I

The sea in Bombay smells of fish. “Even now,” you might wonder, “even now when they are building those 100-storey World Towers? I thought they were a thing of a past when India used to be an exotic land.” Nonetheless, despite its odors, the Bombay sea feels like human skin. I think our skins–and our opinions on human skins–can learn a lot from the sea.

First, the odor, of course. Now, I don’t necessarily use ‘odor’ as a bad adjective, contrary to what deodorant advertisements would have. Odor is a necessary aesthetic. It might displease as long as one is not subjected to it long enough. Soon afterwards this odor becomes a trope of modern art, postmodern poetry and post-millennial match-makings. In any case, wouldn’t it be just so liberating and romantic if human bodies could start smelling like the sea? That fishy smell, I mean! Some people might take offence if their kin or spouses began smelling like shutki (dried fish) or mackerel. But there are other varieties. Why, there is Hilsa! And for the more “fish and chips”-minded lot there is cod.

Now, it would be just perfect if a beloved muse smelled of cod. Samuel T. Coleridge would stop eating opium, and Sherlock Holmes would reject all that morphine (perhaps even be “cured” of his alleged homosexuality, if only a woman or two around them smelled of cod. I definitely would have given up smoking. Of these I am very certain.

Second, the skin of the sea! I, for one, am a non-racist. I say non-racist because I find most around me to be racists. I am yet to meet a proper anti-racist, because one such kind probably does not exist. Racism is an integral folly of the human breed. Although criticized everywhere, it is still always welcome in small doses, insomuch as many anti-racist discourses themselves emerge from some inherent racism. Well, of course it is necessary to say that “black is beautiful,” and so they must. But that does not make anyone anti-racist enough. Thus, I, for one, am so non-racist that I would say black is not beautiful. In fact black, is–or can be and has the right to be–as ugly as white. Neither fairness nor darkness are promissories of beauty. Why then the pretension, I wonder.

The sea, right now, is turbid. And, somewhat gray. If only a beloved were to have this complexion of skin! The salt on its skin makes it shimmer under the sun. It is about 2 in the afternoon. What would I not give for this skin–one that froths at the shore, gives up all its salt, and one that is dense and calm in its bosom. There are undulations on its face, but definitely not as benighted as acne on the human skin. These undulations are beatific and very adorable, whereas acne is the perfect opposite. We often believe and try to educate our generations that bad lifestyles and calorific ingestion cause acne and other skin-related malaise. I tend to believe it is a kind of half-baked conscientiousness or a half-baked defiance which is the cause of our skin troubles. We turn guilty too soon of overeating the forbidden. It should either be the prescribed or the forbidden that we must absolutely stick to. Any aberration in this dietary radicalism, and we would immediately start showing acne! Even worse, we might be considered to have loose grounding in our own traditions, having been failures in those of others as well. And worse still, we might be labeled antinationals. Take this sea for instance. I saw it last week. It had vomited on the shore all the waste that had been thrown into it. Now, if I tried the experiment of throwing in the butt of my cigarette, would the sea return it? I doubt it would. It would rather swallow the butt, and manifest it as a tiny pimple upon its relentless expanse. And, when my throwing my narcotic waste into the sea shames me from throwing any more, that tiny pimple would still remain. I would have done a great disservice to its skin. But feed the sea a tonne of waste, and it would not retain a milligram of it. The Bombay sea, like me, is another non-racist. Also, it knows wonderfully well how to regulate its metabolism.

 

II

My coordinates are important, supposedly, for most of the action happens here. I am standing at the Kilachand Chowk, at Chowpati. Less than a kilometer away is the Cricket Club of India and the Brabourne Stadium. Behind me is a restaurant and cafe called Pizza by the Bay. Behind me also is the Ambassador Hotel, where I am put, as well as another restaurant deliciously named as Gaylord. And, equally behind me is a recently hung poster–which I think is soon to disappear–which reads “UDTA PUNJAB–CENSOR BOARD NEEDS TO CENSURE–IT’S ‘HIGH’.” I cannot make any head or tail–better still no high or low–of what it means. But then whatever is meaningful anyhow in a city which is not my own? And whichever city was my own, at all?

In Bombay, I was told I would find romantic cobbled streets, which turn more romantic in the rain. I did not find rain. And cobbled streets make me run away nowadays, for I dread they would throw me back into the days of my being an unemployed poet. So, I merely concentrate on the men and the women.

Of all the kinds of men and women there are in Bombay, I confine myself to only two categories. For men I have chosen their pleats to determine what their classification should be. And for women…why, of course, their skin color!

The men are easy to exhaust, so I will them first. Now, there appear to me only two classes of men in Bombay, as I say, one that wears pleated trousers and one that does not. What meets my eye here is the former, usually. You would expect that in South Bombay, wouldn’t you, with all that Church Street charm, and everything? I mean there are houses that are dim lit, with scathed blinds fluttering to reveal the melancholy interiors, beneath furiously decadent gables. The most obvious sartorial supplement to the hosiery should be pleats. Those men that I see wearing pleated trousers are usually short, stooping, and old. They are also, if you will, very jaded, and obey the traffic rules diligently while crossing the road. They carry heavy burdens in their hands, and on their metaphorical shoulders. They look very sad. Somehow it brings me a funereal thrill to see them in that state. I fear in my deepest heart that the men who do not wear pleated trousers, and look perfectly happy in their philistine appearances, are headed towards some cataclysm. And when that happens, all those melancholy, ugly pleated trouser-wearing jaded gents would be salvaged, and finally given happiness. As a consequence, if anyone has seen me in Bombay, I would request them to count me in this category. Another man who belongs in this category is my soon-to-arrive character, Man in Sixties. If Man in Sixties is presently reading this, I would tell him it is certainly not you that I am talking about. So, you must not mind. Dear Man in Sixties, I should have left you anonymous, but your affectations of embracing the liberal values modernity and sentiments of the youth–despite your being a senior citizen–make this epithet an irresistible and inevitable choice. I am rather offended that you should appear so modern to the public, while I do not. Anyhow, I shall come to you, soon.

The other category of people is women, and them I classify as dark skinned or fair skinned. Now, most of the dark skinned or fair skinned women in Bombay, do not have a right to exist here. Since I have said that I’m non-racist, I make this claim purely out of logic and not racial bias. The reason why most dark-skinned women should not exist in Bombay is that most of them are from neighboring states, such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Some are even from faraway states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Shiv Sena’s loudspeakers have gone hoarse shouting out the illegitimate statehood of these people in Maharashtra. We should give them some credence, in memory of Bal Thackeray. Actually, I do so in memory of one William Makepeace Thackeray who was the grandfather of our well-known English author, Thackeray. This original Thackeray had made a fortune in the Sylhet district of Bengal by trading elephants and ivory tusks to sahibs in Chowringhee (Calcutta) and Leadenhall Street (London). He retired in 1776, at the age of twenty seven, so rich that the next two generations of his could practically eat out of the ivory wealth he had made, and merely attend their labors to writing satires on the nabobs. Which is just what grandson Thackeray did. Be that as it may, from Sylhet, the Thackeray wealth travelled to London, and from London the Thackeray surname came back to India, when Keshav Sitaram Thakre (who was Bal Thackeray’s father) modified his surname to emulate the Sylhet nabob’s. Does all this imply that most dark-skinned women in Bombay don’t have a right to exist? Well, it must. Bombay cinema has had such an effect on me that only those girls who spoke at the pedestrian in a Mumbaiya slang struck me as authentic. The rest, I am afraid, added no aesthetic value to my walks. Neither might they have to those of the late Mr. Bal Thackeray’s.

With respect to the fair-skinned women, I have regard only for the Parsi women. One of them made cold coffee for me yesterday. And wasn’t she an angel? An octogenarian angel at that! I was interviewing her husband, who was a serious and feared auditor in his days. While he went on with his drab narrative of the twenty six qualifications he had added to some carbon company’s balance sheets, angel octogenarian intervened twice to say that she had never eaten lunch with her husband in the first thirty years of her marriage. God, the sadness in her voice! It was love at first audition. I did fall in love with her somewhat. And I distinctly believe that when the cataclysm happens–of which I have spoken above–she too will be salvaged. Her husband, despite being very old–had no pleats on his trousers. So, although I don’t wish him any ill, about his salvation I cannot vouch.

Most Parsi women in Bombay are fair. Fairness in India has had a long history of its political role. I love fairness in a beautiful girl or boy, as I do darkness in the same two. So, although I consider fairness a virtue, I think it has overstayed its welcome in the country. Especially in the north of India, where the audiences are thrilled to hear and watch a telly actress describe how she became fair, while she stands on the stages of penny dreadful comedy or dance reality shows. I feel rather claustrophobic hearing such talk. In Bombay, the Parsi women do have a political–or cultural if you will–role to play. Their voices and their accents soothe the weary modern day traveller, who longs for a beaker full of the blushful hippocrene of their Anglo-Indian intonations. They remind us how beautiful and how disastrous colonization was. You might ask, “if you want to cope or battle with colonization why don’t you go to Anglo-Indians?” I certainly would have, but I did not find one that was fair. Nearly all Anglo-Indians I saw were wheatish. Only the Parsis were fair, and they also had the accent. Without them, I believe, all the fair women–and even men–in Bombay stand to create discrepancy and disharmony in the social fabric of the nation. Therefore, none of the fair women, but those among the Parsis, have the right to exist in Bombay.

 

III

My Man in Sixties is most disappointing. Not only has he not seen St. Pancras–although he bores me death with his London and Switzerland and New York memoirs–he has also not seen the film Chhoti Si Baat (1975). The relevance of St. Pancras is simple. It was the model for the Victoria Terminus Station building. I like St. Pancras much more, personally. But the Victoria Terminus (VT) enthralled me the first time that I saw it. It was actually just today. He keeps telling me about how unforgivable it is not to have seen the VT before, but he does not seem to understand or hear that I have not come to Bombay before this month. Also, he does not understand anything of Gothic or Edwardian architecture. I cannot talk to him about the VT, or the Bombay University building, or the St. Xavier’s College, building, or the Wilson’s College building, or any of the Church Gate and Colaba houses. He calls all of them English construction. But he does not believe that the same is true of Connaught Place or the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi. And, the same for Paharganj or Ajmeri Gate stations, and the same for any building in India built before 1947, or even a little after. All of it for him is just “English construction,” without any of aesthetic or political complexity of the specific form. I say “gable,” he hears “cable.” “Spandrel” I exclaim, “scandal” he utters, “what where scandal?” As old as he might be, Man in Sixties is going the way of the youth. So, I cannot discuss architecture with him.

I can neither discuss cinema with him. A song is playing in my head all day. It is troubling me, like some beautiful faces and visions trouble you, when they recur. I want to tell the one beside me about it, or invent someone. I tell Man in Sixties about the song “na jane kyon, hota hai ye zindagi ke saath.” First, I don’t know why he pretends to not understand Hindi. When he speaks English he pronounces the pleasing sounds of ‘k’ or ‘ch’ as the very dissonant ‘kh.’ Or, the ‘k’ sound in ‘ch’-spelled words in his pronunciation become ‘ch’-sounds as in ‘chump.’ So, ‘calibre’ becomes ‘khelibre’ and ‘archive’ becomes ‘archeeeev.’ Never mind, all that, his poor taste in both Hindi and English are intolerable by me. And the song keeps playing in my head. While we walk down Church Gate, back to our hotel at night, a radio listener chooses to pop out of the dark and play to me the selfsame song. Why, I pray! Why does not a companion around me hum the song, but an inebriated stranger’s free radio (which he probably got during a vasectomy in the ’70s) ?

Meanwhile, we walk past a salon called “Marisse Marrel.” For some inexplicable reason the architect or the painters of the salon have decided to hang a plaque announcing the name in Hindi. Thus, in Hindi it reads as “Mareej Marel,” quite positively without a nookhta (dot) beneath the “je” in the Hindi alphabet. In some colloquial Hindu tongue it would certainly mean “sickly patient dying or on deathbed.” Marisse Marrel, the salon, was perhaps named after French beauticians. Although, it would have been better were they Italians (were they?) because there was one character in Francis Ford Coppolas The Godfather (1971)–the first one in fact, with whom the film begins–Bona Sera, who was given the job of the re-dressing of Sonny Corleone’s corpse.

Despite whatever I say about Man in Sixties, he is kind from inside. While returning from Chowapati tonight he tells me: “This people…so much people sleep on the roads in Mumbai. They have stayed here past so many years. Yet all this will sleep here now.” Bombay, he notes, is much better than Delhi. And I can’t agree more. Although I do know that when I leave Bombay tomorrow, there would be at least one soul here, or outside the city, who would remember me for all the wrong impressions I might have given about the city.

 

IV

Earlier today, just about eleven o clock in the morning. I look out the window of an office on the 32nd floor of a building in Bombay.

I: There is something just so wrong with the city. (It was so different back in Church Gate, Cuffe Parade, you know with those old buildings). But here, these man made skyscrapers, the man made sea…

Man in Sixties: Are you trying to be more old fashioned than me?

I: I merely am unable to comprehend the grotesque patterns that underlie these figures I see ahead. There’s something terribly wrong somewhere.

Man in Sixties: Then you’re showing the best qualities of an auditor. Whenever you don’t understand figures, just put in your signature, and it will be fine.

Man in Sixties has made a relevant point. But I would not like to put in my signature on my impressions of Bombay. There is nothing to be trusted or distrusted in these.

One thing that Man in Sixties keeps repeating is the terrorist attacks on the Taj Hotel, the VT and elsewhere. It was a cataclysm. I do not know how many were salvaged then. The likes of me might not have been. The likes of me are made of unreasonable censure of the non-orthodox. I do wish Bombay changes them. Pleats or legitimate dark and fair skins cannot be the determinants of salvation. But companionship can be. By that token Man in Sixties and I might both set sail, safely tomorrow. And either of us would return to Bombay the next week. Perhaps I would begin another meaningless personal adventure. This time I think I would classify people as supporters and detractors of the original 89 cuts in Udta Punjab. Or, maybe among those who sleep on the streets and those who don’t. Bombay teaches me to hurt less people the next time, and to love and preserve my beloved things more responsibly.  Don’t worry Man in Sixties, I am probably becoming like you.

 

Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee

Arup K Chatterjee is a recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship, 2014-15, to UK. He received his PhD from the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the authors of The Purevyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways (Bloomsbury, 2017), apart from numerous other prose or poetic works and opinion articles published worldwide. He is Assistant Professor of English at the Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, and the founding chief-editor of Coldnoon

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