‘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.

Nobody Represents Me
Tara Bergin | Is Travel Writing Dead?