By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Delhivision : Magic Of Montreal

My column Delhiberations, which used to appear every Friday in the Hindustan Times Evening News in New Delhi during several years in the 1970s and '80s, wasn't stereotyped, and didn't have a uniform mode of presentation.  It was basically a light-hearted commentary on passing events, with an accompanying cartoon drawn by myself;  but sometimes it could also acquire a serious tone and take a critical look at fundamental issues. And once in a while I would deal with a given topic in both styles in successive articles or on different occasions, reinforcing my reflections.   
And there was variety in the humorous approach, too:  sometimes there would be pure satire, and at other times there would be plain statements.  Quite frequently, I liked to put things in the form of a light-hearted chat between five intimate friends living in Delhi  --   one of whom was myself, of course. 

The familiar-sounding but non-existing names I had assigned to these imaginary friends of mine had special significance with reference to the great demographic diversity of India and some historic landmarks of its  capital city.  I shall explain this aspect some other time;  meanwhile, here's a typical conversation between them, on the slow but steady evolution of live television in India:

Evening News, New Delhi
23 Feb. 1977
20 Eyes For Montreal

"There are times when we can curse TV to our heart's content, but there are times when it's a real blessing," Rajpath Roy said'

"Are you talking about the Olympics?" Kutubullah asked.

"What else?"  Rajpath Roy said.  "Delhivision is doing a wonderful job, rushing the Olympic films to New Delhi within 48 hours."

"I think it would be 36 hours, rather,"  I said.  "Don't forget that Indian Standard Time is 11 hours ahead of Montreal time.  That means when it is Monday evening in Montreal. it's already Tuesday morning in India.  And Delhivision flashes Monday's events on Wednesday evening here!"

"I still remember the Munich Olympics which I saw on Delhivision,"  Safdar Singh said.  "It was a memorable show."

"Of course, it's not the same thing, seeing the Olympics on TV and attending them personally,"  Janapathi said.  "I was in Munich in 1972, and saw the Games.  It was a remarkable experience."

"Nothing is the same seen directly and on TV,"  Rajpath Roy said.  "But it makes a lot of difference seeing the Olympics on TV and not seeing them at all!  Take these gymnastics, for example.  It's one thing  just to read in the papers that Nadia Comaneci got 10 points out of 10 in three different events, and it's quite a different thing to seeing her actually do it, even if only on the TV screen!"

"You are perfectly right,"  I said.  "The important thing here is the speed with which the shots are rushed to your TV screen.  I am sure even the best documentary on the Games wouldn't be so thrilling if you saw it a month after the events.  This is where Delhivision has scored another splendid goal."

"You know, actually there's an advantage in seeing the Games on TV rather than in person!"  Kutubullah said.  "So many of the games go on simultaneously,  I am sure you can't see all the highlights if you are physically present in the stadium.  But on TV you don't miss anything important which happens.  It is as if you were present in 10 different spots at the same rime, watching the games with 20 eyes!"

"Naturally!"  Janapathi said.  "There are so many other events too, like the Republic Day parade, which are better seen on TV than in person.  But still, I don't think a TV show is a satisfactory substitute for the real thing."

"Look here, Jani, don't give us a big lecture  just because you are able to go abroad now and then and actually saw the Munich Games,"  Rajpath Roy said.  "If you feel so strongly about it, why don't you fly away to Montreal?"

"I've just been to Europe on vacation." Janapathi said.  "What do you think I am supposed to be doing?  Enjoying a permanent vacation, eh?"

"In that case, don't grumble!"  Rajpath Roy said.  "Just thank Delhivision for letting you have a glimpse of the Games within 48 hours!"

"You mean 36 hours!"  I said.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

How My Friend And Czechmaster Herzlik Solved The Mystery Of The Misplaced Handkerchief

The series of classic-looking English essays  in THE HINDU with which I started my half-century-old track record as an amateur journalist consisted not only of character studies (like The Marker, The Railwayman, The Liftman, The Vegetarian, The Old Boys and The Family Doctor, which I have shown you earlier), but also exercises in pure humor with a classical flavour, like the following piece:


Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text)

Laundry-man  --  50 years ago in India, a laundry-man (known as 'washerman' in English as spoken in British India, and dhobi in Hindi)) used to visit your home at regular intervals and collect the whole family's soiled clothes away, for washing on riverbanks or poolsides along with other families' clothes, and ironing in his hut or under a shady streetside tree.  Occasionally there were inter-family mix-ups, especially of handkerchiefs which weren't taken very seriously.      

Pen to be filled  --  Those were days when our basic writing implement in India was still the 'fountain pen'  --  which had a module fitted with a nib and a feeder, screwed on to a tube-shaped barrel;  and you had to unscrew them for re-filling the barrel with liquid ink now and then.  Today, in the era of sophisticated high-tech pens, many senior citizens like me still cling on to our vintage fountain pens (and actually use them sometimes!). Of course, some world-famous brands of the good old days still continue to be manufactured today in limited editions, to serve as status symbols or collectors' items;  and bespoke jewellers go on crafting  more and more expensive gem-studded fountain pens for super-rich customers.   

Crowded gallery --   Obviously where seats weren't reserved in advance but were occupied on a first-come-first-served basis --  not an unusual scenario in India those days.   

Harry Houdini (1874-1926)  --  legendary American illusionist, world-famous for performing miraculous stunts and escape acts.


THE HINDU Sunday Magazine
               50 years ago


I have lost hundreds of hankies as I have progressed in life;  I wouldn't know their number even approximately, for it's a long time since I lost count of them.  I wonder who did find all of them, and what use they were put to afterwards:  for a handkerchief, unlike perhaps even a shirt, is a highly intimate possession, and I can't imagine anybody just picking up an abandoned one in a cafe or cinema house and using it as his own.  Perhaps the management employs them for wiping the dishes, or for  dusting the seats.  Of course, a good number of handkerchiefs are lost in the washing, and I would give a lot to know what happens to them all;  no doubt sometimes they're merely palmed off by the laundry-man against the missing hankies of his other clients:  but even then, what did happen to those original pieces? 

But if you can't visualize any  use for your hanky after you've lost it, you are never at a loss to know what to do with it while you still have it.  In theory, of course, its scope is strictly limited to helping you wipe your hands or discreetly blow your nose (and, if you're a lady, delicately drain your tears);  but in practice its possibilities are almost endless.  Nothing comes in handier than a hanky when there is a pen to be filled, or a pipe to be cleaned.  At the table it can replace a missing napkin, in the nursery an over-worked diaper.  When you have your car's bonnet open, and can't find the cotton waste, what can be more natural than to pull out your hanky from the trouser pocket?  The inevitable and indelible stains hardly matter at all, since you're bound to lose the wretched thing soon anyway.  But the hanky is not without its more elegant uses.  Wiping one's glasses with it is often a glamorous act of showmanship;  and that little white rag which must adorn your dinner jacket could remain there for a lifetime without once needing a wash.

Reserving seats

Another admirable purpose served by the hanky is the safeguarding of space in a crowded gallery, whether in the theatre or in the sports ground.  You may without misgivings leave yours on a seat, and go out to buy peanuts or on any other errand;  you'll find both hanky and vacant seat intact on your return.  Surprisingly enough, the much-lost article never disappears on such occasions.  The crowd doesn't know you, and doesn't care two pins for your concerns;  and yet it respects, with a strange primitive instinct, your hanky and the rights it is supposed to represent, in much the same way as sovereign states acknowledge the explorer's ensign.  So far as my experience goes, it never occurs to anybody just to pocket your hanky and pretend to know nothing.  

So ingrained, in fact, is this will to surrender in the public's psyche that a friend of yours can easily reserve a vacant seat for you just by placing his own hanky on it ahead of your arrival;  and as you nonchalantly take your seat, you can watch the greenhorns who came before you gullibly milling around and trying to push other people -- but never other people's hankies, mind you!~ -- off their precarious perch. 

Romance and magic

The era of gentle romance has passed, and with it the subtler uses associated with the handkerchief.  We can now only read in the classics about resourceful maidens letting fall a discreet hanky and being happily wooed by the plucky man who picks it up.  However, there's still an element of gallantry implicit in the legendary piece of cloth.  The dandy who sports a colorful silk next to his neck seems to believe firmly in its powers to attract the opposite sex, and it's quite possible that he's rewarded for his faith more often than you and I would like to concede.  But while its romantic qualities have no doubt faded with the times, the handkerchief has lost none of its nostalgic appeal yet.  Appropriately enough, while it is waved by a thousand fluttering hands when a train pulls out from a platform or a ship leaves its moorings, it is seldom in evidence when long-lost friends and relatives are brought together again.  

The handkerchief has a traditional place of honor in the magician's bag of tricks.  He may not always pull out the celebrated rabbit out of his hat, but he never fails to produce his colorful hankies.  In fact, they have become such an integral part of his performance that we can no more imagine a magic show without hankies than a period play without costumes.  We may not readily see the reason for this;  but we don't have to, so long as the conjurer delights us (as he invariably does) with a spectacular exhibition of what he can accomplish with them. I'm not aware if the legendary Houdini ever exploited this marvelous material;  but if he didn't, I can only say that probably he withheld from his admirers the full fruits of his genius.


PostScript, 2014

Lost and found

In the preceding blog I had mentioned Mr. Borivoj Herzlik, an English professor from Brno who was teaching English and Czech to the Czech and Indian employees of the High Pressure Boiler Plant project near where I lived and worked as a railway officer.  There were two sides to our friendship:  he taught me some elementary but excellent Czech in his home in the week-ends, and was also an earnest reader of my essays in THE HINDU.

When I met him in the evening on a Sunday when this article had appeared in the morning paper, he showed me an old handkerchief and said he had found it on his sofa a couple of months earlier, and was trying to figure out to which guest he should return it. "And when I read your article this morning, I thought it must be yours!"  he said.  As, indeed, it was.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Universal Image Of The Family Doctor, Who's Also A Family Friend

A few weeks ago (Collective Friendship. . . .  March 24), I had recalled an essay of mine published by THE HINDU in 1992, in which I had observed as follows: 

The goodwill which develops between an efficient doctor and his or her satisfied clientele is another interesting example of the friendly ties which bind a group of people to an individual.  

Now here's one of my earliest essays, published by THE  HINDU  in 1963 or '64, in which I had earnestly explored the subtle nuances of the family doctor's character and concerns:


THE HINDU Sunday Magazine
            50 years ago

The Family Doctor

The family doctor is more than a mere physician;  he's a family friend, almost like a distant but very special relative.  He knows all about the physical troubles of the family members.  He's someone to whom everybody in the household has some special tribulation to disclose.  He's always a welcome guest, and his services are never thought of as just a business proposition.  Nor are his bills ever settled  in the same way as anyone else's; notwithstanding all the jokes we have heard about them, there's always an unwritten footnote of respect and affection in the check which the family sends him.   

Being a scientific man, the family doctor is naturally a very strict person, and wouldn't lightly tolerate any deviation from or disregard of his instructions.  But at the same time he's extremely good-humored, and puts up cheerfully with many a tiresome idiosyncrasy on the the part of his patients.  He rarely loses his temper, no matter what the provocation;  for his understanding of human nature is great.  When the family shows a tendency to question the appropriateness of his prescriptions, he usually puts up with it indulgently, and tries to explain his treatment without anger and in the simplest possible language.  It's true he sometimes assumes a glum and cynical air, but that's only the result of his drudgery.

Foundation of faith

Punctuality is not usually one of the family doctor's virtues, though it might be expected to be.  As a rule he has far too many engagements at any given time to be able to turn up at a place exactly when he's expected.  Often he's detained beyond reasonable limits by fussy relatives and argumentative patients;  and with infinite tact and resourcefulness he has to extricate himself for the next visit.  No wonder he finds it difficult to keep to precise timings.    Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, the Doctor is always present whenever he's most desperately needed.  He's not one to let you down when you rush to him for urgent help in a crisis.  Wake him up in the middle of the night on the telephone, and he'll be at the sick man's bedside within half an hour, if the situation really calls for his presence. 

The family doctor takes great pride in his work. That's of course why he's so touchy on the subject of any other general practitioner being consulted.  He's far too decent to deny permission when the family wants to call in a more distinguished or successful colleague, but he can hardly be expected to relish the experience.  One of the strongest forces which cements his good relations with the family is the confidence which the family members unanimously repose in him;  and quite understandably, when anything happens to undermine that faith even slightly, his whole personality suffers a set-back.  After all, the Doctor never does resent it when it's a question of consulting a specialist and not just another GP;  for he's quite rational, and is quick to acknowledge the specialist's superior competence in the latter's own sphere of study.  

True, he sometimes talks with bitterness and sarcasm about the specialist's ability;  but, like the bitterness of his pills and his mixtures, it's entirely without malice.  In fact, it's usually the Doctor himself who urges the family to consult a specialist, as soon as he senses that a case is beyond his capacity to remedy.  He's far too genuinely interested in the welfare of his patients to allow his professional pride to stand in the way of their possible recovery.

Stoic stature

Himself, the family doctor is no specialist, but an all-rounder.  His tools are not the elaborate devices of the nuclear age, but the simple stethoscope and the odds and ends contained in his familiar leather case.  In his heart of hearts, the family doctor wants to be, like his Creator, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent.  But he has no illusions, and knows only too well what his limitations are.  He's a constant eye-witness to the ruthless inevitability of decay;  his whole life is spent in watching the steady deterioration in the health of the homes he enters, in spite of all that he's able to do.  As the years roll by, the battle becomes quite hopeless, and the family doctor awakens to the frustrating truth that he can never hope to triumph over nature  --  whence his usually unassuming bearing, which perhaps the dazzling specialist, with his more circumscribed field of activity and his spectacular if transient successes, lacks.  

The Doctor never yields to despair, though.  He might not have a panacea for all mankind's ailments, but at least he knows where he stands, and certainly his are no mean contributions to society.  He fights disease and misery in his own stoic way.  The family doctor, one might almost say, is more a saint than a scientist.


PostScript, 2014

Universal phenomenon

I was working as a railway officer in a South Indian city called Tiruchi about 50 years ago, when I wrote the above essay.  One of the landmarks of the city is the St. Joseph's College founded in 1844 by the Fathers of Society of Jesus.  I had picked up a fine friendship with the Reverend Fathers Bergeron and Pays who taught French in the college, and who spent a lot of time and energy cultivating my conversational skills in  French.  And I was greatly thrilled when Father Bergeron told me that he had read this essay in THE HINDU and it strongly reminded him of a typical family doctor in France.

I had also developed a nice friendship with Pan (Mr.) Borivoj Herzlik  (pronounced Borzhivoy Herzleek), an English professor from Czechoslovakia who worked for the Czech-aided High Pressure Boiler Plant near the city, where he taught English to the Czech engineers and Czech to the Indian staff.  I used to meet him almost every week-end, for some very special Czech classes.  He was a regular reader of my HINDU essays, which he said he would take back home, for using as excellent texts in his English classes.  And he told me this article had accurately captured the image of a typical family doctor in Czechoslavakia. 

And of course, these reflections were very likely to have been valid almost anywhere in the world 5o years ago, when families everywhere were much larger than they are today, and specialists weren't as numerous as they are now.   But even in today's vastly altered social and medical  environment in India, the spirit of the traditional family doctor still survives to a limited extent, so far as very elderly patients are concerned.  Which is perhaps likely to be true anywhere else  in the world also!