I admit it’s rare. Once in a while and very rarely at that, someone takes courage in both hands and decides to chuck a rock at the glass ceiling in the sky. The result? A brave and hilarious debut. Guaranteed to make you chuckle and smile. The book is set in the old days of the British Raj, where the British Chewing Gum Company sets up shop in Bombay. Its stated goal is weaning folks away from paan-munching and replace that with chewing gum. The mascot for the publicity campaign is chosen to be a cow.
At the headquarters, Natwarlal sees Battisi, the cleaner who gets this most unusual of names from ‘Sinhasan Battisi’ or the thirty-two parables of the legendary King Vikramaditya. But he has to open his mouth and it’s obvious even to the uninitiated that he has got his name from his perfect set of teeth. “Each one of them could hold a story. When he smiled the room lit up.” As a boy he was constantly reminded to keep his mouth covered to ward off the evil eye.
Then there is the issue of who is to become general manager. The list of aspirants is too long. There is, of course, Pestonjee, who takes a memorable walk past Apollo Bunder in the monsoon. Right then, a 20-ft wave drenches him, dragging his umbrella in the wash. “The sea had been taking his umbrella since he was a child. How many umbrellas? Leaving behind a drenched boy underneath a dark grey sky.” There is also his pushy wife, Persis—“She had sown her ambitions in Pestonjee and reaped little more than weeds, and their bitterness had permeated her daily life.”
There is Young, the consultant is like a horse who is too eager, too meddlesome; Banerjee, the accountant is like a camel, a bit too indirect; Thompson is like an elephant, too self-assured, too secure, the position is below his dignity. Everyone seems to be playing the right game with the wrong animal. The solution, to Pestonjee, for wiping out paan is a cow. And he is determined to deliver that cow.
As the days roll by, Pestonjee takes charge of the day-to-day activities while Thompson, the Scotsman, toys retreatings to the realm of ideas. He must concentrate on the children. They are the future for chewing gum.
Language is the key here. Take for instance the skillful use to describe the oriental obsession with betel leaves—the ever-present paan. To quibble, it could be called pan-India—an “alliance with a 100-odd partners: Afghani dates, Malabari cardamom, Kashmiri saffron, Ahmedabadi gold leaves… It presided over all events: births, rebirths, weddings, funerals…”All said and done, this is an entertaining read.
Cow and Company
By: Parashar Kulkarni
Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 399