The curious case of Bombay

“Bombay.”

“It’s Mumbai friend, etc etc etc.” say the politically correct persons I meet everyday.

There was a time I thought I liked this place – the blinding lights in the distance and the rush and screaming all over draped in smoke coming out of the sidewalk – it had its pulse rooted in discipline. Trains here were full to the brim with people, everyone moving in their own direction come rain or heat putting good old Chicago to shame with its gigantic lines spread in a labyrinth running through the heart of the city. It wasn’t difficult to say I enjoyed every bit of it as long as my wallet wasn’t picked during the long journey.

Then there was the question of the romanticism attached to the city, one look at The Gateway of India and I was floored, my relative’s sea facing flat on Bhulabhai Desai road brought me back to the old colonial era that deserves the documentation it gets. Wooden floors and high rise ceilings – throw in a chandelier and Bob’s your uncle. The Taj hotel looked so intimidating, I dared not enter in the fear of soiling the property with my dusty clothes and shoes. A long, long journey.

Back in the 9th grade in school, I discovered a different picture of the city through Rohinton Mistry’s writing – Such a Long Journey. At this writing, I am re-reading this and it makes me feel the way I felt when I first read it. My colonial school architecture comes to mind as the memory stands out sitting on huge stairs imaging what was Mistry’s version of Bombai, with its narrow lanes and gigantic freeways. Rooms with dusty books strewn all over, waiting for the year’s monsoon to come wash away their pain, and the bright bright sky everyday that turns purple in the evening – indeed a long journey from the slow life of Calcutta.

On one of my previous visits, my friend took me to Hajji Ali – the tomb of Pir Hajji Ali Shah Bukhari on the pretext of curiosity. I was told that my last life had something to do with the place, what more does a writer want to hear? It was one of the most beautiful experiences in my adolescent life. Quickly forgotten, a year later at one of the lowest points of my life I woke up before dawn.

It was going to be a sprint to the tape, a long long journey back to university for a 9 am class and I was as dark as the sky, desolate and mundane. Suddenly, as twilight approached I heard the dutiful call for azaan – I wept. Bombay was up to its tricks once again. Coming from a born “Hindu Brahmin” who denounced religion all his life, it meant something in the greater scheme of things. It was a sign that everything would be OK in the end. The snow does melt and summer does come – it was like being reborn magically – comforting and whispering sweet nothings in my ear.
Such a long journey indeed.

Late into night I sit, neck jarred like a pickle jar that refuses to open. The TV runs in the hall but I can’t hear. There is something special in the air in this city – just that it’s difficult to put a finger on it. Things that Bombay teaches you – after a point let go of emotion and and be practical. Sigh, I’m getting old.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey…
– T.S.Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

Advertisements
Posted in "Changing Times", Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

An Encounter to Forget

Photo credits – the graceful Soumyo Das (as always, you’re the man)

Last night I came face to face with the person this blog has moaned and crooned about for the entirety of its existence. My respect for the universe and the way it works has shot up by leaps and bounds. To make any sense of what I am talking about I would have to go back to the beginning of the evening.
All evening I had traveled the length and breathe of Maharashtra – in a car, a bus and later auto rickshaws. These almost always included couples kissing each other, holding hands and whispering sweet nothings to each other. All this while I observed, pretending to mind my own business. My brothers as usual had new women in their endeavor to find one or to find many! Then there was me – pining for someone who perhaps decided to meet me out of pity.

The idea was basically to help deal with the emotions attached to the situation, take advantage of it and work on my craft, which is of course writing. Somewhere in these pages, I know I have  mentioned that there is nothing one can do when you want to write. Hemingway said it – all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Or in the 21st century get puffed up eyes for staring at a screen for too long. At some point this month I felt I could not do it anymore, writing was no longer the joy I professed it to be.I was stumbling, rambling and stagnating all at the same time. It was questioning the very basis of my life, the reason why I felt I was still alive. Was there anything one could do? I thought of a plan revolving around her.

This person played all the right notes in these few years that I knew her. So much so that I would spend all my waking hours thinking of her. At night if I had dreams, it probably would be about her as well. A year and a half removed from leaving her outside her apartment, I came face to face with her again.

At this point, Bombay froze.

Time stopped still as my mind went back all the way to those days and nights we’d spend together laughing like there was no tomorrow. For this time we didn’t speak, I wondered if there was anything left in the gas tank, or whether this was truly the end of the ride.
Now with her in front of me, the questions cropped up thick and fast once again, but to my surprise there was hardly any conversation before she disappeared into the night. As quickly as she was there, she left. The same old story playing out in a different setting – only that we lived in the same world, but we live in different ones now.

In the writer’s mind’s eye there was a frenzied flurry of activity. The activity began almost when the meeting hour was drawing nearer and nearer. The hair was still short, the glasses were oval – almost spherical. She still enjoyed wearing huge earrings that would swivel in the night sky as she walked around drawing the attention of everyone around. I don’t know what I did wrong or said wrong, but once she left I felt horrible. The kind of feeling you get when you’re falling off the edge of a cliff or a building. You know the end is more than near – its finally here.
As stubborn as I was (or am) – I texted her very early the next morning and no surprises when I didn’t get a reply. In the olden days, you’d have to wait for an acknowledgement or a reply by post. Two blue ticks does the job now and she’s read it – so we know that too.

I will never hold your hand again and walk the streets of Calcutta, Bangalore or Delhi. We won’t laugh at others miseries and talk late into the night with little care about anything else. There will never be another wait for her to land and text me that she had a nice flight, as I would drive her home. The small intricate designs that she does all over wherever she goes serves as a testament to her creativity – her gift that I hope will bring joy one day to many. There is a reason why I always preferred Betty to Veronica in comics – the girl next door who would think nothing of taking you on in a video game – not caring much about what others think and smoking cigarettes like there is no tomorrow. There won’t be another moment in space and time when we would connect except when it came to mutual greetings – almost as certain as death and taxes as the years go by. There will always be a part of you that’s with me – you sure as hell better feel the same.

Autumn is a beautiful month in that sense. It teaches you that it is OK to let go. Things happen, the leaves yellow – but desperately try and hang onto the trees like I did with my last pleasure who was this girl. There is a certain relief that the rains have come and gone – the dryness is a filter to forget. There is calm setting in my heart once again, as the writer feels the rejection warm him up, warming him up in a way so that he can tell stories – stories of others and like this one, stories of his own.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Calcutta Diaries 4 – The Bookstore

I will never know what a book store smells like because I have grown up in one.
When you’re constantly exposed to one pleasure everyday, it becomes stale. Moderation doesn’t seem to be an option when it is a job! A visitor’s entrance is preceded with silence – the pause is inevitable as the blank face changes into a wide smile – “That smell” they tell me.
I nod in approval – inside however, I’m laughing a sad laugh.

In the many years that I’ve sold books for a living, you come to realize that life in itself is a book. A novel, perhaps one on conscious living. Each day in a life is one page as you move through the hard yards. One thing is sure for true, stories don’t end.

****

The first job she ever gave me was at the Calcutta Book Fair at age of seven.

“Stand on the racks” she said. “Make sure no one steals books!”

For 14 straight days my eyes pried the stall; roaming like a hungry lion in the Maidan dust with the hot sun beating down during the 15 minute breaks every 2 hours.

On the last day I caught a guy stealing a copy of The adventures of Huck’ Finn.
She gave me fifty bucks; a princely sum in those days. I took it in tenners.I went home and ironed out the notes.That night; I chilled in the company of my new buddy Gandhi.
We’ve come a long way since then; my first fair in charge was when I was in the twelfth grade. She threatens to kick me out every month and I threaten to leave every subsequent month; here’s to the shrewd Sindhi businesswoman; Mother!

                                                                        ****

Some fifteen and a half years later, one rainy July evening – a young boy enters our store with his father.
“I’m in Class 8 ma’am, at a nearby school”
“I have a General Knowledge exam in class next week, would you have a book on the topic?”

Mother shows him around, and as it is habitual with her, explains to him “See this is how you study for a GK paper” – and so on.

He finally settles on a thin book called The Ultimate General Quiz Book. Fifty-five Rupees.

As he’s leaving, she calls out to him “Do well!”
The boy comes running back into the shop and touches her feet.

                                                                          ****

Last week I had an eleven year old girl come into our store all wide-eyed at the range of books we had 

When she has settled on the book she wants to buy – she comes to my counter and gives me the book.
Before I could react, she also hands me a fistful of notes.

My mind goes back to all those afternoons as a child, when I would read stories of children going to the shops – and their conversations with shopkeepers.

Only this time, I’m the shopkeeper.

****

In our family, we have an elderly help – who has lived with us for many years. Perhaps thirty. 
She brought me up , and I try my best from time to time to help her in anyway I could. I was very upset, when once she wanted to know what her bank documents all meant and I saw written in block capitals – “ILLITERATE” under her name.

A few months ago – we were short on staff and urgently needed to categorize titles according to supplier before we sent them out to book fairs. She volunteered to help. 
She had to use a gun to punch labels at the back of each book as well as use a pencil to write the publisher’s name on the first page top right in block.

I wondered if I could explain to her how to write BB for Blueberry. When I started explaining, she nonchalantly reached out and wrote it without me showing it to her. 

Not too bad for someone branded uneducated. 

 ****
Thunder and lightening brings me back. The sky here in Poona looks cloudy. The leaves dance in the strong wind

With each drop of rain, the novel flips pages. Life is happening. The earth moves on its axis around the sun. Waves crash into the coast. Somewhere a dog barks. A child is awoken. The moon is high in the sky.

Time however, has stopped still.

Posted in Nineties, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments