mid-day turns 40: Bombay to Mumbai, the growth of stature and loss of innocence
Part of mid-day's original think tank, Mihir Bose sees the changes the city experienced as mirroring those that transformed cricket
Mumbai was Bombay when I grew up in Chacha Nehru's reign. Our SSC results came out the day Nehru died and I have many happy memories of the city. On the 40th anniversary of mid-day, my most abiding memory is of an evening in the summer of 1978, when sitting on wicker chairs on the lawns of the CCI, sipping tea, I suggested to Khalid Ansari that he should start a new paper to take on the The Evening News. I returned to London to send him a detailed plan for a new publication, arranged syndication rights and wrote a regular column called London Letter.
Much has changed since then with, perhaps, the greatest change in how the city is perceived by foreigners. I was made very aware of this two years ago when I returned to Mumbai to cover the first power boat races held in the city.
That such sporting use was being made of the Arabian Sea whose waters we never ventured into — I left Mumbai in 1969 not having learnt to swim — was sensational enough. And, while the Rovers Cup of which I have fond memories is history, also present in the city was Alan Shearer, one of England's most successful footballers and former captain, giving football lessons. In my youth we hungered after foreign stars but they were like gold dust and the ones we got were dross.
In the 50s, England sent a cricket team whose captain, Nigel Howard, had never before played for England and never played again. But in many ways what was really significant was what an English colleague said to me on that trip. He came back after a walk around the Oval Maidan and exclaimed, "What a great place you have there."
I learnt to play cricket at the Oval in the 50s and dreamt of bowling like my hero Subhash Gupte but had never imagined a foreigner would see the Oval as paradise. The Mumbai of my youth was a fading colonial city. I remember trams trundling down Flora Fountain, we would go to gaze at the seven storey Stanvac building, the highest in the city; Antilia was unimaginable, and hawkers filled the air with cries of "novelty, novelty!" as they sold smuggled foreign goods. The few foreigners who came despised the city. The writer Arthur Koestler, visiting as Gupte was weaving his magic at the Brabourne Stadium, thought Mumbai was a medieval town "in the grip of plague" and seeing people sleeping on the pavement he felt they were corpses shot by a firing squad.
In many ways what is astonishing is the pace of change since Mid-day was launched. In 1978 when I sipped tea with Khalid, Wankhede Stadium was a four-year old baby and I could regale him with stories of when it was just a maidan where I played cricket returning home with my clothes covered in red earth. It also staged hockey matches which Dhirubhai Ambani, then a little known trader in Mulji Jetha market, took his sons, Mukesh and Anil to. They followed it with idli-sambhar at an Udipi café.
Yet in 2008, when I returned for the first IPL final, Wankhede felt like an old man. The final was held at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai. Even in 1979, let alone in my youth, anyone suggesting a journey to Thane to watch a cricket match would have been considered mad. Now, as I travelled to Navi Mumbai, Colaba and Band Stand appeared like relics from a vanished world.
Along with these changes there are signs of a more welcome attitude to how people choose to live their lives. India has always had a dual face with regards to sex. The land of the Kama Sutra and the very explicit sculptures at Khajuraho and Konark coexisting with a very prudish view of sex. In 1968, a restaurant at Marine Drive was forced to remove images of Khajuraho it had painted on its walls because it was considered obscene. Today, India's fastest female sprinter Dutee Chand, the first Indian woman to qualify for the 100m in the Olympics, can openly acknowledge that she is in a relationship with a woman and becomes a trailblazer for LGBT rights. She is so relaxed that she does not consider people in her village in Chaka Gopalpur, Odisha, who are outraged by the news, as bigoted.
Yet, amidst all this change, a certain innocence has been lost. Dilip Sardesai, who was part of the 1971 team that won in England and West Indies for the first time, once said "in Madras money was solid", while in Mumbai "money flows". However, until the start of the 21st century, very little money flowed into cricketers' bank accounts. When Sardesai retired, he earned R2,500 for a Test match. But this did mean cricket fans felt the stars were part of their community. I grew up watching all the best Indian cricketers for free playing at Azad and Cross Maidans for the Times of India Shield, then a tournament as important as the Ranji Trophy. Now, with IPL, that tournament has little relevance and so much money has flown into the accounts of the cricketers that they have emerged as the new, unapproachable, caste.
And along with that has come a change in the relationship between cricket and Bollywood. On January 6, 1960, as the Test between India and Australia meandered to a draw, the Brabourne crowd began to shout, "Declare, Declare". Raj Kapoor walked into the Indian dressing room and asked GS Ramchand, the captain, to declare. Ramchand obliged. Now Shah Rukh Khan, who owns Kolkata Knight Riders, evokes such awe that when he signed Shoaib Akhtar, the Pakistani fast bowler, could not take his eyes of Khan telling Sourav Ganguly, "I keep thinking is he the same man who holds the hands of some of the most gorgeous women in Bollywood? Jumps from a train? Fights with 20 people and roams around in rose gardens?" Ramchand may have declared at the request of Raj Kapoor but he was not in awe of Kapoor. And Virat Kohli may be in awe of Shah Rukh Khan but would not entertain a request by Bollywood's greatest star to declare during a Test.
There has been tremendous progress since mid-day was born but the game has lost some of its charm. Progress has come at a price.
The writer is author of The Nine Waves, The Extraordinary Story of Indian Cricket published by Aleph
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