Paromita Vohra writes the experiences of the single working girl in the city in "The one billion rupee home". The essay focuses on the most pressing problem that faces every newcomer to the city - a roof over one's head that is within some reasonable commute from downtown where everyone must go for work as well as diversion. Inevitably this leads to distant suburbs and local trains - the great leveling forces of the city. More interesting than "Sex and the City" and less romanticised than "Tales from the City", one wishes Ms. Vohra would consider expanding this to do for Bombay what these others have done for New York and San Francisco.
Kiran Nagarkar's comically cosmic vision "The great water wars" - extracted from the darkly humorous "Ravan and Eddie" - deals with another fundamental reality of life in Bombay for a majority of her citizens, namely water. Or more accurately, the shortage of it. Especially for residents of her many chawls (you have to be a Bombayite to know just what this is. 'Tenements' is a loose translation.) who must share basic facilities, the communal tap forms the basis of friendships as well as bitter hostilities.
The economic bedrock of Bombay - her textile industry and financial markets - are analyzed separately by Nina Martyris ("The cult of the golden bull") and Naresh Fernandes ("Urban fabric"). Fernandes quotes Narayan Surve - some might say, Bombay's resident poet-laureate - as he bemoans sometimes not recognizing Bombay as the city of his birth. (Get in line Surve-saheb, she is no longer the city of my birth and I am quite a bit younger than you.) Jokes aside, the two articles present fascinating historical data: Did you know a hundred years ago, the Backbay Reclamation Project shares reached the staggering price of 55000 rupees that, a century of inflation later, no other stock has equaled? Or that the famed Rajabai Tower is the creation of a businessman thanks to whose sharp practices and bad debts a bank collapsed and thousands were ruined?
What of the celebrity contributors? Take Pico Iyer's opening piece for instance, "Bombay: Hobson-Jobson on the streets". It's a well-meaning piece and may be informative for those unfamiliar with the city. But ultimately its tourist brochure descriptions of diversity and fish markets are as uninteresting to the natives as waxing eloquent about skyscrapers would be to New Yorkers. The title of the piece alone is enough to mark it as the work of an outsider. Ditto for Sir Vidia's biting satire on Bombay's babu-dom. It is as yawn-inducing to a Bambaiyya as a lecture on good manners would be to a New Yorker. Did these pieces get included for reasons of marketability or are the editors trying hard -- unnecessarily -- to be broadminded ? (Grow up boys. It's time to develop an attitude.)
The sardar is of course more intent on training his binoculars on unwary women hoping to catch them in a private moment. One must be grateful it is not trained on some part of his own person. Such a peculiar combination of lechery and Victorian prudery! Or do they go hand in hand ?
J. Gerson Da Cunha's attempts to compare Bombay to Paris seem quaint and dated. A hundred years after it was written, it strikes one a bit like a 70's era film column trying to raise Amitabh Bachchan's prestige by charitably comparing him to Rajesh Khanna.
The best pieces in the book are those driven - like the city herself - by energy, by curiosity and by a doggedness of purpose, not by navel-gazers or the nostalgia-ridden. In the midst of pollution and squalor people manage to pursue sports as in Nikhil Rao's tracing of Bombay's secret basketball tradition and Sunil Gavaskar's reminiscing about his first batting practice and his mother's bowling. Bombay's khichdi culture finds expression in her culinary taste. This taste is acknowledged in tributes to bhel-puri and Bombay duck.
Manjula Sen writes about the shadowy world of gangsters and policemen (or more accurately police hit-men). It is a world whose existence is just barely suspected by most Bombayites. Bhosale, Naik, Salaskar. All the good guys putting their necks on the line have names like the boys I went to school with. A characteristically dour lack of sentimentality permeates the interviews. It's real 'greaseball stuff', as Ray Liotta says in 'Goodfellas'. Except that this is about Maratha boys, not Italians.
The tourist brochure cliches about the communal diversity are explored to a whole new level of detail by Sameera Khan ("Muharram in the Mohalla") and Shabnam Minwalla ("Never at Home" about the Jewish presence on Bombay). These articles helped me connect many dots of childhood memories - Jacob Circle, David Sassoon library, feasts at the homes of my Bohri friends.
No book on Bombay would be complete without a mention of the showbiz world Hindi films. Who better to write a juicy film gossip column than Sadat Hassan Manto ? But even more interesting was the well researched article about Bombay's jazz subculture (what I vaguely thought of as 'Christian music' as a kid. I realize now with a shock that that was swing jazz.) Naresh Fernandes' 'Morning you play different, evening you play different' takes you into the world of jazz bands, of Goan music and its role in adding a touch of twentieth century cool to Hindi film music. The legend of Chris Perry and Lorna Cordeiro lives on.
But Bombay is also Mumbai. The home of Goan swing and the Bhendibazaar gharana also provides fertile ground for the rise of communal passions and resentments. Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar trace the rise of Shivsena and Suketu Mehta investigates the role of Shivsena hoods in the post-Babri masjid riots of 1993. Mehta's interviews of targeted killings, of gratuitous cruelty are blood curdling. Yet, this is how he ends:
Asad, of all people, has seen humanity at its worst. I asked him if he felt pessimistic about the human race.
"Not at all", he replied. "Look at all the hands from the trains."
If you are late for work in Bombay, and reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outward from the train like petals. As you run alongside you will be picked up, and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you...
And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in the city or arrived only this morning or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari; whether you are from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you're trying to get to the city of gold, and that's enough. Come on board, they say. We'll adjust.
Book Description: Bombay, Meri Jaan, comprising poems and prose pieces by some of the biggest names in literature, in addition to cartoons, photographs, a song and a Bombay Duck recipe, tries to capture the spirit of this great metropolis. Paromita Vohra writes about the quintessential Bombay problem; finding a place to live. Her essay is those by Salman Rushdie, Pico Iyer, Kiran Nagarkar, Dilip Chitre, Saadat Hasan Manto, V.S. Naipaul, Khushwant Singh and Busybee, who write about aspects of the city: the high-rise apartments and the slums; camaraderie and isolation in the crowded chawls; bhelpuri on the beach and cricket in the gully; the women's compartment of a local train; encounter cops who battle the underworld; the jazz culture of the sixties; the monsoon floods; the Shiv Sena; the cinema halls; the sea.
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