Monday, July 20, 2009

Tranquility Base, Bombay

20th July 2009
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 Hindi 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 Illiad- the comic book version by Classics Illustrated.

All that changed after Apollo 11. Forty years ago today, 20th July 2009, when I was five, the 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, the 20th of July 1969 takes centre stage.

Of course, at my age, at the time, I had never heard of the American or 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 farm house 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, the Sunday Standard, 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 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 to our current location, hoisted me up on the railing at the first roar from the mob.

The cavalcade arrived soon after, dark cars, as I remember, and in one of them two red faces in suits, their arms out, waving. Armstrong, Aldrin. As they swept past us, I looked at them, and waved and waved and waved.
The Cavalcade that took the Apollo 11 astronauts though Bombay on October 24, 1969
Photo Source:
Thank you Sam Miller
That night the both of us went to the Azaad Maidaan. It was a festive place. All of Bombay had turned up. A replica of the Eagle had been made, perhaps in plaster, perhaps by makes of Ganesh idols, I don’t know. From the Landed Eagle, an Astronaut was descending on to the Azaad Maidaan’s turf- just one small step away.
On one side of their 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 theatres 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 forties are getting on in years now. We predate television, we predate computers, we bloody predate man landing on the moon! Today, as I use the internet to follow a minute-by-minute recreation of the Moon Landing on , I am filled with nostalgia. Watching Buzz Aldrin in an interview relayed live on the BBC, I think: ‘I saw you, man, you waved to me.’  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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Diachronous Delving into Dhan Te Nan

What delighted me even more than hearing Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Dhan Te Nan’ for the first time is the realization that the music director has to be of the same vintage as I am. Why? Because I instantly recognized the sound-meme from my youth that he so cleverly channeled into his song for the forthcoming ‘Kaminey’.


If you are my age and grew up soaked in Hindi films, you know this sound. The first cousin to the more ubiquitous- ‘Dhishum!’ , which, as any fule kno, is the only technically correct foley for a punch, a box, a kick, a swipe, or (as we say in pure Gujarati) a fight. On the other hand, 'Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!', as any fule kno, is the loud background music exclamation! when the hero dramatically breaks into the villain’s den to save the heretobefore kidnapped heroini from a fate worse than… chiz chiz chiz.


In big, bold letters. In flashing lights, in neon. The audio equivalent to Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’ (1963). As kids we must have made this sound in a variety of settings, telling the picchur ka shtory the morning after, or even catching a friend during chor-poliss- ‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’ Gotcha!

Was it Bhardwaj, or Gulzar that did not get the sound just right? Dan Te Nan is a bit pale when written down, although its quite fine when sung, just like the sound we kids used to make. This dilution is not surprising- we’ve heard it done before. Rajesh Khanna used this as a dramatic counterpoint in Bawarchi (1972), but in an almost lisped ‘Dhat-ta-raa!’ which even we, as frigging seven year olds, for God’s sake, knew wasn’t the right way to say it.

This is a sound that needed to emerge full blown from within, deep within, rising up from the rectum, through the digestive tract, up the esophagus until its escaped with a roar: ‘Dhann-ta-dhaaaan!!!’ (dha-na-dha-nan)

Well, what to do? We are the people our parents warned us about.