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SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Your Mumbai, my Bombay
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Memories of another Bombay, more beautiful than the one portrayed in a recent book.

In the early morning, the scene from the balcony would be very different — the sea held no dark secrets, the water had receded to reveal large rocks...

I HAVE just put aside Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra's mammoth new novel. I kept imagining Chandra standing on the crumbling sea wall of Marine Drive swinging a fisherman's net over his head. Then at the last moment, with the net in full vicious swing, he releases it not over the sea but towards the salt-corroded buildings behind him. The net swings over those buildings, over suburban stations, maidans, slums, Bollywood... And when he skilfully draws it in, the catch is thrashing, violent, disturbing, mean... everything except beautiful. It consists of all that is at the base of the human soul — treachery, deceit, unbridled ambition, murder, mayhem... That is a Mumbai that I can accept, but cannot like. The disturbing images continue to flash in the eyes long after the book has been kept away. I need to get away from them; I need to think again of the beauty of Bombay.

Monsoon magic
... Of the first monsoon that I saw there years ago, when the lanes of Fort Bombay used to be a sea of black umbrellas and we rushed somehow to the best Irani restaurant that we knew in those days. Not so much for the fare that it offered but for the pretty face of the owner's daughter who stood at the counter and watched us with languorous distant grace. And then we walked back to our offices dodging those black umbrellas, past stands selling mint chutney-tomato-cucumber sandwiches, belts, handkerchiefs, locks, sunglasses... I bought more airmail envelopes there than one could ever use in a lifetime. I bought them because their blue and red edges always spelt romance, distant shores, adventures in lands I may never see. And past the inevitable pavement booksellers outside the old post office, the eye keenly looking for a forgotten title, a rare edition...

... . Of hunting desperately for paying guest accommodation in huge buildings — Queen's Court, Green Fields, Moonlight, Sunshine, Framroze Court... and being interviewed by old elegant Parsi ladies in well-appointed drawing rooms with clusters of silver framed photographs of weddings, dogs, horses... And the joy of finally finding a room with a view where the carpet matched the curtains. The bath had hot water, the tea never enough sugar but there were always mangoes with breakfast. From the shelter of the balcony I watched the tide come in at night, heaving and dark, pulled in by a whimsical moon. The swish of the water grew even stronger and the sigh as it hit the rocks would waft up in the night air as I leaned out and watched Victoria carriages trotting up and down Marine Drive, the hooves of the horses echoing sharply. There was the smell of jasmine in the air, the generous sea breeze fresh despite its pungent sting, the call of the peanut seller, an occasional peal of laughter that electrified the night. In the early morning, the scene from the balcony would be very different — the sea held no dark secrets, the water had receded to reveal large rocks, the romantic couples of the night before were replaced by joggers, ships waiting to berth dotted the horizon, the dark torso of a fisherman on a lone boat bent, pulled, rose....

..... Of a lake in Powai. And a lingering evening of ineluctable magic, with the lengthening shadows of the trees winning over the last touch of the light of the setting sun and the wide bodied planes coming up over the lake, their wheels going up, gaining height, taking people further away, their lights saying farewell and suddenly, the lazy singing of Hemant Kumar across the grounds, tugging at emotions that lie in the crevices of the soul, hiding from hurt....

.... Of late night journeys in suburban trains that were once the symbol of safety and civility of a city. Watching tired foursomes play rummy on briefcases balanced on their knees, while the stations swept by, their verandahs taken over by sleeping urchins, beggars, boot-polish boys, the red light still revolving in the weighing machines, raucous night laughter spreading in circles from the paanwallah stalls. Those nights had a certain freedom of their own; no one cared much about anything. There was an anonymity that was precious, an indifference that did not hurt. The same anonymity that one felt in the morning rush hour and yet there was a strange bonding for more often than not one crossed the same face at the same place day after day.

Many images
... Of sitting on Chowpatty beach on Ganesh Chaturthi watching the idols, big, bigger and biggest arriving on shoulders, carriages, trucks and being slowly pushed into the moonlit waters, and wafting away towards unknown dark shores or down to the mysterious deep, accompanied by the mesmerising chants of Ganapati Bapa Maurya...

... And there are many other memories... memories of a sea that sparkles with the magical iridescence of a thousand stars when the sun comes up, of long evening walks to sit in silence on the sea wall, of breakfasts in an Irani restaurant that can never ever be repeated, of chilled beer on a very hot afternoon... and many more which should perhaps never be written out, lest their fragile beauty tarnish, lest they lose the haunting ache that they enclose...

So Vikram, you keep your gritty Mumbai and I will keep my lost Bombay and let's just let it be.

navtej.sarna@gmail.com