An Invitation to the Beloved

My carefree life has smelled
The sweet perfume of love
For the first time ever.

My dreams,
Are now full of romance
And I call out:
Come, my beloved
Keeper of my heart
I invite you
To play with me
A new-fangled game.

At stake will be
My heart, your name.
Blindfolded, we both
Will throw at each other
Sachets filled with love
On which is written
Cupid’s name.

Neither of us will be a loser
I assure you.
You win my heart
And I your name.

 

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Smile Awhile

I  asked  a  boy  how  his  studies  were  progressing.

His  reply:

Uncle,  our  syllabus  is  like  an  ocean,

We  study  as  much  as  a  river  might  empty  in  it,

We  remember  maybe  a  bucketfull,

Our  answer paper  hardly  fills  one  glass,

How  can  one  expect  good  grades?

 

A Gani Dahiwala Ghazal

Water alone seems  to  be  the  cure

For  my  ailment

That  I  cry

When  my  heart  feels  heavy.

 

Spent  the  days  of  my  life

Keeping  my  eyes  closed

Now  it  looks  like  eons

Spending  nights

With  my  eyes  wide  open.

 

There are instances in life,

Which beg me to cry,

I am charitable only to those,

That I find worthy

 

Memories  of  life  gone  by

Strike  me  afresh  today

Looks  as  if  someone

Is  knocking  again

At  my  heart’s  door.

 

This  is  an  attempted  translation  of  Gani  Dahiwala’s  Gazal.

 

 

Late Night’s Shadow

Late night’s shadow is calling,

Awakening me,

Shaking me vigourously.

 

Come with me,

Pack up your belongings.

How long will you sleep?

My companion since birth,

Seems to be telling.

 

Have you forgotten

That Death was born

Along with your Birth?

You have now swung enough,

On the treacherous branches,

Of this Earth,

Now has come the time to swing

On different swings,

Of a different World

 

Conceptualized  from  an  old  Gujarati  song.

 

That Guy Shirish

Shirish was my immediate neighbour when we were staying at the Grant Road area
of Bombay. I was hardly four years old at the time and he being perhaps eight
or nine, there was no question of our being friends then. We just knew each other casually, that’s all.

Some years later, I joined  the same school that he was in and there were more
opportunities to interact with each other. On one occasion, we had our school exams  and we had to write our full name in English on the answer paper. Now, as I have often  confessed, I absolutely hated English then, and could only write my first name;
nothing beyond that! Just then, I bumped into Shirish and asked him how to spell my  surname. He must perhaps have been equally bright(!) in English because he too had no idea! But a quick-thinking guy he certainly was, for he remembered that he had a fellow  classmate whose first name was the same as my surname! So, in no time, my problem  was solved and from then on, I could write my full name in English without seeking any help! Quite an achievement, wouldn’t you say?!

Shirish was very popular in school because of his jovial nature and antics. Once, there  was an elocution competition, in which the participants had to draw a random chit from a box  on a table and speak on the subject written on it. The participant had to read out  the subject he or she was about to speak on. When Shirish’s turn came, he started something like  this:  “ii…ii..iiif aaa… I wwwere a st st stammerer!” All the children  started thumping their desks, laughing deliriously as he continued in the same vein. Needless to say, he won the competition hands down!

Some more years passed, and my sister married his uncle – with whom Shirish and his siblings used to live, so our meetings were now more frequent. By this time I had also  grown up enough to be friends with him. Around that time, we both attended a summer  camp at a place called Chinchan, about three hours from Bombay. We were about sixty  boys lodged in a school. Chinchan had a very beautiful, virgin beach and every night,  there was a campfire, which we all eagerly looked forward to because of the  entertainment it provided. Everyone participated enthusiastically. On one such night,  while someone was  performing, Shirish suddenly seemed to have developed a fit, thrashing  his hands and legs about violently. Everyone jumped up to help, some five or six boys  trying to control him physically. In the absence of smelling salts, someone suggested  making him smell a shoe, copiously rubbed in cow dung! The moment these words  reached his ears,  Shirish  sat  up, shouting, “No, no, I am perfectly OK!” When the  perplexed onlookers asked him what this was all about, he simply smiled and said,
“Oh, this was part of my tonight’s act!”

In April 1951, I set sail for London to study Engineering. In October, I received the news  that Shirish was to come to London on his way to the U.S. and would spend a couple of  days with me. I received him at Tilbury Docks, and as expected, was regaled about his  exploits during his journey. At Port Said, the ship was to remain at berth for a few hours,  so Shirish and a few friends had ventured out to do some shopping. I remember that in  those days,  ‘Pyramid’  brand cottons were in great demand. Well, Shirish and Co. had gone to a shop or two and as is the vaunt with us Indians, started haggling. At the end of  it all, a bargain was struck and the lot had returned to the ship, laughing triumphantly, patting their own backs thinking how smart they’d been. Their smiles soon turned into  frowns as soon as they opened their packets. The shirts they had purchased either had  no sleeves or the entire backs were missing! They were so beautifully packed that no  one could’ve made out that something was amiss! The smart guys had been totally  outsmarted!

Their next port of call was Marseilles, in France. It was evening and they had a few hours  to themselves which they spent strolling around the harbour, when one of them had had  an urge to empty his bladder. The pressure had soon mounted and the poor guy was desperate, but no one knew any French and so could not have asked for proper directions. A smart Alec had suggested using sign  language, to which another guy had retorted, “You idiot, are you in your senses? This is France and you are in a sailor city.  What if someone misunderstands you and you land up in a brothel?” God! I don’t remember how they resolved this, but Shirish had me in splits that entire night.

In America too, he must have made friends very easily because of his easy-going nature.  I remember an anecdote my sister told me about many years later. There was a dramatics performance at his college, in which Shirish had played the part of a female  nurse. While trying to take out the handkerchief stylishly from the ‘cleavage’,
he pulled his falsies out! Imagine the uproar this must have created in the audience!

He subsequently married an American girl and settled down in the U.S. Around October 1962, he came to India to visit the family and spend some time here. My wife wanted to learn Ball Room dancing, which I could not teach her because despite having spent over seven years in Europe, I did not know anything more than just kicking my legs about! Shirish readily obliged. Of course, he would have dinner after the lessons. We were in  for a big  surprise. We had not counted on his humongous appetite. You will not believe  it, but the guy gobbled down an omelette of nineteen eggs! And this was followed by a    large serving of mutton pulao! Ah, and he had already had some soup for starters!  Surprisingly, there were no after effects. He could digest it all!

Around the same time, the festival of Diwali was being celebrated and my wife and I  were at my parental home for dinner. My older brother also lived there as part of a joint  family. While we were having dinner, Shirish dropped by. When asked to join us, he  declined, saying he’d already had dinner. My brother then suggested that he at least  partake of the sweets that had been prepared for Diwali, to which he readily agreed.
But, knowing his appetite, my brother cleverly set a condition that he (Shirish) would be blindfolded and given a knife with which he was to cut through the sweet placed in a  ‘thaali’, (a sort of metal dish, more than twice the size of a regular dinner plate), and eat  the portion nearer to him. Shirish agreed. My brother then tricked him into slicing the sweet in such a way that more than two-thirds of the portion was near him. But Shirish  was not to be contained –  he finished every thing in no time, earning the nickname ‘hog’ from us!

A year later, I visited the U.S. on business, but he had, in the meanwhile, shifted base
to Paris. Fortunately, Paris was also in my itinerary, so I could meet him there. In the  short time that he had been there, he had already familiarised himself  with the city
and could guide me to the best and cheapest restaurants and also get me perfumes
at bargain prices.

He came to India a few years later with his wife and two children, whence we spent  some good time together in New Delhi. That was the last I saw of him. Some years later, while driving to attend some  conference, in the company of his doctor friends, he suffered a massive heart  attack  and collapsed at the wheel. A great guy left without bidding adieu to anyone.

THAT FATEFUL FRIDAY

Friday the 14th April, 1944 dawned like any other day, no one having any foreboding of  the impending disaster that was to strike Bombay that afternoon, leaving behind a trail  of death and destruction, rendering thousands homeless.

Our annual exams over, with not a care in this world, I was playing with my friend Dileep, when around four o’clock in the afternoon, a booming sound rent the air.
We immediately ran out of the house to check what had happened; only to find others, just like us, questioning each other. We decided to investigate further, and proceeded from Chowpatty Beach which was hardly two minutes away, in the direction of Opera House, only to meet many more people, who too had no clue as to what had happened.

The rumour mill had already started, with some saying that the boiler of a steam  locomotive had exploded, and some such nonsense. Well, we were back home in about  fifteen minutes, having  found out nothing. We were still standing in the compound
of  our building, near the entrance gate,  when after another ten minutes or so, another  loud booming sound was heard; this one, to my mind, being much louder than the  previous one. We also saw an explosive flash as if tens of thousands of sparklers had been flung high up in the air. It was quite a spectacle, lasting maybe a few seconds.
Soon, we saw billowing smoke clouds across the  sea, in the harbour area, about three
to  four miles away.The entire sky had turned grey. We, however, still did not know
what  had  happened.

Another hour or two passed and then shaken, stricken people started arriving, seeking shelter wherever they could find one. Yes, they were the survivors from among those who had lost everything within seconds. Directly opposite our house was a huge Banyan tree, under which was a canopy, circling which were four open water tanks serving as watering holes for horses. In those days, there used to be more than five thousand horse  -drawn carriages, known as Victorias, used as public transport in Bombay. Well, about  80 to 100 hapless souls had taken refuge under the canopy. Pain and sorrow were writ  large on their faces. They had absolutely no belongings. Despite their loss, they sat there stoically, resigned to their fate. My  mother and some other ladies from the  neighbourhood were quick to grasp the situation. They quickly formed groups and soon got busy in their kitchens cooking food for these hapless people, which we youngsters ferried to them, along with some water.

By next morning, the picture had become clear. A British cargo ship, by the name of Fort Stikine – berthed at Victoria Dock – carrying a cargo of cotton bales, oil barrels, gold bars and some 3oo tons  of TNT (dynamite) had exploded while at port!

The scenario had played out something like this: around 2 pm, some smoke was noticed  in the hold storing cotton bales. The Fire Brigade was summoned, but they  had been unable to bring things under control and the first explosion occurred around 4 pm.
To compound the unfortunate situation further, TNT was stored in the hold just above  where the cotton bales were stored. The second explosion was much more severe,  blowing everything to smithereens. It literally rained gold… and death. The gold bars  were flung far and wide, some landing in houses situated a couple of kilometers  away, crashing through building’s roofs! Even seventy years after the tragedy, some gold bars  were found during dredging operations in the harbour. Some sixty -odd firemen died  valiantly, doing their duty; most of them were blown to bits during the second explosion.  A memorial to these martyrs was erected, where every year on 14th April, homage is paid to them.

The intensity of the explosion was such that one small ship had been literally lifted out  of water and landed on land! Apart from Fort Stikine, thirteen other ships were  destroyed by the explosion and ensuing fire. The total death toll is estimated to have been between 800 and 1300.

It took three days to douse the fire. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed in this holocaust, of which quite a few had to be pulled down to contain the fire. After about
a week, when normalcy had been restored, my father took us to see the havoc caused by this explosion. We travelled by suburban train, passing through the harbour area.
I still distinctly remember the severe destruction caused near the Masjid Bunder area.

This explosion at Bombay Harbour is perhaps the worst tragedy that I have personally  experienced in my life.