RUSSY?S BROTHER BAJI - Many jokes, and some serious moments

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  • Published 13.06.06

There were two Parsis who made news, literally, in the Bombay where I spent my youth in the 1950s ? Russy Karanjia and Dosabhai Karaka. Karanjia was editor of Blitz, a progressive, aggressive, raucous, sensation-loving weekly. He was sued time and again for defamation, but lost only one suit. Karaka was editor of Current, a light-hearted magazine of comment and entertainment. Those were days of newsprint rationing. The private sector was puny, government advertisement was a powerful source of patronage, and hence dissent was costly and hazardous. In that tame, boring world, Blitz kept making embarrassing exposures of power brokers in vigorous prose. Current did not have the same rebellious spirit, but it kept its end up with gossip.

Unknown to me ? because I had left Bombay by the time he came onstage ? Russy had a younger brother, Baji, who too made a name in the media. He was not supposed to be called Baji. According to his rashi, his name should have been Yuzud. But after he was born, his maternal grandfather, Khan Bahadur Burjorji Patel of Quetta, walked in and said that he wanted the little tyke to be named after him; so it was Baji. The senior Burjorji was the son of a farmer from Kutiana in Gujarat. He joined the British army during the second Afghan war of 1879-80; since he had no military training, he was put in the commissary, and so learnt to buy and sell. After the war, he took building contracts on the Karachi-Quetta railway line. Finally he settled down in Quetta, where he created an industrial empire comprising flour mills, sawmills, mortar mills, coal mines, chromite mines, etc. He became immensely rich, and lived in a palace with a sprawling garden. His grandson Dorab spent his childhood in Bombay with his cousins, but went back to Pakistan, and eventually became a justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan ? one of the two judges who opposed the hanging of Shah Nawaz Bhutto.

In Quetta, Burjorji?s daughter, Temina, grew up under an English governess and acquired proper Victorian values; if she saw girls in short sleeves she would sniff at their nakedness. When she was sixteen, Burjorji married her to 33-year Khurshedji Karaka of Bombay, who then proceeded to Edinburgh to do an FRCS and returned to practise as an ophthalmic surgeon. Burjorji gave his favourite daughter Quetta Terrace, a three-story house on Chowpatty (there was no Marine Drive in those days), another villa in Lonavla, a Wolseley car, and a Bl?thner piano. There Baji grew up to arias of Handel, Gounod, Schubert and Faur? sung by Enrico Caruso, Fernando Gusso and Lawrence Tibbet on 78-rpm records played on gramophones which were wound up with a handle.

On leaving school he went down the street to Wilson College, where he fell in with Abad. Abad was the daughter of Eduljee Allbless, owner of Crawford and Company, the auction house on Apollo Street. He lived on Laburnum Road (I lived twenty years later at one end of it, on Owen Dunn Road). Soon Baji and Abad were wandering up the garden paths to Hanging Gardens in the evening. With them went another close friend, Adi Wadia. That placed Baji in a dilemma. On the one hand he was in love with Abad; on the other hand, he would not have liked to deprive Adi of her. Finally, Adi told Abad that Baji was the better man for her, and she agreed. Abad and Baji were married on May 6, 1943. Those were wartime days when only 25 people could be invited to a wedding banquet. So Edaljee threw a party at Allbless Baug in Charni Road; the drinks that flowed there could have floated a navy. Then family members went over to Quetta Terrace, where the bhonu ? the wedding banquet ? was served by K.R.M. Bhoot, the popular Parsi caterer.

Baji sat for ICS and passed. He was posted to the Supplies Department to work under M.K. Vellodi. A student of literature, Baji found the figures confounding. He worked for one morning and quit. Fearing to face his father, he went over to the home of Sir Rustom Masani on Merryweather Road, behind Taj Mahal Hotel. Sir Rustom offered Baji a job in a charity he ran, National War Front, and assuaged his father?s anger.

That job ended with the war in 1945, and Baji was jobless. That was a boom time for the film industry. Many goods were in short supply, which created black markets. Many people had made big money during the war, and films and cinema houses were favourite investments. So Baji launched a monthly film magazine, Cinevoice.

Although film actresses earned much, they were not considered quite respectable at that time. They used to find it difficult to get flats. To make them more respectable, Baji sent three actresses ? Nargis, Veera and Snehprabha ? to cover a session of the All India Congress Committee. Then in 1949, he organized A Nite with Stars, a charity show for the Indian army in Kashmir featuring Kamini Kaushal, Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Motilal, Begum Para, Mubarak, etc, and collected Rs 80,000.

Cinevoice did not do well, so Baji added Movie Times, a weekly. It focused on current news and gossip. Thus it reported the phonecall Suraiya made from Lahore to Lata Mangeshkar, who must then have been in her twenties. The call was cut off, so Suraiya rang up again, and asked Lata to sing for her. As minutes passed, the Bombay operator got nervous and told them to terminate the call. The Lahore operator asked him if he did not appreciate great singing, and told him to stop interrupting. Lata and Suraiya went on singing for 21 minutes ? at what astronomical cost to Suraiya is not known.

Then on 21 March, 1952, Baji organized a match between Raj Kapoor?s XXI and Motilal?s XXI. Raj Kapoor had Nargis, Begum Para, Nalini Jaywant, Dev Anand and Nimmi amongst others in his side; Motilal had Sohrab Modi, Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Leela Chitnis and Vanmala in his side. Nalini Jaywant was clean bowled, but refused to walk back; so Motilal and Raj Kapoor carried her back to the pavilion. When Suraiya bowled, one of her balls, instead of going to the batsman, ended up in the hands of Begum Para at mid-off. As Begum Para hit a boundary, Premnath and Nimmi ran hand in hand after the ball. When Nalini Jaywant?s turn came, she took the crease, opened a book, Cricket and How to Play It, and read it until someone snatched it away.

Anyway, I must not recount all Baji?s jokes; and there were serious moments in his life as well. His film magazines failed, but he went on to become editor of Film Fare and Screen. Indira Gandhi made him chairman of Film Finance Corporation, but he resigned when the infamous V.C. Shukla became information minister in the Emergency. He continues to live in Bombay, although Quetta Terrace was sold and pulled down, and he has moved to a flat in Bandra. Those who want to know him better may read his autobiography, Counting My Blessings (Viking/Penguin).