1971: Bombay/ Mumbai
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Of blackouts and brown paper: Notes from 1971 Bombay
Fifty years ago in 1971, Bombay waved to a victorious Indian cricket team soon after its return from historic international wins but the same year ended with the city switching off all its lights for 13 evenings during the India-Pakistan war
Among the only lights that glowed in Bombay a little after 7 pm on December 7, 1971 were a series of fiery red balls that shot across its moonless sky. Some thought these were bombs hurled by the hostile neighbour but the “pyrotechnics”—as a witness later recalled the sight—had come from India’s “ack-ack guns”, defence guns meant to scare approaching enemy aircraft.
For two fraught weeks that winter when India and Pakistan were at war, Bombay was a dark, high-strung creature that covered its headlights with brown paper, sat glued to the radio through the night, hoarded scarce kerosene, conducted mock drills and held wedding receptions in the afternoon. The imposition of a city-wide dusk-todawn blackout from December 3, 1971 meant that BEST officials went around switching off all street lights after the siren was sounded. “Batti bandh karo,” mischievous grown-ups and children would shout even before blackout time.
News of the proposed rationing of kerosene in the lead-up to the blackout had led to a dearth of the fuel. So wick lamps were not favoured. Electric torches and candles were in high demand. So were transistor sets, even as AIR had extended its “news on the hour” service from midnight to dawn. Brown paper and black kraft—materials recommended for covering windows and bulbs--were sold on the footpath.
In a book on the war, Beena--who was seven when her family moved to Mazgaon Dock in 1971—recalls rushing down nine flights of stairs with a torch every time the siren went off and huddling next to sandbags meant to reduce the impact of potential explosions. Soon after the war got over on December 16, the sandbags became playthings.
As two nations collided, two genders became allies. Women commuters, who anxiously crowded trains between 4pm and 5pm for those 13 days, would fondly recall the war period as the time male passengers offered their seats to them.
Sunny days for Wadekar’s boys 1.5 million and a motorcade
1971 was the year in which Indian cricket came into its own. Long dismissed as no-hopers abroad, the Indian team registered historic victories against the West Indies in the Caribbean and against England, in England.
The West Indies series marked the debut of Mumbai’s Sunil Gavaskar, who scored a record 774 runs at an average of 154, and three other Mumbaikars were key to the spectacular wins: the captain Ajit Wadekar, the gutsy Dilip Sardesai and the dynamic Eknath Solkar. When Wadekar’s team landed in Mumbai, so grand and unprecedented was the welcome that TOI reported that day that ‘over 10,000 people’ had gathered at the airport to cheer the squad, and ‘an estimated 1.5 million people witnessed the motorcade over its 20-kilometre route to the C.C.I.’ The ‘most touching scene,’ TOI reported, ‘was when even the sightless ones waved to the players as they passed the Workshop for the Blind at Worli.’
In time of scarcity, movies spelled romance for Bombay
Three rupees would have fetched you a beer at the Taj in 1971 but only if you were a foreigner or a permit-holding Indian. Prohibition was still on, so liquor was illicit and nightlife, absent. Rice was in short supply—a rare commodity served only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So, the Rs 2.50-worth full plate of chicken biryani at Irani restaurants such as Colaba’s Olympia had many takers.
Girls would leave messages for their lovers on the landlines of shops then. Their dates involved movies such as the American Western ‘Mackenna’s Gold’— which ran for an unprecedented 52 weeks at Colaba’s now-defunct Strand Cinema. While Rajesh Khanna received a Filmfare best actor award for the first time in 1971, the spell of a certain rising star called Amitabh Bachchan was visible on the streets in the form of “bell bottoms”—flared pants similar to the ones that hippie tourists dotting Causeway favoured.