Sunday, December 27, 2020

Ibn-e-Mariam hua kare koi (Ghalib, translated by Mustansir Dalvi)

Ghalib by Sadiqain, 1969

Ibn-e-Mariam hua kare koi


Mirza Ghalib

Ibn-e-Mariam hua kare koi

Mere dukh ki dawa kare koi

Shaaraa-o-a’in par madaar sahi

Aise qaatil ka kya kare koi

Chaal jaise kadi kamaan ka teer

Dil mein aise ke ja kare koi

Baat par vaan zubaan kat-ti hai

Woh kahe aur suna kare koi

Bak raha hoon junoon mein kya kya kuch

Kuch na samjhe Khuda kare koi

Na suno gar bura kahe koi

Na kaho gar bura kahe koi

Rok lo gar ghalat chale koi

Baksh do gar khata kare koi

Kaun hai jo nahin hai haajat-mand

Kiski haajat ka ravaa kare koi

Kya kiya Khizr ne Sikandar se

Ab kise rehnuma kare koi

Jab tavaqqo hi uth gai Ghalib

Kyon kisi ka gila kare koi

Here is Abida Parveen's rendition of Ghalib's Ghazal 'Ibn-e-Mariam hua kare koi'

Oh, for a son of Mary to be

translated by

Mustansir Dalvi

Oh, for a son of Mary to be

The one to redress my melancholy

The one who wields letter and word of law

How shall we deal with an assassin like this?

He struts like an arrow, in a bow pulled taut

Oh, for someone to pierce my heart like this!

The tongue is cut just as word takes wing

He speaks, but is there anyone to hear?

I rant incoherently in frenzied passion

I hope, dear Lord, no one hears me now

Do not listen to words spoken in malice

Do not respond to words spoken in spite

Show the wayward the correct path

Forgive those who transgress against you

Who amongst us is not in need?

Who amongst us can assuage them all?

Recall how Alexander was treated by Khizr

Who now can be truly considered a guide?

When there are no more expectations left

What is there to complain about, Ghalib?

Translation and Transliteration © Mustansir Dalvi, 2020, All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar (Ghalib, translated by Mustansir Dalvi)

Rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar
Mirza Ghalib

Rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar jahaan koi na ho
Hamsukhan koi na ho aur humzabaan koi na ho

Be-dar-o-deewaar sa ik ghar banaaya chaahiye
Koi humsaaya na ho aur paasbaan koi na ho

Padiye gar beemaar to koi na ho teemaardaar
Aur agar mar jaaiye to nauhaa-khwaan koi na ho

Come, let us find a place to live
translated by
Mustansir Dalvi

Come, let us find a place to live
Where we will find ourselves alone
Where no one speaks our tongue
And our thoughts are our thoughts alone

Come, let us have a house about us
Without walls or doors
Where there are no neighbours
And no one to guard our home

Should we be stricken down with malaise
We’d find neither doctor nor nurse
And should we come to the end of our days
No one would sing elegies over our grave

Translation and Transliteration © Mustansir Dalvi, 2020, All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rajinikanth- three careers in retrospect

Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rajinikanth
- three careers in retrospect

Amitabh Bachchan was a part of my growing up years, 
which is why I will never watch Sooryavansham

The transformation of the angry young man into the smug patriarch is tragic for hard-core fans of the actor, who turns 75 on October 11.
Published in Oct 11, 2017 · 01:30 pm

For two days during the summer vacation of 1977, I stood in the advance booking line to buy tickets for Amar Akbar Anthony. I did not succeed. Such was the hype that people had lined up in the early hours, much before I sauntered in hoping to see Amitabh Bachchan as Anthony Gonsalves before everyone else. Despite being a multi-starrer with Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, both of whom could easily headline their own films, this was all about Bachchan.

While I did go home empty-handed and did not watch the film for several weeks thereafter, I did not mind too much. My time would come. Until then, I satisfied myself with the radio programmes on Vividh Bharati, those 15-minute advertisements for the film, full of dialogue, song snippets and Ameen Sayani.

The adulation for Amitabh Bachchan started with Bombay to Goa and gained momentum with Zanjeer. At that time, we did not even realise that there were two ‘chs’ in his name. For us, he was the bee’s knees and was always referred to in the rushed and compressed “Amitabachan!” The young Jamaal in Slumdog Millionaire, covered in shit and holding up the unsoiled photograph of his hero, gets the pronunciation right exactly as I remember it from my schooldays. This metaphor for the unsullied leading man of our youth is apt. By the time Sholay and Deewar were released, Amitabh Bachchan could do no wrong.

I was in complete thrall of both man and image in the mid-1970s, as were many of my peers. We were just hitting our early teens and had the role model we were perhaps unconsciously searching for. The rebellious but upright angry young man channelised our angst at our school teachers, our parents and every authority figure around us. We were genuine fans, devouring information on Bachchan through the radio, though film magazines that we leeched onto waiting our turn at barbershops and exchanging gossip more made-up than real. Our eyes were willingly stabbed by the flashes of lurid, hand-painted, largely unsophisticated posters that were the norm at the time.

And, of course, we watched every Amitabh Bachchan movie that was ever released (and the whole back catalogue) on Doordarshan on Sundays, from Saat Hindustani to Bansi Birju to Ek Nazar to Raaste ka Patthar to his early Hrishikesh Mukerjee films. We watched in disbelief his villainous turn in Parwana and his rather wimpy presence in Reshma aur Shera, and cheered his herogiri in Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina. We watched movies even if Bachchan had a blink-and-miss cameo, as in Kunwara Baap or Chala Murari Hero Banane. We watched him in some of the direst movies ever made in Hindi, such as Besharam (which seemed to have been scripted on the sets and has Sharmila Tagore covered in shoe polish in one scene) and Zameer (where it is unclear whether he is Saira Banu’s long-lost brother or love interest). We realised that some of these movies were drivel, but all we wanted was Amitabh Bachchan. The story came second.

Amar Akbar Anthony did change our perception of Bachchan as an action hero. This phenomenon has been described by several commentators before, but after his turn as Anthony bhai, Bachchan became “a one man industry” (a phrase apparently bestowed upon him by Francois Truffaut). As Anthony, he was action hero, romantic lead, and comic relief all in one. No longer the smouldering, brooding presence filled with self-righteousness and suppressed violence, Anthony was a chameleon and became whatever you wanted him to be as long as (to paraphrase Hobson) he was Amitabh Bachchan.

From this film on to this day, with few exceptions every film is a meta-film, a showcase for the variety show for the superstar he had become. Bachchan prefigures Rajinikanth, a hall of mirrors, with multiple reflections, all of the same person.

It has been correctly said that the Bachchan phenomenon rang the death knell for several character actors, especially comedians who always had their fixed space in the multiple narratives and vignette-filled montages that structured most mainstream Hindi films. Every Bachchan film was so dominated by the colossus that he subsumed everything into himself. The poor fellows in their waning years turned to direction, such as Deven Varma, Jagdeep and Mohan Choti. The makers in turn followed into oblivion, tail between legs.

And yet, Amitabh Bachchan reigned supreme in the eyes of his fans. His films now were fan fodder and kept everyone satisfied. We knew that even when he acted in ensemble films such as Trishul or Kala Patthar, the focus was solely on the central performance. All the other roles existed, for better or worse, to prop him up.

But then, sometime between Coolie and Mrityudaata, something changed. It was as if Amitabh Bachchan had been kidnapped and replaced by a lookalike also called Amitabh Bachchan. His roles were tired re-treads of bombast and exposition, doing and saying things he really did not seem to believe in, dressed up in costumes that bordered on the ridiculous, like Laal Badshah or Toofan or the truly, truly atrocious Ajooba.

Whether this was due to the after-effects of the Coolie accident, the onset of myasthenia gravis, the Bofors accusations, the self-imposed exile of five years, or the abject failure of his company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited and its attendant financial liabilities, the later films weaned us away from starry-eyed fandom with alacrity. For the first time we began to question what was willy-nilly handed to us. Had the great man lost his mojo?

Amitabh Bachchan’s finest performance during this time, his swansong almost, was as a postman in an advertisement for the soft drink Mirinda. Here we saw the very best of Bachchan in under a minute – his commanding presence, his mellifluous recitation and impeccable comic timing as he reads out a postcard to a hapless villager from his wife with the news that she is leaving him for another man. Through rhymed verse and innuendo, we realise that the other man is none other than the postman himself. No tagline for an advertisement had greater weight: “Zor ka jhatka dheere se lage.”

With this delightful exception, our growing disenchantment with the one-man industry reached a tipping point with Mohabbatein, in which Amitabh Bachchan presented to us his newly crafted bearded look and unbridled patriarchal pig-headedness which, in an earlier and better time, would have been the domain of Rehman, KN Singh or Murad. Bachchan’s role was metonymous with all that was wrong in our increasingly conservative society. Was our disgruntlement a sign that we were growing up ourselves? A reaction against the decreasing space for inclusivity and cosmopolitanism – a space that was once occupied by Bachchan? Where did the rebelliousness go? Who was this dodgy daddy/uncle type figure who was borderline distasteful?

Mohabbatein was not a one-off role. Bachchan seemed to find increasing comfort as a patriarch full of misogynistic bluster and self-righteousness. This was evident in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Waqt, Viruddh, and several other films. The outsider was now domesticated, assimilated in the mainstream, the upholder of some of the most venal values.

Around the time of his resurgence with the success of Kaun Banega Crorepati, we also saw Bachchan increasingly in print and on billboards and television hawking all manner of products from noodles and mango candy to cement and real estate. There was once an angry port worker who asserted, “Main aaj bhi phenke hue paise nahin uthaata.” Now it seemed to be all about “Bangla, gaadi and bank balance”. It was not that we begrudged Bachchan his earnings from endorsements. We just questioned the products. Jewellery? Infant clothing? Hair oil?

Yet, Bachchan continued to appear in a handful of roles that were challenging and enjoyable. Aks gave us glimpses of his former angry persona, while Paheli had a very interesting comic cameo. Perhaps the best of Bachchan’s current roles is Paa, which subsumes both his persona and his voice and shows us the potential of what he could have been if Amar Akbar Anthony had never happened.
On the other hand, we have to contend with his award-winning roles such as Agneepath, in which his stylised acting and exaggerated accent grates like nails on a blackboard, or the absurdly conceived mentor figure in Black, whose efforts at taming a deaf-mute girl consist of berating her by shouting at the top of his voice.

The later Amitabh Bachchan is a very real disappointment for an acolyte of the former Amitabh Bachchan. Not for us the appellations of Aby Baby or Big B: he is the once and forever Amitabachan. It hurts to see him play the roles that once would have ideally suited Om Prakash (Baabul, Piku). The movement from the daddy to the daddu roles may be a natural progression for an emasculated angry man, but it is disappointing to see him find such comfort in it. There is perhaps no sadder creature than a former fan.

Which why I may be the only Indian citizen who, despite its 24/7 ubiquity on all film channels, has not yet and will perhaps never watch Sooryavansham.

Vinod Khanna conquered Hindi cinema by just being there

When not playing the villain, Vinod Khanna played straight man to the more garrulous co-stars.
Published in on May 03, 2017 · 05:00 pm

Before Gabbar Singh, there was Jabbar Singh.

Not a grumpy, grungy, paunchy dacoit on the run from the police, but a smartly turned out young man with a twirled-up moustache, clean-shaven cleft chin and a black tikka, a daakuon ka sardaar, who laid down his own law at the end of a double-barrel gun. Before Amjad Khan, there was Vinod Khanna. A leading man/villain to face off a leading man/hero Dharmendra. It would be easy to be confused, watching Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh, to decide on whose side you would rather be. This was the film that made Khanna a marquee star. Graduating from his several turns as a conventional bad guy, it would only be a few films before he would become one of the most sought after leading men of the 1970s.

And yet, one could argue that becoming the good guy emasculated him. In his early roles as an antagonist he inevitably chewed more scenery, and had more eyes riveted on him than on whichever hapless protagonist he was cast against, whether Manoj Kumar, Vinod Mehra, or even Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna. Not since the heyday of Pran was Hindi cinema blessed with a youthful bad guy of immense charm and swagger, one who could deliver threats with an edge and a smile.

One wonders what direction Hindi cinema in the ’70s would have taken had Khanna remained with the dark side. Look at Mere Apne, a two-antagonist film, in which Khanna as the gang leader is still remembered for his intensity even though he is cast against the usually bombastic Shatrughan Sinha.
Khanna was cast with Amitabh Bachchan in Hera Pheri, Khoon Pasina, Amar Akbar Anthony, Zameer, Parvarish and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. In all these films, except the last one, there are no real villains to pose a significant challenge to the heroes. Imagine the possibilities had Khanna been cast as the villain in each of them.

Why is Vinod Khanna so fondly regarded upon his passing, while still making us feel that there could have been more to him? As a leading man, he strode the ’70s with other colossi like Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor. In nearly 50 of his 140-odd films, he was cast with another hero or with multiple heroes. Apart from the six with Bachchan, he made two films with Feroze Khan and Randhir Kapoor, three with Shashi Kapoor, five with Rajesh Khanna, six with Jeetendra and seven each with Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha. Almost all his significant hits came from some of these films.

Here’s the rub. When not playing the villain, Vinod Khanna, Adonis, heart-throb and ladies man, retreated into the scenery, playing straight man to his more garrulous co-stars. In most of his roles, he is the upright do-gooder, the head of the family or a police officer, serious and sacrificing in nature, a witness to the shenanigans of more expressive scene stealers. Slightly boring, in fact.
This self-effacement is the leitmotif of Khanna’s career and can be seen even when he is cast in women-centric films. As the stoic spouse alongside Hema Malini in Meera and Rihaee, in Lekin with Dimple Kapadia or in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki opposite Nutan and Asha Parekh, Khanna subsumes his role to that of a foil, allowing the women to take centerstage, and by holding back, allowing them to shine.

His solo roles were rarely blockbusters, but they have some of his best performances. In Gulzar’s Achanak, almost a one-actor film, he can be seen in virtually every shot, and is a good example of character development as a cuckolded army man who murders his wife and her lover and goes on the run.

Among the many roles Khanna has played as police inspector, the best by far is in Inkaar, a police procedural inspired by Akira Kurosowa’s High and Low, a story of the misdirected kidnapping and rescue of a child who belongs to the servant of a rich man. The climax is a long chase, and his quest to find the villain (Amjad Khan) and the ransom money allow Khanna to shine as a realistic action hero.

Among the many loving remembrances after Vinod Khanna’s death on April 27, filmmaker Paromita Vohra described his screen persona best, as one of “unhurried hotness”. He could capture both your gaze and imagination but with suaveness and cool. It is a persona more suited to the ’70s, when the leading man was one of a film’s characters and not its raison d’être, a protagonist in a quotidian setting who could still do extraordinary things.

My favourite Vinod Khanna film embodies all these qualities. In Imtihan, he is cast as a college teacher. Leaving a rich father, he departs from home to the stirring song Ruk Jaana Nahin and ends up as a teacher in a college filled with long-haired, wide-collared and bell bottomed delinquents. Over the course of the film, he reforms them and finds himself and his lady love. This was an action film without much filmy action (one fight scene in the end) that kept moving, with Khanna in the most canonical role of his career. There is nobility in his bearing and a dignity that he holds on to despite the adversities he has to undergo. Imtihan was one of his few solo hits.

It may be counter-intuitive, but the most famous role of his career, as Inspector Amar in Amar Akbar Anthony, is the one that probably led Khanna down the slippery slope to retirement. Typecasting at its worst, we find Khanna once again as the straight man to slapstick Amitabh Bachchan, feeding him lines that would be answered by memorable retorts (Robert? Kaun woh fast bowler Andy Robert?) in a movie that is less a narrative and more a variety show.

Khanna had the least to do in this burlesque that allowed both Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor to take centerstage. He does little other than react and is the least proactive in driving the pace of the film. His own slapstick turn as a one-man band in the climax is completely unbelievable, given his dour persona throughout.

Bachchan, on the other hand, consolidated his superstardom with a big-top performance – performances really – as hero, lover, fighter and comedian, killing once and for all the need for the mandatory parallel comedy track in Hindi films.

Movies after Amar Akbar Anthony would be more and more crafted as vehicles for superstars who were the narrative rather than part of it. Little wonder then that Vinod Khanna found it best to quit movies for his spiritual quest with Osho.

Rajinikanth in Hindi cinema: 
We awaited his wanton assault on our senses and were not disappointed

We look back on the Tamil superstar's Mumbai years.
Published in on Jul 25, 2016 · 11:04 am

There is a moment in the Kabali trailer where the Superstar walks down a corridor with henchmen wearing a lethal Manila shirt. With one deft flick he sweeps back the trademark mane and I was, like Proust, transported back to the misbegotten days of my youth, the eighties. In that politically incorrect and not yet meta-charged period we were uncomplaining consumers – from the highs of the cricket World Cup victory to the lows of B-grade Hindi cinema. We absorbed it all, and accepted that Hindi cinema was no longer obliged to follow any rules, of history, cinematography, color, or continuity. Scenes assaulted our senses like “just one damn thing after another”.

Two men bestrode our screens in that period, overturning the traditional pantheon of filmi heroes with a story arc – Mithun Chakraborty and Rajinikanth. Rajini’s arrival on the shores of popular Hindi cinema (Andha Kanoon, 1983) followed Kamal Haasan (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1981). While Bombay’s film world had already embraced female actors from the South for several decades, the debut of male superstars needed a more fortuitous positioning. But both fitted in oddly into the established system. Haasan did better with his edgy romantic roles, and the occasional directorial deviation (Chachi 420, 1997), while Rajinikanth was always difficult to slot.

In our Hindi filmi consciousness, Ranjikanth first made a dent in 1980, not as an actor but as a name, Billa. This was the Tamil remake of the Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster Don. Billa had other associations for us, as the man, who along with his cohort Ranga abducted and killed the Chopra siblings from Delhi in 1978, a case that had caught the imagination of the country in the years before carpet-bomb media. Billa was no name for a hero for an Amitabh Bachchan copy. While we sniggered about these Tamil fellows having no sense of cultural association, Rajinikanth would nonchalantly and unselfconsciously make another movie in 1982, called Ranga.

And then, of course, came the jokes.

Rajinikanth’s reputation preceded his debut in Bombay cinema – he of the swirling hair, the twirling cigarette, and the twerking sunglasses, whose iconic entry scenes, slo-mo and fast-mo fist fights and somersaults were laced with sound effects and punch dialogue that broke the fourth wall. With Andha Kanoon, we awaited his wanton assault on our senses, and were not disappointed. Enter Vijay Kumar Singh, man in black. As he walks around his childhood home (where, inevitably, his parents and sister have been raped and/or murdered) we see Rajinikanth’s POV. Unlike ordinary mortals, his vision is all fish-eye. His gaze is so intense the whites of his eyes turn red as we watch and he smashes a block of RCC kept right in the middle of the room for the sole purpose of smashing it. In declamatory tones, he promises revenge, but while Hindi film folk would raise a mutthi bhar matti as attestation, Rajini does more – he picks up and pulverises a fistful of concrete.

How can we assess the career of the Boss in Hindi cinema?

In movie after movie from 1983 to 1995, Rajinikanth pressed all the right cinematic triggers that would send his Tamil fans into Pavlovian frenzy, but this somehow worked only fitfully in Bombay. One reason for this ambivalence may be that Andha Kanoon, while a big hit, relegated him to Amitabh Bachchan, who despite only making an extended cameo remained centre stage. Bachchan also got to sing the title song. Rajinikanth ultimately would come across as a hit-man. Hindi cinema loves its stereotypes, and Ranjikanth would be offered few roles as leading man. He became an eternal sidekick, and more than once a “sachcha Musalmaan” sidekick (much in the mould of Shatrughan Sinha when he transited from villainy into good-person roles in Khan Dost et al.). Rajinikanth would be the faithful number-two man to Bachchan in Geraftaar (1985) and Hum (1991), and later to everyone from Shashi Kapoor to Raj Kumar to Govinda.

In order to garner brownie points, Rajinikanth had to oblige all by dying dramatically. With apparent lack of irony, in Gair Kanooni (1989), he dies twice in the same film, once as Aadam Khan and then as Akbar Khan. Both deaths are through a combination of stabbing and electrocution, in the latter case in Govinda’s arms, reciting the Kalma. And to bury irony once and for all, in Geraftaar he dies (as inspector Hussain) in Bachchan’s arms, reciting… the Kalma. It is unlikely in his current meta-avtaar, Rajini fans would accept something as mediocre as dying from their demigod.

In the days before his deification (not only by his fans but by our hysterical national television) Rajinikanth was happy to be an ensemble actor, an untenable position today. He would be subject to the role and the narrative, not embody the narrative, the text, the subtext, the denotations and connotations as he does today. Wafaadar (1985) and Chaalbaaz (1989) are both essentially comedy films. As Anupam Kher’s servant Ranga (!) in Wafaadar, the future “Thalaivar” acquiesces to all sorts of atrocities meted on his posterior. Surely if the Rajini bhakts today were to see Anupam Kher laying on Rajni’s bum with a swagger stick or giving him a swift kick in the youknowwhere, he would sincerely have to rethink his current domicile.

Rajinikanth would have starring turns in standalone B-grade films like Gangvaa (1984) and John Jaani Janardhan (1984) but they barely caused a flutter. He probably foresaw, quite early, his limited future in Hindi films and stopped after Aatank Hi Aatank in 1995. This too was an ensemble film based on The Godfather in which Rajinikanth played the role of Sonny Corleone. Hindi films were changing too, and his over-the-top turns had little mileage. Before long both global and indie sensibilities would make serious inroads and the appearance, storytelling and even acting would transform. Even mainstream Hindi film stars (the Khannate, for example) would have to change their ways.

The Superstar’s Hindi-speaking fans have had to wait for his Tamil films come to these shores in their dubbed versions, and through these filtered lenses have seen his rise from superstar to SuperGod. But even his most diehard acolytes would have noticed how, since his last five releases or so, right until Kabali, Rajinikanth has become completely subsumed in his own created image.

Becoming the Once and Future Thalaivar has come at a cost. Rajinikanth is now his own Chitti, the robot from Enthiran (2010) that his maker struggles so hard to contain.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Tranquility Base Bombay: My Role in the First Moon Landing

Tranquility Base Bombay: 
My Role in the First Moon Landing

20th July 2019
When we were kids, ‘Apollo’ meant the Gateway of India. The harbor around the Gateway (we still board boats to Elephanta and Alibag from here) was known to all as Palwa Bunder, of which the word Apollo was an angrezi corruption.

Palwa, as any fule kno, is Hindustani for Mystus Vittatus, a fish found in the waters off Bombay. Ergo, Apollo Bunder. Not much later, I knew Apollo to be the Greek God of the Sun, son of Zeus, whose (pater et fils) shenanigans I read about and observed in my copy of Homer’s Iliad- the comic book version by Classics Illustrated.

All that changed after Apollo 11. Fifty years ago, on 20th July 1969 when I was five, NASA's Apollo Mission put man on the moon. If ever there has been a BC and AD moment in the history of the human race, this is it. Nothing before nor since has equaled this achievement, and I am happy to say I was part of it.

Some memories help you root yourself in the past. Some are unreliable, but compelling. For me the most compelling of all the memories I have of early, very early childhood, is one where I hear people (probably at home) insisting that man can/will never step on the moon. In the fog of this memory, July 1969 takes center stage.

Of course, at my age, at the time, I had never heard of either the American or the Soviet space program. Sometime after, and I was still as little at the time, I remember sitting in the garden outside my uncle Dawood’s farmhouse in Shirol, near Kasara, gazing up to a completely lightless sky, except for the incredibleness of the Milky Way, and watching a star mark its arrow-straight course overhead. A moving star! My uncle had a name for it: ‘Spootnik’. What was that? A satellite, he said. That didn’t make things any clearer, but still I loved the show.

Of course, after July, the news was all around. Men had landed on the moon. We even knew their names, vivid and evocative- Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. Images of spacesuit shod, glass visor (reflecting the blackness of space) wearing astronauts were all around us. In newspapers- the Times of India, in the Sunday Standard, in the Poona Herald, in the Illustrated Weekly of India, on the walls of restaurants, on Volga ice cream wrappers and on the covers of firecracker boxes during Diwali. Apollo 11, Astronaut, Armstrong, Aldrin, America all became Indian words.

My role in the success of the moon landings came soon after, on the 24th of October, 1969

On that day, five years and ten months old, I found myself in Bombay, stationed at the turning outside the Crawford Market, under Lockwood Kipling’s marble murals, where the D N Road swings to Carnac Bunder. I was one among a huge crowd, lining both sides of the road. My uncle Musta-ali, whose finger I had held on to for the short walk from Bhandari Street next to Masjid Station (the Carnac Bridge end) to our current location, hoisted me up on the railing at the first roar from the mob.

Flanking motorcyclists in white uniforms formed the avant garde. The cavalcade arrived soon after, dark cars, as I remember, and in one of them three red faces in suits, their arms out, waving. Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin. As they swept past us, I looked at them, they looked at me, and I waved back and waved and waved.

The Cavalcade that took the Apollo 11 astronauts though Bombay on October 24, 1969
[Photo: Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images]

That night, my uncle and I went to the Azad Maidan. After their momentous encounter with me, all three astronauts had been ferried there for a much lesser event- the jaahir satkar by the Government of Maharashtra.

That night, Azad Maidan was festive. All of Bombay had turned up. Neither astronauts nor officials were in sight. A replica of the landing craft Eagle had been made, perhaps in plaster, perhaps by makers of Ganesh idols, I don’t know. From the Eagle, an Astronaut was forever descending on to the Azad Maidan’s turf- just one small step away.

On one side of the tableau, exactly like during the Ganapati season, a film was being screened on a stretched white cloth. It was a documentary on the Moon Landing. I watched amazed as the astronauts somersaulted in the weightlessness of their capsule, where down was up, where they attempted to suck blobs of water out of the air. I can’t vouch for these last memories, I may have seen these in the film of the event called ‘Footprints on the Moon’ that was shown in cinema theaters not long after. I do remember the documentary being shown, though.
Indian First Day Cover commemorating the visit of the Apollo 11 astronauts to Bombay
Photo Source:

The vividness of that day has stayed with me. It is one of my earliest, sharpest and most enduring memories that I cherish to this day. We in our fifties are getting on in years now. We predate television, we predate computers, we bloody predate man landing on the moon! 

Today, as I track the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary on the telly, on my phone, on my laptop, on Netflix, I am filled with nostalgia. I gaze at ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and  Michael Collins, alive and  still kicking, I shout at the screen: ‘I saw you, man, you waved to me.’  Then I google for the precise date when, in their whirlwind tour, the astronauts came to Bombay for their tryst with me.

I was five. I was there.

Mario Miranda's impression of the day, from SPAN, December 1969

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The State of the Esplanade Mansion- in conversation with Vikas Dilawari

The State of the Esplanade Mansion- 
in conversation with Vikas Dilawari

The building formerly known as the Watson Esplanade Hotel and now as Esplanade Mansions is the one anomaly in the list of heritage building conservation efforts in Mumbai. While building of similar vintage around it have benefitted from professional intervention, the Esplanade Mansion has, for a variety of reasons, and for nearly half a century allowed to go to seed.

This building was anomalous even when it was built, between 1867 and 1869, based on the designs of Rowland Mason Ordish, an engineer associated with the Crystal Palace and St. Pancreas Station in London. It was a pioneering prefabricated, cast iron framed building, well ahead of its time, with most of tis components shipped directly from the Phoenix Foundry in Derby. Seeing the building come up, like a Meccano set, a traveller in 1867 remarked that the building was “something like a huge birdcage had risen like an exhalation from the earth”.

The building, with some modifications, opened as Watson’s Hotel in 1869, and held pole position on the Kala Ghoda open space. It was also the one Hotel of choice for ‘European-Only’ visitors to give custom, and has been known for a variety of interesting occupants over its 150 year old history. Mark Twain stayed here and wrote about the view from his balcony. In 1896, the Lumiere Brothers held their fist screening of the ‘Cinematograph’ on its premises. Jamshedji Tata, in retaliation to being snubbed by the hoteliers, set up the Taj Palace in 1903, within sight of the hotel, both; it is said out of retaliation and spite. 

From the 1960s however, the former Hotel was subdivided and tenanted to a variety of homes and offices. Fifty years down the line, this state of affairs has led to make the Watson’s Hotel one of the most rundown buildings in plain sight in one of the most prominent positions of the city, still admired for its avant garde construction and rued for its current state. Parts of the building have been falling off in recent times.

In July 2018,  a new  precinct was added to the global list of heritage sites at the 42nd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, in Manama, Bahrain. This inscription, called the ‘Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai’ included the Esplanade Mansion as a prominent heritage building within the precinct.

On 23rd May 2019, the Mumbai Mirror published a report of a structural audit carried out by the IIT-Bombay, and submitted to MHADA. The Mirror quoted from the report thus: “The rigidity of the structure is lost. Several alterations have been made in the form of rooms and mezzanine floors, which have increased load on structure. In our view, any kind of structural repairs are neither logical nor economically viable. The repair of the building will be a dangerous job as many structural elements are not rigidly connected to each other. The repairs also cannot make the structure habitable under seismic conditions. Considering the above, it is of the opinion that it will be prudent to demolish the building.” MHADA, in turn, would submit the report to the Bombay High Court.

With the distinct possibility that the Esplanade Mansion, part of Mumbai’s indelible heritage may have it days numbered, I invited the city’s most sensitive conservation architect Vikas Dilawari for a discussion about the state of the Esplanade Mansion. This conversation is focused only on built heritage conservation, and Dilawari has been most forthcoming with his views.

How do you read/ interpret the structural audit made by the IIT-Bombay, and their conclusions that the Esplanade Mansion is irredeemably distressed, and beyond any possibility of being safely conserved?


IIT-Bombay is one the most reputed of institutes and I am sure their report would have gone through all aspects of the Esplanade Mansion in detail. As I have not read the report, I cannot comment on it. Also, not having surveyed the entire building and studied its context, commenting on specific issues would not be fair.  However, I can speak generically with reference to heritage properties like the Esplanade Mansion.

While it is very vital to understand what is in the report, it is equally true that the building is very significant in terms of its structural history and cultural heritage. Firstly, The Esplanade Mansion, or the Watson’s Hotel as it is popularly known, was an engineering feat of its time. That itself merits the extra efforts to try to retain it. Secondly, it is sad that despite being so exceptionally significant its heritage Grade II-A was never changed to Grade I in the proposed listing. I also wonder why extra efforts were not made by all stake holders -- users, owners, the state government and others, letting it become rundown to this state of disrepair in past decades despite having heritage legislation.

‘Safely conserved’ is a tricky phrase. What you actually mean is ‘safely habitable’. This leads us to the larger debate of skilful repairing or retrofitting to meet present codes. If the building is unsafe and you repair it, you have enhanced its life but you haven’t yet made it earthquake resistant, which being a habitable building is what the study would perhaps have addressed. The same logic cannot be applied to uninhabited ASI protected monuments which are not earthquake resistant per se. Also the IIT building survey report would reveal whether the structural system of the whole building has developed overall distress or are there problems locally, and whether it is possible to replace or strengthen those areas.

I think this building is a classic case study of whether conservation can be done. If so, the field of conservation in Mumbai has a very bright future. If it is pulled down, well then…

Given the amount of additions and alterations made over the last century, is it possible to reverse its effects through structural conservation?


Additions and alterations have certainly taken place. The adding of dead load to the building to a very large extent would be the main concern.  The additional load of mezzanines, for example, is undesirable and should be removed. These issues need to be addressed urgently. The original wooden flooring may have, possibly, been replaced with concrete too.

The iron work in the building requires protection, and the building requires overall maintenance, but that has never been done thanks to the Rent Control Act. This Act is what inhabited heritage sites should be relieved from or modified upon. Economic considerations are vital if we want the maintenance of heritage sites to be good. Also, many of these matters are legal and go on perpetually and it is only now that the courts have intervened in the case of the Esplanade Mansion, so there is hope that some definite outcome will emerge.

Structural conservation would mean restoring the building back to its original status, which would mean removing many things which been overlaid on it for a substantial period of time. Whether the removal of these additions is acceptable to the users/owners is a question. These are very complex issues. Hopefully, if this is resolved and the building vacated then there can be some hope for finding viable alternatives.

Structural engineer Alpa Sheth, has, in her response piece in the Mumbai Mirror on May 27th 2019, while quoting the report said: "the cast-iron framing of the building does not lend itself to seismic resistance (which was not required when Watson Hotel was first built) and a completely new lateral load resisting system would need to be inserted into the building." Does this not lend finality to the notion that the building is beyond the capacity to be conserved?

I am not a structural expert so I would not react on that. As my area of interest is conservation, I can only argue that the very fact the Esplanade Mansion is still standing so many years after it was built is a good enough argument  to repair and restore it back, at least to that state. 

Yes, additional unwanted load or intervention, if unauthorized, should be removed. Yes, if it is possible to impart seismic resistance to the structure, without altering its authenticity and significance, then one certainly should try and be happy that the health of the building after repairs is better than what it was. 

The Esplanade Mansion is dilapidated both from the inside and the outside. Several parts have fallen off and there are visible structural cracks. Is it safe, even responsible, to allow a conservation team inside the building to carry out structural conservation?


The very fact that the building is standing and was habitable till yesterday means one can survey most of its parts. There may be areas not reachable or damaged or broken which one cannot survey, but at present most areas look accessible. In addition, there seems to be some propping done in the poor areas. This indicates a survey can be done with care and precaution. What is ideal is that once the building is vacated, it should then be propped and surveyed.

What steps are possible to be taken to give this building a new/extended life? This building is a prefabricated framed structure of cast and wrought iron with infill brick walls. How will its conservation differ from that of a load bearing masonry building?

The repairs would certainly need expertise of a very well experienced structural engineer in cast iron and steel works. The building has be made vacant and a proper structural study, economic study and reuse study needs to be carried out (with professional propping of the structure). The economic and reuse studies would require the participation of the stake holders. This will help in deciding its future. 

The most important issue is in any structural conservation of this kind is the dead load. The first action would be to establish the good functional structural grid and then decide on the light weight floors and removal of the unwanted load of unauthorized additions. 

The advantage of steel and timber structures is that you can locally cut out the distressed areas and replace them with new materials, or strengthen them with flitching. Whether we can get this similar kind of cast iron and wrought iron sections today (which were engineering feats then) is a question. Importing these sections from the original foundry, from the Phoenix in Derby, would be prohibitively expensive. Also, one is not sure if these elements are manufactured nowadays on such scale. 

The Esplanade Mansion is now inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Ensemble. What happens to its status and the status of the ensemble if the building collapses or is demolished?


Recently the Esplanade Mansion was also included in the World Heritage ensemble, but no efforts were made by the authorities to stem its decay. This is just like the case of Gilbert Hill, which is Grade II and not Grade I, so despite being listed, no adequate protections have been taken to prolong its life. We should remember that heritage listing is not the end but only the beginning.

If the building collapses or is demolished, the WHS committee will give a warning to states parties that they may remove the World Heritage Status. This happened in the case of Angkor Wat when the real estate (hotel industry) was threatening the temple or when a bridge was constructed in Hampi few years ago.

The WHS tag will be even more threatened (as the OUV- Outstanding Universal Value for which it is listed) if it gets compromised. If for example, the site is redeveloped, with a high rise structure, with podium car parking. If state laws are not effective for the protection of such WHS sites, then a yellow and red flag will be waved in coming years.  

Also, being included in the “World’s 100 Most Endangered Monuments” by the World Monuments Fund is not something to be proud of.

If the building is, despite all other alternatives, demolished, what should come up in its place?


As a true conservationist I would prefer it is never demolished. 

The Esplanade Mansion was an engineering feat of 19th century. If we can, we should preserve this engineering feat through skilful repair or conserve it in a manner by which its authenticity and historicity is respected.

Vikas Dilawari is a conservation architect with more than three decades of experience exclusively in the conservation field, ranging from urban to architecture to interiors. He has double Masters in Conservation from School of Planning and Architecture (New Delhi) and from the University of York (UK). He was the Head of Department of Conservation Department at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) Mumbai from its inception in 2007 till Aug 2014. He has served as advisory roles in International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). He has been a Trustee of Indian Heritage Cities Network (IHCN) and a former Co- Convener of INTACH Mumbai Chapter.

His practice has executed conservation projects ranging from prime landmarks to unloved buildings of Mumbai. His nationwide work includes projects ranging from historic homes, palaces, residential buildings, educational buildings (Schools and Colleges), hostels, churches, temples, dharamsalas, museums, banks, office buildings, lecture halls, fountains and hospitals. Several of them have received national and international recognition. A total of sixteen of his projects have won UNESCO ASIA PACIFIC Awards for Cultural Preservation in SE Asia. Dilawari has lectured and written extensively on the subject of conservation nationally and internationally.

We are aware that certain aspects related to the Esplanade Mansion are sub-judice. This conversation is therefore clearly academic in nature, restricting itself only to areas of built heritage conservation. While the opinions are those of the conversants, nothing here should be construed as having any bearing on the legal aspects of the case.

Friday, December 21, 2018


Mustansir Dalvi

Published by Poetrywala,
an imprint of Paperwall Media & Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

ISBN-10: 9382749829
ISBN-13: 978-9382749820

Price: Rs.400
Available at Kitab Khana Mumbai, 
and online at paperwall and on amazon (Click on links)

'Cosmopolitician' in the press and media
(click on titles)

‘Cosmopolitician’: Eight poems by Mustansir Dalvi that merge dreams and reality
In his second book of poetry, the translator and poet defies expectations of style and thought. Nov 05, 2018

The architect who writes poetry
The annual Goa Arts and Literature Festival, which begins on December 6 has attracted several literary figures over the past nine years. Mustansir Dalvi has been one poet who has felt a deep connection that keeps him coming back. 
The Nav Hind Times, Goa  December 5, 2018

Advance praise for 'Cosmopolitician':

Cosmopolitician comes across like a force of nature, a conscious avalanche – and we are in its path. Juicy meat aplenty here for those of us who languish in the hospice for malnourished readers.’ 
– Gabriel Rosenstock, author of I Open My Poem, Where Light Begins and The Naked Octopus    

‘In his latest book Cosmopolitician, Mustansir Dalvi counters the outside world with poems seldom seen in the work of other poets. In seven sections; poems dealing with the larger scheme of life are conveyed in weighted words that are prevented from sinking by the structure and content into which they are placed. He is able to explore a wide range of styles and emotions that carry the reader away. And, as deep into the personal world as literature can take us: “My name is mud, / gold runs in my veins, grouting an imperfect dam that holds.”’ 
– Jayanta Mahapatra, author of Sky Without Sky, A False Start and A Rain of Rites 

‘Mustansir Dalvi’s verse is full of the unexpected, and keeps clear of the predictable. The imagination is taken for a delightful tour, with witty encounters on the way. By no means does this signify in any sense a lessening of serious and purposeful thought. Dalvi is capable of taking one through turbulent experiences with gravity.’ 
– Gieve Patel, author of How Do You Withstand, Body and Mirrored, Mirroring   

‘In his own way of sketching the world’s architecture, the poet offers us another reading for almost every cosmo-thing. As we do not need hands to bear the burden of this world, we get enough messages to do so in Mustansir Dalvi’s poems. A mega-project – to mix dreams with reality, houses with museums, scientists with caliphs, the banks of the Ganga with the Nile, joy with wars, Arabian Nights with Indian Days!’ 
– Ashraf Aboul-Yazid, author of The Memory of Silence and The Whisper of the Sea


there’s a hunger in houses
Our Lady of Didarganj
Casa Batlló
No one really walks here to know
Macaroons in Marseilles
The hospice for malnourished poets
Dreams of falling
Closing windows
My Room
There’s a hunger in houses

if we should cease to correspond
You said you would kill it this morning
If we should cease to correspond
Sunken Ship
Light reading
Just for a shining second, then
The fate of hour

where life stops being a city
Sadashiva (eternal Shiva), Elephanta
The Great Kiln
Where life stops being a city
Candy Floss
Eudynamys Scolopaceus
Peltophorum Pterocarpum
Sandhurst Road
Glass within a glass
Last day in a lived-in house

the lunes of ibn al-Haytham
The Nile gazes back at ibn al-Haytham
Ibn al-Haytham impersonates himself
Ibn al-Haytham hedges his bets
The lunes of ibn al-Haytham
Ibn al-Haytham invents the camera

why someone needed to kick the infant Kafka in the balls
Janus takes a selfie
Filled vessels make joyful noise
Why someone needed to kick the infant Kafka in the balls
1969, July
Coins, watches and teeth
At a wake
Prayer can change your fate, too
Song of Songs

Morgina’s daughters
Shock and awe
Two in the bush
A black sequined scarf
Tabula rasa
Morgina’s daughters
So they gave a war
Khan Murjan
Judgments in carpets

a pashmina sky
Swimming with peacocks
Wedding Baraat, Patan
Slow Home
Square Sun


About the poet

Mustansir Dalvi is an anglophone poet, translator and editor. 

His poems are included in the anthologies: These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry (Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, editors); Mind Mutations (Sirrus Poe, editor); The Bigbridge Online Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry (Menka Shivdasani, editor); The Dance of the Peacock: An Anthology of English Poetry from India (Vivekanand Jha, editor); To Catch a Poem: An Anthology of Poetry for Young People (Sahitya Akademi, Jane Bhandari and Anju Makhija, editors); and The Enchanting Verses Literary Review (online, Abhay K, editor). Brouhahas of Cocks is his first book of poems in English published by Poetrywala in 2013. His poems have been translated into French, Croatian and Marathi.

Mustansir Dalvi’s 2012 English translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s influential Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa from the Urdu as Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer (Penguin Classics) has been described as ‘insolent and heretical’ and makes Iqbal’s verse accessible to the modern reader. This book was awarded Runner Up for Best Translation at the Muse India National Literary Award in 2012. His translations of the Sufi mystic poet Rahim are published in the anthology Eating God: a Book of Bhakti Poetry (Arundhati Subramanium, editor). Mustansir Dalvi has translated the poems of Hemant Divate from the Marathi in struggles with imagined gods published by Poetrywala in 2014. He is the editor of Man without a Navel a collection of new and selected translations of Hemant Divate’s poems from the Marathi (2018, Poetrywala).

Mustansir Dalvi was born in Bombay. He teaches architecture in Mumbai.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Manto- Toba Tek Singh

Toba Tek Singh
Sa’adat Hasan Manto

translated by
Mustansir Dalvi

Around two or three years after partition, it dawned on the governments of Pakistan and India that, like other common prisoners, the madmen too should be exchanged. This meant that Muslim madmen, currently housed in asylums in India, had to be sent over to Pakistan, and Hindu and Sikh madmen from Pakistan’s asylums should be handed over to India.

Whether justified or not, based on the opinions of minds smarter than us, several high level conferences were convened in several places, and finally a date for the transfer of madmen was scheduled. 

Proper investigations were made. Those Muslims, who had near and dear ones in India, were allowed to remain in India. The rest were to be ferried to the border. Here in Pakistan, since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had already left, there was no reason to hold anyone back. All the Hindu and Sikh madmen were, in the custody of the police, to be brought to the border in safety.

I’ve no idea about the other side, but here in the asylums of Lahore news of the impending transfer spread and generated a lot of interesting gossip and banter.

One Muslim madman, who had,  for the last twelve years, consistently subscribed to the daily Zamindaar, was asked by a friend: “Moulbisaab! What is this thing called Pakistan?” To which, he answered with great gravitas and concern: “A place in India that manufactures razors.” That shut his friend up.

In a similar vein, one Sikh madman asked another Sikh madman: “Sardaarji, why are they sending us to Hindustan? We don’t even speak their language.” The other man smiled: “I know the language of these Hindustanese… they are a devilish lot- they walk around with their noses in the air.”

One day, while taking a bath, a Muslim madman shouted “Pakistan Zindabad!” with such fervour that he slipped on the wet floor and was instantly rendered unconscious.

And then there were some madmen who were not mad at all. This lot were made up of cut-throats, whose relatives had bribed the higher-ups to grant them lunatic asylums instead of the noose. They had some understanding of why India was sub-divided and what this Pakistan meant, but even their knowledge of current affairs was hardly complete. 

They learnt nothing from newspapers and could derive no conclusions by talking to their guards who were, by and large, illiterate and ignorant. All they knew was that there is this man- Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who is also known as Quaid-e-Aazam. He had made a different homeland for Muslims called Pakistan… but where it was, where  its boundaries were, they had no clue at all. Which is why those inmates who had not completely surrendered to insanity were possessed by the thought of whether they were in India or Pakistan… if this was India, then, where was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan, how was it possible that just a while ago they were in India as well?

This business of what was India and what was Pakistan so perplexed one madman that as the level of his insanity rose, instead of carrying on his chores of sweeping floors, he clambered up a tree, made himself comfortable on a branch and for the next two hours gave a convoluted oration on the delicate matters between India and Pakistan. When his jailers asked him to come down, he climbed up a higher branch. When they threatened him with dire consequences, he said: “I do not wish to live in India or Pakistan… I will remain on this tree.” After a lot of effort, when he was made to cool off and brought down from the tree; he embraced his Hindu and Sikh friends and broke down completely. His heart was overwhelmed with the thought that they would leave him and go to India.

A Muslim radio engineer with an M.Sc. normally kept himself aloof from the other inmates, and each day walked a solitary path in the asylum garden in silence. On hearing news of the transfer he divested himself of all his clothes which he handed over to the warden, and continued his lonely walks in the garden in the buff.

A stout Muslim madman from Chiniot, once an active clerk with the Muslim League, who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly stopped. His name was Muhammad Ali. Consequently, one day he announced to all in his ward that he was the Quaid-e-Aazam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Following his lead, another madman now started calling himself Master Tara Singh. There was speculation that their proximity in that ward might lead to bloodshed, so both were declared dangerous and locked up separately.

Failure in love had driven a young Hindu lawyer from Lahore insane. When he heard that Amritsar had been given to India, he was immensely saddened. He was once in love with a girl from that city. She had rejected him, but even in his madness he had never forgotten her. As a result he would, in the vilest terms, abuse all the Muslim and Hindu leaders who had conspired together to break India into two, making his beloved Hindustani and himself Pakistani. When talk of transferring inmates began, the madmen consoled the lawyer not to take it to heart, for he would be sent to India. The India of his beloved. But he did not wish to leave Lahore, as it was his considered opinion that his practice would not flourish as well in Amritsar.

In the European ward, there were two Anglo-Indian madmen. They were traumatised by the news that India had become free and the Englishmen had gone back. For hours they would murmur amongst themselves, wondering what their status in the asylum, now in an independent country, would be. Would the European ward remain, or would it be dissolved? Would breakfast be served, or not? Would there be bread, or would they have to swallow both their pride as well as bloody Indian chapatis?

Then there was a Sikh, an inmate for the last fifteen years. He would always be heard spouting the same nonsense: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of the laaltain.” The guards would always say that he never slept a wink during his time there. Never even lay down. But he would lean against a wall from time to time.

His feet were swollen from all that standing. His calves puffed up, and despite this discomfort to this body he never rested. But he would listen intently whenever there was talk of India, Pakistan or the transfer of madmen in the asylum. If someone asked him for his opinion, he would gravely reply: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of the Pakistan Government.” 

But after a while, the phrase “of the Pakistan Government” was replaced by “of the Toba Tek Singh Government”. Now he would ask the other madmen about the location of Toba Tek Singh, of which he was a resident. But no one knew whether it was in India or in Pakistan. Those who tried to explain soon fell into a quandary themselves- Sialkot was earlier in India, but we now hear it is in Pakistan; who knows if Lahore, today in Pakistan, could tomorrow become part of India? Or the whole of India become Pakistan? And who could put his hand on his heart and confidently assert that both India and Pakistan would not, one day, vanish off the face of this earth?

The man’s hair had thinned, and because he would bathe only infrequently, his beard was matted, which made him appear quite terrifying. But he was a harmless soul. In fifteen years, he never had occasion to fight with anyone. The old bearers of the asylum knew about him, that he owned much land in Toba Tek Singh. He was once a well-off zamindar whose head suddenly turned. His relatives had brought him chained in some very heavy manacles and had him admitted in the asylum. 

Once a month, they would put in an appearance, ask about his general well-being and leave. This went on for a while. But after the troubles of India and Pakistan began, they stopped coming altogether.

His name was Bishan Singh, but everyone called him Toba Tek Singh. He had absolutely no idea what day it was, what month it was or how many years had passed. But once every month, he would come to know all by himself if his relatives were due. He would then inform his warden of the impending visit. On such days, he would bathe well, rubbing his whole body with soap; he would oil and comb his hair, don such clothes he would normally not wear and come to meet his visitors well turned out. If they asked him anything, he would normally remain silent or occasionally blurt out: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of the laaltain.”

He had a daughter who grew the width of a finger with each visit, and had in fifteen years become a young woman. Bishan Singh did not recognise her. Ever since her childhood she would look at her father and weep. Even when she was older, her eyes would fill with tears of hope.

When the India-Pakistan episode started, Bishan Singh began to ask the other madmen about Toba Tek Singh. The itch to find out became all the more severe when he did not get a clear response. 

And now, he no longer had visitors. Earlier he would know inside of himself when they were due to arrive but now the voice in his heart had fallen silent. He longed for them to come, to be with him, to show him sympathy, and to bring him fruit, sweetmeats and clothes. Could he not ask them where Toba Tek Singh was?  He was sure they would tell him if it was in Pakistan or in India, for in his mind they all came from Toba Tek Singh, where he was a landowner.

In the asylum, there was also one madman who called himself God. One day, when Bishan Singh asked him if Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan, God burst out laughing, as was his wont, and replied: “Neither in India, nor in Pakistan. For we have not yet decreed it so.”

Bishan  Signh  entreated this God several times to make his decree so that the matter could be settled once and for all, but he was always preoccupied for he had so many  pending decrees to be made. One day, in frustration, Bishan Singh vented out all his anger on him: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of Vaahe Guruji da khalsa and Vaahe Guruji ki fateh... jo bole so nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal!” Maybe this is what he meant: You are the god of the Mussalmans. If you were the god of the Sikhs, you would not have been so uncaring.

A few days before the scheduled exchange of madmen, Bishan Singh had a visitor, a Muslim friend. He had never come to the asylum before. When Bishan Singh saw him, he turned away to return, but the guards stopped him: “This is your friend Fazal Deen… he has come to meet you.”

Bishan Singh looked at Fazal Deen once again and began to mutter to himself. Fazal Deen reached out and put a hand on his shoulder: “I had been thinking a long time to come to meet you but I could not make it… all your relatives have safely migrated to India… whatever help I could give them, I did… but your daughter Roop Kaur…”

Fazal Deen fell silent. Bishan Singh tried to remember: “Daughter? ... Roop Kaur?”

Fazal Deen spoke hesitatingly: “Yes… she… she’s all right too… she went with them.”

Bishan Singh said nothing. Fazal Deen began again: “They asked me to find out if you are well… now I hear that you are going  to India too… please give my salaams to Bhai Balbir Singh and Bhai  Vaghava Singh… and to Bahen Amrit Kaur as well… tell Bhai Balbir, Fazal Deen is fine…  the two brown buffaloes he left behind are fine too, one had a calf, the other did too but did not last beyond six  days… and… tell me should you need anything, I am always at your service… and here are some plums for you.”

Bishan Singh took the bag of plums and passed it on to the guard standing beside them. Then he asked Fazal Deen: “Where is Toba Tek Singh?”

Fazal Deen, bewildered, replied: “Where is… it is where it has always been.”

Bishan Singh persisted: “In India or in Pakistan?”

“In India… no, no, in Pakistan.” Now Fazal Deen was confused.

Bishan Singh walked away muttering to himself: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of Pakistan and Hindustan of the door phittay mooh...”


All the arrangements for the exchange were complete. The list of madmen was finalised and the day fixed.

It was bitterly cold, when lorries carrying Hindu and Sikh madmen from the Lahore asylum, along with a police escort, took off. The relevant officers accompanied them as well. At Wagah, Border Superintendents from both sides met and got into official formalities. Then the exchange began, which went on through the night.

Getting the madmen out of the lorries and handing them safely to the opposite side was no easy task. Many simply refused to come out. Many who consented to emerge were difficult to control because they went wandering off all over the place. Many who wore nothing were forcibly clothed, but before long they tore the clothes away from their bodies. Some were abusive. Others sang songs. Some fought with each other. Some cried, or keened in agony. They would not listen to instructions. And then there was the wailing of the madwomen. It was so cold that even the noise of chattering teeth could be heard above the general hubbub.

Most of the lunatics were not in favour of the exchange, as they could not understand why they were being uprooted from their own place. Those who could comprehend a bit started to raise slogans of “Pakistan zindabad!” and “Pakistan murdabad!” Some Muslims and Sikhs took offence and rioting had to be prevented two or three times.

When it was Bishan Singh’s turn, as the relevant official tried to write his name in his register, he asked: “Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan, or in India?”

The relevant official sniggered: “In Pakistan.”

Hearing this, Bishan Singh jumped away and ran to join his earlier companions. The Pakistani guards caught him and tried to take him to the other side, but he refused to budge: “Toba Tek Singh  is here…” He began to scream: “Ooper the gugud, the annexe, the bay-dhyaana, the moong the daal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan!”

They tried to convince him that Toba Tek Singh was now in India… or if not it would soon be, but Bishan Singh did not relent. 

When they tried to physically shift him he stood up on his two swollen feet and planted himself in a manner as if no power on earth would be able to move him. But because he was harmless, force was not used. They just let him stand there as the rest of the exchange went on.

Just before sunrise, a shriek pierced the sky. This came from the otherwise silent and steadfast Bishan Singh… officers from both sides came running to find the man, who had once stood on his own feet without resting for fifteen years, now fallen on his face. 

On one side, behind barbed-wire lay Hindustan. On the other, behind similar wire, Pakistan stretched out into the distance.

Between them, on a piece of land that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

© Mustansir Dalvi, 2018. All rights reserved.