Light, Colour and Real Estate

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra
    Faber, 257 pp, £6.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 571 19208 4

Although Bombay and Mumbai are the same city in reality, they are probably two different cities of the mind, or at any rate the names signify two phases in its history. Bombay was a colonial city; even when I was growing up in it through the early Sixties and the Seventies, its colonial planning and allocations were largely intact. Cumballa and Malabar Hill, Kemp’s Corner, Breach Candy all on one side, and, on the other, the curve of the Marine Drive as it led towards Church-gate, Nariman Point, Cuffed Parade and the Gateway of India: within these loosely-defined parameters were situated schools such as Cathedral and John Connon as well as Campion, colleges like Elphinstone and St Xavier’s, the important office buildings that belonged both to the Government and to private companies, the Bombay Gymkhana club, and the Jaslok and Breach Candy Hospitals. This was where not only the ministers’ houses were concentrated, but where the professionally qualified – corporate executives, doctors, orthopaedic and plastic surgeons, solicitors, newspaper editors – mainly lived with their families, with a small service industry of dieticians and beauticians at hand; the kind of people who had inherited from their colonial rulers flats, clubs, roads, specific residential and work areas, along with table manners, a certain intimacy with the English language, and a comparable distance from the less privileged around them. New, tall buildings would come up unexpectedly; their names would become famous – architectural celebrities in a city that loved celebrity and once even had a magazine of that name. With its sea-breeze, its year-long sun, its ambitions of upward mobility, this part of Bombay in the Sixties and Seventies could feel like a Californian city in the Fifties, where the notion of ‘having fun’ still existed within the constricting but benevolent circumscription of middle-class values.

If you moved down Peddar Road or Breach Candy towards Haji Ali, you would pass the Willingdon Club and the Race Course on your right, almost the last full-blooded colonial outpost, and then gradually approach parts of the city that were glamorous and accessible, but relatively distant, such as Juhu, with its beach, where the film stars and certain members of the upper class lived. And then there were the shabbier, sometimes older, sometimes industrialized sections of the city, a few of them on the outskirts – Dadar, Chembur, Matunga – where a local populace, largely Marathi-speaking and often middle-middle or lower-middle class (teachers, lecturers clerks and small businessmen) lived a more rooted, less demonstrative kind of life.

Bombay, as every school textbook in the city relates, consisted of seven fishing islands given as a gift by the Emperor Bahadur Shah to the Portuguese, who then offered them as a dowry to Charles II at the time of his marriage to Catherine of Braganza. What was one to do with such a dowry? Well, through a process of reclamation, the seven fishing islands became Bombay. As Saleem Sinai says (after reciting the opening stanza of the Cathedral and John Connon School song to his perpetual companion in Midnight’s Children): ‘Our Bombay, Padma!’ Although the city is a peninsula, it still gives the impression of being an island because of the predominance of water – the Arabian Sea – around it. One of the hundreds of short-lived magazines that came out of this city was called Island; and Nissim Ezekiel, the oldest among the Bombay poets who writes in English, a Jew and the descendant of migrant ancestors, has a poem of the same name about what it means to belong to this constantly growing city:

Unsuitable for song as well as sense
the island flowers into slums
and skyscrapers, reflecting
precisely the growth of my mind.
I am here to find my way in it.

Yet perhaps the city is metaphorically an island even if it isn’t one physically – in its atypicality as an Indian city; in its self-containment and complex extremes of wealth and destitution.

Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai in 1996, after the Shiv Sena Party, in an alliance with the BJP, came to power in Maharashtra (the state whose capital is Bombay), and the permanent leader of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, became the most powerful man in the state, the unofficial ‘remote control’ (as he called himself) of the Chief Minister. Mumbai is the local Marathi word for the city; it is supposedly derived from the name of a local (certainly not a canonical) Hindu deity, Mumba, a goddess who was probably worshipped by the fisher folk of the islands. Those who favour the renaming say that Bombay is a Westernised corruption of Mumbai; others that Mumbai is a local corruption of Bombay, which is derived from the Portuguese Bom Bahen, or ‘good harbour’.

The Shiv Sena, which effected the renaming as a consciously political act, was once a Marathi chauvinist party, intent on driving out ‘foreigners’ like Tamils from Bombay. Its politics were, at best, a nuisance to the genteel and more tolerant sections of Bombay and, at worst, a disgrace, but it never posed a serious electoral threat to the Congress. Its political fortunes were revived when it was reborn as a Hindu chauvinist party in the Eighties, the decade that witnessed the rise of the BJP and the upsurge of Hindu nationalism in the country. (In the elections in February this year, it and the BJP have surprised themselves by losing heavily in Maharashtra, where they were most complacent.) Bal Thackeray, once a deft cartoonist for a local newspaper, has created his most perfect caricature in himself: saffron-robed, with the lean, be-spectacled face of an arithmetic teacher, a self-proclaimed admirer of Hitler, but with the name of a 19th-century English novelist. The appeal that people like him have lately had for the electorate owes most, I suspect, to the waning of the Congress, a party increasingly beset by scandals and bereft of ideology, and to the incessant internal and external squabblings of the other parties. Thackeray is a shrewd opportunist; he has pursued wildly opportunistic and sometimes contradictory policies, encouraging big business, law and order and the underworld all at once, and would like to drive out ‘foreigners’ (Muslims without ration cards by which they can be identified) while welcoming Michael Jackson.

Mumbai, however, is not merely a local name for the city; the renaming was not just an act of official translation but an announcement of a new phase in the city’s history and self-definition. While ‘Bombay’ invoked the world of the colonial and the British-influenced, liberal, post-colonial middle class, ‘Mumbai’ signifies the Post-Modern, contradictory city in which xenophobia, globalisation, extreme right-wing politics and capitalism come together. Bombay was the financial centre of independent India, with its ‘protected’ economy, its hostility to foreign investment, a city in which the divisions between the political, the bureaucratic, the corporate, the film and the criminal worlds were more or less clear, and in which the location of each world was different. Not so in Post-Modern Mumbai, where politics, crime, popular culture, even corporate finance, are strangely interdependent and mutually proximate: where things are linked to each other and the world by satellite and the Internet; a city governed by both primeval prejudice and relentless market forces.

Chandra, in these stories, brilliantly captures the way Bombay persists in the gargantuan, newly-evolving Mumbai. His stories often inhabit an intermediate area in which two cities, for all practical purposes identical, but in fundamental ways different, begin to merge and separate. On one level Mumbai, with its all-consuming drives, is the id to Bombay’s superego; even the name Mumbai defers meaning and seems to echo in the subconscious; and the interplay of light and dark in this work is in some sense an exploration of the city’s outer and inner lives, always connected to a sense of the social and historical. The five stories are told by a retired civil servant called Subramanian at the Fisherman’s Rest, a bar off the Sasoon Dock; each is then recounted, or recorded, by the younger, peripatetic, frequently-exhausted narrator to whom the stories are told. This younger man works in a software company which has its ‘air-conditioned and very stream-lined head offices just off the Fountain’; he already belongs to a global city. But the bar is a hidden enclave, a place of transition, a residue of colonial times, which signifies the persistence of Bombay rather than the emergence of Mumbai. It is aptly named, for Sasoon Dock was once the home of the Gujarat Fisheries, and reeks overpoweringly of dried fish. The bar’s superseded colonial origins become evident in a few sentences:

The bar was on the second floor of an old house, looking toward the sea, and you wouldn’t have known it was there, there was certainly no sign, and it couldn’t be seen from the street. There were old trophy fish, half a century old at least, strung along the walls, and on the door to the bathroom there was a picture of a hill stream cut from a magazine, British by the look of it. When the wind came in from the sea it fluttered old flower curtains and a 1971 calendar.

Despite the antiquity of the calendar, this is a place of transit, and transition, and it is here that the stories are told.

Much of Mumbai’s growth, as well as its brutal nexus of money, power and crime, is connected to real estate. Bombay has the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi; and, in Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill, it has the highest property prices in the world. Until the late Seventies, Bombay had no real suburb. It had Bandra, it’s true, with its predominantly Christian population and its Goan-Portuguese houses, once affectionately called the Queen of the Suburbs. But it was not until the late Seventies and early Eighties that the sudden, premeditated development of real estate, in the form of isolated enclaves of residential blocks with interconnecting roads – everything we understand by suburbia – began to take place, converting remote places on the outskirts like Versova and Goregaon into the sites of new and increasingly expensive colonies, shifting, as it were, the centre of Bombay from within itself and dispersing it. This was the emergence of Mumbai.

Bombay had always changed at shorter intervals than any other Indian city. Part of the reason is that it has always been reclaiming parts of itself, so that its borders with the Arabian Sea are always changing. It has the fluid and rearrangeable nature of bricolage; but here is a record of Bombay at the end of the last century:

My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder. This would be the memory of early morning walks to the Bombay fruit market with my ayah and later with my sister in her perambulator, and of our returns with our purchases piled high on the bows of it. Our ayah was a Portuguese Roman Catholic who would pray – I beside her – at a wayside cross ...

  Our evening walks were by the sea in the shadow of palm-groves which, I think, were called the Mahim Woods.

This is Kipling, in Something of Myself. One notices the fluid relationship which elementary and primary things have to each other in this sketch; daybreak, light, colour, sea, shadow; yet these words suggest not so much nature as the artificial, constructed life of the city coming to consciousness in its midst. The relationship of the elements to each other and to Bombay has been a continuing one, though it has changed subtly, over and over again, as the city has grown. Light is as important as the sea is; Bombay has warm and summery weather all year, and its days are long. Chandra, in his beautiful, extremely well-plotted stories, also charts the relationship between light and colour and real estate as he traces the translation of Bombay into Mumbai.

In the first story, ‘Dharma’, this translation is explored in the course of a discussion at the Fisherman’s Rest:

Ramani had been to Bandra that day, and he was telling them about a bungalow on the seafront. It was one of those old three-storied houses with balconies that ran all the way around, set in the middle of a garden filled with palms and fish ponds. It sat stubbornly in the middle of towering apartment buildings, and it had been empty as far back as anyone could remember, and so of course the story that explained this waste of real estate was one of ghosts and screams in the night.

The mention of ghosts leads Subramanian to tell the narrator and the others in the group a story about a haunted house, a family house to which Major General Antia returns after what seems to be the Indo-Pakistan war in Bangladesh; and here, too, the devastation of Bombay, with its old houses haunted by voices, by the burgeoning of what will eventually become Mumbai, is seen in terms of property; on the fringes, the ever-present qualities of light and water:

The house stood in a square plot on prime residential land in Khar, surrounded by new, extravagant constructions coloured the pink and green of new money. But it was musty dark brown, stained by decades of sea air and monsoon rains, and in the late-afternoon sun it seemed to gather the light about it as it sat surrounded by trees and untidy bushes. There was ... in the elegant arches on the balconies ... something rich and dense and heavy, like the smell of gun oil on an old hunting rifle, and the taxi driver sighed: ‘They don’t build them like that any more.’

There is, in that final sentence, an echo of American writing, with its exaggerated, almost ironic romanticism, and the echo from time to time recurs. Yet the result is not derivative, but, for the first time, a style that seems to be characteristically Chandra’s; and as an influence it has, by and large, replaced the Post-Modern, ‘magical realist’, occasionally rambling mode of his first work, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, an ambitious and impressive novel which, however, tries to be too many things at once. These stories, by contrast, have a mature, focused, sometimes poetic style. Although some are as long as novellas, Chandra’s omissions are chiefly what give his prose its distinctiveness. The occasional, almost sensory whiff of American writing is apt, and a comment on the subject-matter: Bombay, or Mumbai – with its one eye on Hollywood, its big business, its fascination with the manufactured image, its drug barons and criminal gangs, its impossible dreams – is, more than any other Indian city, an approximation of America.

The second story, ‘Shakti’, which, with the third and fourth stories, is the core of this book’s achievement, and contains its best writing, is about social climbing, snobbery and class – constants of middle-class Indian life that have only rarely been an inspiration to Indian writers in English. Two families play their part in this story. The first consists of Sheila Bijlani and her entrepreneur husband; Sheila, ‘the daughter of a common chemist-type shopkeeper’, has married a man whose background is less than aristocratic – ‘USA-returned and all, but from some place called Utah’ – though with great skills at making money. The Bijlanis represent the energy and entrepreneurial creativity from which, at least partly, Mumbai originates. When they procure ‘an enormous flat on Malabar Hill’, they move into an area that has long been jealously aristocratic. The other couple in the story, the Boatwallas, represent inherited money and pedigree; they are old Bombay, and their status probably derives from colonial times. Aptly, they are Parsi – ‘Dolly Boatwalla was long and horsy-looking, she looked down an enormous nose’ – and one recalls that Bombay owes much of its development to the great Parsi industrialist J.R.D. Tata. Dolly Boatwalla cannot stand Sheila Bijlani, whom she considers an upstart; a long and diverting feud ensues. A lasting reconciliation is brought about not only because the Bijlanis almost buy out the Boatwallas during a financial crisis, but because the Bijlanis’ son and the Boatwallas’ daughter, Roxanne, fall improbably and delightfully in love. A telling bit-part is played by Ganga, the maidservant, who, like many such itinerant parttime maidservants in Bombay, works in both the Bijlanis’ and the Boatwallas’ houses. But the great force behind the story is of course Sheila Bijlani, with her intelligence and ambition; and this gives us a clue to the title of the story: for ‘Shakti’, in Sanskrit, not only means ‘power’ and ‘strength’, but, in Hindu mythology, ‘feminine power’. If Sheila represents both feminine power and the city of Mumbai, the conjunction is appropriate, given that Mumbai derives from the name of a goddess. The story ends with a wedding, and an encounter full of significance takes place on the lawn:

On one side we could see Sheila’s aunts, large women in pink and red saris with bands of diamonds around their wrists and necks, and, on the other, Dolly’s relatives, in particular one frail, tall old lady in a white sari and pince-nez glasses, with pearls at her neck, and all these people looking at each other. Then all the talking died away, there was a curious moment of silence, it was absolute and total, even the birds stopped chirping in the trees. Then two of the children ran through the shamiana, it was Roxanne’s second cousin who was chasing Sheila’s niece, both squealing, and the moment was broken and everyone was talking. Yet there had been that strange silence, maybe it was just that nobody knew what to do with each other. But I think of that moment of silence when I think of how much changed because of that marriage.

This is one of many epiphanies scattered through these stories, in which what is evoked is a moment of transition, as Bombay begins to change into Mumbai, a moment that certainly occurred, but which no one can now pinpoint or remember.

In the next two stories, we move from the internal boundaries of Bombay into the diffuse enigma of Mumbai; into the world of crime and real estate. Menace predominates in ‘Kama’, which begins with a murder; the protagonist is a police inspector, Sartaj Singh, whose marriage has broken down – Singh is one of the many nobodies with whom Chandra populates his cityscape (the unnamed narrator and the storyteller Subramanian are two others); he represents both a strange helplessness and a paradoxical, never wholly realized, sense of potential. As he moves through the city in the course of his investigation, interviewing middle-class families who live in buildings that have more presence than those who reside in them, and from there going into the more unspeakable alleys, we are again presented with epiphanies that suggest a city which has lost its centre and forfeited, for the sake of endless growth, an essence. Here is Sartaj searching for clues in one of Mumbai’s less habitable places:

The dump was on a road built out into the swamp, past the buildings under construction and the sodden mounds of earth. At the very end of the road, as it petered out into the thick green bushes, it was covered with a thick layer of paper, bones, and things liquefied and rotted. Flies buzzed around Sartaj’s head as he carefully placed one foot after another. Sartaj bent over a twisted piece of plastic and turned it over. It was the casing from a video tape, half melted away.

The dump is not only a graveyard for many things, including the ephemera of consumer culture: it is also a piece of land that will probably be built up in the future by developers. The slime and entropy may signify decay, but they are also the elements from which Bombay, and Mumbai, have been created and repeatedly redefined.

‘Artha’ protracts this exploration into crime, real estate, and, in this case, communal tension and violence. The story begins by telling us of Iqbal, the Muslim protagonist, and his Hindu friend and, as it happens, lover Rajesh (there is no visible homosexual subculture in Bombay, but there has long been an invisible one). It turns out, however, to be a story about Rajesh’s disappearance. Rajesh behaves indiscreetly with a property magnate, Ratnani, who has obvious criminal links (‘ “That was Ratnani,” Rajesh said ... “Ratnani. Ratnani Construction. Really, Iqbal, sometimes you’re so stupid. Ratnani’s built half the big buildings in the city” ’); and the indiscretion eventually causes him to disappear. A tragic vision of Mumbai unfolds, as Iqbal, a lower-middle-class nobody, searches for a friend who’s literally become nobody, but in the course of it we are entertained by glimpses of lower and middle-middle class life in the city, in the incarnation of a goofy but committed woman entrepreneur, an old aunt, art critics and art galleries, and are given, too, a subplot about two middle-aged, deceptively un-worldly software experts, Raunak-ji and Manish-ji. The variety and unexpectedness of Chandra’s Bombay, and its mixture of comedy, doom and sadness, bears comparison with Sadat Hasan Manto’s vision of the same, but very different, city, in a handful of unforgettable Urdu stories written about half a century ago.

The final story, ‘Shanti’, is different from the preceding ones in a few small but important ways. First, it’s the only story not set in Bombay; second, it is self-reflexive in the sense that it involves the storyteller himself – the retired civil servant Subramanian. He tells a love story about how he met his wife, whose name is Shanti, in an obscure small-town railway station. It was in the first years after Independence; Shanti was already married; her husband, a pilot, was lost in Burma in the war; and though she would pass through this railway station – where Subramanian would fall in love with her – on the way to a cantonment hospital in hope of her husband’s return, she would never see him again. This is the only story that isn’t told in the Fisherman’s Rest, but in Subramanian’s own flat ‘in an old, shabby building near Tardeo’. There is an element of Post-Modern whimsy here – ‘magical’ stories related by characters within the story, which remind one of the textual self-consciousness that formed the substance of Red Earth and Pouring Rain – but the imagination that re-creates the small town, the railway station, the stationmaster, the quickening of first love, and the sadness of personal loss, war and Partition, graciously subsumes into the narrative world what might otherwise have been a certain obviousness in the ‘magical realist’ passages. At any rate, those passages reveal that Chandra cannot wholly do without fairy-tales, and they perhaps provide him with a sort of nourishment. Subramanian’s story reminds us that Bombay is to a large extent a city of migrants, who have come from all sorts of ordinary but unbelievable backgrounds and settled down in this city and made their life here.

The story ends with the narrator, having listened to Subramanian’s story, going out again into the city, this time with the intention of searching for his girlfriend Ayesha, whom, in his present, contrary state of despondency and exuberance, he might ask ‘to go for a walk’, or even ‘to marry me’. The closing sentence is interesting: ‘If we search together, I think, we may find in Andheri, in Colaba, in Bhuleshwar, perhaps not heaven, nor its opposite, but only life itself.’ This reminds one of the last sentence of ‘Kama’, where Sartaj Singh has solved a case, his life has changed and he confronts the city: ‘A light changed just as Sartaj was about to cross the road, and the stream of cars jerked ahead madly, causing him to jump back, and the sidewalk vendors and their customers smiled at him. He smiled also, waiting his moment. Then he plunged in.’ In both instances, Bombay, or Mumbai, is identified with ‘life’; in the second quotation, Singh is about to ‘plunge’ into it, and in the first, Bombay is ‘life itself’. The choice of this word seems significant for two reasons. The first is that, in these stories, Chandra himself plunges into ‘life itself’, turning away from the self-consciousness and textuality of his first novel. Second, this mysticism of ‘life’ links him not only to Indian religious movements such as tantra or Buddhism (and to Whitman, who extolled the body and physical existence, and to his successors) but also to the religious creed that has been at the heart of the secular act of writing fiction in the 20th century, the creed articulated by Lawrence when he called the novel the ‘one bright book of life’. Chandra’s stories should be read, not only by those interested in India, but by anyone interested in the way writing transforms, and is transformed by, human experience.