Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reading Bond by torchlight, under the covers

The Times of India, June 9, 2008

Nina Martyris

Mumbai: The new James Bond book, written by British novelist Sebastian Faulks in perilously taut prose, has a special Mumbai connection. Faulks, who was commissioned to write the new caper in the centenary year of Ian Fleming, the man who created the suave English spy, has dedicated Devil May Care to two people: to Fleming himself and to “Fali Vakeel, who, when he and I were schoolboys, first introduced me to Bond’’.

Vakeel is sitting at the quietly lit bar at the Oberoi’s Opium Den where bankers and their credit cards are easily parted. A compact 55-year-old with a terribly polite manner and a remarkable ability to speak in full sentences complete with long dashes and semi colons, he indulgently goes through the parody of ordering a round of dry martinis, shaken not stirred. This affectionate nod is lost on the deferential barman but helps set the mood for the interview.

When Fali was ten years old, he was packed off to England to prep school, a rite of passage for Malabar Hill Parsi schoolboys at the time. At the “uncomfortably cold and brutish school’’, the curly haired Sebastian Faulks and Fali Vakeel became friends.

“Although I made many friends, many of them were friends for survival. Sebastian was clearly a cut above—intelligent, bright, he had a certain class. We were together for three years, and at 13 he went to Wellington and I to Rugby,’’ begins Vakeel. “After that, I got into London University—I was too precocious for Oxford—but chose to return to Bombay, to Elphinstone College, and then I went into advertising.’’

Now executive director of Lowe India, the country’s biggest or second-biggest ad firm after JWT depending on whom you talk to, Vakeel has been faithful to the profession except for one “brief and regrettable foray into accountancy, which was kind of like having a camel screw a poodle, and I’m not quite sure who was who’’.

At the Elsstree prep school at Berkshire, a lasting friendship was forged over Casino Royale, From Russia With Love and Live and Let Die. Young Fali had smuggled his father’s copies from Bombay into school, and the two boys read them eagerly under the sheets by torchlight. “The school was Calvinist and cold but Bond was always in Istanbul, Nice, Russia. While there were deeply unattractive males in the changing room, Bond was bonking Tatiana Romanova, and while we were eating boiled cabbage, Bond was drinking martinis. He was the perfect antidote to our lives.’’

The boys lost touch. Vakeel occasionally read about Faulks’s growing fame and the success of his book, Birdsong. Sometimes on a visit to London, he wondered whether he should wander in to a Waterstone’s or a Hatchett’s and catch up with Sebastian signing books there, but he never did. Then, one day in 2004, forty years after they had last met, an e-mail popped up in his inbox re-establishing contact. “It was quite spooky, really, because at that time I was just finishing his book, On Green Dolphin Street,’’ he says. “It turned out that he had googled me to find out where I was. A month later, I had dinner at his Notting Hill home with him and his wife, Veronica, who I must add, on the evening of the book launch, looked better than any Bond girl.’’

After Faulks was chosen by the Fleming estate for the coveted commission that many novelists would have killed for—with a stiletto if need be—he broke the news to Vakeel in a suitably clandestine way. “I was having a drink with them when he firmly shut the door of his sitting room and said he had been asked to do this book. I said, amazing. Later, on e-mail, he asked if I would be appalled if he dedicated the book to me. I replied that I would have to be a retard brain donor if I had to be appalled. Why on earth would I be?’’

Devil May Care has been praised for its spareness of style and authentic atmosphere. It opens with Bond in Rome on a three-month break to clear his head and reclaim his life. He is listless, a burnt-out case, repelled by his own reflection; his cummerbund still fits but is afraid that his mind is running to fat. He has been warned to stay off alcohol. And then, of course, things happen.

Vakeel enjoyed the book, describing it as “high on adrenalin and very sexy’’. “I continue to love Bond,’’ he says. “I’m talking about the books mind you, not the new films where it’s all about exploding arse holes and parachutes coming out of breasts. The books have a great sense of place. You can almost smell Istanbul, smell the girls’ shampoo. And, of course, Bond is every man’s fantasy—sex without commitment. Fleming once said that his books are positioned somewhere between the solar plexus and the knees. In boarding school, these books were an escape from a life of lumpy porridge and fish which smelt of extremely old underwear.’’ He pauses, and adds with a sense of fairness, “Mind you, that was boarding school food then. Today, it’s probably like Frangipani.’’

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