TRIBUTE: Ali Peter john plays a tribute to his daughter Swati, who is a film producer and director of several popular television serials. We also get glimpse of Ali Peter John’s struggles when his rich Muslim family deserted him after his father’s death. His father was the brother of the famous ornithologist Salim Ali after whom a bird sanctuary has been named on Chorao island – Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary

Ali Peter John, veteran film journalist, who worked for Screen – the country’s only film weekly in a plot sheet form — pays a tribute to his daughter who has maintained the musical tradition of the family.

By Ali Peter John

ON this New Year’s day which is an auspicious day for many but a day like any other day for me, I want to make a solemn confession and that is that I have been an idiot and a fool who knows very little or nothing about life, but who is blessed to know everything about love.
I first discovered that I could write good English when my class teacher in the 9th standard, Mr Linus Cerejo, called me out in class and said, “What English you write, man, dha dha dha.” The whole class looked at me as if I had committed a crime but they didn’t know that my teacher was paying me the first big compliment in my life. I continued writing and was next applauded for my writing in English when professor M.Y. Khan wrote “Outstanding,” “Excellent” and “Exceptional” in my English tutorial book.
It was only when I lost in love for the first time that I wrote a piece titled “The end of the road” and this was something I had not shown anyone, not even to the girl I loved and who had gone to join her God who she loved more than any human being or any other being.
That was, I think, the beginning of the writer in me and I continued writing whenever and wherever I could. I wrote on the back and front of my palms and on every finger and sometimes even on my stomach. I wrote on bus tickets, train tickets and plane tickets and I had written in places like some remote Muslim kabristans, in the offices of motor driving schools and even in far away gardens where I could find solitude and could write in the crowded compartments of trains and while travelling by bus.
My mother who had once seen me scribbling even believed that I have gone mad and asked priests to pray over me and to pray for me, but nothing could stop me from my madness.

Imaginary piece!
I had started writing for “Screen” and some local newspapers and church bulletins, but I first earned recognition when I wrote an imaginary piece on my new born daughter without even knowing what it meant to have a daughter. I was so creative in school that I even created my own algebra and wrote eight pages of what I thought was algebra and my maths teacher Mr Durando was so impressed with my self – discovered algebra that he displayed my answer sheet before the whole class and said, “This boy has created his own algebra and has written eight pages in which he has just added and minused a formula but I cannot help it, I am giving him a big zero.”
That was the end of any ambition I had to do anything with maths, but that is another story. I still can’t understand a thing about maths even now and to add to my misery, now I have my mobile which is very faithful to me but I am not because I can’t make head or tail of all the so called apps and other things which my friends say are huge blessings to them…
Let me not drift and come back to writing about my only daughter, Swati, even though I know she will not like my writing about her like she used to not like it when I used to praise her when she got excellent marks when she was in school or college.
Swati was born in the maternity hospital of Dr CF Barfiwala, who was my wife’s boss at the Bhabha Hospital in Bandra. I had only heard about labour pains but that evening when I took Usha (who was to be my wife later) to the maternity hospital, I not only realised what those labour pains were, but I even shed copious tears in the cab. Swati was born a caeserean baby and when I was told about her birth, I rushed to the maternity hospital, I was shocked to see the mother and the baby lying with their eyes shut but the nurses told me that they were perfectly alright. I told the nurses that I would come back after some time and rushed to the closest Brijwasi sweet shop and bought five kilos of barfi and distributed it in my village, Kondivita, and I was shocked when people passed comments like “Yeh kyun mithaai baant raha hai?” And, “Beti ke paida hone par koi mithai baanta hai kya?” I cared two hoots for what people said and went back to the hospital to see both the mother and baby safe and sound. I welcomed the baby home with roses all the way and I had already decided to name her Swati which meant a rare star.
Swati had to spend the first three years of her life with her grandparents in Kondivita and I used to visit her once in a week on Thursdays with all kinds of gifts for which I was fired by the people around. “What will this little baby do with all those gifts that you bring week after week?” Swati’s grandmother asked me every week but I didn’t stop buying her as many gifts as I could.
It was time for Swati to go to school and I wanted her to get admitted to the best school in the area which was the Divine Child High School for girls which was also the school where Madhuri Dixit had studied. The nuns of the school told me that I couldn’t get admission for Swati because she belonged to a different area. I was worried, but I also knew how to make the nuns happy. It was a fair organised by the nuns and I knew that they wanted some film star to inaugurate the fair, and I spoke to my friends Anil Kapoor and Deepti Naval and they agreed to be the chief guests at the inauguration. The way the nuns and teachers and students reacted, I knew I would now not have any major problem in getting Swati admitted to the school.
Swati had to appear for a test before the Principal, Sister Geneveive, who asked asked Swati only one question and that was, “What is this?” And the nun showed her a banana and Swati who was otherwise very bright couldn’t tell the nun that it was a banana. I felt she had lost her chance to get admitted to the school, but when the list was put up, I saw Swati’s name right on top. That was the beginning of Swati’s schooling days and she was always known as the bright girl and who never complained or cried.
But when she was in the 9th standard she came to me and told me that she didn’t want to study in that convent school and asked me to get her admitted to a school close to our house and it was only three months to go before the SSC exams. I spoke to my friend Shabnam Kapoor, whose brother was the principal of the Chidren’s Welfare High School, and the principal said he could give her admission if he was promised that she would score more than 70% marks in the board exams. I gave him that promise, Swati got 75% marks and she was then admitted to the Sophia College for girls, again run by nuns, and after the first year, she said she wanted to change and she got admitted to another good college, the Ruparel College in Dadar and she passed out with distinction.
It was only when she was 16 that she told me that she wanted to take up a job, and I only told my friend Anupam Kher to take her as an apprentice in his company and Anupam took her on and she turned out to be one of the best assistants to Anupam Kher who wanted her to stay on, but Swati wanted to specialize in writing. I got her admitted to the writing department of Subhash Ghai and she was brainstorming with minds like Ghai and his team of writers Ram Kelkar, Sachin Bhowmick, Kamlesh Pandey and other writers and they all found her to be a very talented writer in the making, who had a command over both English and Hindi, but Swati was not very excited with the kind of work that was being done.

Media person
Then she joined Balaji Telefilms which she left within three days because she saw the boss kicking her staff when she wanted something to be done or when they were exhausted and were asleep. Swati then wanted to try her talent in the media and she was lucky to find her first job as a reporter in “The Indian Express” which was the company I had worked for 48 years. But she never sought my help, or didn’t use my name when she went for an interview for a job. From “Indian Express” she went to “Mid-Day” where she was appointed the head of health affairs, and from “Mid-Day” she wanted to try television media and joined “Times Now” — where she made a name for herself when she interviewed celebrities and especially filmstars.
I received a call from the actress Tanuja one evening and she asked, “Kya re Ali, teri koi beti bhi hai, tune bataaya nahi.” And before I could say anything, she said, “Toofan hai toofan, tu kuch bhi nahin hai uske saamne,” and frankly I never felt so happy in my life. But Swati also had time to fall in love with a dashing young man called Robin Singhvi and before she could switch over to another job, she was in Denver in America with her husband and even before I knew what she was really doing, I heard one of my friends telling me that Swati had made a documentary called “We, The People” which had become very popular especially among the immigrants in America.
She did not have a work permit and was lucky to return home just four days before the great Prime Minister roared on TV, “Aap log jahaan baithe ho, vahaan baithe raho” and it was the beginning of one lockdown after another. However, that couldn’t stop the adventurous spirit in Swati and she joined a content creating company and is now the creative head of the company even though she works from home.
I have just received the good news about her being the writer and producer of a docu film made about women farmers in Maharashtra for which she and her team have been declared the winners of the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism. Goenka was the founder of “The Indian Express” where I worked for 48 years. And see how the wheel comes full circle with Swati receiving the prestigious award named after Ramnath Goenka, the man who gave journalism in India a new direction and mission which seems to be under threat these days.
I know that I am reacting as a father but I also know that the world would be proud of her achievements someday, soon. And my only wish for Swati is that her mother, Usha, knows the value of what her little daughter has achieved. And has the will to win in what is still called the man’s world.


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