Monday, April 17, 2006

The Economist Style Guide to the Galaxy

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Express Highway lies a small un-regarded yellow brick Cooperative Housing Society. Nestled inside, roughly at a distance of Rs. 14 by rick from the nearest station, is an utterly insignificant blue-green kitchen.
This kitchen has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: though the dishes that lay in them had not been washed, there was absolutely nothing there for the cockroaches, which roamed freely under the sink, to eat.
 Many wise people pondered this problem. Some had brilliant ideas, and wrote long, sometimes rather witty, fortnightly columns and when the newspaper was delivered, they would spend long hours smiling back at their faces, oblivious of the cockroaches for the nonce. Nothing seemed to work.
 And then, one Thursday, two thousand and six years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a young man sitting on his own watching Taxi No. 9211 suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and he finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. The young man, whose name was Maruti Suzuki had found, tucked under his cinema seat, a sheaf of printed papers with the cryptic title (in large friendly letters) The Economist Style Guide and it had answers to all the questions that had ever crossed his mind. Son of the well known Sangli-based half-Japanese barber Muchikapuka, Maruti was a roving freelancer and it was his kitchen in which the cockroaches sought nourishment in vain. Maruti picked up the sheaf and squinted at it eagerly. Unwilling to wait until Intermission, he shone his cellphone torchlight on it.
 “Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought,” he read. “Try to be economical in your account or argument. “As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style.” (Sydney Smith)”
 Wow! Maruti wiped perspiration from his brow at the force of the well-chosen words.
 Immox the hot, Immox the remote, Immox with the bossy staff who don’t permit outside food! He sat back and immersed himself once again in the film, his 29th Nanny Pattycake movie in a row. He was working on a cover story on screen tragedy heroes, and Pattycake was his chosen favourite. Heartthrob of post-menopausal women throughout the known universe, Pattycake was also (Maruti knew) widely admired for his wit, cynicism and generally anti-religious attitude, and this was borne out by the parting exchange of their meeting a few days before.
 Pattycake had spoken admiringly of the 9:43 Bandra-Churchgate slow that he had used as a student and which still ran its unflinching schedule come April heatwave or August deluge. He held the existence of this local to be a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God, thus:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the 9:43 Churchgate slow is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. Q.E.D.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
 They had laughed, and parted friends. Maruti now scrunched himself further into his seat as he skimmed another passage in the Guide.
 “Some words add nothing but length to your prose,” he read the reassuring words with a frisson of pleasure. “Use adjectives to make your meaning more precise and be cautious of those you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. The word very is a case in point. If it occurs in a sentence you have written, try leaving it out and see whether the meaning is changed.
Maruti let out a low groan. If only, if only he had known this before that interview with Sachin Tendlichibhajiaanre the littlest master-batter that this nation has ever seen! He resolved that he must do yet another interview with the great man, in which he would wipe out every single superlative and all the very’s.
The day of the meeting, Maruti received an early-morning anonymous phone call. “Gold seal!” a husky voice whispered into his fuzzy unwashed ear. “New organic treatment!” And it read out a phone number. Maruti grabbed a pencil, sought around desperately for a piece of paper and then tried scratching it into the floor but the point broke. The caller hung up abruptly. Maruti slapped his forehead in exasperation. He had been so close to solving the mystery, and now the clue was gone, out of his reach forever! To make matters worse, Tendlichibhajiaanre, when they met, spoke in familiar but cryptic and rather incongruous nuances.
“I facing many problems when I be younger,” he began earnestly, “But I trying my best and learning lot many important skills. Some people helping to me. Many poke the funs at me.” Maruti, taken aback, narrowed his eyes, unable to pinpoint what exactly this reminded him of, but his expression cleared when Tendlichibhajiaanre added, as explanation, “Boasting, is the secret of my success.”
 “An empty vessel makes the most noise!” he now intoned sonorously. “One drop of honey will attract more cockroaches than fifffty litres of sherry!”
“Pompous ass!” thought Maruti, but then sat up straight with a light in his eye when it struck him that this string of clich├ęs might just hold a clue to his dilemma.
Trembling, Maruti picked up the Guide for reassurance. A thrill shivered through him as he read, “Lazy journalists are at home in oil-rich company A, ruled by ailing President B, the long-serving strongman, who is, according to the chattering classes, a wily political operator – hence the present uneasy peace. Prose such as this is freighted with codewords (respected is applied to someone the writer approves of, militant someone he disapproves of, prestigious  something you won’t have heard of).
Maruti was breathing hard. Filled with a new resolve, he now set out for Bombay Central to board a launch to the party where Kishore Biriyani was said to be standing at the Crossroads. Maruti knew that the party was his last chance for a solution to his cockroach problem. He was also eager to experience the fantastic globs of food passed around stuck on small sticks, which, Salman Corn had once told him, very large sums of money were paid for by very rich idiots who want to impress other very rich idiots.
This was before Corn had been convicted and clapped in irons for being a complete rascal. Still, Maruti had been well aware that he was not above a little bribery and corruption in the same way that the sea is not above the clouds. It was well known that when he heard the words integrity or moral rectitude he reached for his dictionary, and when he heard the chink of ready money in large quantities he reached for the rule book and threw it away.
Maruti turned once again to his trusted Guide for sustenance. “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,” said Orwell, “while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of wornout metaphors which are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”
Maruti felt a surge of wellbeing rush through him. He knew now that he was very close to receiving the final answer. And then he saw it! The road leading to his Cooperative Housing Society was dug up for cable-laying and maybe a flyover or two. He walked balancing himself gingerly on a pile of loose black earth. Then, just outside the gate, he saw a large signboard with a black and yellow striped border and with large letters flashing in bright orange. Here was the answer he had been seeking all these years: “Inconvenience Caused is Deeply Regretted,” it said. 
First appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 16 Apr 2006, as part of a series in which Saaz parodied a range of humour writers, using their voices to tell Bombay stories.