A date with Audrey

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

RECENTLY a news report revealed that Audrey Hepburn’s memorabilia went for $6.2 million at a recent London auction. To my generation, Audrey Hepburn was synonymous with the Hollywood film, Roman Holiday, not just because it was a box-office hit, but it ushered a paradigm shift in the genera of entertainment movies. Here was Audrey, who, with her untamed vivaciousness, innocence, impish smile, boyish hair and exquisitely tailored trousers and shirts (as opposed to pleated skirts and frilly blouses), became a symbol of the new, alluring feminism. There was something in the manner she kick-started her Vespa scooter, accelerated to 60 kmph from a cold start and headscarf fluttering wildly, that made her the harbinger of a subtle aspect of women’s emancipation the world over. But there were no scooters in India then, so a handful of bold women took to cycling for a start!

Shortly after its premiere, Roman Holiday came up for screening at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. By then, such was her spell over the young and old alike that the cinema management was prevailed upon for three consecutive screenings on a Sunday. But what especially caught my fancy this time was the cinema wall. In the background was the picture of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and superimposed over it, was a life-size image of Audrey, waist upwards. It reminded me at once of the stunning studio photograph of the actress by Karsh of Ottawa, which I had seen in a book titled, Portraits of Greatness.

This was also the time I had graduated to a state-of-the-art Rollieflex camera. What better opportunity to test out the camera than photographing Audrey from the poster! I exposed an entire film-roll of 12 frames, with varying combinations of aperture opening and shutter speed. The results were better than my wildest hopes and the photo-processing studio could barely cope with the rush for copies from Gentlemen Cadets! The largest blow-up was 14×12 inches, and one such, under a cut-mount frame, went up on the wall facing my bed. For several days, there was constant coming and going to my room, till the lights-out bugle.

During a routine tour of the rooms one day, the inspecting officer noticed the portrait. And to this Gentleman Officer, the portrait was synonymous with the forbidden display of glam-girl pin-ups! The next day, in an atmosphere of general gloom, I was arraigned before the Company Commander, charged with ‘an act unbecoming the conduct of a Gentleman Cadet’. While reading out the offence report, the Company Commander held aloft the framed photograph as an ‘exhibit’ linked to my crime. Fortunately, this being my first act of misdemeanour, I was administered a mere warning and promptly marched out of the office. I could have dropped dead with the release of tension, having feared relegation by six months or even expulsion from the academy, altogether.

Sadly, the Audrey Hepburn portrait was confiscated and it went up on the wall facing the bed — of the Company Commander!

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Up, up with the crows

Ratna Raman

ROOSTERS crow (verb) each morning but crows only caw. “Eating crow” is idiomatic acknowledgement of humiliation but “crowing over” announces victory. Apostle Peter denies knowledge of Christ, long before the rooster finished crowing. Popular portrayal of crows and ravens is a “mixed bag” in Occidental cultures.

Crow Tyrannosaurus (1970), a poem by Ted Hughes, classifies the crow as a devouring dinosaur because in the food chain, powerful humans are finally consumed by the very worms that the crow, lower down in the order, eats for breakfast. In Hughes’ visually powerful poems the crow is an emblem of human frailty and arrogance.

Charles Dickens, who kept ravens as pets, created Grip the raven in Barnaby Rudge to befriend simpleton Barnaby. Inspired by Dickens’ narrative and bird, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven (1845), presents a dark, ominous bird, capable of prophecy. In Europe and in Scandinavian cultures, the bird’s black plumage and exterior allowed it to be co-opted as a bad omen.

Joan Aiken’s book for children, Mortimer Says Nothing, narrates the adventures of Mortimer the crow and Arabel. Aiken’s Mortimer is a wise, eccentric and social bird. Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds, has terrifying close-ups of crows sitting on the swings in a children’s park. Hitchcock’s visuals tap into negative cultural associations, recalling usage such as “a murder of crows” or “an unkindness of ravens” to create fear. Currently, ravens are bred in the Tower of London based on an old belief that the tower would fall, were the birds to leave.

Sherman Alexie’s Crow Testament (2000) provides a brilliant rebuttal of the dark associations evoked in many cultures by these gregarious and gorgeous black birds. Rooted in the native American tradition, Alexie’s poem draws upon older memories of the crow in indigenous American communities. The crow was a familiar bird, funny and wise, part of creation genealogies, part totem and friend in several tribes. Alexie’s poem does away with sinister mythologies surrounding the crow. The crow personifies the Native American, at different points in history, deprived of his beliefs and traditional ways, pushed into reservations with little to hope for. The bird is sacred to Native Americans, and they never “eat crow”.

Perhaps, this is a good time to look closely at Indian crows. RK Laxman, India’s most loved cartoonist, has outstanding sketches of the bird proving that he loved the common crow as much as his common man.

An intelligent bird, the crow’s all- too-human susceptibility to flattery allows it to be tricked by the foxes in folk tales. Hurried baths in cold weather by reluctant youngsters were equated with “crow-like bathing” since crows perch gingerly at the water’s edge, trying to avoid contact while using it.

Despite eating carrion, Indian crows have seldom been perceived as birds of ill omen. In fact, no shraadh is deemed satisfactory until a crow partakes of the offerings. Dead ancestors, it is believed, reincarnate as crows and turn up to eat their rightful portion. Even today, no such place of honour is extended to any other visiting bird at the shraadh.

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Birthday lessons

Anmol Bali

RECENTLY I celebrated my 22nd birthday, feeling all grown up and mature. Mature enough to understand, observe, analyse and think. This time, I was not really excited about my birthday. I thought I would wake up early in the morning and proceed with my daily routine. But the day went contrary to my expectations and taught me some lessons.

It was noon, I was reading the biography of Lenin. It was a sunny, comfortable environment, suitable for book reading. Suddenly, a friend rang the doorbell. I opened the door, he wished me, but his smile was evil and naughty. I understood that he had come with some other intention and not to just offer birthday wishes. Just then, my other three friends — hiding behind the door — stepped inside, their hands filled with cream and eggs. They applied that stinky mixture on my face, shouting ‘Happy birthday to you!’ I was shocked at what was happening with me. One of them was recording a video on his cell phone. They then took it to the next level, taking out foam sprays from their pockets and spraying it on me from all directions. My face was entirely covered with foam, I could not open my eyes and mouth.

They had also brought along a cake, but clearly not for eating. This was also for their sake of fun. Two of them pinned me down while the other landed the cake on my face, rubbing it all over. The ordeal did not end here. Two of them went to the washroom and filled a tub with water to throw on me. Another one got a bottle of Harpic. They went berserk. After all this mayhem and havoc, they went back home. My whole room was a mess, littered with water, foam and cake everywhere, including the walls and floor.

I thought about it. My friends had wasted Rs 500-600 just for their ‘fun’. It was sheer wastage of food and money. This amount could have been used to feed those in need of food. Even after 70 years of Independence, we can find paupers and homeless people everywhere, with no access to the basic needs of life. Is such wastage justified?

Another thing made me anxious. My friends had uploaded the video of their savage act on social media. I tried to take comfort in the thought that it didn’t matter — people will laugh and enjoy at my expense for two days and forget about it.

The day taught me the value of food, money and its proper utilisation. And how social media has become a tool to reveal personal moments of individuals. Not a happy scenario, but only we can change it.

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‘Mujhe Farsi sikhayenge?’

Sumit Paul

I MET the late Tom Alter for the first time at Film Archives in Poona way back in 2004. I didn’t know him then as my knowledge of modern Hindi cinema was zilch. I learnt that he was an actor and spoke impeccable Urdu. A white man speaking Urdu with perfect diction and no accent always fascinated me. I learnt Urdu from my white British professors at SOAS, London. Though they knew astounding Urdu, there was a mild interference of English. It wasn’t discernible, but I could make out, having learnt Persian from native speakers in Tehran and later when I heard white scholars of Persian language and literature converse in this euphonic language at Oxford and Cambridge. So, I was inquisitive to hear this white man’s Urdu. I introduced myself to him. And a friendship that began 13 years ago lived till he passed on recently.

Indeed, he spoke flawless Urdu, despite being the son of an American missionary. He would enunciate highly nuanced Persian and Arabic root words in Urdu. What fascinated me more was his ability to write Urdu in a cursive hand which he learnt in Poona when he was a student at the FTII in 1972. He would cycle to the camp area and learn to read and write Urdu from a maulvi.

He already knew Hindi well but was agog to master Urdu. Needless to say, he mastered it and began to even write poetry. Few people know he compiled a book of his Urdu poetry and some of his couplets are so exquisite that one wonders where this white man got the sensibilities of ahle-zabaan (native speakers)!

Once I asked him, ‘Aap kis zabaan mein sochte hain?’ The question stumped him. ‘Aapne zara dushwaaar sawaal poochha hai…. I think in Urdu.’ ‘Angrezi mein nahin?’ His reply stayed with me: ‘Urdu seekhne se pehle Angrezi mein sochta tha. Ab nahin soch pata.

His love for Urdu floored me. We would often sit at a cafe near the FTII and discuss Urdu/Persian poetry. He loved Hafiz Shirazi but not knowing Persian, he would read English translations by Swanton, Nicholson, Coleman Barks, among others. When he learnt that my mother tongue was Persian, he requested me to recite Hafiz in Persian and then translate the ethereal verses into Urdu. We never talked to each other in English!

One day, he requested, ‘Aap mujhe Farsi sikhayenge?’ This amused me. Tom regretted that often he had to render dialogues in the way of a Gora saheb. He would always carry a diary and immediately jot down an Urdu couplet that appealed to him. He told me that after 1972, he seldom read anything written in Devnagari script. He would read his dialogues written in Urdu.

One day, he recited a ghazal, with a beautiful couplet: ‘Chahat ke angaron ko sulagte hi rahne do/Kahin ek lamhe ki phoonk se aag na lag jaaye.’ (Let the cinders of longing continue to smoulder/Lest a momentary misdemeanour turn them into ashes). ‘Kiska hai ye sher?’ He paused for a moment and said: ‘Iss naacheez ka’. I immediately wrote it down in my diary.

That he would depart so soon was unexpected. I will live with the regret that I didn’t teach him even rudimentary Persian. In the other world, I will.

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Right man to lead

Col DS Cheema (Retd)

ON May 22, 1986, the very first day of my command of a battalion in a high-altitude area, two mechanics of my recovery company died while recovering a vehicle from a deep gorge. The site of the accident was over a 100 km from Leh, and so I was busy the whole day.

It was a major blow to my morale as a Commanding Officer. Early next morning, I received a call from the ADC to meet the GOC in his office. I had not been formally interviewed by the GOC and was worried about the first impression I would leave on him. I prepared a detailed briefing and what I intended to do to check such accidents in future. When I reached the office of the GOC, I saw two staff officers sitting with him, which confirmed my worst fears that I was bound to be admonished with a stern warning. In a few minutes, I was left alone with the GOC. For more than half an hour, he talked to me about many things without once mentioning the accident. He asked me to brief him the next day. It left me tense with more anxiety. The staff officers informed me that the GOC had purposely not wanted the issue to be discussed for some time.

After a couple of days, when he had finished a meeting of Brigade Commanders and COs, he asked me to stay back. In his usual soft and graceful manner, he explained to me how he got many bad reports from all across the division and how he had learnt to react to them in a purely professional manner. I was advised to take all necessary action for effective functioning without getting bogged down with the past. The advice was far more effective than any warning.

One thing everyone wanted to know was why the GOC wore only a sleeve-rolled-up shirt without any pullover or jacket even in extreme winter.

The GOC once asked me to accompany him to a forward post at about 19,000 ft. When we landed at the post, the ADC, who was also his nephew, tried to hand him a jacket. He gave the ADC a cold stare and mildly rapped his hand with the regimental cane he always carried. When he noticed that the pilot and I had noticed the act, he just smiled.

A couple of years later, when the same man was posted at Delhi on promotion, I had the opportunity to meet him in his office in the last week of November. In addition to two heaters in the room, he was dressed as if to combat severe cold. I asked him the question which I could not earlier.

I learnt that he was part of 13 Kumaon during the Chinese attack at Rezangla and he witnessed the supreme sacrifice of many soldiers of a particular company in action. Unfortunately, the men did not have any high-altitude clothing and were equipped with .303 rifles, which were ineffective at that altitude. It was then that he took a vow to never don woollen uniform while being with the men.

I am proud to have served with a hard-core professional General who loved his officers and men.

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Lid off the secret stash

Rama Kashyap

HOW can one forget the evening of November 8, 2016, when PM Narendra Modi stunned the nation with his big-bang announcement on demonetisation, sending shock waves all through the nation, affecting the lives of millions of Indians — men and women, the rich and the poor?

‘Old currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 will not be legal tender from midnight.’ I was too shocked to react and register the implications of the announcement. As the reality sank in, I started rummaging through the umpteen pockets of more than a dozen handbags, purses and wallets that I have in different colours and sizes. I delved into each and every pocket, every nook and cranny — not just to unearth old notes, but also to search for the smaller denomination notes and coins. Never in my life had I felt so happy to see a hundred rupee note. Even the soiled tenners suddenly became valuable. Why not, these small notes and coins were to be our lifeline for the days to come in the face of a severe cash crunch!

There was another mission, a mammoth task to accomplish; to search for the old high denomination notes hidden in different corners of the cupboard, in between the folds of dresses. I started hunting frantically for my own secret treasure that I had built over a period of time.

The treasure hunt was to search for my hoarded cash, the undisclosed money that I had been stashing away from my hubby’s gaze. As the notes kept tumbling out from their hide-outs in front of my husband, my treasure was no longer underground, but out in the open.

At a time when I was feeling somewhat guilty for my unaccounted money (not disclosed to my dear husband), I got validation from the most unexpected quarters. I happened to overhear a conversation between my domestic help Kusum and the part-time maid. In a hushed tone, Kusum was saying that she had 12 big notes about which her husband had no information. Bala raised her five fingers to indicate her secret hoard. I realised that I was not the only one! Almost every woman has her own secret cash collection, big or small. The note ban had taken the lid off our little secret.

Can’t say to what extent demonetisation had been successful in flushing out black money, but, undoubtedly, it brought in the open the hoard of cash women kept hidden in secret corners. I don’t know how many sleepless nights the hoarders of black money spent, but women definitely lost their sleep as they had to come clean on whatever money they had put away — out of sight.

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Hear the whistle blow

Ratna Raman

Whistle-blower is a ‘compound’ (anything with more than one element in it) word, made up of two nouns. The noun whistle (from Old English and Germanic; hwistle) is a shrill sound, made by living species, such as birds and humans, through the teeth and pursed mouth. Whistling requires instinct or prolonged training. Male sparrows can whistle or sing; female sparrows cannot.

Occasionally, the wind whistles around trees and water, announcing stormy weather.

Whistling is no longer a male prerogative and has now been officially flagged off by Smriti Irani as yet another unisex activity. The high-pitched sound travels further than an ordinary shout and remains an efficient way of drawing the attention of human or beast. Earlier, a whistle was also referred to as a call.

The expression “to wet one’s whistle” indicates quenching satisfying thirst with a drink. Once whistles were treasured toys, made in bone, wood, tin, clay and silver. The late 19th century saw the large-scale manufacture of brass whistles in many shapes.

The whistling of the train has been immortalised by Bob Dylan, among others, in the lines: “You can hear the whistle blow” (Five Hundred Miles).

The expression “you can whistle for it” indicates the near impossibility of a demand being met. The act of whistling in itself is an indication of high spirits. Wolf whistles coarsely size up women and represent wolves in an unfair light because wolves howl, not whistle.

The activity of “blowing the whistle” conveys a host of meanings. Children play with whistles, At sporting events, whistles are blown to signal the start of game, half time and end of play and to call out unfair play.

The expression “blow the whistle on someone” is idiomatic. This can of course happens during a match, when the referee stops play, awards a penalty to the injured team or suspends a player for foul play.

A “whistle-blower” is a person who draws public attention to unfair practices in public or private institutions. Whistle-blowers make public disclosures to the authorities or to newspapers, drawing attention to the unethical practices by a person or a group.

Of late, instances of whistle-blowing have been on the increase in social media. The whistle-blowers in Wiki leaks for instance made classified documents available on the internet drawing public attention to well camouflaged secrets.

Earlier, whistle-blowers revealed corruption and misappropriation of funds. In recent times, whistle-blowing on issues relating to the sexual harassment of women has taken social media by storm. The ‘Me Too’ campaign gathered momentum by “calling out” (disclosing names) predatory men.

All acts that bring information about covert or unethical activity into the limelight, qualify as whistle-blowing. Whistle blowers exhibit tremendous courage when they “take a call” (decision) to make knowledge public. The Whistle-Blowers Protection Act (2011) was enacted by our Parliament. Listing agreements make it mandatory for all listed companies (India’s economic mainstays) to have a whistle-blowing policy in place as part of reported corporate governance. Such understanding needs to be introduced in spirit in all cultural and educational institutions. Whistle-blowers have a “fraught calling” (difficult vocation). Pedagogies (theories) of due process must acknowledge such work.

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