No more sunny Afternoons
by Farzana Contractor
My heart is heavy with sadness and pain. How could it be any other way. When something you created and nurtured has come to an end, the feeling is legitimate. It’s curtains down for The Afternoon Despatch and Courier. Officially announced yesterday. The staff, especially those from years long ago must be feeling awful… Down Memory Lane…
The year 1985 was a huge milestone in my life. It was the year I got married to an almost confirmed bachelor and with whom I started the Afternoon Despatch & Courier soon after. That year and the next two were perhaps the most difficult ones of our lives. Strangely enough they were the ones most cherished by Behram and myself. Good times come and go, but the tough ones remain etched in memory.
Once the Afternoon rolled off the press on March 25, we rejoiced, but rolled up our sleeves and got to work, not looking up even for a moment. We planned a newspaper that would inform, amuse, entertain and present several views. Our main aim was to create a new enlightened kind of readership and fortunately we achieved it.
Having the Round and About column in its sacrosanct position... left hand bottom corner on the last page, helped. Busybee’s popularity and the goodwill built over the years by Behram stood us in good stead. Soon, the fortunes of the Afternoon took an upward graph and we were on our way!
Editing and printing our “baby”, from hired premises and contracted presses on shoestring budgets was a challenge, as we were pitted against established publications.But dedication and hard work paid off and we succeeded in bringing out a paper that was totally professional, that belonged to no groups, large or small and was accepted by readers and advertisers alike. We even attained an enviable circulation and yes, we got the kind of readership we wanted. We stuck to the same successful formula over the years and Afternoon’s readership grew and Busybee’s fans multiplied.
Somewhere down the road we acquired new office premises in a quaint heritage building in the business district of Bombay and christened it Afternoon House. It was our pride and joy and Behram never stopped thanking me for giving him the peace of mind to operate from, as he said, “our very own office.” That perhaps, is the only time he actually praised me in public, as he was generally averse to doing such things otherwise.
We were now working in happier surroundings and we worked relentlessly. The threat of not owning our own printing press always hung over our heads like the proverbial “Sword of Damocles”. Switching presses overnight is not easy but that is also what happened once.
However, with Behram around, the most difficult tasks seemed easy; somehow everything fell into place, effortlessly. It is a bit difficult to explain how I felt at that time, but his quiet presence seemed to have that kind of effect not just on me, but on his entire staff. Most of us would do anything for him. Just because of him.
Sadly, one day, Busybee flitted away to the other world; without warning and without notice. We at the Afternoon were emotionally strangled. The Afternoon House seemed empty; fans, friends and readers from all over the world condoled for months on end, letters never stopped coming in. But we did not give up.
For me, it was a personal challenge and I decided to take it up as Behram would have wanted me to. He was the mighty oak but I wasn’t exactly an acorn to be chucked by the wayside. The Afternoon and I survived. The gloom that had encircled me gave way to light (it always does). Unfortunately just as we had begun to bask in the glow of success our happiness was snatched away, our umbilical cord snipped off, literally overnight! The Afternoon was torn away from me.
Guess we have to live and learn that in this day and age one cannot afford to be naive enough to trust and believe in old fashioned ethics and all that jazz. But I must confess I felt like a mother who had lost her baby…On days when I was low, I counted my blessings and was grateful to all my friends who stood by me as also the readers of the Afternoon for their immense support. On other days I would just pick up a Busybee book and smile my blues away!
[Source: Facebook post]
Behram Contractor poses as Busybee
The wife was saying: “Have you noticed? Somebody called Behram Contractor is claiming to be you.”
“Behram Contractor is not somebody, he is the editor of the paper that I write for,” I said. “And he does not claim to be me, he would never do so. It would be a demotion for him to claim to be a columnist when he is an editor.”
“That’s what you think,” the wife said. “You live in your own world, writing your column.
This Dynasty Culture Club has been staging an entire revue on Busybee and have made Behram Contractor you.”
“Ah, who is going to believe Dynasty Culture Club!” I said. “Nobody pays any attention to it. They once even brought one Anglo-Indian actor called what’s-his-name Ben Kingsley and claimed he was Gandhiji. They even had a show at the Nehru Theatre, and you should have seen the hall – it was half empty. And the few people who were there came to see Alyque Padamsee, who they were passing off as Jinnah.”
“I don’t know anything about that, but this play, where they have made Behram Contractor you, has been written by Bachi Karkaria, and she writes for the Times Of India so people will believe her.”
“Ah, that explains it,” I said. “If Bachi Karkaria has written it then she is punning on Behram Contractor and Busybee. That’s it, she is always punning.”
“There is no pun here,’’ the wife said. “Pearl Padamsee is directing it and she won’t go about directing puns and funs and buns, unless this Behram Contractor has sold her a pup. I tell you, you have been Busybee for 25 years, and now they are all pretending that they are all Busybee. Not just Behram Contractor, everybody, I can name names.”
“No need to,” I said. “Let them claim what they want, who cares. As long as you know who I am and I know who I am.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you know who you are,” the wife said. “Imagine the temerity of this Hosi Vasunia. He knows you, he knows who you are, and yet, the minute this Behram Contractor tells him that he is Busybee, he believes him. Twenty-five years of your life have been just wiped out by this man. Are you going to do something about it or not?”
‘What can I do?” I said.
‘You stand up and announce that Behram Contractor is not Busybee, you are Busybee,” the wife said. “Either you do it or I will do it.”
“All right, I will do it,” I said. “But not today. Today is the sixth anniversary of Behram Contractor’s paper, so let us not spoil it for him.”
[March 25, 1991]
“I have always been anxious that he should publish his columns in book form”
by Dom Moraes
Behram Contractor, aka Busybee, or perhaps it should be the other way around, lives in Mumbai, and he has done so all his life. He is a part of the city. There is even a Busybee Cafe in one of its busiest streets.
Apart from that he, in his incarnation as Behram Contractor, husband of the vivacious Farzana and editor of the Afternoon Despatch & Courier, is frequently seen at cocktail parties, and at various restaurants, for he is, if not exactly a gourmet, an excellent writer about food, in the sense that he makes you want to eat it. In this incarnation, he is also visible at his desk on the first floor of Afternoon House, democratically seated amidst the rest of the staff.
He is always in his shirtsleeves – indeed, though I have known him for 30 years, I have never seen him in a suit – hunched over his computer, or scrutinising an article at very close quarters, eyes crinkled with effort. He suffers from eye trouble but never complains about it. He sometimes writes about it, rather wittily, as he writes about everything in life.
Behram is a Parsi, and he writes particularly well about that very idiosyncratic race, its customs, its conversation, and its food. To grow up a Parsi in Mumbai is to grow up differently from others. I do not know how to explain this, but it is something in the nature of Parsi people. They belong to Mumbai in a way that no other Indian race belongs to any other Indian city. They are warm, stubborn, and very talkative.
I would not say Behram Contractor is talkative, indeed he tends to be the other way inclined, except for sudden staccato bursts of words, in the manner of an AK-47. Usually he is noticeably silent, but his eyes, behind the very powerful lenses of his spectacles, are always very alert, watching things happen, watching people.
This is the way novelists are, and they tend to have a slightly frightening air about them. Behram looks like a lamb, even when he is watching you with unnerving fixity, but when turned loose on the computer can be caustic.
I must now deal with him in the Busybee incarnation, which is how most of Mumbai knows him. This column has had a life of something like 30 odd years, which is in itself remarkable, and what is remarkable also is that it is a humorous column. It must be very difficult to write 500 words of humorous prose a day every day of your life, but the humour never flags. It is, in a strange way, intrinsic to his style.
His style is terse and laconic, like his conversation but it has a rhythm in it which creates an impression of deadpan comedy. What he writes about most of the time, is Mumbai, and his great strength is that he writes about it as a Mumbai-ite. You can hear people in buses and trains talking like Busybee, not so intelligently, not so funnily, but with the same turns of English phrase. He has invented a language for Busybee, a mixture of his own phraseology and that of his city.
He has also, when tired of being himself, created various persona for himself, as a family man with a dog, a wife, and two sons, for example, or as the unwilling neighbour of the incredibly wealthy man on the 21st floor. But his characters, the way they talk, the situations they talk about, are ineffably and incontrovertibly from and of Mumbai. Anybody who writes a social history of the city in the second half of the 20th century will find that his most essential source material will be the columns of Busybee.
This is why I have always been anxious that he should publish his columns in book form. A collected volume would be impossible, there is much too much. But a selection that covers the lifetime of Busybee would be an important addition to Indian literature. I am not attempting to be funny.
Readers have been brought up on Busybee’s writing. People have bought copies of the various newspapers in which he has worked simply to read his column. I understand that more volumes of his past columns are soon to be published and that this is only, so to speak, the appetiser.
I can hardly wait for the full meal.
“Behram is still with us, his magnificent spirit and sense of mischief permeates the Mumbai air”
by Vinod Mehta
What is there left to be said about our late and beloved Busybee? For over three decades he entertained and enlightened us, taught us the essential truths of life, kept us sane. He loved and defined Bombay, reminding us that while much was wrong with the city, much was also right.
I do not live in Bombay anymore, but I suspect his absence must be felt by English speaking Mumbaikars on a daily basis. Around noon, when they desperately search for their dose of humour and wisdom in roughly equal proportions, there is a poignant absence, a void.
Or is there? Behram left such a treasure trove of archival goodies that even his “repeats” have an extraordinary freshness and topicality. Frequently, reading the back page of the Afternoon Despatch & Courier, you have to metaphorically pinch yourself as pieces on Mr Zend M Zend, or Dhobi Talao, or Bal Thackeray, or the silly party at the Oberoi with the silly society hostess, or Sachin Tendulkar, or Mario Miranda, seem as if they had been written at 6 am that very morning.
In that sense, Behram is still with us, his magnificent spirit and sense of mischief permeates the Mumbai air. But, sentimentalism apart, we are painfully aware that he is not with us even as we make the most of his journalistic legacy.
No one is immortal. The Grim Reaper’s random call cannot be escaped. Yet, I cannot help but feel that even Behram’s inveterate and compelling optimism would have found continued existence tough in a city where hatred and mean-spiritedness have replaced tolerance and accommodation. More than just tolerance, Busybee’s Bombay celebrated diversity. Now that kind of celebration is taboo. It is an endangered species.
It is fascinating to speculate what kind of column Busybee would have written on August 25, 2003, as he contemplated the horrors of Black Monday. Because unpredictability was his forte, he might have surprised us. Alternatively, perhaps, he too would have succumbed to the gloom, despair and hopelessness affecting much of the population.
His gentle wit (Behram like RK Narayan seldom condemned anyone or anything), the masterly perspective, the simple yet telling evocation of time and place (“the first Parsees I met in my life were statues”) and, above all, an unshakeable belief in the essential goodness and common sense of ordinary folk animated the city he preserved and cherished. How much of that Bombay survives is difficult to tell; the headlines in the morning papers, alas, provide scant reassurance on that score. In fact, they confirm our worst fears.
Acolytes and admirers of Busybee fall into two categories. The tens of thousands who read him but were not privileged to make his acquaintance. Meanwhile, his wide circle of close friends – Gerson, Uma, Shyam, Charles, Tham, Nana...must be wondering what they can do to keep his memory alive, keep the torch burning.
There are no easy answers. Farzana bears a huge responsibility which, I am happy to note, she is discharging with appropriate diligence. By keeping his precious Afternoon rolling off the presses and by printing his pieces in the “sacred space”, she is doing her bit.
There is another way to pay tribute to Behram. Keep his Bombay going the way he would have wanted it. Not just with sermons but also with soda water.
[October 1, 2003]
“I have never come across a columnist who could touch a reader’s heart with every written word”
by MV Kamath
I feel honoured to write an Introduction – or is it a Foreword? – to a collected works of Behram Contractor, or Busybee, as he was to everyone who knew him and even to everyone who didn’t. He joined The Free Press Journal, if I remember right, after I left it in 1955. But I got to know him well inasmuch as anyone could know a shy and unpretentious reporter well when I served The Times of India between 1967 and 1969, prior to my being posted as the paper’s Washington correspondent, at its Bombay headquarters.
Looking at him and reading his copy I often felt what a wonderful academician he would have made in his quiet, scholarly way. He was not meant to be a brash, pushy reporter. His place should have been and in due course it rightfully became the editor’s cabin where Behram could sit and meditate on the faults and follies of a world in turmoil. But Behram’s forte was not the pompous editorial but what seemed the effortless personal column.
In six decades of a professional life in three continents I have never come across a columnist who could touch a reader’s heart with every written word. And that’s what Busybee did, I suspect unknowingly. Yes, unknowingly because I can’t imagine Behram writing with the specific intention of trying to impress anyone. Behram wrote what he wrote because it came straight from the heart.
Columnists came in all sizes, shapes and colours. I think of Walter Lippmann at one end of the scale and Art Buchwald at the other. Indian journalism has had its columnists of note and one thinks instantaneously of a Pothan Joseph or Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, not to speak of a M Chalapthi Rao, who not infrequently met with princes and politicians and wrote knowledgeably of what was going on in an ever changing world. But Busybee remains unique.
His was a singularly small world that consisted of the wife, his highly articulate and impertinent dog Bolshoi the Boxer and his two sons. And no jollier family ever lived or talked its way into everyone’s heart. In wisdom Behram was a pontiff but he never pontificated. That wouldn’t have been Busybee. He wrote about everyday events and in a language of everyday use, with which any average middle class family could identify itself with. And he did it so naturally, so spontaneously, that it marked Behram out from the rest of us scribes. There was nothing artificial about him. He wore his knowledge lightly. But it was all there.
He has been compared to James Thurber and to our own RK Narayan which is unfair to Behram because in his own way Behram is unique, one without a second. Indian to the core, Busybee stands out as a columnist who understood his fellow countrymen and could reflect their hopes and fears, their doubts and disappointments, in their own wayward English with an éclat never before known and never in future to be matched. That has been Behram’s USP. There has never been a Behram before Behram and one can be sure there will never be another Behram in years to come.
The thing about Behram was that one could never get angry with him because he was never angry with anyone. If he disliked something he demolished it with gentle mockery. He took life philosophically, accepting whatever came his way uncomplainingly. When he was very ill I went to see him. There he was lying in his bed, obviously in great discomfort and probably pain but with that relaxed smile as if to say that he understood fully well as was said in Ecclesiastes that for everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die, so what was there to be worried about? He accepted the gifts god gave him with that same detachedness as he accepted the pain nature inflicted on him as if to say that nothing lasts and everything has to pass away.
I never asked him whether he ever read the Gita but I swear that if ever I met a man who followed the injunction – do whatever needs to be done with utter detachment, not expecting the fruits thereof – in its totality, it is Behram. He enjoyed life and was not ashamed to admit it. He satisfied his appetite for food; he was a gourmet.
Kipling must have had someone like Behram when he wrote his classic poem “If”. Busybee could talk with crowds and keep his virtue, or walk with Kings and not lose his common touch. I can’t imagine either friends or foes hurting him; to me he always seemed Behram, the Unhurtable. If somebody hurt him he would probably have given him a disarming smile, as much to say what a foolish thing it was to be hurtful.
To say that he is being missed would be an understatement. Every day that the Afternoon Despatch & Courier reprints one of his early columns he is there standing larger than life as if to remind his readers that death does not efface memory, that as long as the printed word survives he is there with us to share his thoughts and brighten our minds, and lighten our face with a smile.
In his time Busybee reflected the best in Mumbai, indeed, if one were to ask who would best represent Mumbai, one could say without the slightest hesitation that Busybee would and did.
And it shows in this fresh collection of his writings. For which, praise be.
[October 1, 2004]
Can’t Buy Busybee!
My friend, who lives on the 21st floor and floats three new companies per day, was telling me: “I am going to give you shares worth Rs 3 crore in my new company.”
“Don’t even mention that,” I said. “It is all right for you big businessmen going about giving journalists shares. Then, when the public comes to know, we can’t even write critical articles against Rajiv Gandhi anymore.”
‘’You don’t have to worry about anything,” my friend said. “I will arrange the transfer of shares for you, I will get you a bank to give you the loan to buy the shares, then I will pay back the loan. You will be a rich man.”
“I don’t want to be rich, no, thank you,” I said. “I just want to live on my salary and write strong articles telling Mr Gandhi that his 20-point programme is old wine in new bottles.”
‘’If Rs 3 crore is too little for you, I will give you another Rs 3 crore of shares from another company that I am floating this afternoon, immediately after lunch,” my friend said.” All you have to do is just give one signature for the bank credit, my office will handle the rest.”
“I don’t want your office to handle anything,” I said. “Just keep my name out of your records, otherwise, if some rival newspaper gets hold of them, I will not be able to write another signed article for a whole month or till the controversy has died down, whichever is earlier.”
My friend said: “You will know the value of your shares only a month later, after I have had time to manipulate the market. Then you will thank me for persuading you to let me buy the shares for you. All this writing about the nation’s economy and how the wrong policies of VP Singh are affecting it is not going to make you rich.”
“I don’t want to be rich, not that rich,” I said. “At least not till I have solved all the nation’s problems through my writings. So, please forget the shares, give them to your in-laws or give them to Nusli Wadia.”
“I think I will give you one whole company that I am starting this evening,” my friend said. “You have to just sign one document and your work is over. We will run the company for you and we will transfer the assets to your bank account three times a month. That will look after your old age.”
“Look, I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but I don’t wish to have anything to do with your business. I will be happy if we just continued to be friends,” I said.
“Very well, then, if you will not take shares, I will give you some Scotch,” my friend said. “I hope you will not refuse that.”
“That depends, if it is a bottle of Scotch, yes, but if it is a case, no,” I said.
[August 22, 1986]
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 15 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
They drained the city of its poetry, the rhythm of which Busybee understood better than anyone else. For Busybee did to Bombay what EB 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, quoting his friend Dom Moraes, 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 SNM 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 emulate.
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.
[April 16, 2001 ]