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My Friend Behram

For over thirty years, his wise counsel and feather humour taught Bombay to laugh and think

My Friend Behram
My Friend Behram
Where to begin? I am cursed in the sense that I lack the gift for friendship. To characterise me as a loner would be unfair, but friends I do not easily make. Among the three I can count, one is gone. Two is a lonely number.

Behram Contractor (also Mario Miranda) was part of my luck in the Bombay of the '70s. As the outcaste editor of Debonair, I was the journalistic equivalent of chicken pox. Busybee was already famous even though the Old Lady of Bori Bunder hosted Khushwant Singh, Sham Lal, Girilal Jain, R.K. Laxman, Prem Jha, Inder Malhotra.... Desperate for professional and appropriate social companionship, I thought being seen with Busybee would give me a leg-up. I rode him shamelessly. Went to parties with him. Dropped his name. Invited him out in the hope that others would then accept my hospitality. I don't know whether knowing me did him any good, but I profited enormously.

We were both hard bachelors. He was the fast-drinking, low-life supremo of the city of gold and I was supposed to be the editor of India's Playboy with all the attendant perks. While his reputation was deserved, mine was counterfeit. Nevertheless, we visited boring parties, tried to pick up boring girls, drank too much and boasted when the French Trade Commissioner invited us for cocktails.

I admired Behram professionally and often told him that any Parsi who could write a sentence like "the first Parsis I met in my life were statues" deserved nothing less than the Indian Pulitzer. Like all genuinely talented individuals he was uncomfortable with praise, but quietly savoured kudos when it came from those whose opinions he respected. (Till today I am not entirely certain what he thought of me, although in print he was unfailingly generous. I suspect he considered me a bit of a fraud with too much of an eye on the main chance.)

When I look back at all the good times we had, I realise how dramatically life has changed. We were all—Mario and his wife Habiba, Uma and Gerson da Cunha, Charles and Monica Correa, the late Nirmal Goswami and his wife Anna, Nira and Shyam Benegal—slightly innocent. Bombay was our world and nothing else seemed to matter. When the Emergency was imposed and V.C. Shukla banned Debonair for printing dirty pictures (they were undeniably dirty, but only in the aesthetic sense), I went rushing to Behram's flat behind Churchgate Station, unburdening on him the considered view that the suspension of Debonair constituted the death of Indian democracy! We had a few rums and I am happy to report that the feeling soon passed.

Behram and I shared another passion, namely gossip. Especially about the rich and the famous and the powerful. Strict confidentiality was promised, but this rule was observed more in the breach: "Have you heard, she was caught kissing in Oval maidan." Sometimes I am asked what I miss most about Bombay. I mumble some inanity, but I know what I miss—now, alas, permanently—most is an evening with Busybee.

Eating out with the most famous man in Bombay was a gourmet experience—and free. When you accompanied him to a restaurant, the bill was never presented. He was not a freeloader, trading free meals for write-ups. The owners were delighted to see him and felt insulted if he, or any of his guests, attempted to pay. Feeding Behram, for all of Bombay's eateries, was a much sought-after honour. Despite his taste for exotic and cordon-bleu cuisine, what he relished above all was boiled rice, watery dal and pickle. And again, while the Taj and Oberoi were second home to him, Behram was in his element only at places like City Kitchen. If anyone could, he could eat with kings yet keep the common touch.

Like all great humorists, he was not a funny man. "People keep asking me to tell them jokes," he once told me. "I tell them I don't know any jokes. I tell them if you want jokes go to Khushwant Singh." He was not a complex or tortured person. However, like James Thurber and our own R.K. Narayan, he put his humour into his work. And it was never of the ha-ha, he-he variety. Behram's wit has been variously described as "gentle", he never, it is said, used a sledge-hammer. The feather was his forte. That is only partially correct. Actually, his genius lay in deploying the tangential barb, in using irony, satire, sarcasm and bland irrational "news" with devastating effect. Often, you laughed five minutes after reading him. Good humorists make you laugh; great humorists make you laugh and think.

Enter Farzana. Initially, we were all a bit worried. Who was this anonymous girl taking our Behram away from us? Would she, like most wives, resent her husband's chums? Would she try and sow discord between us? To say we weren't suspicious would be a lie. Happily, she turned out to be a surprise package. If anything she encouraged Behram to deepen his bonds with his friends. Soon, she became a chum too. Conventional wisdom claims Farzana gave many presents to Behram. She bought him a second pair of shoes, a blazer for formal wear, better jeans, a couple of designer sweat shirts. More. She brought stability into his life. But for me, the best thing she did was not to try and change Behram. She let him be himself.

Any death is a loss to someone, somewhere. In the case of Behram, to his numerous friends and to his vast reading public. For more than three decades, each day, he held up a mirror to the people of Mumbai. He reminded them in brief, simple, lucid prose how silly were the pontifications of their leaders, how bogus were the pretensions of the Matunga Lions Club President, how pathetic were the vanities of the moneywallahs. And, occasionally, very occasionally, he told them there was still some hope.

In these corrupt, tehelka-stricken times, his wise counsel wrapped in deceptive humour will be especially missed.

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