Tehelka, April 16, 2001
Empty wooden chair
By Salil Tripathi
I had picked up a copy of Afternoon Despatch and Courier on Friday, hoping
to read what Busybee would have to say on Bill Clinton's visit to Bombay.
He'd definitely have been invited to a soiree of that kind; with film stars,
journalists, and the city's celebrities vying for fifteen seconds of fame
with the former US president. And with his sardonic style, he would have
punctured a few reputations, particularly of those few eager to ingratiate
themselves for a desperate photo-op with Clinton. And he'd have done it with
a touch so gentle as to be completely devoid of malice.
But I did not see his piece that afternoon and I hoped he was all right.
Busybee was known to have been ailing. I had not seen him in over four years.
The last time I had seen him, at one of those glittering functions in Bombay
where everyone knows everyone else and everyone's eyes dart across the room
in the hope of networking with someone else, he had sat in a corner, supremely
unconcerned, nursing an uncharacteristic glass of nimbu pani, and exchanging
jokes with young reporters who were witnessing the city's powerful elite
working the room. He asked me if I wasn't already bored with Singapore, (for
I used to live in Singapore then), and I said that the fall of Suharto and
the Asian economic crisis had made the beat suddenly as interesting as India.
But that story wouldn't fascinate Behram Contractor, I knew. For he had squeezed
his universe into a ball, and that was Bombay. And how well he knew the city!
When Time-Life Books hired Dom Moraes to write a book on Bombay, Busybee
wrote an elegiac piece about the kind of Bombay he imagined the poet Moraes
would bring to life. He was disappointed with the result, as was Moraes possibly,
as well as Moraes's many fans because, as Busybee memorably put it, after
Moraes wrote about the space of Azad Maidan, editors at Time-Life Books sent
fact-checkers to measure the area in square feet, then converted it into
square meters, so that the reader would understand the scale of Bombay.
They drained the city of its poetry, the rhythm of which Busybee understood
better than anyone else. For Busybee did to Bombay what E.B. White did to
Manhattan in his epochal essay, "Here is New York", over 50 years ago. The
key difference is, Busybee did this for over three decades, virtually daily,
producing those 350 words of elegy to the city he loved. And the city needed
to read him daily, like a constant fix, to reassure itself that nothing had
His eloquent description of sunrise at Uran, or sunset at Haji Ali, his nostalgic
yearning for long-forgotten Irani restaurants and the smell of the fresh
bun-maska, his encyclopaedic memory of the city's seedy bars, his exceptional
knowledge of cricket, his fascination of Hollywood, and his apt phrases to
describe a scene half-forgotten, making it at once familiar, will remain
firmly in the minds of those who grew to love the city through his eyes.
The rains that came in October suddenly, he described once, as a guest who
has returned to collect his hat he had forgotten. Rains came silently and
stealthily, he said, like Russian diplomats and English butlers. Other actresses
needed scripts and dialogues, but Deepti Naval in Chashme-Buddoor, he wrote
once, only needed her eyes. When Sunil Gavaskar scored his 29th century to
equal Don Bradman's record, Busybee said Gavaskar was now a master forever
but little no longer. The cricket season had ended, he said, and once again,
as always, it had been Gavaskar's season.
There are many more phrases like these, and I can recall many more of them,
because they've been imprinted deeply in my mind. For he understood the heartbeat
of my city, Bombay, and he articulated it better than anyone else. He understood
the way the common man felt, and in one of the finest descriptions of that
common man's view of India, way back in the early 1970s, Busybee wrote: "He
asked for little and got less."
After having read detailed economic critiques of India's economic policies
and political class for over two decades now, I don't think anyone has encapsulated
the pathos or the underlying spirit of the so-called common man of India
as well as he did in those seven words. He asked for little and got less.
There is political wisdom in that sentence; it explains the stoicism of India's
voters far better than the political commentary that's published regularly
There was only one occasion when I remember he wrote an angry piece--it was
after S.N.M. Abdi exposed the Bhagalpur blindings in Arun Shourie's Indian
Express. It was the only time he wrote with anger, asking the reader if there
is anything left to write.
He had made a similar point, in the same vein, earlier, when Indira Gandhi
had imposed the Emergency. Recalling those days, Busybee wrote that he wrote
a lot about mangoes and cricket that year, because those were the only subjects
considered safe during the era of censorship.
Whether travelogues, to distant places only people like his friend Meher
Moos would go to, or discovering hidden gems of restaurants in the smaller
lanes of Bombay, or interviewing famous people, or writing the brilliant
anonymous sketches of Bombay, in 'City Lights' in the Times of India, or
later in the two newspapers he helped set up, first Mid-Day and then Afternoon
Despatch and Courier, Busybee established standards that would be hard to
imitate and tough to
Consider his almost off-hand dismissal of fake intellectual sophistication.
I remember reading his interview of Mulk Raj Anand, in which the writer and
art critic was waxing eloquent about his style and how it was influenced
by writers more famous than he was.
I'm sure Busybee would have found it hard to suppress a chuckle as Anand
said, "And at that point of time, my style turned from Joycean to Yeatsian."
Most tired reporters would have typed the full-stop and closed quotes and
moved to the next paragraph, hoping that they had done their bit to make
the English majors among their readers feel they had had their paisa vasool
reading the interview. But that wouldn't be Busybee. He added a little, gentle
sting after the quote, and the sentence read: "…from Joycean to Yeatsian,"
whatever that means."
I feel a sense of personal loss--he was one of the first editors to publish
me, in 1981, when I was a college student in Bombay. I had gone, gingerly,
on a hot day, carrying a piece I had written, unsolicited, about Bansi Chandragupta,
the art director of Satyajit Ray, who had died unexpectedly in Paris. He
was at his office in Mid-Day, looking exactly like the Mario Miranda cartoon;
perched on his chair, typing furiously. I gave him my piece; he looked at
it, bringing it close to his eyes, for his eyes were weak even then, and
said he would use it.
The next day, I saw the piece in print, giving me the kind of boost and confidence
he (and three other editors) provided me in my early years. I am sure there
are many more journalists like me, who have benefited from his generosity.
For that, I remain grateful.
Busybee buzzed around, round and about Bombay, for a long time. We can now
savour the sweetness of the honey he has left behind. The chair in the Irani
restaurant now lies vacant--perhaps that empty wooden chair near a marble-topped
table is the best way to remember the huge void he has left in the life of