When Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia visited India shortly after Independence, he particularly wanted to visit Travancore-Cochin where there existed a Christian tradition even older than that of his country’s. And there, driving on rural roads, he noticed neatly uniformed children wending their way to schools in orderly fashion. A couple of inquiries later he decided what his country needed was Syrian Christian school teachers. And before long the first 400 of them were winging their way to strengthening the Lion of Judah’s school system. Among them were a young man and a young woman, both Physics teachers, who were to meet in Ethiopia, marry and beget a male child who was to make a pilgrim’s progress to doctoring and writing — and Madras, where he was to be one of the stars of The Hindu’s Lit for Life Festival that concluded last Monday.

Abraham Verghese is, however, no stranger to Madras, having done a stint at Madras Christian College and Madras Medical College (MMC) from where he got his University of Madras MBBS before heading westwards where he is now Professor of Medicine at Stanford University¸ California. Perhaps that should read “Caring Medicine”, for that is what he has practised all his life from the time he was inspired to become a doctor after reading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, that story of a failed artist who saw the desperate need for doctors during a visit to a hospital full of ill-cared for patients. From there he progressed to getting further inspiration from those legendary teachers at MMC, Prof. K.V. Thiruvengadam and Prof. N .Rangabashyam. From them he learnt two lessons that he never forgot: The most important medical instrument is your hand and the best treatment for any patient was through the ear: Words of comfort.

Echoing these maxims — put into use for many years in rural Tennessee working with HIV patients — he every year urged his new students at Stanford to read a brief Tolstoy story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Sadly, he rued, most of the students wanted facts about medicine and not words about how to comfort a patient.

That was probably the best — and most moving — bit of storytelling during the whole Festival. There were several other noteworthy sessions too. Unfortunately my days of carrying notebook and pen in hand are long past and I remember just a gem here and another there from some of the more enjoyable sessions. But even those memories are fuzzy, so bear with me if I don’t quote exactly from these five moments that had me paying greater attention.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi and T.M. Krishna discussing Karnatic music and telling tales out of the Green Room. Such as, someone praising M.S. to D.K. Pattammal and telling her how highly Gandhiji or Rajaji thought of M.S., and Pattammal responding: What do those ji-s know about music? And almost in response to that recollection, Krishna demonstrating the difference between lyrics and music, answering a question on which was more important.

Ashwin Sanghi who believes in enjoying himself on and off the stage and taking the seriousness out of the proceedings though making a sharp point or two on ‘How to Create an Impact as an Author’, then startling you with the thought that ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ has all the ingredients for a gripping thriller and was more likely narrated to frighten children into sleep.

Colin Thubron, a travel writer focusing on the Soviet Union and China, reading a passage about visiting a Chinese professor of alternative medicine who exhibited a collection of over two thousand tongues, many of them vividly described, having me wonder how he recollected them in those colourful terms without taking a single note down, and William Dalrymple recalling a Pakistani immigration inspector who kept repeatedly asking him whether he ‘liked bottom’ and Dalrymple responding in his usual performer avatar only to discover what that had all been about when the inspector, stamping ‘entry permitted’ in his passport, said “We have Imran Khan, you have Bottom.” All very entertaining but also a bit condescending, though they’d no doubt say I don’t understand British humour. Even more entertaining was Dalrymple’s summarised recounting of the return of a King and the battle the British lost in 19th Century Afghanistan. It was the third time I’d seen it and he was a better performer each time.

With Barkha Dutt considering women of the 21st Century only victims of harassment and, worse, rape, Naomi Wolf just followed the lead with a performance focusing on woman as victim and forgetting that most of her audience, young Indian women, had in the 21st Century been given opportunities for improvement that their grandmothers virtually never had and most of their mothers had in a very limited manner. A couple of days later, Wolf dished out an even better performance on the vagina to the same young women who dominated the audience and who, in about 90 per cent of the cases, would end up in an arranged marriage with an Amma’s boy, leaving little opportunity for understanding the vagina the way Wolf does.

And then there was Kamal Haasan at his charmingly conversational best with K. Hariharan, film maker and film academician, wondering why the Music Academy which brought Music and Dance centre stage did not do the same for Cinema by treating it as an Art and not the Technology it seemed to feel it was. After all, he said, Gandhi, one of the most prolific writers of postcards and letters by hand, became one of the most active users of the telegraph and, in similar fashion, another who wrote prolifically with pen and ink, Periyar, embraced the typewriter, even contributing to the development of the Tamil keyboard.

These and many more such interludes made The Hindu’s Lit For Life Festival 2014 a far, far better one than before, an enjoyable sit-through most of the time during the two-thirds of it I was present at.


The Bullet in New York

Madras’s own iconic Bullet is a motorcycle now making the headlines in London and New York. Royal Enfield Motors, for over 60 years manufacturers of the legendary motorbike, has developed a new version of the Bullet, called the Continental GT, aimed at the British and American markets. And its introductory shows in London and New York have drawn considerable attention.

Royal Enfield was the firm manufacturing Bullets in Britain. The Bullets first came through imports into India in 1949 and proved so popular the Company set up a plant in Madras in 1955 with the Madras Motor Company to manufacture the bike. When the British company closed in 1971, it sold its Indian plant and its name to the Indian owners who continued to manufacture the bike that was a favourite with the Indian Army and Police. In 1993, Eicher Motors, Delhi, bought the Madras unit from the local owners — and spent considerably on upgrading the plant and bike. Now they’ve taken it into a 21st Century plant manufacturing an international class motorcycle.

The Bullet’s story begins with Albert Eadie and Robert Walker Smith setting up Enfield Manufacturing Ltd in Redditch, Worcestershire, in 1893. The original company was sold to Norton-Villiers-Triumph in 1968. The name Royal Enfield had been licensed in 1890 before production of the motorcycle began. The name Bullet came into use from Enfield Manufacturing’s motto, “Made like a gun, goes like a bullet”. The firm once manufactured guns and to this day a cannon remains the logo of Enfield bikes.

Bullets were first assembled in India in 1956 using CKD kits from the U.K. By 1962 the bikes were being entirely manufactured in Madras, using tooling equipment bought from the parent company in 1957. The rights to use the Royal Enfield name and logo were bought by Enfield of India in 1995. The Royal Enfield is today the oldest motorcycle brand still in production. The Bullet also holds the record for having the longest motorcycle production run.


When the postman knocked…

E & O.A.

- Urdu, developed as a lashkari zubaan (camp language) during Mughal rule, adopted Persian/Perseo-Arabic script and as such there is no Urdu script (Miscellany January 13), writes Prof. M.A. Kalam.

- Responding to my question on banks/branches no longer in George Town (Miscellany, January 6), several readers have taken me to task, saying that at least two I mentioned still survive. The Canara Industrial and Banking Syndicate Ltd., promoted by T.M.A Pai and a brother in 1925, changed its name to Syndicate Bank Ltd in 1963 after merger with several other banks and to Syndicate Bank on nationalisation in 1969. The Canara Banking Corporation (Udipi) Ltd, started in 1906 by Haji Abdulla and Haji Kasim, dropped ‘Udipi’ from its name in 1939 and changed its name to Corporation Bank in 1972. Both banks are going strong in George Town and elsewhere throughout India.

- John Shortt (Miscellany, January13) was not one of those who nominated Senjee Pulney Andy for admission to the fellowship of the Linnean Society, writes Dr. A. Raman from Australia. The proposers were John Joseph Bennett, Thomas Moore and William Carruthers. Did any of them have Madras connections, I wonder.