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 changed.

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 after elections.

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 this city.