Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bombay Weekend - Post 2 of 2

In which Falstaff goes on another rambling, sentimental and entirely self-obsessed memory trip. In case of feelings of nausea half way through I recommend putting your head between your knees and taking deep breaths. And promise that I shall return to regular programming once I've got this out of my system

Day 3

Saturday morning. R is still asleep at 9:30 in the morning (why do all of my friends have this fetish for sleeping late on holidays?) when I slip out to have coffee with a friend. The Barista we land up in is empty at this hour, which is a relief, even though it does mean that my friend and I feel singled out, the wait-staff watching us like vultures, waiting for us to abandon our cups so that they can swoop down on them. I order a double espresso, try to hide my annoyance when the woman at the counter goes into the routine of telling me that it’s strong black coffee, etc. Do they still need to do this? I consider upping the stakes on her by asking if she can make me a quadruple espresso, just to see the look on her face, then content myself by looking at her with utter contempt when she offers me sugar. Real coffee at last! I take a sip and feel the caffeine humming through me, like turning on the ignition and feeling some secret engine inside me come to life.

Meeting done, I return to R’s apartment, to find he’s finally awake. We sit around on his bean bags, chatting about the old days for a while, passing the conversation back and forth between us like a shared bottle of lukewarm beer, Shruti Sadolikar playing in the background. There is little new we have to say to each other – I saw him in New York a few months ago, and we’ve stayed in touch since – but this conversation is its own point, a dialogue as formal as a ritual, as a ceremony, a series of improvised counterpoints, the essential music of companionship.

By two in the afternoon we’re both hungry, and head out to King’s Circle to grab lunch at Madras Café. One plate idli drowned in an ocean of sambar, one dosa, one bisi bele bhaat and two steel tumblers of sugary coffee later, I’m wallowing in a sense of profound satiation. Our route back takes us past Haji Ali, where the sight of the Juice Centre brings back memories of the taste of the year’s first mangoes. Others may wax eloquent about Marine Drive, but for me Haji Ali remains the most emblematic and magical of all Bombay’s seaside drives – this glorious half moon of a road, like a breath of fresh air between the cramped confines of Pedder Road and the tall towers of Worli, a line of black rocks underlining the seas restlessness, waves crashing against them, nipping at the feet of people who walk across to the island shrine, looking as though they walked on water. And the shrine itself, like a mirage in reverse, rising out of this sickle bay as if transported there by some absent-minded genie. And the quiet lapping of waters in the lagoon, the odd boat bobbing in its gentle waters like an oversized cradle.

By the time we get back to R's place, it’s almost five in the afternoon. R catches up on some work he has to get done, I read for a while, and then we’re off again, this time headed south to catch the Banganga festival, where Chaurasia is playing tonight. Neither of us has ever been to Banganga before, and the directions we’ve received involve turning right after we get to a white wall (which turn out to be surprisingly common) so that we’re a little concerned about getting lost. We make it on time, however, and Banganga turns out to be this rectangular pond (the technical term, our cab driver informs us, contemptuously, is ‘talao’ - but I don’t know how to translate that), with broken stone steps leading down to the water and quaint little temples all around. We pay close attention to these temples because we don’t actually have tickets for the concert and have been told that if you’re not too fussed about actually watching the performance (we’re not – this is Chaurasia, for god’s sake, I’m going to have my eyes shut for the larger part of the concert anyway) then you can sit in one of the temples and hear the whole concert fairly well. As it turns out, however, there are still a few tickets available at the venue, so we find ourselves sitting on the carpeted stone steps that make up the auditorium here, strategically positioned for maximum leg space and a centre view, with R desperately trying to sms the 1500 people he’s invited to come find us in some temple somewhere (when he’s not being a friend of mine, R is one of the most exuberantly social and outgoing people I know).

The venue’s charming enough to look at, but the concert itself is a bit of a wash out. Not that Chaurasia isn’t as brilliant as always (though I have to say this evening is not one of his most inspired performances) – there are points in his rendition of Raga Des where I’m almost in tears and also dying of laughter – but the sound system is the most excruciatingly terrible I’ve ever heard, and for a purist like me there are way too many external noises – ducks quacking in the pond, the clang of temple bells, people’s cell phones going off at regular intervals [1]. This is made worse by the fact that the organisers don’t bother to stop entry to the venue after the concert actually starts, so that for the first forty-five minutes R and I (who thought we’d done a smart thing by sitting with an aisle in front of us, thus ensuring that we would have maximum space to stretch) find ourselves on the edge of a bustling thoroughfare, with people tripping their awkward way past us every five seconds, usually pausing to tread on our toes. This is so distracting that I barely hear the first alaap. Nor are our woes over yet – there’s a half hour respite while everyone sits and listens to the concert in silence, then people start to leave, and the whole process of ‘Ouch!’ ‘Oh, excuse me!’ ‘Sshhhh!’ is repeated all over again, only this time by people on their way out. Sigh.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that the concert is more an event than a performance, so that there are more people here who want to be seen at a Chaurasia concert than want to actually be at one. The result is that I’m surrounded on all sides by a bunch of polythene crumpling, cell-phone wielding, loud-talking cretins. The worst of these morons is undoubtably the Governor of Maharashtra, who, having been invited to light the lamp, decides to leave half-way through the first raga, thus ensuring that Chaurasia’s sublime flute is forced to compete with the gunned engines and beeping horns of his security retinue (who in his right mind would want to assassinate so completely irrelevant a cipher as a state governor anyway?). A special mention must be made, however, of young lady in orange, clearly the girlfriend of one of the zillion press photographers covering the event, who insisted on having a very visual argument with her boyfriend, telling him that she was hungry and wanted dinner and wasn’t he done yet, standing right next to the stage in full view of a few thousand people. Not to forget the lady who delivered the ‘Welcome Address’, which consisted of a series of incoherent poly-syllabic phrases, delivered in a flat monotone, in which she compared Panditji’s playing to the great flute may-stro Gene Pear Rample. Cretins.

Concert over, R and I bitch about it for a while, then head to the Konkan Café for dinner, figuring it’s the only place we have any chance of getting a table in Bombay at 9:30 pm on a Saturday Night (Douglas Adams was wrong about this you know – the final phase of civilised evolution is not reached by asking the question where shall we go for lunch?; the truly sophisticated civilisation is the one where you have to ask – where can we get a table before midnight?). As we plough our way through their non-veg thali (that incredible mango fish!) I find myself savouring both the contrast between this meal and the one we had for lunch, as well as the delicate counterpoint of dry Chardonnay balanced against spicy rasam. By the time we get back to R's place, we’re both ready to doze off at once, and R’s enthusiasm for his flight the next morning (he’s flying to a certain pretentious metropolis in Eastern India) has completely evaporated, prompting him to reschedule his trip to Monday. I sit gleefully by as he argues with someone at Jet, desperately tries to contact his office travel desk at half past midnight on a Sunday morning, and finally manages to modify all his plans, waiting eagerly for the moment when he puts down the phone and I can tell him this is what he should have done all along.

Day 4.

Sunday morning. My last day in Bombay before I head back to Delhi. R is fast asleep again, so I head over to Bandra to finally meet up with S. S and I haven’t seen each other for a long time now, and a lot has happened in her life since we last met, so we have a lot of catching up to do. Except that some five minutes after I get to her place, her father, remembering that I’m at Wharton, hijacks me into some discussion of knowledge management in the Pharma sector (of which I know absolutely nothing, though that, of course, doesn’t stop me from holding up my end of the conversation and managing to sound intelligent as hell).

Escaping from her house, I promise to meet S later in the afternoon so we can really talk, and head over to St. Andrews auditorium to catch the Akanksha musical in its final performance. All through this trip I’ve been amazed at the way my sense of direction in Bombay has not deserted me – the way I’ve been able to pick the one route that will take me exactly where I want to go, despite not having travelled these roads for so long. I’m particularly impressed by the fact that I manage to make my way to St. Andrews, a feat that requires successfully navigating a series of narrow Bandra side streets and that I was never able to pull off even when I actually lived in Bombay.

The musical is a glorious and touching event for me. It’s not really the sort of thing I would usually have enjoyed - it’s glitzy and loud and pulls all the obvious tricks - but I’m not paying as much attention to the performance itself as I am to the children performing it, these eager, half-familiar faces whose hope and enthusiasm I find, in a bout of uncharacteristic sentimentality, incredibly moving. There is much in this performance that makes me cringe, but there is less to cringe at then their would be in any other school performance, and I defy any group of children, from any socio-economic background whatsoever, to do a finer job. And that, when you consider the conditions these children live and grew up in, is a minor miracle.

Musical over, I have lunch with another friend, this time squeezing into a tiny restaurant sandwiched between Lemon Grass and Pot Pourri that serves the most hideous Punjabi Chinese food I have ever eaten. This is a special treat for me, because if there is one cuisine I miss in the States it is Indian Chinese. You can get good Chinese food in the US, of course, but nowhere else can you get the precise flavour of American Chopsuey or Sweet and Sour paneer (I won’t even begin to talk about Schezwan Idlis). I gorge myself on a Chicken Dragon Sizzler (a delectable concoction that blends aloo ki subzi and rice with cubes of chicken bathed in spicy hot and sour sauce, topping the whole thing off with French fries!), inhaling about 2,000 lung fulls of pungent smoke in the process. By the end of it, I’m not sure if the tears in my eyes are caused by the memory of the musical, my nostalgia for Indian Chinese or pepper.

After lunch, I meet up with S and her fiancé, and we head out to Bandstand to catch the sunset, stopping in a café by the shore (the Barista, as usual, is impossible to find place in) where S orders French fries and I have a cup of black dishwater. Every time I visit Bandstand now, I find it busier, more crowded, and am overwhelmed with nostalgia for the way I first saw it, a deserted stretch of black rocks along the sea, skirted by a ruined path from which phantom steps led off to nowhere. No fancy coffee shops here then – just a broken down looking juice stand, and the shape-shifting hotel at the end of the promenade that is now the Taj Land’s End. That first summer we would spend long hours walking along this deserted road, trying to pay no attention to the couples making out among the rocks, sitting on thrones of black and broken stone talking poetry or walking down to the edge of the water with our jeans rolled up to let the waves wash over our ankles. We thought we were terribly independent and grown-up then, but looking back it feels like we were little more than children, and the promenade itself, undiscovered, unexplored, unexploited, seems like a metaphor for a quieter, more simple time. Looking at it now, the line that pops into my head comes from Wilfred Owen: “To go forever children, hand in hand. / The sea is rising…and the world is sand.”

I get back to R’s place by eight pm, to find he has just got back as well, and has brought a friend along. This friend greets me with a familiar, casual ‘hi!’ and no further introductions are forthcoming, so that I am left with the distinct impression that I’m supposed to know who she is. I have no idea, of course. I study her carefully, trying not to stare. Yes, she does look kind of familiar. Who is she? I toy with the idea that she might be one of R’s four dozen ex-‘girlfriends’, but discard it. Could it be someone we knew back in college? But surely in that case some explanation would have been in order.

After a while I stop agonising about it. Whoever she is, this woman can hold her vodka and appreciates Led Zep, even going so far as to forcibly turn up the volume when R demurs out of consideration for his neighbours. After that, a minor detail like her name is hardly relevant. We proceed to have a pleasant enough evening, my memories of which extend only to the point where I’m pouring my sixth drink and musing on the philosophical implications of being able to fit a square ice-cube into a round glass. Beyond this my recollections are a little hazy, but I’m told that a good time was had by all. When the mystery woman finally leaves, accompanied by loud proclamations from me to the effect that it’s been great seeing her again and we should definitely catch up more often, I turn to R and ask who she was. It turns out she’s a senior of ours from business school, someone I’ve spoken to barely three times in my life before this evening and therefore could not possibly be expected to recognise. I feel less guilty. I have another drink to celebrate. The last thing I manage to do before I pass out entirely is to set an alarm for five o’clock the next morning, the alarm that will send me zipping through the city’s deserted roads in another speeding taxi, getting me to the airport just in time for the flight that will take me away from Bombay, this ravishing mistress of cities, this beloved metropolis, my favourite place in all the world.

[1] To Chaurasia's credit, he's entirely unphased by all this, even stopping at one point to attempt an impromptu jugalbandi with one of the quacking ducks.


The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

sounds like you're having a wonderful time. i'm terribly jealous.

btw - i'm always struck by the number of people who attend a play or concert for the sake of being seen there and so that they can 'casually' mention at work the next day where they were.

Falstaff said...

Shoe-fiend: I know, it's disgusting isn't it. Only four more days left before I head back to Philly though - then I can go back to being my usual depressive self, and hopefully you will have got your good mood back!

Neela said...

falstaff: unfazed you mean? disgusting sentimentality btw. expect better of you. Now when you get back, i shall regard you with suspicion as one of the Sentimental Ones. You might even like Michael Learns to Rock. Yechhh!


Mahjabeen said...

I have totally come across good chinese-indian food, though not in philly, but nyc-

You should stop by 'chinese mirch' or 'indo-wok' at 28th and lex when you're in NY!

Heh Heh said...

mahjabeen: no. food at both chinese mirch and indo-wok sucks.
falstaff: totally agree with the marine drive/haji ali comparison, but maybe i am biased, since its home :) also, even *i* can venture a guess as to who the lady in question was...

Falstaff said...

Neela: Yes, yes, unfazed. Also, hello, just because I'm occassionally sentimental doesn't mean I don't have taste. All this means is that there are points in La Boheme where I'll actually cry - it does not mean that I'm going to listen to MLTR (shudder!)

heh heh: I'm sure you can now that I've told you she's a senior of ours. But remember, I only found this out afterwards.

And yes, figured you'd agree on Haji Ali. You should have seen the paragraph I wrote about the race course, then figured I'd leave it to you.

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