Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Three Reminders

By Abhinav Maurya

The Oldest Bombay Bitch

‘The very oldest?’

‘Yeah miyan, the very oldest…’

‘How old?’

‘Old enough to be your grandma’s grandma. How do I know how old? She is the oldest. Isn’t that enough for you?’

‘Truly?’

‘Period.’

‘An old crone,’ Reddy whispered in awe.

‘An old crone, but her haunches are as sturdy as steel. I tell you Reddy, she does not as much as flinch when I pant atop her.’

‘But Mirza, it’s pathetic. She must smell like a garbage van in bed.’

‘She smells worse. But can’t help it. She’s the cheapest in town — unless you manage to corner one of the younger ones who’re new to the trade, and have reputations befitting neither the day nor night.’

‘Must have one helluva pimp.’

‘No, no… No pimps she has… She is too popular without any pimps…’

‘But doesn’t her old, wrinkled face put you off?’

‘Who cares? As long as she makes you go dhak-dhak with the effort, gasping and sucking air out of her lungs and cursing her for it,’ Mirza chuckled.

‘What the heck!’

‘She’s so hot and feverish and all that people are known to die of extreme concupiscence, hanging on for dear life till their very last breath.’

‘The goddamn bitch!’ Reddy cried out in frenzy, and his excitement made him wring his hands in despair.

‘And she has absolutely no qualms about taking in as many men as she can at a time. Even women Reddy, can you believe that!’

‘Saali, besharam!’

‘All for a few coins… All for the sake of a few measly coins…’ Mirza waved his hands in the air at the inequity of fate.

‘How can you even bear to visit her?’

‘What do you mean? Even the holier-than-thou Mayor Saab from London felt obliged to call upon her when he paid a visit to Bombay.’

Reddy’s eyes, which had until now been growing wide with puzzlement, narrowed in suspicion.

‘Who is this Grand Dame of whores?’

‘You know her well… She is the oldest Bombay bitch ever — the promiscuous Bombay Rail!’

A Lost World

It is dusk in this city Imtiyaz calls his own. He looks at the rouge horizon for a long time as if searching for something, a lost jewel perhaps. The sun that had lent the sea its gentle, liquid refulgence is no more; the Necklace is lit up along its length by a string of pale, sickly streetlights beyond which is the growing blanket of a dark, inky night. His gaze ventures below, onto the thoroughfare that races along the seaface. People are walking ways that lead nowhere, occasionally shooing away shouters-o'-wares who accost them. Abba once told him — the secret of a successful city is that it can stoke desires in the minds of men which it can never satisfy.

Abba… shores apart… in another city… Venice… It holds Imtiyaz’s childhood in the twittering of its birds and the rocking of its gondolas. Nafasat has come with news that abba is ill, but in his mind’s eye, Imtiyaz can still see abbu happy, singing a Khamaj in the dead of the night besides the lapping waters of the lagoons… ni ni sa pa ni sa ga ma ga ma pa ni dha…

‘Brother, brother…say something.’

‘Nafasat, Bombay is as much my city as Venice is abbu’s. Why does abbu not come here once in a while? Or maybe for the rest of his days? This is after all the city of his childhood.’

‘You know very well that he won’t leave Venice. He has been worrying sick for you the last one year, neither able to keep away from, nor able to reconcile himself to the horror of the riots. He has been crying like a baby, seeing Bombay sundered apart thus. This city is not safe for Muslims the way it used to be. Besides do you not have any affection for the place that you grew up in?’

Venice was my childhood, but Bombay is the place I have grown up in, the place that peoples my living memory. If Venice is my hazy subconsciousness, then Bombay is the consciousness that shaped it. You know I will not be able to establish myself in Venice the way I am rooted in Bombay. The logjam of rains, the cool breeze of winters, and the sweltering summer sun. Quiet walks on noisy beaches. Boisterous Gujarati theatre. Somnolent Irani cafes. Shaam-e-Gazals. The roaring sea and the verdant arbors. And most important of all, the students’ daily riyaz. Many have kept their children under my tutelage only on my assurances. What will these tiny tots do without me? What will I do without them? You are asking me to give up too much, little sister of mine!’

‘But you are only twenty-five! Look at you… At this age, you banter as if you are the only one who can tutor them. Surely there are other ustads who can do that.’

‘What will abbu think if I leave my disciples like this?’

‘You are bothered about what abbu will think, but do not care for abbu himself or for his health. How are you to know that you will gladden his heart by returning to him!’

‘Who sent me away in the first place? It was abbu who sent me away from him to Bombay. Perhaps he sensed a loss by sending me away, so he didn’t send you here. You were lucky but I was the one who suffered.’

‘It’s not true, brother. We both know that. It was Nadira Aunt — may peace be upon her soul — who dragged you away from abbu to live with her in this wretched city.’

‘But she couldn’t have done that if abbu had willed it otherwise.’

‘How could have abbu willed otherwise? Poor Aunt Nadira (for Nafasat still thought of her stepmother as her aunt), living alone in this city all by herself. Abbu told me he feared for her sanity or he would have never sent you away. Today he needs you more than ever.’

‘But if I leave, I’ll be called a coward who ran for his life.’

‘Staying in the shackles of expectations is bigger cowardice, my brother. Are you not a coward running away from your father when he needs you the most?’

‘Cowardice is of the color of fate, different for each person. We all are running away from something or the other.’

‘Running away doesn’t help things, brother.’

‘Let’s run away from this talk of comings and goings. Tell me more about Venice. Is it the same as when I left it?’

‘Very much. The baker on our canal died and now we have to row farther to get bread. I usually send abbu to fetch bread; along with bread, he brings back some of the good humour of his old times.’ Nafasat was relieved when the memory of abbu’s wittiness brought a smile to Imtiyaz’s face.

‘And you remember the concert hall a few lanes off; it has been converted into a local museum. The details might have changed, but the fabric of the city is the same.’

‘Can’t say the same about Bombay though. It is a scarred city. Before the riots, parents of many of my Muslim students would be attired traditionally when they would come to pick up their children after the classes. Now, nobody wears even a skullcap. All shave their long beards of which they were so proud until yesterday. They are even frightened of being called abbu or ammi in public. When I asked one of my students why he had remained absent for a long time after the riots, he told me that that his father had promised to cane him ten times if he dared utter abbu or ammi in public. The punishment went up — from twenty to fifty, then a hundred canings, can you believe that – until the poor boy finally acquired the faculty to forget the word when he ventured outside home. After the riots, Bombay never seemed to go back to her same old self again. It seemed as if she were in a perpetual mourning for the loss of her hauteur.’

A wry smile crept across Nafasat’s lips.

‘What are you smiling at? I’m talking about Bombay burning in the riots. What’s so funny about that?’

‘No, nothing… It was just that you said she… as if the city were a living person.’

At this, Imtiyaz said nothing but waved his hand about in the air as if it were an inconsequential flourish of the tongue.

‘Why don’t you come with me to Venice, Imtiyaz?’ He notices the use of his name by his little half-sister, for she rarely does so.

‘Abbu wrote in his letter that you are engaged to be married.’

‘Yes.’ She shows him her ring, an answer cast in pale Welsh gold. Small answers for big questions, as if the answers were not important at all, at least nowhere as important as the questions.

‘Rich groom for my darling sister. Who is he?’

‘You remember the young cellist who came to dine the last time you visited us.’

‘Musician! You had said you will never marry a musician.’

‘His name is Frederi Modigliani. He would often come by in a gondola to listen to abbu solmizing in the night. Abbu tried teaching him some pieces, but he sings real bad. Now he just carries an Indian violin which abbu gifted and taught him, and accompanies abbu in his riyaz.

‘Is he abbu’s choice or yours? Nafa, don’t lose out on yourself.’

‘Abbu considers him like a son. After losing you, he does not want to lose another.’

‘What are you saying? He has not lost me!’

‘Yes, we have lost you. We are losing you to this wretched city which has a way of justifying itself and its rights and wrongs. We are losing you to the murky depths which made abbu leave this city thirty years ago. And we don’t know what to do.’

‘It was not Bombay that drove abbu crazy. It was having two wives in the same city that did him in.’ Imtiyaz smiles a wry smile, a smile without reason or joy, indeed without any feeling — the way a Bombayite may smile when confronted with the grim reality of truth.

Nafasat looks at Imtiyaz with incredulity — it pains her to hear her brother make such a sardonic comment, her brother who has always been so gentle and kind and soft-spoken. Imtiyaz realizes that he has trespassed the unspoken limits to their conversation, and he makes a swift detour.

‘You don’t have to do anything. I’ll not shift to Venice.’

It is late in the evening and the breeze blows wildly, like the harmless anger of an old crone. The raucous call of the brainfever bird cuts through the cold air like knives through ice.

It occurs to Imtiyaz that time has been a cruel fiend. Bound by their singular love of music amidst a sea of differences; hadn’t he and Nafa lived through the arduous journey of impressions, losses and realization together, no questions asked? How many times had they looked for meaning and found it in the turbulence of each other’s hearts? How many times had one’s mind been troubled only to find succor in the silence of the other? How many times had they searched for solace only to find it in the loss that their eyes held? Now it seems to Imtiyaz that they no more understand each other the way they used to when they were small.

He looks unperturbed, fatalistic, dangerously teetering on the brink of indifference. Nafasat gets up, and takes his face in her hands, holding his gaze in an ultimate act of defiance. He thinks her eyes will bore into him like an auger, but they are filled with stern compassion, the way ammi’s eyes used to be when she silently mourned the loss of her husband by talking of him for hours on end and vainly singing the thumries that spoke with greater leisure of her parting and longing than speech would have permitted. Sometimes when Imtiyaz saw his ammi singing in a poorly attended concert at one of the seedy crumbling concert halls of old Bombay, it occurred to him that her face was contorted with a grief much beyond the ecstasy of the music that she was singing. He of course never found out what it was, never had a way of finding out… But he knew it had something to do with abbu, and he never forgave abbu for that.

‘Listen Nafa, I have stayed too long here to think of moving anyplace else.’

‘I understand. But think about abbu. He is dying, Imtiyaz.’

Startled, Imtiyaz turns around to face his sister. ‘What do you mean? You told me he was just ill.’

‘He is ailing, Imtiyaz. He did not want me to tell you this, but I have no other way. Come away Imtiyaz. Don’t hold such a long grudge against your own father. He has not been able to live in peace. Let him die in peace by forgiving him.’

‘If this is what you want, I will come.’

‘I’ll call abbu and tell him. He will be very happy… very very happy.’ Before he can begin protesting, Nafasat goes away to make the call.

Imtiyaz is surprised at his quick assent, at the weakness of his resolve to never leave the city that gave him his first guru after abbu and his first small recognitions as a Sitar exponent before he was even known outside India. He understands his despondency and the cause of it, but fails to comprehend the agility with which it takes hold of everything inside him, even his memories of living by the sea in a city called Bombay. He just watches the bleak horizon for a long time. That is all he can do right now.

Perched on the high bough of a nearby acacia, the brainfever bird looks down upon Imtiyaz with haughty smugness and a beady eye and flies to another bough, another abode, and another story.

An Elegy For Bombay

There is no other place quite like Bombay, the city of poised extremes — of comic hatreds and tragic love, of sad lives and joyous deaths, of shallow delights and imagined sorrows — and everything en route.

A city of unending chaos that fills your ears like a thousand bees droning at once; of wide, impassable roads which grow ever so convoluted that playing chess a hundred moves ahead is easier than finding your way out of the labyrinth; and of the unending quagmire that ensues when one thinks of making home of a city where even the rooftops of the trains get squatted upon. A city that holds alcohol scarcer than bread and bread scarcer than goodwill and goodwill the scarcest of all. And in the end, simply India’s only truly cosmopolitan city.

That’s Bombay for the uninitiated. Because it’s victims need no introductions of the city to which their fates are as inextricably and irredeemably tied as flame to the wick of a lamp.

2 comments:

abha said...

This is by far the best stuff I have read on this issue of Urban Voice.
This writer shall go a long way, if he has not already.
Loved the first of the "Three Reminders" especially.

Ishtaar said...

Beautiful... :)