Saluting The Departed

One of the things that has served me well throughout my academic life has been the skill of skimming over many pages of dense text and zooming, with the alacrity of a hungry hawk, on to that part of the document relevant for me. And I owe this skill in no small measure to the works of Harold Robbins and of the lately deceased Sidney Sheldon.

Late 80s. No relief on pre-cable Rajiv-Darshan for the horizon-broadening early-teen. The mind turned to the printed word—-but the only English books allowed at home for “bhodro” (good) kids were the classics (Moby Books with one side text and one side pictures where a glimpse of Estella’s cartoon cleavage was the only possible great expectation), Famous Five and Nancy Drew, the juiceless products of the Communist state otherwise known as Vostok publications, Tintin, Asterix….you get the picture. The “bad” kids, the ones who got “guardian calls” and had red in their report cards, smuggled in these dog-eared Sheldon-Robbins books to school which we, with shaking hands and smoky breath, would leaf through rapidly trying to focus in on the good parts, in the brief minute before “tiffin” ended.

And what a world it was. Screw the “Gajab ka hain din”-style running around trees and the juvenile “Oye Oye”s —-this was the real deal.

There was a chain of second-hand book stores in what used to be known grandly as Hawker’s Boulevard: a strip of sidewalk near, ironically,Ramkrishna Mission in Gol Park —a place where I used to do my “good boy” purchases. But like most good boys whose heart was as black as the ashbuds in the front of March, my eyes would wander, while leafing through old issues of Sportsworld, to the provocative covers of those windows into decadence. The toothy, worldly-wide proprietor,observing my fidgety eyes unable to keep its focus on the picture of Vivian Richards, would say “Ki khoka dekhbe notun eseche?” (Hey boy, want to stuff). I would take the book, fingers flying over the pages, making the pretence of leafing through as if I had any intention of buying it, my mind stopping at those “passages”, imbibing them voraciously and then continuing onwards while the beady-eyed stallowner looked at me with an all knowing demeanour and asked “Ki bhalo?” (Is it good?). Of course I did not/could not buy the book and the shopkeeper knew it. But what he had done was made me lose any moral authority to bargain extensively over the Sportsworld issues which I bought and quietly left, eyes downcast.

Most of you young kids, brought upon a staple diet of Mallika and MMS-es, would scoff and say “But this isn’t porn you are talking about —why the subterfuge?”. To that I can only smile the sad smile of the experienced and say “Son (daughter) you were not in the age group (12 to 15) in the late 80s. You will not understand”.

In any case, an important life-skill was built as a result of these experiences for which I am eternally grateful. Not to speak of a cornucopia of knowledge that I will carry with me long after I have forgotten the length of the Nile or the diagram of the reproductive system of a toad.

Fast forward to the mid 90s. And my second salute of the day to Anna Nicole Smith, also recently deceased, for taking care of another part of my growing-up pangs. In 1996 when I started discovering the joys of the Internet, I was introduced by kindly Yahoo uncle to one Ms. Anna Nicole Smith, 1993 Playboy Playmate of the year. In contrast to the girls I knew (the ones who always threatened to complain to aunty at the possibility of even expressing a desire to have ice-cream), whom I considered to be the true inheritors of the legacy of Nehruvian red-tapism, Anna Nicole symbolized true capitalism: a free market bountiful beauty who beckoned us to the land of opportunity with her wanton looks and drove home the important lesson that the best things in life are not necessarily real.

And so farewell my dear friends Sidney Sheldon and Anna Nicole Smith. Though I never knew either of you personally (and I wish I did, more so for Ms. Smith), you were much closer to me and exerted a far greater influence on my life and “emotional growth” than any of my friends.

You will be sorely missed.

48 thoughts on “Saluting The Departed

  1. @GB,

    A great piece. Could totally relate to it. Even I grew up in a home where the likes of Sidney Sheldon were taboo. Things were so bad that the TV had to be switched off during the “Dhak Dhak” part of Beta….

    However, the best part of this post for me was this – “But what he had done was made me lose any moral authority to bargain extensively over the Sportsworld issues which I bought and quietly left, eyes downcast.” Must say the guy was a helluva businessman. I am sure he wasn’t a stallowner forever.

  2. Hi Greatbong,

    This was nostalgia at its very best. Made me think of the days I used to speed read my sister’s Mills and Boons! truly desperate, but fun.. And yes, it certainly muist have helped in cracking the english section faster during my entrance exams, so that I could eke out a few extra minutes for maths, which was not a strong point. Have to hand it to you, for remembering the positives from the ‘excesses’ of those days.

  3. Hey GB,
    I am a BIG fan of Sidney Sheldon. I have read all his books even the latest ones when he had become sadly repetitive and predictable. “Learnt” a great deal from him. His books were an intricate part of my adolescence years. Thanks for the timely tribute.

  4. i know what you mean about the pre-cable days of the printed word and the breathless wait for the latest robbins and sheldon. whatever their flaws, they were good reads. and they taught this bloke the value of clear writing. something i see in evidence in your blog.
    nevertheless, robbins later went on to become a business with several writers just continuing to mine the lode under his name. at least sheldon didn’t go down that path.

    you may also be of the vintage that remembers one james hadley chase..another of those who probably invented the “airport read” genre. these too were good reads and in the absence of televison actually played out like one of the episodes of a fastpaced sitcom.
    i believe you’ll find some of the plots from mr chase made it to bollywood, although by the time hamara directorsaab had gone through with his vision, the orginal was lost to everyone!

    as for anna nicole smith…enough said!

  5. @Arnab: Vostok books had their value – at least they were cheap. Apart from the ‘hagiography’ of Marxism (yuck!), a few interesting ones did slip in. Like the autobiography of Alexei Leonov (first man to do a space-walk, and one of the men on the Apollo-Soyuz mission) – a curious book (I read it in Bengali – Mahakashe Mahajaan if I may say so. Or books of Fazil Iskander – which even in the translation painted the ironic contrast of carefree childhood and the terror of Stalinist purges – I could never figure out how it passed the censors.

    Yes, in those days the “Khoka, notun ache, dekhbe?” was pretty common. Trawling the college-street stalls for second hand SFs (Campbell, Cordwainer Smith, Leinster… the 40s and 50s classics) and the lovely Penguin greens – Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, and so on, it was impossible to ignore the ‘pssst…chai naki?’ from every stall passed by. In those days I used to be disturbed by the thought that I must have looked like one of the regular readers of stuff (Shame!), but later realised it was aimed at any male from ten to ninety.

    I first heard of the late Ms Anna in a Mad Magazine. From then on, she was an object of hilarity, not a overblown sex symbol. Naah! Mad did too good a hatchet job on her.

  6. Brings back memories of the good old days before the cable boom. Even I have done my share of speedreading novels and Mills/Boons. The fact that it was taboo to read those books at a young age made them all the more attractive. As I reached my teens and was allowed to read them, they did not seem that attractive.
    This is what censorship does. Makes the censored object more desirable than it actually is.

  7. ‘drove home the important lesson that the best things in life are not necessarily real.’


    Dude i shall never again read your work in office. I swear youll be the end of me.

  8. oh.. those innocent years of the 1980s… can totally relate to this as my brother was a teenager in the 80s (we are of the same age). The whole anna nicole thing just passed
    me by though. heard of her only now at her death.

    – D

  9. @GB

    As fellow traveller from the late 80s and a Golpark Hawkers’ Corner regular, I will shed a tear with you.

  10. @GB:

    I can identify with the speed-reading bit completely! Great post!

  11. The stall owner seems to have a great business acumen.
    Another Guru type story?? platform-book business to Higginbothams

  12. LOL.. Yeah! Very nice read!

    And come to think of it, I got to know only yesterday that Monsieur Sheldon is an Oscar winner for one of his screenplays!! Wondering if he gave the word screen-play a different meaning..

  13. Second hand Debonairs and Fantasies… aahh.. the good old pre internet days.

  14. Hats off to you, Greatbong- this subject does brings out the best in you… Keep up the good work..

  15. Superb post GB

    Although I was in the 12 – 15 age group in the 90s, things didn’t change a lot and I could definitely relate to what you said.Of course our generation had the slight advantage of the After Dark times on Star Movies ( Ahh…Those were the days).which were stopped for a reason which no one understood…and then we had to come to Anna Nicole Smith and her brethren…we went from Sidney to Smith with a brief stop over at Star.

    P:S Why the movies were stopped is something I still don’t understand. I mean the After Dark actresses would be put to shame by a certain Tanushree Dutta etc etc etc

  16. Hey GB, what are these “Psst … Chai naki” people doing now, any idea? They must have changed their tacks, any clue? Nostalgia … Nosto logia!

  17. haha, well said!!! I think I learnt more about skimming and getting to the crux of thick textbooks from Mssrs Sheldon and Robbins!!

    I always loved how ‘those pages’ in all those books could be found so easily – just hold the book loosely and the pages having the good passages would open automatically – after years of being opened, reopened and dog-eared for emergency use:-D

  18. Hey,

    Great post man! It sure does bring back that nostalgic feeling. I can vividly remember the days of Sidney Sheldon and Mills ‘n Boons. And I too (along with a lot many others) had this uncanny knack of getting to the ‘plot’ of the story within minutes of grabbing a hand on the book. Searching for keywords/clues leading to treasure trove could be done even when half asleep.

    Keep bringing those long-forgotten memories back with your great posts.

  19. To that I can only smile the sad smile of the experienced and say “Son (daughter) you were not in the age group (12 to 15) in the late 80s. You will not understand”.

    LOL. Well said. They never will understand why Friday late night movies held so much charm for us either. Thanks for this. Anna Nicole was a big search engine favourite on campus in 96-97 when we got ourselves a humungous LAN room with 24-hour internet.
    Glad we weren’t alone in our “decent studious boy” guilty pleasures…

  20. I like the novel “Tell me your dreams” very much. Sidney Sheldon explored multiple personality disorder in this novel very well. A must read.

  21. @bhopale: Alas, the last time I went there, pssst chai naki, was likelier to be to peddle a leaked copy of an IIT JEE paper than a copy of Debonair. Oh tempora, oh mores!

  22. Now that you have publicly admitted to not knowing Ms. Smith
    in (real/semireal) person, you relinquished the opportunity to
    take part in the global race over the paternity of her kid…
    Too bad.

  23. “One of the things that has served me well throughout my academic life has been the skill of skimming over many pages of dense text and zooming, with the alacrity of a hungry hawk, on to that part of the document relevant for me. And I owe this skill in no small measure to the works of Harold Robbins and of the lately deceased Sidney Sheldon.”

    Uffff…sheer class.My fingers are frozen with emotion. I just cannot type anymore.

  24. Mmh…I always used to find… Irving Wallace umm… more “descriptive” :D. Read my share of sheldons back then – now looking back sigh. And anna nicole – I demand a holiday in her name.


  25. I once had the gall to ‘gift’ my GF 2 books at the same time.. Delhi – by khushwant Singh and the other one by Irwing Wallace (about sex therapy, I think it was Celestial Bed). Next day, the shock on her face was priceless!!
    Somehow, I managed to convince her to finish reading both the books, so as to she can differentiate between crude-description and cool-description.

    Those were the days….

  26. have u read ken follet…lots of “hawking” to do in those..

  27. I must admit to one of the few who never really read many Sidney Sheldons early. And by the time I did the “interesting” passages had become ho hum to me. I jumped directly from Hardy Boys to Alastair MacLean and Robert Ludlum and was so caught up in the wonderful world of the thriller that Sidney Sheldon was never really an option.

    However, I did read a couple of Sheldons and Robbins, and by that time was mature enough (meaning around 12 yrs old) to realize that they were pretty good storytellers! I mean the prurience apart, the plots were very good, at least in novels like If Tomorrow Comes (Sheldon) and A Stone for Danny Fischer (Robbins). And at the same time I realized that better descriptions of “carnality” (how’s that for an euphemism?) were to be found in Wilbur Smith and Irving Wallace (Celestial Bed, anyone?)

    Coming to the other departed…

    Three potential fathers for her baby! And one of them comes on TV and says that there well might have been more than 30 possible partners she had had in the past year before the birth of her kid!

    In short,

    a) Sidney Sheldon was a better writer than we realized.

    b) Anna Nicole was a bigger slut than we thought.

    c) Both made our world a bit more interesting.

    May both rest in peace…

  28. GB – loved that piece, & the mention of how those ‘forbidden’ passages would help stir the young libido! Harold Robbins, IMHO Jackie Collins & Irving Wallace were, in the physical description stakes at least, slightly ahead of SS. Bloodline was released in Lighthouse in the early 80s & for us who were too young to get in, it was an imaginary world of wall-to-wall sex. Much later did I learn that SS also created Hart To Hart & I Dream Of Jeanie that Calcuttams could catch on Bangladesh TV, & also wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite Fred Astaire musicals, Easter Parade.

  29. @Sujan – Ken Follett’s “Lie Down With Lions” was dubbed “Lie DOwn With Lions” by a friend with similar tastes. Even now he can tell me which pages had the ‘hot stuff’. The movie version of KF’s Eye Of The Needle had some good ‘scenes’ with the lovely but little seen (in a body of work sense) Kate Nelligan.

  30. Ah! I was waiting for your eulogy for Anna. I almost thought I had figured you wrong but thanks for not disappointing me. Annaji definitely got us through tough celibate times 🙂 And must admit you are a true fan. I was gonna correct you that Anna was a Playboy Playmate in 1992 but she was the POY in 1993. Nice fact-checking!

  31. Sorry for the multiple post, in my previously posted response to Sujan, the parody name for Ken Follett’s ‘Lie Down With Lions’ should be read as ‘Lie Down With Loins’.

  32. @Raj: Yes they were very street-smart businessmen. Many Dhirubhais there no doubt.

    @Prasanna: I wouldnt be caught dead with a M&B for the sissy associations. For me Sheldon and Robbins. No never read any Chase or Follet.

    @Ronita: Welcome. Yes he did teach us so many things I would never have known from those chaste rain songs.

    @MalluDownUnder: Indeed enough said.

    @Sayon: Cosmonauts and Stalin were chicken soup for the intellect but sometimes you need to overcome the limitations of the brain and concentrate on something more primal.

    @Dhananjay: True.

    @Sandip ::-)

    @Divya: Well its never too late to learn about Anna.

    @RahulGhosh: Amen.

    @Tanu: Thanks

    @Ram: Exactly.

    @Amit: 🙂

    @Shadows: Those were serious stuff. With Sheldon and Robbins you could keep up the pretense that you were interested in the “plot”.

    @Manu: The subject of memories? Or of Anna Nicole Smith? 🙂

    @Kabaddi Kabaddi: They were stopped because of one Sushma Swaraj and her erotico-fascism.

    @Bhopale: Own call centers?

    @Racoon: True. Its as if the universe was conspiring to help you find those naughty bits(with apologies to Pauloa Coelho)

    @Suarts: 🙂

    @Noop: Nope you certainly were not. The late Ms.Smith corrupted many a good boy.

    @Kishor: Did you ahem just give away the ending?

    @S.Pyne: LOL. True.

    @Yourfan2: I hope your fingers have started moving again. 🙂

    @Suyog: Holiday indeed.

    @Agamon86: Lucky you.

    @Sujan: Nope.

    @Shan: Tssk tssk. No speakie bad of those who are dead. Anna gave us pleasure and well thats all I shall remember her by.

    @Tipu: Yes I was surprised when I learnt that the goodie goodie “I Dream of Jeannie” was written by Sheldon-saar.

    @Patrix: Yes. Ms Smith was a Playboy playmate for 92 but the Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1993 !

  33. GB, I request you to write on the characteristics of our generation – 1970-1985 borns or any appropriate timeframe you choose to characterise. What will we be called? Gen X, Gen Y or simply the desibaba generation?

  34. “But what he had done was made me lose any moral authority to bargain extensively over the Sportsworld issues which I bought and quietly left, eyes downcast.”
    you have got to write a book!

    Outstanding – subtle, psychotic !!

  35. Born 1974. Stayed in Gariahat, opposite the ‘lending libraries’. I had my share of surreptitious glances at The Celestial Bed (Irving Wallace’s magnum opus) while leafing through Archies.

    And of Sidney Sheldon, I am a big fan. In fact, I wrote about him on Desicritics the day he passed away.

  36. Great post, Greatbong. This one was enough to make me vote for you on Indbloggies. Identify completely with what you are saying. So, what was the technique for stopping at the right passages? Less dialogue, long text?

  37. Great post, GB. What others feel , you articulate so wonderfully.
    Hope you will win the blog popularity contest.Best wishes.

  38. The secret is OUT.
    Sayon IS my sibling.

    Our trouble was of the opposite kind.

    Our domestic collection contained such gems as a Kama Sutra, and Havelock Ellis’ ‘Psychology of Sex’.

    As a matter of fact, the second was more informative. The first read like a chemistry practical guideline. Simply yawn stuff.

    We borrowed Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ from mother’s uncle and had an interesting time psychoanalyzing ourselves and our father. (He was too fond of recalling his dreams at the breakfast table but stopped once he saw our reading material)

    Also, we were surrounded by Chola Parvatis (that Anna Nicole Smith could never aspire to) and the delicious clothing challenged ladies of Reubens, Degas et al.

    Net result?

    Sayon finds real females vastly shapeless and boring. He does not read Playboy, prefers MAD. Does not drink, does not smoke and writes elvish– both Quenya and Sindarian. When angry, mutters in Dwarfish and when livid, shouts like the Orks.

    I, having realised that I could never achieve my idea of hourglass shape, succumbed to the wiles of a well laden table and became an epicure- er, truthfully — a glutton.

    My figure is truly global.

  39. Dont know if it was just me but for a long time (even after reading a coupla novels of sydney), I thought sydney was a woman 🙂

    But a great post and side by side it also reminds me of selective viewings of the 18-rated movies in the heydays of Star Movies.

  40. chat from a dc server :

    [08:07] Anna Nicole Smith’s first husband
    [08:08] nice
    [08:09] America’s equivalent of Princess Diana has passed away…so sad…
    [08:09] yeah…no
    [08:10] yes? no?
    [08:10] correct
    [08:10] America’s equivalent of Princess Diana has passed away…so sad… How so?
    [08:11] The bitch was a trainwreck…she’s dead? so what?
    [08:11] I think for that to be true, the population would have had to actually like smith as something more than a freakshow
    [08:12] No, let them continue with equating Diana to a basic cable reality show star and fat pill pitchwoman
    [08:14] don’t forget former stripper and softcore porn actress, also
    [08:16] Then again, they are both talentless blonde women famous for nothing who endured sham marriages while boinking other guys on the side
    [08:17] at least Anna Nicole showed the goods
    [08:18] BAH
    [08:18] Zabka: wow…you actually found a good parallel between ANS and Princess Di…I was just joking…
    [08:18] i’m just insulted as an american that anyone cares
    [08:18] ….How the frak was she like Princess Diana???
    [08:19] So you see the yeah…no now
    [08:19] I wonder who’ll make the Anna Nicole Smith movie…. whoever gets the rights it’ll probably be out by November 😛
    [08:19] starring Scarlett Johannson
    [08:20] uhm
    [08:20] what the hell would it be about?
    [08:20] Getting Scarlett topless

  41. I was born a little ealier in 1966 but I can relate very much to what you are saying about speedreading books to find the ‘good part.’ Definitely, Sydney Sheldon, James Hadley Chase, Harold Robbins, Ken Follet and Irving Wallace were the most ‘loved’ authors of my teenage years.

    I must tell you about this conversation at the age of 15, with a girl I got close to, in the early days of getting to know her. It happened when I lived in a small town in W. Bengal and she was my classmate. Like me she was a voracious reader and as all teenagers do we used to exchange books as well. So one day I had gone to her house and noticing a new book on her table, I picked it up and surreptitiously, started flipping through the pages, saying, “Have you finished reading this one? How’s it?”

    She replied, “Very interesting story. I think you will like it but don’t be disappointed, because……… it does not have what you are looking for.”

    That comment from her, felt like a left jab to my chin, knocking my face upwards from the book and turning my cheeks pink. After taking a deep breath, I took a wild swing at her with, “How do you know, what I am looking for?”

    Far from being defensive about my question, she delivered the knock-out punch by responding with, “Because, when I flip through the pages…, like you, ….even I too look for the same thing….. that you are trying to find!”

    She left me speechless and I could only think, ‘This girl is dangerous!’ That’s when I fell for her. It helped that I found her looks, very hot, as well.

    Those who may think that is a very tame conversation, need to keep in mind that we were both 15 and definitely nothing more than friendly classmates. Or maybe I will just quote Arnab, ““Son (daughter) you were not in the age group (12 to 15) in the late 80s. You will not understand”. Except that this was 1981 and teenage girls in small towns did not exactly discuss naughty stuff with boys.

    Keep writing. I love your sense of humour.

  42. @Nizam: Wonderful. Thank you for that excellent comment. I was born earlier than you and I recall that kind of innuendo in the late seventies. Life was more innocent then, and a little more book centric. Somehow the possibilities that emerged from the printed word would always be way beyond what other media could produce, mainly because you need to use your imagination to fill in the colours.

  43. GB – Those immortal “passages” were indeed “handy”, many, many, many times over.

    p.s. why no hat tip to James Hadley Chase?

  44. s.pyne (to g.b.): “Now that you have publicly admitted to not knowing Ms. Smith
    in (real/semireal) person, you relinquished the opportunity to
    take part in the global race over the paternity of her kid…
    Too bad. ”

    rumour has it that madonna, ellen the generous, and brittney are also waiting patiently in line (in this global race) for dna testing (over paternity of anna’s kid, that is).

    -s. b.

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