WHEN IN THE SUMMER OF 1966 I arrived in Bombay from Allahabad to enrol at Bombay University, there was hardly a soul I knew in the city. My parents had found me accommodation in Mulund, in a sort of ashram run by a woman we called Maaji. Her name was Brijmohini Sarin, and my parents had great faith in her. She was their guru. A slim, shrill-voiced woman in her mid forties, she wore terry-cot maxi dresses in pastel shades and ruled the ashram with an iron fist. When she was around you wanted to hide behind the nearest pillar. She was married. Her husband, Papaji, worked in the telephone exchange. He had his separate living quarters in the ashram. The other permanent residents of the place included a couple of rich Marwari widows who owned one of the art deco buildings behind the Ritz Hotel in Churchgate. They spent all their time in the kitchen and could easily be mistaken for scullery maids. The ashram often had guests staying for short periods, and when Maaji showed them around she would point to the widows and say appreciatively that they’d given up their diamonds and chosen the path of self-realisation. I tried to stay away from the place as much as I could; I was 19 years old.
Someone, I don’t remember who, had mentioned Coral Chatterji to me. She belonged to the well-known Caleb family of Muir Road, Allahabad, and worked for Imprint, a literary magazine of current fiction and non-fiction books in condensed form. One day I turned up at her office in Colaba. She was a tall, striking-looking woman, who to me appeared taller and more striking because of her job at Imprint. She didn’t quite know what to do with her young visitor and quickly introduced me to her two co-editors. One of them was Qurratulain Hyder, and the other was Nissim Ezekiel. When told that I wrote poetry, Ezekiel gave me a friendly look and invited me to a reading he was giving in Worli in a few days’ time. It was to be held at the house of Pilloo Pochkhanawala, and he gave me directions on how to get there. Pochkhanawala, I discovered when I reached her place, was a sculptor. Her modernist works were on display both inside her large house and on the lawns, where the reading was to be held. Since I was among the first to arrive, I had plenty of time to observe the audience as it drifted in. Everyone who came seemed to know everyone else. I had hoped Coral would be there, but she wasn’t.
That evening, Ezekiel read the poems of Adil Jussawalla. He read from Land’s End (1962), Jussawalla’s first book, which had been published by Writers Workshop. One of the poems that struck me sounded like a shopping list: “toothpaste/ toothpowder/ beetroots/ hairsoftener …” Ezekiel I had known by reputation before, but not Jussawalla, who then lived in England. He was some years older than me, but his formally accomplished poems, and the fact that he could turn a shopping list into verse, seemed way beyond anything I was capable of. To me, he and Ezekiel were like two unscalable peaks, shining in the distance. The Pochkhanawala house and lawns were brightly lit….