Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I have nightmares

In 'Pigs Have Wings'. P.G.Wodhouse says:

It is one of the chief drawbacks to the lot of the conscientious historian that in pursuance of his duties he is compelled to leave in obscurity many of those to whom he would greatly prefer to give star billing. His task being to present a panoramic picture of the actions of a number of protagonists, he is not at liberty to concentrate his attention on any one individual, however much the latter's hard case may touch him personally. When Edward Gibbon, half-way through his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire complained to Doctor Johnson one night in a mood of discouragement that it - meaning the lot of the conscientious historian - shouldn't happen to a dog, it was to this aspect of it that he was referring.
I also sometimes have such Gibbon moments but it is not because I have given short shrift to any particular individual but about whether I should write about incidents that happened before my stroke. Of course, one reason for the paucity of such posts is that I was a nondescript, boring chap who just made up the numbers so there aren't too many incidents that I can write about that will keep you from yawning. Another reason is that it is not the focus of this blog. But sometimes I remember an incident that I can write about and I think, 'Focus be damned.' This is one such post.

George Jessel said, “The human brain is a wonderful organ. It starts to work as soon as you are born and doesn't stop until you get up to deliver a speech.” This is not true for everyone but it was certainly true in my case. Put me on a stage, stick a mic in front of me and have a large audience (say, more than five people) and my brain gets jammed.

In my school, an elocution contest used to be held every year for which each class would send some representatives. I had successfully managed to avoid being selected every year because of my acknowledged mastery in hiding behind the person sitting in front of me. But my luck ran out when I was in Std. IX. For some reason, my English teacher decided that I can do well in elocution. I have no clue what gave her such a bizarre idea.

I had to deliver Martin Luther King's famous speech, 'I Have A Dream'. (Some parts were cut to shorten the speech.) I liked the speech as soon as I read it but the prospect of having to deliver it in front of an audience did not thrill me. I think there was one elimination round before the final, sort of a semi-final. You know how it is - you tend to put your best foot forward in the heat of competition. As luck would have it, this was enough to put me in the final. There would scarcely have been anybody who had received such triumphant news so gloomily.

In 'Right Ho, Jeeves', Gussie Fink-Nottle was in a similar predicament when he was asked to present the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school. As the dreaded day neared, he almost became a mental wreck and I could understand why. Wodehouse fans will recall that Bertie Wooster helped out Gussie by the simple expedient of spiking his orange juice with loads of whisky.Plastered to the gills, Gussie gave a performance for the ages which delighted the young scholars at the grammar school. I knew that I will have no such luck.

From what I remember, the day of the competition was bright and sunny. It wouldn't have mattered if it was dark and stormy because the competition was to be held indoors but it would have helped to reduce the size of the audience which seemed to be bigger than usual. I had thought that people would have had better things to do than watch me stutter and stammer on stage but obviously I had thought wrong. I hung around cracking sick jokes while my heart was racing along at an unhealthy pace.

It was at this time that god decided to do his bit for me. If believers had played their cards right in subsequent years, I may have become a militant Hindu. What happened was this: participants wearing glasses were told to remove them before going on stage. I think it had something to do with the glare of the lights on the stage (I am not sure). I did not realise the full import of the instruction till I went onto the stage.

The stage was brightly lit while the rest of the auditorium was dark in comparison. I couldn't make out individual faces. There were a lot of hazy blobs in front of me. If my friends were making faces at me, I did not notice them. If the judges were scowling and making notes, I did not know it. The result was that my tension diminished and the speech went without a hitch. At the end, I did not notice whether there was a thunderous applause or derisive hoots - I was busy making myself scarce. When the results were announced, I had come second.

My English teacher was more disappointed than I was about my not coming first. She had hoped that, like Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!), lo! my name would lead all the rest. She had invested a lot of time and effort into preparing me for the competition. I remember going to her house where we pored over many pieces before she finally decided that this speech suited me. Whatever I had achieved was entirely due to her efforts. As for me, I was happy that I had not made a fool of myself. Of course, I strutted around with a 'nothing to it' expression now that the ordeal was behind me.

If you look at cricket history, you will find that many tail-enders have one knock which they can talk about to their grand-kids - Darren Gough once saved a Test Match for England; so did Danny Morrison for NZ; Glenn McGrath has a Test 50; Jason Gillespie has a Test double hundred... Being a genuine tail-ender in the area of elocution contests, this was my one moment under the sun. If Bertie Wooster has his Scripture Knowledge prize, I had this speech (of course , there must be some embellishments). After this I gradually faded away into blissful obscurity having regained my form in hiding behind the person sitting in front of me. (But my camouflage was not as good as that of this octopus. Not even as good as that of a frying pan. But it used to work most of the time. Except in Std. IX.)


  1. This 'Focus be damned' post is an awesome one !!!

  2. Enjoyed myself reading this - thanks! In case you had not come across before, Right Ho! and some more audio books at

  3. Gopal,

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  4. Focus be damned,indeed....Your blog-you decide what you want to focus on and share with us.I was so amused reading this post.....Must say, sure do have a low self-esteem!!Quote-I was a nondescript, boring chap who just made up the numbers so there aren't too many incidents that I can write about that will keep you from yawning-Unquote.From a neighbour/classmate/girl's point of view,let me tell you...We were all in AWE of you!!LOL!!