First Calcutta and then Delhi – they laid claim to the belle epoque of the Raj. As Imperial Capitals, it was their ex officio right. In Calcutta, those hedonistic ghosts were violently exorcised by the Naxalites. Much earlier, in Delhi, they had cringed under the arriviste onslaught, and faded into the tandooried night. But Bombay was built on a currency hardier than colonial power. Its chiffons didn’t turn into rags at the stroke of midnight – or after. And while Calcutta certainly, and Delhi to a lesser extent, could still boast of the old magic till the early 1960s, it was Bombay that truly swayed, sang and swung till dawn. The others still had the steps, but this city had the moves.
Bombay knew how to spend money as well as how to make it. More important, it was much more class-agnostic in its pleasures; hair is more comfortably let down in egalitarian company. Calcutta’s social life thrived in the culture of clubs, their members being self-absorbed drones from the Bengali aristocracy or the “Boxwallahs” of sterling companies steeped in the three-gin lunch hour. But in migrant Bombay, even the People-Like-Us population was less rooted and so more ready to mix.
Film buffs, advertising mavens, journalists, fashion divas, restaurateurs, musicians lived, worked and played in symbiotic harmony. The hang-out crowd had the generic informality of the jazz club. And, yes, Bombay proceeded to make these their patented brand. As Karan Johar documented in the film Bombay Velvet.
“Yeh tum ne kya kiya, Sylvia?”
The film segued closely into the Nanavati saga, which so obsessed Bombay during the three years of the twists-and-turns trial. It is also the subject of my new non-fiction book, In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case that Shook India. In fact, Bombay Velvet has a song “Yeh tum ne kya kiya, Sylvia?”, referring to the Englishwoman at the centre of the drama, and whom I see quite differently from the usual portrayal of her as the “unwitting victim” of the playboy Prem Ahuja.
According to me, Sylvia decided to get involved with Prem Ahuja eyes wide open. Sylvia’s self-confessed extra-marital affair ended in Prem being shot dead by the enraged, cuckolded husband, the dashing Commander Kawas Nanavati. Indeed, the book also takes the two men out of the comfortable cliches of “Prem, the unmitigated villain” and “Kawas, the unalloyed hero”.
Commander Nanavati belonged to Bombay’s most exclusive club; he was a Parsi at a time when Bombay was a Parsi, commercially and culturally. But the world of the jazz clubs and nightclubs was more the habitat – and hunting ground – of Prem, the suave, rich Sindhi dealer of fancy automobiles.
In one of the many serendipitous discoveries which revealed so much new material, I found that Prem’s partying buddy was the legendary adman and stage actor, Gerson da Cunha. In his deep voice, he recalled their salad days – with stylish dressing – as we sat in his sprawling flat overlooking the Oval Maidan and, beyond that, the Sessions and High Courts, scene of the high-octane drama of the trial.
Gerson conjured up a cool set which bumped into each other at parties; Prem’s were always sought after since the company, the music and the liquor were all great. Or they would encounter one another at the “usual after-hours hang-outs, places with good jazz bands, Moka Bar at Airlines Hotel, Venice or Volga. Or over coffee and pastries at Bombelli’s.” Drawing a picture of the charmer, not the snake Prem has always been made out to be, Gerson added, “Prem was part of that crowd which made Bombay such a magical place to be.”
A 20th-Century Xanadu
Magical it was. The city was a mid-20th century avatar of “Xanadu”. Presiding over this sybaritic world was the Taj Mahal Hotel; its corridors measureless to man, and overlooking the sparkling Arabian Sea. In fact, it dwarfed its neighbour, the Gateway of India, built 21 years after Jamshedjee Tata thumbed his nose at the Whites Only policy of Raj hotels, and created his monument to Indian self-respect.
The head chef, Minguel Arcanjo Mascarenhas, became as much of an institution. “Masci” had a dedicated following who came regularly to feast on his signature dishes, such as Steak Diane or Standing Pomfret. This iconic Bombay fish was served thus, perhaps in deference to its illustrious patrons.
The archives of Blitz, Current and Evening News of India breathlessly revealed the minutiae of the trial on their front page, while the box advertisements inside hyperventilated over the blandishments of night-time Bombay. Churchgate was the entertainment avenue, like “Cal’s” Park Street or Delhi’s Connaught Place, heady with the auxiliaries of high living. The Ritz’s night club was “The Little Hut” (with its ad-line, “Where The Bombay Elite Gathers”). Its contemporary attraction was the “Cuba and Venezuela TV star” and exotic dancer, Yolanda Parolo, always promoted as “El Bon-Bon Cubano”.
There was jiving and cha-chaing to live bands at Napoli, Venice and Volga. Voyantzis, of the Ambassador Hotel, was better known as “Jack the Greek”. He was among the expats who had stayed on to ensure that the belle epoque of the Raj would not fade into an arthritic dowager forced to sell her dancing shoes to the raddiwalla.
The Ambassador’s sizzler was “Delilah”, who had been christened a prosaic Lillian Deliya. As the influential Commander Nanavati spent his first month after shooting Prem Ahuja in the comparative comforts of naval custody instead of a civil jail, Dosu Karaka’s weekly Current dated 10 June 1959, rhapsodised over this siren with “melody beating in her heart and rhythm in her body”. The entertainment reviewer had described her as “Belgian-born, Egypt-educated, Calcutta-based...strawberry blonde and 5’6’’ without the stilettoes…Slim and slinky in a torridly tight, deep purple raw silk evening gown, showcasing her Nijinsky 8 figure.”
Match that, item girls.