Monday, February 13, 2012

Nostalgia over the glory days of Bombay: Even CIA fought its cold war there

No city arouses nostalgic sadness as much as Mumbai does. Other cities might have changed names, like Kolkata, or grown beyond recognition, like Bangalore, to the chagrin of old timers. Bombay not only changed its name; it lost its character, its elan, the creativity and cosmopolitanism that made it the urbs prma in Indies in the first two decades of Independence. Mumbai was built over the dead soul of Bombay.

Just a few names – from the literary world alone – are enough to recall the glory that was Bombay: Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawala, Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes, Keki Daruwalla, Laeeq Futehally. There was a forum that brought all of them together, along with other names like Nirad Chaudhury, Satyajit Ray, Agha Shahid Ali, Salim Peeradina, A. K. Ramanujan, Kiran Nagarkar. That forum was a magazine called Quest.

It was edited by Nissim Ezekiel, the university professor who started modernism in Indian poetry in English. He nurtured Quest, too, in a style that was modernistic for the 1950s. Paying attention to the editing of manuscripts and diligent proof reading of typeset pages were uncommon then, but enforced in Quest.

Perhaps it was in looking out for good writing that Nissim set benchmarks. Many bylines appeared in Quest which were to become famous later. Controversies and debates enlivened its pages. In one issue, Jyotirmoy Datta attacked Indians who wrote in English, calling them artistically dishonest social climbers. In a subsequent issue, he got a fitting reply from P. Lal, of Writers Workshop fame, but in language that was elegant and with logic that was clinical compared to Datta's.

Long before The Blaft Book of Tamil Pulp Fiction gave respectability to what was dismissed till then as “footpath stuff”, Quest published an article titled “In defence of pulp literature” (March-April 1976). Ashish Nandy wrote “ A psychologist's guide to assassinations in the Third World”. An article on Konark by Marie Seton was accompanied by dramatic ink sketches by Satyajit Ray. There were poems by Kamala Das, Gauri Deshpande, Allen Ginsberg, Jayant Mahapatra.

Intellectual products of this quality must be part of any country's zealously preserved cultural history. Fortunately a selection of contributions from the magazine's early years had appeared in a book called Ten Years of Quest. A larger, neatly packaged volume has now been published by Tranquebar. The Best of Quest (Eds. Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala, Arshia Sattar) is a generous (660 pages) keepsake. Given the variety of the contents and the adventure of ideas they represent, this anthology is one of the best things that happened in publishing in recent years.

As if to squeeze every drop of nostalgia out of the 50s and 60s, the editors have included some of the familiar advertisements of that beloved era. Ever heard of Erasmic razor blade, or Lambretta and Rajdoot two-wheelers? Binaca talcum powder or Terywool suitings? Tik-20, the pest-killer, was such a household name (since every honest household had resident bugs) that it figured in Vijay Tendulkar's celebrated play Silence! The Court is in Session.

Quest, like Encounter edited by Stephen Spender, was in a political trap. It was funded by America's CIA in the thick of the Cold War to build up an anti-Communist front. The editors of The Best of Quest seem slightly embarrassed and slightly defensive about this. Why should they be? Neither Nissim or Spender knew about the CIA's hand. They both did their work with intellectual integrity and the magazines achieved distinction thereby.

Besides, that bit of ideological politics also is part of the nostalgia of old Bombay. For the war against communism, the CIA picked Bombay, thus acknowledging the city's primacy in the interplay of ideas. The American lobby was a vociferous force then, and Bombay was its nerve centre. The fervour with which personalities like Frank Moraes fought, for example, V. K. Krishna Menon's candidature from North Bombay had to be seen to be believed. Battles then were over ideas – something an unformed mind like Raj Thackeray's cannot comprehend.