You hear this term less and less these days. When someone describes a man as ‘a perfect gentleman’ the name that pops into my mind is my friend, Jani Uthup!
I was happy to have met Jani in London when we were both training as tea tasters at Thomas, Cumberlege and Inskipp. As I had said in an earlier blog, Jani’s father Brigadier Uthup was seconded to the Indian High Commission. Because the family lived outside London Jani stayed at the International YMCA, Fitzroy Square. My father knew the general secretary and he fixed me up to stay there as well. So Jani and I saw a lot of each other. We would take the Tube together to go to the office at Mincing Lane. The Thomas, Cumberlege and Inskipp office was situated in the iconic Plantation House.
Our job was to lay out batches of tea for the Partners to taste and evaluate. We got to taste along with them. This is how most tradesmen were apprenticed before they were qualified in their chosen profession.
We ate lunch together at Mecca Bar or the Wine Lodge across the road. Vijay Dudeja, nearly always accompanied us, while Govind Jauhar went on his own or with the partners. Vijay was my counterpart from JT Calcutta however, he was a lot senior. He was working with a Bombay company when he decided to quit and come to Calcutta to join tea broking. JT took the unusual step of giving him consideration for his ‘experience at work’ though he was still a novice at tea. I wondered whether this caused some heartburn for Prodosh Sen but both were friends from Modern School, New Delhi; I think Vijay was a year senior.
Jani’s entry into J. Thomas was a forgone conclusion. He was the product of Lawrence School, Lovedale, a renowned public school in India. Jani was the Vice Headboy, which showcased his leadership qualities. That, and a couple of years of training at Thomas, Cumberlege and Inskipp was a heady brew for Vinod Parekh, the JT Chairman not to consider hiring Jani. Moreover, he was from Kerala and we needed more hands for an ever expanding South India portfolio.
Jani Uthup joined J. Thomas in 1967 and was in Calcutta for further training. With Jani being in Calcutta I had a home away from home there and a visit to the big city became an annual fixture. He would pick me up from the airport and I would share his bedroom in a New Alipore apartment he jointly rented with another executive.
In December 1969 when I flew in Jani was at the airport as usual, but instead of heading home to his apartment he drove to Park Street. He said he wanted to give me a surprise. He parked his car and we walked into Trincas, a restaurant popular with the younger boxwallas (executives) of the city. I could hear a lively band and the rich voice of a lady crooner. She was singing “Doe a deer, a female deer…” from the Sound of Music. When she came to the letter T she looked at me and sang out “and Tea with J. Thomas & Co – that brings me back to…”!
I was amazed on multiple counts – firstly, with the incredible voice – deep and silken at the same time. Then there was this crooner belting out western pop, in the most unlikely attire and lastly, how did she know I was with JT! Jani beamed with glee, seeing the reactions he saw on my face. “Isn’t she fantastic?” he asked rhetorically, as we sat down at a table near the band.
During the break, she came over and Jani introduced me. “Philip, I want you to meet Usha!” I got a warm hello; Usha said that she was expecting my arrival from Cochin. Obviously my friend knew the crooner well!
This is what a website has to say about Usha:
Usha Uthup (then Iyer) first made a splash at Trincas in 1969. With her Kanjivaram sarees, big bindis and flowers in her hair. She was an unconventional addition to the westernized music scene. With her deep, soulful voice, and fantastic ability to capture a room, she quickly stormed not only the Calcutta music scene, but became one of India’s most sought after singing sensations.
Jani then told me how he met Usha. He had heard that a new crooner had come to Trincas and he went there with a few friends. Like everyone he was captivated by Usha’s singing and her warm personality. He walked up to her and in his clipped British accent asked, “Excuse me, could you sing Waltzing Matilda for me?” Music aficionados would have cringed at his choice, but that’s what he liked, so he asked!
“Sorry, I don’t know that song”, came the brief reply. Disappointed Jani went back to his table.
A few days later he went back to Trincas. The next song she sang after his arrival was – you’ve guessed it, Waltzing Matilda!! Our man was over the moon! Tea and biscuits turned to Tea and sympathy and soon they were deeply in love.
One night, around 2 am Jani got up muttered some expletives under his breath and was gone. He got back about half an hour later and crept silently into bed. Next morning, I asked him what he was doing at that unearthly hour. “I drove past where she is staying”, he said. My eyes widened. “Every night, I drive past her window, and blow my horn. Usha stands by her window, she does not go to bed before I do that”!
I had to find out, “So was she there when you went at two last night?”, I asked incredulously.
“Yes”, was the terse reply.
I am not going to talk about their whirlwind romance. It would take a few pages to say it all. But suffice it to say Jani and Usha married in 1971. They celebrated their 49th anniversary a few days ago! They have a daughter and son – born one year after our daughter and son. Anjali and Sunny are multi talented, and wonderful people in their own right.
Jani travelled from Calcutta to Tiruvella, Kerala by train for our wedding (29th December 1969), a journey of over 48 hours! Only one’s closest friends would do something like that! He accompanied us to Cochin and on New Years Eve we partied – but more about that on a later day!
Jani joined the tea auction company I started in the late eighties but I am getting ahead of myself! He was, and continues to be the perfect gentleman. A man without guile or a dishonest bone in his body!