'Taj Mahal Foxtrot' author riffs on Mumbai's forgotten jazz age

Naresh Fernandes speaks at the Indian Summer Festival July 18 about India's history of jazz, a Cold War propaganda tool of the U.S. 

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Fernandes: (Laughs) I can’t confirm that.

NN: Do you feel like you were given the Sean Parker treatment?

Fernandes: Listen, I’m a fat, old man. To be played by him is to be flattered (chuckles).  

NN: Speaking of Bollywood, let’s address the elephant in the room: Bombay Velvet. I understand your book was instrumental in setting characters — particularly Anushka Sharma’s character — and I would imagine Anurag must have consulted you for recreating the milieu for the film.

Fernandes: (Chuckles) He didn’t talk to me at all. So Gyan Prakash, who scripted the film, is a close buddy of mine. He and I talked about this a lot; he was instrumental in helping me imagine how the book should move forward. But I think what the production crew got out of it was that they looked at the pictures in my books and they recreated the look of the film based on that. I had no formal involvement with the film but I wish I had because they would have paid me (laughs). 

NN: When I was growing up, my friends and I were often told this apocryphal tale about an adolescent Freddie Mercury taking the stage at Jazz By The Bay. That, of course, turned out to be complete malarkey.  

Fernandes: Yes (chortles). That wouldn’t have been possible because the place didn’t exist then. Besides, he spent most of his early years at a boarding school in Panchgani and later spent all his time denying that he was Indian.  

NN: I’ve trawled through the web but I couldn’t find anything suggesting that he was alive to the jazz scene in south Bombay. Did your research turn up any interesting connections in this regard?

Fernandes: I don’t know if you’ve read Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet. The central character is Freddie Mercuryesque. And Salman was taken as a child to jam sessions every Sunday and some of these musicians have found their way in his work. Salman has the most astonishing memory, so he remembers names of musicians he knew when he was 12 years old. And it all comes together in The Ground Beneath Her Feet in terms of recreating a musical milieu of the city which was at the cusp between jazz and rock 'n' roll.   

NN: You’re one of the few authors who has created an online appendage to your book. 

Fernandes: So the website only came up because I had all these stories that couldn’t make their way into the book. But it’s been amazing because the chaps who couldn’t buy the book overseas found its music and characters via the website. It’s been the most astonishing thing; there were 80-year-old women sitting in Australia who are googling the names of their friends who died 50 years ago. And they sent me e-mails saying I thought I should "share this story about my friend and here’s his picture from 1962." So I’ve received a lot of such messages, including from people in Canada who’ve shared interesting stories about what happened after such and such concert and performance. And we’re uploading this information on the website and, because of this, two families have been united. And it’s a real treat to see that happen.  

NN: A lot of people landed up in your trade because they wanted to write. Yet the bulk of them spend their entire careers in the newsroom having written nothing but news copy. As a jobbing writer, how do you find the time to work as a fill-time editor and focus on your creative endeavours at the same time? 

Fernandes: Actually, I had no intentions of being a writer. I worked on this while I was editing Time Out magazine. And I would use all my vacation to write it which is why it stretched on for eight years. But maybe that is because I’m a lazy bugger (laughs).

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