Only Frank

ONE LINE, just one line was enough to bring him fame. And fortune. "Only Vimal", he wrote. Ambani nodded in agreement. The industrialist had thought, the copywriter had expressed. `Only Vimal' entered our homes and hearts. And Frank Simoes carved out a little slice of fame. In his case, the riches did not take wings, the character shone through bright and beautiful from the first time he put pen to paper - at the beginning of his career, he had 49 rejections. He celebrated the pain with elegant prose in his 50th piece. It was published - to his last breath. As Dom Moraes recalls his last days, "He had lost an incredible amount of weight. His elegant clothes hung loose on his body. An image came to me of Frank as the parrot and his grieving, helpless audience watching his pain." At a party just before, Frank had described in melancholic detail the plight of a pet parrot losing his eyesight, nearing his end.

He took pieces of people's hearts wherever he went. Yet it was not all so sad all the time. As Frank recalled, "A very small brown Christian in a very large Indian city - Bombay - lumbered with the legacy of Saraswat Brahmin Roman Catholic Goanness, I grew up with the convert's burden of confessionals and rosaries, masses for every conceivable occasion, candlelit processions by the dark of the moon with Spanish Jesuits and Irish Brothers of Mercy, French Sisters of the Poor and Italian Dominican friars; with choir practices. I spoke Portuguese at home with my parents, Konkani to the help, English at school and pidgin Hindi on the streets."

School was not much easier. "I was being prepared for my own trial by torment at a school run by European missionary priests where the motto might well have been, Beat the Devil out of the boy. The teachers embraced this injunction with an ardent addiction, untempered by any such nonsense as restraint of mercy. But, at the very least, there had to be punishable cause. With Adolph Britto, the Latin master, long soured by lack of response, none was necessary. His class had shrunk to 10 boys, twice a week... Britto wielded absolute power... he was a sadist who took great pleasure in inflicting pain. The beatings were savage beyond all comprehension, delivered with the full force of his considerable strength."

At the age of 18, he decamped from hearth and home for a `working passage' on a cargo ship, a polite euphemism for six months' hard labour. His experience in Europe over the next year - reluctant sailor, dharma bum, journeyman, writer, dishwasher, typist and porter provided the fuel for a career in advertising and a second career as a writer.

Only Frank

Now consider what Franks recalls here: "I made one quiet vow. Gita - wife - would be no traditional Indian wife, bound to hearth and home by iron bands. I would, in the finest of liberal traditions, encourage her to seek a singular identity. She would flourish in her own right, make her own happy journey to maturity and freedom. The girl had talent. I would get her a studio with good natural light, encourage her to work... When the wife announced happily one evening that she had a job, one was pleased and indulgent and willing to give freely of oneself. She would need the timely piece of advice... One morning, years later, I opened the Times and there, on Page 7, was the better half smiling graciously as she received an award. I did not appreciate at all. She had won the year's premium advertising award. But that was my profession! What was going on here? It does me no good at all when the phone rings and a voice says, `Mr. Gita, please may I speak to Mrs. Gita'."

Yet the man was not always in the shadows. He hated to be there and in his own words, "gatecrashed the advertising party in the Sixties". Then his bosses at S.H. Benson, precursors of Ogilvy Benson and Mather, knew they had a man of talent. The proof came when he created campaigns for Vimal and Raymonds. Later, he gave up the advertising profession and plunged into writing, concentrating largely on Mumbai and Goa, the two places he had a special fascination for. He passed away last year but his wife and other family members have managed to bring out "The Best of Frank Simoes, Frank Unedited", each chapter of which opens a little window to the world of the man whose words had brevity, who inherited wisdom, added wit and led a life of relentless pursuit. Says Gita, "We wanted the best of his works. He has two nephews who are copywriters in the U.S. The three of us got together and put his works into sections. We divided it chronologically. We realised we could do with the best alone. It was emotionally challenging for all of us. It was like talking to him again. I had read his works but I kept reading and reading them. Finally, emotions had to be kept aside, we had to put together what was the best for people."

The result was a 350-odd page book brought out by Roli Books with an accompanying CD by Remo Fernandes. Reveals Gita, "We had a bunch of poetry by Frank. Remo turned one of them into a song. He sang it and I discovered that this song - "The Hawk Defies the Lower Sky" - had been given by Frank to a copywriter 20 years ago for composition!"

And, yes, years later she still remembers her first meeting with Frank, all his confessions about her rise notwithstanding. "I worked for OBM as a junior visualiser. He also worked there. He happened to be waiting for the lift while going to work. We met in the lift!"

Frank, one would say. Has to be. Anything else would be less than fair to a man called Frank, a man who lived up to his name. A man of irrepressible wit and an uncanny habit of laughing at himself. His words in this book can be revisited at leisure. They retain the freshness of thought and presentation. Frankly, only Frank deserved it!

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