The medals that Indian women never won

Mainly because the disciplines are not to be found in the Olympics, though they do exist in real life. Is that fair? It is fair & lovely, as the Indian women themselves will tell you, although they are fully aware of the difference between reality & Bollywood – or between a woman’s chores in real life & the most eyesome Olympic gyrations.

Millions of Indian women have never played badminton, for example – have never seen badminton being played, except now, on TV, and that’s because of PV Sindhu. And I won’t even talk of all the other disciplines in which you have to wear – arey Ram’ Ram’! – and spring around like – Hai Bhagwan!

Take 1976, the Malda Passenger, Third Class unreserved. The Women’s Rice Smuggling race is in progress. The panels on either side of the carriage have been torn open, leaving large and gaping holes for the rice smugglers to stash away their bags of rice. Every now and then the train stops at some minor station and the police stomp in, looking for smugglers & contraband. The chalwallis or the Rice Women have around five to fifteen seconds to collect their rice bags, get down on the station platform & run to a raided buggy – because the unraided buggies will be next in line – while people cheer! Everybody’s having their share of fun – exactly as in the Olympics – especially the police constables & the young rowdies who seem to be more interested in teasing the rice smuggling ladies – call them athletes – than catching them or watching them get caught. I could hear one such ‘athlete’ trying to ward off the advances of an over-ardent ‘fan/sports official’ by squeaking: “Leave me in peace! I’m a mother of five.” Poor girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen. And pretty too, though we are not supposed to notice such things about athletes – only that you couldn’t help noticing, in her case. As for the mother of five, apparently she meant it as a joke. The rowdies laughed and the police constable let her go. Gold for our “mother of five”! I nearly sang the national anthem.

Then I remember the champion in the Women’s Brick Carrying category whom I saw at a construction site in the early days of Noida. She was going up a ramp with sixteen bricks piled on the turban on top of her head – I counted! That’s eight layers of two each, laid crosswise. Naturally she needed help to put on the last two or three layers – that’s the last four to six bricks – but she managed the rest alone, in squatting. Then she got up with the teetering pile on top of her head and walked three floors up a wooden, unsecured ramp, her bare feet finding the slats with somnabulistic ease. And all this in a sari worn short & the aanchal tugged in at the waist… But we’re talking sports. That’s gold again for the queen among India’s brick carrying women.

Some find Chucking Cowdung Cakes to be a rather quaint discipline and much misunderstood in the West. It’s not as if our athletes chuck dried cowdung cakes instead of discuses, oh no, this is a discipline requiring as much aim & precision as archery or skeet shooting. The athlete is forming the wet cowdung cakes with both hands before chucking them at a wall. In this gold-winning event, our champion was chucking them at a dilapidated tower from the nawabi times opposite the Whispering Mosque in Lucknow. (Again towards the end of the ’70s, if I remember correctly, the golden age of Indian sports). She had finished the lower rows and was now chucking the wet ghuñtiyas towards a spot at roughly twice her own height. And she was placing the projectiles in a perfectly spaced row on the wall – which won the applause of the juror(s), there being only one viz. me. And she was doing it on a convex surface, remember, like a bent dart board! It was a round tower – is there any other kind? Just as cowdung cake chucking seems to be a sport specially reserved for women, at least in India.

And then we come to a discipline which requires strength as well as endurance. I was visiting my elder sister in Kolkata and this cook of theirs had come in at around nine in the morning and was cooking our lunch for the day – why so early? I wanted to know. Turned out that the young lady would be cooking for three more households in the course of the morning before going back home and cooking for her own family – before her children came back from school, the montessory & so on. Cooking for five families involved the kind of logistics & coordination which compelled her to keep three cell phones – I counted! – one of them a dud. And even then she wouldn’t let me get myself a glass of water on my own – that’s your Indian Cooking Marathon, for women. The men are allowed to take a cook or their wives along, I believe.

Finally we have the Delhi Olympics of 2036, especially the sensational “Run for Your Life!” race for young girls. This is a sprint discipline in which the contestants have to avoid being caught by possible molesters – now on the sports curriculum of a number of girls schools across the subcontinent. Thirteen year old (unnamed) winner from (place name blackened) revealed at her felicitation that a family friend – colleague of her father’s – inspired her to join the sport. Both the press & the police are looking for the family friend.

What women need is security

Remember Billie Jo Spears’ song from 1969 which went ‘Mr Walker, it’s all over / I don’t like the New York secretary’s life’? And why is the young lady so fed up with her life & her profession? Because, apart from the stress of typing eighty words a minute & fetching paper clips and coffee, ‘In this building there’s a crowd o’ guys / With old familiar thoughts upon their minds’. And what old familiar thoughts might these be? Well, they result in ‘a lot of hands a-reaching out / To grab the things that I consider mine’. Ah, now we understand. Don’t think she could have put it any more succinctly.

And as if that’s not enough, ‘the president pursues me / Even though he’s old and hair a-turnin’ white’ – couldn’t have been the Oval Office & Monica Lewinsky since she was an intern & born four years after the song. In any case, the first stanza of the song complains about the working conditions, the second about sexual harassment and the third about the living conditions – more specifically, ‘a flat in Greenwich Village’ with a trumpet player upstairs and a ‘jumpin’ all night bar’ below. And even then she has to ‘share the place with bugs and big ol’ mice’. No wonder she quits.

I consider it to be one of the best lyrics ever, leaving Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ gasping at first base – though Boots (1966) highlighted the other major source of exacerbation in a woman’s life: the ‘a’messin’’ husband or lover, who keeps ‘lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’’, who keeps ‘samin’ when you oughta be a’changin’’.

And there we have the woman’s world, which seems to have mainly one problem – the man! Actually it’s like the two sides of the same coin, since not having a man can be a problem too, in societies east & west; either it’s the difficulty in finding ‘a suitable boy’ à la Vikram Seth, or it’s the sexual & emotional merry-go-round (roller coaster, rather!) of the ladies in Sex and the City.

Let’s do a Fast Forward to what happened in front of the Cologne railway station on New Year’s Eve: another example of those ‘old familiar thoughts’, I should think, Billie Jo Spears wouldn’t have been surprised in the least. And from there we can go on to the current ‘burqini’ debate. Why anybody should insist on – or object to – a woman wearing – or not wearing – a certain piece of apparel at a certain place & a certain time while engaging in a certain kind of activity, beats me. Generations of women in our family have gone bathing in the Bay of Bengal or in the Arabian Sea in saris, for God’s sake, who’s talking about Aheda Zanetti’s rather fashionable creation. And we’re ruddy Hindus in our family, except for the woman for whom I left the diplomatic service, who used to wade into the raging surf on either coastline wearing a bikini & looking hot enough – for those times & climes – to make the sea boil. Whether the sea or me.

So it’s not as if I’m in favour of the burqini or against it. A colleague of ours was relating how certain young and fashionable girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have taken to wearing the niqab (which covers all of the face except for the eyes) just to escape the unwanted attention of the street romeos. What does that tell us? That these women are feeling insecure, that society is not – or is not perceived to be in a position to give them the freedom of choice to wear what they like & where they like. Fear is the key.

As for male behaviour, desire is the key. Desire is dificult to control, that’s why it’s considered to be dangerous. And because it is uncontrollable, like an incurable disease, we have all sorts of W.H.O.-financed attempts to ‘disinfect’ all possible & probable ‘sources of infection’ – mainly WOMEN! But even that does not help, will not help, cannot help. The number of references to the damsel’s eyes in Urdu poetry (together with the extravagant imagery) is mainly because of the niqab, I suspect. A traditional Muslim woman does her eyes with special care when she goes out, I am told, since those eyes are all that will be visible – it’s those eyes which will have to do the ‘killing’, in the rhetoric of Urdu poetry. We could have spared ourselves the Trojan war if Helen of Troy had been wearing a niqab, you think? No, her eyes would have been enough to launch those thousand ships & a couple more, if necesary.

The whole problem with how a woman dresses or does not dress, is the collateral damage – which in the woman’s case means collateral garbage. We, the men, do not want to get ‘killed’ – to follow the time-honoured heroic hyperbole of Urdu poetry as well as of Bollywood film songs. In other words, we do not want to feel attracted by a woman we do not know from Eve & shall never get to know from Eve; whereas she does not want to be ogled/mooned at by a whole lot of strange & unappetising males – that’s the collateral garbage. And still it happens all the time.

But why? Is it because she knows… and takes it into account, maybe even likes it? And why do we, the men, react like Pavlov’s dogs? I know! Because we are Pavlov’s dogs, at least in this one respect. And where do the clothes come in? I was thinking of an experiment, not with dogs but with lions, in the Serengeti, say. We put all the leafeaters in clothes and send them out to graze among the beefeaters. D’you think the lions would look dejected & say to themselves: ‘If only these antelopes had been…’ No, lions do not know the difference between naked and… We do, that’s the whole problem, it seems. Unless… unless…

What about all women dressing up as men when they go out? And the men dressing up as women…

What about women turning into men & men turning into women, in which case the women would be whistling after the men & pinching their bot…

Because men look so sexy in whatever they wear, from boxer shorts to scuba suits to business suits…

Have fun.

The naked truth…

…is that the naked ape seems to have a problem with his own nakedness. Sorry, it’s not his nakedness but her nakedness that everybody seems to be bothered about. Society, religion, culture, everywhere they’re stubbing their toes, big & small, on this one, all-important issue of what & how much or how little a woman can or should wear. Among the 5,000-odd mammal species on earth we are the only ones who are effectively naked, which means without fur. And the only thing that’s hindering our progress is the lack of a proper dress code, it seems.

Six to eight million years ago we began to get rid of our fur because we came out of the virgin (!) forest to live in semi-aquatic regions & open savannahs. We retained some of our fur, such as on the head, as a protection against the sun, whereas the rest of the body hair was retained presumably for sexual purposes such as enhancing pheromones.

The moment we’d got rid of the fur, we started ‘borrowing’ the skins & the fur of other, far more clever animals to make up for our lack of – and why just skins & furs? Fig leaves, borrowed feathers, the barks of trees, we used everything to hide our nakedness because – yes, because nakedness got irrevocably & inextricably entangled with sexuality & sexual selection, where we again have to diffentiate between the state of nakedness and the quality of nakedness – what?

Shut up? Okay, I shall.

To begin again, the sight of nakedness arouses sexual desire – about the first programme that Evolution wrote. A smooth, hairless, unblemished skin is taken to be a sign of health. The female wishes a strong & healthy male partner in the (subconscious) hope that the progeny will inherit the genes of the father. The male prefers a healthy female partner so that she will be able to carry, give birth to, have enough milk to feed and generally rear the child – including running away from other predators, both animal and human! – with greater speed & agility.

And then came property, power & authority, on the one hand, and inheritance, succession & primogeniture, on the other. The male wanted to hand over his territory & his possessions to his own progeny – hence the nature & duration of the bond between the male and the female, or marriage, in other words, began to play a role. Not just a role but the most incisive & divisive role in mankind’s attempts to control & regulate the nakedness of womankind.

From the cuckold to the cuckoo’s egg, what causes all the Misery for Man? It is the sexual attractiveness of the woman which is like a private birthday bash announced on FB that has gone public & viral through an inadvertent post by – Evolution, who else, eternally worried about not getting enough bees to pollinate its flowers. Bees pollinate flowers and human beings have children even in the midst of war, drought, famine & the bubonic plague, if necessary – that’s something Evolution should have known.

Clothes can enhance or diminish the sexual attractiveness of women. We see two schools of thought here: women are all for clothes which enhance their sexual attractiveness, even to the point of removing some/most/all of the aforesaid clothes if deemed strategically necessary and/or effective. Men are also for clothes which enhance the woman’s sexual attractiveness – but only in a one-to-one situation; one man, one woman – or maybe one man, more than one woman, why not? – but always one man, if you get what I/we mean. Otherwise we – by which I mean mankind – are in favour of restricting the disturbing & harmful & excessive attractiveness of women. If evolution made a mistake, overdid it, in a certain sense, then it is up to civilisation to exercise damage control – since there is no way of ensuring (a) that women will be born entirely without sexual attractiveness in the future and (b) get their fashion tips from the nearest nunnery.

Somehow it brings us back to Adam and Eve. ‘You need three fig leaves while I need just one,’ Adam was teasing Eve. ‘Let’s go the beach, there I’ll wear just one – it’s called a figini, I believe,’ Eve was telling Adam. ‘From fig?’ ‘No, from figure, something you won’t have much longer if you keep eating like a pig. In any case, I need a proper suntan,’ Eve declared. ‘You know what suntan means in Sanskrit? A child, or a son. Wonder how they make one?’ Adam pondered. And then he turned serious again: ‘Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden and chop down all the fig trees. They are the root of all evil, I’m convinced.’

‘Now, that sounds like human logic,’ God remarked en passant & sotto voce to the snake.

‘No fig tree, no leaves. No leaves, no…’ Adam had continued.

‘Yes?’ Eve said.

‘You’d look rather nice in a figini, you know.’

‘I know.’

‘You do?’

‘I asked the Tree of Knowledge.’

‘What did the ToK say?’

‘‘I’m off. Just google it, will you?’’

Of cars and the man I sing

People of my generation remember cars as they remember people. Cars were not just a means of transport but used to have a personality, quite apart from the car owner’s or the car driver’s personality. Cars remained long enough in & with the family to turn into old faithfuls & trusty servitors. But the first car in my life was a monument to the glory days of the family as rice lords in a small town in suburban Bengal.

I’m talking about my mother’s family and the family seat sixty miles to the east of the city of Kolkata, whereas the monument in question was a greying automobile gradually turning green in the midst of a mango grove. It was a rag top convertible of sorts – very likely American, a Packard or a Hudson or a Desoto for all I know, from the Roaring Twenties, though it had long ceased to roar. It had curving fenders and foot boards and drum shaped headlights. One couldn’t turn the steering wheel any more, I remember. The tyres were flat & brittle or already missing, the rims or the axles resting on bricks. Every part of the car that could be fiddled with and broken or twisted off had fallen prey to generations of little cannibals like us – that’s me & my cousins – until what remained was the shape & the idea of an automobile, as if someone had been doing a sculpture and not bothering about the details. The undergrowth had shot up through the floorboards, the green tentacles & fronded leaves waving from the open cabriolet like inebriated party folk returning from an excursion. The rusty springs might have been all that was left of the seats – or I might be imagining.

And I do not even know whether the Rag Top (now beginning to look more like a Tree Top) was the first sign & symbol of prosperity & modernity in the aforesaid rice lords family, since a grandaunt of mine used to relate the story how her husband – the corresponding granduncle – insisted on driving to Dhaneshkhali (name changed) in his brand new Baby Austin with his brand new wife (the grandaunt) parked on the rear seat, as was only proper & seemly. Fortunately or unfortunately, granduncle left the trodden/tarred ways and decided to take a chukker of the countryside – with the result that grandaunt had to be brought back to the family mansion sitting in the Baby Austin like a demure bride, while some eight to twelve palanquin bearers carried the Baby Austin on their shoulders, balancing the hapless vehicle on bamboo poles. I’d tag classic Bengali filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak/Ajantrik/1958 and Satyajit Ray/Abhijan/1962 for this scene alone, if I could.

After that I remember the Morris Minor of a lawyer uncle of mine. I shall be eternally grateful to this uncle for introducing me to three pleasures of life at one go: (i) he took me and his son, my cousin, for a ride in his Morris Minor; (ii) he took us to the Globe Cinema to see Sergeants 3; and (iii) he took us to Kwality’s afterwards to give me (at least) my first taste of restaurant food. The Globe was yet to be renovated, so it was still in the Bijou Grand Opera House state, with carved cast iron pillars holding up the balconies. Just my luck that I had one of those pillars in front of me and had to play peekaboo with the Rat Pack for the whole of the show as a result – that’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. &co., never knew it was their last movie in that combination. Worse, it’s taken me fifty-odd years to wake up to the fact that Sergeants 3 was a spoof western built on Kipling’s Gunga Deen!

The next car in my life was my uncle’s – the talk is now of my youngest maternal uncle – who used to live in the same house as us in South Calcutta, the house in question belonging to my maternal grandfather and so on – but the point of the story is that my room was on the mezzanine floor, that’s at the landing of the stairs between the ground floor and the first floor, with the garage right beneath. In that garage rested my uncle’s Standard Herald like some past emperor in his grave while I held vigil above. Otherwise the car looked like a tinny, miniaturised, Madras version of the fifties’ Cadillacs and Chevrolets with their tail fins & the rest. My uncle used to look after that Standard Herald like his own son. How he drove it was another matter.

My elder sister bought a second hand Ambassador (car!) when her family was growing and decided to call it Sangram Singh for its sheer battling spirit. Maharana Sangram Singh was none other than the legendary Rana Sanga of the Rajputs, who had led a powerful Hindu confederacy in the 16th century. In the 20th, ‘Sangram Singh’ finally changed hands when our youngest brother bought it as his first car – ‘Sangram Singh’ was slightly younger than him at that point of time, if I remember correctly.

Cut to: Calcutta street scene during the monsoons. My brother is driving down Mayo Road in the pouring rain, yours truly in the passenger seat, the vehicle being none other than Sangram Singh. My brother is saying nonchalantly that the brakes are not working, they never do in the rains but I’m not to worry. I can see the Chowringhee Road crossing coming up, complete with the traffic light, which is on red. Cars to the left of us, cars to the right of us, cars in front – what will happen if the brakes do not hold?

My brother started braking with another fifty metres to go to the traffic light. The car hardly slowed down – oder doch? I had started thinking in German by then, in my desperation! And then I saw. All the other cars were braking too and having trouble with their brakes, just like Sangram Singh, so that the whole moity somehow grinded to a halt just yards before the pile-up of the century.

“You see, Dada, this is Kolkata. Everybody’s brakes are buggered, so nobody’s buggered,” my brother explained, before he turned into Kyd Street. It was not his fault. We used to speak like that in Kolkata.

Wasting one’s life

One tries to make sense of life either when one is very young or when one is very old. Being neither an adolescent nor a geriatric, I do not really qualify. But I do tend to think about Life at times, the one with the capital ‘L’. Don’t you?

Why are we called human beings, for example? Why the humble & lowly present participle? There are human has-beens, of course, which is present perfect though the individuals in question were far from ‘perfect’ even in the past. Then there are the would-be humans, that’s future conjunctive – just watch the hooligans at the next Euro football championships and you’ll know that evolution is far from complete. And what about the (gramatically) imperfect ‘used-to-be-humans’? I could name any number of polticians past & present who’d fit into that category. All in all, except in the narrow biological/anthropological sense, shouldn’t most of us be called human becomings instead of human beings?

It seems to me that just as the child grows into an adult, the human becoming has the possibility of metamorphosing into a human being – but only the possibility, not a guarantee. Most of us remain half-hatched & half-baked. God’s poultry or pottery will have to close down one of these millennia if it goes on like this.

Okay, so we know that waste is a principle of Nature. I was standing with a forester friend of mine among fifty metre tall beech trees in a grove on one of the slopes of Siebengebirge, the Seven Hills of Bonn. The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves and tiny seedlings, each with a stem and a pair of leaves. Some of those seedlings were already in the process of turning into saplings. My forester friend asked me if I knew what kind of plants they were, which I did not. Those seedlings were all children of the mighty beech trees whose smooth, elephantine trunks rose like waterspouts all around us – my friend said, cocking his hat. Each of those seedlings carried the potential of turning into a majestic arboreal monolith, given a hundred years or so. As for the rest of the seedlings, they’d go waste, or most of them. The rest would make up the beech grove of the future.

I once saw a whole bunch of apple-cheeked tiny tots spilling out of a kindergarten and thought, there goes the humankind of the future. I greet every baby in a pram as a future taxpayer and hence a future contributor to my pension fund. That baby is my future reader as well as Shakespeare’s. Without that baby or such babies Michelangelo’s David is an oblong, funnily carved piece of stone with nobody to look at it.

Waste? I’m absolutely convinced that unless there are millions of us trying to paint and failing miserably, you do not get a Monet or a van Gogh. Do we really want to know how many John Lennons and Paul McCartneys ended up as garbage collectors in the Liverpool of the ’sixties? Genius is like a human lottery, a human jackpot, with the whole of the human race as the winner. Think of the number of suckers who go empty for someone to win the lottery. And yet there wouldn’t be any lottery winners without us suckers. In every race and every competition, think of the number of losers for that one winner – and I say ‘one’ advisedly. I was the runner-up, a pretty girl told me once, while marrying a handsome friend of mine.

So have I wasted my time, worse, have I wasted my life in trying to – ahem – ‘write’? It was Bulwer-Lytton of The Last Days of Pompeii fame who coined the phrase The Great Unwashed for the lower classes. I belong to The Great Unpublished of the lower middle classes. There’s millions of us ‘writers becoming’, would-be writers, striving like those beech seedlings for their bit of space, air & sunlight.

Until Time with a capital ‘T’ relegates us to that very special limbo reserved for writers who-have-never-been.

Have we never really been? I seem to remember amateur singers pumping away at their harmonia and trying to sing Tagore songs who’d have made Tagore wish he had stuck to writing poetry. I have known poetasters whose rhymes can cause nausea as well as vomiting, though there’s no statutory warning on the back flap. I know painters I wouldn’t trust to do the bathroom door. Yet all of us are convinced that we are creative, that we are doing good work, even great work.

And then I met the Almighty and was about to congratulate Him on Creation when He said: ‘I botched it up so badly that the debris is still flying around after 14 billion years. But there’s this little planet that I made, a perfect little thing with fire inside and water outside, and a bit of green as well, with everything from ants to featherless bipeds crawling around on it – this was after somebody threw a meteor and broke all my dinosaurs. It’s still a cosy little nook compared to the mayhem that’s going on in the rest of the universe, that’s why I call it…’

‘Tell me some other time,’ I excused myself. The Almighty might have all Eternity, I didn’t.

‘Or you can read about it in my –’

‘Book?’

‘No, in my blog, I was going to say.’

See You Later, Navigator!

That’s the way we oldies – such as me & the missus – still potter around Europe in our three-year-old ‘Bored Siesta’ (no clandestine advertising on my blog, especially since I’m not being paid for it). A younger colleague of mine who acts as our joint IT advisor – more like our IT foster father – says that without the ‘Navi’ (as it is called in German) we, that’s me & the missus, are just a public nuisance; with the Navi, we shall be a public menace.

He’s right, of course. It’s the way the Navi Aunty, as he calls her – hunh? Navy aunty? Oh, the woman who gives the instructions on the gps. The thing that really gets on my nerves is her infinite patience: you can make any kind of mistake, even take a U-turn instead of going straight, Navi Aunty will never call you a fool or box your ears but recalculate & tell you to go to the left or go to the right as if nothing has happened; whereas I would have told the driver in question to go to hell, he being too stupid to drive anyway.

“Dear Arun-da, you can’t even operate your smartphone, you think you can operate a Navi?” His smartphone transforms itself into a Navi, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Still, I call it disrespect for a senior colleague. The fact that I’m not smart enough to operate my phone does not mean that I cannot navigate my way around a Navi – and that’s exactly what I, we, that’s me & the missus, did. We decided to do without a Navi this time as well, while travelling all the way from Bonn to Dinard in our Bored Siesta.

What or where is Dinard? It’s in Brittany in northwestern France, close to the more famous town of Saint-Malo – until the Wales national football team decided to make Dinard their base for the Euro 2016 football championships. When we went to Dinard, they still hadn’t taken down the flags – so just ask Gareth Bale the next time you meet him where Dinard is. Or you can ask your navy aunty.

The missus still mourns for those maps from the German automobile club on which the lady at the counter used to mark out the route with an orange marker – ADAC has done away with the service now. Today you get sheafs of printout detailing every stage of your journey like a ship’s log or a rocket launch. Or you can buy or download – maybe even steal! – a Navi to take you from Bonn to Dinard. Get into the car, check whether the dog is in, then give the address, Boulevard Albert Lacroix Number Such-and-Such, Dinard to the Navi and watch Aunty tell you how to get out of Plittersdorf, Bonn and head for the wide open spaces by turning left after 25 metres.

The Aunty on my younger colleague’s Navi has a rather sexy voice, I thought. I even told the missus about it. That’s when she objected to our acquiring a Navi, I think. Be that as it may, while the world is going ga-ga over Michelle Obama’s Carpool Karaoke, nobody’s kept a tab on the magnificent fights that me & the missus have had because she should have been watching the road signs while I was driving – or the other way round. This time it ended in: “If you saw that it was the exit for Dinard, how come we’re heading for Dinan?” They have two such places right next to each other and both are pronounced Dina, in all probability, knowing the French, God knows how they manage to communicate. “I’m going to Dina and you’re going to Dina, so we can’t meet for lunch. Let’s have dina at Samalo, shall we?”

We’d made a stopover in Amiens on our way to Dinard. The missus had booked a couple of rooms in an Anubis (no-clandestine-advertising-on-my-blog) hotel in Abbeville, for the return journey. Why ‘a couple of rooms’ for a married couple of our antiquity? No, not because we are practising separation but because (i) we had the dog with us & (ii) because I snore – you figure out the rest. Going to Dinard, we’d entered Amiens from the wrong side and had a wonderful drive down a street whose name we couldn’t find on any signpost – in any case, it went downhill and had a wonderful row of two-storeyed Breton houses… Forget it.

Just as we shouldn’t have got lost trying to get back to the road from a motorway service near Abbeville. This was on the way back. Turned out that we were heading back towards the English Channel, so we took the exit at Douchy-les-Mines and asked a kind-looking gentleman in which direction Belgium, Germany et al might lie. Took us five minutes to understand that the man was talking English but he saved our souls better than any automobile club or salvation army or navy aunty.

Like the man looking like a carbon copy of Alain Delon who came down the steps of an impressive pile – a bank? – and tried for around two minutes – in French, with lots of à droites and à gauches – and then told me and my younger brother to follow his BMW (a car or a man of that kind doesn’t need any clandestine advertising). He told us to get into our car and follow his i.e., he’d take us to the place we were trying to go to, bless him and all split infinitives. This was in Paris in the middle of the ’nineties, did I mention?

Ten years later me & the missus were going round in circles in Milan trying to find the Holiday Sin hotel where we were going to make a stopover on our way to Florence. There were some people – very formally dressed, for some reason – standing outside an old building of sorts. Then a young man in coattails came out and got into a car. I charged towards him in my desperation. He listened to my rant for around 30 seconds and then said what Alain Delon had said in Paris: “Follow our car.” When I came back to ours, the missus said: “Did you see the woman sitting next to him?” “Yes, she had a funny sort of veil on her head and a long, billowy kind of dress which filled the whole leg space…” “That’s the bride, you numskull” (or its German equivalent), “you just hijacked a pair of newly-weds to show you the way to your ruddy Holiday Sin. Before they take off for their honeymoon.”

Thank God I had a Bismillah Khan CD in the car, practically new, which I presented to the bridal pair when we parted. Sehnai was Indian marriage music, I told them blandly, knowing that the maestro was nowhere within earshot.