Why was I sitting in a darkened hall watching Toni Patel rehearse Rajika Puri as Portia in The Merchant of Venice? I do not remember. But I do remember the doors of the auditorium opening behind me and Gerson da Cunha sweeping in, clad in his trademark white chikan kurta, carrying a portfolio of some kind, trailing busyness.

He stopped when he saw me. “Dear boy,” he said. “Do you mind if I ignore you? I am almost late.”

I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes to four.

“Gerson,” said Puri. “The Gerson!”

He acknowledged this with a bow. He smiled at Toni Patel.

“Do you need a minute?” she asked.

“To gaze upon all of you, yes,” Da Cunha said. “Mislike me not for my hurry.”

There was a little flurry of laughter and after taking a turn around the stage and stamping a bit in a corner, he returned, in character, as Morocco.

“Mislike me not for my complexion…”

The voice, that voice, rolled out into the dark theatre. It was a voice that held a knowingness, an acknowledgement of its own greatness. It was also a voice that acknowledged the Englishness of the lines for its diction was precise, the pentameter was treated with delicacy and suddenly, I was back in college, back to being “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/and shining morning face, creeping like snail/unwillingly to school.”

There were many Gersons around and this man, the man with the voice and the undeniable stage presence was only one of them.

I remember meeting him in poet Imtiaz Dharker’s flat in London, decades later. Time had done some damage, so much that I began to admire the courage it must have taken to get himself on a plane to yet another film festival; I actually helped him pack his bags. We had a great lunch on that rainy day in late May and he told some elegant stories. I suggested that he should write a memoir. He said that he thought that would mean being self-important. Instead, Dharker suggested a series of essays, and she drew him a graphic, a design for the whole.

She remembers that day too: “It was a diagram of how he might plot his autobiography, the many pillars of his life and the web of connections between them. Before Gerson came we would draw up a list of plays and he went to everything. We all know he had a voracious appetite for theatre, but on his last visit we discovered that the Barbican Arts Centre downstairs reserved places for wheelchair users and then he was unstoppable. It was truly a case of ‘Where there’s a will there’s a wheelchair.’

“When he was home, over breakfast or dinner, he wanted to read and hear poetry. I will always think of him at this table, reading the lines by Jackie Kay on my chandelier of poems: ‘The dead don’t go till we do, loved ones./ The dead are still here/ holding our hands’.”

Imtiaz Dharker’s drawing – another passion Da Cunha and I shared – looked like a grove of trees, a metaphor for the many lives he had led: as ad man, as dramaturge, as social communicator.

Many years later, I was at work on a book on the painter Mehlli Gobhai and I thought it would be a good idea to meet one of his oldest friends. I called Da Cunha on his landline because everyone knew that his mobile was with his driver.

“Talk about Mehlli, dear boy?” he said, “Any time after 12.”

That was the time he rose from bed, a nocturnal animal if ever there was one. He had his breakfast and we chatted. He illuminated Gobhai in a few sentences (“Have you ever noticed that he came back from the US after decades of staying there without a trace of an accent?”) and suddenly we were talking about Da Cunha. I had the good sense to come home and make notes.

A life on the stage

Da Cunha told me that his mother had wanted him to be a doctor and so when he finished school he had joined the science section at St Xavier’s College. It was here that he encountered the men and women who would make up his circle of friends for the next 70 years of his life. It was also here that he would start acting in earnest.

“Every year, the college would put on a play that was staged on the feast of St Francis Xavier. That year, there were such a plethora of talent that it was decided that there would be two one-act plays instead of a full-length one.”

He told me about Gobhai playing the angel of death and about himself as a spy with a broken leg, awaiting his death. And then suddenly he was off.

“I finished college and wrote off to the University of Nottingham; I did not want to be a doctor but I had enjoyed chemistry and thought I might make it as a researcher or something of that sort. I got a letter back saying that the university was swamped with demobbed soldiers so could I wait a year and then they would be glad to have me. I was walking in the Fort when I saw a huge signboard on Alice Building for Reuters. John Turner was the head; he and his wife Mavis were friends of my parents. I had a year to kill and so I went to meet him and he said that if I had nothing better to do with myself, I should join them. And so I did.”

He worked there a while, he says and then “I got my annual leave and went off for a Catholic retreat at St Joseph’s in Bangalore. Jeetu Parekh was there and he said, ‘On your way back, drop in at Mahableshwar. I did and he announced that [businessman and jazz impresario] Niranjan Jhaveri was there and we were all to go for a night drive with some young women who were their friends. They were daughters of industrialists and so they had a car. There we were, Niranjan, Jeetu and I and these two young industrielles. We stopped at Kay’s Point and Niru pretended to drive off the edge of the cliff.

“The young women squealed in mock horror and he stopped. One of the young women protested that she was not going to allow such shenanigans and grabbed the keys. We got out of the car, stretched our legs and enjoyed the coolness of the night, the stars, the shapes of the hills. We made our way back to the car. The land was uneven and lit only by the headlamps. Then the young lady who had the keys said, ‘Oh my,’ in a startled voice and vanished from sight. She had fallen a thousand feet from Kay’s Point. We called and shouted but there was no reply.

“When we started to think rationally, we realised that the only thing to do was to drive back to town, roust the citizenry out of their beds, muster up some help from among them and come back. Only she had the keys, so it was decided that the three of us would walk back to town while one of us would stay behind in case she should call or turn up miraculously.

“The others turned to look at me so I agreed to stay. They left and soon after the car’s headlights dimmed and went out. The darkness was complete, encompassing, velvety and still. You must remember that Kay’s Point was also famous for tiger sightings. They returned hours later and some hardy locals made the descent using ropes and brought her body up. She had died almost instantaneously.”

He mopped up the last piece of his fried egg with toast.

“I don’t know if it was the retreat or that moment when a young life was extinguished so abruptly but when I came back to PTI, I realised I had stopped learning. I wasn’t being allowed to cover the things I wanted to cover, to talk about the real problems. And so I quit. I was again at a loose end. The chemical dreams had quite faded and one day, I went to meet Mehlli. We were going out for lunch and he was already at J Walter Thompson. He was a star, an art director who had found his match in Josephine Tuor, the best copywriter in the business. She was married to the head of Sandoz, hence the Tuor. Do you know how she landed the job?”

I confessed ignorance.

‘Too self-important’

“Mark Robinson worked with JWT. He had a great voice and he and I and Josephine were doing a show together for All India Radio. We had rehearsed and were waiting to record the programme. We had a colleague Ananda De whose girlfriend, Nell, had left for England on the Anchorline’s SS Corfu that day. Michael said, ‘And so Ananda must have been waving as the ship parp-parped on its way out of the harbour. What line of poetry does that remind you of?’ Josephine did not hesitate: ‘Elegy to a Country Churchyard,’ she said. My jaw dropped. Michael raised his eyebrows. Josephine intoned: ‘The Corfu tolls our De of passing Nell.’ She got a job in copy immediately.”

“You must write an autobiography,” I began.

“Too self-important,” he said. I thought back to the Imtiaz Dharker drawing.

“I was thinking of essays about the experiences I have had, not about me,” he said. “That might suit me better.”

People over processes

There were plenty of experiences. Da Cunha moved to Lintas where he would create a culture that encouraged creativity, that favoured people over processes. Director Shyam Benegal remembers that when he came to Bombay for the first time he worked in an ad agency for two or three months and “applied to Lintas when I heard there was a vacancy. I didn’t expect to get a job but I did know Alyque Padamsee through the Theatre Group. I had worked with [Ebrahim] Alkazi there; someone told them I could do make up. I don’t know who it was but I was doing their faces. Making a horrible job of it, if truth be told, but no one complained. I just got lucky, I suppose.

“And when there was a vacancy, someone suggested I go meet Gerson. He talked to me five minutes and said, ‘You’ve got it.’ I said, ‘That’s it?’ And he said, ‘Well, you wanted a job? You got the job.’ But oddly it was he who sat me down a couple of years later and said, ‘You could spend the rest of your life here. And I know you want to make films.’ He got me into Lintas and then he encouraged me to leave again and that’s how I joined Sylvester da Cunha’s ASP (Advertising, Sales, Promotion) and met Dr Verghese Kurien…”

Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books, who knows everyone worth knowing, remembers the ad-man:

“This was back in the day when I was doing audio-visual presentations and being paid the glorious sum of Rs 1,500 a day for my time. Pretty good money for the 1970s. I remember being hired by Lipton for my theatre lighting razzmatazz to help create a special audio-visual for their soon-to-be launched tea flamboyantly named Top Star! The Lipton account was handled by both by Clarion and Lintas. This was a Clarion assignment.

“I remember and we had a jingle that was sung by Donald Saigal and Pam Crain. The audio-visual was at the Taj Coromandel in Chennai, which was supposed to be by way of a treat for the marketing guys. I had six elaborate projection screens set up with the help of Western Outdoor who were the only ones who had Kodak projectors at the time. I remember using a battery of 32 slide projectors! And so the slides lit up, the packaging which was all silver foil and magenta was unveiled in a burst of stage smoke and moving beams of light, and then a spotlight caught the stadium where the marketing manager was standing and he began his spiel. And so forth. It all went off smoothly and afterwards, I was relaxing backstage with the crew I had brought down from Calcutta and the legend walked in. Gerson himself.

“‘Who was responsible for putting this together?’ he asked. I knew who he was of course, one of the big guys at Lintas, so I put up a finger like a coy schoolboy. He said, ‘Jolly good show, young man. And if it hadn’t been for that reversed slide in the 36th minute on the left screen, it could have been a Lintas show.’ Demolished!

“He was right of course. There was a reversed slide but in the hundreds of slides we had on all those screens, I thought I was the only one who noticed it. And that it would slip by. And it almost did. No one else caught it. Except The Gerson.”

Everyone had a Gerson story. Ad man Roger Pereira was a boy of 12 when Gerson (at the age of 22) came to his school to judge a competition. “He was the exact fit for a role model for me, for anyone in the world of communications.” Journalist and author Bachi Karkaria remembers that when she needed someone to balance off her telling of the Nanavati case which had been played as “Upright Parsi Naval Officer is cuckolded by Sindhi Playboy”, Da Cunha came to the rescue, telling her of how Prem Ahuja was actually a very nice guy.

“There were these stories about how Ahuja would feed women some yellow powder that would make them susceptible to him,” Karkaria said, over the phone. “But when I told Gerson about them, he laughed and said, ‘Ahuja had no need of potions and powders. He had charm enough.’”

Takes one to know one.

If anyone knows all the Gerson da Cunhas, it would be Uma da Cunha, who should in her own right be better known as one of those who has worked relentlessly, espousing the cause of Indian cinema abroad. They were married for “53 years, not counting the time that he kept me waiting. It took a stupendous push to get him to walk down that aisle, I have to tell you. My father finally had to administer that push. ‘Don’t hurt my daughter,’ he said and Gerson, poor fellow, walked down that aisle to what he saw as a loss of freedom,” she said.

It wasn’t. Gerson da Cunha once told me a story about himself walking down a boulevard in Paris. “Rather enjoying the sight of myself as a flaneur, really. And in a window, I spotted a face, such an interesting face, I thought immediately, ‘Uma should like to have that face on record,’ and I turned around to say something and it was Uma!’ She was almost as surprised. ‘What are you doing here?’ she asked but when the surprise died down, we went and had une demi-tasse together.”

“He was a flamboyant man when I met him, a typical ad-man,” said Uma da Cunha. And here it is important to remember that in those days, the ad men were larger than life.

“If you had to be somebody in those days, you had to be in advertising,” said Bachi Karkaria. “And theatre.”

Uma da Cunha agreed. “He was used to the spotlight, he revelled in it. And I found that a little difficult to take. But then he went to Brazil and came back a different person. He was more thoughtful, more introspective. And the humanitarian streak he had in him had broadened and deepened. He turned outwards from himself and that was when I fell in love with him again.”

Connecting with Bombay

That stint in Brazil with Unicef marks the beginning of a Gerson da Cunha who connected with Bombay in a way that few others did. He was always available for a cause, he would always show up. When he died suddenly, a shocked friend from Bandra reported, “He was expected to come to a meeting in Bandra tomorrow.” A pause and then, “He was the only SoBo chap who would make it all the way out here.”

I couldn’t believe that Gerson da Cunha was gone. I had just received an email from the citizens’ group AGNI (Action for Governance and Networking in India) signed by him – just one of the many hats he wore through decades of social service – detailing all the monies received, from the three-figure donations to the large chunks of change that his friends had made over to the organisation with which Da Cunha hoped he might enthuse the youth to take a greater role in the democratic functioning of the state.

“He was a little disillusioned towards the end,” said his long-time friend, the writer Saker Mistry. “But that didn’t stop him from doing what he could. We would go to those evenings at his home and often we were told that Gerson was off to some meeting somewhere in the north of the city and was on his way home by train, or something like that.”

For Mistry, those evenings harked back to the salons of Paris, the at-homes of the Bloomsbury Group. “A motley crowd,” Mistry remembered. “People we knew, of course, and extraordinary people whom one would ask in one’s snobbish way, ‘Who on earth is that?’ only to discover that Gerson had found someone else who interested him and who he had invited over. Because there was a largesse about him, that’s the only word I can think of.”

The largeness of Gerson da Cunha, his barrel chest, his episcopal personality…

“Did you know he was called the Bishop?” Mehlli Gohbai asked me once.

“No,” I said. “Something to do with Jean Valjean?”

Something to do with architect Charles Correa actually. It is said that Charles Correa saw his future wife Monica at a party and later asked Gerson da Cunha to take him over to see her. The lady was busy but her maid went in and told her that there were two very handsome men waiting, one was very tall and the other looked like a bishop. No wonder then that the sculptor Fredda Brilliant used him as her model for the youth of India standing by Ram Manohar Lohia on his way into Goa.

Those were the glory days for this small band of golden boys and girls. This Gerson da Cunha probably saw his city as a Paris of the East, just as his maternal grand-uncle J Gerson da Cunha had. He lamented its death in Seminar:

 “How does the Bombay of the Thapars, the world class city of mathematician and physicist Homi Bhabha, economist and journalist Sachin Chowdhury, architect and urban planner Charles Correa (his great but doomed Twin City across the harbour!), painters Husain and Raza, thinkers and constant visitors Vikram Sarabhai and DD Kosambi, industrialist JRD Tata and the less-known folk who manned the vital support systems of the more famous names, how does such a city become a provincial backwater which is what Mumbai is today? How does a physically magnificent city by the sea become a decaying, slum-ridden megalopolis shambling towards destruction?”  

The 1950s were indeed a beautiful time but only if you were a part of the beautiful people. This was not something the tribe saw or accepted. There were families scrabbling to make a living, refugees scratching at the rockface of the city, there were shortages and millworkers were doing 12-hour shifts.

“Nostalgia did not get in his way,” said publisher Padmini Mirchandani, long-time associate with whom he and Bal Mundkur would put together Ad Katha, a book about the story of their lives in advertising. “His memory of what the city had been like powered his determination to improve it.”

But although we knew him from the urban action group Bombay First and from AGNI, Gerson da Cunha thought of himself differently.

At another meeting, just after the Brazilian government had honoured him with the Order of Rio Branco in 2018, he seemed mildly pleased. “You know, of all this, the only thing that matters to me is that I managed to reduce the mortality rate of infants in Brazil?”

I nodded. Surely there should have been more about it in the papers?

“If he sought out the spotlight in his youth,” said Uma da Cunha, “towards the end, he developed an aversion to it. After the award, when people wanted to feature him or interview him, he would ask me to fob them off.”

Much later, I heard that Pooja Vir, the hospitality consultant, was working with Da Cunha on his memoirs and I heaved a sigh of relief. That was another story someone was saving. When the fell news came, that Da Cunha took ill in the morning and was gone by noon, I called Vir, who was distraught. We talked the next day and she said sadly that it had been an idea that she should work with Gerson da Cunha on “what we would never call his autobiography. Instead, we called it his scrapbook. He was supposed to talk to me and I was supposed to make notes but we found quite soon that it would not work. He needed to be doing this on his own, he said, and so we called it off.”

Vir’s was a family connection (her mother is publisher Padmini Mirchandani), a village connection, the little village of Old Bombay clinging to the fringe of the Oval Maidan. When the Oval was “cleaned up”, Da Cunha was delighted. When I pointed out that it could hardly be considered a public space when it had been fenced in, gates locked at night, he was unimpressed. I pointed him to Why Loiter by my friends Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan, about how women feel much safer in a park with no barriers around it, but he argued that it was about the park. I said a public park could not be a public park if the public could not use it. He maintained that all use is mediated by some agency or the other. But we agreed to disagree on that.

We disagreed about many things but not about sectarianism and the city, not about the cacophony of raised voices and thinning skins, not about the collapse of a way of life that had been cherished before 1992, the annus horribilis of the city by the sea. He wrote a book of poetry and I approached it gingerly, wondering whether it would be embarrassing and found instead that he had written poems, on the death by depression of a friend, on chikoos and these startling lines:

Absolution may lie here at last,
atop this throat of land between
bolts of silken water smoothed out
among islets. It is here they lurk
flat in concealment, the lessons
I must learn. The cure of quiet
distancing. Never owning more
than I could lose as daylight lets
the sun go with punctual grace.
Here is pardon without penance,
the forgiveness in understanding
that I must accept or never leave.

(Pardon without Penance)

Jerry Pinto is an award-winning novelist, poet and translator.