Anil Dharker (1947-2021): Excerpts from Mumbai Notebook
02 Apr, 2021
IN THIS SPACE, every other week, for the last four years, Anil Dharker wrote, in words of affection and anxiety, about the city that defined his mind— a city that was enriched by his engagement with it as editor, writer and literary impresario. The idea of Mumbai Notebook came up when we met at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend in Delhi in 2015, and I suggested a column devoted to the cultural life of the city. He wanted a wider canvas that allowed him an intimate, freewheeling conversation with the city that brought the best out of him. The lucidity of his sentences and the moderation of his thoughts set him apart as a diarist of elegance and empathy at a time when comment was shrill and words of dissent were weighed down by adjectives of hate and exclusion. For Anil Dharker, to disagree was to make the conversation intimate; he was persuasive by being cool. As a storyteller who turned his city into cultural, social, and occasionally political, anecdotes, and as a literary curator who brought the best festival of ideas to his city, Anil Dharker will be missed—in Mumbai and on these pages. –Editor
DO OTHER CITIES HAVE famous landmarks, so famous that they are recognised even by the notoriously ignorant tribe of taxi drivers, yet do not actually exist? Mumbai had three: Kemp’s Corner, called that because the area had a famous medical outlet of that name; Kala Ghoda, because of an equestrian statue of King Edward VII (then Prince of Wales) and Opera House, the area in which was located the country’s only venue for staging them. Over the years, Kemp’s the Chemist moved because of redevelopment, the black horse with its royal rider was sent to the zoo (!) to remove a vestige of imperialism, and Opera House became defunct, then derelict. But the names stuck, and served as markers to find your way around South Mumbai.
Miraculously, in the last few months, the two real landmarks of the three have been given a new lease of life. Kala Ghoda has a new black horse (but without a rider). And Opera House re-opened in October 2016, renovated, refurbished and renewed so grandly that you could even dare call it by its original name—Royal Opera House. April 17, 2017
ALMOST A DECADE AGO, A group of prominent citizens of Mumbai came to me and said, “Isn’t a literary festival in Mumbai a good idea?” Of course, I said, it’s something that must happen. I wasn’t prepared for the next question: “Will you set it up and run it?” I rashly said ‘yes’.
‘Rashly’, not because I have any regrets, but because I had no idea it would take over my life: I would miss deadlines (I missed Open’s a fortnight ago), books I had planned to write would remain in the planning stage (where was the time to write them?), I would wake up at 3 in the morning to send emails that couldn’t wait (or so it seemed at 3 in the morning).
Now the eighth edition of Mumbai’s International Literary Festival is over, and everyone has called it a huge success: most of its participants (150 of them from 17 countries) and many members of our growing audience seem to agree on that point. In any case, you know you have done something right when the line for passes at a counter opening at 9AM starts forming at 7. December 11, 2017
GRAYLING, WHO WAS professor of philosophy at London University, spoke elegantly, lucidly and logically for an hour without a note or a pause. God obviously had a formidable opponent here. Inevitably, doubts about the existence of God come down to our inability to produce any proof of His existence…Moving beyond God to the next best thing, women, a general criticism of the festival that came up more than once was about the gender gap: why were there so many more male participating writers than female?
… Surely, the question goes beyond literature and a literary festival. It goes into the position of women in our society, a society which for all its spurious claims to modernity, is patriarchal and repressive when it comes to the education and social standing of women…
How’s this for a dream sequence? One day while Professor Grayling is pottering around in his garden, there is a roll of thunder and a bolt of lightning. Then God appears to speak directly to the professor. And She says: “Here’s your proof.” December 11, 2017
GIVEN THE EXPENSE OF mounting a full-scale production of ballet classics like Giselle or Swan Lake, the only way to see them is to go abroad. Even there, unless you book well in advance, it’s impossible to get tickets even if you are prepared to spend a fortune. Therefore, a compendium of vignettes from multiple ballet shows which was presented in Mumbai is the only option. Better a sample than nothing at all. Another consequence of a limited budget is that you get a bare stage, with none of the magnificent backdrops and scenery that you get in a full-scale ballet. What you do get instead is pure dance; you then focus entirely on the dancers, their movements and the choreography without the distraction of an opulent setting. January 29, 2018
My last meeting with him [VS Naipaul] was when he came to receive the Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award at our Mumbai literary festival. Now past 80, he was frail and confined to a wheelchair, but his mind was as sharp as ever. Since he had come in a couple of days early to get over jet-lag, I had arranged dinner at a friend’s well-appointed place. The invitees were well chosen, the wine was the best, and the menu looked appetising.
At 5PM, Naipaul’s wife Nadira rang to say, “Vidia has changed his mind. He doesn’t feel well enough to come for dinner.” “But, but…” I spluttered. “You are welcome to come and get him to change his mind,” she told me. So I went to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, sat next to his wheelchair, and spoke about this and that. After a longish chat, I said, “Shall we go?” “Okay,” he said, and that was that, to everyone’s relief. August 27, 2018
NO ONE KNOWS WHICH came first, the chicken or the egg. Similarly, no one knows whether cricket betting was declared illegal first, or whether it developed first as a game of chance in our country and was therefore declared illegal. In India, betting on the final result of a match is passé: you now bet on ‘spot’ results. Like who will win the toss. Or whether, if India wins the toss, we will bat first. Or if we field, who will open the bowling (hey, it’s a spinner!) The evil of ‘spot fixing’ to which poor Hansie Cronje and the foolish Sreesanth and Mohd Amir fell victims, involves things of this kind. (The two bowlers, if you remember, took money to deliberately bowl no-balls to pre-arranged signals). Indians bet on things like that, they bet even on what ball of which over will be hit for a four or a six! July 22, 2019
HIS BUILDINGS—THERE ARE nearly a hundred of them—stand out for their distinctive style, a rejection of the glass-and-steel approach of post-modernist architecture; he [Charles Correa] introduced instead a modern version of design deeply reflecting local cultures and the use of local materials…I remember standing with him on a balcony in the high-rise Kanchanjunga building on Peddar Road: he explained how he had used natural airflow to make air-conditioning superfluous. He really didn’t need to tell me, the breeze wafting past us told its own story. September 14, 2020
THE BIG COTTAGE INDUSTRY is in masks. It started off with conventional ones being imported, some impregnated (if that’s the word) with Covid warriors and costing over Rs 2,000 each. Pretty soon, everyone and their neighbour were making them: 3-tier ones; no-tear ones; N-95s with two elastic bands, one of which went around your neck and one around your ears. These were regarded as the most efficient in stopping aerosol dispersion, probably by the simple expedient of suffocating the wearer. I like the one US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was wearing when he came for a meeting in Delhi. It looked bright and cheerful with the Stars and Stripes emblazoned across it. Our own Subrahmanyam Jaishankar not only outdid him in the length of his name, but also with his mask, with a nose cone of excessive length, more suitable for the proboscis of Cyrano de Bergerac. November 9, 2020
THE CLOSING DOWN OF a bookstore is no longer news. But the opening of one certainly is, and in today’s bleak times, an item newsworthy enough to go into Ripley’s Believe It or Not! But Kitab Khana, the wonderful bookstore at Flora Fountain, did reopen a week ago, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the devastating fire that engulfed it last year. The year 2020 was truly the annus horribilis of our lives, so if the best bookstore in Mumbai caught fire before the year was out, it was just one more parting kick from 2020 while we were down…
Most of Kitab Khana’s 45,000 volumes were destroyed: the few that weren’t (the ones that were ‘smoked’, I suppose), are now on sale at half-price. I can’t wait to go back when the world gets back its sanity—although I know that, as usual, I will spend far too much time once I am there, lost in looking at one interesting book after another. I also know that each time I make a move to leave, T Jagath, Kitab Khana’s manager or one of the members of his staff, will point me to another shelf where lie some more tempting treasures. March 29, 2021