandhi's life throughout, especially in his various relationships with his women associates. Of course, men know at first hand women's capacity to make them think and feel in a like manner. Being a Mahatma had not spared him from being a man unfortunately, I guess.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Easy way out.

The second instance of my quitting a pursuit after a brief flirtation - the account of the first one is here http://digbig.com/4xyxq - was when I was an enthusiastic philatelist for maybe a couple of years of school. How I started collecting postage stamps escapes me. My best guess is that I must have seen someone's stamp album and jumped to the conclusion that it was the thing to do. My parents used to indulge me probably because I was a boy. I remember I had a hard bound dark green 12" x 9" stamp album about ¾" thick. Each page in it had the name of a country printed on top with a couple of pictures of the more popular stamps issued by it on both sides of it. The portion below was divided into several spaces for stamps indicated by dotted squares. I remember buying the album, along with a shiny pair of tweezers, from one of the philately supply dealers on Hornby Road (now Dadabhai Nowroji Road) http://digbig.com/4xyxs. The shop is probably still there. I also used to buy from the same shop a packet of pre-gummed hinges made of butter paper. One had to simply fold the hinge halfway with the pre-gummed surface outside; lick it; stick one half to the back of the stamp and the other half to the surface of the page where the stamp was supposed to be stuck; and, lo and behold, one of your precious collection was where it belonged. I remember having a lot many India Postage stamps, even old ones retrived from the envelopes of old correspondence. We veteran stamp collectors also used to obtain stamps by barter. I don't quite recall who I used to exchange stamps with. There was a philatelist friend of mine staying in the third of the three identical Arab Houses. http://digbig.com/4xyxy. (I stayed at 233 Khetwadi Main Road in the first Arab House, you see.) He was probably the one through whom I had managed to find some bartering contacts. Also, some of my school friends may also have chipped in with bartering aid. We used to also buy stamps from the shop on Hornby Road I mentioned earlier as well as a shop on Lamington Road which also doubled as a comic book lending library. http://digbig.com/4xyxs. What one had to watch out for was in the stamps you bought to add to your collection was postal cancellation marks on them. That was supposed to prove that they were authentic postal issues - not imitations printed to fool new entrants in the august portals of philately. After wasting a bit of my father's hard-earned money for two or three years, I suddently lost interest in and zest for "the whole bally thing" (to use one of Wooster's eloquent phrases) and quit it as was my wont. [Afterthought: Now that email is the rule rather than the exception, I wonder if stamp collecting is a dying hobby.]

Thursday, December 11, 2008

No pretensions.

Given my past pretensions galore as a movie aficionado http://digbig.com/4xypw it feels good to stumble upon a non-pretensions black-and-white movie with straight forward story-telling and no fancy camera work now and again. That's where TCM is so good for my soul, mates. Yesterday morning, I happened to find there the clunkily and portentously titled Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945). http://digbig.com/4xypx. It has that wonderfully versatile Romanian-American actor, Edward G Robinson, playing the part of a Norwegian farmer in Wisconsin during World War II. Martinus Jacobson is kind and considerate, very fond of his seven-year old daughter, Selma (Margaret O'Brien. He does not believe in spoiling her, though, and even makes her give away her skates, a birthday gift, to her 5-year-old best friend and constant companion, Arnold, because of her failure to share then with him. The simple story moves at a placid place and ends with Selma giving away her calf to a neighbour whose barn has burned down and thereby triggering off a flood of gifts from other members of the community. For a reason I could not fathom, this movie caught my attention and fancy and I could not stop myself from watching it till the end. An additional bonus was Agnes Moorehead in the role of Selma's mother and a simple housewife, so different from the many cynical and acerbic roles elsewhere I have always admired her for.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

11 Just Men.

Edgar Wallace wrote in 1905 what went on to be accorded the status of a prototype or benchmark of the modern English mystery thriller, The Four Just Men. It was about four vigilantes who killed people in the cause of justice. To promote it, he launched a competition. The challenge was to guess the method to murder the Foreign Secretary that they would employ if he were to ratify an unjust law. This got The Daily Mail, the newspaper where he worked as a sub-editor into deep trouble. Wallace did not put a limiting clause in his competition rules to restrict the prize to a single winner. As it happened, there were several correct guessers. He did not have the money to pay them. To protect the good name of his newspaper, the owner had to loan £5000 to Wallace. He took it without a whit of gratitude and contrition and showed no hurry to repay the loan. His attitude and approach were far from just, to state the obvious. Money, I guess, does that to a lot many people. Did not The Bible warn us that the love of money is the root of all evil? Now it is doing likewise to Wallace's compatriots, the English cricket team. They have thrown caution to the winds and defied logic as many, including Pakistan's former skipper, Shahid Latif, feel, because of the big bucks BCCI has in its coffers. http://digbig.com/4xymq. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as the French say. Translation: The more things change, the more they stay the same. In other words, nothing changes much. So, what else is new? P.S: The English Team decided to give 50% of their match fee to the victims of the Mumbai massacre. Are they just or what?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Jessica Lall redux.

Light a candle in your window to show solidarity with the victims. We've heard this call before. Not just in Rang De Basanti but also in the aftermath of the acquittal by the Delhi District Court in the Jessica Lall murder trial. Lall, you'll recall, was a member of the Delhi High Society, a model and a celebrity barmaid on duty at Tamarind Court owned by socialite Bina Ramani. She did not belong to the hoi polloi. The uproar after the acquittal was triggered by the desire of the Delhi aristocracy to avenge one of its own. Who is the common man http://digbig.com/4xybn in urban India? RK Laxman has been following his exploits since 1961 in the pocket cartoon (You said it) on the front page of The Times of India. He has always drawn him and his wise-cracking wife to resemble denizens of the lower middle class stratum of Bombay. The couple was unlikely to ever wander into Wasabi, The Golden Dragon, Tiffin, The Sea Lounge, Kandahar, India Jones, Frangapani, Zodiac Grill and eateries of the fine dining persuasion. Apart from whether they could afford to eat in any one of them, I wonder if the otherwise affable Sardarjis who used to guard the entrance of The Taj and probably of The Trident and The Oberoi would have allowed them to walk in. They were probably more likely to be embroiled in the massacre at the CST Terminus. Or, be waiting for a Western Railway local train to arrive at one of the seven stations where bomb blasts took place on 11 July 2006. With 200 dead and over 700 injured - mostly from the hoi polloi, that one was a terrorist attack of no mean proportion. Despite the loss of human life being much higher than in the 26-29 November 2008 tragedy, there was at that time no braying for the blood of those in charge of the security of Mumbai and the safety of its citizens. Come 26 November 2008 with a frontal attack on the three aristocratic and supposedly secure SoBo http://digbig.com/4xybw bastions and sanctuaries, though, and there is suddenly much agitation. Blue blood has been spilled, after all. Enough is enough. SoBo elite's hubris is at stake, ladies and gentlemen, and must be avenged at all cost. http://digbig.com/4xyck. The unspoken ground rules of special privilege must be imposed.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


You never know when and where your past may catch up with you. This morning, The Times of India informed me that (a) secret service folks from Australia, USA, UK and Israel were in Mumbai visiting the places attacked by the terrorists last week; and (b) Nariman House was a target because it was supposed to be a front for Israeli intelligence. In other words, Mossad. The reason it made me think of the past was that, when I was writing my Master of Commerce thesis http://digbig.com/4xxxk and living at 233 Khetwadi Main Road http://digbig.com/4xxxp I was also trying to make a bit of money on the side. For instance, I had done quite a lot of translation into English of dubious literature written in absolutely pathetic Hindi and dealing with sex education. The client was on Hornby Road near Handloom House. I cannot recall who put me in touch with him. Similarly, I had done some work for a publisher of study guides. Somebody had also asked me to try my luck at a travel agency opposite the New Empire Cinema. I think one of the employees there guided me to Kailas on Peddar Road (now Deshmukh Marg). This was in the days when India and Israel were not on too friendly terms. If memory serves, the Consulate and Trade Representative's office had opened in Mumbai in 1953 and was the only consular presence of that country in India. By the way, Israel was born just a year after India got independence, if you recall. Coming back to my story, I was allowed to go up to the office on the fourth or fifth floor after being thoroughly frisked at the entrance on the ground floor. That itself was an unusual experience in those days. I did not get the job although they interviewed me and made me fill up a lengthy application form. So, maybe, I was saved from a fate worse than death of serving Mossad. I'm being facetious, of course. Well, the other recent occasion when my past suddenly caught up with me was when I was reading Bernie Lee's Murder at Musket Beach. The chief protagonist called Tony, a mystery writer and a member of the Tony and Pat Pratt husband-and-wife team, also happens to be a copywriter who flies from Portland, Oregon, for a couple of days of creative work in Hollywood. The description of the meeting with the client and the creative and account service team as well as of the recording session brought back my past in advertising especially when I was in Clarion-McCann. ttp://digbig.com/4xxxn.