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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