Among my best efforts as a creative journalist were several articles I wrote in the early 1970s in a prestigious English magazine called Shankar's Weekly, devoted exclusively to humorous cartoons and comments. It was edited and published in New Delhi by Shankar. one of India's most famous and outspoken cartoonists of all times, and had a very wide circulation spread all over India.
I happened to be a senior civil servant living in a complex of several multi-storied buildings in a residential sector exclusively reserved for Government staff quarters, where your official seniority and rank counted immensely in social contexts. And the Republic Day Parade on January 26 was a very important occasion for measuring your true status in the bureaucratic framework. One of the most visible status symbols was your proximity to the President's and Prime Minister's enclosure in the seating arrangements -- which naturally cried out for a comment in my magazine!
But before you read the article, I must explain the significance of the characters Heralda and Mercedesa figuring in the text:
In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the only passenger cars manufactured in India were the Ambassador (modelled on the British car Morris Oxford III), the Fiat 1100-D/Padmini (based on the Italian Fiat 1200 GranLuce), and the Standard Herald (based on the British model Standard Triumph). The demand far outweighed the limited supply, and prospective buyers had to crawl in waiting lists for years, unless they qualified under special quotas including those meant for senior Government officers.
But you could also see huge limousines bearing fabulous names like Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac on the roads of the Capital and some Metros like Bombay and Calcutta, imported by the Central or State Governments, or by business houses and affluent citizens paying import duty of 300% -- and also smaller, compact models of brands like Toyota or Volkswagen, brought in by lucky Government officials who had lived abroad for at least two years.
SHANKAR'S WEEKLY 28 January 1973
MARCUS SERETARIUS returned home from the Senate, and found his wife Heralda in a dark, pessimistic mood.
"What's wrong, Heralda?" he asked.
"Have you got the invitation for the parade yet?" she queried him in return.
"Not yet, dear," Marcus Secretarius told her. "My P.A. said it will be received tomorrow."
"That's what you have been saying every day!" Heralda said. "And I am sure you will never get it! And only two days are left for the parade! All the other Senators have already received their invitations!"
"How do you know that?"
"Mercedesa was here this afternoon. She said her husband Marcus Gogettus got his card four days ago!"
"Well, we shall see tomorrow," Marcus Secretarius said wearily. "Will you please give me a cup of wine, Heralda?"
As he took off his toga and wrapped a towel round his waist, the Senator reflected that it was a pity the Roman set-up wasn't based on Plato's conception of a Republic. The collective wives of the philosopher-kings in Platopolis couldn't have leveled such charges against their husbands individually.
But the sweet smile on Heralda's pretty face as she brought him his jug of wine altered his thoughts.
"Don't take what I said to heart, dear," she told him. "I don't really care for the parade. But you know, I have to hang my head in shame when the other Senators' wives ask me which enclosure we'd be sitting in, and in which section we'd be parking our chariot."
As he splashed in his bath, Marcus Secretarius couldn't help admitting to himself that his inability to secure this miserable invitation card did not speak well of his efficiency. After all, as a senior Senator he was entitled to it, and it was mortifying that he couldn't overcome the petty red-tape in some other fool's office.
Heralda was right about Gogettus, too. That egg-head certainly knew how to get these things done. That, of course, was because he didn't do any useful work in the Senate, but was busy all the time attending to personal matters. But the womenfolk could hardly be expected to understand that.
Take, for instance, the question of one's chariot. While he, Marcus Secretarius, had waited patiently for several years for a costly indigenous four-wheeler made in Rome, Gogettus had bought a beautiful six-wheeler for a song in Saxonia during his diplomatic mission there, which of course he had wangled by pulling the right strings in Rome.
Secretarius reflected bitterly that even in this petty matter of the parade his colleagues were stealing a march over him.
But then, the chariot pass accompanying the wretched invitation was a status symbol all right. As soon as you got it, you took the 'precaution' of pasting the sky-blue or pink slip on the front of your chariot. And though your chariot had only four wheels, it was there for all to see that you were a high-ranking officer of the State, and not just an affluent merchant owning an eight-wheeled vehicle.
After the Republic Day, of course, you conveniently 'forgot' to remove the colored slip, so that the Roman citizens could note your status for several weeks to come.
Back in his chambers at the Senate next morning, Marcus Secretarius went to work with a will. He summoned his P,A, and dictated a strong letter of protest to Julius Gallerius, the officer in charge of the seating arrangements. He signed the letter and asked his P.A. to take it to the official at once, and not to return without the invitation card and the parking slip.
The personal assistant came back after a couple of hours.
"Well?" asked the Senator.
"I am sorry, your Excellency," the P.A. said. "Gallerius was not available in his office. He was out at the parade grounds supervising the arrangements. They said in his office that all invitations had been despatched, and none was left,"
"Do you mean to say you have come back without the invitation, you fool?" Marcus Secretarius roared.
"Not exactly, your Excellency!" the P.A. said. "I have got something."
He handed the Senator an envelope.
Marcus Secretarius opened it. There was no invitation card inside, but he found a sky-blue slip which said:
East of the Tiber
"Splendid!" the Senator exclaimed. already anticipating the wonderful smile that would light up his wife's face. "I shall sanction two advance increments for you! But tell me, my dear fellow, how did you manage to get this?"
"Oh, I had an idea, your Excellency," the P.A. said. "Many of the junior Senators to whom invitations had been sent do not have chariots. I just approached Marcus Omnibus and made a request on your Excellency's behalf, and he was good enough to spare his pass!"
Well, that was something I wrote exactly 40 years ago, but it 's amazing how true it still rings today! That's obviously because no matter how strongly the winds of change blow in the economic, commercial and cultural environments, nothing ever seems to change fundamentally so far as the self-conscious social perceptions and postures of the average citizens are concerned. Of course, this isn't perhaps true of Indians alone, but must be a universal phenomenon!