Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Memories of Bombay

By Lajwanti S Khemlani

When I think of Bombay, I remember the occasional summer holidays I had with my mother at my massi’s house on Marine Drive, A Road. Typically arriving around noon from Poona, we were used to getting picked up by massi’s daughter-in-law, Aunty Monica. If she couldn’t make it, she would send someone or the other to bring us home.

I remember once we took a taxi and got to their flat on our own. In a quiet voice my mother had given the address to the driver and before we knew it we were by the Arabian Sea, even I recognised that. It is then we knew that we were not far off. Since it was lunch time, we were served food. We napped and then Aunty Monica took her daughter and me for a stroll on the Marine Drive and treated us to cool coconut water; something I had only when we visited them.

The days that followed were filled with various outings. She took us to the famous Kailash Parbat Restaurant in Colaba, among other eating places. Of course, since we were kids and she knew we’d enjoy Chowpatty, she took us there. For shopping we went to Linking Road, Bandra. At that young age, I did not quite understand why we had to go all the way there as opposed to somewhere else?

I still remember Aunty Monica saying, today we will go to so and so place in Colaba for lunch, for the best pao bhaji. “Why all the way there and what was the big deal about that particular dish?” I wondered. After all it meant nothing but bread and vegetables. It was only when I saw the huge crowd waiting to be served that I understood that this was indeed a famous joint.

Is it any wonder then that even now when I see the mouth-watering soft small breads and sizzling vegetable puree with onion slivers, hot green chillies, and fresh kothmir (coriander leaves) that my mind flashes right back to Bombay? The same goes for lychees. The very first time the firm moist fruit touched my lips was in Bombay, since then I am somewhat partial to them, in spite of their prickly exterior.

It used to be a thrill to be able to poke my head out of the balcony windows and look to the right to see the magnificent Indian Ocean right there, smell the salt in the air, and see the birds fly over. To the left, to see students entering the college close by, girls dressed up in as was fashionable in those days, tight short skirts; with boys hanging around on scooters and motorcycles, looking dashing.

Is it any wonder then that Bombay still holds a special place in my heart? That I love the sea? That unless I go to a beach or for a holiday by the sea I feel something is missing. To my ten- to twelve-year-old mind, Bombay was a city of excesses and glamour. I saw people spend a lot of money. How was I to know anything else, when my massi lived in what seemed like a mansion of a flat and had a cook and a maid who waited hand and foot on the family?

From a young age, I had the impression that in Bombay one dressed up fashionably. That it was easy to distinguish between outsiders from the natives. But if you were sharp enough, no one would find out that you really did not belong, that if you used words like ekdum and bindaas no one would know the difference.

Each fun-filled holiday ended with taking many gifts back home. Both maasi and aunty were very kind that way. They always made sure that we took several sweet, succulent, mangoes back home with us.

Years later on my visit to Poona, I landed at the Bombay International Airport, something I always did, even though I could have flown to Delhi and then from there to Poona. This time, the plan was to spend more than the usual few hours at the airport. This time, I was planning on spending two whole days in the fast-growing cosmopolitan city.

As a tourist, I had to ensure that I got from Point A to Point B: safe and sound. After years of watching numerous Bollywood films, I was convinced that if I were not careful, I could be duped or seriously hurt. Even though I was not alone, it was my country of birth but not my friend’s who was travelling with me. I felt I had to look out for both of us.

Our recent adventures in Bombay began with one particular taxi that we got into at the airport. My friend politely waited in the long, serpentine queue for the taxi. “Get in the front,” I urgently commanded under my breath. “No,” he whispered.

“Look, it’s already 9 o’clock; we don’t want to get in the taxi too late. I’ve never done this before: get in a cab all alone in Bombay and that too at night,” I spoke fast and firmly hoping he would quickly come around. “Fortunately I’m wearing my kurti,” I thought. It was something I had changed into before leaving the airport, to give me more courage and to fit in.

By some miracle, in spite of the several families and other foreigners, I got ahead and even managed to get into a taxi even as the airport police were taking down the details. My friend had no choice but to join me just in case the taxi driver took off without him.

“This is Bombay,” I reminded him. “We have to be fast,” I whispered, “and please let me do the talking, at least with the driver.” I said feeling smug since I knew the language. My friend complied without any hesitation. Knowing him well, I knew he would find comfort in the fact that at least someone had information on us as to where we were headed. I was happy that the police had written down the taxi number and my name.

I believed the driver knew where he was going. Why wouldn’t I? It turned out after what seemed like 30 minutes or so, he said he needed to ask for exact directions.

So we stopped at an ST stand. “Okay,” I said in a bold voice in Hindi. After consulting with a man in white kurta-pajama, the driver turned around to say, “he is going where the hotel is, needs a lift, will be a good idea to take him along, we will not get lost.”

“My worst dream was coming true,” I thought. “What have I done to us?” Quickly translating to my friend I okayed the driver, but was distressed, tried to conceal it lest I gave my fear away. Throughout the drive I kept thinking, “worst comes to worst, I will jump out from the car; hopefully my friend will follow.”

Within few minutes, the driver dropped off the man and he pulled into the hotel drive.

Needless to say, once inside the hotel, we both thanked our lucky stars for nothing horrible happening to us.

There was another incident where I had unknowingly overpaid the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum) ticket collector. As we were walking away, he said, “Madam, your change.” Thanking him I walked away only to be called back again to say that I could get a handicapped ticket, since I had a limp. “But,” I said. “Why waste money,” he said kind-heartedly.

Again I had been wearing a kurti. “Surely I sounded like I had not lived there for a while,” I thought. Instead of ripping me off, here was a low-wage earning administrator who was honest, when he could have so very easily pocketed the money.

I felt a renewed sense of pride for having been born in India and felt the sense of belonging in one of the world famous cities. It is not as if I felt like an outsider in the United States; it’s just that this felt good. And here I thought, just because I was with a foreign man, I would be looked at differently, perhaps even treated differently, meaning badly. On the contrary, I was treated very much as if I was no different.

As it happens when you are enjoying, time flies. Of course, we visited a couple of childhood haunts that I could remember. We had the famous parathas among other dishes at Kailash Parbat. But we also went to places that I had not been to before. Like the Taj Sea Lounge for a light lunch the next day. The view from the restaurant of the sea, The Gateway of India, boats going off to Elephanta Island and seeing children play outside was delightful.

Seeing Bombay through my British friend’s eyes was interesting. Walking by the sea, on Marine Drive, he said, “If this was some other country, the seaside houses would be fancier.” Away from the sea, he marvelled at the façade of the old, well-preserved, buildings. “Amazing,” he said. “We have many of them in London, but these look so much better.”

Most fascinating to him was the gothic Victoria Terminus Train Station architecture. Seeing the inside of the station impressed him even more. “How clean the floors are,” he whispered. “What do you mean”? I asked. “Considering the crowds and everything, the station is remarkably clean.” I felt as if I was personally responsible for the upkeep of one of the famous landmarks.

We were also impressed with the mid-afternoon quietness. “Perhaps it is because people are at work. This happens to be the richest city and the financial hub of India, you know,” I said.

Coffee breaks in cafés like Leopold exposed us to yet a different side of Bombay. It felt as if were in some other country, since never before had I seen so many western customers in one restaurant.

Then this last time when we were in Bombay, we visited the Juhu area and Linking Road. The contrast in the two localities really stands out much more if you go to both areas on the same day.

Whereas Juhu was all about boutique stores, smart-looking sales people, and brand name billboards, Linking Road was more about clothes, bags of all sorts, footwear of every imaginable size and colours all out on display on carts, walls, doors, basically anywhere and everywhere you could hang.

Be careful, I warned, “could get your pocket picked.” Again we got back to our hotel rooms unharmed. Seeing the crowds, I was certain that we would be jostled this way and that way. But to my pleasant surprise, people moved aside or we moved aside, no pushing and no shoving.

Of course, we felt it would be a shame not to go to Juhu beach just before sunset and watch the fiery orange ball go down every second. It was fascinating to see the different crowds on the beach at different times of the day.

Before sunset, it was all about families and young couples eating, playing, holding hands, trying not to cuddle and generally having a gala time with all the pao bhaji, corn on the cob roasted right before your eyes, bhel puri, pani puri, coconut water… In the mornings before nine it was more the joggers and the others who walked to get their exercise in before they get busy. Of course, since it was Saturday there were young boys playing cricket on the beach.

How very different from the States we thought. Many other places in the world are interesting and even charming, but that does mean you visit again. Or the charm is lasting. Bombay certainly is one of those places that you either love or hate. And I love it, for everything that it is, it has, and it stands for. I wanted to visit again, because it brought back pleasant childhood memories and because it made sense to go back again, instead of the usual stopovers at the airport, which incidentally are now better organised in terms of general facilities and taxis. You don’t have the janta right in your face when you step outside to hail a taxi, especially for those who do are visiting and have no one to pick them up, this is a relief.

If charming can be defined as compelling attractiveness, then Bombay has it. We were compelled to visit twice in four years and for me to come back again and again before me teenage years. Granted, when I was young, it was up to my family, but it was I who had most recently chosen to come back to the charming Bombay again.


Bob said...

Reading this makes me want to go back to India soon. The author has done a good job.

georgem said...

A delightful article that evokes feelings of having been there.

Sumiren said...

Awesome article! Makes you feel like you're right there!

ariyah said...

This I enjoyed...being a foreigner and constantly finding my way back to India time and time again, something about the hustle and bustle that I'm attracted to.
Well done

deepa said...

how nostalgic! brings back memories of my holidays at masi's place at marine drive. after reading the article,its like reliving it.

Jack said...

Excellent article! I liked the blend of childhood and adult impressions. Bombay sounds like an amazing city.

Laju K. said...

I was hoping you would read it, Deepa. You can tell, I miss those days! I miss us all, thanks to Bombay. Pass it on to Nimu and all others. I'm sure they will all feel the same.
Lajwanti Khemlani
(Laju K.)

Peter DeYoe said...

Good afternoon Laju:

I enjoyed your writing on Bombay, from your early years and again from your most recent trip. I hope to one day see this wonderful city, the people, the history and shoeline along the Indian Ocean

Laju K. said...

We can land in Mumbai, sorry, Bombay, and have the editor show us around. What say, Sunil?

Karuna said...

Nice article Laju. Very positive, very nostalgic and compelling others to visit the city :). I especially liked the words you used to wrap it up. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Shelby said...

Wow Laju!
What a treat it is to read about your fantastic childhood and to get to journey into your culture firsthand! I congratulate you on your memoir! I am very impressed (and you look beautiful too, as always).

Frog Books said...

i laju, of course i will take you and your friends around, and show the real underbelly of bombay? how about a tour to the underworld of bombay?!!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an experience; might take you up on it, sunil. Laju