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Farrukh Dhondi

31.

Earlier this year the public attending the London Book Fair had the special privilege of listening to William Dalrymple, the distinguished moghul among Indian historical raconteurs, being questioned about and reading from his work.
Along with all the other pearls he scattered was an extract from one of his books about an encounter with a taxi driver (or was it a Sufi saint?) who asks him if he likes ‘bottom’. This puzzles Willy and he gives the importuning man an evasive answer, but the man persists. Is he trying to pick him up for a rumpy-pumpy encounter of the second kind? Not a bit of it. A few sniggers later all becomes clear. The man is a cricket fan and a particular admirer of Ian Botham, but his pronunciation is Indian and not of the best. It is, I suppose, a good enough joke and would keep a class of preparatory schoolboys in Ascot, or even perhaps a dinner party in southern New Delhi, laughing for several hours.
Indian accents and mispronunciations have kept both nations amused for a few centuries. The joy, I suppose, of Desani’s book about H. Hatter which, incidentally, I find impossible to get through, is the peculiar and supposedly babu construction of prose and perhaps of mind.
R.K.Narayan, on the other hand, produces scrupulously correct syntax and manages to convey ‘Indianness’ in the idiom as though the dialogue was a verbal avatar of the mentality. A rare gift which I think Kipling, before him, and for a gaggle of northern Indian characters, demonstrated.
On the question and employment of accents, the British of this generation have become very self-consciously liberal about their own. The TV and radio stations, since the great social revolution of the sixties, have progressively lifted the ban on regional accents and today the most outlandish syllables from corners of the realm can be heard on the snootiest of programmes. Together with this inclusiveness goes a sensitivity, born out of the same social revolutions to political correctness which becomes stricter as time goes on.
Recently a comedian was banned from the BBC for making what the corporation thought was a risky joke:
“A male gipsy moth can smell the presence of a female gipsy moth over a distance of seven miles! —– And it works even if you remove the word ‘moth’.”
The odour of Romany is something one can’t use in a joke whereas the accent and crooked speech of Indian taxi drivers are fair game. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood. I am not saying that Willy’s little joke about bottoms is as insulting to Indian taxi drivers (or Sufi saints) as the one about smell is to gypsies. I do think one is funnier than the other.
This sensitivity doesn’t yet extend to the British pronunciation of foreign names and words. If I didn’t have Iranian friends I would be very confused about how to say the name of the present supreme Ayatollah Khamenei.
If you listen to the radio today you hear very many verbal contortions of the supreme fellow’s monicker.  Some pronounce it with three syllables, simply replacing the ‘o’ of Khomeini with an ‘a’. Others go to five syllables, turning the end into ‘A-E-eeee’. Then there’s the struggle with the ‘Kh’ sound which always gave trouble in the Khyber.
The Brits still say ‘Gir’(as in ‘girl’) – ‘curs’ (as in dirty dogs) for Gurkhas. And the present Afghan war is the occasion for constantly labelling the Pathans ‘pay- thhunz’!
Perhaps I shouldn’t have named my youngest daughter Tir. Even her mother can’t pronounce it and in school she is always called ‘Tear’ or ‘Tia’. English speakers don’t have the soft ‘T’ and they can’t follow a consonant with ‘ir’ as we would when saying Pir, Tir, Mir or Fakir. They make it rhyme with ‘beer’:
There once was an old British Peer
Who couldn’t pronounce ‘Fakir’
So he had to keep stumm
When attending the Kumbh,
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!


 

32

Dr Michael Nazir-Ali has a mixed-up sort of name, like some fiction hero seeking to reconcile religions called   Robert Rahim Ram or Amar Akbar Anthony. If he was just Dr Nazir-Ali, he could pass as the leader of some Islamist cult in, say, Lebanon. He is not. He is, a little befuddlingly if you grasps the world through  stereotypes, the Church of England’s Bishop of Rochester. He was even tipped, before the last appointment was made, to be Archbishop of Canterbury.
He bwas born a Catholic in Pakistan, ‘converted’ to Anglicanism and rose in the Ministry through, his friends say, his powerful intellect and unerring faith. I can’t judge the strength of his faith, but a statement he made last week puts in slight doubt the modern status of his intellect.
A fter a big Gay Pride event in the UK, he famously said:  “The Bible’s teaching shows that marriage is between a man and a woman. That is the way to express our sexual nature. We welcome homosexuals, we don’t want to exclude people, but want them to repent and be changed.”
One knows what he means by ‘change’, but it is only in  the context of his orthodoxy that the word ‘repent’ can be understood. For what must gay people repent? To whom should they address such repentance?
Various ‘psychiatrists’, clinicians and charlatans alike have claimed that homosexuality, the proclivity to be sexually attracted to your own gender, can be ‘cured’.
I am convinced that the medical advisors of Michael Jackson believed that black people can be made white and they had a good go at it. That particular ‘repentance and change’ was a grotesque and parodic, beginning in mental aberration and ending in misery.
Yes, Michael Jackson did need to repent and change. He needed to repent for his conviction that a black skin and afro features are ugly and he needed to change his attitude to one of pride in what he was.
Nazir-Ali believes that people who are homosexual have in some sense transgressed the will of God. His Christian religion, its predecessor in the Old Testament and its successor among semitic religions have always construed a connection between faith and sex. The good doctor gives the game away somewhat when he argues against homosexuality from the point of view that it transgresses God’s will by going against the nature of man and woman. One can point out that any survey of any population of human beings will demonstrate that God created some people who are by nature and from a very young, even pre-pubic age, attracted to the same sex. Should they transgress against nature, defy the way God made them and obey Dr Nazir-Ali’s injunction to express regret for who they are and ‘change’?
Our difference of opinion stems from the fact that Dr  Nazir-Ali believes that straight man-woman sex is “the way to express our sexual nature.”
As every schoolboy knows, there are other ways of expressing one’s sexual nature and trial and error may even demonstrate that these don’t turn you blind.
There was a time in the sixties and seventies when a debate raged about human traits being nature or nurture. The angels and libertarians argued for nurture as the foundation of the belief that all human beings are conditioned by their environment, influences and family, consciously or sub-consciously to behave in one way or the other. It was an egalitarian doctrine that pretended that we could all be beautiful, clever and equal. It was applied by the liberals to sexual orientation which was believed to be the result of conditioning and therefore could be reversed or added to making everyone bi-sexual.
There is now enough evidence to demonstrate that homosexuality is not conditioning but as natural and genetic as Michael Jackson’s skin colour. Where does it leave Dr Nazir-Ali – and if bigoted Christians said he should repent and change his name would he?


33

In Pune where I grew up in the 50s and 60s, the poor boys went everywhere by bicycle: to school, college, the social tea shop, friends’ houses, on errands and to picnics in gangs to one or other of Shivaji’s forts. There was no competition in bicycling, no distinguishing pride in the make or price of our bikes. Each bicycle was to us as Silver was to the Lone Ranger – ‘Hi Yo’ and away!
Aspi Khambatta’s bike was a faded red frame without mudguards or brakes. He pedalled it at breakneck speed and stopped by scraping his shoe against the front wheel.
Our households each had several bicycles, some rusty relics which could be oiled and patched and brought back into service.
I once detached an old dynamo from one of these thinking it would save me the effort of carrying a torch.  The lamp, even an oil one in those days, was legally essential after dark and this lighting law was the chief  source of bribe-income for the local constabulary. I oiled the dynamo, attached it to my bike and wired it up. It didn’t work. I went to the Ahura Cycle Mart, our local bike-vet and appealed to fat Mr Irani to fix it. He held the dynamo, spun its moving gear and examined it this way and that.
“This dynamo needs lead,” he said.
“What do I do?” I asked
“Get a large sheet of lead, wrap the dynamo in it. Go to Bund Garden Bridge and throw it into the river,” he said,  handing the device back to me.
In Cambridge, UK, bicycles were de riguer. The University culture bred bicycle theft and taking one that you found unlocked was not considered a heinous crime against property but regarded as a misdemeanour to be tutted at and tolerated. I never stole any bikes but herewith testify, for the first time in print, that  I and Darryl D’monte my undergraduate contemporary and now distinguished eco-journalis, one drunken evening in celebration of the end of exams, requisitioned a few rusty bikes and threw them from a tall hump-backed bridge behind Trinity into the Cam for the devilment of hearing the splash. We ran away.
Since that time the status of the bicycle has been elevated. It is now the symbol of the new ecological Puritanism with a great deal of sanctimonious pomposity attached to it. It has become the badge of the ecologically superior. And with this bicyclist’s conviction of being the holiest riders on the planet comes an arrogance matched only by the Mumbai bus driver or the head-scarfed truck-driver on smack on the Indo-Gangetic highways.
Cyclists in the UK seem to have a duty to shout crass abuse at motorists and kick and dent cars to assert to the ether their caring attitude to the planet. One such posterior-opening-of-the-alimentary-canal, dressed in a ragged waistcoat and torn jeans hit out as I witnessed, with a metal instrument at car that overtook him on a London street, cracking the car’s rear window. The woman driver was too terrified to stop. Next, our hero climbed the pavement with his bike where I happened to be walking with a friend. I told him to get off the pavement in the same terms that he was using on the woman driver. He got off his bike, confronted me and spat in my face. I attempted to grab him by the collar but was restrained by my friend and passers by. He went his way and we went ours.
Last week I saw the same fellow on the TV news being rather viciously arrested by two policemen while he was aggressively demonstrating against some policy announcement of the Labour government. The cops dragged him to their meat wagon and though I was in this case politically on his side, I confess to a flutter of satisfaction in my wicked and vengeful heart. I may even have muttered ‘God is great’.


34

Shoes in the news! The Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi who, a year or so ago threw his shoes at President Bush  was released from prison this week and emerged to a hero’s welcome. He has served nine months of a three year sentence which was reduced on appeal as he had no previous convictions to one year and then again for good behaviour in jail.
The TV and internet footage of the shoe assault has been screened repeatedly. President Bush is sitting next to Iraq’s Prime Minister Mr Nouri al-Maliki on the podium when the shoes come flying at him, one after the other, from the aisle dividing the audience of reporters and photographers. Bush dodges both shoes by ducking in feints probably perfected on the baseball pitch, and the jhoothey fall harmlessly behind him. The assailant al-Zaidi is immediately seized by colleagues and carried away by security guards and the police.
He now alleges that he was tortured in prison, subject to electric shocks, water-boarding, repeated beatings and to guards putting out cigarettes on his forehead. As he emerged from prison he was greeted by large crowds and hundreds of offers of marriage, of money and of jobs as a presenter on TV networks. He has now gone to Greece for medical tests alleging that he was injected with unknown chemicals in jail and suffers constant headaches.
In the West a shoe would be just another missile, not as dangerous as a stone, brick, wooden baton or piece of metal, but as we well appreciate in India, the metaphorical disgrace of being assaulted with footwear exceeds any physical damage that a small arm-wielded missile might do. In addition al-Zaidi called Mr Bush a ‘dog’, which I am told in Iraq and in the Muslim world is a grave insult.
I have always wondered, as have others with whom I have compared notes, what sort of creature a ‘Schweinehundt’, the German abuse meaning ‘pig-dog, is. Is it some composite creature out of Wagner? So shouldn’t the pig, an equally or even more reviled creature than a dog in Muslim Zoologistics, be verbally paired with ‘dog’ (as in the German) to make an even stronger Iraqi abuse? I am tempted to copyright the Arabic translation of ‘pig-dog’ and rent it out to Iraqi abusers worldwide.
Now if Mr al-Zaidi were Indian, he would not only take up the offers of marriage and employment but I am sure he would be assailed by PR men and shoemakers to endorse  brands of shoes and could make a lot of money signing individual pairs. The original pair must even now be being auctioned by some unscrupulous Baghdadi policeman, just as the pens, prison slippers and other accessories and accoutrement of the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle who went to jail for their convictions have been sold to museums and other bidders.
In England there is another shoe story doing the rounds this week. The annual Conference of the Trades Union Congress has passed a resolution to compel employers to no longer insist that their female employees wear high heels. Air hostesses, receptionists and some shop assistants have been compelled to wear them by their employers and now the heroic proletarian battle for the flat shoe is on. In case you think this is a joke just consider the statistics provided by the shop steward of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, a Ms Lorraine Jones who said that 2 million working days are lost every year through lower limb and foot related problems because of high heels and the loss of these days costs the economy £300 million. Wowee!
I wonder if one of those absurdly tall high-heeled shoes, if flung at a politician, would spin and return to sender as a boomerang does. I think I shall wear high heels and go to one of Gordon Brown’s conferences posing as a DNA columnist.


35

Sitting to next to the grandson of a late great English writer, himself a writer, at a dinner party in Exmoor, I am asked if I am a practising Zoroastrian.
I say ‘not quite’ and am asked bout its ethics and metaphysics.
“Simple,” I reply, “Monotheism. The single God, Ahura Mazda in combat with Ahriman, the Lie. And three simple tenets: ‘Humata, Hukta, Huvareshta’ good thoughts, good words, good deeds, sometimes translated by the venal as good eggs, good fish, good meat!”
He is impressed. He tells me that he was even more impressed with the musical works of a Parsi composer called Kaikushru Sorabji who wrote an interminable piece for piano which was performed but once by a friend of his, the famous pianist John Ogdon. Mr Sorabji had arrived in England as a convert to Christianity but reverted to Zoroastrianism in later years.
Other part guests now joined in – being fed upof talking about Afghanistan and Gordon Brown and someone inevitably mentioned Zubin Mehta and then Freddie Mercury whose interpretation of our three tenets was probably somewhat different. Three Musical Parsis. (The title of my next opera!)
Grandson noted that Parsis were a tiny and dwindling minority in India but had influenced it in a disproportionate way.
“Like the Jews,”
“No, unlike the Jews,” said Grandson. “Parsis exude no sense of victimisation.”
“Quite right,” I say, “We eat what we like and so don’t feel sorry for ourselves. Pork, beef, no taboos. There was the news recently of a Parsi wedding serving vegetarian food. Which is like a Wordsworth poem with every reference to flora removed.”
Now the dinner guests in remote Exmoor, like those at the  feast attended by the Ancient Mariner, had never been to a Parsi wedding. They did not know of what I spoke and if I had said ‘Bheeda Pareeda’ or ‘Patra-ni-Machhi” they may have thought I was announcing the names of famous Parsi sopranos.
I was then pressed for a brief history of Parsis and rehearsed the glories of the Achaemenid Empire, overrun eventually by the Macedonian bandit, Alexander the Damned. I progressed to the Sassanians who were in the 7th century AD overthrown by Arab-Muslim occupation, which caused our ancestors to flee as refugees to India.
“I’d like to convert to Zorastrianism,” says Grandson.
“Feel free,” I say, “But we Parsis won’t accept you as one of us. You have to be born of a Parsi father to claim that distinction.”
“So no converts?”
“No. That’s why we are an endangered species. The silence will soon descend.”
A bit melodramatic, I grant you, but it had its effect. A silence descended as the gooseberry tart was being served.
“So you seem… er..content to die out?”
“Of course not,” I reply. “We have stuck to racial purity in the interests of keeping the relative wealth of the Parsi community within itself. The only concession we have made through the ages is allowing the progeny of Parsi fathers who have made children with non-Parsi servant girls to join the faith and fold.
“Now this is unfortunate as, for instance, my sister’s children, very beautiful human beings, can’t be included as their father was Hindu – not that it seems to bother them: they view Parsis and our ways with an amused tolerance. The in-breeding has diluted the gene-pool and we are sort of funny. And even if we resemble them we shouldn’t go the way of the Dodo!”
“So what’s to be done?”
“Well, we have vast pockets of invested wealth. The lands in Mumbai which contains the towers from which dead bodies are disposed by feeding them to the vultures, are a very expensive chunk of real estate. The vultures are dying out as they absorb Diclofenac through eating cattle carcasses. It’s a medicine for cattle but lethal to the   birds and has killed 95% of Indian vultures. We should dispose of the dead differently — after all the Zoroastrian Kings, Cyrus and Darius, are buried in tombs. The pan is we sell off the land and hold the proceeds in a Parsi Survival Fund. Then use the fund to import a quarter of a million volunteer women of child-bearing age from countries such as Russia, Romania and places from which adventurous or desperate women volunteer for lowly and questionable service in the Gulf and even come to India to join Bollywood dancing choruses and work in the sex trade. These young ladies would be given the status and life-style of memsahibs and be required to, with forms of easy social introduction, provide the next generation of Parsis. As Parsi Baby-mothers they would be pampered and pensioned as saviours of the race.
For an appropriate consideration I shall of course, with the help of discriminating friends, volunteer to audition this benevolent regiment of women. The operation, like surges in Afghanistan or Iraq would only need to be carried out once with determination.”
“I think I approve,” says the late great writer’s Grandson. Sorabovsky, Mehtanov or Mercurevich, anyone?


36

I have in a rare idle moment thought of standing for parliament, but the closest I ever got was standing outside it for half an hour in the rain today. Westminster buzzes with traffic all day and in the evenings, the two possible accessible pubs on the streets outside parliament, one just under the shadow of Big Ben when the sun is across the river at an angle, and the other on Whitehall next to the window from which Charles I merged to be executed, are very crowded. Anywhere else in England the TV sets on the walls of the pubs feature football or pop, but in the Red Lion, the TV is switched to the Parliament Channel which mostly features the empty green seats of the House of Common with some cove rabbitting on about the health-and-safety hazards of Santa Claus beards or some such compelling question.
I was not outside the House of Lords to take my place on the benches of peers of the realm. Her majesty has not yet recognised, or perhaps is reluctant to acknowledge, my noble qualities. I was standing in a queue to get into a poetry reading. This may sound odd, but this particular reading was being held in the House of Lords because the chief guest was Prince Hassan of Jordan and the meeting room had been booked by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Third World Solidarity – unlikely hosts for literature.
The queue had to pass through the sort of security checks in force at airports, only more thorough. The Mother of Parliaments is taking no chances.
The occasion was the launch of Islamic Mystical Poetry, Sufi Verse from the early Mystics to Rumi, a penguin book edited with translations by Mahmood Jamal. Launching it from the House of Lords seemed to be part of an obvious political ingredient to its publishing strategy.
Very many Lords and Ladies of the House and members of parliament from the Commons attended the crowded occasion. Prince Hassan spoke first, delivering an erudite speech about the historical strands of Islam.
Mahmood, a poet in his own right and an Islamic scholar, was introduced as the descendant of two Muslim Sufi ‘saints’ and missionaries. His ancestral home is the area of Lucknow known as ‘Firangi Mahal’ and the audience was told that the family came by this inheritance when Aurangzeb confiscated it from a British indigo trader and bestowed it in a firman upon them. Mahmood grew up there and a few years after partition was taken by his parents to East Pakistan and thence to Karachi and to study in London.
Mahmood talked about the purpose of writing such a book. He said he didn’t want to call it Sufi poetry, but deliberately used the word Islamic because today the ‘Islamics’, fundamentalists, Wahabis and terrorists, through their murderous actions and pronouncements, have created the impression that they represent the Abrahamic faith of Islam. Abd-al Bari, Mahmood’s grandfather, a respected scholar and Indian nationalist told Mahmood in his boyhood that the Wahabis were furthest from the truth of Islam.
Fuelled with oil money and political agendas from Saudi Arabia and Iran, the fundos have given the world the impression that they represent Muslims, Islam and its traditions, but like the crickets who make the most sound from the shelter of the grass, they are not the largest animals in the meadow. Mahmood claims that the Sufi tradition is the only authentic Islam and its inspirations will carry the faith forward. His collection of Sufi verse should go a very tiny way to spreading that certainty.
I am not competent to comment on the quality of the translation but the verses of poets from Rabia Basri (801 AD) to Mian Muhhamad Baksh (1907 AD) (the subtitle  which says ‘Early Mystics to Rumi’ is clearly wrong!) proclaim the mystical faith which is full of human questioning and doubt and completely bereft of the vulgar philosophical definitions and certainties of the murderous faith of the deviants.
I would stand in the rain for twice the time to hear it proclaimed.


37

There are 300,000 Muslims in Switzerland, a county which  passes laws by holding referendums of its adult population. It recently voted by 57% in such a referendum  to ban minarets on mosques.
No, don’t check that last sentence for spelling mistakes. It didn’t say ‘miniskirts with smocks’ it distinctly said ‘minarets on mosques’.
In the legislative history of Europe this may not seem all that odd. Britain still has an ancient law on its statute books which allows gentlemen to urinate out of the left hand door of a moving horse-drawn carriage. Since carriages in Britain drive on the left hand side of the road this would not cause any nuisance to the carriages of other gentlemen and ladies passing by on the right, but would merely inconvenience, startle with unwelcome sights and even splatter the passing pedestrian hoi-polloi who can’t afford carriages.
But these minarets? What does it mean? In other countries where some practice serious religious dogmatism they set Australian Christian missionaries and their families on fire in caravans; one sect of a religion invades and bombs or machine-guns the devotees of the other; holy places of unbelievers are demolished and their gold deities carried away as loot. But outlawing not whole mosques, not domes, not ugly green-painted buildings, not the practice of loud-speaker azaans, but minarets?
In my, admittedly inexpert, aesthetic judgement, the minarets I see in the urban landscapes of Europe are not in any way more garish or more obtrusive than some of the houses that municipal socialism builds for its working classes, or even some of the ostentatious architecture of the well-heeled. At the other extreme the Taj Mahal seems to me perfectly balanced by its four minars.
Which leads me to believe that this is not so much an aesthetic judgement on minarets as a symbolic gesture against the religion of Islam.
The debate that preceded this referred decision is evidence. Several feminist groups joined the debate with the public contention that Islam is a religion that doesn’t allow its women even the shadow of the freedoms enjoyed by Swiss female citizens. Other political groups recalled the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh for making a film critical of Islam and recalled the Danish cartoons incident.
With the growth of the Muslim population of Switzerland, mainly from Turkey, Bosnia and recently in very tiny numbers from Afghanistan and Iran, the Swiss population was expressing not its religious intolerance but an irrational fear.
France has made moves to ban the burkha and head-scarves in schools. This is said to be in the interests of the uniformity of secular education but the popularity of the measure is indicative of the wide-spread hostility to aspects of Islam. The same fear, the same disapproval, the same symbolic gesture. Banning head-scarves or minarets won’t alleviate the lot of oppressed females anywhere.
Is this then a general religious intolerance creeping through Europe? The countries with sizeable Hindu populations show no antipathy to them. Anti-semitism is the new leprosy. Friction exists between Catholics and Protestants in various states, but no one has begun the demolition of church spires.
No, the minaret ban is a cowardly and symbolic gesture of something deeper, something that the Swiss with their deep liberal and democratic traditions should admit to themselves and express clearly. The Turks, Bosnians, Afghan and Iranian Muslims in Switzerland are by definition anti-terrorists, in Europe for work as immigrants or as refugees from the terrors of religious bigotry.
What would such a migrant feel when the demolition squads come for the minarets of the mosque at which he worships? Isn’t the gesture likely to cultivate antagonism and hatred where there is as yet none? Wouldn’t the Swiss be better advised to integrate their Muslim population into their liberal democratic traditions and send their spies and police to detect, detain and deport the Islamist infiltrators who may be attempting to corrupt this population with un-Islamic doctrines and hatreds?


38

An American professor has researched the differential between the value people place on things that they are given as presents and things they buy themselves. This doesn’t include the chunky diamond ring or the vintage  Lamborghini that your sugar daddy might buy you for your birthday, becaue you wouldn’t afford them for yourself. He focuses on the clothes, shoes, luxury items, after-shave lotions and bath soaps you could buy and are inevitably given at Christmas.
The research concludes that, for instance, the self-bought sweater is at least 18% more satisfying to me than an equally expensive one bought for me by my sister or daughter. This 18% strikes me as uncannily precise but it is the lowest rung of the discount-in-value ladder. Some presents may carry a 99% devaluation tag.
Being convinced by the good Prof, I promptly resorted this Christmas to tell those who threaten to give me presents to rein in generosity and not buy me any ‘designer’ goods. I don’t like wearing labelled sweaters, shirts, jeans, trousers or anything else. I shy away from brand-identity marks in the form of an animal or the logo-ed initials of the designer on my chest or on my bum. If these designers want people to know that I am wearing one of their products in order to use me, and any allure I might have, as an advertisement for their goods, they’ll have to pay me – as they do Tiger Woods, say.
And as far as reciprocal gifts for my children are concerned, I ask them exactly what they want and take them along to the shop to choose it in the case of a fancy mobile phone handset. Or I simply follow the old Parsi joke which used to interpret the ‘RSVP’ on wedding invitations as “Rokri Sais Vadharey Pasand”, which in crude Parsi Gujarati means, as far as wedding gifts are concerned, “Loose cash much preferred.”
Brands are the most inconsequential snobbery of our age. The shirts made by ‘masterji’ in the local Indian tailor shop are just as fashionable and durable as the ones I have acquired from Emmett or Turnbull and Asser. Masterji nowadays also puts his name proudly on a label inside the collar of the shirt and that’s as indiscreet as I like it. The day he insists on embroidering the pocket with a bandicoot or other creature, I move tailors.
In the gestation of my animosity to ‘labels’ I have encountered the objection that labels mean reliable quality. I have frequently countered this with the boast that the average consumer would not be able to tell a good Chinese imitation from the branded label it has duplicated. I have tested my argument in the case of handbags and of jeans by offering the ‘asli’ one and the ‘naqli’ one to those of my children’s generation who insist on their ability to distinguish. The experiment has proved to be convincing by being neutral – the imitation was chosen as frequently as the ‘real’ thing.
Bigoted though I am, I am not a relativist in all things. When asked which one thing I learnt at University I may say that I learnt that one poem was better than another. What holds for poems doesn’t seem to hold for interpretations of music. Beethoven’s 7th conducted by Karajan can perhaps be distinguished from the same symphony recorded by an unknown Rumanian conductor, but I couldn’t for the life of me say which one was ‘better’. My son, a musician by trade, says that’s because I’m ignorant.
And then there’s wine — is a Sancerre ‘better’ than a New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon and could I tell it from our Indian Sula Sauvignon Blanc? (I could actually!- but will maintain that the Sula Sauvignon is the most drinkable Indian wine — and herewith declare that I have not been given so much as a paisa or a free drink for saying so – it’s an unbought critical comment.)


39
Just when you begin to believe that there is no God, the skies open and a thunderbolt  strikes you in the chest but keeps you alive to hear a pronouncement from the clouds saying “I am that I am, foolish mortal. Those who doubt shall suffer rout and this thunderbolt’s a mere warning, the next will be a boot where it hurts!”
That is of course just a way of speaking. What I meant was that just as I was beginning to believe the propaganda I read day after day for global warming, the coldest spell for fifty years hits England where I am — stranded  in  Dairy Cottage in a valley in Wiltshire, the home of  Vidia Naipaul where I was visiting for two days before waking up on the third with a foot of snow on the window sills, the valet around white and  the roads clogged to impassability.  The snows will get heavier, the roads will be more impassable, the airports and railway stations will freeze and cease operation and the only sound of traffic will be the beating of the fans of emergency ambulance helicopters winging their way to the sick.
We, which means I and Nadira (Lady Naipaul) only realised that there was a deluge coming when we went yesterday to a supermarket to pick up a packet of dumpling mix for the evening’s stew I offered to cook. The supermarket was being stormed as though it were the Bastille in 1789. The aisles were clogged with trolleys and yummy-mummies with their brats, The queues at the checkouts were more thronged than an Al Qaeda march in Bradford. And this was sleepy Salisbury!
So what was going on? The assistant at the checkout told us that there had been a two week snow alert  and  these good citizens from the outlying villages of Salisbury had flooded in to stock up on food in case they were snowed in and starved to death. “Stupid British panic,” said Nadira and we paid for our dumpling mix and a few bottles of cider and drove back to Dairy Cottage. The others it appeared, were stocking up for the siege of Stalingrad.
I was to be driven to the railway station the next morning to get on with life in London, but it was not to be. The snow fell even as we, oblivious, slept putting paid to this year’s global warming predictions. The polar bears would be walking off their floes and surveying their iced Arctic winter wonderland. Al Gore would be discussing prospects with his bank manager.
We woke up in Dairy Cottage and counted the bags of flour, rice, daal, the cans of sardines, the servings of frozen fish, cauliflower, corn, peas etc. in the freezer, the cartons of milk in the cupboards  and the wine in the cellar. We concluded as Robert Clive did that we could withstand a long freeze.
The last time I was thus stranded was in a flat in Lokhandwala in Mumbai some years ago when myself, two friends and my Nepalese-man-of-several-trades Ganesh, were gheraoed by the monsoon flood waters that followed two days of torrential rain. With no way out of the building or down the streets and no markets to go to we took an inventory of the number of chappaties we could make, the servings of daal and rice and the absolutely necessary supply of onions in the basket. The four days of the flood were passed in a heroic spirit of survival.
Only on switching on the TV did we see that the floods had caused fatal landslides and traffic disasters elsewhere in Mumbai and had been the occasion of real heroism, sacrifice, charity, concern for others and stoicism from the citizenry of the city.
I shall now turn on the British TV news and will no doubt find reports of the same tragedy and sacrifice here and now in the unexpected, unforgiving snow of Wiltshire. Then I shall twitter Al Gore.


40

Kraft Cheese is to buy Cadbury’s Chocolates for £11.9 billion, a sum that could rehabilitate a hundred Haitis. Growing up in Pune I had never heard of Haiti, but I certainly had heard of Kraft cheese and of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolates.
They weren’t in plentiful supply. India was then, under the tutelage of Pandit Nehru, who was building the  infra-structural base for capitalism under the guise of socialist development, austere in its consumption. Kraft cheese and Cadbury’s chocolates were not in the shops and could only be bought at a price from the ubiquitous smuggler — yes, even Poona had them.
The blue cylindrical tin with its plastic content was our definition of cheese. Of Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Brie or Camembert, we knew nothing. It always puzzled me that the rationed slices we would be given when the tin was opened and the cheese sliced in sectors, that it had no large and small holes, like the cheeses that the characters in American comics, Mickey Mice and such like, were in constant pursuit of.
To Poona, Kraft was cheese and a rich and idle Parsi lady of our town, protesting against its banning, set out to manufacture its equivalent in Poona. She sought the help of our impoverished Maths tutor, an after-hours practitioner who would rent out the benches on his veranda and in his front room and his vast library of past exam papers to college students to spend an hour (we went in shifts, like a factory) wrangling with the problems which he was expert at solving when we got stuck.
This gentleman, call him Mr P, was summoned by the rich lady to enter into a partnership and research the making of cheese. Mr P entered the partnership and through diligent research in the town’s libraries discovered that apart from milk cheese manufacture required characteristic strains of fungus and mixtures of stuff gt from animal’s stomach linings. His research must have made him aware that he was not about to make the smooth confection that came out of Kraft tins. These cheeses were different. Perhaps he neglected to tell the rich Parsi lady about this deviancy in manufacturing ambitions.
After much ado, the right strain of fungus was, through some ruse, imported and the cheese factory set up in the glass greenhouse shed of the rich lady’s spacious bungalow. The temperature in this greenhouse was ideal for cheese-making and soon Mr P, engrossed in his new enterprise, lost interest in his Rs 7-a-month maths pupils to whom his business board promised “cent-per-cent results”. The cheese manufacture which absorbed all his time was, he reported, reaching perfection.
And then one day it was ready. The samples were near perfect but nothing like the Kraft cheese from the blue tins. The rich Parsi lady’s friends, invited to taste the new product, were not at all happy. This wasn’t cheese at all — not in texture, not in taste.
They all, including their hostess, turned on poor Mr P who, having acquired some sophistication in his knowledge of cheeses protested that it was very close to a French Brie. To no avail. He was, after all his efforts, dismissed as an incompetent Kraftsman and when he fought back, using the foul language he used on his recalcitrant pupils, was told to get on his bike and go away.
The story of this injustice spread through the town. Mr P’s maths classes had fallen asunder, his pupils having sold out to rival tutors. He was ruined.
But Ahura Mazda is just. One night soon after, the Parsi lady’s several large dogs smashed through the glass of the greenhouse in pursuit of mice who were after the cheese. These large beasts, likes bulls in a china shop,   upset the vats, test tubes and stores of fungus. The fungus caught on to the hair and skin of the dogs who brought it into the house where it spread to the carpets, curtains and finally to the eyelashes, eyebrows and perhaps other parts of the human inhabitants of the house.
I returned to Mr P’s classes and was one of those who got ‘cent-per-cent results’.


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