The Chief, not many of you may know, has been away for around three weeks to lands across the seas. During this period, the affairs of Madras Musings were handled by a small but select band of ardent devotees of whom The Man from Madras Musings is also one. It, therefore, fell to this group to represent the Chief at various events where he would have usually lent his weighty presence.
One of these was the closing ceremony of the centenary celebrations of a once-upon-a-time quite magnificent college that has since become an autonomous institution with a spanking new domed administrative building to show for it. The rest of the campus, filled with heritage structures, is rapidly going to seed, with very little by way of maintenance being done for it. The old students of the college, however, are a determined lot who once saved their campus from being taken over and demolished to make way for the State Secretariat which, as you all know, has peregrinated to various places in thought and deed, destroying much heritage in its wake before going back to roost at Fort St George.
These old students, as part of their efforts to celebrate their heritage, had brought out a centenary book and as part of the centenary wanted to have it released at the celebrations. MMM too was invited and was asked to say a few words as, he believes, the usual expression is. The event was scheduled for the evening, co-hosted by the college and the alumni association. The morning, so MMM learnt, had seen another celebration held by the college alone, with attendance by several important worthies. The evening too had a VVIP slotted in, apart from MMM, the head of the alumni association and a couple of visitors from abroad, the last being members of the founding Principal’s family. Everyone was asked to be in his seat by 4 pm sharp, with the event scheduled to begin at 4.15.
MMM was there on the dot, only to find no sign of any celebration. After he had wandered about a bit, kind hands took him to the open stage where a smallish audience had gathered in front of a vast stage. This chiefly comprised an enthusiastic set of alumnae, some accompanied by very resigned and bored-looking spouses. MMM is not holding that against the latter, for the weather was hot and everything pointed to a sticky evening ahead.
After some desultory conversations (and there being no coffee in sight), everyone lapsed into a silence. The college band was booming in the distance, preparing itself for when the VVIP would arrive. It was soon 4.30 and there was no sign of the all-important visitor. By way of passing time, the other speakers were asked to get onto the stage and take their seats. This took five minutes and still no sign of the VVIP. By then some kind of a panic had gripped the organisers and there were talks that the VVIP may not come, cancelling the visit in the last minute in keeping with the trend these days.
In order to provide some entertainment, an alumna was asked to read out a few passages from the yet-to-be-released coffee table book. She started off from page one and, with the VVIP being nowhere in sight, half an hour later, succeeded in reading out most of the book. MMM and others on stage looked on silently even as those in the audience glowered back. It was rather like one set of sarcophagi looking on at another set.
Precisely an hour behind schedule, the VVIP strolled in. The orchestra boomed, the Principal and faculty beamed and everyone else bared his teeth. The event got underway with the rendering of obligatory songs. One of these, which MMM suspects to be a recent one on the college, was quite dreadful and seemed to go on forever. MMM’s attention wandered and he began to note a rather loud conversation behind him. One of the VVIP’s assistants was asking a teacher about the names and claims to fame of other people on the stage, all of which he was noting down religiously. The duo came down the line to MMM and then the assistant asked the teacher as to who MMM was. The answer was ego-flattening to say the least. MMM, said the teacher, did not count for much and the VVIP just needed to recognise his presence by mentioning his name and that ought to do. It was then that it dawned on MMM that the VVIP’s speech was being drafted by the assistant even as the song was being sung.
By the time the last bar of the song had been rendered, the speech was handed over to the VVIP, who having glanced at it summarily put it away for the nonce. The college staff then began the process of introducing the VVIP to the audience in the most flowery terms. The term purple prose would be an understatement but MMM understood that this was the norm of the day. After having been sufficiently introduced, the VVIP stepped forward and began the speech, which was one of those anywhere, anytime, standard format varieties. You could get away with such declamations at any event ranging from a wedding to a funeral. But as it began, MMM was keenly watching to see how the VVIP would manage with the list of ‘dignitaries on the dais’ as the expression is. The speaker breezed past most of them but speechwriter had not alerted his boss to the fact that there were a couple of Englishmen on stage with the most French sounding of names. On arrival at these, the VVIP paused and reflected for a moment. And then having drawn a deep breath pronounced them in some fashion and moved on. MMM turned to look at the visitors from overseas. They did not appear to care. The heat of the afternoon, the noise from the orchestra, the cacophony of the invocation and the general stage wait had created a sort of coma in them.
Post the VVIP’s speech, a scuffle broke out behind MMM. The assistant was trying to explain to a teacher and an alumna that the VVIP needed to leave at once. After all the speech had been delivered. The teacher was, of course, all willing to let the VVIP go but not so the old girl who stated in no uncertain terms that the VVIP needed to stay, release the book, suffer the other speeches and then leave. And so the long evening wound to a close. But not before a group of students and teachers raucously sang the National Anthem. In MMM’s view, this most melodious song is best sung in a chorus and yet the troupe managed to make a mess of it. It was in many ways a fitting end to the event.