“Janab ye biswin sadi hai aaj kal insaan chand pe jane ki baat kar raha hai”
[A dialogue from the 1970 box office hit film Johney Mera Naam, spoken by the popular actor Dev Anand]
A modern novel describes the past as ‘another country’. It has been said that in the past, there was greater simplicity, tranquillity, sociability, spirituality, all of which has now been lost. When I started walking on illusory pathways to see what I had lost and gained, I realized just after taking a few steps that so much had changed. Yet change happens compulsorily and my friends are quick to correct me that that period of the 1960’s and ’70s—which is principally the period covered in my memoirs, was actually not fundamentally different from today. Perhaps, the only caveat which should be inserted is that the changes brought about in our lives with the advent of information technology are possibly the great life-altering changes which tend to cut the previous times from the present.
I spent my boyhood years in Delhi and Aligarh. In Delhi, my family lived in Nizamuddin—a well-planned, beautiful, post-partition residential colony in South Delhi, situated among the imposing and impressive ruins and monuments of the Mughal era, particularly the tombs of Humayun and Khan-e-Khanah (Rahim). Before coming to Delhi, I lived in Aligarh, on the sprawling, leafy campus of the Aligarh Muslim University. Even after becoming Dilliwallas, we retained our roots in our ancestral home in western Uttar Pradesh, the western corner of the vast and densely populated Indo-Gangetic plains, a place (along with the central Awadh region) of the so called Ganga-Jumni Tehzeeb or composite culture. In other words, the ‘heart of India’, known in the British days as the ‘United Provinces’.
Long before the arrival of internet and mobile telephony, before the liberalization of Indian economy, globalization; before the boom in the automobile industry which manifests itself nowadays in roads getting clogged by hundreds and thousands of cars—like corpuscles in the bloodstream, it was the best and the worst of times. This sounds very Dickensian but 1960, the year in which I was born, was actually quite interestingly poised. Though, I was not aware about it then but the realization has continued to sink in that it wasn’t too long ago that World War II had ended. It was just thirteen years after the partition of British India and the creation of two sovereign nations, India and Pakistan. Those were the times when in cinema halls, a ‘news reel’ in black and white was projected and at the end of the film show, the national anthem was played. Everyone in the hall was obliged to stand up at this juncture as a mark of respect for the anthem and the flag. Some stood up very smartly, in a military fashion, while others got up slowly and sloppily to watch the Indian tricolour (in black and white) waving and fluttering on the screen to the accompaniment of the national anthem, being sung by a chorus from some cryptic spot in the hall. Those were the days when music teachers in school sang hymns of the freedom movement and elderly people wore old-fashioned clothes. Relics of bygone times, they were those who had been born towards the end of the nineteenth century and one after the other they all just disappeared.
Those bygone times! Bhoole Bisre Geet! In a dusty, long forgotten chest, I came across old family albums with black and white or sepia tainted prints in which kids and adults are wearing bell bottom trousers, safari suits, or traditional clothes. During the 1960s, a lot seemed to be happening. The days when being anti-establishment was fashionable, civil rights movement was ongoing in the United States, student’s protests against the country’s involvement in Vietnam, The Beatles, the moon landing, etc. Back then, it seemed the world was both modern and innocent, and for a whole generation Biswin Sadi—the 20th century—was the beginning of their lives.
But, surely, the period also sells well today because the buyers have money in their pockets
People of my cohort i.e. those born in late 1950s or early ’60s, are adults now and in control of the world today. I suspect, perhaps it is due to this reason that many of today’s ‘nostalgia’ films, fiction and works of art hark back to those times. The films are actually about ‘their times’ (‘our’ times), when ‘they/we’ were young. One sees films of that period being subjected to intense scrutiny on radio and television programmes. The films and music of the ’60s and ’70s are considered the ‘Golden years’ or ‘Golden moments’. It was the heydays of the musical greats like Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Asha Bhonsle, Lata Mangeshkar, Suman Kalyanpuri, Talat Mehmood, Manna Dey, Mahinder Kapoor and others, as well as a whole lot of very talented music composers and lyricists in the Hindi film industry.
But, surely, the period also sells well today because the buyers have money in their pockets. One particular Bollywood blockbuster in recent years, Shah Rukh Khan and Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, played exclusively around the period of 1970s and managed, quite successfully, to recreate the ‘retro’ atmosphere of those times, depicting people wearing bell bottom trousers, denim jackets, ladies with broad headbands and stickers of large colourful flowers pasted on cars. Many people born in that period have formed an invisible circle. They remember their times with fondness, as this post on Facebook (whose original author seems difficult to locate) reveals:
Anyone who was BORN in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s….We are the last generation who played in the street. We are the 1st who played video games, the last to record songs off the radio on a cassette tape. We walked over a mile w/no worries on being taken…We learned how to program the VCR before anyone else, we played from Atari to Nintendo…We are the generation of Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons, Captain Kangaroo. We travelled in cars w/out seat belts or air bags, lived without cell phones. We did not have flat screens, surround sound, ipods, Facebook, Twitter, computers or the internet…But nevertheless we had a GREAT time < 3 Re-post if you’re a ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s baby!!
Another post refers to our generation as ‘Limited Edition’:
We are the last generation who listened to their parents, and also the first which has to listen to their children. We are not exactly special; we are LIMITED EDITION.
Suddenly, it seems that everyone is nostalgic. People have started remembering and writing about a variety of things pertaining to the ’60s and ’70s, which they don’t see any more now. For instance, the lost world of letter writing ever since e-mails, sms, WhatsApp, etc. made P&T (Posts and Telegraph)—now called ‘snail mail’, irrelevant; the good old typewriter, our constant companion then, which was pushed into oblivion by the advent of the personal computer; Phantom and Mandrake comics, and all possible other things, not to forget Asterix, the Adventures of Tintin and Commando comics—World War II stories in which British soldiers were depicted as brave fighters and the Germans (jerries) as bungling fools.
In a way, it also seems amazing that having spent their parent’s money on enjoying and living through those times, people are now spending their own money to buy all the junk of yesteryears, and display it as priceless memorabilia
Some enterprising people have also started using memorabilia of those times as decoration items in cafes and restaurants. For instance, a particularly interesting boutique hotel in Dhanachuli in Kumaon, where I stayed in recently, has a quirky restaurant called ‘Cafe Flashback’, stocked with memorabilia of the 1950s and ’60s, such as film posters, adverts of items of merchandise and bill boards of yesteryears. This is clearly making a statement—that the hearts and minds of some people are eternally fixed on the years of their childhood and adolescence. In a way, it also seems amazing that having spent their parent’s money on enjoying and living through those times, people are now spending their own money to buy all the junk of yesteryears, and display it as priceless memorabilia.
Yet, one day for sure, as later cohorts come to assume positions of power and authority and dominate the world, the craze about the 1960s and ’70s will come to pass. The newer generations will recall their own times… the times when they were young and from their perspective the ’60s and ’70s may well appear distant and irrelevant.
Looking back at our growing up years in newly independent India, I realize how much our lives and impressions were dominated by memories and discourses about the partition of British India, and which deeply impacted our psyche. The narratives on partition, mostly penned by middle class authors are numerous, though the most well-known is that of the people who were displaced from western Punjab and fled to India. The survivors told of the horrors and tragedies of the upheaval, the terrible violence which followed as Muslims and Hindus (and Sikhs) clashed in the worst form of communal frenzy. Indeed, the works of several writers such as Sadat Hasan Manto, Amrita Pritam, and many others, provide a vivid description of those times and the madness which gripped the entire North Indian belt. The experiences of the displaced persons and their attempts to rebuilt their lives has been documented in television serials such as the hugely popular 1980s’ Doordarshan serial Buniyad besides, of course several Hindi films.
Jamil Urfi has an abiding interest in history, architecture, period publications and popular cinema of the 1960s and 70s—themes which figure prominently in his recently published book ‘Biswin Sadi Memoirs – Growing up in Delhi during the 1960s and ’70s’. He lives and works in Delhi