Skip navigation

It’s been 18 months since I’ve last visited India. 18 months is the longest absence from India in the last 10 years. Normally I am in India every year at the very least, and often a lot more frequently,  as often as every 3-4 months if events conspire to keep me coming back for family events and religious functions.

18 months is significant because I’ve changed in them and Bombay has changed in major and subtle ways. Or maybe it hasn’t changed at all, and I’ve developed an appreciation for the patterns and trends that Bombay represents in my life, and more understanding of its formative role.

I’d forgotten how chaotic a whirlwind Bombay can be. Forgotten perhaps because I’d never appreciated it. A city of 18 million is a pulsating creature with a heart as twisted black and shining white as all the hues of its many inhabitants. It is a monster and a seductress with a life of its own, and this time I’ve felt Bombay reach out to me on both fronts.

The sensation of frenetic activity, the incredible complexity of the Monster, and the innumerable stories that must be layered inside its inhabitants arrests my mind for the first time and has been overwhelming. The immense potential and excitement of a hub of the human world, where human spokes come together in a shimmering  blend of old and new world culture.

As the taxi winds through the innumerable miles from the airport to home, we keep stepping into strange vignettes of life happening around us. I’m paying attention to them now, and they’re entrancing little moments.

The slums and its inhabitants, lying on their road side beds, the fires on which the food is cooking casting a shadow on to the flimsy huts themselves. In front of them,  women gossiping on the right side of the road. Men looking stern and serious and keeping firmly on the left side of the road, gossiping as well no doubt. Children are running everywhere. We round a bend and this stage gets left behind.

We stop at what seems a major intersection. Oddly enough this one seems to have a pedestrian crossing. I’ve never seen a functioning pedestrian crossing in Bombay before. Even if any have escaped my notice, I can hardly be blamed. No one uses them.

Presented here then is a shocking double surprise. There is a crossing, and it is being used. Skipping across the bows of our taxi are four girls identically dressed. And its not a uniform, or at least I don’t see any thing in the colours or they style to suggest a uniform. They are brightly attired, various hues of pink and yellow stand out under the glare of the street lighting’s whitish blue. They walk in a line across the waiting cars, and dash to the finish line as the traffic light switches to amber and the cars start gunning their engines. We’re off, and they’re lost from sight.

We reach, some hour and a half later, our house in Bombay. I say house. What I mean is apartment. When I say apartment, I mean two rooms separated by the building’s main stair case, so that each room has its own main door, and no other way to get to them without transacting the 3 foot long stair landing. If this layout sounds peculiar, that’s because it is. Welcome to the idiosyncrasies of Bombay.

We live here when in Bombay, because like so much of my short stays in India, it is imbued with venerability by history and is brightly coloured by nostalgia. This was my grandmothers house. And now it is my fathers house. And it is occupied by my brother and his 2 year old daughter. Four generations of history squeezed into less then 200 square feet and 60 years. I’ve never had that thought about this house before, and I find myself growing lukewarm in my affection for it thawing my previous unfettered dislike.

Too much of this history has recently become silent. From the window, If I wait for the sun to rise and crane my neck, I can see the dirty concrete balcony that was my mama’s (maternal uncle’s) house. It ‘was’ my uncle’s house because he passed away last year.

Below that house is his mother’s house, my Nani (maternal grandmother). That house too has locks on the door, barely 2 years old. A household that bubbled with occupants, that thrived on the comings and going of a vast extended family, and in which on any given afternoon you could guarantee that you would find a visitor dropping in to spend an afternoon is ominously silent, imposing in the background by its absence. It’s so odd to be in Bombay without even stopping at my Nani’s house. But as mum reluctantly remarks, what would be the point.

I dwell on those two houses, because they are symptomatic of many others. And because they bring to the fore another aspect of my visits to Bombay that has been growing more busy now, and who’s nostalgic afterglow is one of the sobering thoughts I’m now frequently taking with me away from the city.

Mausoleums and graveyards are a fixed part of the fabric of Bombay when I visit. There is the obligatory visit to Raudat Tahera. There is the journey, done usually on a weekend morning, to the 4 Bohra graveyards dotted around the city.

Here is your great grandfather. A grand marble grave. Here is your nana (maternal grandfather). Here is his brother. Here is his wife, who so recently joined him. Here are their sons, now all gone. Here is your kaka (paternal uncle), a grave so recent that it hasn’t even been constructed yet. Here is your parents mama, a dentist who you were so scared of that he never completed an exam of your teeth cause you would always start crying. Here is his brother, a doctor. 10,000 people attended his funeral, two years before you were born.

The contradiction lies at the heart of all visits to Bombay for me now. There is the drama of life, the turmoil of a country and a city on the cusp of modernity and about to be reborn as a modern industrial and commercial powerhouse. There is in contrast, bright vivid contrast, the dead Bombay, that is depleted. The family that has gone makes the bright thriving outside resonate all the more.

You might be wondering, and are right to do so, where the living family are amongst all this. They are there surely. And they are. But they are there in a very transient manner. As the elder generation dies, their linking function as elders is breaking. The bonds that tie me to my cousins and their families are weak. I live too far away, and too disconnected a life from their lives to form close bonds.

It is a case of coming to terms with the way Bombay has changed so fundamentally since my last visit. And to accept the way that these changes do have a lasting impact on my life.

Advertisements