Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fancy killing Julius Caesar on the Ides of May

A couple of months ago, on a quiet Sunday morning, I was absorbed in a magazine article about the Dingo, an Australian pure breed canine, and the Rajapalayam, its South Indian counterpart, when the landline phone rang off the hook and almost terrified me.

‘This is about Caesar,’ said the caller, an oldish man who called me often and bullied me with queries about Shakespeare. ‘If you are free on Sunday the 15th, shall we get back to Caesar?’

‘Getting back to that Rajapayalam? No!’ I almost screamed.

‘Rajapalayam?’ he asked quizzically.

‘Yes, of course, Rajapalayam.’ My mind went back to my college days at Guduvanchery in Tamil Nadu when a huge, tough, white-coated guard dog used to strike terror into my heart by merely fixing me with a ferocious look.  Its owner, Major Ramaswamy's wife, called it Caesar.  The Major's house was on our way to the railway station.  We would avoid that route to avoid Caesar; we took a roundabout route instead.  That dog was a terror to the Major himself.  But it was not such a great terror as its lookalike, the Major’s wife, who was as white as her pet but whose communication skills were much more ferocious than those of the beast. 

The old man was all ears. I concluded my reminiscences and asked, ‘But why are you scaring me now with a query about Caesar?’

‘I'm not scaring you,’ he replied in a surly tone.  ‘Neither am I interested in your Major's wife's Rajapalayam or Alsatian.  Your story about Caesar was interesting, no doubt, but it was Shakespeare's Caesar that I wanted discuss with you on Sunday.’

‘You mean, Julius Caesar?’  I said, breathing a sigh of relief. 

Though I felt relieved to know that it was not that old terror he was talking about, I stiffened at the very prospect of discussing Shakespeare with him.  The old man's company is one of those rare occasions on which you realize that the Bard of Avon could be a dull and dreary subject.

But there was a ray of hope: the date, March 15, suggested by him for the discussion.  ‘Let's not meet on the Ides of March,’ I said seizing the opportunity. 

‘Ides of March!  What's that?’  he asked with a note of confusion in his voice. 

‘March 15 is the Ides of March,’ I said, ‘the day on which Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.  It's a day of infamy.’

‘Beware the ides of March,’ says a soothsayer in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  Caesar asks the man to come closer and repeat the prophecy.  After studying the man's face, Caesar says, ‘He is a dreamer, let us leave him.’  Later, when Caesar meets the soothsayer again on the way to the Senate, he says to the latter with great confidence, ‘The ides of March have come.’  ‘Aye, Caesar, but not gone,’ the soothsayer reminds him.  Caesar ignores this warning and goes to meet his death.  His bloody assassination on March 15 marked the day as a day of infamy.

The Shakespeare enthusiast was listening with rapt attention.  ‘Beware, March 15 is a bad day!’  I cautioned him.  ‘Besides, you must make a careful study of all those scenes in Julius Caesar before you come to me for a discussion.  That will take about a month's time.  So, what if we meet on the Ides of, say, May?’

‘May has its ides, too?’

‘Every month, for that matter. According to the ancient Romans, every month has calendas at the beginning, ides around the middle, and nones eight days before the ides.’

I now realized that, in my enthusiasm, I had gone too far. I was doing the opposite of what I had intended to do: instead of discouraging the old man, I was whetting his appetite with a lecture on the ancient Roman system. An occupationally-induced disease! I muttered a curse at myself, and spelt calendas, ides and nones for the old man. Sure enough, before I hung up and went back to my Rajapalayam, he promised to meet me on the ides of May.

How time flies! The ides of May are approaching, and the old man may call me any time now.

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