Sunday, July 22, 2012

Remembering Behram Contractor

Of all the editors and senior journalists I have worked with, Behram "Busybee" Contractor is the one I loved and respected the most.

I began my journalistic career as a trainee sub-editor with Mid Day in June 1981 when Behram was the chief reporter (that was his official designation but everyone knew he was the person whose opinions mattered the most at the paper). Four years later, a bunch of us left Mid Day with Behram to launch a rival evening newspaper, The Afternoon Despatch & Courier. And in October 1988, I left The Afternoon to become the features editor of the Dubai-based Khaleej Times.


I remained sporadically in touch with Behram and my former colleagues all through my stay abroad. Every time I visited Mumbai I made it a point to visit Afternoon House and spend some time sitting across Behram at his desk and making conversation, which, with Behram, was not always an easy thing. He was known, among other things, as the funny man of journalism thanks to his famous and popular "Busybee" column, but he was an intensely private individual who preferred to let his writing do the talking.

When he died in Mumbai on April 9, 2001, I was in Goa at a company event (I had joined TMG in Bangalore after my stint in Dubai came to an end). I received the sad news from my good friend Shashikant Jadhav, who was Behram's assistant as well as the nominal publisher of The Afternoon.

Many glowing tributes were paid to the man who had become synonymous with the city but none was more personal than the appreciation written by Mark Manuel, my dear friend and former colleague. Mark's tribute to Behram was carried as the lead story in The Afternoon with the masthead placed below it. "I wrote it in one shot at 5 a.m., after coming to work straight from the hospital where I had sat beside his body through the night," Mark says. "I don't like to think it is one of my best pieces of writing, but people (and total strangers, too) still connect me today with this obituary... it is as if Behram's hand was on my head even from beyond the grave."

Here is the tribute in its entirety:

Busybee is no more!

Afternoon House’s heartbeat has stopped…

By Mark Manuel

I’ve trained under the man and worked with him for 17 years, but there is one assignment Behram Contractor, better known as Busybee, never prepared me for. The heart-wrenching task of announcing his own death and writing his obituary in this newspaper. Yes, he is really no more. And something within me dies to bring you this terrible, tragic news. He passed away early this morning, round about 00.40 o’clock, as peacefully and gently as the summer rain that had fallen on the city in the dawn hour yesterday.

I was with him when he died. We were rushing him to Bombay Hospital in an ambulance, his wife Farzana Contractor, the CEO of this newspaper, a close family friend Rajesh Jain, and Drs. Aashish Sahukar and Anil Sharma. The doctors were massaging his heart and pumping oxygen into his lungs artificially. And Dr. B. K. Goyal, as big an institution in medicine as Busybee was in journalism, was driving behind us in his own car. It was a short drive, from Busybee’s residence on Malabar Hill to Bombay Hospital, six kilometres here or there. And with flashing lights and wailing siren, we covered it in minutes. But somewhere along Walkeshwar Road, we lost him. I like to think he quietly slipped away.

Since April last year, he had been suffering indifferent health. First, a definite weakening of the lungs caused by half a lifetime of smoking 60 cigarettes a day. Then, in September, a fracture in the lower spine brought about by a spasm of coughing. He was not bedridden, only advised bed rest, but Busybee got up in lesser time than it takes to cure a fever and did what he knew best… he started writing his column. It had been appearing sporadically due to his absences, and he was eager to resume it and go full steam ahead. And he would have, but for the fact that he was pushing 70 and age and his health had begun telling on him.

On January 18, after he did a tremendous cover story for Upper Crust (Farzana Contractor’s food, wine and lifestyle magazine) at the Taj Mahal Hotel over dinner, Busybee suffered a relapse of the old lung problem. That winter night, too, we thought we had lost him. But Dr. Goyal and Dr. Sharma worked on Busybee’s heart and lungs until dawn and got him fit again to do battle for another three months.

I think he might have pulled through yet again, for both Busybee and Behram were fighter and survivor, but he had been through a major shock earlier in the day that must have weakened him considerably. Farzana’s eldest brother, Capt. Ishrat Khan, had died tragically in a road accident near Panvel. And although Busybee usually kept his emotions in check, Farzana’s loss must have upset him. For by midnight, we were fighting to save his own life. Truly if God has been cruel and unjust with anybody, that person is Farzana Contractor. I’d like to see this same God give her the strength to go through two funerals today.


For those who did not know him personally, Behram Contractor and Busybee was the son of the late Hirabai and Pirojshaw Contractor, and brother of Darius (UK) and Dadi (France). With his passing away, India has lost its only full-time genuine satirist, and easily the country’s most popular humorist. His column, "Round and About", began with the Evening News of India in 1966, went over to Mid Day in 1979, and came to stay with this newspaper in 1985. It is the longest-written column in this history of newspaper journalism and maybe Guinness will find space in its next edition to mention this.

But… you will read no more Busybee on the back page of this newspaper, no guides to eating out by him in the colour pages. And you will not come across Behram Contractor’s pithy, evocative essays on the edit page, nor find his poetic and fluid interviews of celebrities on Wednesday. His terse and laconic style of writing that had a rhythm in it which created an impression of deadpan comedy, is over. I have lost a colleague and a friend. But you have lost your favourite columnist. And I don’t know whose loss is greater. R.I.P.
Also read:
  • "Busybee wrote every day for 36 years, beginning in 1955, and he died in 2001. He was one of the few Indian writers in English who had an individual style and that made him special. He was confident enough, and good enough, to develop it and stay with it for decades. Like Hemingway, he had found his writing voice early in life and did not change it." Read Aakar Patel's heart-felt tribute to the journalism of Behram Contractor here.

1 comment:

  1. I was the only person who had the good fortune of literally occupying his seat in Afternoon House, after his demise, as Chief Reporter. And, having worked alongside him for over seven years, I can proudly say, Behram had been the 'Chief Reporter' of ADC till his last breath.
    Hubert Vaz


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