Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Reminiscing About Behram Contractor

Every Saturday morning, as I am doing now, the great Bombay writer Behram Contractor would hunch over his typewriter and punch out his weekly column. It was a special edition of his daily column, which was called Round and About, by Busybee, Contractor’s writing name.

By Aakar Patel / The News Pakistan

He wrote for an afternoon newspaper (called The Afternoon Despatch & Courier), and so he was writing the column on the same day as it was being published. He wrote very early, just after the Times of India had been delivered to his flat around 5:30 am, giving him material to comment on.

Saturday’s Round and About was different and would always begin with the words: “And, for a Saturday, a few stray thoughts and a few general observations and a few points of view (all my own work):”

After this opening line, he would then offer a dozen or so of his opinions. Some would be one line, and others two, but never more. All lines would open with the word, “like”. For instance:

“Like there is no business like movie business. If you do not believe me, go see Dr Zhivago at the Regal this evening. It is one of those rare occasions when the book and the movie are equally great.” Then he would move on to the next thing he wanted to say.

Unlike other writers, Busybee did not feel obliged to explain why he felt what he did; he assumed the reader would know. And for many readers, this would be true, because he expressed himself simply and easily, and his approach was loaded with common sense rather than argument.

Saturday’s piece would end with a final line always preceded by the words: “And this final point of view” and always beginning with the word “that”.

I have been going through some of his old columns (they are available on the website www.busybeeforever.com) and here’s the last line on one from October, 1996: “That I have been observing Mr Balasaheb Thackeray. In the beginning, he was against South Indians, then against Gujaratis, then Muslims, now he is against judges.”

This would be the end of the column.

Busybee wrote every day for 36 years, beginning in 1955, and he died in 2001. He was one of the few Indian writers in English who had an individual style and that made him special. He was confident enough, and good enough, to develop it and stay with it for decades. Like Hemingway, he had found his writing voice early in life and did not change it.

An individual style is limiting, and Busybee compressed the space available to him even further by all these formats we have seen. But he was comfortable in this restriction. Writing in a specific voice is a difficult thing to do also because our views are often inconsistent. That is why he created the character, Busybee — the man who was buzzing about, curious about things — and I can imagine Behram putting on the manner of Busybee a second before he would begin to type out the words.

He created an entire world of his own that he would write about. He had no children but wrote of his sons Daryl and Derek. He had a talking dog called Bolshoi the Boxer, and a Gujarati neighbour who was sceptical and wealthy and was always referred to as “my friend on the 26th floor”.

Round and About was a very South Bombay column and there was almost no reference to the suburban parts of the city, where most of the population lived. Perhaps because Busybee felt that the real Bombay was the British part of the city. If this is so, his views mirrored those of Aldous Huxley, who wrote a superb book called Jesting Pilate in the 1920s, when he described the disorder that took over immediately when the suburbs began. Bombay stops and India begins with the suburbs.

Busybee’s writing was given width by his interests. He was India’s finest reviewer of restaurants, especially those that weren’t fancy. His knowledge of the subject was not as refined as that of the Hindustan Times’s Vir Sanghvi, who is easily the best writer on food in the subcontinent and probably farther afield, but Busybee’s love of good food made his column readable and entertaining, and left the reader salivating. Many restaurants in South Bombay have a laminated review by him on their walls to demonstrate their pedigree.

He did not write about high culture — things such as Classical and Hindustani music — but he liked the movies. He was interested also in theatre, and wrote reviews under the grand name Edward H Phipson.

Busybee liked the theatrical. He thought day-and-night cricket would be much better if the audience were admitted to the stadium in silence with only guiding lights on, and then, when everyone was seated, the floodlights would come on together in a moment of drama. He wrote about how it would be more impressive for the third umpire to give his decisions over the giant screen than through the field umpires, years before this actually came to be.

Though Busybee was a loner, he was far and away the best interviewer in journalism of his time. Again, strangely enough, the best one today is Vir Sanghvi, who interviews these days mainly for television also but his best work I think is in print.

Sanghvi is a serious sort of interviewer, however, and Busybee was more interested in the unusual, and in detail. For this reason, his subjects stayed on in the mind. When he interviewed PC Alexander, then governor, he informed the reader that His Excellency always listened to All India Radio’s news bulletin when shaving in the morning.

Busybee loved the British era, and there is nostalgia in his columns about the Bombay of his childhood, in the 1930s and 40s. He described the business district of Fort and its shops better than any other writer has (actually, very few have ever written about this), and it gives a history to the geography. There is never any bitterness about the way the city is now, ruined by the Indians who have governed it for over 60 years.

I was reminded of Busybee when I first read the descriptions of Lahore in the 1950s, by the writer A Hamid. His sketches, called ‘Lahore, Lahore Aye’, were published in the Daily Times, translated by the very fine writer Khalid Hasan, with whom I was acquainted. These translations are available at a couple of places on the internet and it would be rewarding to spend some time with this writing: cleanly written, unpretentious, lovely flecks of detail and, as always with Khalid Hasan, bringing characters to life.

He may have written about the elite part of the city, but Busybee was not parochial and though there would have been a lot of material available for him, he almost never wrote about Parsis as a community. When he did, it was with a light touch. Remarking on the contributions that the community made to Bombay through their philanthropy, and the fact that they are dying out (only 50,000 or so remain), he opened one piece with the line: “The first Parsis I met were statues.”

For him, all Indians were one people. And if there was something that was going wrong with politics or governance, it was a specific problem and that person, or that law, was in error. In that sense he was not cynical, and never in despair.

Perhaps this is one reason why his readers so loved him, though it went against the evidence on the ground.

Busybee married a very young, and quite beautiful, woman called Farzana, who now runs a magazine of her own called Upper Crust. She does this from the same building that the Afternoon newspaper was brought out from, refusing to give it back to its owner after Behram’s death, claiming a dispute. I am not sure Behram would have liked to have this as his legacy.

Behram Contractor was a slight man, thin and stooped, fair and wearing glasses. He wore a collared t-shirt and slacks, and was always very quiet, observing from the shadows. In his office he had no cabin and sat with the other reporters in the newsroom even in his 60s.

In his 50s, he worked at Mid Day, a paper that I would work for years later. He had launched the paper in 1979, with its owner (who was then also its editor) Khalid A-H Ansari. They were friends and would get together after work for a drink at Ansari’s flat on Pedder Road. One night, after things ended particularly late, Busybee came down and could not find a taxi. He went up and, not wanting to impose himself, asked for a copy of the newspaper. He came down again, spread the paper on the ground and settled down for the night on the streets of the city he loved, covered in the words he had written that morning.

The writer is a director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: aakar@hillroadmedia.com