I came to Bombay only because the Times of India offered me the best opening as a journalist and the paper then happened to be headquartered in that city. Otherwise, I would have been in Delhi, where I was born and brought up for most of my life. I’m glad it turned out to be Bombay, but more of that later. My boss was N.J. Nanporia, half Parsi and half Japanese, a low-key editor, unlike the type you get nowadays. I was in my early 20s and had a princely salary of Rs 350 a month. Actually, it was not so bad as I was paid Rs 200 a month for my splendid paying guest (PG) accommodation, facing the magnificent Victorian-Gothic Rajabhai clock tower on the fringes of the Oval Maidan. That Rs 200 included breakfast and Rs 3 per dinner if I wanted to eat at home with my landlord and landlady, a Parsi couple who became family. Close by, next to Churchgate station, was Mathura Dairy Farm, an eatery—I can’t really call it a restaurant—where you got a sumptuous vegetarian meal for Rs 2, if you preferred to eat out.
This was in 1964, over four decades ago, the year India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru died. For me, that was a defining date. The period before Nehru’s death was all about idealism and nationalism. Many of us, just out of university, felt—foolishly, of course—that we could change India for the better. After Nehru, cynicism and a sense of despair set in. Corruption increased and the State, instead of being the upholder of public good, became the greatest predator.
But in the 1960s, you could still live cheaply. I had a Royal Enfield 350 cc motorcycle, a beautiful and powerful machine gifted to me by my grandfather and my monthly petrol bill came to just Rs 50 (those were the days of cheap petrol). They were also the days of prohibition courtesy Mahatma Gandhi and Morarji Desai. The only public place you could get a drink was in one of the many ‘Aunty’ joints that dotted the city. You had to have a strong stomach because you did not know what kind of hooch you were drinking. And there was also the danger of a police raid. The only legitimate way you could obtain alcohol was by getting a permit. For this, I recall I had to declare that after living abroad, I had got so addicted to alcohol that I could not do without it! Living in the West had so corrupted me that I had become an alcoholic. And a doctor had to certify that this was indeed so.
Needless to say, you had to pay for this permit, the tout who arranged it informed me that the money was shared by the doctor, various officials and politicians. That permit enabled me to buy from an authorised liquor shop four units of spirits a month. In other words, four bottles of rum, whisky, vodka, etc. (If you took beer, you got three bottles per unit, I think). Crazy? Of course.
It goes without saying that in those days social life was a tame affair and the lifestyle of the young pretty conservative. Clubs did not have bars and the only place one could party was in one’s home. Most of us lived as PGs, so it all depended on how accommodating your landlord or landlady was. My fellow columnist Bhaichand Patel, a young lawyer then, attached to the chambers of Rajni Patel (who later went into politics and became the main collector of money for the Congress party in Bombay), was famous for the number of people he could entertain in his small PG room. Thirty or 40 of us would be crammed into a room that was just 20 by 15 feet. Rum and coke and beer were the most popular—and the cheapest drinks. Bhaichand had an ingenious way of instantly chilling warm beer. Put some ice cubes in a teapot. Slowly pour the beer into the teapot and then serve it from the spout. Some of the fizz would go out from the beer but that’s much better than having warm beer.
One of the restaurants near Fountain (Hutatma Chowk now) used to have a ‘tea dance’ between six and eight in the evening. You could go there after work and get back home for dinner. Live music and a chance to mingle with the opposite sex. Discotheques had not arrived yet. A date was going to a film (you could hold hands in the dark) or play. If you wanted to splurge, you went to the Tajmahal Hotel, the only five-star hotel in the city. It was difficult to be really naughty. Going to a hotel was too seedy. Besides, the girls those days were mostly virginal and conservative, not adventurous like they are now. Kabir Bedi and his Bengali girlfriend Protima living together was something of a sensation, whispered about with awe.
The newspapers and magazines did not write about parties or social life. There were no launches of products, no sponsored functions. In fact, we were instructed to not even mention the name of a hotel or restaurant where a function that we were covering was held. So, no page three, nothing even approaching that. No Parmeshwar Godrejs, Dilip Des or Gautam Singhanias throwing lavish—and usually crass—dos and making sure that the dos made it on TV and the print media. No beautiful people. Bombay was dullsville in those days. Difficult to believe now, some four decades later, but if truth be told, I at least preferred it that way.