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Friday, April 27, 2007

Something Funny at the cemetery....

My Classification:
TITLE : A funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery
GENRE : Short Stories
Publisher: Penguin Books
Price : Rs. 150/- (First Edition, 1995)
Penguin Website Classification:
• Published by Penguin Books India
Imprint: Penguin
• Special Price: Rs 225.00
• Cover Price: Rs 225.00
• ISBN: 0140382631
• Edition: Paperback
• Extent: 200pp
• Classification: Fiction
• Rights: World
Journalism is a delightful art and an ingenious profession... in the hands of an intelligent writer (not half-baked info providing reporters who sleep through a performance of Twelfth Night and report it the next day as As You Like It!). And a journalist worth his salt, desperate for proper work and writes his way through rather than having the proverbial nose for sensational news is a rare breed who deserves more Bookers and Pulitzers, Nobels and Sahitya Akademis than those iconic fiction writers who live by the virtue of a one-and-half chartbusting quasi-literary works. For, such writers as these quick-witted journalists are blessed with more than the gift of a glib-gab.
One such writer I found out in my biblio-copic dusty shelf just recently is the Sri Lankan writer Carl Muller, the author of what to me is a super-documentary semi-fictional biography of that brilliant eponymous city, titled, COLOMBO - A Novel.
I had read COLOMBO about five years back and in its feverish wake had gone and purchased his collection of short writings entitled 'a funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery: Scenes from a Sri Lankan Life'. I had also promptly forgotten its existence in my exclusive six-foot five-shelved exclusive non-refridgerated Godrej for Penguins. I must at this point confess that I have this addiction for hoarding books whether I have the time to make love to them with my fingers or not. Time Present I may not. Though, I believe in a Future filled with my tired body occupying the traditional Easy-chair on the proverbial verandah, while on one side a cup of the home-made coffee gets cold oblivious to my presence and on the other a pile of eager books yellow next to me, awaiting its karmic turn for this Reading Ram to give salvation to those Patient Ahalyas who queue up vertically! Come to think of it, the metaphor is contradictory. Unlike Ram of the Yana,I am not confined to one book. More his father's ilk, moi!
Digressions apart, Carl Muller is a hilarious writer with more eyes than a dragonfly for details and a sense of humour that the British writers of his plumage would be proud of. I shall just quote a couple of Kohi-Noors of his humungous prowess for humour and leave you to be convinced that this writer truly belongs to any choosy reader's shelf. The following is from the essay God Equals Claud, recalling his experiences working for Gulf News:
"It was the general pattern. Many Arabs, even today feel that a European should be General Manager or hold top post. Thus, they feel that they have given their business 'a touch of class'. Abu did just this. In the lower echelons were the Asians. The editorial department was the preserve of the whites...
At the top were the pukka sahibs who even had their own pubs in Dubai and Sharjah and did a 'Rupert Brooke' wherever they went. They clung grimly to the concept that they had been lords and masters of the Gulf not long ago and should be treated thus ad nauseum. It would not be wrong to sum up these European operations thus: 'Get that mountain moving. We shall take it to Mohammed!'
Safaris to the Middle East were deployed along old familiar lines: a quick weekend to Teheran to soak the then Shah for a few millions; drop in on the King of Saudi Arabia and give him some expensive advice; and those Bedouin in the UAE distribute money and watch to everyone - should be an interesting day or two... these Arabs have money and it's a bit of shame, what if we don't take as much of it away from them as possible! "
Later in the same article he writes about his Chief Sub-Ed Malcolm he of the title Claud. I quote:
"Malcolm Claud had no idea that Abu sub-consciously considered himself by far the superior being. Claud made the cardinal mistake of thinking that no newspaper in Dubai could run without his expertise He was, after all, the 'great white father' of the Gulf News. He had already let slip the interesting fact that Jim Headgear was no editor at all. 'The closest he's been to a newspaper is to put on a dressing gown over his jammies and go to the landing to collect the Mirror,' he said. And then he would say with some complacence, 'Don't any of you forget it. I'm the hot-shot here and what I say goes.'
We decided otherwise. The 23rd was fast approaching and Claud had made no indication that there would be a Gulf News. Abu was getting worried. Claud had his own escape route planned.'I cannot produce a newspaper with a bunch of incompetent Sri Lankans,' he said. He was obviously missing his crew of wangers who had wrecked the newspaper in the first place. Having to kow-tow with Asians went much against his grain. There was some talk about rearranging his face but this was frowned on.
Eventually matters came to a head. With the finesse of a very block-headed bull in the main outlet of a China shop, Claud marched upon Abu with the breathless news that the paper should be recalled to life on, say, 23 December. Abu hit the roof. He had, he said, lost a lot of sympathy for ginger moustaches. Also, he was mathematically competent enough to know that he would have to sit and watch his staff lounging around and making innumberable trips to the coffee dispenser while he was bereft of earnings."
What is alluring about this book is its disarming honesty and the self-effacing personality the writer as a survivor-victim who laughs at the face of trials and tribulations. There is a definitive Ahabian quality to his existential status in the Bedouin land. And this pervades the other essays as well. Rather than the promised couple let me leave you with one more, lest you confine the book as a one-article humour anamoly. He can get down-right poetical with his business of irritation. Like this one about his descent into Delhi:
"We landed with a thud. Coasting the tarmac was like riding the noon stage into Dakota. Even the seat-belt juddered the diaphragm. I was not heavy laden. Just a beat-up suitcase, briefcase and camera. I walked into a sea of humanity that, at five-thirty in the morning, was positively unnerving."
Oh! While you are at it, if by now convinced that he may probably not worth a whole 200 bucks, but definitely worth a trip to Oxford or Crossword Bookstore where they sit and let you read the whole book, then also check the other essays titled Ups and Downs, Guide Me, I'm a Tourist as well as A Crack at The Mirror.

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