Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lamb among wolves.

Reading an excerpt of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Man Booker nominated The Lowland the other day, I remembered a long-lost old friend. His name was Shyam Guha. He was an Art Director in the Calcutta office of Clarion-McCann. I got to know him rather well in the late sixties and early seventies. We became friends working together on ad assignments on most of his fairly frequent visits to the Bombay office.

Shyam was a gem of a human being. He was probably the only innocent and guileless Bengali I came across in Clarion’s Bhadralok mafia during the eleven years, seven months and four days I worked for the agency. He was loved – nay, revered – by all the studio guys although none of us could quite fathom the reasons for him being invited once too often to Bombay because we had a surfeit of Art Directors and Visualizers of our own.

Rumour had it that the guys sent by the head office suits were spooks trained to keep an eye on the locals and report back. None of us believed it of Shyam, though. In fact, we used to look forward to his visits eagerly. I used to rib him about the spooks business and he would take it sportingly. There was definitely some truth in the 007 rumour, though. There definitely were spies from the Bong skies among us. One of them was a suit who chewed the bones as well as the meat of a chicken dish served to him. I can vouch for this trait confidently as he used to come home to dinner at 233 Khetwadi Main Road at times. The other was a creative guy who would visit us occasionally and spend the whole working day strolling around the office presumably trying to catch snatches of conversation in the corridors and at the water fountain.

As for Shyam and I, sometimes, we would taxi down to the Strand Book Stall during the lunch break for a quick browse. I remember Shyam gifting me a copy of the Marguerite Duras screenplay of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Calder & Boyars paperback with the signature black and white cover. Shyam also regaled me with his tales of almost daily after-work tippling at the legendary Calcutta landmark, Olympia Bar in the company of his like-minded colleagues.

His other repertoire of stories included those about the Naxalites who then were a recent addition to the Calcutta scenario. Both of us were sympathetic to the cause these urban guerillas were battling for. Shyam did not seem to know any of the Naxals or their families personally. He also had not witnessed any of the street battles. What he was passing on to us was chiefly hearsay although his narratives were always compelling and riveting. Whenever he came home to dinner, this was one topic of conversation Ujwal and I used to look forward to listening.

During his Bombay sojourn, Shyam usually lodged with the Bombay Resident Director, Subrato Sen Gupta, now deceased. The Sen Guptas apparently did not have a spare latch key for the front door of their palatial Neapean Sea Road flat. So Shyam had a curfew to observe whenever he planned an evening out. He had to be back and in bed by 11:00 p.m., the family retiring hour, exactly one hour before the witching hour. This deadline was the theme of our favourite parting shot every time he took our leave hurriedly and distractedly after dinner.

By the time I decided to quit Clarion in 1976, Shyam’s visits to the Bombay office had petered out. We lost touch with each other because both of us were bad letter writers. The “out of sight, out of mind” bug was also probably at work.

I picked up the threads of the Shyam Guha episode once again much, much later. In the late nineties, to be exact. I got acquainted with a Calcuttan on-line because of my column on the Hindustan Times website at that time. Well educated and cultured, she was married to a widely-connected advertising guy. She happened to mention Prasanto Sanyal and other denizens of the Clarion Bhadralok in one of her emails. I promptly asked her if she could get her husband to trace the whereabouts of Shyam. Much to my chagrin, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, her spouse hit a dead end in his pursuit of my will-o’-the-wisp. There was no Shyam to be found. It seemed he had retired from Clarion long ago and moved bag and baggage out of the metropolis for terra incognita.     


Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The wearisome burden of superheroism.

In his fifth voyage, Sinbad came across a taciturn old man inhabiting the island where the Arabian Nights sailor was marooned. This worthy hopped on to Sinbad’s shoulder with his tacit consent and then refused to let go of his seat. Finally, according to Scheherazade, Sinbad had no alternative except to get his tormentor drunk and stone him to death.
Ever since the US of A usurped the role of World Supremo – did it happen in 1898 when it declared war on Spain and with the Paris treaty wrested virtual suzerainty over South America and the Philippines? – the mantle has rested heavily on its shoulder.
In the wake of Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched his Great White Fleet of 16 battleships with assorted escorts on a 14-month global cruise in order to demonstrate his country’s naval capabilities and preparedness. (Remember Nixon and Kissinger sending the US Fifth Fleet post haste to the Bay of Bengal in 1971?)
Once you’re on the superhero/superpower throne, it’s not easy to abdicate. You’ve got to keep on playing the role, like it or not. (Lord Acton’s axiom: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Note: Italics mine.) America did try to keep aloof in the Great War till Germany used U-boats thus forcing President Woodrow Wilson’s hand in early 1917. America’s entry on the Allied side in World War II too was belated: it only entered the theatre after the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. (By the way, by a strange twist of Fate, Captain America had become Marvel Comics’ top selling title at around this time clocking a monthly sale of as many as one million copies. Point to ponder: Why is a majority of comicbook superheroes born in the USA?)
What has always surprised me, though, is how Uncle Sam never got his fingers entangled into the Great Game – the on-going strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Empire (and, after 1918, Soviet Union) – during its heyday. The American intervention in the Afghan Civil War was in fact as late as in 1979 as a Cold-War related retaliation to the Soviet initiative in the region and later directly when the Russian withdrawal left a power vacuum there. After the World War II victory, there have been many more episodes in the overseas adventures of Uncle Sam in his Captain America avatar: Korea, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Gulf War, Iraq, and now maybe Syria – apart from his several covert interventions on the side of Banana Republic chief honchos. When you have the world’s biggest stake in armaments, covet the world’s oil reserves most avidly and have always fancied yourself in the role of World Supremo, you don’t have much of a chance. Or, choice, for that matter. You’ve got to carry your burden, trudge with it and like it or lump it. Unless you decide to emulate Sinbad’s “carved in stone” example…