AN IMPRINT FOR NOVEMBER

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Footprints are the stars of suspense and mystery.

Depending on context, a footprint can be much more than the trace of a foot or boot-sole on earth. A common contextual feeling among hikers for instance, is: I am not lost, I am not alone! Provided of course, whoever walked by is good company. Can you be sure of that? A footprint on earth is also imprint in restless brain. It is what it is and then, it is what you make of it. Or is it what it is because of what you make of it? Ha! – says Holmes, that solver of mysteries. Eyes closed; head thrown back, palms joined, a mocking smile on his lips, the triumph in needling Watson with his occasional barbed quips showing through.

One thing I know – I can’t be Holmes, for there is nothing as delightful as watching the character from far. Inhabit him and you trade that perspective for the hound’s nose glued to a trail. I’d rather be Watson capable of seeing Holmes or better still – the reader of a book or viewer of a TV serial showing them both, for Holmes with Watson alongside, is one of the finest character portrayals there is.

In my case, Holmes is an imprint in the brain.

Nobody means Sherlock Holmes more to me than the late Jeremy Brett.

I still remember my first meeting with Holmes. I was approaching middle school. Readers Digest was popular those days. Once in a while, the magazine sent out a list of the books it published, which readers could buy. There was a thick blue book with fiction abstracts and a red one. I ordered the red; my cousins procured the blue. The blue had chapters from Sherlock Holmes. Ours was a family appreciative of the creative arts. On weekends, the cousins gathered to indulge in some form of creativity. Initially it was painting; slowly that gave way to each one getting serious in some chosen passion – dance, music, reading, writing, painting, football, aero modelling, films etc. It continued till tenth standard, maybe some more. Then life, like water poured down a funnel, was recast in service of livelihood. It is like the story of mineral water; once was free, flowing water, now eminently saleable in bottle. By the time we finished college, we were just that – saleable.

Somewhere in the period partial to creativity, an evening at their house, Manju and Rajeev kept me spellbound by their narration of The Speckled Band. That was my first Sherlock Holmes story and it came from the blue book. Not exactly fond of snakes, the snake in the story left an impression, strong enough for me not to forget either the story or my cousins’ narration. For several years, Holmes stayed just that in the head – a story. I came across his collected adventures at other households in the extended family but the youngster in me wasn’t keen on a character set decades back in the past. My mother told me that Holmes was even a case of character brought back from the dead by popular demand. Such had been his impact. It failed to register for I wanted modern characters. Time passed by. The shape of Indian cars changed; the shape of household appliances changed – among them, the television. Colour TV arrived and with time, cable TV.

Among programmes telecast was the Granada TV series, ` The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. It changed everything for me. I found myself keeping my appointment with the telecast that opened with unmistakable violin-notes. A simple, bare tune that resonated of an era gone by and told you clearly – get ready to be transported back in time. It was a fine series with good performances by not just the lead actors but also those making special appearances as important characters in each episode. In my opinion, the series was one of those productions in which the average quality across episodes stayed pretty high. Brett and his committed, intense portrayal of the detective grew on me. Above all, for someone sold on ` modern,’ I found myself enjoying the eccentricities of ` period.’ Everything, from conduct to language – it lingered distinct in the slower pace of the past, it cut a style. Holmes had style! When the series ended, I acquired a thick volume showcasing all the Sherlock Holmes adventures and set about reading it. There is still stuff I haven’t read, stuff I forget. I am glad it is so for it lets me get back.

Thanks to the Internet, I have sampled different actors as Holmes. None inhabited the character or created Holmes like Brett did. I don’t hold portrayals strictly accountable to what the author prescribed in every little detail. No, I don’t. That is probably why Brett impressed me so much. I was a blank slate for although I had read some of the detective’s adventures, characterization is picked up easier from an enacted piece than a written one. Brett provided a face to a figure, voice to a brain, life to a character and mannerisms, even arrogance, for recall; plus intensity. For all the logic Holmes attributes to his ability to deduce, Brett infused a crucial contrarian element to his Holmes – a touch of mystery. The sum total of what he offered as Holmes was a portrait of deduction as much enigmatic and enticing as a case delivered as question mark. It was the perfect package for imprint by image. The man was a genius; perhaps more accurately – it was acting genius unleashed by defining role. No Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing for me and definitely no Robert Downey Jr or Benedict Cumberbatch; it has to be Jeremy Brett. Like imprint in mind authoring perception of footprint, Brett became Holmes for me. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke did an excellent job essaying Dr Watson in the series. I am partial to Burke. His Watson showed the spunk to stand up to Holmes, a sharp contrast to say, the rather bumbling Watson of Nigel Bruce.

I am not a researcher on Holmes or an academic knowing every detail of every story. I have also not been to London and Baker Street. I am sure learned discussions on Holmes and Brett may hold opinions different from mine. My journey with Holmes continues in occasional readings of the book, still enjoyed as return to character and language and every once in a while – recourse to YouTube where the old Granada series survives and Brett comes alive as Holmes to the fans he made.

Brett died in 1995.

He was born November 3, 1933, three years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, passed away.

This is a November.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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