When I was in school, in the early 1970s, one occasion that we four brothers looked forward to was an annual visit by Param Uncle, as we used to call him. His official name was Tharoor Parameshwar, editor of Reader’s Digest for over two decades from the mid-1950s. Param Uncle came every year, usually by December/January.
In the Trivandrum of the early 1970s, there wasn’t much of an option for those looking for a slightly up-market experience of staying in a hotel. The only worthwhile one was the state-run Mascot Hotel opposite the University Stadium. Built to accommodate British Army officers during the First World War, it later functioned as an official guest house, and was converted into a hotel open to tourists, I think, in the early 1940s. This last changeover was thanks to the vision of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer, then Dewan of Travancore. It was in Mascot Hotel that Param Uncle always stayed. At least once he stayed at Pattom Palace, which for some time had functioned as a hotel.
When in Trivandrum, Param Uncle would invite my dad and four of us brothers for dinner at the hotel. There would also be a few other common friends of my dad and Param Uncle. He would follow up each of his visits by mailing us various Reader’s Digest publications. This included the stylishly produced thesaurus, Family Word Finder, very unlike the cumbersome Roget’s Thesaurus. The other books, I remember, included an oversized Atlas, Family Health Guide, and numerous condensed books. A special collection he sent was some 30 copies of Reader’s Digest editions, as published in different countries across the world. So, some of these were in scripts like Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, we could not make any sense out of. But, they all followed a similar layout and content such as word power, humour in uniform, etc.
After Param Uncle retired, sometime in the late 1970s, his visits to Trivandrum became rare. But, he would keep us posted, through an annual letter sent around New Year, about developments at home and work, which included his work for association of advertising companies, where he was an office-bearer.
I could get to meet Param Uncle again only in the mid-1990s, after I had moved to Mumbai. My first visit was with my mom and then wife, Archana, to their spacious residence at Suvas, Malabar Hill. This was when I first met Param Uncle’s wife, Lily Aunty. This was followed by numerous other occasions when we were invited over for lunch or dinner. On one occasion, the other guests at dinner were Lily Aunty’s brother, Rear Admiral K Raja Menon, the well-known strategic analyst, and his childhood sweetheart and later wife, Anjolie Ela Menon, the famous painter. They had met as students at Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ootacamund. On all occasions, Param Uncle and Lily Aunty were perfect hosts who went out of the way to make you feel at home.
Already in their mid-70s, the Params had their share of issues with the banking sector. They had complaints about falling customer service standards in banking. Especially in their insensitivity to the requirements of senior citizens like them. One major complaint was banks’ reluctance to update passbooks, and to only mail printed monthly statements. They found us sounding boards on many of these issues, and it was my pleasure to help them out in some of them.
Lily aunty in particular had her share of bad experiences at the Reserve Bank. From what I could gather, and remember, she was associated with a travel business, and had to go to the Reserve Bank often. And those were days when Reserve Bank sanction was required for release of foreign exchange for any kind of travel. She asked in particular about one person at the Bank. When I told her that he seems to have settled in the US, she replied, “How dare he. He used to treat all those travelling abroad as enemies of the country.”
The Params made an odd couple. Uncle was of short stature, soft spoken, and of few words. Lily Aunty, on the other hand, looked taller, and was very vocal and gesticulating in expressing herself. She would be upset when Param Uncle took out the wrong glass to serve me gin. But, he remained as placid as ever.
Even though the Reader’s Digest did not have an Indian edition till the mid-1950s, they had an office in Bombay at least from around the 1930s. This office coordinated distribution of the group publications, marketing, canvassing for advertisements, etc. It was here that Tharoor Parameshwar joined sometime in the early 1940s as a typist/stenographer. The pay must have been good as it was he, as the eldest of many siblings, brought up and educated the others.
When the American/British bosses left around the time of Indian independence in 1947, they put Parameshwar in charge of the office. And when a new Indian edition was started in the mid-1950s, he became its first editor. He continued in this position till his retirement in the late 1970s.
Around 2000, the Params decided to leave Mumbai. They first tested out an apartment behind the Ega theatre on Poonamallee High Road. Lilly Aunty told me that she was fed up with the local autorickshaws refusing to ply her short distances despite seeing her somewhat hunchbacked frame and old age. That, she said, was the main reason for dropping Chennai from their plans. Later, they would sell the apartment in Suvas, and move to Bangalore. I lost touch with them around this time. A few years later, I met Anjolie Ela Menon once again at IIT Madras, where she was piloting a workshop. I knew by then that Param Uncle was no more. She confirmed that Lily Aunty was also no more.
Param uncle’s gifts of various books, including the thesaurus and condensed books, helped me with my writing. But, I am also thankful to my father who early in life drilled into my mind the value of simple writing. He followed George Orwell and his six rules of good writing, which included using shorter and more familiar words, to the longer and abstruse, and shorter sentences.
Param Uncle was erudite in his own way, well informed about, and with his own view on, almost everything. But, he was humility personified, with no pretensions, and self-effacing to a fault. The times I spent with the Params in Mumbai, however brief, were among my best.