No one is more fascinated by advertising people than advertising people. Their extra-curricular efforts have often been hypnotically self-referential. Until 'Mad Men' came along, and turned retro advertising drama into mass entertainment. Sujit Sanyal may not be quite as handsome as Jon Hamm, but his memoirs are a successful foray into the same genre or subculture, as the case may be.
Mr Sanyal was active in Calcutta in the seventies and eighties, although given the pace of life, both in advertising, and in the city, active may be a bit of an exaggeration. He was a decent old buffer, evidently, and his reminiscing has a gentle cheerfulness which is hard to resist. While the seventies are not as far back as the fifties, it was still a very different time. Most people wore HMT watches, and television was full of documentaries on fertilizer, and wall-to-wall Indira Gandhi. So this book has an archaeological quality to it. It takes you back to an era when lunches were long, unions were active, and a man was almost entirely measured by his capacity to hold his drink. I say man because there are very few women in it, although Tara Sinha does rampage in and out occasionally.
Mr Sanyal dips into bits and pieces of his entire career, from the point where he was a virgin intern, to the present day, when he is more or less chilling. He introduces us to some extremely interesting people along the way. Most of them are no longer famous. Except for one or two, like Suhel Seth. This must have been before he was epically dissed by Caravan. Luminaries such as Subhas Ghosal and Subroto Sengupta cross the stage, as does Satyajit Ray. Most of the portraits are interesting and friendly, although he does slag off temporary Bengali matinee idol Barun Chanda rather fearfully. Once you read this, you might be inclined to agree with him.
In fact, this brings me to the core of the book. It's more than just a series of disjointed anecdotes, though it works perfectly well at this level. The heart of this story is the rise and fall of Clarion, once one of India's top agencies. It traces how, over more than a decade, a well-intentioned experiment in employee ownership degenerated into a bewildering, kaleidoscopic pattern of intrigue, with people changing sides before you could say 'Alyque Padamsee'. Like the best horror movies, where the scantily clad ingénue insists on checking out the noise in the back yard, you keep wanting to scream, "Stop it, you morons!", but no one ever does. They keep clawing each other until there's nothing left. If you forget for a minute that the fundamental issue at stake was selling toothpaste, the whole thing has a Shakespearean quality to it.
It's not that there are no shenanigans, or houghmagandie, as Flashman's wife would call it. This is advertising, after all. How could there not be shenanigans? Dangerous liaisons do occur, and are documented by the author, to just the right degree. There was an alarming amount of declining and falling in Calcutta advertising circles at the time, but Mr Sanyal chooses not to focus on this beyond a point. Shobhaa De would have had a field day, and we can only hope that no one points this out to her. The legendary Lahiri brothers play a role here, and are thus deservedly preserved for posterity.
Like the man, this is a modest, unassuming book. In its quiet way, it captures the sense of a time and place. They have a name for this type of thing. It's called history.
Title: Life in a Rectangle; Author: Sujit Sanyal; 260 pages; Publisher : Fingerprint