by Abhay Burjor Ghiara
There is something about the air of Bombay that is like an oven encompassing everything. The oven is set very low, at about 200 degrees, and as the oven starts to warm up air currents are set into motion. There is one blowing right now and it carries the aroma of sing, peanuts.
The sing walla carries a wicker basket of peanuts connected with a strap around his neck, a shegdi of hot coals keeps the peanuts warm. Little embers from the coal fly about in the current and are carried to me. One of these embers slightly burns my face. I turn towards it and see the sing walla smiling at me and gesturing: come!
I walk down along the Worli seashore to where the vendor stands. He is surrounded by light from the lamp post. I buy some sing in a used newspaper cone. They taste delicious.
The waiting area in Mumbai airport is out in the open, a vast concrete island in the middle of airport driveways. You wait there. You wait there for the driver who has been waiting for you, who has seen you and so will now go and get his car. So you wait. That is what everyone else is doing here at four in the morning. Waiting.
Breathing in the air that reminds you of a distant cousin to the city that you grew up in. It is like the first time you smelled your maternal uncle’s hair—it smelled a little like your mother’s, only different. So you return to the city you were born in. No, you return to a city that you were not born in because the city that you were born in is gone. Bombay has vanished, replaced with Mumbai. It does not even exist on Facebook. When you try to type it in as your hometown Facebook wipes it out and adds hopefully, “Do you mean I DO NOT HAVE A HOMETOWN?”
We are in West End Hotel. The loud air conditioner blows warm humid air into the room. The room is all white with a blue sofa, blue bed, and blue curtains that look like someone stitched them at home in a hurry. The light bulbs are fluorescent yellow, and exposed they hurt our eyes.
Krista says, lets order Bournvita and masala omelet. It is now five in the morning and we haven’t slept in two days of traveling half-way around the world. Food sounds like a good idea. I pick up the white telephone and call for room service.
When the Bournvita and masala omelet arrive I notice the ketchup is in the same kind of plastic bottle that was used when I lived in this city twenty-five years ago. The ketchup is made from pumpkins, I explain to Krista. Which is why it looks more orange than red.
It is like waiting for your mother. You recognize the sounds of her bangles and the clinking of the keys at her waist. You recognize the swishing of the saree and the aroma of the Parachute coconut oil wafting towards you just ahead of her coming into the room. But it is not your mother whom you are waiting for. You are waiting for this day, the first day in this, your city, that you no longer belong to.
Bit-by-bit you realize this is not going to happen because when you push aside the cheap polyester curtains dangling crookedly over the tiny window above the oversized air conditioner the day is already here.
For my fifth birthday my parents took me to a bakery. I forget what it was called but we all took the red double decker bus and got off by Warden Road and walked. It smelled like an old Irani but the glass case held beautiful cakes. They were covered in white and blue icing and were stunning to look at. Each cake was in the shape of an object—an airplane, a ship, a fire engine. I was told I could pick out any cake that I liked and they would make it for my birthday party. I picked out the cake that was shaped like a book.
On my birthday, my cake was delivered. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. All my friends and relatives started coming, then the delivery man from Teen Batti, the store that had everything we needed, came with crate-upon-endless-crate of Coke.
When the candles were blown out and the portions cut I discovered I had picked a marzipan cake and it was a little bitter.
Run out of the house, down the stairs. Take the 201 bus. Rush over to school: walk walk walk run run run.
Sweaty, disoriented, a bit ruffled after the bus ride with fisherwomen and boys and girls and grown-ups getting into fights over the smallest little thing.
It was such a change to go from Dadar to Juhu each day. Dadar was so crowded but no one was particularly rich or poor. It had a nice hum to it. Juhu was a vast empty smelly place without sidewalks. Very rich people lived in rich marble mansions. One assumed they were in there, though we would never see them. We would pass Amitabh Bachchan’s house every day, but saw no one.
Out there in the streets were children with bloated stomachs. They were either naked or they wore tiny shirts, if those rags on the top half of their bodies could be called shirts. Their bottom halves were usually uncovered for easy access to the streets which doubled as latrines. Flies everywhere. Piles of discarded rotten food that the children in rag shirts would go through. I once saw an entire family fill dabba after dabba of the old rotten food right off the street. Right next to the excrement.
As I watched the flies and the food being loaded into dabbas, a thin man approached me and asked if I would like to watch a film shooting. I really wanted to go. I wanted to see my favorite stars, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Zeenat Aman.
But I said no. I had been told stories about children being kidnapped all over Bombay. I didn’t want to be kidnapped. I wanted to make it home to Dadar on the 201.
Bombay always smelled different. It smelled of people and their shit whereas other towns I would visit growing up smelled of animals and dirt. Bombay has no visible dirt. All of Bombay is covered with concrete. There is no strip of dirt anywhere in the city. When we moved to Baroda, north of Bombay on the Western Railway line, I was amazed that the side of the road on both sides was red dirt.
I must have seen such roads when we would visit the village where my father grew up, but they had not made an impression on me until we moved to Baroda. I could see the dirt and missed Bombay terribly.
It was as if the builders of Bombay wanted to make sure that there was no visible surface of the city, whether main street or side street, footpath or compound, driveway or courtyard, playground or exhibition ground, that wasn’t entirely covered with concrete. This ground cover was made so complete by the city fathers, aided by wealthy developers, that even when the concrete cracked, as it did in many places, nothing living grew, no blade of grass or even a weed poked its tip through the cracks. The ground below the city was simply dead and made no protest.
Since every surface of my city was covered in concrete my feet never touched dirt, only the garbage thrown carelessly all over the city, cow shit, dog shit, horseshit, elephant shit, people shit, but no dirt.
The memory I have of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency is that Coke disappeared from stores everywhere. There was a rumor that a senior student had a very large stash of it, crates-upon-crates of it stored in his house to last him until Indira Gandhi’s despotic rule ended and democracy was restored.
To us, the end of democracy meant the end of Coke.
It also meant black-black. Blackened lights, first half black and then soon blackened fully. Black everywhere. Street lights were covered in black, headlights were covered in black, everything turned black as the sun set and evening descended on Bombay ten floors below us.
Emergency meant an uncle, a casual acquaintance of Papa’s, showing up in the dark to take us vegetarian boys to eat meat. Naval and I refused to go. Sirens were going off warning of imminent bombings by Pakistani aircraft. Traffic moved around with blackened headlights, a black glow of light creating a dark foreboding. And in the middle of this—meat. Watching Jayant walking away with the uncle we had never met, walking in the dark street. To eat meat, something we never ate.
How hard it is now to walk in this city where I grew up. The pavements are occupied by illegal vendors. A very large display of used plastic vibrators with lurid images on cardboard boxes blocks my path and I have to walk into the traffic to continue. I have never seen such an endless sea of cars in my city before. It’s as if I fell asleep like Rip Van Winkle, and when I awoke every square inch of concrete pavement was taken up by vendors, and roads, by cars chugging along at walking speed.
A woman in an elegant salwaar khameez lies on the ground just outside a tea shop where she apparently fainted, slippers sliding off her feet. People walk by unconcerned. I stop and look around, try to meet the eyes of the tea shop owner sitting at his counter. He does not look back.
The first part was waiting. We had to be at the bus stop by ten to eight. From time-to-time we would watch for the 201 to turn around the bend on Bhavani Shankar Road and appear, a small toy-sized bus. I would look to see if it was one of the old buses or a new Tata bus. I liked the old buses. They were quieter and rolled smoothly and everything inside was old fashioned. I was always happy when an old bus showed up as a 201. Over time these old buses came less and less frequently. Then they were gone and we never saw them again.
There was an old Irani on the corner. It must have opened early each day because when we would walk by it to the bus stop it was already bustling. Or perhaps the owners and the young boys from the villages who worked there and slept there and carried the Dukes or Rogers club soda to our flat were up, cleaning, sweeping, getting ready. The pau, bread, had already been delivered at six in the morning. I knew that Grandpa’s pau was delivered early. We sat on the metal railing at the bus stop, legs swinging, watching all the goings on about us.
A white van would pull up in front of the Irani. Milk and butter were delivered. What fascinated us was that it was a refrigerated van, the first I had ever seen. It was like a spaceship. A very dashing man in white would deliver the milk and butter and some other things. We did not know what else was being delivered but we knew it was not ice. The van would leave a very pretty rainbow in the puddles where it was standing to remind us that it was magical. I am not sure when I realized that puddle was an oil leak.
I remember many parties growing up. My father had friends from all over the world who would come to work at his institute. Whenever someone new came or left they would have a party. My favorites were always at our house where we ran around, hid, ate, and talked to uncles with unusual skin and eyes—skin shiny black, matte white, or creamy yellow; eyes black and round, blue and wide like the sky, or with corners tapering upwards like Mamra almonds.
As the party went on some of the adults would get drunk. We would wait for this to happen all evening. Suddenly someone would take off their tie and start dancing with it. Once about twelve men formed a line with arms around their neighbors’ shoulders and started moving together, one leg up, way up, then the other like a chorus line.
Sometimes an uncle would start sobbing. We loved it when that happened. It was the only time when adults in our lives surprised us, and I would think then of our house as our theater, and all the uncles as the actors we would watch late into the warm night.
On our first day back to the city, Krista and I sleep most of the day. At four o’clock we are ready to go on a walk. As we step out of the hotel a taxi driver whom we will get to know very well in the coming months gestures to us to get into his comfortable looking Cool Cab. Where are you going, walking? Come, I will drop you off! I insist that we are going on a walk. No point taking a cab when we want to go on a walk. The taxi driver shakes his head. He knows something that we don’t. From his manner he seems to think we are out of our minds.
We are determined to go on a walk. We are in the heart of what was old Bombay. I went to college here for five years. I know the streets. But things have changed. The sidewalks are unwalkable because there are hawkers’ stalls, sleeping people, patches of urine and excrement. Other parts have been dug up during a particularly vigorous period of activity by the Mumbai Municipality, and then left broken and full of pavement rocks, what used to be sidewalk cement tiles jumbled up, looking like a particularly tricky puzzle.
So we try to walk in the street. The diesel fumes hit us first. They smell acrid, like a city that is burning. The traffic is continuous on both sides of the street, and cars, buses, bicycles, bullock carts, tricycles, and wheelchairs for the disabled all move about in every direction. They are led by some baffling law of the street, seeking a gap of any size, on either side of the road, to squeeze a part of their vehicle into. As we walk we try to avoid being hit by the moving, juggling traffic and try not to step on people who are sitting in the street bathing, playing, combing their hair, as if they were sitting by a beautiful stream rather than the stream of traffic. A man without legs approaches us on a makeshift wooden skateboard begging for change.
While waiting for the bus we would hear the bullock cart, the sound of metal moving along wood, metal moving on metal, wood on wood. A very traditional looking man, a villager, would stop his bullock cart outside the Irani and start scratching at the sawdust covering his enormous dripping load. He was the iceman. He would carve up giant pieces and haul them over to the Irani which had no refrigeration and relied on his ice for chilling drinks and keeping the butter and milk fresh. We were always amazed that the refrigerated van never delivered ice and the iceman never delivered milk and butter, but they needed to coordinate their delivery schedules to keep everything going in the city. I do not ever remember there being ice but no milk, or milk but no ice. Somehow the oil-leaking van and the bullock cart managed a tight, interconnected schedule.
Waiting is what we who grew up in Bombay know how to do. My family waited twenty-three years for our telephone line to be installed. My uncle, upon official recognition as a City Poet, waited for years to receive his poet’s pension, and, while waiting, died. The pension started up just a few weeks later, aaji, grandma, would proudly tell anyone who would listen.
Then the streets would be cleaned. This was done by one lady who had a small wicker basket that she filled with garbage using two flat rectangular pieces of recycled metal the size of notebooks. One of them had a red logo that said JAL, which stood for Japan Air Lines, but it was also the name of one of my uncles, and I always thought it was a secret greeting from him when the woman would scrape her JAL board along the street, making a shrill, metallic sound.
Then suddenly the 201 would appear breaking my reverie. We would stay in line (this was, after all, Bombay and not Delhi) but we would push like crazy. Not push so as to push people away, but push so as to push people ahead of us into the bus. Because before you knew it, whenever the bus conductor felt the whim, he would double ring the bell by pulling deftly on the rope that went the whole distance of the bus, all the way to the driver’s ear, and off went the bus, leaving the people who just got on holding onto the rails on the entryway steps, holding tight, bodies swaying outside the doorway of the bus. That did not look safe or feel safe. We pushed as hard as we could to get everyone ahead of us into the bus and ourselves inside the doorway.
Suddenly the street seems too narrow as Krista and I come to a huge tomb to our right. The tomb is surrounded by men in white and there are hawkers selling garlands and other things that people take to the graves. The saint buried there a few hundred years ago has magical powers that draws the sick and the lame to his tomb. The street here is filled with people missing arms and legs and people too sick to stand up straight. The heavy traffic curves around this mass of people as they push forward towards the gravesite, eager to receive the blessings of the saint.
We keep walking. A disfigured prostitute is standing on one side of the road and calling out in a grating voice to someone on the other side: Fucker, if you did not have money why did you fuck me? She repeats this over and over. Traffic whizzes by. There is a lot of honking.
My city is located in the path of the monsoon. And when the rains would come on my birthday in June, the entire city would be flooded very quickly, and over and over. With no exposed ground, no dirt to absorb the rain water, gushing rivers of garbagy, shitty, water would flow down streets full of traffic brought to a full stop by the floods. Car owners would stand by their cars looking around helplessly. Manholes would have their covers lifted to allow the gushing rivers of rainwater somewhere to go. These open manholes were unmarked and the silent spirals of the water would easily suck a child my age down into them. I remember we would try to walk in the middle of the street to avoid drowning in the invisible manholes.
Sometimes the 201 would not come for a really long time. And sometimes it would come fast, very fast, and already so crowded that there were people on the steps of the bus standing, unable to even enter. They would be hanging on to the railings trying to push their way in. When the bus was that crowded it would not stop and then there would be no bus for another long spell. My mind would wander and replay the situation. I imagined: I am waiting and the bus shows up, crowded. I barely raise an arm and the bus stops at once. You see, I am an official. I am wearing an official uniform: brown leather shirt and brown leather shorts, brown socks and brown leather shoes. When the bus stops I calmly walk over to the front of the bus, the door that is only an exit, and walk in, give the driver a half-smile of acknowledgement, a half-wave, and then we are off.
I spent so many hours waiting for the 201, and then so many hours on the 201, that I had many elaborate fantasies that I would play in my mind. I called this game Imagination and one single scenario would happen over a long period of time—an hour or even longer.
We get to Churchgate station. Krista and I follow a swarm of people down into the pedestrian walkway and flow down and then back up on the side of Eros cinema. We are suddenly in the posh part of town. We walk towards Marine Drive and the sidewalk is actually walkable. We pass an old favorite store, K Rustom, where outside the old Brabourne Stadium, once the city’s cricket ground, we would get ice cream sandwiches. Gordon’s, where we would get buttered toast (cut into three parts with a little sugar sprinkled on it) and tea with my parents, is gone.
Later we found out from Ranjeeta about an uncle who was taken away from the kids and locked up in the Santa Cruz police station for leaving a door ajar during the Emergency blackouts. A little bit of yellow light was peeking out through the crack in the door, the police said. That’s not OK. Only black light is allowed. We are taking your uncle, they said, and dragged him away. He argued with them silently as he was being taken.
And we worried about living without Coke. One day, in the days before we were old enough to take the 201, the old school bus silently hurled downhill unable to stop. The driver gestured frantically; the brakes didn’t work. Inside the school bus were three long wooden planks where we all sat with the school bus teacher, at the front by the door. When the driver lost control the bus sped wildly down the hill. No one screamed even though we were terrified. Jayant whispered, “Abhu, hold on to the bench as hard as you can.” And the bus somehow made it down the hill, then veered to the right and smashed into a wall. All the other kids slid along the three long benches and out the door and landed in a pile on top of the school bus teacher.
Jayant and I quietly walked out of the bus and then walked home thinking we could use a Coke.
Once we were on the bus we used our elbows to get ahead. We would hold our elbows out to our sides and make slow, swimming motions to move through the crowds. Our elbows poked people in the legs and they would jump aside as we glided forward. It worked beautifully, except with the fish-lady, who had the basket full of fish and ice. I remember she had a very fleshy hip and if we tried to elbow her we risked an immediate swatting of our heads with a fishy but firm hand.
The conductor on the 201 never liked to give Naval a half ticket. Naval finally got fed up and got an ID made at school that showed his birth date. The conductor was not impressed. He got even more severe. I don’t know what he thought we were trying to do. Three boys trying to get away with half tickets and save a few paise for sweets? And the ID? I think the conductor did not know how to convert birth dates into ages. Or maybe he just hated to be wrong. This was a daily hassle and we were so glad when Naval turned eleven and had to buy a full ticket.
By the time the 201 got to Kohinoor cinema or at least by Plaza, we would have seats. Then we could look out the window. All along City Light, in all the balconies overlooking the street, men would be standing brushing their teeth and watching the traffic and gossip. They would spit contentedly into the street, foamy white Colgate toothpaste mixed with saliva would drop down in great gobs. Some would be shaving, have beaten their neighbors in the race for personal hygiene, clouds of foamy white lather stripped away from their chins as they made faces at themselves in tiny mirrors hanging from strings hung up on nails.
Even going down one of these open manholes with the rainwater did not take you to dirt. Instead, you mixed with untreated shit and piss from millions of apartments with shiny indoor plumbing that dumped into the Arabian Sea. At the high monsoon season, you were safe because the manholes would function in reverse. The rising waters of the Arabian Sea would rush backwards through the pipes, forcing the untreated excrement to reverse its normal flow and shoot up the open manholes like live geysers, faithfully returning the shit-piss-puss of the last few months with compound interest.
You walk over to one of the three concession stands to buy something that will bring you back home: some sing, some pakoras, Coke. They have nothing spicy. We have nothing Indian, each stand walla tells me in turn as I rush from one stand to the next, suddenly panicking and needing to taste something I remember from when I lived here. We have nachos. We have Pepsi. How about Pringles? They cost two day’s wages for the average Indian worker. A box of powdered, dried, fried potatoes spiced the way Indians think Westerners like: labelled BBQ and tasting of cardboard and tomato.
You are munching on your Pringles, watching men in sailor’s uniforms solicit bribes from Dubai-based Indians, when your driver is suddenly standing next to you. I need 100 rupees, he says, I don’t have enough money to pay for parking. I somehow imagine the car is right there pulled up by the curb but that is someone else’s car. He takes my 100 rupees sullenly and walks away into the night.
The masala omelet is rich and spicy and perfectly folded. The Bournvita is thick and creamy and very Indian-milky. Milk never tastes like this in the USA, we say. This is soooo nice. Indian cows are a source of comfort. Some drink their milk, some their urine, others use cow dung as a building material and to make soap. We stick with the milk for now. In the coming months Krista and I will end up using all that the Indian cow has to offer in the form of comfort.
But for now, we turn off the lights. By 6 A.M. the deafening noise of the city rises up to us and we finally fall asleep.
Abhay Burjor Ghiara was born in Bombay, went to school in what is now called Bollywood, and graduated from Bombay University exactly 100 years after Mahatma Gandhi. He moved first to Chicago and later to Berkeley, California, returning to Bombay (now Mumbai) twenty five years later as a Fulbright scholar. Abhay is an independent scholar and writer/performer who creates work using a playful, interactive, and intuitive approach. Each part may be a fragment of a reflective memory, personal narrative, travel writing, or philosophical thought, inviting readers/listeners/participants to put the parts together in unique, personal ways. His writing has been published by the Institute of Failure, the Journal of Curriculum & Pedagogy, and Performance Research. His most recent appeared in the “Game Structures” issue of Performance Research. He is currently developing an art, play, and consciousness project with his partner Krista called Seven Stars Institute.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • December 2016
Author photo and image header of Queen’s Necklace, Mumbai, by Krista Gullickson.