Death of the cigarette salesman

December 7th, 2011

The first time I saw him on television, way back in the mid-1970s, he was gently rocking on a chair, blowing the smoke from the cigarette he’d just taken a drag on. The ad was Charminar, if I mistake not, or Charms, another brand from the VST stable. The man’s velvet voice, his suave, his stately demeanour and his dashing good looks made a combo lethal enough to convince even a die-hard anti-tobacco lobbyist. I know I was hooked badly enough to want to sneak out to the local paanwala’s kiosk and steal a puff or two of whatever Partap Sharma was selling on the tube. And I had barely stepped into my teens.

It was this first encounter with ‘the voice’ that made a lasting impact on me. Over the next year or two, the family would huddle up before an old black & white JK television set to watch him anchor What’s the Good Word, a popular programme on the box those days. He had a number of famous contemporaries such as Bikram Vohra, Gautam Vohra, Fredun de Vitre, AFS Talyerkhan, all of whom were big names in the English language segment of the broadcasting industry during the 1970s. Each one of them was a stalwart in his own right, but just like we have our favourite actor or singer, i had my favourite TV star… Pat Sharma, the man who bummed cigarettes from my late father during their days at St Xaviers College, Mumbai. (For a long time I felt my dad was just name-dropping and it took another one of his college mates to confirm to me the veracity of his claims. But that’s another story).

Fast-forward to the age of colour television, post the 1982 Asian Games. Suddenly, New Delhi began dictating what people in the rest of the country would watch. So out went Pat Sharma, Dolly Thakore and the rest of the ‘Bombay’ gang as the city was then known. Our daily fare of news and entertainment was dominated by long-faced, droopy newsreaders and boring soaps like Hum Log. Partap Sharma all but faded into oblivion and only very occasionally made a call to my grey cells.

Then, in the early 2000s, I remembered him again, and was hoping to rope him in for a musical event the PR company i was working with had conceived on wind instruments. Who better than Pratap Sharma to anchor the show. I had learnt then that the compulsive smoker in him had lost his famous voice, but that he had bounced back following extensive therapy and was in business again. I tried asking my dad to network him for me, but my old man had already become too much of a recluse then, due to failing health. I pushed plenty of buttons to try and rope in my childhood hero, but all plans fell through when my PR company abandoned the project altogether.

Now, almost eight years since, I learn that Pat Sharma has quietly slipped out of life, not half as much as celebrated in death as he ought to have been. Of the three deaths that took place in the past week or so — Dev Anand and Socrates being the other two — his was the most low profile. None, I repeat none, of my colleagues at work knew who he was…even after the newspapers carried reports of his passing away. Sad. Pat Sharma, I will always remember you… for the Charminar cigarettes, for the Halo Shampoo ad of the 1970s in which your voice did more magic than the beautiful woman featured in it, for What’s the Good Word, and for making 1970s television something for me to remember even after 35-40 years.

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Certainly not at its BEST

July 11th, 2009

This one is going to sound like a rant over a seemingly trivial issue, especially for those who do not have to rely on public transport. Who on earth would want to read a thousand-word diatribe against what almost everybody—including this blogger—thinks of as Maximum City’s iconic service? Nevertheless.

I have always marveled at the clockwork efficiency of the two pillars of Mumbai’s commuting system—the local train and the BEST buses, and have often harped about them in discussions with colleagues from Delhi, a city which is only beginning to get a taste of what public transport should really be.

Which is why it came as a bit of a shock to me when the guy behind the wheel in one of those new air-conditioned BEST buses refused to open the door for me and a fellow passenger. His reason—we weren’t at the designated stop.

Here is what happened. The two of us had just missed the bus at the stop, but saw that it had halted at the traffic signal some 15-20 feet ahead. So we run up to the vehicle and knock at the glass door, asking to be let in. The driver, however, decides to throw the rulebook at us instead and doesn’t oblige despite repeated pleas, while the conductor merrily sits down nonchalantly on one the seats, deliberately oblivious to our existence.

That’s when the two of us decide to play tough. We go and stand right in front of the vehicle, blocking its path for a good 10 minutes, because of which it misses as many as four green signals. Charlie, meanwhile, is unmoved. He simply switches off the AC, throws out a yawn, while deputy digs his little finger into his ear, waiting for the “cattle” to clear the road.

All this while, none of the other passengers decide to take up for us. Instead, two elderly persons come right up to the front of the vehicle and start yelling at us from inside, ostensibly holding us responsible for a possible blot on their punctuality record. Doesn’t getting to office on time matter to us as well? While neither side can hear the other through soundproof doors, a little bit of lip-reading tells us one of the old men is threatening to call the cops. We don’t relent, so he does. We stay put.

Moments later, my ‘partner in crime’ sees the next AC bus approaching from a distance and decides to call off the protest. We head towards the stop where two cops accost us, asking what the problem is. We explain our point firmly but politely, are asked for our names, ages and mobile numbers, but not home or office addresses, and are allowed to hop on to the next bus when it comes.

Did we behave like juveniles? The pair of geriatric commuters obviously thought we did, though I can’t say anything about the other mutes inside the bus that morning. Let me make my case for why I think we were right.
 
For starters, we were consumers of the service and if we felt it was deficient, we were well within our rights to protest peacefully—which we did. I also say the driver’s ‘official’ stance was that he was merely following BEST rules was not driven by conscience, but by a self-acquired right to act tough and say no.

AC buses don’t run throughout the day. What if this one were the last of the morning? Worse, what if I were a pass-holder? Could I be denied the comfort of traveling AC when the establishment itself has taken a month’s fare in advance for a promise of service?

Secondly, any Mumbaikar will tell you that for all its efficiency, the BEST is making huge losses. In fact, its accumulated cash losses are estimated to have exceeded Rs 1,600 crore in 2008-09. And all of this was on account of the transport division—BEST’s other service, power distribution, is profitable. Despite this, the transport division’s employees are among the most highly paid public utility servants in the country. The pay, in fact, is so good, that the division’s establishment costs, which include wages paid to drivers and conductors, amount to as much as 96 per cent of the revenues the division generated, according to news reports quoting the utility’s general manager, Uttam Khobragade.

While figures on seat occupancy are difficult to come by, one can safely assume that if the transport division has to stay afloat in the long run, capacity usage has to be ramped up.

BEST, in fact, has been spending huge amounts on ads, appealing to Mumbaikars to move from private transport to its buses and has even introduced a facility that allows commuters to flag down and board moving buses on routes such as 211, which serves Bandra West. The driver has to oblige and can be hauled up if he doesn’t.

The flag down rule obviously doesn’t apply to AC buses, but I don’t recall having seen any other driver of such vehicles refuse passengers the right to board if the bus is absolutely stationery and has vacant seats. And I am not too sure BEST has instructed its drivers not to let in passengers in such cases in the first place.

By denying us entry, the driver served to defeat the efforts of the establishment to keep its head above the water. My fare was Rs 25, that of my co-passenger, Rs 15. Assuming that’s the loss the bus makes on every journey, the establishment will be forced to forego revenue of Rs 2,080 a month on a single bus, based on two trips a day for 26 days. I don’t what BEST drivers earn in a month, but anyone’s uncle can tell that’s a huge percentage of their gross monthly pay.

Thirdly—and this one is for the geriatrics and the mutes—BEST has been known to discontinue loss making routes in the past. By lambasting us (as the old men did) and for keeping quiet (as the rest of them did) they were working against our interests as well as their own. All they could and should have done was to ask Charlie to open the door and let us in. There’s strength in numbers.

 

 

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