“Pothe!” A Tribute to Pratap Pothen (1952-2022)

The world lost a talented film actor and director- and I a dear old friend-  with the passing away of Old Lawrencian Pratap Pothen,  Class of 1968, on July 15, 2022. 

There have been many tributes paid to him praising his acting and directorial skills. The aim is not to list all of them but two stayed in my mind: I liked Anand Kochukudy’a article calling him the “Original Hippy of Malayalam Cinema” and Suhasini Maniratnam’s straight from the heart personal tribute , “Farewell My Dear Friend Prathap” in The Hindu. She describes him as an “adorable eccentric” in this tribute to him on India Ahead. 

 It was my good fortune to have known him well since 1959 when I joined The Lawrence School, Lovedale, in the 3rd Std in Prep School. At age 7, leaving home and going to stay alone in a school far away was a totally new experience for me. Pratap, already a boarding school veteran having joined in the 1st Std took me under his wings and we remained close friends ever since.

He was one of the most creative persons I have known. I think he exhibited this trait all through his schooldays (1957-68) at Lovedale.

In 1961, when we were in the 5th in Mr K C Jacob’s Kailas House, our Housemaster “Jakes” asked us to put up an entertainment show with performances of different kinds. Pratap directed and acted in a skit propounding the benefits of the well known Eno Fruit Salt. When he shouted, “Oh no!” he, S N Mohanty and I – who made up the cast- had to hold our guts, moan, and make a sick face, as if in agony. This was repeated a few times till the audience too must have got sick of it. On the shout of “Eno!” we had to be magically transformed as the fizzy Eno did its trick, and become happiness personified.

After being together in Prep School and Kailas House, we went different ways for 6th and 7th – he to South Block and Siwalik, I to North Block and Himalaya. 

We were re-united in the 8th in Mr W J “Mac” McMahon’s Nilgiri House. 

Older OLs of the 60s and 70s may remember that in the mid 60s, Hindustan Lever brought out an innovative toothpaste called “Signal” with its distinctive red stripes. Mr Mohammed Naeem ( known far and wide naturally as “Neem”) was teaching us Health Science. He held forth at great length about Rana tigrina ( the common frog). Male staff in Lovedale in those days taught in suits. The one that Neem wore that day was quite natty- a dark black- grey with thin pin stripes in red. 

As was the custom those days, Pothe (as he was called affectionately by us) raised his hand to ask a question. “Yes, Pothen? What’s your doubt?” asked Mr. Naeem.

With a most innocent look the skilled actor that he was even in those days, Pothe asked, (pointing at Mr Naeem’s suit) , ” Sir, those red stripes!! Do they contain hexachlorophene?” 

In our school days, we used to write home every week. Our letters- almost universally – went along the lines of, ” My Dear Father, How are you? I am well and happy here!” 

Our House Master, “Mac” insisted that we maintain this habit during the holidays and write to him every week! One year on our return to school, Mac addressed us, ” I received letters every week from all of you. Some of them were quite interesting! The most interesting of them all was from Pothen. He wrote to me on June 28 and said, ” How are you, Sir.? I am waiting to see you in three days. I hope you received my letters of June 21, June 14, and June 7! ” I must say, Pothen, you have demonstrated the skilful use of the calendar.!” 

Lovedale and the school were always close to his heart. He was an integral part of the Class of ’68 and took part in most of their re-unions. This picture of their 50th Year Reuinon at Lovedale- like the others in this post- is through the kind courtesy of Viju Parameshwar, also of the Class of ’68 and also of Nilgiri House. 

Pothe was fun loving, creative, and lived life ( as he famously sang) “In My Way”! 

I know you will want us to laugh with you all the time, Pothe! Stay blessed wherever you are, old friend. 

On “Budda” aka “Birtish Bolaram” !

Our friend, Saraswati Narayan, is an excellent raconteur and writer. She provided me with the prompt to write this story. An earlier story from her had inspired me to write on Mr Gupta of “Steady Slap” fame. So this is the second round of thanks to you, Saraswati! I think you should start a blog to enable a wider audience to read your stories!

Recently, she wrote about a gardener called Shukra Mali, they had decades ago – in the 70s- in Ranchi. One could visualize him so clearly that it brought back memories of a cook we had around that time in Jhinkpani in present day Jharkhand.

I worked then in the ACC Cement Works there. Four of us bachelors had a “mess” in which the OC Kitchen was an old Gurkha of indeterminable age called Bolaram. He prided himself – especially when under the sauce, which was pretty often- on having served the British for decades. The rest of the small township simply called him, “Budda” or “Old Man” which he didn’t much care for. He would bristle and say his name was, ” Birtish Bolaram” ! He was slight of built but wiry for his age, though a little bent. Years of practice had perfected his navigation skills. Using his own GPS he found his way home, irrespective of where he went, how much he drank or when he returned.

We don’t know much of his early background, but he certainly served in the old British Indian Army until he was demobilized at the end of World War II. Apparently, some shelling had affected his hearing, possibly during the War. India gained Independence shortly after, but to him the pain of his losing the sheltered life in the Army and his hearing problems, were because of Mahatma Gandhi. This led him to often grumble that Gandhi had not got him ” Azaadi” (freedom) but ” barbaadi'( ruination) !

Since he was hard of hearing the door bell was of no use. The working arrangement made was that he used to sleep next to an open window with a stick alongside. To get him to open the door, the prescribed drill was to use that stick to gently prod him in the ribs! Usually he was alert to approaching footsteps and the stick being whisked away to prod him.

Bolaram was at his best when you told him there was a “party”. He would perk up immensely! After a few shots of rum ( he was at his best when slightly high) he would break out in his own style of English. He would turn out the best possible meal, compete with a spotless white table cloth, cutlery and the works. Decades have gone by but I still remember his cooking on his day! Especially his mutton chops!!

After one of our “parties” a colleague tried to get Bolaram drunk, not knowing that he could quite easily drink him under the table. A few shots made the young man quite excitable but for the seasoned Bolaram this was child’s play . He had served us a great dinner and he was lapping up all the praise everyone lavished on him. The young man thrust one more glass of drink in the old man’s hand. Bolaram looked at him with his hooded eyes, and drank it up in one go ! He then turned, pointing to him with utter contempt, and told us , ” Give it to him the one more peg.!”