Cross connections

Published on Jan 28, 2006 05:09 AM IST

Sometimes when I pick up the phone to ring up someone, I hear two people talking to each other. Instead of putting down the receiver, I listen to their conversation, writes Khushwant Singh.

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None | ByWith malice towards one and all... | Khushwant Singh

Sometimes when I pick up the phone to ring up someone, I hear two people talking to each other. Instead of putting down the receiver, I listen to their conversation. Once when my line crossed with another, I heard two women going on and on about something or the other. I put down the receiver for a few minutes. They were still at it. I did this twice but they had not finished. In sheer exasperation, I butted into their unending dialogue and yelled, “For God’s sake, shut up. I want to use the phone.” I heard one of the ladies say to the other: “Some nasty fellow on the line. I’ll ring later. Ta, ta.”

I am not a nasty fellow but I cannot resist overhearing people talking about me (usually in not very flattering terms). I don’t mind reading other people’s letters, watching them get intimate when they thought no one was looking. All these came by chance and not planned or contrived by me. I am a voyeur — most people are — it is human nature.

But hiring people to do the snooping for you is quite another matter. Many husbands and wives employ private detectives to keep an eye on their spouses when they suspect they have extra-marital relations and want concrete evidence of their infidelity before confronting them or to produce in court when filing for divorce. It is a mean thing to do but forgivable. What cannot be condoned is when politicians resort to it to get inside information about what their rivals are up to and plan counter-strategy. This is reprehensible whether resorted to by supporters of the government or the opposition.

This brings me to sting operations carried out by enterprising members of my profession — operations which exposed a whole lot of politicians including MPs receiving cash in return of favours. I entirely approve of what they did. I also approve of the exposure of self-styled holy men committed to celibacy being caught in the camera fornicating with their disciples or male disciples’ wives. It is legitimate to expose frauds who mislead the gullible into believing what they preach but do not practise themselves.

Best sellers

As I get older I get choosier about books I read. There was a time when I made it a point to read the latest winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker, Pulitzer, Commonwealth and Whitbread awardees. I found many of them second rate. I tried a second yardstick — books that had earned advance royalties of millions of dollars or pounds. I found most of them equally second rate. Then I tried to read best sellers in America and England. They were complete let downs and I wondered why so many people wasted their time on them. To the average unsophisticated novel reader — American or English — the idea of good writing is The Readers’ Digest or what they hear popular media personalities like Oprah Winfrey have to say about them. Oprah says a kind word about the novel or gets the author on her programme, he or she is assured of comfortable living till the end of his or her life. I’ve suffered reading such books for too long.

The last three were insufferably bad. Two were about life and death, one about whoring. The last I’ve finished padding is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Fourth Estate) presented to me by a lady who raved about

it, and evidently uses the same literary yardsticks to judge a novel as Oprah. It is about a woman coping with her husband’s death while their daughter is in the intensive care of a hospital. The husband collapses on the floor while having dinner and is almost certainly dead by the time he gets to hospital. She goes into prolix details about his condition, what caused his sudden collapse, the doctors’ opinions on the subject and medication they gave him in the hope of reviving him. It is the same approach to her daughter’s trauma. She tries to relive the past, goes over details of the places they visited, people they met, dinners and lunches they ate in different cities and countries. It is maudlin, repetitive and tedious.

There are a few quotable lines which get lost in the plethora of meaningless trivia. The moral is if you want to read only good books, take no notice of how well they are doing sales-wise and before you accept friends’ opinions, find out their credentials as judges of good writing.

By your leave

A few interesting leave applications:

* Infosys, Bangalore: “Since I have to go to my village to sell my land along with my wife, please sanction me one-week leave.”

* Oracle, Bangalore [asking leave for his son’s thread ceremony]: “As I want to shave my son’s head, please leave me for two days.”

* Asking for leave for a daughter’s wedding: “As I am marrying my daughter, please grant a week’s leave.”

* From an administration department: “As my mother-in-law has expired and I am only one responsible for it, please grant me 10 days leave.”

* “Since I have to go to the cremation ground at 10 o’clock and I may not return, please grant me half-day casual leave.”

* “I am suffering from fever, please declare one day holiday.”

* A leave letter to the headmaster: “As I am studying in this school I am suffering from headache. I request you to leave me today.”

* “My wife is suffering from sickness and as I am her only husband at home, I may be granted leave.”

(Contributed by Vipin Bucksey, New Delhi)

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