Virginia House on Chowringhee Road in Kolkata, with its white, classical facade, and austere yet tasteful decor is one of the last bastions of what can be called the English Style. This is the corporate headquarters of India’s top-selling cigarette company, ITC, once upon a time known as the Imperial Tobacco Company.
For them to use England national football captain John Terry as part of their ‘warning’ image on their cigarette packet would not make any sense. Last week, Calcuttans were delighted to find that their city’s temperature matched that of London. With that kind of disposition, why would a fag company headquartered in that city want to wind up Terry, the footballer that Indians probably relate to more than Bhaichung Bhutia?
And that’s not only true of beholden-to-Queen Victoria and Damn-the-Brits-left-India Calcuttans. Godfrey Phillips, another cigarette brand, also carried the same blurred warning image of John Terry and his ‘Smoking Kills’ lungs — like all other packets produced by Indian cigarette companies — with the result that the footballer’s managers are now contemplating legal action against, one would hope, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP).
On the face of it, it’s not a big deal. But if we, Indians, have raged against images being used by ‘Westerners’ for purposes that are less than savoury without permission, Terry and gang have the right to have their sensibilities hurt by having the Chelsea and England skipper being depicted as having — by association — damaged ‘smoking lungs’. If I was some bright spark at DAVP, I certainly would have used the image of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup captain Socrates. At least that great footballer actually smoked — and in some practice sessions played football while chugging on a cigarette.
But Terry is a different kettle of fish. He’s good. But he’s not known to smoke and play football; or for that smoke at all. My theory is that Indian cig companies, for some nefarious reason, are trying to divert attention from the serious charges of racism that the footballer has been accused of.
While Virginia House types in Calcutta — and elsewhere — will shake their heads in strict denial, the fact of the matter is that Terry, on October 23, seemed to have called Anton Ferdinand, a fellow footballer from Queen’s Park Rangers, a “f ****** black ****” during a match. That Bengal Club ladies will swoon at the very thought of so many asterisks in one sentence is another matter.
But that’s when the Anglophiles at DAVP thought they could help out a saheb in trouble. While Terry was embroiled in a racist wrangle, his admirers in DAVP (‘So what if he’s racist? At least he speaks decent English and Macaulay would have vouched for him) figured that a lovely way to change the subject was to put his picture on every Indian cigarette packet and give his managers a tinkle. (The picture is too blurred to be identified as that of Terry otherwise.)
And sure enough, as the subject moves to why Terry is on Indian cigarette packets — smoking being a social crime on a par with racism in England (in India, both are simple botherations) — the footballer has been allowed to continue as England captain, despite being told that he must appear in court next year to answer a criminal charge of using racist language on the field.
So if we thought we saved the Landrover and Jaguar, two great British institutions that we need to keep Meghnad Desai and Swraj Paul away from, here’s another prized vilayti gong we rescued: John Terry, England football captain. Huzzah! So what if he’s a bit of a fun racist?
( Mondy Thapar is a Delhi-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal