Saturday morning. R is still asleep at 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 . 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.
Sunday morning. My last day in
Escaping from her house, I promise to meet S later in the afternoon so we can really talk, and head over to
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. 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.