Alyque Padamsee: The God of Small Things and Some Large Ones

Since his passing on November 17, 2018 at the alleged age of 90 – and I say ‘alleged’ with deliberate intent because, even in repose, Alyque Padamsee had to be his typical, unpredictable self, his actual age either 87 or 90, whichever be your best guess – innumerable paeans have been written about him – Alyque, the advertising god, the communications guru, the film and theatre personality – and though they bear repetition, I would rather remember him from a more personal perspective.

I had the privilege of working for him for seven years, four of them at the relatively safe flying distance of 1660 km., or 2 hours 35 minutes, and three in rather closer and significantly more dangerous proximity, just yards or, given his long strides, a 20-second walk, from the corner office he co-occupied with a rowing machine on the 12th floor of Express Towers, Nariman Point, Bombay. And if there’s just one thing that I am truly thankful to Alyque for, it is for insisting, under an unsaid but palpable threat of dismissal (Alyque was never one to sweeten the pill when he was determined to have his way, which was more often than not), that I transfer to Bombay, albeit on terms that, at the time, seemed more punishment than reward. His insight: a Bengali is much better at his job outside the comfort zone of Calcutta, (which was why, during his reign, no Bengali had headed the Lintas Calcutta office before me). And so, it was for this Bengali, too. As it was for my wife, Samita, who found opportunities to pursue her calling as a painter, as well as both recognition and commercial success, within months of arriving in Bombay. So, contrary to all astrological predictions that our relocation would last no longer than a year, we stayed for 19.

Alyque had keen insights not just about people, as consumers, but people, as people. The first helped him create iconic advertising campaigns. The second, to spot and nurture talent. As Kabir Bedi says in an interview on YouTube, he owed his break in advertising, theatre and films – in fact, his entire career – to Alyque. As, indeed, did many others – copywriters, film makers, models, actors, authors – such was Alyque’s innate ability to spot creative potential and having once discovered it, coax it out of you by methods both fair and foul, encouraging, supporting, demanding, berating, yelling, screaming, pressuring until what he thought you were truly capable of was literally pulled out of you like a painful tooth extraction. But, though Alyque had all the time in the world for inherently creative people, he did not suffer fools – by his exacting standards – gladly, if at all, particularly, if you acted smarter than you really were or pretended to be someone you were not. Then, he could be as ruthless and avenging as a God straight out of the Old Testament.

In office, Alyque was on a perpetual adrenaline high, calling back-to-back meetings, participating in, if not dominating, creative brainstorming sessions, charming clients that were special to him, rushing into rooms and places where you’d least expect him to be to surprise check housekeeping standards or whether the picture he’d wanted framed just-so had actually been framed just-so. After office hours, however, he was a completely different person, more so when he visited Calcutta once a quarter. Of the two evenings he normally spent in the city, he rigorously kept one for his old theatre friends – Shekhar Chatterjee, Utpal Dutta, Badal Sarkar, to name a few – some local journalists he was close to (during my time, M.J. Akbar) and any artists, poets or writers that I had acquaintance with or could get hold of at short notice for a home-cooked meal. (Alyque was an absolute Shylock when it came to spending money, his annual “Bhelpuri and Beer” Christmas Eve dinners at Christmas Eve, as his building was named, was literally just that – bhelpuri and beer plus Christmas carols at the stroke of midnight). Then, would follow many hours of invigorating, mind-expanding, thought-provoking discussion on contemporary art, theatre, film and anything else that might have recently caught his fancy, underlined by Alyque’s irreverent and often cutting humour. The second of the two evenings was for office employees, when, as a rigorous diktat, no work was ever discussed and Alyque was at his funniest best, reinforcing in the young minds of Lintas Calcutta that there was no finer place to work in, as indeed, there was not.

Though Alyque was a god of many things, he held the firm belief that the devil lurked in the details. This made him meticulous to a fault. Wherever he went, a small yellow pad accompanied him in which he would jot reminders, in a spidery, often indecipherable, hand. If you thought they were for himself, you were only partly correct. At the end of the day, a copy of the relevant page would be on your table with delivery dates you had committed to and, thereafter, every morning there would be a call from him, or his secretary, Lalitha, enquiring about progress till the item was finally checked off the page to Alyque’s satisfaction. If it wasn’t, or you missed two successive delivery dates, you could rest uneasy that your annual appraisal wouldn’t go too kindly. His total disregard for one’s capacity to remember and his almost evangelical insistence that everything had to be written down was bound to rub-off on the recipients of his wrath when they were not. It is a learning that I must admit has stood me in good stead and to great advantage on several occasions in the years subsequent to my first inculcating the discipline from him. Phone alerts and notifications are a modern-day variation on the same theme.

Advertising god, yes. Communications guru, yes. Showman extraordinaire, yes. Salesman par excellence, yes. Theatre dynamo, yes. But, above all, Alyque was a Life consultant, a change agent for the people who were privileged to have had him as a guide and mentor.

In Ten Sentences Or Less [15] – Auld Lang Sine or The Times Gone By

Given the melancholia that Scots were said to be prone to in the 1700s, no doubt a consequence of the frequent wars they found themselves engaged in, the unrelenting and unforgiving natural elements they had to do battle with when they weren’t fighting the Brits and the brutally majestic, obsessive and monomaniacal presence all year round of the Scottish Highlands (described by an expert on all things Scottish as “that region where common sense no longer prevails and the Celtic imagination is all”), the poet Robert Burns probably struck the right chord when, in 1788, he wrote Auld Lang Syne (loosely translated to mean “the times gone by”) making a strong appeal to not forget old acquaintances and raise a cup of kindness (loosely translated to mean “pour me another”) to old relationships even as Time marched relentlessly on.

Though, from the evidence available, Robert Burns never intended his work to act as a farewell to the old year, its call for the preservation of our oldest and dearest relationships – perhaps best observed in the reflective quality of New Year’s Eve itself when, if we are lucky, we are in the company of close friends and family – seems to have found such universal resonance that it is still doing the rounds after 230 years and has become an absolute tradition in all New Year’s Eve celebrations, the opening lines from it (because that’s about all that most people can usually remember) a must-do at the stroke of midnight before all kinds of other silliness kick in, like inebriated people of advanced years in conical hats blowing whistles at each other or clumsily stumbling around in search of the next pair of lips to slobber on in what has suddenly become a very bright room with the houselights full on.

Nor is Auld Lang Syne a tradition and prerogative of the English-speaking world for which Burns originally intended it; it has global significance, too, its tune, if not the words, used, I am told, by Maldives and Korea (probably when still in its undivided form) for their national anthems, which, if true, would have both anthems sounding much the same – a bit of a bother if both countries were to be facing each other at, say, a world football event – and Japanese stores have been known to play it as a polite reminder for customers to leave as closing time approaches. And, though intrinsically linked to the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, Auld Lang Syne, being essentially a call for remembering old relationships and acquaintances, finds relevance at other occasions too, although those may not have the same celebratory quality – funerals, for example – which is the interpretation of Auld Lang Syne that I’d be inclined to offer for 2016, a year that, for me, is best forgotten because to remember it would be for the worst reasons.

The bright spot is that by the time you read this piece, it would be over and, despite the grogginess of mind and tiredness of limbs that many of us might be experiencing after a night of Bacchanalian excess that good sense warned against but the madness that afflicts us in party season vetoed, 2017 seems to hold the promise of new beginnings and unexpected surprises (hopefully, of the good kind) having, to start with, an unstructured, asymmetrical, off-kilter air about it, quite the opposite of the regimented, squared-up, confining look that 2016 had, an Apple to an IBM, if you will (and look what happened there!).

If the lessons of that face-off were to be juxtaposed on the New Year (and there are really no rational reasons to justify why they should be), I am hopeful of a less intolerant, dogma-driven, myopic, isolationistic and fundamentalist world where free-thinking, open-mindedness, forbearance and inclusiveness will not suffer ignominy on Facebook and Twitter, or at the polls, where forcibly playing the national anthem at the beginning of every cinema show and getting people to stand for it will not be construed as nation building and the pinnacle of patriotism, where the eating habits of people with different religious persuasions will not be interfered with, where single working women will not be seen as prime bait for any predatory male or social misfit, where governments will do what they are meant to do – govern, not meddle in peoples’ lives and presume to be their moral guardians – where Police will police, not become lackeys of the ruling political party and do its every bidding, including jailing someone for caricaturizing a sitting minister on Facebook and where iPhone 8 will be as much of a game changer as the first iPhone was 10 years ago.

Happy 2017, all, and don’t pine for Auld Lang Sine.

In Ten Sentences or Less [14] – Memories Should Be Left Where They Are – Part Two

Returning to the narrative begun some days ago, there we were, then, travellers in search of Culinary Paradise or, at least, Paradise as we remembered it, our faltering enthusiasm at seeing how much of that heaven had been eroded by the exigencies of modernity and the new-fangled marketing notions of subsequent generations of owners momentarily revived by the invitation to the first floor, air-conditioned annexe. As the fat man from behind the cash counter, wearing a checked shirt - missing a button at a belly of magnificent proportions - a smarmy smile and a fawning disposition was insistent upon telling us repeatedly, we’d be much more comfortable in the room upstairs, less disturbed by the constant to-ing and fro-ing of a clientele of lower repute (or, as he probably meant, lesser means). 

      A spiral staircase that would have challenged the fitness of the finest athlete and navigational capabilities of the most refined global positioning system took us to a room that, after the neon-lit blaze of the main dining area, seemed entirely engulfed in shadow, the ceiling at a height that had even the shortest among us stooping. It didn't need an IQ of stratospherical proportions to determine that the first floor was not a floor at all but a mezzanine construction, in all likelihood, unauthorized, though we had to concede that the air conditioning was more than perfect even if the lighting wasn’t. Running the risk of a particularly painful form of spondylosis the longer we stood around with our necks bent in supplication mode, as if offered up for decapitation by guillotine, we hurriedly seated ourselves the best we could, unfazed by joined tables of uneven height, concrete pillars that had no business being where they were and a tablecloth of uncertain colour and dubious cleanliness that a waiter of similar traits whisked out of nowhere like a vaudeville magician and covered our tables with, almost simultaneous with his placement of four faux leatherbound menu cards, which, though wrinkled and stained with abuse, he positioned with symmetric precision and loving care. Having already visually sampled the fare on offer and decided on reliving our memories exactly as we’d first created them, we had no use for menu cards however ornate and voluminous, for it was predetermined, nay, preordained, that the sole purpose of this culinary voyage was to revisit Chacha’s famous fowl cutlets - the very same over which many years ago, accompanied by frequent refills of masala tea, some of us had debated politics, others cinema, some existentialism, others ennui, some love, others angst, but all united in the belief that the best of life lay ahead of us if Chacha’s culinary expertise, manifest in the cutlets that carried his name, were anything to go by, although none of us could say with full certainty whether anyone called Chacha actually existed and if it all wasn’t just a potent marketing idea ahead of its time.
     Suffice it to say, that day, at New Chacha's Hotel, one of the more treasured memories of our college days died and, with its passing, was buried our collective intent to rediscover and retrace the culinary trail of our youth. Chacha’s legendary fowl cutlets, when they arrived, borne as far aloft as the confines of a low ceiling permitted by a waiter with a most unfortunate choice of sartorial style and a completely misplaced sense of joi de vivre, were, in a word, foul, bereft of the ability to trigger anything but remorse and regret, empirical evidence, if empirical evidence were needed, that memories are best left where they are.
    And if there is a learning, it is this: that a memory, good or bad, isn’t comprised of just one thing even though we tend to recall it that way - as a single, overwhelming experience; in truth, it has perspective, context and relevance, either to a specific time or a specific state of being; its strength and durability lies in its ability to trigger a veritable videostream of events, peoples, places, thoughts and feelings each time it is recalled and when it can no longer do that, it ceases to be a memory.