Note: The stories I write today are completely based on hearsay. You shouldn’t believe a word of it but if you do, you’re obviously a person of excellent judgment and loyal reader. This makes me happy because it tells me if I ever start a cult aiming at world domination, I know where to look for recruits. Yay me! Okay, moving on:
About fifty or so years ago, in a Southern Indian state, there lived a Mr. Shankar. He was one of those influential men who never directly enter the political fray, preferring instead to make his fortune and exercise his vast power by playing mentor to a number of politicians. And if there were discussions about “much-needed” policy changes along the way, over a discreet glass of Scotch or five, where was the harm in it?
But rich and powerful men who work in the shadows need to demonstrate their importance in some way. Alas for Mr. Shankar, he lived in a time when people weren’t quite as brazen as they are these days so building a mansion with toilet seats made of gold and subsequently inviting a local news crew to record the fabulosity for lesser mortals to gawk at was out. Nehru was still walking about with a rosebud in his lapel and people periodically made noises about sacrifice and common good and the spirit of Gandhi was still a giant cloud hovering over everybody’s head so what was a man to do?
Happily for Mr. Shankar, the chief minister of the day was abruptly seized with a desperate need for a posher car than was then deemed suitable for a poor, people-serving politician (see? This was obviously before Mrs. Gandhi became Prime Minister). So he put in an order for a DeSoto.
For those of you who don’t know your DeSoto from a risotto, it’s this thing you see to the right. It makes my mother see red for some reason (“Ugly little box! Argh!”) and has a starring role in pretty much every movie ever made during its period of production. I don’t know if it was really such a popular car or whether it was the most affordable car for movie studios to own or if Chrysler was sending them by the truckload to anybody who asked in the interests of free publicity. Anyhoo…
The CM ordered one of the latest model in a dark green color and it was a nine days wonder when it arrived. He’d motor around the capital, showing it off in a way that we in our terrorism-riddled, security-swaddled times can barely imagine; and when the novelty of that pastime faded, he found it necessary to go on a few road trips to meet his people. Who were shocked. Look at our CM, they said. Such profligacy! Such dash! Such fill-in-the-blank!
Mr. Shankar’s powerful little grey cells immediately went into action. And a little while later, look who’s driving a DeSoto just like the CM! It’s that well known businessman, Mr. Shankar! Right down to the dark green paint. But as the wondering public stood staring after his car, it was noted that he’d gone one up on the CM: displayed in the rear window was a tin of Player’s with a lighter resting nonchalantly on top of it.
Players, you ask? John Player & Sons, or simply “Players” for short, was a brand of cigarettes that was apparently a cult item in its day. These days they’re some sort of ‘budget brand’ and their biggest market, says Wikipedia, is Pakistan – and there’s nothing wrong with either of those things, of course, but it’s far removed from the days when it was apparently a big status symbol across the subcontinent.
Part of the reason people loved it so was because it came in a tin – pack of 50 – that had a little lever on its lid. If you pushed it back and twisted the lid, then it worked as an automatic can opener. Inside, there was a little strip of paper/string, and if you pulled on it then a few cigarettes would pop up saving the precious ciggies inside from an eager mauling at your fat hands. Fun tobacco!
Because it came in such numbers, it was also a prime favorite with people who sold ciggies by ones and twos. My mom, who spent her entire childhood getting into places where she shouldn’t, remembers sneaking into the bar at her father’s restaurant and “helping” the uncle at the counter dispense the ciggies by pulling on the little string.
At weddings, they developed a custom of serving (male) guests cigarettes to smoke. Since a small South Indian wedding means a couple of thousand people, however, it was deemed more efficient to dump a whole bunch on a nice plate and offer it around the way they do little glasses of juice these days. What mealymouthed times we live in! At these events, it was the last word in class if the ciggies on offer were Players.
There was even a trick to holding the Players tin – you held it carefully cupped with its label facing outside, so everybody got to see exactly what you were smoking. And you rested the lighter on top so that you could offer it to people and help them light up. Kind of like a wandering doorman in my opinion but what do I know? I’m just a young snob. One uncle, living a life of penury as an engineering student, would buy four cigarettes at a time and secrete the precious stash in various parts of his room. Unfortunately, the mooch in the next room would always sniff it out and make off with at least one. Fifty years later, he and the mooch have both retired from successful business life – and he still hasn’t forgotten it. That’s how much they loved them some Players.
Players was apparently also a favorite with the KGB. It’s true! Well, it might not be, but it’s an interesting idea. Apparently somebody cooked up secret spy cameras and tape recorders and whatnot in fake Players packs. Unfortunately, they look like they were constructed in some kid’s basement so experts doubt whether the KGB had anything to do with them. Darn kids! Always getting my hopes up.
These reminiscences amongst the older generation led to talk of farming in general and tobacco farming in particular – a topic that sent me to sleep for a little while. I perked up, however, when my father began to talk of this fabulous guesthouse he’d once stayed in. My scandal sense was tingling – and it was not wrong!
The guesthouse was in the heart of the tobacco belt in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. Originally, it belonged to an export house owned by a man I will call “Doctor”. He was a real doctor although I’m not sure if he was a doctor of medicine. He’d studied in England and while there, met and married a lady from Czechoslovakia. They moved back to India and decided to make use of her knowledge of life behind the Iron Curtain by setting up an export house.
This was during the time of Pandit Nehru and export houses were regarded with enthusiasm. Doctor, who had connections to the Commerce Ministry, managed to get tons of subsidy and set up business in Guntur.
The export house flourished and grew to astronomical proportions under successive governments until the 1980s when the somebody detected a trifling matter of tax fraud. An investigation was launched and Doctor and his wife appealed to the court. The investigation went ahead all the same and the day arrived when the police landed at the couple’s mansion. Which was empty. Turns out the two of them had hopped a plane and vanished. They left all their physical assets behind (which got snapped up by other people in some mysterious fashion until no sign of the original company remains) but took with them all cash assets.
Afterwards, it emerged that the Czechoslovakian wife was something of a Mata Hari who’d recruited Doctor when they met in England and the two of them were able to build up their little business empire through her contacts. They had a run of the Soviet controlled countries, including the satellites, and tax fraud was the least of their chicanery.
The guesthouse in Guntur that my father stayed at, as an invitee of the Tobacco Board, was originally built to entertain her contacts from behind the Iron Curtain. When Dad went there, he found service that would have put a seven star hotel to shame, with beautifully appointed rooms, excellent food and a swimming pool. There was no bhoot bungalow nonsense and the caretakers in charge of it were perfectly mannered and pleasant and debauched, murdered village belles sang no haunting songs in the dead of the night. As nice as it all was, in its heyday, when Doctor and his wife were wooing the Russians, it was even better – there wasn’t a wish that couldn’t be granted, Dad hinted discreetly.
They never did find Doctor or his money. Years later, Dad ran into someone who’d once known Doctor and was informed that he’d died a long time ago, presumably in style, in some country where they didn’t have an extradition treaty with India.
All of which teaches me never to presume – either about the lives older folks lived in their heyday (whatever happened to my mythical god-fearing, sambar-loving, innocent people?) or about places like Guntur.
No offense to people who live in Guntur… but, you know? Guntur, hub of international espionage? This is a weird world.