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.