The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sitting at a hip-hop Barista, anywhere in India, surrounded by a slothfully mobile bunch of unisex waifs and wannabe movie stars, will never compare with the good old days of laid back and luxuriant lounging of pucca Bengali and Parsi gentlemen at Flurys in Calcutta, over a hot pot of Darjeeling tea and a selection of warm cup cakes that smelled quaintly of the rear of our Queen's Mansion.

One early morning, I settled down to a cup of Latt' at Barista's in Bangalore, grateful that their clientele, who normally go to sleep when pubs close at dawn, were among the grateful dead at this time of the morning. Over the top of my newspaper, I noticed a tramp walk in.

'Excuse me.' I ignored the high-pitched voice. 'Excuse me,' it squeaked again, 'I seem a bit lost' and...' Staring down at me with beady eyes and fluttering lashes above a butterfly moustache was a Charlie Chaplin lookalike.

'Good morning,' he said, doffing his dirty bowler hat. 'Sorry sir, I've been given to understand that I am in Carnalkutta in Bengalooru. Would that be right'

'You are in Karnataka in Bangalore, or the other way round,' I said, taken aback by his impeccable English accent. 'My name's Chaplin sir, Charles' umm...,' he shrugged and smirked, 'often known as Charlie Chaplin.'

'And my name's Gandhi, Mohandas, often known as Mahatma,' I retorted.

'Right,' he continued with a twitch of his moustache and a quizzical frown, 'he, Gandy, was to meet me here too; along with Shakespeare, some Thakgore, Netajee, Mother Teresa and Neeru. But I fear I may have got the wrong address. Without a GPS system, I've been dropped off at Barista in Bengalooru instead of a place called Basirhat in Bengal. Am I far off, sir'

I looked at the tramp with his worn out boots and crooked cane. 'Look kid, great con, but if you want a free cup of coffee, you're knocking on the wrong door. I suggest you vamoose'

Suddenly the door swung open and in walked. In walked. Damn it. Was I going crazy at some fancy dress jamboree or was this some kind of jocular nightmare' Wrapped carelessly in a sari was a wrinkly old woman that looked like Mother Teresa, Shakespeare looking like an Edwardian dandy, in uniform was Netaji, in a dhoti and shivering in the air-conditioning was the Mahatma, Abanindranath Tagore appeared in a beret with an easel under his arm and Nehru dressed immaculately sported a limp rose in his buttonhole and with no shoes on.

'All right,' I said laughing at the well-orchestrated joke, 'you guys deserve a medal. Have you just come from or are you about to go to a 'go-as-you-like' contest'

'Sir, may we join you' asked Charlie hesitantly. 'We have a problem that we need someone to analyse and help us with.'

What the heck. I decided to go along.

'Sure,' I said. 'Three beerista coffees (Willie winked at me), one vanilla smoothie for the fakir and two Assam teas for the painter and for our lady!'

The waiter was looking at me as if I was some kind of nut.

Where streets have two names

'So what are all you famous people doing in the information technology hub of India' Attending an Infosys board meeting'

'You are right,' said the Mahatma wiping fog off his misted bifocals, 'we need information. First I want to thank you for recognising us. We were beginning to worry if people remembered us.'

'Of course we do. All your birthdays are school holidays and a billion people are pushing for Benedict's benediction on your canonisation,' I said, looking at Mother Teresa.

'It'll take a miracle,' she said. 'The problem, my child,' said the Mother, 'is not that we have been forgotten but how we are meaninglessly canonised by municipal corporations throughout the country.'

'I used to be looking down Park Street,' shot Gandhi, 'at all the revelry I had abstained from, and then was suddenly and unceremoniously lifted out to occupy a street corner from where I can see Subhash in the distance pointing a finger at the sky like an out-of-step soldier and now Jawahar stands looking down Park'.'

'Ahem, I beg your pardon,' the Mother cleared her throat.

'Sorry, Mother Teresa Sarani. But that's my point; she got accolades from everyone in Hollywood to the Pope, died without being assassinated by nuns or beggars and then the most sensual of streets in India gets named after her ' a champion of the diseased and dying; not shredded jeans, tank tops and leather pants! No one will ever call it that. It will always be known as Park Street just as today no one calls Chowringhee Jawaharlal Nehru Road.'

'Actually,' added Nehru humbly, lifting his bare feet off the cold marble floor, 'the area is called Chowringhee but my street name is quite valid on letterheads.'

'Hai Ram,' exclaimed Gandhi.

'Please, lets come to the issue in hand. And, rather embarrassingly,' said Subhash very nobly. 'The streets named after me are only known as 'NS' Road which, phonetically, is sometimes rather insolent, if you get what I mean.'

'That's all very well for you lot,' yelled Abanindranth, 'who at least are known, albeit as 'MG' and 'NS'. But Shakespeare here, and myself are completely ignored. Theatre Road remains Theatre Road with one theatre on it and the British Library's been removed from his Sarani to my utterly Bengali domain and my street of Pantaloons and markets and street vendors will never, never change from Camac!'

'Modern Times, dear chaps,' consoled Chaplin. 'And if you Neetajee are worried about crows on your finger and Gandy about bird droppings on your broad shoulders, you want to take a peek at the decrepit theatre they've named after me and the trash amidst which my statue celebrates communism.'

There was a moment's silence.

Fancy dress or ghoul gang

Then, just as Willie was beginning to say, 'To be or not' I felt a chill run up and down my spine as it dawned on me that I might actually be associating with ghouls who had arrived from the haunted and hounded never-never land.

There was sudden strong breeze that flung open the front door and in walked Shyam Benegal with a bunch of studious assistants.

'Shyam,' I yelled and jumped up from my chair. 'Victor!' he replied, and walked across to me. 'May we sit' I looked at my table and all the chairs were empty. My companions had vanished.

'Sure,' I said, with befuddled alacrity. 'You've got company' Am I barging in' he said looking at all the cups and some spilt milk. 'No. No. Please, no. Sit.'

Shyam, who had just been glorified by the Netaji Institute, said something about now making a film on Mother Teresa. I looked up at him and with a wink said, 'Healing the sick in Park Street's nightclubs and discos' Ha Ha ! No sex please, I'm Bengali!'

To wrap up this incoherent experience, in conclusion, like you must be thinking, I too have often wondered about Nehru's bare feet and felt his shoes had been pinched by a visionary who is still waiting to see who outside his bloodline might ever fill them.

Oh, please take me back from Bengalooru, any time, to the simple daydreams at Flurys, in Calcutta' oops, Kolkata!

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