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|May 2, 2001||
Behram Contractor RIP
I liked Behram Contractor. In some ways, I admired him. He was the soft spoken soul of Mumbai. In an aggressive city, where no one has much time for each other, he was an exception. He represented all the charming old-fashioned values that Mumbai was once famous for.
That is why I feel doubly sad to watch the huge spectacle being made over his death. From nowhere there has suddenly emerged this huge gaggle of writers, politicians and celebrities who boast they knew him so well and so intimately that they are now qualified to write huge, laudatory tomes about him and make gushing speeches about how close they were.
In fact, if these so-called close friends of his were lined up side by side today we would have a queue reaching all the way to the Khyber Pass. And yet, truth be told, the Behram I knew was an aloof and intensely private person who loved to keep to himself.
As for the media, if you add up all the newsprint now dedicated to Behram, it will outweigh the Bofors coverage. Yet the fact remains that, in his autumn years, Behram's famous column was condemned to be carried only by his own afternoon tabloid that enjoys possibly one of the lowest circulations in the city.
Those very media moghuls who write and speak so touchingly about his genius today did not bother to ensure that more people read what Behram actually wrote. They could have easily enhanced his reach if they wanted to. Instead, they are now busy claiming posthumous proximity to the man. The truth is that as Behram grew more and more famous, his writings reached fewer and fewer people.
I do not want to fall into the same trap of saying how close I was to Behram. In fact, to say the truth, we were never really close. He and I were different kinds of journalists. In fact, different kinds of people.
I met him when I first came to Mumbai 19 years ago, to start my life as Publisher and Editor in The Times of India Group. I found myself enchanted by the man, not so much his journalism. For someone who was so sensitive, so perspicacious, I found his writings too slight, too superficial. It was only much later that I recognised his true genius. His ability to say things so simply that people got the point without the kind of heavy duty intensity that people like me brought to journalism.
I must thank my friend Mario for pointing that out to me. Mario, who was close to Behram, has exactly the same skill. He rarely overstates and never shows aggression, not even under the severest provocation. Things that happen around him do not anger him. They only provoke him to make fun of them. As did Behram with such amazing style, grace and dignity. That is what made Behram, Behram. That is what makes Mario, Mario and my favourite cartoonist.
Maybe that is why it bugs me to see this huge spectacle we are making over Behram. It is totally contrary to what he would have wanted. For Behram hated hypocrisy. He hated long lectures. He hated politics and politicians. But, above all, Behram hated solemnity over what was simply inevitable. He was all about understatement, under-reaching. He loved hiding his light under a bushel, as they would say in Biblical times. That was his magic. That was his charm.
To turn the huge spotlight of fame on him today, when he is gone, is terribly unfair. What we should do, instead, is collect his writings and publish them. He deeply disliked television and the internet, he once told me, because he found them luring people away from the published word. Newspapers, he argued, were losing their sanctity. So the best tribute we can pay him is by enshrining his tiny but unique space in the world of journalism and keeping it alive in public memory so that others who want to walk that road in future may never feel too much alone.
In fact, that is his ultimate contribution. He lent voice to the ordinary man and his extraordinary concern for ordinary things. He legitimised their role in a society so desperately chasing the mirage of success and glory. He never ran down the over-achievers. He never questioned them. But he was clearly on the side of the small guy. That is what made him so enormously popular. His wit was his weapon. Not his anger. Nor his outrage.
The genteel world that Behram belonged to is quietly passing away. So is Mumbai as we once knew it. Even I, who once came in as an immigrant and now represent this amazing city in Parliament, can sense the change. The anger, the fierce ambition, the complete and total disregard for every institution that we once cherished is now eating into the soul of what was once the most charming city in India, as famous for its eateries and its wonderful culture as it was for its dynamic entrepreneurship and amazing energy.
In a sense, I am happy Behram has gone away. He would have found it increasingly difficult to cope with the violence, the anger, the angst, the hopelessness. And, ofcourse, the greed that is taking over so much of our life and politics.
For Behram, God bless him, had no violence in his heart, no anger, no angst, no hopelessness, and certainly no greed. He took life as it came and, when death came acalling, he did not protest overmuch either. He simply smiled and went away with the same insouciance he showed in his lifetime. That was his strength. That was his courage. And that is why we who loved him quietly in our hearts will continue to cherish his memories.
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