Through my window

Bombay meri jaan

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Gateway of India. This early 20th century colonial memorial is iconic of Mumbai. Photo: V. Vedhachalam

A view of Mumbai with its skyscrapers. Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

BOMBAY, which once Octavio Paz saw as a city “animated by vice and money”, filling him with “dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea, inescapable attraction” occasioned by its “excess of reality”, still remains one of the world’s most iconic cities and has been since its inception the subject of several books including individual works such as The Origin of Bombay by Gerson da Cunha, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay by Naresh Fernandes, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope by Mariam Dossal, Bombay Then /Mumbai Now by Jim Masselos, Naresh Fernandes and Chirodeep Chaudhuri, as well as anthologies like Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Bombay (ed. Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes), Bombay to Mumbai: Changing Perspectives (ed. Pauline Rohtagi, Pheroza Godrej and Rahul Mehrotra) and Bombay:The Cities Within (ed. Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi), to cite just a few examples, not to speak of the innumerable novels, short stories, poems, plays and films based on or inspired by life in the city.

Bombay’s fascination comes from many sources: its deep history, its colonial past, the impact of Partition on its cosmopolitan character, its present with its signs of decay, its links with opium, silk and cotton trades, its huge working class with its own history of struggles, its caves, religious monuments and places of worship, its forested tracts, its cosmopolitan populace representing the whole of India and more, its unique place on the Indian literary map, its vibrant theatre and spectacular film industry, its busy days and nights, its many secret charms from the opium dens—made newly famous by Jeet Thayil’s seductive novel Narcopolis—to its dance bars and red streets.

By a strange coincidence, two books on the seemingly inexhaustible theme, Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions, a beautifully designed non-fiction work on the megapolitan hub by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor (Niyogi Books, Delhi, 2013) and The Bombay Quartet, a series of four novellas by the late Dilip Chitre (translated from Marathi by Jayant Deshpande, Paperwall, Bombay, 2013) reached me the same week, persuading me to make a virtue of the accident and devote my column this month to these two books that charmed me in quite different ways.

Ranjit Hoskote’s short introductory note places Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions in perspective. The book, he rightly observes, offers “a richly informed, visually splendid account of India’s most fascinating yet exasperating city: unquiet home to upwards of 20 million people, a tapestry woven equally by natives and outsiders… a turbulent citadel nourished for millennia by migration from the distant corners of India and the earth”. Further ahead he observes how “the tension between the survivor and the celebrant, and between the mirage of consumerism and the nightmare of dispossession, imparts an urgency to this book, which lifts it above the customary narratives of nostalgia or complaint”.

The coffee table book that runs into 278 richly illustrated pages with its poetry and passion, historical asides and contemporary insights, amply bears out Hoskote’s prefatory statement. The first part of the title, Bombay/Mumbai, reflects the dichotomies that shoot through the city that has its double existence as a hard cartographic, demographic and statistical reality and as an imagined, subjective construct, a site of aspirations, illusions and nightmares . Immersions, the second title, reminds us of Ganesh Chaturthi, the city’s most popular festival that concludes with the ritual immersion of the idol of the Lord of Beginnings in the sea, thus suggesting the many new beginnings the city has had in its long history as the gateway of India as also the newer and newer forms and hues the city puts on when seasons, concepts and paradigms of understanding and interpretation change. It stands, too, for the submergence into the revealed and unrevealed dimensions of the city and the surrender to the search without pre-designed navigational maps.

The book is a unique product of a chance meeting between Christopher Taylor, who has been photographing Bombay for years, and Priya Sarukkai Chabria, well-known poet and fiction writer who decided to collaborate on the production of a new book on the city they have always loved. To quote Priya: “Together, Christopher and I wished to trace the flow of time through this city: how different parts of the city seem to exist, side by side, in different time zones. We wished to mark the different beats of time in the to and fro of traffic and tide, to explore its efflorescence in the movement of migration and economic growth and spatial engorgement, to chart the shifting course of its many dreams and its multiple narratives. We hoped, thus, to arrive at a kaleidoscopic map of this city of bonded islands.”

Christopher Taylor, too, has given his own account of his involvement in the project that began with a series of photographs of the interiors of the heritage buildings in Mumbai (and in Kolkata) in 2003 and then grew over the years into his preoccupation for many winters and the subject of several exhibitions he was invited to hold. The team refrained largely from elaborating the much-documented areas of south Bombay and the northern sections of Bombay’s so-called eastern “seaboard” and left out the playing fields of cricket, crime and commerce that are featured prominently in other books.

The book has five parts: “Concrete to Basalt”, where the photographer and the narrator travel through the several pasts of the city; “Mosaics of Movement”, where they look at tides, traffic, commerce and migration that make Bombay a dynamic city that is literally on the move; “South to North”, a visual, if poetic, journey through the megapolis that keeps on changing its contours and meanings punctuated by observations on places and people; and “Immersions”, which looks at less known yet intriguing precincts as well as the newly emerging and changing premises. Finally there is the section “Cab ride through Bombay/Mumbai”, which in its lyrical prose without stops captures the excitement of a fictional drive along the city streets, conjuring up a soft city of imagination.

The rareness of Taylor’s photographs is amply complemented by the lyricism of Priya’s narrative that makes the reading of this book a pleasant poetic experience. Look at a sample from the very opening chapter: “The silken curve of Mumbai’s horizon bends. What was once sea becomes land clustered with high-rises, and sky becomes a sliver of space wedged above roads. This city keeps growing. Millions pour in, each with hopes of possessing riches, perhaps a piece of land, a tenement, some sleeping space. Over decades it has engorged from south Bombay towards north Mumbai; from a knot of adjoining islands on the Arabian Sea to massive expansion on the eastern mainland. Barely able to cope with the influx, the city’s infrastructure groans, grimaces and still the city and its inhabitants multiply.” The book’s success owes a lot to this narrative tone, inquisitive, informative and imaginative at the same time, that the author has been able to sustain to the very end and that gels so well with the visual charm of the mostly black-and-white photographs.

Near-fantastic tales

Dilip Chitre’s The Bombay Quartet attempts to capture the secret life of Bombay in four near-fantastic tales that read like legends with their surreal, almost eerie, atmosphere and strange characters suffering from diverse kinds of obsession. Chitre, who sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 71, has always appeared to me as an uneasy genius, caught between ecstasy and depression, and playing equally brilliantly his many roles as poet, fiction writer, translator, editor, social commentator, anthologist, traveller, painter and film-maker. These magic tales that imagine strange men and women into being amply reflect Chitre’s dark genius that could easily have been that of a clairvoyant, a necromancer or a voodoo practitioner. Bombay in these stories becomes a mythical city and the narrators’ personalities merge into the character of the city as if they had been mutually replaceable and together formed a metaphor of sorts. The narration is deeply visual, reminding us of film scripts, and one sees the painter and film-maker in Chitre collaborating with the poet and the storyteller.

The Saphhire, which I had the fortune to publish when I was editing the journal Indian Literature, is the weird story of a man obsessed with sapphires, who, despite warnings, buys one only to find that the ominous stone was bringing him bad luck. The story is told by the man himself, and his memories at times get mixed up. He first hears about sapphires from Sumitra, whose brother-in-law dies in an accident which, according to her, was consequent to his insistence on wearing a sapphire ring—the ring of Saturn—in spite of several bad signs. His wife went mad, his son ran away, his business failed, and yet he would not heed the experts’ warning. Sumitra could not but appreciate the stone’s incomparable beauty: a dark blue stone the colour of a peacock’s throat. His grandpa, too, had died mysteriously: he was a clairvoyant and a businessman of great acumen and had risen from his penniless state to be a millionaire and moved in the company of the richest traders in Bombay. He had an excellent eye for precious stones and probably had a sapphire in his possession too. And may be that had brought his tragic end after he vomited blood—they say he was struck by a disembodied evil fist which later circled over the crematorium. It became a part of the family lore.

Our protagonist hears voices, has visions. He discusses his desire for the sapphire with a woman he sees on the seashore in a vision who discourages him. But he loses his sleep over the stone and finally gets one from a Gujarati jeweller: “It was as though someone had, under a tremendous pressure inside the belly of the earth, compressed a mysterious feeling like love into a crystal, put it into a box and with invisible hands held the box open before me.” The blue obsesses him, but misfortunes pursue him until he one day kills his involvement by throwing the stone into the sea. The Sapphire does not just narrate a tale; it has several subplots and interesting deviations, including lengthy discussions of different stones, of Cabala and the occult and mysterious incidents like being trapped by an underworld don who pretends to have been his friend.

Apocalyptic vision

The second novella, Rudhiraksha—the red-eyed man—is episodic and appears like science fiction; it has no “story” in the conventional sense, but has only a shifting narrative presented like the interior monologue of the other-worldly protagonist: a red-eyed human mutant born on another planet forced to dredge sewage to make ends meet and begins gradually to savour the earth’s humanity in all its variety through its excreta. The effluents of the sewage system contain traces of all the cultural values excreted by the city’s multi-ethnic population. The narrator could well be an amnesiac extraterrestrial wearing the persona of the native Bombayite but intermittently becoming aware of his galactic origins. He is also a voyeur witnessing the private life of a married middle-class Hindu woman who had rejected his advances. His vision of the city is apocalyptic, Bombay here is a present ruin and future’s relic. Time is cyclic here and reversible, shifting between the present of agony and the past of ecstasy.

The narrative is enriched by the author’s poetic prose. At times it becomes meta-narrative, commenting on the mode of narration itself: “I don’t even follow the simple conventions of realism, eh? This isn’t madness. It’s an armour. I am a turtle. A marine animal. And I’m very soft inside. A capricious animal, delicious to eat. I could easily die, hence this stone-like shell. An armour of words, of symbols, of private gestures.”

At times the language becomes meditative as when Rudhiraksha address the Bombayites who want to forget they have a body and become immortal: “I/ Rudhiraksha say/s, ‘What’s pure? Only nothing is pure. And nothing doesn’t exist. Whatever is there is a composite. You are vast, composite and aware, and yet why do you crave nothingness, purity’?” Against this lie the worldly desires of his mistress and his own unresolved bestiality expressed in his red eyes.

There are, too, passages with poetry-like refrain: “Since hunger keeps its time, we take up jobs. Dredge sewage all night long. Since hunger keeps its time, women get married, take husbands. Kids listen to their parents. Because hunger keeps its time. Because there is hunger, we obey laws. Stand in queues. Make friends. Preserve kinship.”

Rudhiraksha is an anarchist who thinks that the hunger for power survives all revolutions as hunger and desire for power are primeval, fundamental things, both independent and similar. And still he dreams of a day when man’s innate goodness will spontaneously reveal itself. (Maybe Michel Hardt and Antonio Negri would have stood with him!) He is also a loner, spurned by his beloved, condemned by the world as ugly and dirty. He is a combination of the Bombay scavenger and a heavenly outcaste.

There are also passages brimming with intense political sarcasm: “The Celestial Drainpipe Company has a reputation that once it makes a man its own, then right to the very end it takes care of all his problems. Because he whom we regard as ours has become a part of our very own capital assets. The company is not only Rudhiraksha’s well-wisher, but it is also his guardian. It won’t easily let him be destroyed. Whatever policy is decided in America will be followed in India. It will be followed the world over. Whether it is Outer Mongolia or whether it is Tierra del Fuego, there’s no place in the world where the wireless messages of our ethics do not reach at the speed of light.” He also celebrates filth as the nourisher of plants, insects, microorganisms, marine creatures, birds, animals, trees, crops. “Drainwater is the gift that human civilisation returns to earth.”

Chitre himself characterises The Full Moon in Winter as “a menopausal drama in which three men and two women confront and cross one another in an all-night informal party in a luxury apartment in a seaside suburb of Bombay”. All the characters are past fifty, in a paradoxical state of simultaneous sexual decline and heightened erotic awareness, all “poised precariously on the cliff-edge of social reality”. Their behaviour is bizarre, often surreal and the whole novella reads like a drama, almost a black comedy in which the writer also takes part along with another contemporary writer, Damu. It is woven around the return of Lalita Honawar, a good-looking yet cold college mate (hence nicknamed “Full Moon in Winter”) of the three friends in the story about whose present circumstances they had not been aware for long. She calls one of them, and they in turn decide to invite her to a party that is hilarious to begin with but turns tragic as Lalita, who suffers from suicidal tendencies, kills herself at the end.

Abraham’s Notebook, which may better be called a short story or a fable than a novella proper, is admittedly Chitre’s tribute to Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, one of the author’s childhood literary favourites. The story, a fantasy, brings in varied characters from Bombay’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic milieu like the narrator himself, who is Hindu, Jakob Steiner, a German Jew, who, ironically, is the boss of a group of underworld Muslims and whose cronies kidnap the narrator, and Abraham, a “Bene Israeli” (supposed to be West Asian Jews driven away from their homelands) who “possesses” the narrator, splitting his personality into two, but who also saves him from his captivity in the old neighbourhoods of East Central Bombay. The four stories, short and long, while being highly imaginative and entertaining also allude to the speed and the mystery of life in Bombay through their compressed narration and the unconventional narrative techniques they employ to exciting effect.

Email: satchida@gmail.com

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