Some Favorite Things
We describe below some of Sunder’s favourite things in the belief that nothing helps us understand a person so well as knowing what he loved and how he loved them. First and most of all, of course, Sunder loved the people close to him, his family and friends, unequivocally and totally. But he took an interest in people of all kinds — shopkeepers, waiters, security guards, taxi drivers and others he encountered in his daily life. He especially loved the company of children, with a natural affinity for them which was unfailingly reciprocated—there was not a child that could resist Sunder. But here we list here his other interests, and the ordinary material things that constitute the stuff of all our lives.
Rishi Valley tried to inculcate ‘culture’ in its students –music, dance, poetry and the like—but Sunder was the despair of his teachers. (He did excel in the more mundane hobbies the school fortunately also encouraged, such as carpentry and stamp-collecting). This did not prevent him from developing an avid interest in music, with eclectic tastes across genres – Carnatic classical music, Tamil film songs from his childhood, old and new Hindi film songs, ghazals, rock and country music all took his fancy. When in Washington from 1979-82, he recorded rock and country music from the radio onto cassette tapes (labeled as “volumes”, with song titles written in his careful and precise handwriting). He recorded more than 30 volumes of rock and 10 volumes of country music. He carted the cassettes around the world through all our moves for the next thirty years, before reluctantly giving most of them away to the “kabadi wallah” in Bangalore a few years ago. The technology had changed and the tapes had grown brittle.
This interest in listening to music aside, it should be emphasized that Sunder was arguably the worst singer known to mankind, capable of shattering glass with his lack of melody. This did not stop him from singing loudly and peremptorily, without provocation, especially on long drives in the confined spaces of a car, where the audience would have no escape. From somewhere he had acquired a repertoire of old English ballads—‘Clementine’, ‘What Shall we do with the Drunken Sailor’ and the like—which were the bathroom favourites.
These are links to a few of Sunder’s favorite songs from over the years, especially selected for listening on the long Bangalore-Madras car drives we frequently undertook:
- Bhavayammi Raghuramam (M.S)
- Unnai Kandu Naan Vaada (Kalyana Parisu)
- Chalo ek baar phir se (Gumrah) (Mahendra Kapoor)
- Country Roads Take me Home (John Denver)
- Kalayami Raghuramam (GNBalasubramaniam, recording from 1964 concert)
- Bahaaron Phool Barsao (Suraj) (Mohammad Rafi)
- Kaun Hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aaya (Jhuk Gaya Aasman)
- The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
- Paripaalaya (GNBalasubramaniam)
- Zara Ahistha Chal (Pankaj Udhas)
- Leader of the Band (Dan Fogelberg)
- Bridge over Troubled Waters (Simon and Garfunkel)
- Rahman song (Taal?)
- Hare tumaharo (Meera Bhajan – M.S.)
Food and drink
Sunder took great pleasure in food. As many of the tributes to him have indicated, he liked the simplest things – a well-roasted dosa, a hearty omelette. But he also liked spreads, big dinners at nice restaurants with rich foods. And he had his little daily quirks – sourdough bread, toasted brown and dripping with butter; a banana after lunch and dinner; a demand for “dessert” after every meal, for he had a sweet tooth. For much of his life, he could be fussy about his food, generally preferring home-cooked South Indian meals to anything adventurous. But this changed over the last decades of his life, when he developed an interest in sampling a wide variety of cuisines. He took an occasional turn in the kitchen, and predictably was a flamboyant and successful cook.
Late in life Sunder assiduously set himself to learn about wines. Oxford college life was a great introduction to them of course; Sunder apprenticed himself to the steward at Wolfson College to learn about pairings and vintages. Later he sat at the feet of Breyten Breytenbach, our neighbor and friend, to learn about South African wines. But it was whisky that he loved most. He grew to be a connoisseur, with a fine collection of single malt Scotch stowed away in his almirah. The bottles would be brought out for guests, but always with a pecking order – the very best was only reserved for his closest friends. It was a great joy for him when Kaushik developed a taste for whisky in his 30s, and he would always bring out his favorite bottle of Lagavulin for a nightcap when Kaushik visited Bangalore. Sadly, he saved up some of his very best bottles without opening them, no doubt waiting for a suitably special occasion, and so he never got around to drinking some.
But Sunder also had some distinctly plebian drinking tastes, especially when it came to drinking with his brother-in-law Babu. Then, the drink of choice was Old Monk rum (affectionately and euphemistically referred to as “Ramanujam”, after the great mathematician).
Sunder was passionate about cricket, an interest that he shared with Kaushik and that formed the substance of many of their conversations. He was also opinionated about it, clearly preferring “old school” and gentlemanly players – the likes of Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and perhaps most of all V.V.S. Laxman – to those whom he saw as brash and too big for their boots. M.S. Dhoni was a special adversary, Sunder would always say, “I can’t stand that fellow”. Of the younger generation, he had developed a great fondness for Ajinkya Rahane. So I think it was especially appropriate that Rahane made a 100 at Lord’s the day Sunder died, leading India to an extraordinary win.
Sunder also liked the oldies. Like many of his generation, he had grown up on the exploits of the Caribbean cricketers of the 1960s and 70s, and greatly enjoyed meeting the West Indian cricket team when they were in Delhi as part of their 1982-83 tour of India. (An account of his admiration for that cricketing tradition is to be found in his writings about the Caribbean cruise). But again, there were more contemporary and plebian tastes that he had, and he took an immediate liking to the IPL, which he followed avidly. He liked going to see the Royal Challengers Bangalore games live at the
He had no aptitude for any of the outdoor sports—like his lack of musicality, it was an abiding regret—but he was a remarkably fit and energetic man. He walked: what a walker he was, quick, tireless and endlessly observant while walking. Whether it was his morning constitutional in Bangalore, or the quick dash to buy things at the grocery shop, or the long exploratory walks he undertook in Oxford and then in New York, walking was something he delighted in. It was also of course an excuse to get out of the house to sneak a cigarette!
Sunder limited his reading to best-sellers–thrillers by James Baldacci, John Grisham, Steve Martini, Richard North Patterson and the kind– devouring them at a great rate. One of the pleasures of living in the US for him was being able to get an armload of these at the local public libraries for free. He would go with his backpack and come back with half-a-dozen shiny new hardcover copies. In India however he was obliged to buy paperbacks. Below is the last book he never finished, by his bedside.
Sunder was an undeniable dandy, loving colognes and cuff- links in addition to ties and jackets. When we began to be able to afford it—which alas was only late in his career and after retirement—he splurged on clothes. He would look at the piles of shirts and trousers in his wardrobe, and shake his head: ‘This is obscene.’ He then instituted a rule that every new item that came in had to be matched by something that would be thrown out. He was particularly fond of acquiring ties and had a large collection of them. After his retirement there were few opportunities to wear one, but the ties (and cuff- links) were carefully preserved for special occasions and gloated over.
Sunder had watched movies indiscriminately as a young man. He boasted of having gone to over a hundred of them in a single year while in Engineering college—from the stalls of course–and we all know what came of that! He loved the popular Tamil film in its heyday, but once he moved away from Tamilnadu on his various postings across the country he couldn’t keep up with it. He could recite yards of dialogue from memory with relish and gusto, and could hold his own in any discussion about the DMK and cinema. He watched Bollywood and Hollywood films avidly. But equally he enjoyed serious cinema—we went almost weekly to the screenings in the little Shakuntalam theatre in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan which showed European avant-garde cinema and Ray’s films, and we rarely missed the film festivals in Delhi which brought to us regional New Wave cinema. Later, in Oxford and New York, we took to watching Iranian and Latin American films on dvds. Once the multiplexes took over Sunder’s interest in watching films at the theatre waned. He moved to television, becoming a confirmed couch potato with a fondness for American sitcoms. His favourite was Everybody Loves Raymond—he said he identified with Raymond! One year, in Abu Dhabi, we binge watched the entire series of The West Wing, Sopranos and The Wire.
What else? He was a plane spotter, with an intricate knowledge of different kinds of aircraft consequent to his work in the Civil Aviation Ministry in the 1980s (which included evaluating the relative merits of Boeings and Airbuses for purchase to the Air India and Indian Airlines fleets). Earlier he had acquired a similar knowledge and love of trains while serving in the Western Railways. The long inspection journeys across the country, when he had his own private coach, delighted him. And he loved cars, not coveting them but admiring them objectively. He taught Kaushik as a child to identify foreign cars on the streets of Delhi in the 1970s, would attend vintage car rallies, and was excessively proud of his brother’s acquisition of Lexuses and Mercedes Benzes!
Sunder liked fine things without being obsessed by them. He sometimes described himself as a ‘sanyasi,’ as a joke, but he could indeed be curiously indifferent to his surroundings, adapting to the most austere circumstances without complaint. He cherished memorable experiences as well as ordinary ones: socializing, traveling, watching movies, walking the city, and holding forth on a range of topics with considerable relish, broad knowledge and deep curiosity. The things he left behind remain as mute reminders of the man, as we slowly give them away to friends and family who will accept them as mementoes.