Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A haircut voucher that led me to a yacht!

In 2005, I worked with a newspaper called Downtown Plus, the weekly South Mumbai supplement of The Times of India (TOI) in Mumbai. When I say south Mumbai, it means the geographical area that originally was called Bombay — that extends from present-day Colaba to Mahim. We used to run a very popular contest in our paper called Know Your Downtown. It carried the picture of a landmark in south Mumbai, taken from a not-so-common angle or of a landmark that was not so commonly known and the readers would have to identify the place. One of the correct entries would be randomly picked winner and he/she would get a gift voucher as prize. On one Friday, the winner we announced in the paper was Hiro Shroff. 

I dialled the number he had provided to us along with his winning entry. The voice on the phone was weak. I introduced myself and told him that he had won a contest. He said, "Thank you so much," in a very polite voice. I then asked him whether I should send the voucher across to him at his address or whether he would come to the TOI office at CST to collect it. "What's it for?" "It's for a hair cut at Juice Hair Salon," I replied. "But I'm bald!" For a moment I just didn't know what to say. "Well, you could give it to your wife or someone else — children perhaps." "No." "Well, I'll see what I can do about it," I told him and turned to my senior colleague. She frisked her drawer and told me she had a voucher for a clothing store. "Would it be alright if I give you a voucher for Globus? It's a clothes store," I asked him. He thanked me and said that he would acknowledge the voucher's receipt by calling me up.

And call he did. A week later. I was in the middle of something so I quickly said my "Welcomes" to his "Thank yous." He then asked me how long I'd been working at the TOI. I said, "A little less than a year." "Are you on the second floor?" I stopped what I was doing and responded with a hesistant, "Yes..." "If you are free, why don't you go to the Times Archives. You'll find my book, Down Memory Lane, there. If you don't get it, I'll send it to you," he said. I must have sounded a little less enthusiastic so he asked me for my address." I started reading out the newspaper's address from an envelope. "No, your home address?" Now, usually journalists don't give away their home addresses to winners of newspaper contests. I tried to stave him off but eventually, I just had to give it to him. 

The next week, I received a package at home. It was Down Memory Lane. Mr Shroff had put in a little note for me: "Dear Eisha, I hope you enjoy this book." I opened the book. It contained an amazing collection of oral histories, which Mr Shroff had gathered over decades as journalist (he was also India's first foreign correspondent to the newly-created Pakistan). The book talked of Jawahar and Jinnah, Prince Philip, Sindhis and all kinds of sea-craft. Having read the book, I wanted to meet the man. We fixed up an appointment on a Thursday evening at the posh Royal Bombay Yacht Club at Apollo Bunder. 

I waited nervously in the club's lobby. An attendant in white shorts and t-shirt and knee-length socks asked me to join Mr Shroff at the table. He was in a tweed coat and wore a cap. He must have been around 75. He talked as if he belonged to another time — his British manners, very polite tone of conversation were a far cry away from the journalists I would frequently meet. We talked of oral history, Gandhi, his book, Jinnah, Nehru and boats. "Do you like sailing?" "I haven't ever sailed," I responded, turning a little red. "You should go sailing. You'll like it," he told me. "Sure." "Meet Cyrus of the Colaba Sailing Club. You must go sailing," he repeated. I agreed. 

I contacted Cyrus Heerjee, who was then the secretary of the Colaba Sailing Club. He invited me to join them at a Sunday session at the Pilot Bunder in Colaba. I said, "Ok," not sure of what I was getting into. "Have you ever been in a boat?" "I have, but I've never sailed myself." "Can you swim?" "Yes." "It's ok then," he said. "Let's move it." Soon I was in the middle of the sea in a stationary wooden craft looking at kids dodging each other in bathtub-sized boats called Optimists. It was a hot day in November. But the kids kept going at it, some trying to cheat their way to victory. "We're trying to promote sailing. People, for some reason, think it's expensive. If you can spend Rs 2000 on a dinner, Rs 5000 for 10 sailing sessions is not much, is it?" That was my story! I must have spent at least five hours at sea, even tried to overcome sea sickness a couple of times, but I was never bored. I loved the water and the wind and how the kids had learnt to master both.

For the next year and a half, I would go on to cover every sailing event that would be organized in south Mumbai. I didn't learn how to sail myself. It's something I regret not learning in spite of Cyrus's repeated requests to me to join the classes. I simply did not have the time then. (Now, I live in Vadodara which is quite a drive away from the harbours near Surat). But I did write a lot on sailing. I went to the regattas, was invited to visit $2 million yachts owned by Dutch yachtsmen and got an insight into the working of the ports, docks and harbours. I called Mr Shroff to thank him for opening this new world of sailing to me. "Just get into a boat, my dear," he said.


Pia said...

Lovely blog post eisha. Enjoyed reading about the experience. Something I could totally relate with. Great going Gal!

bhumi said...

Its really nice mam.you shared a good experience over here.Sometimes we not give much attention to something but then that something come to us with good learning+good experience+good knowledge.Finally these combo of things convert in to enjoyment,isn't it?

Ramesh Narendrarai Desai said...

I do not think that I could lead you to a yacht but if you are an explorer and wish to explore, an old man of 76 living at 16 Harinagar, Gotri road, Vadodara invites you to his place. It would be advisable to give a ring before dropping in as i stay alone and am apt to be out even for little shopping trips. I could practise my bangla with you.
Ramesh N Desai 0265-2395749 email:- jayramesh1934@gmail.com

Manisha said...

Such a lovely story! You've made me want to try out sailing now. Hope dear Mr. Shroff is out enjoying it too :)

Anonymous said...

Very well-written post on yacht