Harris Khalique & Rohini Kohli
It takes an hour to get there
Nayantara was trying very hard to convince Hussain’s father that he should steel himself before going to Bombay. He had been practising different ways of pronouncing Mumbai and enjoyed rolling the word over his tongue. “You know uncle, it is nothing like what you would remember. Just be sure to see it with your old friends there. It’s not the kind of place that you can be a tourist in.” She was remembering a conversation that she had had with her nani in Delhi about the crowded trains and humid heat of the city where she had spent many years. Her grandmother had told her about the holidays she’d spent there in her childhood in the late twenties. The city was so clean that rice could be eaten off the streets or so she said. Versova was a small fishing village and the hanging gardens were the place to go in the evening. It was always a welcome change from Lahore, which was a city that she loved but often grew tired of. Bombay was a place where she could be free and the sea air washing over Marine Drive never failed to invigorate her. And then there was the freedom to have ice creams in the winter from the little shanty shop on Chowpatty beach overlooking the expanse of clean white sand.
Wise Mr. Mansoori in a pure Luckhnavi accent, on the other hand, welcomed the rechristening of the city, remarking that the old associations of Mumbadevi should be kept in the name. Though he had lived in Karachi for many years, he had worked in Bombay talkies as a young man before crossing over in 1953. He was a writer who created screenplays for Bollywood movies which had enjoyed a vintage decade in the nineteen forties. A handsome brown-skinned man with patrician features, who enjoyed travelling in the slow trams with criss-crossing tracks across the city, he had been the secret longing of many engaging celluloid starlets. He treated them with a generosity and detached admiration, which baffled them and made them want more.
Now Mr. Mansoori sat in London a lifetime later, in a gathering of cigar-puffing old men and erratic young people planning his journey to a country that had nurtured him. He would need a visa for the cities that he especially wanted to visit. The list was long and a shortlist had to be made: Jhavai Tola, Kashmiri Mohalla, Nakkhas, Koocha Mir Anis and Qaiserbagh in his ancestral Lucknow could not be avoided. Hyderabad he had been born in, Bombay was a must, Mr. Bose lived in Calcutta, and there was a seminar in Bangalore. And Delhi, well Delhi was another matter. The only surviving first cousin was there and had to be the first destination. As a Pakistani national he would have to report to the police in many places. “Well, we would just have to see what could be done.” Hussain was a bit sceptical about his father’s nostalgia and felt that places kept out of bounds tended to get frozen in imagination and this was all an extra bit of romanticism. The cities had changed now and people would not be all that accepting. “It’s really not the same now, it’s a different land. Better to accept it.”
The cities may not have changed at any rate but Sangita Medekar found the trains a real nuisance to travel in. She would hold her nose while crossing the Mumbai-Mahim creek in the train going to Andheri. She wore a nine yard rough cotton sari with a small check print, Maharashtrian style, just like the fisher woman scaling her fish in the basket while the train rattled along. Her trade was working in people’s homes, washing dishes and swabbing floors. Veena had lived in Bombay for many years before moving to Delhi and now extremely afraid of her servant. God alone knows what would happen when her household consultant would not turn up. Sangita could not bear to start her day without her practical logic and mercurial temper, along with Marathi invective beamed intermittently with a flashing smile. One morning in 1993, Sangita strode in with impatient energy and a preoccupied look. “I am going on hartal today and the order has come from Thackeray sahib. Mumbai is going from bad to worse and becoming unsafe. We poor people are suffering the most and we must do something to save the city. The Sena Adhikari says that every member and worker of the Sena has to be mobilised.” “But what about the work?” Veena asked feebly with visions of the mountains of dishes that had to be done.
Sangita was a dedicated member of the Sena. She was very proud that every worker would obey the diktats coming from the Dadar-based supremo. Several years after it had been proved that the Shiv Sena indeed played a role in instigating many of the incidents in the worst ever riots in Bombay, she was enraged that someone had placed a garland of leather chappals around the neck of the venerable Shivaji statue. This happened to Shivaji in the middle of Bombay after someone had done the same to an Ambedkar statue. She used the phone at Veena’s home to call various friends in the city to spread the rumours of the Bombay bandh that would be called in protest. Fortuitously, the Mahanagar telephone company had survived the ringing telephones calling back and forth many times spreading tales and had decided to suspend telephone lines in the city by beaming patriotic messages and Vande Mataram slogans with the dial-tone.
Back in London, Mr. Mansoori’s cousin chose to smoke a particularly strong cheroot as he pontificated on the problems of transport the big cities in the subcontinent faced. “In any case these are the only cities in which people ever want to go anywhere. The rest all want to come here.” The conversation had begun on a heated note when Nayantara objected to a few over-generalisations that he had made about the promise of port cities. She had just had a brush with an overbearing Delhi bureaucrat, on his way to Washington to visit his son-in-law at the World Bank, who had described in disdain the row of lowered bottoms that would line Bombay’s roads early in the morning. “Can’t they go to the fields or behind the bush or something? Going to Bombay is a real nightmare. People are always dirty and begging. They have just no desire to help themselves. In any case they don’t know anything about politics or administration and they really ought to begin by cleaning it up.” There were just too many people in cities like Bombay and Karachi, and the problem had to be taken very seriously if a way to solve things had to be thought of. Nayantara had stopped listening and was visualising Tom and Jerry encounters between Bal Thackeray’s tigers on the one hand and Altaf Hussain and MQM on the other.
The connecting flight between Bombay and Karachi was going to be a rocky ride for wise Mr. Mansoori. Meanwhile, his cousin spent a great deal of time doodling plans of mass transport on the back of envelopes in the smoky flat in Hampstead. He flicked some ash off his worn tweed coat and reeled of some impressive statistics about the revenue generated by the two cities. “All they need to do is to get their act together. They can just build the infrastructure for satellite cities and then people can move in different directions and prevent clogging of too many points. It is really very simple, not much of a problem. It is inevitable”. Sjon had been very quiet during the conversation and suddenly piped up, “Bombayites are cool man, they really know how to party. In Singapore they beat the shit out of anyone who’s into having a seriously good time. They’re really cosmopolitan, very with it, you know. As for this Delhi-Bombay thingy and this Karachi-Lahore angle, it happens with Rotterdam and Amsterdam too, of course Brussels-Antwerpe is worse. Wouldn’t be caught dead there. They’re really not happening.”