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.