RIP The Greatest


(This is a mildly expanded version of an article carried by Rediff on June 6. Lead image courtesy The Ringer. I’ve appended a reading list of books on Ali, and boxing compilations that include great essays on Ali. If you come across great reads on boxing/Ali, please ping via comments)

MY FATHER picked his way through literature the way David Livingstone explored Africa, through a series of serendipitous lurches that took him towards his destination more by accident than deliberate design.

Availability and affordability dictated his choices. Thus, every other Saturday, he went from work direct to Moore Market, an ancient quadrangular British-era building in Madras where you could buy anything from parakeets to perfumes. And secondhand books, from the over 100 stalls that lined one entire wing.

Through a series of complex calculations — how much for Scissors cigarettes for the next fortnight, how many times would he have to pick up the peer-group tab for tea and vadas, etc — he arrived at how much he could spend on his favorite indulgence. Through careful selection and ferocious bargaining, he came away with a bagful of books, some mapping to established interests, the rest purchased because ‘they looked interesting, and were cheap.’ Continue reading

RIP, Arthur Pais

I remember the time Arthur Pais was caught without his trousers.

India Abroad, the Rediff-owned community paper based in New York, had its office on 24th Street, between Broadway and Sixth. It shared a floor with a travel agency staffed by pretty young girls who, late into the nights, would sneak out into the corridor for a forbidden smoke. The building also housed the New York office of Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine – more girls, of the pin-up class.

Arthur needed periodic insulin shots, which he administered himself. So late this one night, he crossed the corridor to the washroom, gave himself the shot, came back out and realised the office door had slammed shut behind him.

He had his own set of keys – along with his cell phone (which he could otherwise have used to call his long-suffering wife Betty), it was in the pocket of the trousers he had taken off and left behind in the office.

But why would anyone take off his trousers in the office before going to the loo? The best answer to that is: Arthur Pais. He was like that. He did these things.

The story of that night spent cowering in the shadows, dodging random girls while clad in just a shirt and briefs, has regaled the successive generations of young journalists he mentored and bullied in equal measure – and his laugh was always the first to ring out, and invariably the loudest.

Everyone has an Arthur Pais story. And Arthur had a story about everyone – always original, mostly salacious, often borderline libellous. He loved to gossip. He told his stories in a spirit of impish delight and with a total absence of malice. It was his way of relieving the tedium of endless nights writing and producing India in New York, the free weekly paper, and India Abroad, the flagship community paper.

His was the first name on an editor’s speed dial, and not just because his name began with an ‘A’. Two hours to print deadline, a hole the size of a page to fill, you called him and wailed, “Arthur… HELP!” The inevitable response was, how much do you need and how soon do you need it?

You gave him an impossible ask: a 1,600-word feature for the entertainment page in under two hours. He delivered. Unfailingly, uncomplainingly.

Okay, maybe not ‘uncomplainingly’. There was the time my wife came over to the office one morning to pick up a book she wanted to read. Spotting Arthur in his cabin, she wandered by for a chat, then picked up her book and left. Minutes later, Arthur banged into my office, slammed the latest copy of India Abroad down on my table and went “What the %%%@###@…”

I had cut about 120 words from one of his stories. “You asked for 1,000 words and I gave it to you,” he raged, “so why the @##@@@ did you cut my copy you @##$$$..”

He banged on for a long time, the gist of his tirade being that I wasn’t fit to be editor of a roll of toilet paper, even. And then he slammed out of the office, trailing abuse.

Hours later, he strolled into my room with coffee, doughnuts and a huge smile, and tossed an envelope on the table with “For Raji Plus One” inscribed on it. Inside, I found two tickets for Doubt, the award-winning Broadway play then being staged at the Walter Kerr theatre. “I was telling Raji about this play and she said she’d love to see it,” he said.

Turned out that after yelling at me, he had walked a little over 18 blocks to the TKTS booth in Times Square in blazing summer heat, joined the endless line, and snagged prime tickets at a discount.

What could I say? I knew better than to offer to pay – that would have triggered another rant. All I did say was, “Hey, you know I am Raji’s ‘plus-one’, right?” He gave me a look, said “That’s for Raji to decide”, and walked off, for all the world as if the morning fight had never happened.

That, in a nutshell, was Arthur – irascible, incorrigible, impossible, and impossibly generous, sometimes all in the same moment.

We worked together across many publications: the Singhania-owned Indian Post, the Mumbai-based Mid-Day, the Ambani-owned Sunday Observer, and its sister concern India Abroad. Through those long years — now that I think of it, I’ve known Arthur for almost as long as I have been a journalist — there were times when I thought he was my personal albatross, that I’d never be rid of him. But those times were rare. Most times, I was just glad he was around, that he had my back.

“Arthur, what would I do without you?” Every editor who has ever worked with him has had reason to say that. God knows I have thought that many, many times over the years.

Now, as news that he has met his final deadline comes over the wires, that oft-asked question reshapes itself: Arthur, what are we going to do, how are we going to manage, without you?

Arthur, what are we going to do, how are we going to manage, without you?

Be well wherever you are, friend. Be at peace.

And hey, Arthur? Keep your damn trousers on.

(Arthur J Pais, 66, passed away on Friday, January 8. His long-time editor (and mine), Nikhil Lakshman of and India Abroad, summed up the essence of the man here, as did Arthur’s friend and fellow journalist Aseem Chhabra here. My friend and former colleague Vaihayasi Daniel writes movingly of him here.

My valediction to my departed colleague and friend was first published on