Even 50 years later, houses of my ramshackle neighbourhood stand as they stood.
“There is no silence —
Only vibrations you can’t hear.
There is no absence —
Only derelictions you fear.
The past inaccessible
The future ever near —
Time, my fellowtraveler,
To push into fifth gear!”
From Ei Shuddup Yaar by Bachchoo
Where there are motorcycles, there were once bikes. Where there was a tiled bungalow, partitioned to accommodate two Parsi families, with wrought-iron-trellised front-verandas and backyards with outhouse kitchens, toilets and storage rooms for piles of coal, there are now tall buildings with banks on the ground floor and luxury flats 10 storeys above.
“That was in another country,” wrote Christopher Marlowe, “and besides, the wench is dead.” And so, gentle reader, on a trip to what was, in the early years of my short and happy life “Poona” and is now Pune, strictly on script-editing work, I snatched a few hours to sneak off and search for the vanished past — which I found hadn’t entirely vanished.
Even 50 years later, houses of my ramshackle neighbourhood stand as they stood. The red tiled roofs of those that are decrepitly extant have weeds flowering through, giving the roofs the look of terraced gardens for pigeons.
The fire-temple on the corner of Synagogue and Sachapir Streets, known universally as “Komdey chi agryari” — in acknowledgement of the wooden weather-cock that tells the way the wind blows on its roof — has been dolled up with marble and now has two Achaemenid lions posted at its entrance. (I asked the priest if these were there to scare off non-Parsis, but he didn’t get it!).
The buildings housing the classrooms of my old school are the same — colonial barracks with sloping tiled roofs but with the growth of weeds suppressed. And so with the stone buildings of my old college with students thronging its once docile thoroughfares as though it were Oxford Street in the Arab-tourist season.
The trip, gentle reader — though I am aware that personal reminiscence is boring — was enlivened by reconnection with my old school friend Cyrus Poonawalla. We had met briefly over the years, in Mumbai and in Cannes. In Mumbai, because as a commissioning editor at the UK’s Channel 4 TV, I had commissioned a detective series called Bombay Blue. Its screenplay had scenes set in the Mumbai race course during the racing season.
I was called in London. The shoot had stalled for a bit. I went to Mumbai and to the production offices from the airport. Two of the researcher-fixers were on the phones arguing. I asked them what the matter was and they said Bombay Race Course was absolutely refusing permission to shoot there on the grounds that their chairperson wouldn’t countenance cameras and bad publicity.
I asked who the chairperson was, and on being told asked the researchers to get him on the phone using my name. Cyrus did come on the phone and immediately said he was sending a car to fetch me.
Yes, the permissions were granted.
Again, meeting him in Cannes, I didn’t ask him what he was doing. Maybe buying a yacht? Nevertheless, on this brief and work-heavy visit, he said I must see his laboratories. I said I was well aware that he had a serum manufacturing enterprise. He had assigned one of his fleet of cars to be at my disposal and so even on short journeys, where the driver used the Poonawalla name to acquire access to forbidden places, I realised that the school-friend who was known all those years ago for mischief and, as he acknowledges, was never in the top 10 scholars of his class, was treated as Emperor Akbar would have been in Agra.
So how did the mischievous non-academic become one of the richest Indians in the world? Forget the riches — the vaccines he manufactures, now in three international locations, and sells at give-away philanthropic prices to hundreds of countries, have verifiably to date saved the lives of over 20 million children round the globe.
His enterprise is even now urgently researching prophylactic medicines for malaria and for dengue. I hope they are distributed and save more millions of lives in my lifetime.
Tolerate, gentle reader, a vain, but possibly relevant, deviation: Some years ago, I was approached by a publisher asking if I would accept a commission to write the biography of a very prominent (now in deep trouble) capitalist Indian. Having twisted into one novel the life and deeds of Charles Sobhraj, the half-Sindhi serial killer and in another a story of the fraud Rajneesh “Osho” (cunning), I thought this could be a subject of some interest. I told the publisher that it wouldn’t be a hagiography praising the said capitalist, but would use his life to trace the path of the sensational, sometimes crooked and corrupt, sometimes pretentiously philanthropic Indian capitalism in the modern era.
The publishing house’s editor put my answer to the said capitalist subject who in reply said, “Anyone but that fellow!”
The point is that the lives of capitalists in India are interesting because they parallel the journey of India’s emergence from colonial subservience and crushing rural poverty to a vastly unequal capitalist economy with huge opportunities and larger disparities than any “developed” nation. There are those who make their billions of crores of rupees and, while building hospitals and schools, turn these into businesses rather than philanthropic enterprises. These hospitals and schools are vital and the spine of progress and social well-being, but the motive for their existence is not the generosity and modest worldview of Bill Gates who gives money to genuinely charitable enterprise — as does the Poonawalla empire.
Driving around Pune, I see that he and his son have even taken Swachchh Pune to heart as their garbage trucks ply the city’s streets and operatives with large street vacuum-cleaners, suck up the detritus left by our socially irresponsible population.
Though keeping up with the necessities of the times, he hasn’t yet changed the family name to “Punewalla”!