Rom’s recognisability factor shoots up soon after one of his documentaries airs on television. Walking on the streets, we overhear loud whispers, “Discovery”, “National Geographic”. At shops, restaurants and airports, admirers seek autographs, take pictures, and ask questions. I usually pretend I don’t know Rom on these occasions and skulk at some distance.
Recently at a bookstore, a crowd formed around Rom. I looked up occasionally from a few aisles away to see if he was done. Another browser asked me, “Is he famous?”
I replied, “No.”
I was impatient to leave; the bookstore was one stop in a long list of errands. Besides, I figured if the man didn’t recognise Rom, he wasn’t missing anything.
But I must confess Rom’s fame is useful on occasions. The ferry to Little Andaman had custom-built seats that didn’t support the back, and the fixed headrest was too far forward. I squirmed trying to find a restful position: pushing myself far back into the seat, sitting cross-legged, propping my knees up, and padding my back with clothes. Nothing worked. I was resigned to another five hours of this torture.
Someone above heard my silent plea. A crewman brought Rom an invitation from the Chief Officer to the bridge. I tagged along just to escape the uncomfortable seat. Rom did all the work, answering questions and posing for pictures, while I got all the perks. I read a book for the next five hours in a comfortable chair, enjoying the cool breeze and sparkling blue seas.
Sometimes, however, these instances of recognition go off the tracks. Rom can never be sure if people really recognise him.
We were in a bus full of holiday makers going up into the hills of South India. I noticed a group of young people looking at Rom and whispering among themselves. The bus revved up the steep slope, and as it turned around hairpin bends, we slid across our seats. Despite being unsteady on his feet, one man from the group came up and asked Rom, “Are you Ian Botham?”
Rom asked, “Who?”
The man repeated his question.
The young man turned away disappointed. I laughed as much at Rom’s look of puzzlement as the young man’s question. Although Rom has lived all his life in this cricket-crazy nation, he hadn’t heard of Ian Botham.
After I explained who his look-alike was, I said, “You should have answered ‘Yes’ just for the fun of it.”
If Rom has a gripe about his fame, it is this: all his fans are men. He’d be over the moon if young women gathered around him. I suggested, “Making documentaries on snakes and creepy-crawlies isn’t the way to attract girls. Try mammals.” Apparently, he listens to me sometimes. He’s just completing a film on leopards, the first film he’s ever made on a large mammal.
It occurred to me belatedly that women aren’t throwing themselves at men who work with tigers and leopards either. Maybe wildlife is just not a girl thing. Then what is? Horses. But that’s a sore subject.
When Rom was a lad, he was thrown off one, and he has refused to saddle up until one momentous day in Arizona.
The lady of the ranch had to repeatedly reassure Rom of her steed’s good temper. Even then, he rode 10 paces and said, “That’s great. Thank you very much.” And slipped off the saddle. That was the only time he has ever sat astride a horse since that fall half a century ago. So I know an equine film is unlikely, even if it means passing up the opportunity of winning female fans.
Recently at an airport, a group of teenage girls recognised Rom. They squealed as they pumped his hand and took pictures.
Rom grinned from ear to ear, pleased as a cat with a tin of fish.
Just as they were leaving, one of the girls asked, “Aren’t you Jim Corbett?”