Where were you when the Eagle landed?
Fifty years after the world's first manned moon landing, Bombay buzzes in tribute to the iconic event
An astronaut taught me to read. Half a century ago, when Neil Armstrong stepped on lunar soil, five-year-olds weren't expected to decipher even a bold-lettered headline like "MEN LAND ON MOON", as younger geniuses do today. But what a chatter rose the moment everyone at home pounced on the morning paper, marvelling at space history created. Curious, I too trained eyes hard on those front-page alphabets, trying to link the print with what I heard had happened.
Today is exactly five decades since the 38-year-old Yankee radioed back terra firma to exult: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Three months from that stupendous feat, Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins arrived in Bombay, their 19th stop on a whirligig tour covering 25 countries in 35 days. This golden anniversary begs the "Where were you when..."
question and a chance to review the city's not quite celestial "moon" avatars. "Our family celebrated my father's birthday on the night of July 20, 1969, tuning in to a live All India Radio commentary of the momentous moon landing. The sound was garbled, crackling with a lot of static, nevertheless we were so excited," recalls jeweller Alim Currim. "To commemorate that wonderful occasion, in 1981 we visited Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the respective Mission Control and Launch Pad spots."
Parallel to his cousin Alim's Marine Drive residence, actor Farid Currim's family has lived in Moonlight building since GB Mhatre designed this Deco jewel in 1938, at the Madame Cama Road-Maharshi Karve (Queen's) Road junction opposite Oval Maidan. Mhatre had already worked on Sunshine, next door. Both were commissioned by Phirozshaw Mistry, whose granddaughter, Katie Engineer, meets Farid and me in her top-floor flat over coffee.
Forced by the family's flagging fortunes to leave school, Mistry studying by streetlight impressed the textile tycoon Morarji Gokuldas. "Apprenticing with Morarji, my grandfather ended up a partner with his own brother-in-law Nanabhoy Motabhoy. Their company, Phiroz N Motabhoy, manufactured Sun and Moon brand bobbins with Japanese technology. He named these buildings Moonlight and Sunshine, laying them with the best Italian marble."
Knowing Commander Samuel was their ground-floor neighbour in a Navy requisitioned apartment, Moonlight residents slept better than usual. "We felt safe with helmeted policemen patrolling our block right from Mantralaya," Katie explains. Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command, Samuel was the authority Kawas Nanavati confessed his crime passionnel to, straight from firing "three shots that shook the nation", at wife Sylvia's lover Prem Ahuja.
Dev Anand singing "Khoya khoya chand, khula aasmaan..." in Kala Bazar, 1960. Legendary lyricist Shailendra was inspired to write this SD Burman-scored hit on a full moon night in Bombay locales under interesting circumstances
Across the Samuels an eminent, once Byculla-based, family made Moonlight home for its proximity to their Colaba store. Three generations gather in the century-old Phillips Antiques shop: Haseena Issa, her children Farooq and Muneera, groomed in the business as early as college years by their father Habib, and Farooq's son Faisal. "One day we had a special guest in our shop and house," Haseena Issa says. "Impromptu, Habib announced, 'I'm bringing the Aga Khan home'. Seeing six rows of Chinese teapots my father-in-law collected, he exclaimed, 'This is gorgeous!' and invited Habib to his Malabar Hill residence for billiards."
Moonlight's relatively recent entrants, from the 1990s, are the Antulays. Politicos calling on the veteran Congressmen and former Maharashtra Chief Minister, AR Antulay, have streamed in here.
Bombay buzzes with "moon speak". The silvery orb glows to haunt every artistic imagination, immortalised in hundreds of celluloid odes. Soft and wistful, the lilt of film songs will eternally resonate with romantic nods to chand, chanda, chandni, mostly shot in studio "moonlight", some under a beautiful natural moon. Verses scripted by Rajinder Krishan and Chitragupt repeatedly mention the moon, suggesting an appreciation of beauty or the pangs of separation. My mother enjoyed humming the tender Raj Kapoor-Nargis tune, "Aa ja sanam, madhur chaandni mein hum tum mile", flowing from Hasrat Jaipuri's pen for Chori Chori.
The moon exudes strong cultural heft, its glitter a powerful force. How Hindi cinema's soulful balladeer Shailendra came to compose the soaring "Khoya khoya chand" is an engaging story. Picturised on Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Ooty, for Kala Bazar released in 1960, the number has firm Bombay roots.
It was the first time SD Burman was collaborating with a lyricist new to the Navketan banner. He was ready with a last composition, not Shailendra with matching words. The senior Burman instructed his son Pancham (RD Burman) not to return from Shailendra's home without the song. Shailendra drove to Borivli National Park where, instead of inspiration, the only thing striking were his matches. Puff upon puff of cigarettes, no sign of a line. It was dark when he thought a change of scene might do the trick.
It did. On Juhu Beach that 1959 night with a full moon hugging the horizon. Strolling on deserted sands, Shailendra asked Pancham for another matchbox. He started scrawling on a crumpled cigarette pack foil piece, crooning the mukhda: "Khoya khoya chand, khula aasmaan/Aankhon mein saari raat jaayegi/Tum ko bhi kaise neend aayegi".
A decade after, people gazed up at the khula aasmaan wherever in the world they were. NASA flashed victory broadcasts and images of the cratered moon, never more alluring than at that "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" moment.
The astronauts reached Bombay on October 26, a sultry Sunday, at Santa Cruz airport's single terminal. Washington reportedly chose us over Delhi perceiving the capital to have neither the ambience nor glamour of Bombay. Their southbound open-car cavalcade routed via Mahim, Prabhadevi, Worli, Haji Ali, Kemp's Corner, Chowpatty and Marine Drive, drove to warm receptions at Azad Maidan and the Taj. Among fans braving the afternoon heat was Raja Ramanna, father of India's nuclear programme. The highlight of the moon men's sojourn was sharing 100-gram samples of lunar rock and dust with MGK Menon, then Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Armstrong gifted an autographed photograph of the landing to Vikram Sarabhai, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and received an ornamental elephant in return.
Moon evocations take interesting forms. Architect Nari Gandhi converted a drab, concrete structure at Versova into the organic Moon Dust bungalow, with wooden trusses, a terracotta tiled roof and flowerpots amid sculptures in a mother-of-pearl canopied garden.
Across town are a fair sprinkling of less ethereal allusions to moon fever. Channelling more Michael Jackson than Michael Collins, there's Moonwalker Dance Academy in Vashi. Sun and Moon Korean Restaurant in Worli is one among countless Moonlight cafes and hotels. And it's cheers to Moonshine Meadery, India's first. Co-founder Rohan Rehani says, "Besides our flagship Apple, Coffee and Traditional meads, we innovate. Bombay is more open to experimental meads than other cities. In area-wise differences, Bandra loves Christmas Apple Pie mead whereas South Bombay shows a demand for Guava Chilli mead."
On to a more foreboding tale spun by the beam of a big Bombay moon. Raja Murthy, in The Statesman, describes the coming true of a political prophecy by moonlight on Marine Drive, or Subhash Chandra Bose Road—"Netaji's biographer Sugata Bose records an incident in his great-uncle's tumultuous life: 'One night in 1939, Subhash, walking along Marine Drive with his friend Nathalal Parikh, looked up at the moonlit sky and expressed a wish about how he wanted to die: fly high as the stars and suddenly come crashing down to earth.' He was declared dead in an air crash six years later…"
It reads further, "My favourite walk, past the Air India building near the Mumbai office of The Statesman, is going by the Oberoi seeing the waters of the bay shimmer. The dying daylight strikes glass-fronted skyscrapers, turning them into pillars of gold. Lights of the night twinkle across Marine Drive and the moon rises in another circle of life."
Gulzar shares two poems on the moon
Kitni baar akele chhat pe jaake chaand ko dekhta tha
Aur mazaak kiya karta tha:
"Baya pair zameen par hain aur daya pair wahi rakha hain yaar,
Jhuk ke haath pakad lo yaar – aur ooper kheench lo
Ek pair pe khade khade main thakne lagaa hoon.
Pehla paav jisne chaand pe rakha tha
Doosra paav aaj zameen se utha liya, aur
Chaand se aage nikal gaya hain!
How often I have gone alone to the roof to watch the moon
And I would joke:
"Left leg on the ground, my right is there on the moon.
Bend to hold my hand, friend,
Pull me up….
I am tired standing on one foot."
Today, the first man to step on the moon
Has lifted his second foot from earth
And drifted, way beyond the moon!
Neil Armstrong: died August 25, 2012
Chaand ke aks pe
Thali mein sindoor laga kar,
Ma ne dono haath jod kar, aankhen mundi,
Man hi man muskaya –
Ma ke bholepan par!
Abhi abhi toh TV par dekha tha,
Chandrama par log utre hain!
Ma ki budbud halki si kaano mein aayi:
"Apni raksha karna Chandrama tum,
Dharti se kuch log gaye hain!"
Seeing the reflection of the moon
With sindoor on her thali,
Mother joined hands, shut her eyes and prayed!
I smiled to myself at her
Television had just shown
People descended on
Then I heard Mother whisper:
"Protect yourself, Moon,
Some people from earth
Have come to you!"
Translated by Suchita Sohoni
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at email@example.com/www.mehermarfatia.com
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