By M.V.Ramakrishnan

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.

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