An Attarwala family wedding.

Asghar Attarwala relives his love for Bombay, the city that nurtured his passion for films and music

There is something awe-inspiring about the older generation remembering the intricate details of their life inclusive of accurate dates and years.

Awe-inspiring because some of the people that I have met for the Flashback series can recall events dating back over half a century  with such accuracy that I often feel miserable since I cannot even recall the details of my previous day. Clearly there is a qualitative difference in the chakki ka atta (flour) that they ate and the one that I am consuming.

So on a warm April morning I am sitting across Asghar Attarwala, 76, in his tastefully decorated living room as he reminisces about some of the significant and carefree moments of his life in Bombay where he was born in 1936 and spent his formative years before moving to Karachi in 1954. Belonging to a large family that was nurtured by a culturally attuned father who was in the family business of attar (fragrant essential oil) and an easygoing mother, Attarwala had a regular childhood that was spent either in the company of his brother Yunus, who was almost two years older than him or the boys of his Bohra neighbourhood or with his Hindu schoolmates.

Cinema and music were an integral part of Attarwala’s life while growing up in Bombay. In fact when I question him about his interest in movies, his face becomes animated as he recalls fondly some of the memories associated with it. “Radio Talkies was a picture house in Crawford market that we used to frequent. It was a third-class theatre as mostly the audience comprised butchers who would come there after finishing their work in Crawford market where their shops were located. But we had no choice; we had to go there as the ticket prices were cheap costing only two annas. The picture house did not have separate seats for audience members like we see today but instead had benches. So when the doors of the theatre would open people would rush in and sit stiffly on those benches.”

It was in this cinema house that Attarwala remembers watching films starring Nadia, a British actress and stuntwoman who mostly acted in action movies; Johnny Walker, a well-loved comedian of the 1950s, Bhagwan Dada’s Albela, films of the Lahore-born actress Kamini Kaushal and that great musical hit of 1952, Baiju Bawra, that starred Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari. Attarwala chuckles when he recalls his maternal uncle taking the risk of producing a movie.

“My uncle had made a lot of money during the war and his friends convinced him to make a film. The film’s name was Gajre and had in its cast Suraiya and Motilal. But the film bombed so badly that on the day of its release only four people showed up to see it even though the music composed by Anil Biswas was very good. We had told our uncle that whatever you do just ensure that your film is not shown in Capital Cinema, a movie house near our school, since they always fail. And guess what, that’s where Gajre was screened.”

Attarwala’s love for music would take him to ghazal gatherings in Malad where he would travel by train. “I used to have a school friend who lived below the HMV Company, a famous music recording company at the time. Whenever Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi would come to HMV for their recordings he would go to the HMV office and quietly listen to them and the next day regale us with stories about these singing sensations. We would often plead with him to take us to one such recording and one day he did take us but unfortunately, there was no recording taking place that day. But my friend did show us the stand on which these singers would place their singing notes and he imitated for us the gestures and body language of the singers while they sang.” Attarwala and his friends loved Rafi so much that often after school they would linger on the street of Nafees Chamber, the building where the singer had rented a room for his riyaz, in the hopes of catching a glimpse. “We would stand there for hours waiting for him,” he says.

Of all the memories of his life in Bombay before he permanently moved to Karachi, there was one significant event that Attarwala remembers to this day; a historical occurrence which many people are unaware of and which incidentally is rarely mentioned in historical accounts. It was the explosion of a cargo ship, Fort Stikine, on April 14, 1944 that was loaded with explosives whose scattered debris killed more than 700 people and injured nearly 2,000.

“At the time of this incident I and my brother Yunus were in our New Model High School. We used to be in the same class. When we heard the blast our teachers told us to immediately kneel down and they shut the windows and locked the doors. We all thought that Japan had bombed us. While this commotion was going on Yunus and I slowly crawled back and quietly opened the door to our classroom and rushed out of the school and ran towards our home. As we were running we saw glass panels of buildings shattering and raining on the streets.

When we reached home, that was near Crawford market, my father, having no idea what had happened also opined that maybe Japan had bombed Bombay. Then my maternal uncle who was a ship chandler by profession (a wholesale dealer supplying paints to steamers and ships) and was present at the port when the explosion happened dashed to our building and informed us that another explosion was about to occur and beseeched us to pack our belongings and leave immediately. We did the needful and so did my maternal grandmother who lived in a nearby building. As soon as she stepped out of her building, it came crashing down.” For the next three nights the sky was red, Attarwala recalls.

For a while his family along with his mother’s sisters and their families all stayed at a spacious bungalow of their relatives in Santa Cruz, a suburb at the time that was lined with mango, jamun (black plum) and shahtoot (mulberry) trees. “We stayed there for nearly eight months and honestly did not want to go back.” This was not surprising; with their studies temporarily on hold, it was an idyllic life during their short-lived stay where Attarwala along with his cousins would while away their time climbing trees and spend many an afternoon munching on juicy fruits.

Eventually however, they went back to their building, as luckily for them theirs’ and another building were the only ones left intact in their neighbourhood. “For a long time small fires kept erupting and my father would keep a watch out for them and call the fire brigade to quell the fires.” The British administration at the time restored their building and provided compensation to all the victims that was adequate enough for them to restart their lives. This entire incident affected Attarwala’s academics and that is why he says he completed his matriculation at the age of 17 years when normally students finished at the age of 14 years.

After coming to Karachi and settling down here with his family comprising his wife, two daughters and a son, Attarwala did not venture into the family business of attar. Instead he held a white collar job for a long time and after his retirement has been in the colour-making business along with his brother. He has taken his children to Bombay a couple of times but his son says that he doesn’t feel the emotional connection to the city the way his father feels for Bombay to this day.