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Farrukh Dhondi

 

41

I was twelve years old and was standing with a group of my friends on ‘Main Street’ in Pune (Poona, then) when a group of hijras crossed the road clapping with open palms and singing. One of them came up to me, kissed me on the forehead, caressed my cheeks and, smiling trough paan-stained teeth said “Kya cheez hein? Salim hein Salim!”
Then his entourage moved on and he did too, blowing kisses in my direction.
For a few days after I was referred to as ‘Salim’. Traumatic! What did the creature intend? In fact what was the creature? At twelve I knew something about sex and gender but none of my friends could quite explain whom or what we had encountered. Someone said they were half-man, half woman, but the mechanics of such a state were left to the imagination.
A teacher, professing to discuss sex in a ‘GK’ (General Knowledge) class displayed a mystifying ignorance when asked the question and sarcastically urged me to find out by paying one some money and asking him to raise his saree. The class was more amused than curious and the moment passed.
An older fellow of our circle who prided himself on having a vast vocabulary announced that these were ‘hermaphrodites’, a challenge to go to the nearest dictionary. Not terribly enlightening.
Then, as one’s acquaintance with Indian history and Western culture grew, I read about ‘eunuchs’ in the courts and in the choirs of the western nobility and I was clear then that these were young boys, castratti, whose testicles had been removed to ensue that ther voices remained shrill. The function of men without testicles in harems seemed clear – they couldn’t sample the commodities they were in charge of – and yet the question of whether men without testicles could have childless sex lingered.
On coming to the West I noticed, amongst other things of course, that there were no hijras. Was it a condition peculiar to Indian genes?
These memories and thoughts are occasioned by the panels of photographs of hijras in a current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery of 150 years of ‘Indian’ photography. Among the Maharajas, the tombs and palaces, fauna, flora and street scenes, there are the obligatory photographs of hijras. Come to think of it, I have never seen an anthology of Indian photographs without portraits of Indian prostitutes with the hardened features that are supposedly symptoms of their trade, or of hijras. These would seem to be photographic obsessions.
The labelling of hijras in the present exhibition has been updated from ‘eunuchs’, ‘hermaphrodites’ and ‘transvestites’ to ‘lady-boys’, the word for male prostitutes of the Far East who dress and make-up as women.
Years ago, fuelled or haunted by the residual curiosity of the ‘Salim’ encounter, I asked a surgeon friend about the anatomy of hijras. He told me that they should technically be called ‘cryptorchids’. They are in fact born as males with a penis and a scrotum for testicles, but owing to a quirk of bone structure or some error of handling, their testicles are confined to within their bones and don’t fall through to the sac. This goes unnoticed by mothers and carers who are ignorant or negligent. The nascent testicles get crushed within the bone frame as the boy grows and at puberty when the body begins to generate hormones a confusion sets in. The cryptorchid’s body produces both female and male chemicals resulting in the growth of secondary sexual features of both genders. So the hijra grows breasts, wide hips and also has facial hair, a gruff voice and other male features. The penis remains that of a child.
In the West, with more develop health services, the parents, midwives or doctors notice the abnormality which can be dealt with easily in childhood and the testicles freed to result in ordinary male growth.
Our hijras should stop being a matter of photographic interest or pride and should be seen, not in their individual selves, but as a phenomenon, as the shame or shortcoming of our community development.


42

Revenge, they say, is a dish best eaten cold. I can’t remember being very vengeful in my boyhood or even later. It’s not that I am particularly good-natured and feel strongly about turning the other cheek, it’s just that I can’ be bothered. Laziness succeeds all rage and if I can disguise it as Christian forgiveness that’s so far so hypocritical and good!
I think the worst revenge I ever took in my boyhood was when along with some friends, I was sitting on the steps under the padlocked door of P.S.Chindy, Sandalwood Merchants, very late at night. We were making a racket as teenagers do at the corners of deserted Pune streets and the neighbour, objecting to our noise, opened his woden shutters on the first floor and poured a few buckets of water on us in a dissuading gesture from above.  It was, we felt, a disproportionate assault. To be fair to him, he had warned us once to clear off and let him and his household sleep, but we were young and careless and, yes, inconsiderate. Looking back on it, we deserved the soaking, but of course resented it at the time.
Then came the month of Muharram. We lived in a religiously and regionally mixed neighbourhood – Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Satanists – even a Chinese family! The Muslim criers with oil lamps would patrol the streets in the dark hours of the morning and knock on the doors of the faithful and observant with religious cries to wake them for the nocturnal meal before they undertook their daytime fast. The neighbour of the buckets was a staunch Zoroastrian, but hanging around the street corner at night as usual, we accosted one of the religious criers and commissioned him with the offer of the appropriate fee to wake up that particular household at 4am each morning with cries of observance to the Muslim faithful and the ringing of bells outside the Parsi’s door.
It was a sweet revenge with a dimension of spiritual outrage thrown in. The expletives that were uttered that morning and echoed around the neighbourhood were worthy of being recorded in my Dictionary of Exclusive and Unusual Parsi Abuse.
I think the only other memorable revenge I took was when in school I was eating precious pineapple out of a can and a covetous classmate, pretending to look in the can, spat in it so that I would be put off eating it and would sell it to him cheap. I pretended to forgive the scallywag and offered him, on a subsequent occasion, one of two bottles of Vimto which I flourished before him to make him covet. The one I handed to him was filled with Potassium Permanganate solution which looked convincing but made him vomit when he gratefully took a substantial swig of it.
These confessions have I made against the final judgement and hope in some small measure to be forgiven for.
A generation later the world, I feel, has turned more vengeful. My daughter, Tir is just 16 and her school was last week rocked by a scandal. A girl in the year below hers, aged 14 or 15, sent naked and obscene photographs of herself to her then boyfriend from her mobile phone. The girl was reputedly a bad one and was unpopular in school because she was suspected of having stolen make-up etc. belonging to classmates. The romance with her boyfriend ended and some girls who bore the poor thieving child a deep and irrational enmity persuaded the x-boyfriend to part with the dirty pictures. They printed thousands of copies of them on the photocopier and distributed them around the school and placed them on benches in the town centre for the general public to see.
In another incident, boys who disliked a classmate photographed him on their mobiles and superimposed his face onto pornographic photographs of men having sex and planted them on one of these public friendship internet websites.
I record these incidents purely to point out that technology has horrifyingly advanced the means of petty revenge – and not in any way to give Indian readers new ideas of how it can be done. I presume those who use the technology are aware of its capabilities in any case.


43

East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, said Rudyard – though he did go on in the same verse to insist that all longitudinous divisions disappear when two strong men from opposite ends of the earth, stand face to face. Clear testimony then, that Kipling believed that strength of character and moral qualities, rather than race, defined the man. The same conviction comes through the undeservedly infamous Gunga Din, who is, in the final lines of the poem, acknowledged, despite the disparity of rank between the narrator and the bhisti, as a superior being:
“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
There are good arguments for not turning ’Kipling’s House’ in Mumbai into a Rudyard Kipling museum, but characterising Kipling, one of the most subtle writers in the language, as an anti-Indian ‘racist’ is not one of them. I am sure the diligent reader/researcher can find sentences and phrases in Kipling’s work which elide in meaning from being proudly imperialist to some slur against ‘race’. He does refer to ‘Lesser breeds without the Law’(“Ho Ho!” as a fried of mine says) and in the great allegory of the Jungle Books are featured the chattering Bandar Log, the monkey folk who live without the disciplines of the wolf pack. But all of it, abuse and allegory weighed within his entire sensibility, can be seen as a worship of order, discipline, truth and Christian virtue without too much turning of the other cheek rather than reprehensible, rank racism.
Yes, there are arguments for not having a museum dedicated to Rudyard Kipling in the dilapidated and soon- to-be-renewed-house in Mumbai. That India has nothing and no one from its British colonial past to celebrate is, again, not one of them.
In my boyhood there was a great move to remove the statues of the Raj, of Kings, Queens (just The One actually), Viceroys and Generals who could boast of some cruel conquest of Indian territory,  that stood in our town squares and replace them with figures of national importance and pride. It was well and publicly done, though never with the symbolic rejoicing and hubris which accompanied the toppling of Sadaam Hussein’s colossus in Baghdad, or the tearing down of Stalin’s statues in Prague and Budapest (I presume this happened in the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution and know that it happened after the wall which divided Berlin fell).
Statues are and always have been important in a country in which deity has been, for thousands of years, depicted in statuesque form.
Museums, the preservation of the archaeological past, the respect for civilisations that once flourished on our soil and are now one with Nineveh and Tyre, are, if we are to be honest, the bequest of the British Raj. There is no evidence that the Muslim and Mughal rulers went out of their way to preserve, revere and put on respected public display the works of the Hindu and Buddhist past.
The political considerations that allow the Muslim and Mughal heritage of the country to fall into disuetude is also a disgrace. Yes the Taj and Humayun’s tomb are, largely through the funding and agency of international foundations, well preserved. But what of the heritage of Sufi Delhi, of the badly preserved dwellings, tombs and work of Amir Khusrau or Mirza Ghalib whose relics one has to wade through slums to get to?
The Kipling house in Mumbai is to be turned into a gallery of contemporary art. Fair enough. Rudyard Kipling may have been born there and lived there till he was four. The fact should be commemorated on the site. He didn’t write anything there though the impulse to observe and to narrate must have begun then. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, an artist and a Principal of Mumbai’s celebrated JJ school of Art did live and work there and his memory and legacy should certainly be pronounced and celebrated at least in part of the new museum.


44

I have been asked by the Anglophone cultural studies post graduate department of a German University to talk about Bombay.
In the past I have lectured there on critiques of and comparisons between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and V.S.Naipaul’s A bend in the River. Last year they  asked me to do a six seminar stint over three weeks on the Mahabharat. Now the department has come up with ‘Bombay’. (I think they find they can afford me).
I struggled for a few days to define or to narrow down an interesting way into the myriad possibilities within this universe of discourse. The first ideas that came to mind were the obvious – a session on geography and then history – on the controversy over the name  — does it come from the Portuguese bom baya or from the island whose patron goddess was Mumba Devi; on the transfer of the islands from the Portuguese to the British as a dowry for Charles II. Then one could go into the development of the city to the present day and do a quick sociological sketch and…..
Idea abandoned. Not gripping enough. Why would the poor post-grads want to sit through that, however cinematic my presentation?
No. Next. Start perhaps with a personal sketch, a confession that I am really a Pune boy and how the metropolis on the sweaty coast gripped my imagination. It was where my grandparents lived in a building called Dhondy Terrace, no less. Trips to Bombay: Walks with my grandpa in the zoo in what was then Victoria Gardens, plucking flowers there and living in terror for days when my cousin told me that the police would take me away for theft; all day picnics, by buses with lettered routes, on Juhu beach which was then out in the undeveloped suburbs and the dread and loathing I felt when introduced at the age of eight by a classmate to nightmare photographs of the ‘cages’ of Kamatipura, the red light district and told what the masked women did for a living – a damaging introduction to the idea of sex if ever there was one (have I suffered as a consequence in later life? See my personal page on FACELIFT.com).
But then I thought I should save all that for a work of confessional fiction – which could include the time I was, aged 9, fingered by a pervert in the 10 anna seats in Eros cinema while being completely engrossed in a film called The Wings of the Hawk, too terrified to protest when he put his hand up my shorts.
The personal stories will inevitably come into it, but I think I have an idea which will make the post-grads sign up in droves:
Take three public incidents, outline them dramatically and then delve into an analysis of what it all means.
First incident — My Name is Khan and the Shahrukh vs Bal Thakeray controversy– a battle of the titans. That brings in Bollywood (yes, I will show them ten films and Slumdog when I feel lazy) and the politics of the city and includes a discussion of the Sena’s stances and policies. It also includes the fact that Shah Rukh means ‘Royal face’ (I know because Far-rukh means ‘angel face’ – those sniggerers at the back  please leave the class!)
Then the second week we shall tackle Terrorism and the Taj, Oberoi, the attack on the railway station and the Jewish centre at Nariman House. The history of the buildings, stories of Indian capitalism and of the Tatas and Oberois can all be incorporated.
My third incident will cover the first meeting at the Bombay branch of the Indian National Congress between Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It will lead from formative history to Bombay in contemporary literature – Salman, Suketu Mehta and the poems of Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolhatkar, Nissim Ezekiel and more.
I shall also propose that Mumbai be declared a state of the Indian Union with a dispensation to appoint ambassadors at appropriate salaries to Germany and other countries.


45

A friend sends me an e-mail with a picture of Rabby Tagore and of our national flag. The caption says UNESCO has declared the Indian national Anthem to be the world’s most beautiful. I expect the newspapers of India and possibly some neighbours picked up the story , but in England it’s pure e-mail material, junk mail in a cause exhorting Indians to be proud. Well, yes! I suppose one should allow a little bit of the pre-lapsarian emotion in, but with caveats and reservations.
The first being that one can rarely trust political organisations to be judges of beauty. If one looks at municipal sculpture, the works commissioned by city councils and the like to adorn the world’s urbanscapes, you get a clear idea of why one should be sceptical.
The critical judgement of those who attain high political office is also mostly questionable. I read somewhere that three Presidents of the United States admitted that J.D.Salinger was their favourite writer – i could rest my case. And what of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s extreme literary judgement on our genius Salman? I supposed at the time the fatwa was pronounced that the ‘Tollah had been reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which the mob pursues the wrong Cinna who then protests that he is not Cinna the Conspirator but Cinna the Poet and the mob shouts “kill him for his bad verses!”  The first literary-capital fatwa and that too recorded by Shakespeare??
UNESCO’s extra-political judgements have been suspect since the day at breakfast in the hill top hotel of Neemrana outside Delhi where I had been invited for a literary conference, Tarun Tejpal read to the assembled eaters an extract from the daily papers which said that UNESCO had composed a graded list of the ‘happiest’ countries in the world. Tarun asked us which country he thought came second on the list. The guesses ranged from Sweden and the USA to Papua New Guinea. The real answer, as revealed to the mistaken and subsequently incredulous, was ‘Bangladesh’!
The article didn’t say how UNESCO had arrived at this conclusion. Bangladesh had, in recent years been hit by floods and had suffered drought and food shortages but somebody sitting in Zurich had added up points on a bizarre statistical index and pronounced them happy.
Beauty is, on balance, a less arbitrary quality than happiness which is by definition subjective; whereas beauty has always been known to belong in the eye, or in this case the ear and mind of the beholder/listener.
Malcolm Sargent, the conductor of the London Symphony was rehearsing the Indian national anthem for some state occasion and remarked that the piece had the most unusual and disconcerting cadence at the end. It goes “Jaya, jaya, jaya, jaya hey!” with the last two notes being the third and fourth of the major scale: ‘mi-fa’ in Western nomenclature, ‘ga – ma’ in the Indian.
Until Sir Malcolm pointed it out, I hadn’t realised why several of my generation of schoolchildren persisted in singing an extra phrase after the ‘jaya-hey’ climax. The phrase “Bharat Bhagya Vidhata” belonged to the original composition but had been cut out when it was adopted as the anthem. And yet whenever the anthem was sung, a number of voices would inevitably, after the last note was supposed to have carried the melody to this inconclusive height, sing “Bha…” as a start to the expunged phrase. On occasion it made for disrespectful merriment.
Turning to the words, which will not have eluded Islamabad and Karachi, is that our national anthem, in preservation of the integrity of Tagore’s verse, still claims Sind as part of India. If one is philosophical rather than territorial about anthems and views the inclusion of Sind as representing the numerous and valuable Sindhi population of India rather than a piece of soil, it is supremely legitimate. It could of course be seen by the unbending, pedantic and hopelessly literal as an act of aggression. But let that pass – the Dhondy family motto: the intelligent must make concessions.


46

A young Indian, 23, and his Indian girlfriend, 20, drag their worldly possessions, two rucksacks around the streets of Earls Court and Notting Hill looking at shop notice boards, scribbling numbers and addresses, locating streets in a ragged AtoZ, counting coins for the public phone, making the calls and shuffling to the next notice board with a shrug. The late sixties and we are looking for a room to rent in London’s bed-sitter land advertised as vacant. The accent, the name and finally our faces and complexions spell refusal. No room at the inn.
“Sorry darlin’, it’s gone,” the landlady says at the street door. The more imaginative say “Sure! Twenty pounds a week” knowing that anything above three will drive the blacks and browns away. The more sympathetic confess: “Look it’s not me, but the other lodgers object to sharing bathrooms and toilets with….you know what I mean.”
Eventually someone rents you a room, but even then there is the chance that they will ask you for a marriage certificate before they have you sleeping together under their roof. So also in hotels around Europe, giving rise to an additional anxiety or barrier against travel. One either adopted a Bohemian, defiant, free-love advocate’s air or devised some subterfuge about having just lost the second passport.
All that is history. Unless a hotel reception desk or a landlord suspects that a known prostitute is plying her trade and using the place as a knocking shop, there are no questions asked. The stigma of being ‘free lovers’ without the sanction of church, Kazi, Brahmin or state, no longer exists.
As for being off-white, there are now pretty tough laws against denying anyone a room or a service on the grounds of race. No one does it openly in Britain, though there are those who might ask “Now that we have the recipe book for curries, why do we allow them to stay?”
So when Chris Grayling, the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Home Affairs said that he thought it excusable for an elderly Christian couple who owned a Bed-and-Breakfast establishment to turn away a male gay couple seeking a room for a night, a storm in a soup bowl ensued. The law, strictly applied, would characterise the action of the B&B couple as discrimination on the grounds of sex and would penalise them. Perhaps I should explain what a B&B is: rooms in one’s own house rented out as in a hotel with breakfast supplied, probably in one’s own kitchen or dining room.
The Christian couple excused their refusal on the grounds of their religion which they were convinced disapproved of gay sex, so they wouldn’t wilfully condone sinning in a bed they supplied. Grayling wouldn’t have taken the line of legal leniency if the discrimination  had been racial rather than sexual, and he daren’t support anyone who demanded a marriage certificate before admitting you into a hotel because that would lose the Conservative party half the votes of Britain.
Leaving aside the fact that not one of my gay friends would want to stay a night in a B&B with owners who held such views, I am convinced that the Christian couple are on weak theological ground. Jesus himself said nothing about sexual morality and made no sexual prescription or proscription. He definitely did say render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.
I have always regarded sex, as Marx and Lenin are my witnesses, as belonging firmly in the realm of Caesar and therefore subject to etiquettes of courtship and chat-up and also to earthly human-made laws of rape, marriage, age-limits, mono or poly as the social mores determine and of course protection against sexual discrimination. Religions have made the mistake of annexing sex to the realm of Godliness and invented all manner of stories about apples, virgins and vows. I think they should take Jesus of Nazareth’s advice and render the whole bang shoot back to Caesar.


47

Cell No. 743
Cyber-offenders Wing
Her Majesty’s Prison
The Isle of Wight,
UK.

Dear Friends,
I was to go to Germany last week to speak at a University but, with millions of others, was prevented from travelling by the twin disasters of the explosion of volcanic ash over Europe’s airspace and a French railway strike which prevented one travelling beyond Calais — if of course one could get to that place across a very booked up English Channel.
One takes these little hitches in life with equanimity. I personally console myself that the plight of others, stuck in Rawalpindi, for instance and unable to take any flight except one to Lagos and take one’s chances by boat, after paying twenty thousand pounds to the non-existent shipping company… etc. is infinitely worse than mine. One counts one’s blessings or remembers the proverbic parable my great grandmother, Gulman Sacherbai Subprimewalla, taught me at her knee:
“I cried because I had no shoes
Then I saw a man with Jimmy Choos…. “
or something like that, I don’t recall it exactly.
In times of tribulation and the danger of falling into self-pity and potential envy, repeated as a mantra, it was always a great consolation.
Apart from this mantra I found that the best way to ward off the blues occasioned by the forced postponements in my professional timetable was to run a lucrative competition, related to the volcanic disaster, on the Internet. With the help of an Icelandic friend I devised a web page which challenged anyone stranded by the volcanic eruption anywhere in the world – imposters had to be carefully weeded out through the use of verifiable passport numbers – to enter the extremely simple competition for a small fee and take away a huge prize if they won.
The competition couldn’t have been simpler. Contestants, using their computer microphones and Skype cameras had to correctly pronounce the name of the volcano that had erupted in Iceland and caused the closure of European and even African airports.
The word, the elusive name of this mischievous volcano, as the world knows, but hasn’t yet successfully pronounced is ‘EYJAFJALLAJOEKULL’. The competition, my website announced, would be judged by a scientific voice-comparison of each competitor’s offering with the authentic Icelandic pronunciation of the word. Winners were promised huge rewards for a very small stake.
What my website didn’t reveal to potential competitors was that just as Eskimos have a thousand words for snow and each of these has its own unique pronunciation, and just as there are a thousand-and-one names for God and no human can authoritatively say that ‘Yaveh’ or ‘Allah’ is a better way to address the almighty than ‘Ahura Mazda’, ‘Jehova’, ‘Our Father’ or ‘Ishwar’, so Eyjafjallajoekull has as many pronunciations as there are people in Iceland. There is no one unique pronunciation as there is with ‘Chimborazo’ and ‘Cotopaxi’— and there’s the rub!
I was not to know that under British law, while it is completely accepted that bookies deprive punters of millions of pounds a week through betting on horse races, dog races and the results football matches; and while the government itself runs a number lottery with a billion-to-one odds stacked against entrants, it is illegal to formulate an unwinnable competition. So, for instance, I can with impunity and complete freedom ensured by the constitutional right to free speech, ask the next man (or woman)”which came first, the chicken or the egg?” or “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” – but I can’t charge them money to attempt to solve these riddles.
The Cyber Branch of Scotland Yard have recently recruited a lot of illegal Banglorean IT-walla immigrants and has thus become super efficient.
The food is not bad here, one can’t complain when one thinks of people starving elsewhere. But, my friends, UK lawyers are very expensive and so if any reader can see his or her way to contribute to the legal expenses entailed in proving my innocence they should send all contributions to: PO Box number 420, Lagos, Nigeria.
God bless you,
fd


48

Spring is upon us in the UK and soon it will be summer –in this era of global cooling the sunny, cloudy, rainy, gloomy and snowy days follow no strict pattern. Or perhaps the sceptr’d isle was always thus buffeted. The monsoon has come on time to Mumbai, lashing the coconut coast and that Dilli and the Indo Gangetic plain are parched in heat. The rich will head for the hills and for London.
Yes, the quality of the Indian summer invasion of England has altered. It is an age removed from the days when my distant relatives Russi Immoralearningswalla would enquire only after the availability of my mattresses on my bedsitter floor and eat bread and cheese or canned sardines for sustenance. Lately my more fashionable and rich relatives, Bapsi and Tehmul Subprimewalla turn up and only bother to p[hone when they want to know which Indian restaurant they should take their poff-shore banker friends to.
I am not very good at such recommendation, though some years ago I was, as were a posse of Londoner Indians who write or are known for some other idle occupation, asked by The Sunday Times to choose my favourite Indian restaurant. Why would I eat there? Other participants named the usual suspects, excellent restaurants in their own way with stylish service and some boasting celebrated Indian chefs.
Out of characteristic honesty, I named the Lahore Kebab House in the East End. The journal had never heard of the place and for that matter, Rashid, the then proprietor of the LKH had never heard of The Sunday Times. Not many beyond the East End Asian community knew the place which had two tables and mostly sold its seekh kebabs, lamb chops and channa to those who wanted to take them away. It was authentic Lahori food, untainted by any wish to serve the British palate the ‘nakli’ chicken ‘tikka massala’, ‘lamb madras’ and even ‘dhan sakh’ that the mostly Bangladeshi ‘Indian’ restaurants of Britain offer. (This last dish, this parody of dhan sakh, would have my Parsi ancestors turning in  their graves; an activity they are spared by virtue of the fact that they are not buried in graves but fed to the vultures – and having long been decimated, digested and expunged, turn now only in the cycle of nature.)
The other reason I chose the LKH is because as good Muslims they don’t sell alcohol but as good businessmen don’t   discourage their clients from brining their own. Buying your own booze, ordered from your favourite chateau in Bordeaux or picked up from the local supermarket, dodges the exorbitant ‘mark-ups’ on wine lists through which restaurants boost their profits. A six pound wine becomes a twenty pound one, a twenty five pound wine becomes a seventy eighter.
The Sunday times duly invited me to be photographed in the joint and sent their cameras and reporters down. There was grand consternation and disruption in the narrow precincts of Umberstone Street that morning and even some resentment at my temerity in inviting this interruption to lunch time trade.
That Sunday the article was published along with my photograph  as were the articles of the real celebrities with their choices of the famous eateries of the town.
On Tuesday I got an excited call from one of the owners of the LKH, one with whom I used to swap gossip.
“Farrukh sahab, what the hell have you done? There’s a queue of white people round two blocks trying to get into the place and I only have two tables. There’ll be a riot. Police are patrolling.”
“It’s called free PR, get some more tables,” I said.
He did. That was then. Today the Lahore Kebab House has umpteen branches all over Britain. It has become more noisy and though they’ve added to the menu the food’s just as authentic and you can still carry your own wine.
(Editor’s note: The writer is not in the employ of the fossil fuel lobby which supplies the coal for tandoors and barbecues. Neither were any animals injured in the writing of this column – though some were undoubtedly killed before being turned into kebabs.)


49

Before May 6th and the general election i9n Britain, the  bookies offered odds on “who would be prime Minister after the election”. Most punters would have bet on David Cameron, some on Nick Clegg and the awkward squad would have put their money on Gordon Brown, the outsider. As it happened, the election resulted in a hung parliament and for four or five days after deals were being struck to form a coalition. In these days “after the election” Gordon Brown remained, in every technical and constitutional sense still the Prime Minister. The hung parliament had produced a solution which had wrong-footed the bookies. What they intended was for the punters to put money on the final solution. Now one at least of the awkward squad who betted on Gordon Brown to “be Prime Minister after the election” is taking his bookie to court claiming that he won his bet on a technicality. My wager is he’ll lose.
There may be others who want to sue the bookies for misleading advertising. But real advertisers, unlike bookies, are canny and have resorted on occasion  to slogans such as  their lager “refreshes the parts that other lagers do not reach.” Beauty and double meanings are, as they say, in the eye and mind of the beholder. One man’s refreshed part is another man’s beer belly.
The ads for lagers are intended and taken as a joke. Not so those for non-prescription drugs and financial services. These are always followed by the annoying phrase “terms and conditions must apply.”
And I Tiresias, who have fore-suffered all, can recollect that once in my raw youth I was taken in by an advertisement which did not at the time tell me that terms or conditions would apply.
At the age of eleven or twelve, I used to regularly listen with millions of other Indians to the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon. At this pre-pubescent age I had begun to wear cotton underwear below my shorts or ‘long-pants’ as we called them. These ‘chuddies’ were, naturally, worn once and sent off to the dhobi.
In the course of this use and change of garments I contracted a very nasty itch in my groin, one I have subsequently been told was a fungoid infection called dhobi’s itch.
It was almost more confusing than it was painful and irritating. I was just conscious of sex in all its sordid glory and the itch in a very private place conjured up all manner of undeserved guilt.
The solution was at hand. The Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon interrupted its Hindi and English Hit Parade programmes with advertisements for ‘Nixoderm’. It exhorted one to “buy it from your chemist today. Guaranteed to end all skin troubles or money back!”
Here was the answer. I took my pocket-money savings and bought a little green tin of the stuff. I waited till my aunts, my guardians, were asleep and applied the stuff in the euphoric feeling that salvation was at hand.
It wasn’t. Applied to the inflamed skin of my upper thigh, Nixoderm was the very substance of the eternal bonfire. Boss, it burnt my goodness away. I was stamping the floor with pain and rushed to the refrigerator for ice. No washing, no soap, no amount of water could sweeten that poor crotch. I must have fallen asleep with the exhaustion of pain.
The next day it was evident that it had done me no good and possibly a great deal of harm. I had used my precious savings on this cure. The advertisement came to mind. I took the accursed little green tin back to the chemist and found the counter attended by a young Gujarati lady.
How could I put my claim for my money back to her? I would have to explain how I had found Nixoderm’s guarantee to have failed. I pretended I had come in for a cheap packet of aspirin. The little green tin stayed gripped in my hand inside my pocket and I threw it in the rain-drain on my painful way home. Terms and conditions must have applied.


50

Two very elegant airhostesses, with whom I was passing the time in a Mumbai flat challenged me to a game of Scrabble. The challenge appealed to me as though David, not knowing that Goliath had swallowed his sling while he was not looking, had boastfully asked the giant to engage in mortal combat. Here was I, a writer of sorts, with some conceit of knowing his way around spellings and English vocabulary, being asked by mere air hostesses, creatures of charm and indefatigable dispensing energy though they were, to battle on my home ground.
The board was brought out, the counters distributed and, unexpectedly, a tome entitled The Scrabble Dictionary was placed menacingly next to me on the carpet where I sat cross-legged waiting to put David’s pathetic armies to flight or, if the metaphor makes more sense, to snatch kulfi from these two lexical infants.
Scrabble is only partly a game of luck – getting six ‘X’s on your rack would be a bummer. It became rapidly clear that it is also a game of skill, practice and the ability to remember words that don’t exist outside the wretched Scrabble Dictionary.
Conceit comes before a fall. Dear reader, I was roundly thrashed. The two young ladies began doubling and tripling their word scores, surveying the board and measuring semantic possibilities as Buonaparte might have surveyed a battlefield. The score sheet was spattered with the blood of my ego. Was ‘Xxilbzk’ really a word? They frequently resorted to their bible to overrule my mocking objections. They knew all the words in it.
Conceding defeat, I asked them how they got so good. The time between flying to distant destinations and cities was devoted, owing to the lassitude that overcame them through hard work on the flights, to remaining in their flats or hotel rooms and playing this game.
One imagines, or at least I did, that Air Hostesses have a jolly old time, being invited by chancing or lonely millionaires onto their yachts or to casinos and the opera; that they see the sights of distant cities and become polyglot princesses, ordering caviar in Russian and knowledgeably perusing wine lists in mountain retreats on the Amalfi coast. No! They become experts at Scrabble biding their moment, waiting for the opportunity to humiliate the unsuspecting who fancy themselves as wordsmiths. It was a parable. Sex workers, for example, may not prove to be the best lovers.
The moot question is whether this expertise is particular to Indian air hostesses, which my opponents were, or whether it is a general accomplishment of all of them regardless of caste creed or nationality. I suspect that a real prowess at exploiting this dictionary is restricted to the relatively senior air hostesses of the English speaking nations. No doubt the swan-riding hostesses of Lufthansa are experts at the Deutsche version of the game, but what concerns me here is not a competitive assessment of their skills, but nothing less than the linguistic destiny of the world!
Allow me to explain. When in the nineteenth century Bismark, the unifier of German speaking people was asked what the most important influence his century would exert on the next, he said “that fact that America speaks English”.
And now Cambridge University linguists tell us that in a hundred years English will be even more widespread and its dominant world form will be Indian!
I am sure Indian English won’t be represented by the sign-painters who get apostrophes wrong and torture spellings, or even by our journalists addicted to ‘miscreants’ and ‘abscondings’. The group I would nominate as custodians of the verbal flame are of course… but you know the answer. And if the Cambridge linguists prediction is true and retired air hostesses are recruited by New Delhi to the Super Commissariat for Reformation And Bequeathing of Babu Lexical English (SCRABBLE), we shall all be greeting each other not with “are you good?” but “Xxilbzk”.


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