Facebook Badge

Showing posts with label baroda. Show all posts
Showing posts with label baroda. Show all posts

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Friend, Prakash Desai

Too Precious to Die

Prakash Desai basically knew everything and everyone accepted this…until I came along one cold February evening in 1977. He was  a distant cousin, who staked a claim on me as an annoying older brother; a Nehruvian socialist, who believed in the commanding heights because he hated private enterprise; a member of Baroda’s famed Renaissance Club that had little do with the arts and culture but more inclined to the worldview of Lenin and Stalin. He was as amazing a mass of contradictions as his beloved higher Hinduism he wrote copiously about.

I challenged him on all counts and he patiently heard me out, only to yell at me about my capitalist mindset and, he probably died on January 6, 2015, believing I hated the poor. “Not the poor, Prakash,” I would say to him of an evening in his study or in my garden in Chicago, “but against poverty that your stupid statist system created and thrives on.” He would fly into a rage, “Mr Rajiv Desai, you are in the presence of an advocate of compassion and equity; take your goddamn capitalism and shove it.”

“OK, Prakash,” I would say, “Lighten up. Let’s just have another drink.”

For all of that, he was a bon vivant. In his bar, there were the finest wines, the choicest whiskeys and he mixed a phenomenal vodka martini. Always well dressed, perfectly trimmed beard and thinning hair ever since I knew him, he was charisma personified. He was always Olivier while I was looking at Sean Connery. He was not always but sometimes infuriated when I teased him about taking the boy out of Baroda but never the Baroda out of the boy.

Baroda was where we both went to school ten years apart; he embraced it while I was much more about Bombay, where I grew up and Surat, where I was born. It also happened he was related to me through my father’s family of traditional middle-class Gujarati Nagar Brahmins from Baroda; my Surat connections were wealthy influentials that participated in the freedom movement and had national and international connections. Plus, as I told him, our (Surat) food was French to my paternal family’s (Baroda) food that was Slavic by comparison. “And in any case, Prakash, I’m from Bombay where we were urban sophisticates.”

For 38 years Prakash and I jousted on ideology and lifestyle. He had friends who would create and spread stories about me. He even co-opted not just my wife but also my mother and her sister. “Prakash is right,” my immediate family members would say, “Rajiv is very ‘aristocratic’ in his demeanor.” He also said I was more a Christian than a Hindu. In that sense, he was a Gandhian satyagrahi because he knew how to provoke.

It took me a few years to realize that he was a keen psychiatrist because he analyzed my every response to conclude that I was alienated from my father’s family, from my Nagar Brahmin origin and from the larger Hinduism into which I was born. He also said I embraced Western thinking at a very tender age because of the Theosophists on my mother's side of the family, Surat and Bombay. And therefore married a Goan Christian woman from Ahmedabad. Gujarat.

In my view, he was a phenomenal psychiatrist with an amazing understanding both of the body and the mind. When we were not fighting ideological battles late into the evening, he laid out in crystal-clear terms the sources of my health and conduct on any given issue, personal or professional. He always had not just time but insight…he almost always hit the nail on the head.

I still remember vividly one evening four years ago when my mobile phone rang in the pub at the Delhi Golf Club. I was with friends and excused myself to walk out to the deck. It was Prakash. He told me he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. I was benumbed. As I went back to our table, my friends saw there was something wrong. I told them.

Fast forward to January 6 this year: my mobile phone rang; it was my friend Satu, who the world knows as Sam Pitroda. I was at a friend’s place to dinner. I walked out of the room. Satu said two words: “Prakash died.” I said I’d call him back and collapsed into a paroxysm of grief and tears. It was not unexpected, of course but nevertheless it shattered my consciousness. Just as I did four years ago, I walked back in a zombie state.

How can a friendship disappear…just two phone calls?

Prakash, as I began, knew everything…the mind, the body, the spirit. Now he’s gone and all I have from him is a millionth of his knowledge, a micron of his wisdom. What I do have is some understanding of his compassion and his mighty humanity. Everyone should be so lucky…to know Prakash was to get to know yourself and the world.

Farewell, my philosopher king!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…

The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nostalgia live

We should have been called the Magnificent Seven. I thought of this 40 years later. There were seven of us; one died; one didn’t come. So we were left with the Infamous Five last weekend. Not to bore you or anything but aside of me there were Harry, Brave, Chua and Mirchi, (forgive me guys for using the given names), who were inseparable at Baroda’s MS University’s Faculty of Technology.  Harry came from Perth in Western Australia, Chua came from Singapore and Brave and Mirchi came from Bombay for the reunion.
Before anything else, I can only say that it was an amazing feat for busy people in their sixties; not that anyone behaved that old. The guards were down and the conversation was not that different than the ones we had sitting together on the wall of the MSU hostels. Except there was a lot more depth, given the 40 years of experience since we last met together. We talked about our lives and our time together in Baroda. And the swear words!So Harry has a respected career in the oil business and is still the innocent; Mirchi runs a successful engineering business and still remains the best standup comic I have known; Brave actually runs the world with his phenomenal perspective on the human condition; Chua, the genius, virtually ran Citibank globally and now plays golf.
When we knew each other in Baroda, we were mostly broke and way behind the academic curriculum. We had dreams. And one way or the other, we may have realized them. Chua, aka Venky, put the whole thing in perspective: “We are normal people, married to the same woman for all these years, with wonderful children and now grandchildren.” And Venky, being Chua, asked: “Are we really boring people?”
This whole business of the reunion began when I sent my friends a reminder of the fabulous stuff we did in Baroda as mere kids. We were in the Shakespeare Society; we ran a newspaper called Implosion; we set up Beaux Esprit, an event management unit that held several rock concerts. Plus most of all, we went to almost every night show in the local theater, regardless of the movie. We even saw a South Indian move called “Danger Biscuit,” which Venky says he uses to screw everyone’s happiness in the charade game.
In the two days we spent together, we felt connected. Yes, the connection was engineering school and the hostels; but there seemed to be more: why would anyone come from all over the world to have dinner?  Clearly, we all liked each other, never mind that we may have had differences. What was obvious we enjoyed each other and admired what we had done in the 40 years that had passed. Actually, the relationship now was more civil and fond than we ever experienced in Baroda. Most of us had met individually over the years but never together. 
The reunion was unique: we all realized it was a special occasion. The chances of this ever happening again are remote. My view, echoed by Venky, is we should meet again; life has raced past and it is wonderful to put a brake on it and catch up with friends who influenced it in ways we just now begin to realize. We all got along in fabulous way. Plus we had better food and drinks since we last met together in some dhaba in Baroda.
Our reunion got me thinking. When we last met together, we had the world ahead of us in which to make a mark. Forty years later, we’ve done what we can in many different ways. The general take among us was we’ve all not done too badly. My take on this is we can do much more. Regardless of what I may or may not have achieved, my trip in life has been to reach out to friends who have influenced my life. Turns out they are all high achievers.It is more satisfying than any professional or financial achievement. 
The post Diwali weekend with old friends endorsed two things: one, all my friends have done well for themselves; two, all our wings have roots in our undergraduate days of a basic life that may be difficult for us to live today. All I can hope is this reunion will lead to new relationships and that we can meet again and explore beyond hellos the ties that bind us.
For me, Marcel Proust said it: Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
What a wonderful weekend after the triumph of good over evil!

This article appeared on Times of India website on November 21, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bombay Journal

Deja Vu All Over Again…

Three friends, 45 years later, sit in a palatial Khar apartment in this siren city, enjoying the cocktail hour. Dinner is a couple of hours away. This is the first time that I can remember that Yogi, Mirchi and I have sat together since our Baroda days. Sure, we’ve met en famille…in Bombay, in New York, in New Jersey. In Baroda, we met every day, largely because we were roommates at different times. So this evening was special.

In the course of the evening, we exchanged a few desultory comments about Baroda and the people we knew then. Mostly the conversation was about today and things happening in our lives. Mirchi regaled us about his fumbles with remote controlled curtains in his bedroom; Yogi about how he has given up his crusade against honking and rash driving in Bombay; I showed them pictures of my freshly-minted granddaughter. It was wonderful to be interested in each other’s lives today and not go into a nostalgic shoosha about the good old days and what have you.

Even if I do say so myself; I am mostly the guy who makes the effort to keep in touch with old friends.  In the past few decades, I have connected with friends from the 1950s, 1960s and onward. It's been marvelous because they responded with enthusiasm. The key to sustaining renewed relationships is to eschew stuff like: "remember the time" and get with the modern day program. Most renewals have succeeded in the sense that we catch up with great eagerness from time to time; the ones that have fallen by the wayside were the ones that could not get beyond the magic of the old days.

What was remarkable about the reunion was that the nostalgia was about the established friendship, not about what we did when we were in our twenties. We were all engineering students enrolled in the Faculty of Technology at the MS University in Baroda; we were from Bombay and in love with the city. In Baroda, we were inseparable, together every day: dinner, movies, late night chai; living in a world of our own. It wasn’t always smooth; there were ups and downs. But we were young and sure to have our way.

Then the busy years went rushing by us; as the Baroda experience came to an end, we drifted apart. For more than a decade, we lost touch, making our way in the world: establishing careers, building families. The bond apparently survived. I reached out to them and they were happily receptive and over the years, we built a whole new relationship that peaked with the dinner in Bombay this week.

We laughed, ribbed each other and were comfortable together as though 45 years were a blink of the eyes. If you could rewind to Baroda, you’d see the three guys, now in their sixties, really hadn’t changed much, except they were older and definitely wiser. There was much familiar laughter and in our hearts, the dreams were still the same.

In the sixties, we defined friendship; 45 years later, we were redefining nostalgia. No syrupy memories of the past; no obsessive recall of the days gone but robust conversations about today, secure in the feeling that our friendship had withstood the test of time. There was no looking back, only hope we could do this again whenever we had the chance. Our lives are different but the bonds hold firm. We don’t really need to see each other every day; just to get together every opportunity we can get.

It really doesn’t get better than this. My trip in life is to link up with old friends, to establish new ties based on old camaraderie. In that, I am the luckiest person in the world: reviving old friendships is to renew life and to keep you young and fun loving. On that score alone, I may have a ticket to the place where angels play harps and it is always springtime. That evening in Bombay, it felt like I was there already.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Friend, Rajiv Badlani

Too Young To Die

On Sunday December 13, I sat with him, drinking coffee, listening to music and laughing about something I cannot now recall. With Rajiv, it was always that…laughter and joy. His mother walked in, put her hand on his head with an infinite sadness in her eyes. She said something to which he responded, “Mother, I have peritoneal cancer. My life expectancy is between eight to eleven months, of which four are already gone. So let’s not pretend I’m going to get better.”

I wanted to ask him how he felt being on death’s door. Was he scared? Did he sleep well? Wonder about the after life? But I held myself in check. “So,” I said to him, “do you read, watch television?” His eyes were bad, he said, plus he had attention deficit disorder.

We changed the subject and talked of nothing. I was just happy to spend a few hours with him on my trip to Ahmedabad. The previous day when I saw him, he told me to come the next morning at eleven. I showed up and he was taking a massage. “Ah, the good life,” I said. “Well, it feels good, the firm touch on my body,” he replied. He finished his massage, went to the bathroom and showed up in his den and ordered coffee for both of us.

Aside of the fact that his body was ravaged by the brutal assault of cancer, it felt like old times again. He kept asking if instead of coffee, I wanted to have a Black Russian. “Yo, it’s noon on a Sunday. The Lord frowns on people who drink on His morning, when He rests,” I told him.

A half hour later, I grasped his hand in the solidarity handshake. I wanted to hug him. I didn’t for two reasons: we had a waspish relationship that discouraged touchy-feely stuff; plus he looked so frail, I felt he would be physically uncomfortable if I hugged him. So the handshake was all. “See ya next month,’ I said in farewell. “Come back soon, it’s good to see you always,” he said. I left reluctantly and made a mental note to come back to visit mid-January.

On Monday, his wife Manini told me, he was going to the hospital for his chemotherapy and returning home only on Tuesday evening. I made a mental note to call Wednesday morning to see how he handled the latest bout of a cure that is worse than the disease. Early Wednesday at about 1.30 am, my phone rang. He was gone.

Our relationship was nearing 50 years. We were just twelve when we met in the ninth grade. A handsome lad, he made his presence felt, much to the consternation of our class teacher. Asked about his antecedents, he told the teacher he stood second in the eighth grade. “How many students in your class?” the teacher asked him firmly. “Well Sir, there were two,” he announced. The class broke into a spasm of laughter.

Later during the lunch break I sought him out and complimented him on his sense of humor. I also warned him the teacher could make his life miserable for making a fool of him. “True,” he said, “but he will also find out that my father is the education director for the government of Gujarat. That should give him pause.”

Since that day of June 1962, we became good friends. We discovered the Beatles together and Helen Shapiro and the Jarmels and the Cascades of “Rhythm of the Rain” fame. We navigated P G Wodehouse and James Hadley Chase and let our pre-teen hormones run riot, panting after any woman or schoolgirl who merely looked in our direction. Mostly, we built a world of our own, far removed from the moffusil sophistication of Ahmedabad.

Despite his friendship, I hated it in Ahmedabad. I wanted to leave home and after we finished the tenth grade, I left to go back to Bombay. We met subsequently during the holidays and we met again on the campus of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We lived in the same dorm but plowed different furrows; him in Commerce, me in Engineering. I was put off by Baroda in the first few days and decided I would quit and return to Bombay. As I lugged my bag to the railway station, I bumped into him.

“Hello, where are you off to?”

“I’ve had it with this place. I’m going back to Bombay.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he admonished me and grabbed my bag and steered me back to the dorm. He came and sat with me in my room and then told me to get dressed. “I’m gonna show you the magic of Baroda.” I went with him meekly that evening. We walked to the women’s campus where he introduced me to his cousin Sharda and her friends. From that moment, I never looked back and made Baroda my home.

Over the years we drifted apart. He finished college and went to the Bajaj Institute of Management for an MBA. I stuck around in Baroda to finish my course and then escaped to America. We stayed in touch and I made it a point to see him each time I visited India. He visited me too in Chicago. Our friendship survived the test of time and distance. After I relocated to India in the late 1980s, I visited Ahmedabad frequently to visit with my parents and my in-laws. An evening with him was always on top of my agenda.

Now he’s gone. And the Clapton song comes to mind:

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven

That’s the tragedy. “Beyond the door,” the place that Clapton sang about, is a whole new game. I wonder: is there a ninth grade there, where we can start all over again?

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009