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Of Shashi, Ismail and shorshe ilish

Montaza was a leafy one-street neighbourhood, our home for the time we spent in Cairo. It was on the edge of Zamalek, perched on the Nile into which you could dive from the balcony of our apartment if the tide was sufficiently high. Dull and somnolent during the day, Montaza would come alive at night with young men and women looking for a place to let their hair down crowding the corniche as dinner cruise boats belted out 'Nary, nary...' Hisham Abbas was all the rage, as was his music video which was shot in India.

That evening the corniche in front of our house was crowded more than usual. Mustafa, who was my blind man's stick and insisted on receiving dinner guests as the bawab would be in a daze by early evening, was gleeful. "Everybody wants to see the second hero of Deewar," he informed me.

But how did word get out on the street that Shashi Kapoor was coming home for dinner? Mustafa blamed the mukhabarat, but I knew better. To be seen escorting Shashi Kapoor, the 'second hero' of a film whose pirated prints were still in demand in Egypt some 28 years after its release, was one of his many small triumphs.

When the bell rang and we rushed to open the door, all we could see were roses. A wall of scarlet roses blocked the doorway, a massive bouquet held by a slightly built man. That was Ismail Merchant, trying to figure out how to get the roses in. After much struggle, that task was accomplished. Behind him stood Shashi Kapoor, a beatific smile creasing his face, a shawl casually draped across his shoulders. "Ismail stopped at a florist and picked up all the roses," Shashi Kapoor was almost apologetic. "No," Ismail Merchant corrected him, "I wanted 1001 roses but you wouldn't let me count them." Shashi Kapoor gently pushed him in.

Ismail Merchant was in town to head the jury at the Cairo International Film Festival.

The previous day Shashi Kapoor had been honoured with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. We were hosting dinner in their honour, although till they showed up we weren't quite sure they would.

The guest list had been accordingly kept to bare minimum, which proved to be a blessing. Or else we wouldn't have got to spend so much time with Ismail Merchant and Shashi Kapoor, which was a lifetime experience.

A great story-teller who could paint moving pictures, frame by frame, with an incessant stream of words, Ismail Merchant soon had everybody in thrall. He insisted on choosing the wine for others, banished whiskey which he declared a "conversation-pooper" and like a whirling dervish moved from one guest to another, picking up stories that he had left halfway through telling them. His laughter was infectious.

Shashi Kapoor wanted to see the Nile, so I took him to the balcony. He pulled up a rattan chair and settled down over there. What could I serve him? "A glass of Perrier with a slice of lime, please". That's when I discovered, the first of many discoveries that evening, that he was a teetotaller. And there he sat, silently watching the Nile, its rippling dark water reflecting the mellow houselights of Montaza into which merged the shimmering neon lit buildings of downtown Cairo on the other bank in a floating, mesmerising kaleidoscope. It was almost melancholic. "It's so peaceful. Jennifer would have loved it," said Shashi Kapoor.

Later when dinner had been served, he was the last to make his way around the table.

He looked at the Bengali spread -- there was chholar daal, aloo posto, shorshe begun, kosha mangsho, murgir dom and maachher kalia - and asked, "So much food? Where do I begin?" As it turned out, all that he would have is shorshe begun. "This reminds me of my childhood in Calcutta." He went back to the balcony where he ate in solitude, occasionally cooing to my pair of startled love birds. After a while, when my wife asked him what could she get him, he wanted more shorshe begun.

Evening turned into late night. By the time we said our goodbyes, it was close to one in the morning. Buckets were hastily turned into vases for the roses.

Leftovers were packed away. Mustafa had one more story to tell another day.
The mind can play tricks with the passage of time. But two memories remain undimmed -- of Ismail Merchant the animated story-teller and Shashi Kapoor the humble, extraordinarily human 'second hero' of Deewar, whose fondness for shorshe begun I was reminded of on reading a recent article in a Mumbai daily on how he had asked for Bengali fare to be introduced at Prithvi Caf �.

� The writer is a journalist, political analyst, and activist

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