As I hurried across Dr Dadabhai Naroroji Road near American Dry Fruit store I glanced hopefully at my watch. The minute hand was about to touch ‘5’ while the short arm sat squarely on ‘2’. I was five minutes late for my appointment with Mumbai’s or Bombay’s incessant spokesman—Busybee. Side stepping an approaching pavwala-on-wheels I entered Nanabhai lane, and following a stationary-shop assistant’s raised finger stepped into the ‘Afternoon House’.
A burly guard attired in deep blue blocked my way inside the narrow corridor. On hearing my errand he guided me to the end of the tunnel where I was surprised to find a half-ajar door of tinted glass, which led into the office of possibly the greatest Indian columnist ever.
Through the gap in the door I saw Busybee hunched on his chair in front of a computer, peering closely into the screen and punching at the keyboard with that sort of gentleness that develops only after a lifetime of close association with typewriters (read Remington and Underwoods). He seemed deep into work. Eyeing my hesitation the friendly guard gave me a gentle shove, assuring me that I could walk right in. Busybee would never keep a visitor waiting, even if they were some two-pence writer like me. Grasping the packet in my right hand, which contained a copy of my book (a collection of detective stories), I bounded in with renewed confidence. I have been following the man’s columns for more than half of my lifetime and had absolutely no idea what could I utter as my gambit. But I should have known better.
I covered the distance from the door to his table in three hesitant steps and stood uncertainly akin to a truant waiting to be chastised by the Principal. He must have felt my presence and seconds later turned around and looking up briefly said:
‘Please sit down, I’ll be with you in a minute.’ He went back to the keyboard tinkering.
As I studied the septuagenarian profile who had fathered a whole new era in journalism and whose columns were rivaled only by his own real-life escapades, myriads of which bordered on ‘incredible’, I couldn’t help marveling at Behram Contractor’s single-minded zeal to his life’s occupation. The thickset glasses or the air-purifier running through his nostrils could not mollify the bright sparkling eyes or the perpetually present chuckle at the corner of lips even to the minutest bit. His completely unassuming attire and the trademark ‘seven minutes’ coiffeur from ‘Air Cool’ Churchgate seemed as fresh and usurping as ever. Though I had read all about his ailments, the weakening eyes, the failing lungs, etc. and the tonic-laced diet he had to partake, the dancing fingers on the keyboard or the bird-like pecking of his neck had all the adroitness of a boy in early teens. Precisely sixty seconds later, he pushed the keyboard away and turned towards me, while pulling himself closer to the table where I sat facing him from the opposite side with an expectant smile stuck under my eyes. He shoved aside all the papers, files, and books that lay between us and spread his delicate arms on the table. He stared into my eyes openly and favored me a chuckle of undisguised mirth. Busybee was alive to the brim and enjoying every minute of it in his ‘Behram Contractor’ avatar.
‘So you are the one who will upstage Sherlock Holmes.’ Busybee stated as a preordained prophecy. Till date I have not the slightest clue as to how he could identify me without having uttered a single word from my side. May be I should have fashioned my sleuth on Busybee.
‘I wouldn’t make such a grand statement, but I would surely endeavor…’ I mumbled.
‘But you must, I don’t care much for the Baker street guy. Too archaic and often contrived for my taste. Who are your favorite crime writers?’
‘Agatha Christie to an extent, but I prefer Austin Freeman, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Allen Poe, Patricia Cornwell among the contemporary genre, and a Polish chap whose name I am unable to recall at the moment.’ I said hurriedly since I wasn’t prepared for the questions.
‘But you missed out Ellery Queen, what about him?’
‘Of course, it just slipped. Ellery Queen is very good and factual. I like him.’
‘He is the best. Do you write like him?’ Busybee inquired with another chuckle.
That reminded me my real errand. I took out the book and scribbling his name and a line of dedication to him handed it over with a palpitating heart. Busybee took it on his palm and weighed it first then studied it carefully from all the sides.
‘Seems all right,’ he remarked. ‘Anything so distinctly heavy has to have something good. I love detective stories, but no one writes them anymore; let me finish your book, I’ll do a review. I hope you can handle constructive criticism!’
‘Coming from you I can handle anything.’ I quipped merrily. This seemed dream come true—Busybee offering to write a review of my first book.
Suddenly he raised his voice and asked his secretary to fetch some books. Moments later two of his books: Busybee Best of 1996 – 97 and Howzzat appeared on the table in front of me.
‘Do you play cricket?’ he asked. I knew his passion for the game.
‘Not anymore, but in college I used to be the university team wicket keeper and opener.’
He scribbled the same on Howzzat and on the other he wrote ‘An author I am going to investigate.’ He sealed both the statements with his autograph and handed across to me. ‘This is the way two authors should meet. Now we have a connection.’
While I acknowledged my gratitude at this unexpected gift from the grand-man he pulled out a white sheet of paper and unscrewed his pen.
‘When did you start writing?’ he asked.
‘Is this an interview?’ I asked completely taken aback.
‘Certainly, I got to develop your character, isn’t it! And I am sure you would want me to be factual. We reporters aren’t good at fiction anyway.’
‘But I wasn’t ready for an interview, may be tomorrow…or some other time…’ I suggested hopefully.
‘Look Satya, I am not asking you about the Ming dynasty, I am asking you about yourself, just speak from the heart, state the facts the way they are. You don’t have to lace up your language with wisecracks or brilliant subtleties. Be simple, be precise and you’ll do fine. And there’s no better time than today. My column for the day is over, so let’s begin…’
And over the next ten minutes or so I immersed completely in a fun packed dialogue with Busybee as he led me from my childhood through my school, family and up to my present occupation as an Indian Naval Officer and a writer with such ease and aplomb that not even for a moment did I suffer the impression of being under trial by one of the sharpest brains that I had encountered in my life. It seemed more like a normal conversation with an old friend. He jotted down all the points and I wondered at his investigative nuances. A brilliant idea flooded my mind and I popped him the question just prior to taking his leave.
‘If you don’t mind, sir, could I use you as a character in my future stories, may be as a mentor to my young detective?’
‘You can, but don’t make him a boozer like me. And call him Behram C. that should keep the people guessing.’
‘Thank you very much sir. I would remember this day forever.’ I shook his hand firmly and turned to go.
‘Do send me a photograph of yours.’ Busybee called from his chair.
‘Sure, sir.’ I assured him and stepped outside. As I pressed the door after me, I spied through the gap that Busybee had again turned towards his computer with the keyboard pulled out.
Notwithstanding my interruption for about a half hour, Busybee was back in the world where he belonged. While I walked out of the corridor throwing a broad grin to the guard, a whole new story had started unfurling into the tiny white room I had vacated a while ago.
And that is how my mind would remember Busybee forever. A fair man in a fair room typing away unceasingly to bring into this world (for us) all that his fair mind was abound. Though I spoke to him several times during the succeeding months over the phone but that single encounter on a tepid Mumbai afternoon would be my only meeting with the Busybee. A doyen of Indian journalism, with his demise we arrived at the end of an era and to the beginning of a legend.
I only hope that he read my book, at least partially if not in totality, and if I could meet him now, I would surely ask, ‘How did you find it sir?’
And he would open his mirthful eyes and staring deep into mine say with the distinct chuckle, ‘Good, young man…but not good enough. You still have to upstage Sherlock Holmes. Write simply, write from the heart.’ And he would turn back to his computer, to begin a new column perhaps and a new ‘Afternoon’ for paradise.
As in life and so in eternity our beloved Busybee would continue inspiring generations of reporters, columnists, editors, and of course novice writers like me to excel beyond expectations and to write from the heart about what we truly believe in.
An outstanding first innings where he carried his bat through and finally had to depart since all the overs had been bowled, Busybee must now be taking stance elsewhere to begin afresh another innings of equal accomplishments.