Photo via Shobhaa De/Twitter
Photo via Shobhaa De/Twitter

I remember meeting him for the first time at a leading industrialist’s office to discuss their corporate communications strategy. The unassuming CEO was looking at enhancing the company’s brand and since Anil Dharker was his close friend, he came to give his inputs. What followed was an engaging conversation, but one thing was obvious; Anil Dharker had an extraordinary visceral romance with words. It was his perennial unabashed public love affair. He had the gift of almost surrealistic literal articulation; it was most evident whenever he made his introductory opening remarks before book launch conversations. Sharp-witted, pithy, tongue-in-cheek, Anil was a masterful impresario. My next meeting with Anil happened on an altogether different turf: on the tennis court at the Bombay Gymkhana. Unknown to many he was a die-hard tennis aficionado and possessed a deceptive forehand chip that could outfox even a seasoned club level pro. Cricket fascinated him like stuffed toys charm kindergarten kids. This was evident when Anil joined former Australian skipper Ricky Ponting (who was the Brand Ambassador for my internet venture and me at Sachin Tendulkar’s restaurant. The conversation was riveting because of the data, incidents and analysis that Anil could effortlessly recapitulate. Ponting was impressed. I was stunned. There was abundantly more to the man who was a poet, editor, author, columnist, and curator of literary hang-outs.

Every time Anil and his sweet wife Amy came home for dinner, while most practised the convenient urban tradition of getting a bottle of wine, Anil would get us books. My home library today has a large component of his magnanimous contributions. The conversation would be peppered with both cerebral wisdom from his decades-long experience of public life, and of course, his inimitable satirical wit. He loved his food, and almost reluctantly admonished himself from allowing his palate to get the better of his plate.

Anil was always immaculately dressed in his archetypal churidar-kurta, his signature style was legendary. He was the personification of intellectual liberalism at its brio. India’s current polarized politics was insufferable to him, it’s barbed wire fencing on free speech seemed a preposterous aberration that he found unfathomable. The dismay was palpable on his face. He was disillusioned with the Congress but he seemed more upset with me for questioning it because he felt only the Grand Old Party could stop the BJP election machine.

Literature Live was like his spoilt baby; he nursed Mumbai’s globally popular literature festival with painstaking guidance and unbridled love, with Amy by his side. When India went through a terrible recession and sponsorship deals fell through, he was dismayed. The stress once caused him to pass out, as he told me. Subsequently, it became Tata Literature Live as the mega business empire took the title logo.

The last time was I met him was at the Clovelly Lectures on CAA, NPR and NRC. Then just as suddenly the pandemic struck, and I would never see him again. Just a few weeks ago, he hosted the launch of my book The Great Unravelling: India After 2014, along with Vir Sanghvi on the digital version of Literature Live. For someone who grew up lionizing the man who edited both the bodacious Debonair and the stately Illustrated Weekly of India, I felt so humbled at his large-heartedness, his prodigious humility.

Earlier this morning I read Bachi Karkaria’s tweet about his death and I froze momentarily, as a hurricane of memories swept over me. It felt weird to know that I would never hear him again. His familiar reassuring voice, always imperturbable no matter what. If he had any premonition of his death perhaps Anil would have not hesitated from cheekily cracking a winner about his life: “Game, set and match to Anil Dharker”.

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