The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- An appetite for the city

Like Suketu Mehta, I was born in Calcutta, a city in extremis, in Mehta’s words, and, like him, grew up in Bombay. His father, who worked in the diamond trade, and mine, then a rising executive in the corporate world, probably moved to Bombay from Calcutta for the same reasons: to do with the much-rehearsed migration, indeed, the flight, in the Sixties, of capital and industry from the former colonial capital in the east to the forward-looking metropolis in the west, in the face of growing labour unrest and radical politics in leftist Bengal — the troubled context that in extremis presumably refers to. By the early Seventies, Calcutta seemed to everyone, especially to those within industry, to have ceased to be a major centre of commerce and industry; Howrah, just outside Calcutta, where the factories were once located, became, now that the major players were absent, a purgatory for small enterprise, with businesses — among them one that belonged to a relative of mine — waiting, sometimes for years and years, to die. The lights went out in Calcutta, literally; ‘load-shedding’, uttered by my cousins in one breath, as if it were a single Bengali word, begins in my memory with the infinite rotations of the fan overhead decreasing and decreasing, till the blades have become motionless, while we continue our make-believe games in a stillness where there is neither inverter nor generator; until, in the early Eighties, I seem to recall the city having to occasionally make do without sixteen hours of electricity in a day, leaving the generators silent and only the whine of the mosquito swelling and fading near the ear. News of the city’s mordant humour reached us in Bombay — how the astringent, unsmiling Jyoti Basu began to be called, in weary jest, ‘Andhakaar’, or ‘Darkness’, Basu.

Bombay, on the other hand, began, slowly, to dazzle; I have no memory of it ever not dazzling. From the twelfth-floor apartment in the slightly, but not altogether, extravagantly named Il Palazzo, where I grew up, in Bombay’s most exclusive locality, Malabar Hill, I could see the row of lights called the Queen’s Necklace, fluorescent and aquamarine at the time (they’re now a pale golden sodium), and, further on, the great signs in lights, saying ORWO and BOAC and other things. It was an existence remarkably open to breeze, birds, and rainfall, to the arrival of daylight and evening, and it was also strangely, unself-consciously, enclosed. It was not Suketu Mehta’s Bombay.

For all this, I knew, growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, that Calcutta was India’s one great modern city. Its pioneering 150-year-old tradition in literature and the arts, and the way its own history was deeply implicated in the traumas and awakenings of colonial and nationalist India, were embodied in its heat and noise and architecture; it possessed the contradictions, the shabby grandeur, of modernity, and the volatile energy that the great cities of the world possessed before globalization, and I could sense this during my visits as a child. The Bombay I knew was safe, orderly, and a bit crass in comparison.

By the Eighties, the rise of the BJP in India, and its alliance, in Maharashtra, with the Shiv Sena, changed Bombay, seemingly for good. It was at this time that Suketu Mehta’s ‘maximum city’ — burgeoning, and in the process pulling down the barriers that had kept the middle-class employee and the entrepreneur on the make, governance and criminality, politics and religion, in distinct physical and mental spaces — it was at this time that this version of the city, which Mehta records so thoroughly, even lovingly, began to become visible to those who’d ignored it earlier.

I left, then, for England, and my parents, next year, moved to the Christian suburb, Bandra (one of the ‘local train’ stops at which a bomb went off on the 11th of July), an area on the brink of transformation in 1984, but still possessed by, and offering, a sort of enchantment. My parents lived here for five years before selling their flat and moving to Calcutta in 1989; and the discovery of Bandra, with its churches, its low houses built on Portuguese lines, its lanes named after Christian saints, meant a great deal to me then, especially in connection with the transitions I was making, between the anonymous itinerant at University College, London, and the writer-aspirant with secret ambitions. But it was in Bandra, too, that I discovered, as did my parents, the desire to return to the city proper in which I’d grown up and which I’d always wanted to escape, and in which my father had spent most of his working life; to embark on that hour-long journey by car to Churchgate or Dhobi Talao, a journey that would be almost impossible to make regularly, given the traffic, 22 years later.

An obscure set of motives and compulsions drive people toward the hub of Bombay, or toward some place from which that hub is reachable; one of the compulsions, and a pretty basic one, is to breathe its air. I was told this by an upper-class woman who grew up in Bombay and now lives in Calcutta; she’d just returned, invigorated, from a trip to Bombay, and said: “When I first land there, I inhale deeply. It revives me.” The air, though, isn’t necessarily pleasant or clean; in some places, it’s bracing with the odour of dried fish, and, in others, it’s odourless with chemical pollutants. What we’re speaking of, then, is an addiction, such as the 20th century was to Amis’s John Self; something corrosive but indispensable to the addict. The need for that particular air I first felt, without being at all aware of it, in Bandra (the addict never knows, except in hindsight, that what he or she thinks is interest or curio- sity is really an obsession); it’s what makes me restless and resentful when I find myself invited to other cities, but with no excuse to go to Bombay; it’s presumably what drove Suketu Mehta, who moved to New York when he was fourteen, back; it’s what made the poet Arun Kolatkar, author of the classic Jejuri, travel every Thursday from his small apartment in Prabhadevi and make the 45-minute trip to Kala Ghoda, Bombay’s arts and commercial district, and sit there writing, drinking tea, meeting up with friends from the advertising world he was once part of. When, to everyone’s dismay, the Wayside Inn was replaced by an upmarket Chinese restaurant, he moved his Thursday-afternoon location to the Mili- tary Café, which isn't far away from Kala Ghoda, although by now he was terminally ill with stomach cancer.

The multiplicity of cafés, food-stalls, and restaurants in the city, and the continual acts of eating and drinking, seem to be an appetite for the city itself: the hunger for it, and the persistent, difficult-to-appease desire to ingest it and consume it. I don’t know if it’s this sense of hunger that's called, especially after every trauma, including the last one, the ‘spirit of Mumbai’; certainly, there are enough deterrents, besides the fear of explosions, to prevent people from piling into train compartments or getting into their cars to make the journeys they do, to and within Bombay. Often, the energy and tenacity — and the noisy excitement of stockbrokers on Dalal Street, and the diamond merchants in Zaveri Bazar (where bombs went off about a year ago) — seem to be the result of a chemical reaction upon the brain, like a ‘high’ — with its necessary, complementary ‘lows’. Sometimes the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ seem married to one another, eerily inextricable and indistinguishable, as in the case of the touching but strange ‘laughter clubs’ in Bombay, which have people congregating in open spaces for periods of time, manically breaking into rehearsed laughter as a therapy for tension.

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