‘We have long forgotten the ritual by which the house of our life was erected. But when it is under assault and enemy bombs are already taking their toll, what enervated, perverse antiquities do they not lay bare in the foundations. What things were interred and sacrificed amid magic incantations, what horrible cabinet of curiosities lies there below, where the deepest shafts are reserved for what is most commonplace. In a night of despair I dreamed I was with my first friend from my school days, whom I had not seen for decades and had scarcely ever remembered in that time, tempestuously renewing our friendship and brotherhood. But when I awoke it became clear that what despair had brought to light like a detonation was the corpse of that boy, who had been immured as a warning: that whoever one day lives here may in no respect resemble him.’
– Walter Benjamin
I think of Ramu when I read these lines. It’s of him I think when I reread them. I have no idea why. For one thing, Ramu isn’t ‘my first friend from my school days’ – though he’s the only surviving school friend I’ll see when I visit Bombay. Bombay: the city I grew up in. The city I grew up in but knew very little. That is, a pretty limited number of roads; specific clusters of buildings.
I feel a deep sadness reading these lines – I can’t say why.
When I arrive into Bombay, I make phone calls. This is in the taxi, or the car that’s come to receive me from the airport and take me to wherever it is I’m staying: club or hotel. All the while, I’m registering the unfamiliar: the new flyovers; the disappearance of certain things which weren’t quite landmarks but which helped you orient yourself – furniture showrooms; fisherfolk’s settlements. I would be surprised – maybe even disappointed – if these large-scale changes did not occur. On the right-hand side at the end of the road from the airport towards Mahim is, I know, the mosque with loudspeakers, hemmed in by traffic; on the left, further up, past the brief stink of the sea, will be the church where I once went to attend an NA meeting. I was keeping Ramu company. These aren’t parts in which I grew up – but my childhood is coming back to me: the terror – the bewilderment and impatience. The contempt for others. For the city. The magical sense of superiority – like an armour – nurtured inadvertently by your parents: hard to regain.
This is a new route. It’s very grandiose.
A bridge suspended over water. I’ve been on it twice before. It is still. In the monsoons, its cables look immovable against the sheets of rain. Suddenly there’s an island, low and humped, with irregular houses and a temple, which you never saw on the old route (that route’s roughly parallel to this one, which is seaborne). Fisherfolk. No slum. The original islanders – you can’t but romanticise them when granted such a glimpse. They were invisible – perhaps for more than a century – from the Mahim side. Maybe they preferred it that way. Maybe they never realised they were invisible. Maybe they don’t know they’re visible. Of course, they’d have noticed the bridge come up over the years. Children would have grown up and left in the time. Do they leave? It doesn’t look like a place to go away from. The houses have a light wash – pale yellow, or pink, or white.
The bridge doesn’t last long – it’s meant to cut the duration of the journey. When you’re on it, you want it – the straight lines, the geometry, the inviolable sterility – to last longer. There are no pedestrians. Everything you claim to miss – human noise, congestion – you cease to miss when you’re on the bridge. Death in life. The other end dumps the cars into Worli. The wrong side of Worli. The car needs to make a U-turn round the potholes. In place of the old sea-facing bungalows, the high buildings for the new rich flank the left. The sea on the right is desolate, though it isn’t next to Marine Drive or before the Gateway or even in Juhu. Your first taste of the sea: contained, menacing. Contrary to your desires, you’ve been deposited in the middle of nowhere – which is what Worli was, and is. Still, the signal has come back – you can make calls again.
Instead, I send out a smarmy text to two acquaintances. ‘I’ll be doing a reading on the 5th at 6.30 p.m. at . . . And performing on the 6th at 8 p.m. Do come if you’re free.’ This silly message, bound for people I hardly know, flies out of my mobile as the car turns right towards Haji Ali. I detest messaging. Any variety of need leads to unease. But I mustn’t take the audience for granted.
‘Aaj kal mausam kaisa hai?’ I ask the driver – the weather’s the best subject when you’ve just released a text and are about to get bored.
At my request, he’s turned down the volume of his CD player, which has been broadcasting lushly arranged covers of film songs by a mediocre singer – why covers rather than the originals I don’t know, because the latter are easier to procure. Could, maybe, the singer be him? People believe in multitasking in Bombay. It’s a word used frequently here.
‘Garmi shuru ho gayi hai,’ he says, sombre, matter-of-fact. It’s March; no vestiges of coolness. Anyway, Bombay has no winter. Everyone knows that, but I get a sense that he thinks I might not know. He’s a true-blue ‘Mumbaikar’; I’m a tourist – he tests my knowledge by gently asking me my route preferences. He has no idea I grew up here – I, a man collected from the airport – that this city was long ago my life. I’m tempted to share this information, but have no opportunity. Instead, every time the car stops at a light, I stare at the vendors of pirated books who magically appear, who assess you with a piercing gaze as they brandish Jhumpa Lahiri; and the dark girls selling unblemished mogra flowers. White bracelets. ‘Bisnes pe aya?’ he asks me. I suppose writing is a business. Yes, I’m here on business. But I don’t tell him what kind, because I presume he won’t understand. What am I up to? If I made millions and entertained millions, there would be a justification; but . . . Nevertheless, I am here, and people, oddly, accept me for what I do. Even the driver would probably be okay with it. Now, the word ‘business’ – it has such a malleability in the language. ‘The business of writing a poem.’
I feel a sense of purposelessness – is it the ennui of the book tour or book-related visit? Not entirely. No, it pertains to Bombay, to being returned to a city where one performed a function, reluctantly. Reluctance is fundamental. You don’t plunge into growing up; it happens in spite of you. Then, one day, it’s done: you’re ‘grown up’. You go away. Back now in the city of my growing up, there’s nothing more that can happen to me. I embrace a false busyness. I suppose I’m living life. Without necessarily meaning to. It doesn’t occur to me that the visit is part of my life. I believe I’ll resume life after it’s done.
Ramu. Now, I don’t spectate on him as I do on the city: as a relic of my boyhood. My oldest surviving friend in Bombay. That makes it sound like the other friends are dead. But you know what I mean. We argue a lot: it’s not unequivocal affection. He’s irritating. I have delusions of grandeur. But we’re both reliable.
Ramu isn’t in Bombay. He’s in rehab in Alibagh. It sounds like a punitive regime: you can’t talk to him on the phone. He cannot leave. His sister gives me his news: not that there’s any news. She says he went in voluntarily. The regime will cure him once and for all of – what was it? It used to be ‘brown sugar’; is that still the fix? The stuff has become ‘shit’, Ramu once told me. Horribly impure. He’s been in Alibagh for a year; he’ll be in there for another. Unbelievable! But prevarication was possible no more. He’d come close to death once (I was here at the time) on his first and only overdose (he’s a chronic but doubtful user; he flirts with but doesn’t revel in danger; he’s timid). He lived, courtesy of the kindness of an extraordinary policeman. And a doctor called Shailendra. He lived; he was convinced he’d had some sense knocked into him. He had a certain look on his face for a year. Like a hare that’s felt the velocity of a bullet passing a centimetre from its ear. Then, slowly, he became himself. ‘How do I look? How do I look?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes – he’s always keen to know how others see him. And he’s also completely indifferent to opinion – a curious paradox. ‘You’re looking yourself again,’ I lied. He had aged, lost some hair and put on weight. Epitome of middle-class anonymity; he even wore terecot trousers, not jeans. But the self-absorbed expression was back. I was relieved as well as concerned. After a year, he ‘slipped’ again. He disappeared into the rehab without telling me; I don’t know when. I call him very occasionally, when seized by duty or a faint nostalgia. We have nothing really to say to each other, except the usual – his health, drugs, life, Bombay, what he might achieve if he were gainfully employed, masturbation, the girls we knew in school. He makes some cursory but sincere enquiries after my family. He’s fond of my parents.
The truth is: I’ve always expected to see him again, whether or not I wanted to. I haven’t assigned it priority. It’s a given. I’ll phone him and go to his place when I’m bored in the afternoons. He’ll turn up at the hotel I’m staying at, or at the Bombay Gymkhana; I’ll sign for him in the visitors book. Or he’ll come to the venue where I’m reading at half an hour before the event begins; he’ll sit stoically in the audience. Although he’s dismissive and impatient, he’s quite capable of fortitude. In the evenings, I’ll take him out to a dinner or two, sometimes in company, comprising other writers, which makes him restive, and confirms his worst prejudice about ‘intellectuals’. I draw the line at times: tell him I can’t see him when I have interviews and meetings. I wonder if this makes the relationship exploitative. It’s a question submerged at the back of my mind. But it’s okay to want friends to be available, right?
Lacan says our subjectivity takes form at the ‘mirror stage’. The term and notion are so well worn they might make you laugh – the fate of most revolutionary ideas in psychoanalysis. At around the age of one, we apparently begin to recognise ourselves in the mirror. That tottering toddler is me. Lacan points out that our relationship with our image is partly libidinous. Naturally, I have no memory of first noticing myself in a glass; but I do recall viewing myself pruriently even when I was four or five – making of my twin my sexual playmate, lingering over him. Handloom House on Dadabhai Naoroji Road – the place went up in a fire in the eighties. I remember pressing against my reflection as my mother pored over saris.
There must be other leaps in life – as momentous as the ‘mirror stage’ – that Lacan didn’t mention. Some are universal; others, culturally particular. To understand that your parents are human (and not an element of the natural world), that they’re separate from you, that they were children once, that they were born and came into the world, is another leap. It’s as if you hadn’t seen who they were earlier – just as, before you were ten months old, you didn’t know it was you in the mirror. This happens when you’re sixteen or seventeen. Not long after – maybe a year – you find out your parents will die. It’s not as if you haven’t encountered death already. But, before now, your precocious mind can’t accommodate your parents’ death except as an academic nicety – to be dismissed gently as too literary and sentimental. After that day, your parents’ dying suddenly becomes simple. It grows clear that you’re alone and always have been, though certain convergences start to look miraculous – for instance, between your father, mother and yourself. Though your parents don’t die immediately – what you’ve had is a realisation, not a premonition – you’ll carry around this knowledge for their remaining decades or years. You won’t think, looking at them, ‘You’re going to die.’ It’ll be an unspoken fact of existence. Nothing about them will surprise you any more. My awareness of this fact is never far away on this trip.
Ramu’s absence – it’s thrown me off balance and taken me aback a bit. I wonder how to categorise it. Which stage could it be part of? The mirror stage; the stage at which you realise what it means that your parents will die; the stage at which you realise your friends will not be permanently there – is the last a recognised stage?
Diagonally across the Kamala Nehru Park is the club. The taxi turns left; this is my destination. The main entrance – I lift my bag up three steps. Actually, the main entrance isn’t the right one for guests about to occupy a room. You have to walk down the long veranda (again, on your left) to the reception at the other end to collect your key. Something’s going to happen in the evening: parsi nite with buffet and percy khambatta on the accordion.
There’s a long sofa here, before which the broadsheets are placed on a table. To these are added, later, the tabloid-sized afternoon papers.
Each time I arrive here, I remember. This is where we came – my parents and I – when we left Bombay. I was in Oxford then. But I’d returned on one of my many homecomings and joined forces with my parents in the move. When I say ‘left’, I don’t mean we were going on holiday, though I behaved as if we were. We were making our exit. I didn’t care: it happened as simply as sloughing off a skin. My parents would be gone, elsewhere – to Calcutta. We had finished our life here, snipped off formal ties. I claimed never to love Bombay. I was making, with my parents, a long-awaited egress. Tired, we came to this club, to spend the last two nights here. My father’s flat had been sold; we had no home now in Bombay. The club became a second home – my father was a life member. We were tired but – probably – satisfied, that the money and the property had changed hands. My mother sat down on the sofa before which the broadsheets are kept. Was the reception then on this side, near the main entrance? I recall being visited by a sense of déjà vu on entering the club. I was often getting déjà vu then; I’d felt it when I saw all our possessions – books, furniture, china – being put inside crates. Then, in the club’s lobby, I had the faintest of memories: I had dreamed of the crates earlier, I’d also dreamed of arriving one afternoon in the club with my parents. This gave me a slight chill: so what I’d had was a premonition of our departure, and the déjà vu was not déjà vu at all, it was the feeling of experiencing what had been foretold in the dreams I’d had those days, when my parents lived in Bandra and were thinking of departing, and I would return to them in their unresolved state every three or four months. I half smile as this comes back to me.
I nod at the man and the woman who pilot the reception desk. ‘How are you?’ ‘Fine, sir! Your father is okay?’ ‘He’s all right, thank you!’ They sway their heads from side to side, denoting satisfaction and closure – more a doll-like vibration than a head movement. They ask after my father because he’s the member, not I. Where is he? The man behind the desk is warmly deferential, the woman is businesslike – the club’s female staff aren’t unduly forthcoming. I walk past percy khambatta on the accordion (wondering if I should slip into Parsi Nite in the evening: I have a weakness for Parsi food) and turn left into the corridor where members are sitting in a cluster of limbs: arms, legs, tennis rackets. Parsis and Gujaratis: a breezy, gregarious bunch. But also oddly clannish. The staff emanate from Deccan soil. When Datta Samant was the guru of the trade unions in the seventies, this club, like every other, was rife with labour–employer warfare. Only part of the tension has to do with class: there’s also race and community. The affluent émigrés; the deprived natives. Right now, no one seems to be in a mood to move: the waiters stand in gossipy circles; the members lean towards tables or raise eyes and throw questions at each other.
I remember when this club was nothing: an underpopulated building, a government canteen. On Sundays, you’d see three or four members being served rice from a big china bowl, alongside Goa fish curry and kachumber. The kitchen was, and is, out of sight; the food and the waiter carrying it on a tray had covered great distances. It’s 1970 I’m thinking of. That’s when we moved to the tall building, Toledo, that had come up behind the club. Each resident of Toledo – as my father was from 1970 – was given life membership of the club: probably to both increase and improve its clientele. Just as well, because it meant we could use the club as a pied-à-terre or whatever the right term is when we left Bombay, and have been able to continue to use it in that way ever since. It has changed greatly. Its location in the richest area in the city and the fact that it has no special colonial pedigree mean it’s both attractive to potential members and less difficult to join (provided you have the money) than the older clubs (which, it’s rumoured, take no new members). You must keep this in mind as you walk past the people sunk languorously in the cavities of chairs and sofas. They may not be the crème de la crème, but they are rich. Anyway, who’s to decide who constitutes the old rich, or if that category is even pertinent here? On certain visits, when I step into the main entrance in the evenings and overhear the din, I’m reminded of Noam Chomsky’s incredulous assertion: ‘No one parties as much as the Indian upper classes do.’ The club has changed again, but that’s to do with readjusting the veneer every year: adding granite, changing the name of a restaurant. The core clientele remains the same; so does the core of the menu: sev puri, chutney sandwich, dhansak, Parsi chutney. When you ask for coffee, there are two options: ‘Nescafé’, a mound of instant-coffee powder in a jar alongside the hot water, or ‘filter coffee’, a species of south Indian granule that you spot on the bottom of the cup, beneath the swill, or taste as a sediment. If you order tea, the waiter will ask if you like it ‘mixed’, with water, leaves, milk and sugar amalgamated into a potion, or ‘separate’. I usually opt for ‘separate’.
I lie back. They’ve ‘refurbished’ the room. I loathe the word, its blunt sound (as if someone with a cold were trying to say ‘furnished’), and don’t use it without irony. But the room is new. Oddly, it’s erased the old room from my memory – all I recall is the bathroom, and the plastic bucket that was left under the shower for good measure. I close my eyes. The air conditioning is fixed at twenty-three degrees centigrade – although there’s a remote control on the bedside table, it’s symbolic; you can make no alteration to the temperature. Why didn’t I accept my hosts’ invitation to stay in a new boutique hotel in Apollo Bunder? Perhaps it was the temptation to be an interloper – to spend a few nights, not by proxy but by stealth, in Little Gibbs Road: our address when I was a boy. Close, but not too close. Just to be able to catch a heartbeat. And make my getaway. The refurbished room, with its new bed, prints, mirror and unfluctuating weather, is more expensive than the old version – but absurdly affordable. I’ll claim the expenses, of course. We writers might not earn much by way of fees, but every part of our trip is covered. On tour, we are on loan. We’re the pound of flesh that must be repaid in full.
With nothing to do, with Ramu absent, I go down for a walk.
Arjun is missing too; he’s flown to Delhi to give a talk on the gene. I met him when we were in Oxford. He now runs a government-funded lab on the outskirts of Bombay. He’s one of those who, like me, made the decision to return to India. Like me, he couldn’t stand the idea of living in the West a single day longer. Unlike me, Arjun hasn’t stepped out of India since 1998 – although he’s planning to accept an invitation to a conference in Birmingham. I wonder at his tardiness. When we meet up, we rarely discuss matters of weight; we mostly talk like we were teenagers, or unmarried – as we used to in Oxford. Ramu is suspicious of our candour. He has deemed Arjun an ‘intellectual’; the one concession he’ll make is, ‘He’s nice, but horny.’ The ‘but’ is interesting. It contains Ramu’s sense of moral superiority. He has many occasions to declare he’s morally superior – as an addict, cheated by the city he grew up in; as a non-intellectual; as one who’s less horny than Arjun. But, whenever he carps gently about Arjun, I participate in Ramu’s generalisations and implicitly agree. Yes, we are less horny than him.
I emerge from the gates of the club onto the main road and glance to my left at Kamala Nehru Park. I feel no time lag. I catch sight of the park as I used to each day as a boy. Another part of me, hovering a few feet overhead, is studying my situation. Because this is not my life. It could have been, but I chose for it not to be. Instead of turning left, I turn right, deciding to shop. Unzipping my toilet bag in the room, I noticed I’d left the toothpaste behind. So I enter the provisions store. I used to get index-finger-sized Cadbury’s milk chocolate bars here; they cost a rupee when I was eight years old. I used to love the fact that the bar was so thin and lapidary and would be gone in ten seconds. I barely felt responsible for being the cause of its disappearance. I loved the lettering and sinking my teeth into it. Now, I go up the two steps and find the shop is as busy as if it were Christmas. The Gujaratis within are amenable – they furnish me with Colgate in fifteen seconds. I pay, and consider buying something else – one of the staff is perched on a ladder to retrieve a lotion from the topmost shelf. Everywhere, there is the strain and stretch of trade.
It’s a wonder the shop exists. Could it be here because there’s such affluence in Malabar Hill – or is it here despite the wealth? The same could be said of the shops next to it: St Stephen’s Store on its right, a confectioner’s, and the two grocers’ on its left. I first saw them more than four decades ago. Why do the rich give them patronage? Could it be that they want tiny pockets of continuity? Actually, Malabar Hill is an oasis of continuity – its tranquillity is calculated to preserve. When I lived here, I never went into these shops except the one from which I’ve acquired toothpaste – to get my Cadbury’s, or watch my mother buy a tin of Kraft cheese. It’s only now, when I’ve become a visitor, that I’ve discovered St Stephen’s Store, and its tissue-thin chutney sandwiches. There are certain things that (obeying orders) I buy for my family when I’m in Bombay, and one or two that I give myself, such as these sandwiches. They’re part of my afterlife here.
I cross the road. I’m here for the book reading; I’ve nothing to do this afternoon – or later this evening. I didn’t have the wit to notify my friends in advance. But, then, I don’t have friends here. The idea is a fiction that I hardly ever bother to examine – which is why I’m often taken by surprise when I find myself at a loose end in Bombay. My mind tells me, ‘Bombay is teeming with people you know, or have known.’ This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The people I was close to in school I’ve lost track of. Except Ramu.
I have crossed the road. Opposite me is the building that came up out of nowhere in the late seventies and partially blocked our view. Before then, we had an unbroken vision of the Arabian Sea. The building is irrelevant to me now, but still causes a pinprick of irritation. It was an interloper – a tenant on the landscape – and continues to be one.
In front of the building, upon the road – there’s no pavement here – sits a woman on her haunches, displaying a basket of fruit. What she could offer that the grocers opposite don’t, I can’t say. In another area, there’d be a gaggle of squatting women. Here, she is one. One is enough for Little Gibbs Road.
Next to her there’s a narrow pathway or steps that fall precipitately seaward. Itinerants descend. I catch a blue glimpse of the horizon. I have never been down there. That’s because we’ve spent so much of our lives, even in places we’ve grown up in, being driven around. Walking, we take expected routes. Even our unexpected routes are well worn. There’s much I don’t know in Malabar Hill. Like that glimpse of blue.
I feel no nostalgia. What I confront is an impossibility – of recovering whatever it was that formed me, which I churlishly disowned. Bombay was never good enough for me. Even now – as before – I hesitate to write about it. It is my secret. It was so, even when I lived here. For instance, the Mercedes. My father’s white Mercedes-Benz, ‘Merc’ to my friends. ‘Mercheditch’ to the proud driver. I rode it but disembarked ten minutes before reaching Elphinstone College. The final bit I covered on foot. Sloughing off my life. And no sooner has the thought suggested itself than I confront the bus terminus near the Kamala Nehru Park. From here ply the 102 and the 106. Red double-decker and single-decker respectively. Sturdy carriers – not like their derelict Calcutta counterparts. With the Mercedes presenting itself and escape from it becoming a necessity, I began for the first time to take buses. Incredible cocoon they took me out of. The 106 put me in the middle of the sea breeze and dropped me close to Elphinstone College. Sometimes, I lugged my guitar along. Fittingly, my hair would be insanely tousled by the time I arrived.
The Immortals is my fifth novel. It’s also my longest one. On paper, it took me nine years to write, but the duration is misleading. I didn’t spend all of it writing my new novel. It would have been interesting to have had some sort of a timekeeper who could have measured the moments I spent writing it. Maybe the total of a year devoted to committing the actual story to the page? Even that seems an excessive span, a phantasmagoric labour. One year! No, I was plotting other things at the time – plotting not the novel, but that resistant tale we call ‘life’. At the very end of the millennium, I tried to escape globalisation by escaping Britain. I didn’t want to go back to a time before globalisation; I just wanted to get out, move. I moved to Calcutta. Then I tried to escape globalisation by taking leave of the novel. I wrote stories. I wrote essays. I composed music. This is what I did a lot of those nine years.
I am in the Kamala Nehru Park. I’ve entered through the open gates. I love the Kamala Nehru Park, but I didn’t frequent it as a child. It served as a landmark: ‘We live near Kamala Nehru Park.’ Even today, I will – if I’m staying at the club – instruct the taxi driver: ‘It’s opposite the Kamala Nehru Park.’ Because everyone seems to know it. I love it, but my discovery of it goes back to a reassessment made in my late teens. I began to explore certain things I’d ignored till then, and which had always been close at hand. Among these were Indian classical music, black-and-white Hindi films, Hindi film songs – and even a place like the Kamala Nehru Park. I can’t pinpoint what connects these things I’ve mentioned except that they’d always been in front of me – but I’d never noticed them. They weren’t on the curriculum of my upper-middle-class life. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen, the outline of that life was loosening, it was being tugged at its edges. I was making those discoveries largely alone.
The Kamala Nehru Park’s clientele – in fact, Indian tourism – is predominantly working class. We think the working class spends all its time working; actually, recreation is an avid pursuit for wage earners and ‘blue collar’ workers. They come from faraway localities (Ghatkopar, Mulund) – possibly taking the 106 on the last leg of the expedition. They arrive as families; male friends roam the park in pairs – holding hands: this much hasn’t changed. You can spot the upper-middle-class person native to this area because the men are in shorts and the women wear trainers. You see them running; one marches past briskly. They return in your direction in seven minutes. The upper-middle-class person is an individual; they don’t circulate in the park in groups. The visitors from Mulund hardly run; their progress is deliberate. The man of the family is regal in his patience. A family might loll on the grass with a familiarity that resembles ownership. The children run. They rush to the circular raised platform, whose roof beats and vibrates during the monsoons. When a child stamps his foot, there’s an answering echo, like a swift, painless slap, special to the podium. All this is as I recall from a year ago, and from forty years ago too. This isn’t to say that Bombay is unchanged – Bombay, least changeless of cities! But a few things – like the loud echo here – are the same as ever; annunciatory; to be encountered nowhere else.
I like it when I get invitations to read in Bombay – or to give a talk here. Especially as I get so few. No one wants me to read in Bombay. That’s an exaggeration. I’m not being singled out. It’s just that literary events here are few and far between. It’s more likely that I’ll get an invitation tomorrow from Abu Dhabi, or Barcelona, or Rangoon. The city belongs to Bollywood. That’s what constitutes its imaginative energy, its drive. It has no academia to speak of; its university has been made peripheral. And that’s why I await the invitation or opportunity – for months, sometimes for a year – with a strange anticipation. It’s not that I want to disseminate my work in Bombay. It’s just that I long, these days, to visit the city I grew up in.
And who’ll come to the reading? I can predict the mix. There might be one or two people whose names I guess at vaguely, but there will be few faces from the past. Few friends from school; few colleagues of my father’s. And yet there’s a recognisability about the audience – I know them, their clothes and accent. What brings them to my reading? I’m not confident they know me. I’m used to being no one in Bombay – I’ve experienced years and years of anonymity here, or, more accurately, being an extension of my father’s identity. Mr Chaudhuri’s son. As was the case at the club earlier. ‘How’s your dad?’ It’s a question I’m used to in Bombay.
The park diagonally opposite the Kamala Nehru is called the Hanging Gardens, but it feels to me that the park is the one that hangs over the city. Hanging Gardens is situated on a slight elevation on Malabar Hill; at least, so it seems when you approach it from the club and the Post Office, and climb twenty-odd steps to its gates to find that Hanging Gardens is the top of a plateau. It’s more middle class than Kamala Nehru, many more purposeful walkers, their calves bare, socks gathered round ankles. Optimistic foliage sculptures abound: a rhinoceros; a boy on an elephant; a giraffe. These are best ignored. The oddity at the core of the Kamala Nehru Park is the great shoe. The rhyme it solemnly provoked when you first saw it as a child was ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe’, mapping the park in your head according to a list of imaginary habitations, of which that abode made of confectionery (which Hansel and Gretel began to eat bits of the moment they found it) was also one. I’ve never entered the shoe. It’s a storey tall; people are always going up. I go down paths flanked with flowers – there are so many whose names I don’t know; I’m no nature lover, the only blossoms I’m familiar with are gulmohur and bougainvillea – till I come to the balcony where the park is a promontory overlooking, all at once, Marine Drive, the eye-hurting glint of the Arabian Sea, bits of Marine Lines, the narrowing at Nariman Point, the clusters of very tall, at times very thin, buildings, the extant Gothic towers and turrets and antiquarian domes, and, across all of this, the sea, which extends beyond the Gateway of India. You’d expect a throng here, at this balcony, but it’s a manageable crowd. Families; boys straining; fathers complacent; the mothers harangued. Only the little girls look thrilled. Naturally, no denizen of Bombay would come here; at least, none who felt they belonged to the city or had a sense of proprietorship. Which is why I crane to look but try not to take too much time, so others behind me can occupy my place. It’s a magnificent scene, an old, old one, which I’d glimpsed from one spot or another in Malabar Hill since I was a child, blankly, appearing to register little; and now, seeing it again, I don’t know what to do with it. And so, almost immediately, I turn my back on Bombay, and am now looking at the children who are buzzing before me, who know there’s definitely something at hand.
With Bombay and the oncoming evening behind me – the giant pink wash over the sea is expanding – I walk up the red path to the gates and am back at the bus stop again. There’s a short-lived agitation in my pocket; the phone’s convulsing. I fish it out. The message says: Don’t forget the shoes. Of course. Something to do! I might have forgotten. I stare and then write, Remind me of details. Can’t recall. As I proceed to the club, the phone shivers again. Just take them. Call when you’re there.
They’re furled in the suitcase in the room, my wife’s shoes and my mother’s. Their bones bulge slightly in the cloth bag. I transfer the cloth bag to a plastic one and exit the room. This is my big mission in Bombay, to exchange these bespoke pairs for my mother and wife; either the fit or the colour wasn’t right. My mother, even today, approaching her mid-eighties, will wear no other footwear but Joy Shoes. The shop came up in the Taj in the seventies. She became a customer. She’s been unflinching in her loyalty. Even now, when she can no longer travel to Bombay, she’ll order a pair over the phone. ‘Munna?’ she says. ‘How are you?’ in that rich Bengali-accented diction. Munna’s a suave operator. ‘Hello madam, hello madam, all well here. When are you coming next this side?’ ‘I am not coming but my son is going,’ says my mother firmly. ‘Please exchange the priya you sent me last time, they are not fitting properly.’ ‘Send it over, send it over,’ he responds breezily. ‘Anything else?’ ‘My daughter-in-law . . .’ she repeats these important words, ‘my daughter-in-law never wore the kolhapuri she bought last time. Please exchange them for priya.’ ‘No problem,’ says Munna, clearly preoccupied with other things. ‘You are size 5, right?’ ‘Four and a half,’ she corrects him. ‘My daughter-in-law is six,’ she adds, though no request was made for this information. Their feet are small, but my mother’s are specially tiny, and probably has Joy Shoes sending specifications to workmen for a new pair of priya. At the end of this conversation, my mother and I (who have known him since I was fourteen) are gratified that Munna is alive, given the strange events of 26/11. A close shave. It’s been two years. Still, my mother makes sure: ‘You are okay?’ ‘Oh yes, yes!’ says Munna, not guessing the association – he’s adept at being reassuring.
The taxi driver will test your knowledge. He’s planted his car in front of El Cid. The moment I cross the road and say ‘Taj Mahal’, he perks up. ‘Babulnath se jau ya Walkeshwar se jau?’ He knows the query about the route is rhetorical. ‘Walkeshwar,’ I say, meeting his eyes in the mirror. We’re soon past the Jain Temple, whose striking blue pillars I’ve only seen from the outside, we’ve turned round the Teen Batti hairpin, left behind the Governor’s House, and are suddenly by the sea. I am now in the scene I was looking at earlier; it’s the one I stared upon morning and evening from the twelfth-floor balcony. The way to school. By the time I was fourteen, I’d have known this journey couldn’t be repeated forever. When I was smaller, there was no end in sight to the morning excursion to class. I took to prayer in the car. The praying was furtive. No one knew about it: not my parents; not the driver. Once a girl in a school bus saw me, and I agonised over whether I’d been discovered. I depended on the Catholic figurines that seemed to hide behind every other corner on the route. My prayers asked for exemption from PE. ‘Please let Mr Mazumdar not tell me to run today,’ I begged – I wasn’t certain if the addressee was ‘God’. There was always a saint in waiting. In a traffic jam in Marine Lines, I saw a kindly shape that said our lady of dolours beneath it. I sent the prayer in her direction. This was when, from a neighbouring vantage point above the car window, the girl saw me. I saw her just after I opened my eyes. Why I was in Marine Lines I don’t know. Usually the car went up the flyover and then descended into Dhobi Talao, or went to Churchgate and turned left at the iran air sign.
As we go down Marine Drive, I see a sign proclaiming nikhil chaganlal. I’d missed it before now. Unless it’s new. It doesn’t look new. Could this be the Nikhil Chaganlal who teased me mercilessly in the sixth standard? The sign says he’s a painter. That night, I google him on my laptop. It is him. The face matches. He was a scrawny boy; he’s better built now. His ‘recent works’ include a series on rooms – mainly bedrooms and sitting rooms. There are no human beings in them, but there’s evidence of activity. There’s a chessboard on the bed; sitar and tablas by the sofa; a can of Coke on the rug, bright red. The colours have an intolerable gaiety. The view from the rooms contains the sea – not quite the Bombay sea (it’s too blue). The paintings simmer uniformly, as if on a steady, low flame. I am engrossed. I must have presumed (without realising it) that I’m the only one in that sixth-standard class who’s ‘famous’. Or at least had artistic ambition.
There’s a great bustle outside the Taj. Once it had to do with chauffeurs arrayed there, waiting for the sahebs. Now it’s the new security regime. The men who brought death here a little more than two years ago disembarked from a dinghy near Cuffe Parade, and then some of them arrived at Apollo Bunder and got into the lobby with guns. To delay the likes of them in the future, you have to put your packages through the X-ray machine and your mobile in a small coffin-like tray. These Joy shoes of my mother’s and my wife’s belong, in a sense, as much to the Taj as they do to them. I surrender them to the X-ray tunnel. Go back to where you came from. Let them accuse you of being dangerous.
Once inside, I ignore the sofas that, in the centre, form a commoner’s court, a Diwan-i-Am, in which the visitor can be enthroned. This was long the axis of the Taj’s new wing. There’s something subtly different about the arrangement of the sofas – it’s sparser – in comparison to the lot these have replaced and which were presumably destroyed. To the veteran visitor, this loss of continuity is near-unnoticeable; for the new guest, the Taj they see – the busy lobby – is a phoenix risen from the flames. I head for Nalanda. I may as well check if they have a copy of The Immortals. The reason for checking is to punish myself. It’s not the bookshop it was; besides, its representation of my work is patchy. My visits to Nalanda are coterminous with my trips to Bombay: annual; once in two years. I will ask them straight out, ‘Where are my books?’, or, if they have one or two allocated to random bookshelves, ‘And my other books?’ I feel compelled to excavate my titles because I bought books here as a teenager – not just bought books, but lighted on poets I’d never heard of: Tranströmer, then Mandelstam and Pessoa. The irony of a five-star hotel hosting these elusive men concerned neither the bookshop nor me. Once I became aware that Sharmila Tagore (smaller than I expected) was standing beside me, The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories in her hand, reading, or – from the resistance she emanated delicately – pretending to read. There’s little poetry in Nalanda these days: maybe a Palgrave anthology; Tagore; Kapil Sibal. If you’re in luck, you might spot Imtiaz Dharker’s Postcards from God. To my question, the attendant has an all-purpose comeback: ‘We just sold out. We have placed order with distributor, but they are not supplying.’ If I were to pin down the publishing rep (he’s so intangible he’s almost non-existent), he will shake his head and confide (I don’t know if he’s shaking his head, since we’re on the phone, but it feels like he is): ‘Nalanda balance of payment is very bad, sir. Long backlog of credit. We have stopped supplying till they clear the deficit.’ Sceptical, I say, ‘That’s terrible, Janardhan. The Taj is an important outlet, right?’ ‘I agree, sir,’ he replies blandly. ‘I’m trying to rectify it.’ ‘Do they even know that I’ve written about the Taj and Nalanda in The Immortals?’ I say, as if this revelation would alter everything – for me, for the Taj, for the Nalanda’s plans and my publisher’s. ‘You have written about the Taj, sir?’ ‘Yes.’ There’s a small interval. ‘I don’t think they know, sir. They should definitely know.’
Nalanda is out of copies of The Immortals, says the attendant. He placed an order last month; there’s been no movement. Either he’s lying – or it’s that balance of payment situation – or the distributor’s acting up, a long path at the end of which my books lie in a warehouse. But is the distributor a person from Porlock – someone my mind’s inventing? If there was no person from Porlock there would be a person from somewhere else, to make trouble, to come between the writer and their writing. Stevie Smith was right: we need our person from Porlock. A voice says: ‘It’s no one else. It’s you. Figure it out.’ In the meanwhile, as usual, I’m rebuffed. This is not a two-way street, I find. The Taj can be found in The Immortals, but The Immortals is not to be found in the Taj. I pick up a copy of Time Out. This is because I like guidebooks to cities I know.
Out of the bookshop, I’m in the lobby; walking towards the concierge, I turn right into the long corridor. They’ve closed off, for obvious reasons, side street and backstreet entrances that were, till 2008, open. A part of me regrets the sealing off. I wonder if – when the fear and the burden of responsibility this thing has generated have blown over – the doors will be opened again. Every restaurant in the corridor I pass, I make personal and historic notations for: ‘This is the Harbour Bar; I was never fully aware of it till Shanbag of Strand Bookstall took my wife and me there in 1993, and we ate lobster chilli pepper’; ‘Here’s Golden Dragon (looks different now), where I first encountered chopsticks but never learned to use them. A few people were killed here.’ And, also from the early eighties, this is where I first met Shobha De. It was soon after she’d become a De but before she appended the extra ‘a’ to her first name. She’d recently married someone who admired my father and lived in the same building as we did then – they took us out to dinner; or did my father take them out? The last time I came to Golden Dragon was in the nineties, during one of my post-marriage trips from Oxford, when my parents lived in Calcutta but we’d coincided in Bombay, and my father brought us here to rehearse past occasions though I don’t think he could really afford the prices any more. The manager must have had a memory of him as the incredibly gentlemanly CEO of a big company (though long vanished from these parts) and, at the end of the dinner, charged him nothing. Remembering this, I hold in balance the same emotions I did from fifteen years ago: pleasure, that a man as striking and humane as my father should have been paid tribute to; pleasure, that even in a city as forgetful as this one, people can store away a memory of dignity; pleasure, that he should be acknowledged even when he’d gone from here and, on retirement, forfeited everything, as he’d forfeited his past upon Partition; guilt, that we’d always lived off the fat of the land. To those who have, more shall be given. If you have nothing, even the little you have is taken from you. This is unarguable. But the guilt is a spectre; it has no basis in reality. I wish it to be gone.
As usual, I stop at the photo display. I don’t think I’m a celebrity watcher, but I’ve always found it arresting. They’ve returned, affirming continuity: of what was and will be. The attacks, for them, are just a blink of the eye. In fact, they’ve been through much more than the attacks. Bill Clinton, John Lennon, V.S. Naipaul, Nehru. Even Shobhaa De, larger than the rest, Cleopatra-like on a sankheda chair. They are the true survivors. They’ve known the fickleness of fortune, the travesty of renown – and are still with us. For some reason, I think I’ll see Hitchcock among them. But Hitchcock never came to India, did he? Still, I forget a little later that he’s not in the gallery. Which is the one bit of black and white in the corridor.
I press on. Two women of indeterminate nationality – they could be Latin American – walk towards and by me. They’re followed by a middle-aged European in a sleeveless top and skirt. I’m in the foyer of the old wing now, and the swimming pool’s on my right. Dusk’s falling on the water. I think of Ramu. How, long ago, my parents and I had come here for dinner and, stepping out later, I’d gone quickly down the pavement (which is cordoned off now by barriers: no pedestrians) and, beneath one of the arches, on the steps of what used to be the chemist’s, found Ramu. It was a year since I’d seen him. I hardly went to college any more, and (this was something I didn’t know) neither did he. The year’s gap was unremarkable. We were at that stage in our lives when friends were falling off. School friends are like relatives; you can’t deny they were part of your growing up, but they come to mean nothing to you. That year, when I saw Ramu on the steps, a couple of our classmates had already gone to America. In the years to follow, others would leave – for Wharton, Carnegie Mellon, MIT. A bit like a wartime exodus. I said to Ramu, ‘Hey, what’s up? What’re you doing here?’ ‘Nothing yaar,’ fugitive in a way that was attractive. I presumed he was smoking marijuana. ‘Don’t ask.’ ‘My parents are a few steps behind me,’ I said. ‘Oh shit,’ he said, and turned his face towards the arch. ‘Rah-moo?’ called my mother – she was glimmering in her sari and jewellery. ‘How are you?’ He stood up reluctantly. ‘I’m okay Auntie.’ ‘Keeping yourself busy?’ said my father.
Another time – I think it was 1986, when I rediscovered him in the months I spent in India between graduating from UCL and going back to Oxford – he said he could see himself working as one of the security personnel at the Taj. At this point, he’d been an addict for six or seven years, but was committed neither to being a full-blown goner nor to taking up normal life. ‘Normal life’ interested him in spurts, but then the enthusiasm for it seemed to vaguely die. The reasons for wanting a job as one of the Taj’s security staff were, I think, manifold. First, he believed he looked the part. Also, the fact that, in security, you’re doing something while you’re not doing very much would have been integral to the job’s appeal. Standing smartly, studying the middle distance. And he knew someone who had the job, and this planted the idea in his head. But he didn’t know whom to approach or how to apply. The idea remained a possibility.
Before me is Gazdar. Full of the most delicately wrought jewellery. A curlicue of gold on a bangle; the miniature hive of an earring. I have neither the taste nor an eye for jewellery. But, a year ago, I came here to exchange my mother’s mangalsutra (just as, now, I’m carrying her shoes). Its beads were like kalonji, or maybe fish roe. Why she wanted to give it up for something else after thirty years I had no idea: an old-age fit or whim. But she’s in perfect possession of her senses and her whims have nothing to do with her years. The man at the counter – he was the one person in the shop – claimed he could remember her. I seemed to remember him, because he looked so familiar and appeared to belong firmly somewhere. I asked him if he was Mr Gazdar and he clarified he was a long-term employee – though he had the ease of a family member, of someone who’d been among the artefacts from a young age, and could regard them as both rarities and objects for trade. He had a slightly uxorious air – of a man who defers to other people’s wives because he knows they call the shots. It’s not as if Gazdar has hordes of customers, though. I can’t afford its wares, but on the day of the mangalsutra exchange I saw a basrai pearl necklace (a fragile exoskeleton that made me nostalgic) which I thought I’d get my wife as an anniversary present.
How come Gazdar escaped ransacking in those three or four days? It doesn’t make sense, somehow. I haven’t had this conversation with the man who says he isn’t Mr Gazdar. What he did tell me, though, is that he shut shop early that evening – or he’d have been in trouble.
Odd, I think. My mind’s gone back to my mother’s words. Her recounting of her Sylhet days were so vivid that it didn’t occur to me that she was unhappy as a child. Even the privations she experienced while growing up had an aura of singularity in her accounts. Sometimes the tearful stories were amusing. Only once or twice did I get a sense of how hard it was. Evenly she’d said: ‘I always knew that that wasn’t going to be my life.’ (By that she meant both Sylhet and the circumstances her family fell into after her father’s death.) And indeed it wasn’t. Much of her adult life was here in Bombay, part of it here, in the Taj. ‘Your life will be one that you can’t imagine now,’ an astrologer had predicted. And it was clear, when she told me of the astrologer’s words, that she hadn’t imagined it. She was leading, by then, the life he’d foretold long ago. For me, foreknowledge was similar, but pointed in the opposite direction. This is why I feel a detachment and fraudulence as I walk to Joy Shoes. I knew this wouldn’t be my life – Malabar Hill, Cuffe Parade, the Taj. ‘The streets were never really mine.’ I was going to be far away.
‘The streets were never really mine.’ In a way, this was true of my parents too. Of course, they owned their life in Malabar Hill, presided over it – I loved their benevolent reign. I myself never possessed my time here unequivocally. But when life in Bombay began to unravel after my father’s retirement it was interesting how they made almost no attempt to not let it go. It was as if they were used to leaving. They’d left a few times before: on Partition; then to London; then from London. When it came to leaving, they knew how. Not that they were planning to depart from Bombay. But on some level they were preparing for departure. And, in acknowledgement, they began to let go of things. My mother anyway liked to give things away. It had been a startling habit from ever since I can remember, a tic. She’d gifted furniture to her music teacher, jewels and saris to relations. She even gave furniture to Ramu before we went away – to sell, ostensibly; but it was never sold, and came to adorn Ramu’s room. Their last years here were marked by the sale of bits of my mother’s jewellery. That’s because my father’s savings began to run out after retirement; his taxed income had been modest. Besides, he was financing my education in London; he’d borrowed money to buy the post-retirement flat. In 1986, between UCL and going to Oxford, I spent time with them in that small flat they’d moved to in Bandra. Then I got jaundice (though I’m careful to drink boiled water). I was transferred to Nanavati Hospital, to a ‘deluxe’ room in the old wing. It was terrible. At five in the morning, when I was woken up by a nurse who’d come to change the saline drip, I saw a large cockroach crawl across the floor. That afternoon, my parents moved me to a tip-top luxury room in the new wing of the Nanavati. How? My mother had sold a pair of diamond earrings. Both parents looked excited and vindicated. My father, at this point, saw at least some of my mother’s jewellery as one might see bonds and debentures: as something meant to be encashed in need. I remember accompanying my parents on two trips into the stifling, entangled maze of Zaveri Bazaar when the bank balance had dipped again. I think it hurt my mother to lose some of those rings and pendants, and I’ve always wanted to give her back something, but never have. I’ve long wished to buy her those earrings. But the journeys to Zaveri Bazaar weren’t desperate; they were full of anticipation. A thrilling climax. My parents, distracted and happy.
That idiot Ramu. He often stayed with us then, in those three years when we realised our time in Bombay was ending. I say ‘idiot’ with affection. Partly I say it because he seemed insensitive to the small upheaval that was occurring in our life. He was immersed in his own upheaval. But he’s no idiot. I told him as much as we walked back and forth between the Gateway of India and the Radio Club, the sea black beside us. It was 1986; I was back from London and spending a year with my parents in the flat on St Cyril Road. We often discussed, that year, the possibility of selling the flat – our last pied-à-terre here. Every other day I’d take the local train to Churchgate to wander the streets in parts of the city where I’d grown up and gone to school, but where my parents no longer lived. It was on one of these sojourns that I ran into Ramu. He told me immediately of his addiction to brown sugar. ‘I’m fucked,’ he said. We renewed a friendship which, in school, had been neither slight nor thick, but convivial and fractious. He used to call me ‘the poet’ in school, both to heckle me and pay me a backhanded compliment – not because he’d read my poems but as a response to the fact that I didn’t ‘do’ sports, wore glasses, was maladroit and kept my hair long. When we ran into each other again in 1986, there was no awkwardness between us. He made a presumption on my time which I immediately accepted. It was during a walk near the Taj that I said to him, ‘But you’re an intelligent man.’ He studied me to check if I was mocking him. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m not stupid. But most stupid people are successful.’ I nodded (I too was young). By ‘intelligent’, I meant the opposite of – a word hardly used these days – shallow. There was an intensity about his bewilderment, his rejection of normalcy; there always had been. Sometimes the rejection was opportunistic. His problem was boredom, and a sharp need to escape the things that bored him.
Our last days in Bombay were my happiest there – not, however, because I knew they were my last days. I had no idea. None of us did. But it was as if a premonition hung over us after the move to Bandra; the possibility of another – a final and unexpected – change. That came soon after my parents settled into the small new flat, the first property they owned in the city. Bandra was so different from everything we’d known. The churches; the remnants of a Goan idea of a neighbourhood; the low – sometimes derelict – cottages. It was as if my father had entered a period of banishment.
When I include myself in the business of leaving Bombay, I ignore the fact that I’d already left. I was in England at the time. In 1986, I took a year off in Bandra, but then went back to England. Yet mentally and emotionally I was with my parents, and in India. Inwardly, I accompanied and mimicked their shifts in location. The move to England meant less to me than the move to St Cyril Road. Occasionally, I’d discover I was back in Oxford. But I barely noticed this. I was in Bandra. We were gearing up to leave.
Ramu, at the time, was drifting (as I was drifting between countries, pondering the future) in and out of addiction. He’d be clean for six months; then relapse. He’d say, on the phone, that he was ‘absolutely fine’; two days later, he’d mutter he’d slipped. I began to feel wary when he said he was ‘absolutely fine’. Because when he was okay, he merely sounded bored, already taking for granted the ennui of normal existence. The earnestness of ‘absolutely fine’ indicated that a transgression had taken place. Anyway, even to begin a conversation on the phone with ‘How are you?’ was to realise it was a loaded question; an interrogation, almost. But there was no way round ordinary courtesies.
No sooner had my parents moved to St Cyril Road than we began to weigh the option – playfully at first – of selling the apartment and moving to Calcutta. This was to ease my father’s steadily growing debt. It wasn’t difficult for us to have these discussions, because neither did we think they’d lead to an actual decision, and nor did we feel Bombay was really ‘home’. I’d grown up here, but never belonged here. The fact that we were Bengalis prevented us from putting down roots in Bombay, and we underestimated our attachment to it. I say this because later we often missed it deeply. Still, I treasured each day in Bandra. That’s because I was back home from Oxford, and every day in that small flat was important to me. I knew I’d have to go to Oxford again, and didn’t want to. Bandra flowered around me. It felt familiar to me in a way that Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade never had. I mean the stray dogs, the infinite afternoons, the low houses – our own flat was on the third storey, from which you could scrutinise the gulmohur blossoms that dominated the summer months at eye level. Every day in Bandra was precious – until I’d pack my bags again. Ramu would come to stay with me sometimes – for a day, or for two days, or even (wearing me out) for three. Our upheaval almost went unnoticed by us – so why should he have noticed?
Cloth bag in hand, I ascend the steps to the glass door. The handles to the doors unite in a horseshoe: the Joy Shoes logo. It’s based on a breezy sketch executed by M.F. Husain. Those were the days! Inside, there’s a picture Husain painted specially for the shop: one of his incandescent horses. Why an animal that flies off the earth when it runs should be an appropriate symbol for footwear is beyond me. Will these shoes make us fleet-footed? Are they to be hammered into our soles? There’s a story here about the artist. Husain hardly wore footwear in those days. He went around the streets of Bombay barefoot. In school, we relished this anecdote, about Husain being refused entry into the Willingdon Club because he was shoeless. Hoity-toity rules: serves him right. Someone saw him hopping later on the hot macadam.
I enter and see the horse on my left. Husain must be in his nineties now. Ninety-three or -four. Of course, he doesn’t live here any more. He’s unofficially exiled. Still, why not let the horse hang where it always did? A Husain is a Husain.
‘Hello, sir?’ says – but his name’s gone from my head. ‘Exchange, no?’ He smiles and adds: ‘When you came back?’
‘Just earlier today.’
He shakes his head mildly: not so much a yes as acceptance.
‘She’s all right, actually.’ In Bombay, you subtly shift your speech so you sound like the one speaking to you. You don’t want to stand out. You want to sound more or less like you did when you were twelve: nothing’s changed.
‘She called,’ he says, half smiling.
A woman in a pistachio sari, whose white foot cranes over a shoe, lifts her head. She looks candidly at me. It’s a look that one well-to-do person passes prematurely to another.
‘Just now only. She was asking if you came. She gave instructions for her shoes and your wife’s shoes.’
The woman in the sari looks vindicated; perhaps the shoe fits. There are mirrors everywhere for us to examine our feet.
I step out discreetly to get a better signal. Not far from me is the palatial back entrance of the hotel, locked with finality.
‘Which colour do you want?’ I ask my wife.
‘Tell them to bring out the priya,’ she advises. She vacillates: ‘See what the beige looks like. Also the black. No, actually I have a black one. Check the white. Why don’t you decide for yourself? Actually, don’t.’
She blames my mother for her reliance on Joy Shoes – they were unknown to her before she got married. Now she wears little else. By the time we met in Oxford, Bombay was history for me: very recent history, but decidedly the past. I revealed my life in it to her piecemeal, guiltily, with a sly boastfulness, conveying, without much effort, how literally incredible it was and also how easily I let it go when I had the chance.
I walk back in. The colours of the classic designs are black, white, gold and beige. But I’ve also spotted magenta on the heels. My mother is loyal to the priya. She’s incapable of wearing heels; she has a broken foot. My wife, too, abhors heels and the glitzier options. (I pick up a glass slipper and wonder if I can tempt her.) The classic designs don’t evolve hugely. I’ve noted them for decades: they become distilled. Extraneous bits – which you realise are extraneous after they’re gone – are constantly sacrificed; the shoes grow sleeker and sparser.
Munna has appeared. Holding forth into the receiver, behind the till. Busy, but reassuring. I recall he’s a Muslim. But why can’t I escape this thought? Distracted, he waves. The bonds of mutual loyalty are strong. Is he a Vohra? There are many of them in Bombay; they’re prosperous.
‘Hello, hello, hello,’ he says, in a tone of congratulatory disbelief. ‘How are you?’
‘Haven’t seen you in a while,’ I concede, patting his shoulder. ‘I came here about a year ago for a very short trip’ – he nods – ‘when my new book came out, but I couldn’t come to the shop.’
‘But your wife came to take some priya, no?’ he asks, his memory razor-sharp. Narrowing his eyes, he says, ‘She’s not here this time?’
I shake my head. ‘No, but she made it a point to send me.’
‘That’s good, that’s good,’ he says melodiously, smiles, scratches his beard. ‘What’s the name of the new book? I’m sure I read about it in the evening papers – or maybe in the Times.’
‘That’s it!’ he exclaims, glancing at a stub half submerged in the card machine. The roll’s stuck. ‘What’s it about?’ This is a version of the ‘How are you?’ he’s put to me already.
I think of a succinct way of holding his attention. ‘You know, I’ve described Joy Shoes in it.’
‘No!’ Agog, but the steely bit of his attention is still fixed on the stub.
‘There’s a young man in the novel,’ I continue, ‘comes from an affluent family, but pretends to be poor – wears torn kurtas, frayed jeans, but’ – I smile into his eyes – ‘he’s always in Joy Shoes sandals.’
‘Ha!’ he cries, wondering what these behavioural traits add up to. ‘What is it? It’s a novel? Where can I find it?’
Good question, I think, and claim insouciantly, ‘Just check in the bookshops.’
No one is sure any more what the novel is. The word has unprecedented currency.
He shakes the roll loose. ‘Must get a copy!’
My reason for telling Munna about Joy Shoes in The Immortals is not only to elicit a response, or to make him feel like an honour’s been bestowed on him. For me (given that my writing is accused of coming directly from life), the aftermath of the book, in which people believe they’ve been written about and start to find their own correspondences, is the most interesting chapter.
‘But glad to see all’s well! Terrible stuff, what happened.’ I’ve been to Bombay once since November 2008, but feel like I haven’t. ‘I was watching it on TV in England. Turned on the news. I couldn’t believe my eyes.’
‘My God!’ says Munna, losing his smile. ‘We had to go to a wedding that night, so we left early. Usually we begin shutting at eight.’ He gestures to his right without moving his eyes. ‘Some of those fellows came in from there.’
‘Mom’s sandals are ready, no?’
‘I think he’s gone in to check.’
We glance at the room, small as a monk’s cell, in which shoes are secreted.
Passing along the hotel corridor, I turn right and come to the majestic red-carpeted staircase. I climb up the stairs; each step is capacious, as if people ascending were expected to make giant strides sideways. There’s a lift, but no one in their right mind would enter the shell of the lift when the staircase is available.
On the top of the stairs, on the left, is what for me is the main, the old, entrance to the Sea Lounge; but this, of course, is closed. Reaching the first floor, the entrance is on the right, diagonally. The Sea Lounge has had to be restored from scratch; it was reopened recently. Once I’m in, I find things have a rehearsed air: the notes on the piano of ‘Yesterday Once More’; the spacious sofas inhabited by large groups along the sides and in the centre. I want a table by the window, where only couples sit. There they are, presenting their profiles, painterly against the light. They’re deep in themselves. There’s a free table by the middle window.
A tall waiter in white shirt and trousers and brown apron escorts me to the table and silently takes my order of Darjeeling tea and a plate of cookies. I don’t like Darjeeling tea, but I’m buying time. It’s not that far from dinner. Besides, I don’t want to spend five hundred rupees on bhel puri. I notice the waiters’ uniforms haven’t changed. But almost all the waiters are new. In the seventies, the Sea Lounge had a regularity in my consciousness, as my parents used to come here late Saturday morning and occupy one of these tables by the window. Their order, like other things about them at the time, was unvarying: chilli cheese toast, tea. The Sea Lounge had a menu of arcane bites: chicken or mushroom vol-au-vents, the cream stored beneath volcanic flaps; Scandinavian open sandwiches (the idea of an ‘open sandwich’, where the filling was left exposed, unprotected, was boldly counter-intuitive). Then there were bhel and sev puri, served on pristine china. My mother insisted we couldn’t eat these off the street for fear of jaundice; but in the Sea Lounge, where they were made in conditions of uncompromising hygiene, her love of bhel was very evident. Sitting at the table, I glance out of the window on my right, while the pianist tinkles away and I follow the notes, reconstituting the words: Those were such happy times and not so long ago . . . Every sha-la-la-la . . . still shines . . .
I get up. I know the toilets are far away, and a tour awaits through long corridors. I temporarily abandon the table, leaving the Joy Shoes bag on a chair.
Before stepping out, I eavesdrop on the pianist. A deeply serious man. Reticent, he glances at me, then returns to what looks – even sounds – like a bit of typing. The notes are clunky.
I go through the doors, turn left; this stretch is like a balcony in a theatre. Soon I’m at the inner corridor, where I turn left again; on my right is the Crystal Room – I might have been tempted to wander towards it and peep in, except I know that it’s still under construction. Much at this end of the first floor has been gutted. That great and useless space must have once, before I was born, been used for celebrations and felicitations, but I only remember its Christmas lunches, weddings and sari exhibitions. I move away from it. It’s a long walk down the corridor to the toilets.
When you come to the end, you feel not so much that you’re in another part of the hotel as in a different city. I chance upon an ornate and dishevelled scene. Two handsome liveried men – employees of the hotel – stand watching a band of noisy people in bright clothes: bandhani saris; turbans. Maybe they’re wedding guests (poor relations), or the family of musicians or artistes who’ve come to perform at one of the restaurants. In which dialect are they shouting to each other? I go into the toilet and a wave of perfectly maintained features – stonework framing basins; antique fittings on taps – engulfs me. I empty my bladder thoroughly. When I emerge, most of the party outside have disbanded – it was only for a moment they’d come together here. A liveried man is fading into the distance.
Quiet has re-established itself with their departure. This is where the rooms are. Quiet, quiet. Beyond the access of interlopers. Those men made for this wing, of course, and the cat-and-mouse game lasted four days. People fleeing, hiding, dying, changing location at strange hours, led by staff.
The CCTV footage captures flashes of it: the men with guns, intent; the guests and staff transiting at odd times of the night. All of them trapped, circling this wing. It’s in the bad lighting of the CCTV video that the hotel echoes the mausoleum it’s named after – in which tourists arc round the tombs encased in marble, shrouded in the perpetual semi-dark of mourning, where they can’t take pictures. As a result, there’s no record of our visits to Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s resting places. The CCTV footage too, when you see it, seems almost an impossibility.
How long will it take for the Crystal Room to be put together? They must be working on it at this very moment, although, as I turn right, I hear no sound; no hammering, no drilling. I’m back in the Sea Lounge. They’ve done a good job. It’s not so much a twin of the room that was destroyed, or a replacement. What they have tried to do is follow the example of the moving image of the disintegrating object or edifice played backwards, so that the shards and fragments, as you keep watching, fly up instantaneously and regain their old places until completion is achieved and, at last, there’s no discontinuity between past and present. Accustomed as we are to technology, we know it’s an illusion – the shards are all there somewhere; it’s just that the film has been reversed. Is this why Benjamin saw in Klee’s Angelus Novus (which ‘shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating’) the ‘angel of history’? ‘His face is turned toward the past,’ he says. ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.’ To be in the Taj is to experience its emergence from this storm. Like the angel, it has turned its back to the future it’s once more moving towards. When I look around me in the Sea Lounge, I see its composure and reinstatement – the improvements are so unobtrusive you don’t notice them – but I’m also confronting the debris.
‘Should I pour the tea, sir?’
But he will pour it. There’s a rigour to his posture; he stays very straight while the tea trickles out. Three lightly tanned cookies on the plate. I bite one. It turns to powder.
This would have been a good moment to call Ramu. I look out of the window. He lives not far away. It’s not like Ramu to consent to a regime that’s made him incommunicado; but maybe there was no other remedy. Ordinarily, I might not feel the need to chat; but the fact that I have no choice except not to is making me restless. Anyway, our conversations are silly; they’re designed to return us to our schoolboy personae. It’s as if we haven’t moved on from those days when we’re with each other. I always hated school. Ramu both loved and hated it. All his best years were there, he claims. Yet he hated its glamorising of sport – not because (like me) he was bad at sport, but because he was so good at it. His housemasters wanted to exploit his abilities – he resisted, to their dismay. They never forgave him. Besides, the school was meant for rich children. Why did his father (he’d asked me), an ordinary middle-class man with a small business, put him in a school meant for the Tatas, the Dubashes, the Ginwallas, the sons and daughters of CEOs, government ministers and film actresses? Ramu’s adept at apportioning blame.
I gesture to a man who’s standing in my line of vision, by the old exit.
Before he recedes, I say: ‘The Sea Lounge looks good.’
He nods, indulgent.
‘But the staff seem new,’ I confide.
‘Yes, sir,’ he agrees, prolonging his puzzled nod. ‘Mostly new only.’
‘Where’s the old staff?’
‘Some left.’ He hesitates. ‘Some died.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He studies me; pauses, apologetic.
‘I see . . .’ I fall silent. ‘So that’s why – But you’ve worked here for a long time. I’ve seen you before.’
‘Thirty years.’ He explains: ‘I was not here that day.’
When I’m leaving, he’s standing by the macaroons.
‘Sir,’ he says.
‘I too feel I’ve seen you before.’
I nod but say nothing. The pianist’s at it.
He continues shyly: ‘Are you in the High Court?’
I shake my head. Then add: ‘My father used to come here a lot many years ago.’
He appears pained, groping – till something alters. His eyes widening, he asks: ‘Mr Chaudhuri?’
I’m disbelieving, as if I’ve glimpsed a ghost. These are the last vestiges of our life here.
‘Yes. He’s my father.’
‘Very good people,’ he says, unexpected with this belated certificate. ‘Sir and madam.’
Photograph © Pixel Mark, Taj Hotel, Mumbai, November 2008