In case you're wondering why I haven't been posting for the last four days and scanning the newspapers anxiously for that news item about a man being dragged by a wild horse, the reason is that I was in Bombay for the weekend and didn't have Internet access (I know, I know; it wasn't as bad as it sounds though, at least I had a life). Not surprisingly, that's what the next two posts - this one and another to follow - are going to be about.
STATUTORY WARNING: The following description is unsuitable for young children, pregnant women, phenylketonurics or people with strong allergic reactions to blatant nostalgia
This morning, Delhi is a city of white phantoms. Swirling walls of fog smother the city, blurring all perspective, until we are left with only the soft-focus immediacy of our own presence. On the road to the airport visibility is barely ten metres, but this doesn't deter my cab driver, who, having learnt how to drive from the Ravenous Bug-blatter beast of Trall clearly believes that if you can't see it, it can't hit you. As we zip along the more or less deserted road at a breezy 70 Km / hour, I feel as though I've entered an episode of the Twilight Zone. The drive has a nightmarish quality, at once gothic and existential, a coach ride towards oblivion, the headlights of oncoming traffic like so many ghosts peering out at us from the realm of shadows. Because I could not stop for Death. Or traffic lights.
By the time I get to the airport the fog has got worse, so that the airport is like some giant pupa, wrapped in a cocoon of sticky mist. The Indian Airlines ground staff seem unaffected by its presence however, refusing to let their natural optimism be dampened by such minor details. My flight is on time, I am told, by the man at the check-in counter who sits serene as a buddha behind his desk. When I try to point out that visibility outside is abysmal and not a single flight has taken off so far this morning, so that it seems unlikely that my flight could possibly be on time, he brushes my objections aside with a look of disdain for someone so naively alarmist. My flight is on time, he informs me again, with the air of someone making a great prophecy, and that's all there is to say.
Right. I meander over to the Cafe Coffee Day counter, figuring I might as well start the caffeine running in my system. For a company that generally specialises in disguised unemployment, Cafe Coffee Day has gone to considerable pains to ensure that this one counter is always woefully understaffed. Apparently it is company policy that one sleepy looking 16 year old in a creased orange t-shirt is just the right staffing configuration to serve 14 customers, all of whom are in a hurry because they have flights to miss. I stand patiently behind a bunch of stewardesses in hideous scarlet uniforms, finding myself unmoved, even repulsed by their phony accents, their plastic smiles, their make-up smothered, cookie-cutter look. Didn't anyone ever explain to these glorified mannequins that it's not a good idea to come between a man and his double espresso? Do people actually fly private airlines in order to be served by people like this?
An hour later I'm still sitting in the security lounge, reading Heaney, mouthing his glorious language to myself. The fog is as thick as ever. On the TV screen behind me, some shrill anchor is telling us about the disruption of flight services out of Delhi airport in that rushed, breathless voice without which no report is really NEWS. Like we hadn't noticed. Meanwhile, the airport terminal screens are still bravely insisting that my flight will leave on time. Finally, with forty-five minutes left to go to the scheduled departure of my flight, I get a phone call from the airlines. My flight has been delayed by an hour it seems. How surprising. How completely unexpected. How useful to know all of fifteen minutes before my flight is supposed to begin boarding. This way I can wait another hour before I leave my seat next to the gate.
Another hour and we're sitting on the tarmac, strapped into our seats, ready to take off. Another two hours and we're sitting on the tarmac, strapped into our seats, ready to take off. Another three hours and we're still sitting on the tarmac, still strapped into our seats, still ready to take off. By this time I've heard the tinny rendition of Scarborough Fair that passes for music on these flights some 3,478 times. I eye the cellphone my neighbour has been loudly talking into for the last hour (his son had aloo ki parathi for breakfast, and is now studying with Raju; his friend Mr. Sharma has gone to office despite having a bad cold, but it's okay because my neighbour, who moonlights as a quack when he's not being the most irritating person on the planet, has prescribed a nostrum that never fails, despite combining ginger and lime in ways too salacious to mention) and wonder if it's heavy enough to smash through his cranium. The growling of my stomach is beginning to drown out the airplane engines.
* * *
The first thing that hits me about Bombay when I finally get there (five hours late) is the heat. It's actually glorious weather, but coming in from Delhi it feels positively balmy. But there is another warmth here, one that starts deep in the heart and radiates slowly outward - a warmth that I feel sweeping over me as we turn onto the Western Express highway, head over to my grandparent's house. It is the warmth of memory.
Bombay is a city of nostalgia for me, a landscape at once photo album and palimpsest. Again and again, over the four days that I am here, I am struck by the sheer density of the memories that live here, the way they jostle each other in the streets, the way they crowd together like buildings. Every street corner, every tiny little by-lane has its share of stories - remember the time stories, wasn't this where stories, were you with me when stories. Stories of meetings held, decisions reached, books discussed, ideas debated, plays watched, bottles emptied, friendships forged. Stories of laughter and embarassment, accident and adventure, discovery and loss. No other city is as densely populated with memories I want to hold on to. No other city is so alive with things I shall never live again.
By the time I recover from this bout of sentimentality, we are at my grandparents house, and I remember that I'm hungry. Throwing caution and my plans for a balanced diet to the gentle breeze coming off the sea, I plunge headlong into the ocean of my grandmother's cooking, devouring it with a zeal that would make a bulldozer blush. Why is it that all grandmothers can cook like this? Are there special courses they have to take? Or is it all advertising - we are so conditioned to think of grandmothers as being great cooks that we define good food by the taste of our grandmother's cooking, so that the ubiquity of the grandmother's skill is merely tautology? As I spoon the last crumbs of my grandmother's Gajar ka Halwa into my mouth, I have no time for such subtleties; I sink gratefully into a fog of my own, giving myself easily to its mellowness.
It's good to be back in Bombay after all these months away. The multiplicity and magic of the city is mirrored for me in the gaudy illustrations on the rear windshields of the black and yellow taxis. Hum Suffer, one says. Another announces Freedom, in the shape of young woman blowing a Unicorn off her cupped palms. And there is always that old favourite - a woman seated with her back to a tree, head pressed to raised knee in a gesture of abject waiting, the garish embodiment of the love who lies waiting, silently for me. And lapping around these images, or sometimes by itself, the bald statement of place - Borivili, Bandra, Malad - the sound of the names like the flat slap of water against a stone step. As my car noses its way through the morning traffic, I feel like a dolphin who, newly released from captivity, slides easily into the sossing and remembered waters. As we drive along the railway track, I find myself straining to remember the next station on the line, desperate to get it right as though my very past depended on it - which, in a way, it does.
Chinchpokli. The name says it all. Poky warehouses, decrepit mills, pinched little shops lining the narrow streets. Stones chimneys rising into the sky, unused like gods. You are in the heart of the city here, surrounded by people, and yet in a sense you are also in a ghost town, because the high ceilings of these dilapidated buildings are filled with a black and white silence, a sense of history brooding. This is a landscape of lost industry, of glory that has evaporated with time.
I am here to meet my former colleagues at Akanksha, an NGO that I worked with for a while before I left to do my PhD. As I walk into the office, the exuberance of their reception overwhelms me - I am shocked by how genuinely delighted they all seem to see me again, I feel both deeply loved and an impostor. I think of all the people who wondered why I quit my job with the Firm to go work for Akanksha. I wish they could be here in this room with me, I wish I could make them feel the affection in this room. In Immortality, Kundera argues that gesture (and therefore identity) exists independent of person, and that therefore an ideal or an idea can live through many different people. Walking into that room, I don't feel as though I'm returning to a former workplace, I feel as though I'm coming back to family.
By mid-afternoon I'm at Churchgate (having dumped my bag with R.) sitting at the Tea Centre, sipping my fourth cup of Darjeeling (the fact that every two cup pot of tea comes with a little over four cups is one of the things that most endears me to this place) and biting into the grilled Tuna Sandwich on Brown Bread that was, for years, my staple weekend lunch. The Tea Centre has changed a lot since I first started coming here, back in the summer of 2000 (I miss the quaint old photographs on the wall, the pianist playing Memory) but it still retains many of its gubernatorial trappings. The pretentious little silver bells on each table are still there (not that they're ever used) and the waitstaff still wears dark green turbans. Its noisier than I remember, but the chips they serve with the sandwich still have that trace of soggy staleness, and the tea is as brilliant as ever. It's good to be back.
Oxford is a disappointment, its poetry section shockingly scant and padded with dozens of identical volumes of putrid poetry by indifferent young Indian poets - some of the books so terribly mediocre that you have only to open a page at random to find something that will make you wince in pain. It's at Rhythm House, ironically, that I find what I'm looking for - a copy of Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda Poems which I've been dying to read ever since I learnt of their existence (I may have mentioned this earlier, but it is my firm opinion that Kolatkar is the greatest Indian poet to have written in English in the last century, bar none). This find sparks a frenzy of mad music buying, fuelled by the knowledge that Indian Classical CDs are hard to come by in the US. When the smoke clears I find myself carrying a basket overflowing with CDs - some picked up simply because they're such great deals, other because they're breathtaking records, including a performance of Ragas Mishra Bhairavi and Mishra Khamaj that features the combined talents of Vilayat Khan and Bismillah Khan, an unbelievably sublime recording. Staggering out with these new purchases of mine, I rush back to R.'s place, spend the rest of the day savouring my new acquisitions.
(more to come)