It arrives with a whoosh and with hands grabbing you from behind, pulling you back just few seconds before flocks of people ejecting themselves out or in. Bombay local has just made its stop. Like life in Bombay, the approach to the local train is fast and crowed, yet it leads you to a next scene that could be inside a haven of tranquillity with bespectacled attractive and studious women with pins in their hair or in a fair of flashing colored bracelets passing hands , peanuts and peas distribution, chatters and laughs. Bombay runs much faster than its local line, it runs on islands of stories and wonders, it bedazzles with all the infinite possibilities and with the feeling that everyday we are on a bumpy happy journey to somewhere. At least this is what I first saw in my first trip there. A city where the most estranged people belong and where everybody belongs. A city made up of dreams that never let go of them, even when they turn into the worst and most violent nightmares, there is always an unpredictable twist that destiny can take.
Delhi was so much loved by djinns (witty or terrible demones) that they could never accept it to be deserted or empty, this is what Dalrymple makes Sadr-ud-Din say in his pleasant book “City of Djinns”. Djinns love, or maybe just the desire not to disappear with it made Delhi live on through ages, through emperors shifting its centre , its looks and marginally its inhabitants. To me what keeps together Bombay, this pattern of islands land and sea together is maybe something as magic but quite different I would say. In its picaresque ability to conjure up colors from what was before a dusty grey window or a dark rainy soggen tarmac, Bombay is the closest place to the island that does not exist, the place where Peter Pan and his army of young boys could live on and on, his citizens are and an army of dissimulated fairies and pirates. It is a home for all those that find their home too small or too real.
Maybe Bombay to me is something where i can be nobody and everybody, a real place where belonging is on these loose terms of space and time that i feel suitable to occupy. A place for drifters and cast away, a place alien to be everybody’s home.
“Give me a home That isn’t mine Where I can slip in and out of rooms Without a trace, Never worrying about the plumbing, The colour of the curtains, The cacophony of books by the bedside. A home that I can wear lightly, Where the rooms aren’t clogged With yesterday’s conversations, Where the self doesn’t bloat To fill in the crevices. A home, like this body, So alien when I try to belong, so hospitable When I decide I’m just visiting.” (Home by Arundhati Subramaniam)
Bombay has given many amazing poets to India, I just wonder how it can be like to be a poet in Bombay, it must bring even deeper and sharper that everything around is shifting shapes and most incredible things can be unearthed at any time, or simply the most incredible thing is just to make it home everyday.
Nissim Ezekiel just sounds to a foreigner passerby like any other name in India, yet inside his letters the destiny of Galilean oil pressers is inscribed. A tiny community of Bene Israeli that found themselves thrown upon Mahrashtra coast by witty or unwitty winds . I did not even know that there were “Bene” Israeli and that there was a distinct community of oil pressers, then for some joke of a naughty sea wave these people ended up speaking Marathi, well that idea is typically something that in Bombay is plain normal. Left behind that shipwreck long lost in 150 BC, Nissim talks about the city today ‘ … Barbaric city sick with slums, deprived of seasons, blessed with rains, Its hawkers, beggards, iron-lunged, Processions led by frantic drums, A million purgatorial lanes, And child-like masses, many-tongued, Whose wages are in words and crumbs” (Nissimi Ezekiel),
I remember on my first stay here walking out of Crawford Market and the sharp reflection from a black Ambassador stinging my eyes, the heat weighing on my shoulders with the same strength as a shutter at evening that wants to close down the day. There is a long line in front of the station, they all seem dressed in the brick beige shade .. The first contact with Bombay makes you instantly learn languages you have not known of. Walking those few stone heavy hours, digging your ways through marvel and wonder, I remember how few hours later , the harshness of that first day melted in the plump ripe smiles in front of the sea. All of a sudden, the music of that magician singing of the endless possibilities to web in this earth was audible to anyone, and it seemed so logical and natural as dawn and dusk, the magic of land that is not a land but just a trick to the sea. So at night, when the land touches the sea, the magic is revealed and everybody is turned into magicians, fairies and elfs. “After a night of love I turned to love, the threshing thighs, the signing breasts , Exhausted by the act, desiring it again Within a freedom old as earth And fresh as God’s name, through The centuries of darkened loveliness”. (Nissim Ezekiel) Somehow in Nissim’s words I feel this untamed quest for finding love beyond everything, beyond everything that denies love and ultimately after all layers just reveals pure love and gratuitous unasked for love. Like all the seashells one has to shed off oneself in this city to really see what is behind.
During my first visit to Bombay, I still did not give in to Bombay , I still wanted to find India around here and I went to Elephanta Island. In Elephanta, you realise that you have to learn of different measures, the measure of God is peace and majesty, plain beauty and few words. How far is that little island ten km away, 10 km of sea, a short sea that does not smell like brine. Elephanta is majestic and is an oddity, a memory almost ignored. Something imposingly large and naively benevolent made of stone, something you can look at in awe, something that can smile and appease you , but alas that cannot trick you into the game of what is going to happen now , it cannot dance with all these others here, Elephanta stay still on its island, while the land dance.
Behind the Gate of India, where the ships leave to Elephanta, it takes few minuts to reach Apollo Bunder. I strolled there and remembered to have imagined it from Rushdie’s novels; I could realise that Apollo Bunder was indeed the place of so many scenes from “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” only later. I had been tricked by its pretty houses and magnolia trees and I did not find there the burstling luxury scene I had made up in my mind. I found Apollo Bunder like a glamourous actress past her prime that shuns publicity but has still a true beauty. I loved the rolled shutters and the discreet shade from the balconies, the lovely scenes it suggested inside. I loved the distinct charm of the art deco and sort of colonial buildings. As a consequence of its discreet charme, I did not find Apollo Bunder lined with tourists and strollers.
At a night , you can usually find here the horse carriages for your round of celebrity line up here before heading to Marina Drive when night falls. They fish people looking for a dream or a star, the idea of which is romantic, when you think that initially the place was were the Palla fish was dumped from the sea. Palla was then changed to the portuguese pollem and then to the english Apollo. Everybody may have a smelly past somehow.
“Winged things move in the fleecy pelt of heaven. The horses stroke the grass with great hooves. Often this weather, when a wind has driven insects and dust through air, the landscape moves, Thing itself one way, until this wind, Shifting the world, has purified my mind….” (Another Weather, Dom Moraes). Dom Moraes has a name that evokes that first foreign presence in Bombay , the Portuguese one. Dom Moraes could be the Bombay poet that i least understand and yet the one that could be the closest to me, not for the turbulent and tragic childhood but for his quest to pick his own place as an origin. He moved to England for his studies and become part of the “Soho Bohemia”. The early success there and the affinity for the English verse style must have made him feel to belong somewhere. And the amazing excellence in the English verse shows again and again that one does not need seven generations to feel to come from one place but just pure love. So Dom Moraes was more purely English that many; his first poetry collection was acclaimed, yet after that for another twist of destiny he plainly stopped writing poetry for 17 years. According to Bruce King (that wrote a wonderful book about “Three indian poets”, he then moved to New York for the UN from where he returned to India sent to Mrs Gandhi by the same UN. The reason Indira wanted him was to have him involved in educational television programs (to me , reading this today , I cannot help but think ‘but what the people in charge have in mind ?and why an educational program ?? because he was an excellent english poetry writer and not at all an indian one? but again i do not know a thing about politics or poetry, myself …). When he arrived , Dom did not have anything much for him waiting in India, and from that point he started to travel and work around Asia probably as a journalist , he stayed even in Singapore before reaching eventually again Bombay. I like to think of Dom Moraes as a wanderer that a bit like me did not go around the world with the shield of a community but learning to adapt to everyplace and picking from here and there something from his neighbors, people he had to make his own. And myself, I cannot say anymore what in me comes from Rome and what comes from Paris , yet i know that in my way of shaking hands and looking around there is some of both, i just cannot tell what is what. All these years out I was always envying all those people that came from a clear place or past, they always seemed to know how to do or not do things, always know in which side of the room to sit, how to fold napkins or dresses. It always seemed that from having a defined identity one could pull a sort of coherence, a way to face questions and know what to be at every occasions. I like to wonder with which eyes Dom Moraes was looking around himself in his wanderings, whether his past had bleached his certainties or whether it gave him total freedom. He ended up again in Bombay and the poetry came back to him for another trick of destiny. “…No sound would be heard if So much silence was not heard. Clouds scuff like sheep on the cliff . The echoes of stones are restored. No longer any foreshore Nor any abyss, this World only held together By its variety of absences”(Dom Moraes, Absences)
So let’s talk about Colaba and Portuguese community: it seems that when Bombay was given to the English crown as a dowry, well, the Portuguese must have settled down so well there that they would simply not go away, and English had to pay a symbolic rent to make their way into the island. Colaba was also the last island to be joined to the land, the last frontier taken from the sea. There are frangipani and ficus shading discretly beautiful buildings along with reflections from the sea and seagulls fly that flicker through the canopies. For some reasons, the images of Colaba that stick to my mind are those of an incipient monsoon. I went to a beauty centre in one of the most beautiful Victorian buildings , from outside it was covered in trees and unnoticeable , yet from the inside the tall windows with stained glass made you step into a place of glory. The stained glass were shining with reds an blues as much as the palette of nail varnish I had to choose from. I love to remember the excitation of the staff that could not wait for another day for the monsoon to start: as I have often witnessed in India the monsoon is waited and blessed, it is a moment of excitement and happiness, a turn of the season so wished for, as I remember in Birmingham the first day of sunshine in summer called all the inhabitants to suntan in the park occupying every centimeter of loan. Certainly in Paris we would not have hailed with such pure joy to any of the many days of rains. I cannot even compare to anybody from the cultured intellectual Paris the simple burst of enthusiasm and childlike joy that the staff from the beauty house were accompanying the monsoon with. I can only compare that joy to those of kids waiting for CHristmas , and even that would be just a shadow of the shrieks and laughs of those grown up. Maybe for that single shared afternoon, the images of the droplets of rain, fallen flowers on the pavement and misty afternoon are linked with a more human and poetic version of Colaba than the usual proposed to tourists.
From Colaba, one can walk past the beautiful art deco cinema and the antiques shop into Kala Ghoda, the gem of Bombay. A gem that has beautiful museums but above all a wonderful singer of its beauties.” This is the time of day i like best, And this the hour When i can call this city my own; When i like nothing better Than to lie down here, at the exact centre Of this traffic island (Or trisland as i call it for short, And also to suggest A triangular island with rounded corners) That doubles as a parking lot On working days, A corral for more than fifty cars, When it’s deserted early in the morning, And I’m the only sign Of intelligent life on the planet; The concrete surface hard, flat and cool Against my belly, My lower jaw at rest on crossed forepaws; Just about where the equestrian statue Of what’s-his-name Must’ve stood once, or so i imagine. I look a bit like A seventeenth-century map of Bombay With its seven islands Not joined yet, SHown in solid black On a body the clour of old parchment; With Old Woman’s Island On my forehead, Mahim on my croup, And the others distributed Casually among Brisket, withers, saddle and loin – With a pirate’s Rather than a cartographer’s regards For accuracy. I like to trace my descent -No proof of course, just a strong family tradition- Matrilineally, To the only bitch that proved TOigh enough to have survived, First the long voyage , And then the wretched weather here -A combination That killed the rest of the pack Of thrirty foxhounds, Imported all the way from England By Sir Bartle Frere In eighteen hundred and sixty-four, With the crazy idea Of introducing fox-hunting to Bombay . Just the sort of thing He felt the city badly needed… … As I play, The city slowly reconstructs itself, stone by numbered stone. Every stone Seeks out of his brothers And is joined by his neighbors. Every single crack returns to its flagstone and all is forgiven. Trees arrive at themselves, Each one ready To give an account of its leaves. The mahogany drops A casket bursting with its winged seeds, by the wayside , like an inexperienced thief Drops stolen jewels at the sight of a cop. St Andrew’s church tiptoes back to its place, shoes in hand, Like a husband after late-night revels. The university, you’ll be glad to know, Can never get lost Because, although forgetful, It always carries its address in its pocket. My nose quivers A many-coloured smell Of innocence and lavender, Mildly acidic perspiration And nail polish, Rosewood and Rosin Travels like a lighted fuse Up my nose And explodes in my brain. It’s not the leggy young girl Taking a short cut THrough this island as usual, Violin case in hand, And late again for her music class At the Max Mueller Bhavan, So much as a warning to me That my idyll will soon be over, That the time has come for me To surrender the city to its so-called masters.” ( from Pi-Dog by Arun Kolatkar)
Arun Kolatkar is to my eyes the poet that most has caught that piece of soul of Bombay that fascinates me, the lives of those ‘marginal’ people that constitute the blood and the flesh of Bombay. All these people that were living on the pavements and behind corners and sadly after the terrorist attacks were pushed out of their corners and their streets to leave place to army posts: streets cannot be crowded , for security reasons. All those people, I know , will eventually come back to my relief and to Bombay’s , because Bombay is theirs and they make Bombay; as much here as everywhere, life thick fabric is made by the moments that you do not count.