If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 4 July 2011

Joe – there was only one of his kind

Joe (Joy Joseph Manimury) died on 19th June. He needn’t have. He was only 59. But accidents don’t care how old their victims are.

Since I write a web log more or less regularly, I cannot but share Joe with my readers. At the same time, it is hard to write about someone whose absence bleeds your heart. I haven’t written a sentence since I heard of Joe’s death. I must, now. The catharsis must be, if I have to move forward.

Joe was of medium height. But when I met him first in 1975, he looked much taller because of his slender frame. With a shock of black hair, a half smile playing through carelessly grown whiskers, and bright eyes piercing through metal rimmed glasses, he would stand out in a crowd. He had worked in the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi before we joined the same bank and became friends. He told me that before the ministry, while he was trying to find his feet in Delhi, there was a time when, as he woke up in the morning, he was not sure where he would find a bed to sleep in after sixteen hours. He would hit the road with a bag. Then he added, ‘I always carried a toothbrush in my pocket.’

He described the situation casually, as if it is common for every young fellow out in the world not to have a roof over his head.

Amongst us, a group of thirteen newly recruited probationers, two things were common between Joe and me. While the rest of the gang had outstanding or near-outstanding academic records, we two were the only “second classes” and neither had done Masters. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but what I failed to record is that the similarity ended there. Joe had a sparkling intellect and a breadth of reading that often left me awestruck. I secretly dreamed of matching him in acquired knowledge someday, but I knew I had no chance of matching his razor-sharp mind. An hour’s conversation with him would light up my horizon, like the first rays of the sun in Darjeeling set up a stunning Kanchenjunga.

The second similarity between us was a shared love for literature. All our friends had varied interests and were well-read. But none, I think, had such a deep and enlightened interest in serious literature as Joe had. I recall having spent many evenings with him talking about books and authors we had read. Our interests were eclectic, but there was not much common ground, except for Hemingway, Steinbeck and Graham Greene. That was in the late 1970s, before Marquez swept us off our feet.

He wrote brilliant English and his letters were always a treat. Having lived a peripatetic life, I haven’t been able to hold on to many things that were of real value. And Joe’s letters would be among them. Here is one of Joe’s rare forays into creative writing, which I quote from memory:
There was a young man called Roger Buck
Who once courted Lady Luck.
His horse came last,
And he let blast
Something that rhymed with duck.
It was he who introduced me to the game of Scrabble. A common friend and fellow Scrabble aficionado, KTR has written how Joe used to knock him out with punches like sitcom (long before the TV hit us Indians) and syzygy, whatever that might mean. I too had a similar experience, having learned awning and jamb in some of the first few games that we played. I am sure I never beat him in Scrabble. The question wouldn’t arise.

Once I asked him how he had learned English so well. Did his father, who was a professor of English, help?

‘No, I don’t discuss English with old man.’

‘Do you consult a dictionary often?’

‘No, never.’

I was flabbergasted then, but now, after teaching English for ten years, I know, you can have that kind of vocabulary without opening a dictionary only if you read tonnes of books and have a top class analytical mind to back up your reading.

Joe had a wacky sense of humour and was capable of springing a surprise or two. The second aspect first.

We worked for the same bank for twenty years, but never under the same roof. We were not even in the same city most of the time. Once when my wife and I were moving from Trivandrum to Calcutta, Joe arrived unannounced from Ernakulam ostensibly to help us pack, and lit up the dim evening. Packing we did, but it was before our children were born and our entire household fitted into two boxes and Joe knew it. He called Arundhati didi and she loved him like a brother. Those two days in Trivandrum were among the happiest days of our life. After reaching Calcutta, we found Joe had also slipped in a set of beautiful German silver salt and pepper cellars in one of our boxes.

On another occasion, he came to Hyderabad from Kerala for a weekend.

Joe lived by his own rules and didn’t care for many things. He spent like mad until he ran out of cash. He was famously absentminded too. Once, alone on an official tour in Bombay, he decided to give himself a treat at an up-market restaurant. After the dinner, he discovered his wallet was empty. And it happened before the invention of credit cards. Joe wrote to me, ‘For the first time in my adult life, I prayed to God. And God appeared, in the shape of Madhusudan Rao.’

Rao was an officer in another bank and we happened to be together during a training programme ten years before.

V. T. Thomas a.k.a. Toms, who created the impish cartoon characters Boban and Molly, has been a household names in Kerala since 1961. He was an uncle of Joe (on his mother’s side, if I am not mistaken). Joe told us this story about Toms. Once, as a child, Toms was taking a geography test where one of the questions was a fill-in-the-blank:

___________ is the longest river in Kerala.

Toms tackled the question this way:

Which is the longest river in Kerala?

Joe’s sense of humour, which was obviously genetic, was legendary among friends and colleagues. Once, he had gone for an interview for a position on the faculty of the Bank’s training centre. The selection would not help him financially: it was just another position at the same level of hierarchy. On the contrary, it was not considered a great career move by many.

I met Joe just after the interview and found him a little fidgety. When I asked him why he bothered about something so inconsequential, he replied,‘Santanu, even if you went for an interview for a barber’s post in the bank, you’d feel bad if you didn’t get it.’

One of our perks was that we could travel home once in two years from our place of posting on company expense. And we could travel by air, a rare privilege those days. Once, when he was posted at Ahmedabad, Joe came down to Kerala as he had some urgent work at his home in Changanacherry. He met us in Trivandrum and said smugly, ‘Since I didn’t have money to buy train tickets, I flew down’, meaning he had utilised the home-travel facility.

I have written about Joe’s intellectual prowess and his sense of humour and his flair for doing the unexpected. He was also a brilliant officer and a top-notch achiever at work. On the lone occasion when I happened to work on a project with him, I was impressed by the quality of his work and his ability to think out of the box. And he was fastidious about everything he did. If he had been a barber, he would have tried to be the best barber in town. Once he said in some context, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well.’

Joe should have lived much longer. I am sure after he had retired and returned to India next September, we would have found some occasions to play a few games of Scrabble and drink a few bottles of beer.

PS 1: I met Joe last fifteen years ago. And we spoke over phone but rarely. If his death affects me so immensely, I wonder how it would be like for his wife, Catherine and his two daughters, Aarti and Nikhila. I can only believe they have the strength to bear the loss.

PS 2: If you wish to read about some other facets of this wonderful person, please click here.

[The photograph at the top is from Joe's Facebook page. The picture above was sent by Joe in April 2010 from Comoros Island with a terse note: “Look at the sky!”]


  1. Thanks, Santanu for sharing this. I had known Joe and Catherine briefly in the early nineties in Trivandrum. I had, of course, heard from Damu about him and his sterling qualities including his sense of humour, which you brought back here with nostalgia and melancholy. May Catherine, Aarti and Nikhila have the courage and the strength to overcome their intense loss and grief - Kerala Varma

  2. Joe was one of my closest friends right from when we met in Nov 1975. Although his first name was officially "Joy", in the first couple of days of our meeting, he let us know that he preferred not to be addressed so. I suggested "Joe", he consented, and the name stuck among all of us who knew him since. We worked together in Bombay, and shared an apartment. When I think of Joe, the first thing that come to my mind is his sharp brain which could trigger the most appropriate humour for any situation, and quite often, on himself. The same quotes from Joe which at that point in time drew uncontrollable peals of laughter from me, when recalled now, draw tears instead. Shall wait for some more time before I share my good days with him. May his soul rest in peace. May God give the family strength to overcome this tragedy.

  3. Shantanu, that is a great tribute to Joe from someone from the batch.You brought back a lot of good memories of Joe.

  4. I stil have memories of Joe though i met him a few hours.His sense of humor was out of this world.I still cannot bring my self to believe that he has gone,it was too soon.May he rest in Peace.

  5. Hi! My name is Lalitha Jairam, and I was known as Lalitha Krishnan until I got married. I used to work with Joseph in SBT in Bangalore when he was a probationer there. I idly typed in his name in Google and was directed to your blog. It has come as a shock to me to learn that he passed away last year. I still remember his fantastic sense of humor and can see him, even now in my mental eye, happily typing his correspondence. He had taught himself typing and didn't wait for someone to come and type his letters for him, and became so good that he used to type for all of us, including the Manager! Rest in peace, Joseph!
    By the way, this means that you were probably one year junior to me in the bank! Did you also know Nija Bhusnurmath?

  6. Hi Lalitha! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Joe. I often think of him, although a year has passed since he left us. This is one wound that time hasn't been able to heal. Not yet at least.

    Yes, Mythily and Nija Bhusnurmath were my batch-mates too. Nija now teaches at MDI, Delhi.

    Your name does ring a bell. I heard the name many a time, but I think we never met. Wish you all the best.


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