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‘Our shared history in this city makes the relationship special’

Updated on: 23 June,2024 07:22 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meher Marfatia |

Indian classical vocalist Dhanashree Pandit Rai and writer Dilip D’Souza sustain a spirited school friendship with extended bonds

‘Our shared history in this city makes the relationship special’

Dhanashree Pandit Rai and Dilip D’Souza in Dhanashree’s home. Pic/Aditi Haralkar

Meher MarfatiaDhanashree Pandit Rai, 65, Thumri exponent and music educator 

Dilip D’Souza, 64, journalist and author

One of the country’s eminent Indian classical vocalists today, Dhanashree Pandit Rai’s speciality is the Thumri semi-classical genre. Holding a Master’s degree in music from Bombay University, she acknowledges her mentors, the Kirana Gharana stalwart Pandit Firoz Dastur, and Thumri legend Smt Shobha Gurtu. Recognised for lively commentaries accompanying her presentations, which enlighten audiences on the deeper mysteries of her music, she teaches Indian vocal techniques, and collaborates with international jazz artistes on world music projects and albums. Recent laurels include the Pillars of Hindustani Society award from the Trans Asian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Women Achievers award from the Indo American Society and the Sangeet Kala Ratna title from Sangeet Kala Kendra Agra and Pt Raghunath Talegaonkar Foundation Trust.

Describing himself as “once a computer scientist, now writing for his suppers: about political and social issues, travel, sports and mathematics”, Dilip D’Souza was educated in Pilani, Providence, Delhi, Rishi Valley, Mumbai, Cambridge and Austin. He believes the clarity of thought, reason and logic of computer science shapes writing. The columnist’s awards include the Statesman Rural Reporting Award, the Outlook/Picador Nonfiction Prize and the Newsweek/Daily Beast South Asia Commentary Prize. The latest of his nine books is Roadwalker: A Few Miles on the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

• • •

Dhanashree Pandit Rai: We were classmates. One stand-out memory is that we both campaigned to be elected Bombay International School (BIS) student treasurer. With the skewed gender ratio, I got all the girls’ votes and the position. He, though, would have been a better choice, given his aptitude for maths and numbers.

Dilip D’Souza: I joined BIS in 1969 in Std V. My first impression of Dhana? A serious girl in the front bench, paying studious attention to teachers. I also quickly realised that the impression masked a quirky sense of humour. So “serious” didn’t fit that well. 
There’s a firm memory from 1973. We went on annual weekend “class trips”, to Dhana’s Matheran home or to the bungalow my father grew up in at Versova. There, amid the games and general chatter, something happened, restricted to the girls. Dhana told me the story years later. To my chagrin, she urged me to write it up. The title, The Class of ’74 Bra-Flinging Story, explains the chagrin.

At Dilip’s in the late 1980sAt Dilip’s in the late 1980s

DPR: We got better acquainted on leaving school. Our class boys and girls were reserved with interaction because of some bullies and teases. Dilip was a mature boy. Also, friendly enough to look up buddies after we parted from school. It touched me that he reached out. I was mild and shy in school, so felt flattered that I mattered. Maybe the humour he mentions was a cover for that reserve and then it stayed on.

DD: Dhana has refreshingly frank ways. Holding nothing back, she is sometimes cutting—but accurate—about others, but also vulnerable about herself. Her husband Mann (Manmohan) is a perfect foil. Quieter, with his very own humour and charm. It’s always a pleasure to meet him. Their son Raahil is an affectionate, bright spark. I really like the two men in her life. And Dhana takes such a fond interest in our children, Sahir and Surabhi. 

Dhana is how I met my wife, Vibha. They were good friends at the Alliance Francaise, and Dhana invited us both to a dinner party at her home in 1992. They’ve shared a deeply special bond over the years. Which means much to me and adds a dimension to our friendship.

DPR: I have a whole friendship separately with Vibha. The greatest advice I think I’ve given Dilip was to ask her out the day after they first met at my place. He will supply the date and time with the minutes and seconds! I’m usually not good with young adults but have a close connection with their kids. His writings and values make Dilip my son’s hero. Sahir can engage with my Thumri like few people of his generation. And I love how Surabhi is wonderfully warm.

DD: Dhana encouraging me to get to know Vibha transformed my life. Besides meeting in our homes, we do so at my book readings and at her concert performances. I admire the singular dedication to her craft. She takes such care of her voice. When I initially heard her sing, I didn’t understand it. It has grown on me. Partly because of her lec-dem explanations, partly because she draws parallels with other kinds of music [check her video about the blues]. Mostly it’s that her voice is prettily resonant in a perfectly natural way. Hearing her makes me want to emulate that quality of “naturalness” in my writing too.

DPR: We’re mutually appreciative of each other’s professional choices, having selected our passion as a life path, rather than the stereotype slots in life. We discuss the difficulty of promoting our work in these competitive, tough times. We enjoy reconnecting with school mates across the world. Dilip keeps up the tradition of sending me a hilarious postcard from every place he travels to. 

Total honesty, humility and down-to-earth, no-nonsense talk are our common traits. My family appreciates Dilip’s views on socio-political issues that surround us, how he is undeterred in his path to making the world a better place. Besides the brilliance of writing, there’s his simplicity, humility, tongue-in-cheek humour and the gift of being one of the most devoted friends. He gives much of himself to friends, in crises and otherwise.

DD: She sees the funny side of things more easily than me, maintaining a healthy scepticism that isn’t cynical. Dhana abhors injustice and lack of integrity. Our shared history in this city makes the relationship special. We bemoan the ruin of Bombay in the name of development. It truly gets to us. 

DPR: With Dilip and me settled in this city, our sharpest memories together are here. The Mumbai backdrop remains a big and significant part of our lives.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on city friendships. You can reach her at

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