I clearly remember the day my brother Riyad, barely a week old, came home from Breach Candy Hospital on a hot and wet September day in Bombay. The monsoon had lingered late in 1967, and the Arabian Sea waves still washed over the parapet on the Worli Sea Face promenade across from the bungalow that my grandfather the filmmaker Jamshed “JBH” Wadia had built in the 1940s.
The miracle of birth made an impact even then on a five-year-old, and I viewed the new arrival at first with awe, and then, upon closer inspection, with a surge of protective love tinged with the realization that I no longer had the roost to myself, that a new chick had hatched, breaking the shell that I had constructed around my hitherto unchallenged dominion.
Given that our mother was a high-flying advertising executive who travelled extensively for work, and our father was no less busy an entrepreneur who spent long hours at his factory, we were raised in large part by adoring grandparents. My mother’s parents Kaikushroo and Perin Khambata lived in the Dadar Parsi Colony. Grandpa was a strict and Spartan man, who mellowed somewhat with his grandchildren. Granny was warm and loving, and a fantastic cook whose rava laced with badaam and daraak remains my favourite gastronomic memory to this day.
But it was our paternal grandparents Jamshed and Hilla Wadia who were our “spiritual parents”. Jamshed, or JBH as everyone called him, was the ultimate Renaissance man. Scion of the Wadia shipbuilders who built the Wadiaji Atash Behram at Princess Street in Bombay (and several others besides), JBH himself was the founder of Wadia Movietone, one of Bollywood’s legendary pioneering studios.
JBH not only produced the famous “Hunterwali” films with the blonde and blue-eyed stunt queen Fearless Nadia, he spotted many a talented actor and gave him or her their cinematic break (Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Feroz Khan, Mumtaz, Helen and Rekha to name just a few). Raised in this amazing, eccentric world of film and media, it was no surprise that both Riyad and I expressed a flair for the arts and humanities rather than the sciences and mathematics (despite our father being an organic chemist by training)..
Having been constantly compared to me by everyone from relatives to school teachers, and initially found wanting in academic and extra-curricular skills, Riyad had lived in my shadow for years. At first he tried desperately to be more like me, the younger sibling striving to reach the standards set by the older brother. But the more he did that, the more I would put him down — scornful of his attempts.
Just as my classmates taunted and targeted me for being a bookworm and a “sissy”, I in turn took out my schoolboy angst on my adoring, doting brother. Not only would I verbally berate his attempts to imitate me, I would often hit him as well. Children are cruel, and I was no exception. To this day, I cannot forgive myself for the way in which I allowed myself to vent my own feelings of inadequacy by using my brother as a literal punching bag.
The year 1986 proved to be a key one for us. Our beloved grandfather JBH died after a long battle with cancer. Later that year, I left for the United States to study journalism, I had long realized that I was gay, and sought an environment where I could eventually find a partner and enjoy companionship in a way I could never hope to back in India, at least not at that time. Leaving Bombay was liberating.
Not only did I embark on a successful journalism career at CNN in Atlanta, I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with Alan, a wonderful man from Taiwan whom I met at college, and with whom I’ve been for the past 25 years.
With me out of the picture, Riyad finally came into his own. Not only did he flourish in school and then college, attracting a huge circle of devoted friends, he ventured into the realm of theatre and the arts. All of this gave Riyad the courage to do what he had long wanted to — become a filmmaker just like our grandfather.
The true heir of JBH in so many ways, Riyad went to a prestigious film school in Australia, winning awards for his student work and returning to India ready to revive Wadia Movietone. With my father’s assistance, Riyad set about restoring the Wadia Movietone archives — the handful of films that still existed, the considerable number of posters, stills and lobby cards that were packed away in trunks and boxes.
From this treasure trove that had long been gathering dust, Riyad realized perhaps the most precious gems were the films of Fearless Nadia aka Hunterwali — the Lady with the Whip. Nadia (whose real name was Mary Evans) had married Jamshed’s younger brother Homi who had joined JBH in making numerous movies under the Wadia Brothers banner. Mary Aunty was still alive in the early 1990s when Riyad decided to make a documentary about her amazing life and times.
Fearless — The Hunterwali Story would become Riyad’s calling card, a beautifully made film that received a rave review in Time magazine and was screened at every prestigious film festival around the world, including Berlin, Toronto and London. It not only brought Nadia back into the public eye in her final years, delighting an old lady who thought the world had forgotten her, but it put Riyad firmly on the cinematic map. It also changed my brother’s personal life in ways that one could never have imagined. Just like me, Riyad had been harbouring a secret for years.
Devastatingly handsome in his teens and early 20s, Riyad had many girls pining for him. He even dated some of them in college. But the truth was that Riyad, like me, was gay. Unlike me, however, he was torn about his sexuality. In school, Riyad actually displayed an overt homophobia towards classmates who were teased for their effeminacy. But in Australia, Riyad finally came to terms with who he was. Being away from home gave him the chance to be himself, to not only accept himself but decide to be open and truthful about it even when he returned to conservative, homophobic and hypocritical Bombay and India.
When Riyad returned to India, he was determined to shatter that mould. Not only did he come out swinging, his openness was all the more vocal and dramatic after years of suppression. Riyad truly became one of the most prominent gay rights activists in Bombay, indeed in India. By being part of Bombay’s social upper crust, from a well-known family, he made sure he was seen and heard in circles that were not used to such an in-your-face approach. Riyad was not shy about dating men.
It was a time when the Voodoo Pub at Colaba became gay on Friday nights, and Riyad was there in full force, with an increasing number of men who were inspired and emboldened by his attitude. I recall going there with him one night and being amazed at not only the number of men who were there, dancing with abandon, but by the number of people I actually knew from my school and college days who I would never have imagined to be gay. Bombay, and India, were changing and Riyad was at the vanguard of that change.
With Fearless a smash hit on the festival circuit Riyad’s international travel was in full swing — from city to city he hopped, and with all this travel came the opportunity to explore the gay scene in city after city as well. This was in the early 1990s, barely a decade after a dreaded virus had emerged across the globe.
Being the older brother and the more “conservative” one, I kept nagging Riyad time and again about the need to be careful. Riyad was in his 20s, fabulous and successful, single and gorgeous. The “invincibility of youth” is such a cliché, but it embodied Riyad to a T. He would barely tolerate my lecturing, calling me a “boring, married, ‘heteronormative’ gay man.”
Even as Riyad globetrotted with Fearless, he was preparing his next project. He wanted to explore an overtly gay theme on film, a first for India. Riyad embarked upon what was to be a seminal work, a 13-minute film based on six hard-hitting poems, BOMgAY. Just as Riyad was about to embark on BOMgAY however, a spell of ill health led to a round of medical tests, the results of which were life-altering.
When he received the diagnosis through our family doctor in Bombay, Riyad collapsed in our mother’s arms and wept. She was the first person he told. When I received the call from my mother, I knew what she was going to say even before she uttered the words.
Post his diagnosis, Riyad moved to New York for a brief while, but then 9/11 happened and Riyad decided to return to Bombay. His once robust frame had begun to thin down, and while he joked that he loved his new, slender figure, he was secretly scared but refused to share his fears with our parents or with me.
Riyad however manifested his inner grief and turmoil from time to time. Our family doctor recalled that once, during a particularly heavy monsoon downpour, he drove past Worli Sea Face where we lived, and saw Riyad alone on the promenade, whirling around and around in the blinding rain, his face turned heavenward. It was as though Riyad were calling to the elements to claim him, to carry him away.
Shortly thereafter Riyad was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the stomach. He was in great pain, and began losing weight fast. The tuberculosis had spread rapidly, ravaging his once beautiful body. On November 30, Riyad had eaten a full lunch of saas ni machchi and yellow rice. His feet had been hurting a lot in recent days, and he still walked with a stick.
Our mother took him to the terrace for some fresh air, and then tucked him in bed for his afternoon nap, as he was still easily exhausted. He had a candid conversation with Mum that day. “You know this is the end, Ma, don’t you?” My Mum pleaded with him not to talk like that. “But it’s true, Ma, you know it’s true. I really have done all I want to do and said all I want to say.
And Ma, I can hear the sea calling me now. It’s time to go.” As Mum was about to leave his room, Riyad called her back. “Press my feet for a while, Ma, it feels so good when you do that.” Mum sat at the foot of Riyad’s bed and began gently pressing his legs and feet.
She sang his favourite lullaby “Summertime”, which she would sing to us when we were children. Suddenly Riyad clutched our mother, gasping for breath. “Ma,” he said, “Ma.” And just like that, Riyad was gone. Frantic efforts to revive him were in vain. He had suffered a sudden heart seizure, a blood clot that had traveled from his leg to his heart. After months of suffering, the end was swift and painless.
Riyad’s death taught me the meaning of the phrase “to die of a broken heart.” In the year after his death, I felt I was drowning in my sorrow, suffocating with grief. It took a long while but I was able to cast off my grief bit by bit until I found myself in Bombay on November 30, 2004, for the prayers on Riyad’s first death anniversary.
I arose early that morning, before the rest of the household. It was a beautiful day, with rare blue skies. From the window I could see the water sparkling, Riyad’s beloved Arabian Sea that had called to him just a year ago. At the table where I sat and prayed was a portrait of Riyad taken when he was about five years old.
Shot by our Dad, an excellent photographer, the picture shows Riyad, who was such a beautiful child, in soft focus standing behind a gorgeous red rose. As I finished my prayer, and before I opened my eyes, an amazing aroma of roses wafted across the room, delicate yet powerful, lingering in the air for several seconds before fading away. Whenever the pangs of loss are especially sharp, when the urge to hug and hold him is stronger than ever, all I have to do is think back to that moment to know that my brother Riyad is here with me, always and forever.
Riyad Vinci Wadia: Born in Bombay on September 19, 1967 Died in Bombay on November 30, 2003
Courtesy: The piece was originally published by Fezana
Roy Wadia is an international media, communications and advocacy consultant. Formerly with CNN, WHO and the Heroes AIDS Project, he is currently part of the core team of a new national initiative, End AIDS India.