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Friday, March 30, 2012

Bombay Journal 2

The Irresistible Charm of the Siren City

Delhi’s Terminal 3 reflects the city’s crude unease with modernity; Bombay’s airport has the casual ease of a city used to egalitarian urban life. When you land in Bombay, you feel part of the human driving force that creates jobs, provides entertainment, choices of lifestyles and the pulsating beat of urbanity. I may be biased but this is the city where I grew up, using public transport, walking the streets, comfortable in my middle class existence.

It was only when the division took place of the erstwhile Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra and I was yanked from my predictable and inclusive middle class existence, I realized that that there are Gujarati and Marathi, Hindu and Muslim, Brahmin and others, rich and poor. I sort of knew that but that was when I understood that these diversities can be used for political gain.

Today, the entire political conversation is built on these divides. All of India is riven with differences. Bombay, however, still retains the streak of egalitarianism.  There is incredible wealth; abject poverty; but the beat goes on like it did when I was growing up here. The Siren City boasts a sophistication that is far removed from Delhi’s bastard culture of privilege and braggadocio. Yes, it is my city that the brigands of the various senas are bent on destroying. Bombay’s heritage of sophisticated cosmopolitanism is threatened.

Unlike Delhi, where citizens are thugs; in Bombay, thugs hold citizens to ransom. On a recent trip, I was stuck in heavy traffic on the Worli Causeway (soon to be renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Causeway by the thugs?) and we inched along. I was struck by the fact that no one tried to weave through traffic or honk.

I was on my way to meet my friend Father Lawrie Ferrao, one of my oldest friends. He is the director of the highly-regarded Xavier Institute of Communication. I first met Lawrie in 1958 in Hilda Pimenta’s fifth standard class at St Xavier’s High School in Dhobi Talao. I was a forgettable kid in the school that boasted many students who went on to make their mark in the world: the most prominent being Sunil Gavaskar. There were others not quite as publicly acclaimed but stars in their own right in various fields: space science, mathematics, anthropology, petroleum, journalism, law, business and what have you.

When I finished with the school in 1965, I lost touch with Lawrie and only re-established contact with him at a reunion of the class of 1965 in January 2008. Taken aback that he was a Jesuit priest and then the principal of St Stanislaus in Bandra, I spent a lot of time with him at the meet. In the event, he was the priest who conducted the service at my daughter’s wedding in St Elizabeth Church in Ucassaim, Goa, our other home. Thus, we re-established our friendship

We spent a few hours together, not just reliving the old times but discussing various issues including the state-of-the-art of communications education and urban governance and everything else over lunch at the highly-overrated Khyber Restaurant in Kala Ghoda.

The previous night I had dinner with my friends Almona and Sidharth Bhatia. She is the publisher of GQ in India and Sid has just written a fabulous book called Cinema Moderne: The Navketan Story. We talked late into the evening about many things but mainly about Dev Anand and how he represented modernity and hope in an India shackled by socialist dogma and Gandhian claptrap about village republics

Note: For my friends who, like me, hold Gandhi in high esteem. Gandhi was a post modern thinker; his ideas were seminal and far ahead of his time. However, the idea of a self sufficient village presumes full literacy and civic awareness.  He preached civil disobedience and said nary a word about free and compulsory primary education.

Coming back to my Bombay experience, it is now increasingly clear that the political battle is between those who endorse Bombay’s cosmopolitan character and the thugs, who would drag the city into moffusil obscurity. Call it Bombay versus Mumbai. The latter seem to be winning by sheer muscle.

And so Bombay is a conundrum: you see in it hope for India’s future and you despair that is held hostage by thugs. What happens in Bombay over the years will determine whether India will live up to its promise as player on the world stage; or will slide into the chaos of a fourth world country.

Finally, an explanation on why I call Bombay the “Siren City.”  It is an island; it is seductive in its decrepit charm; yet it draws people even though they may end up on the rocks. The people who have always lived there or consider it home have an Odyssean worldview:  “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”

Bombay being Bombay, I have to end this with a line written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and sung by Mohammed Rafi: “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan.” Mumbai just doesn't work in that song. Never mind it was a rip-off of an American folk ballad called “My Darling Clementine.”

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bombay Journal

Deja Vu All Over Again…

Three friends, 45 years later, sit in a palatial Khar apartment in this siren city, enjoying the cocktail hour. Dinner is a couple of hours away. This is the first time that I can remember that Yogi, Mirchi and I have sat together since our Baroda days. Sure, we’ve met en famille…in Bombay, in New York, in New Jersey. In Baroda, we met every day, largely because we were roommates at different times. So this evening was special.

In the course of the evening, we exchanged a few desultory comments about Baroda and the people we knew then. Mostly the conversation was about today and things happening in our lives. Mirchi regaled us about his fumbles with remote controlled curtains in his bedroom; Yogi about how he has given up his crusade against honking and rash driving in Bombay; I showed them pictures of my freshly-minted granddaughter. It was wonderful to be interested in each other’s lives today and not go into a nostalgic shoosha about the good old days and what have you.

Even if I do say so myself; I am mostly the guy who makes the effort to keep in touch with old friends.  In the past few decades, I have connected with friends from the 1950s, 1960s and onward. It's been marvelous because they responded with enthusiasm. The key to sustaining renewed relationships is to eschew stuff like: "remember the time" and get with the modern day program. Most renewals have succeeded in the sense that we catch up with great eagerness from time to time; the ones that have fallen by the wayside were the ones that could not get beyond the magic of the old days.

What was remarkable about the reunion was that the nostalgia was about the established friendship, not about what we did when we were in our twenties. We were all engineering students enrolled in the Faculty of Technology at the MS University in Baroda; we were from Bombay and in love with the city. In Baroda, we were inseparable, together every day: dinner, movies, late night chai; living in a world of our own. It wasn’t always smooth; there were ups and downs. But we were young and sure to have our way.

Then the busy years went rushing by us; as the Baroda experience came to an end, we drifted apart. For more than a decade, we lost touch, making our way in the world: establishing careers, building families. The bond apparently survived. I reached out to them and they were happily receptive and over the years, we built a whole new relationship that peaked with the dinner in Bombay this week.

We laughed, ribbed each other and were comfortable together as though 45 years were a blink of the eyes. If you could rewind to Baroda, you’d see the three guys, now in their sixties, really hadn’t changed much, except they were older and definitely wiser. There was much familiar laughter and in our hearts, the dreams were still the same.

In the sixties, we defined friendship; 45 years later, we were redefining nostalgia. No syrupy memories of the past; no obsessive recall of the days gone but robust conversations about today, secure in the feeling that our friendship had withstood the test of time. There was no looking back, only hope we could do this again whenever we had the chance. Our lives are different but the bonds hold firm. We don’t really need to see each other every day; just to get together every opportunity we can get.

It really doesn’t get better than this. My trip in life is to link up with old friends, to establish new ties based on old camaraderie. In that, I am the luckiest person in the world: reviving old friendships is to renew life and to keep you young and fun loving. On that score alone, I may have a ticket to the place where angels play harps and it is always springtime. That evening in Bombay, it felt like I was there already.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Something In the Way She Smiles...

A Glimpse of Immortality

Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard that: a guy who gushes about his grandchild. This is different.

I had the most amazing opportunity of spending four days with my granddaughter Kiara at our house, Imagine, in Goa. It rang true to its name. Imagine: Goa had a cool Spring; even in March, people wanted wraps sitting out on our patio; unusual weather to herald Kiara’s first trip to Goa. Imagine: she is just two months old.

Her presence at Imagine blew away my routine: newspapers, tea, bread and cheese, figs and pineapples for breakfast. The papers were left unread and between bites of “poi” (fabulous Goan bread) laden with butter, goat cheese and blueberry jam, I sat in the patio with her. Granddad or whatever, I am her personal physical trainer, working her arms and legs, lifting her up and down, turning her side to side, getting her in training for whenever Olympics.

She seemed to love it. Her smile was to die for. And that sort of works: when the sixties refer not to the Beatles generation  but to the candles on your birthday cake.

The deal is everyone smiles with their eyes. Kiara’s bright black eyes were fascinating. Shining like full-beam headlights, they dazzled me. I kept staring at them and she looked back unblinking. “Dude,” her eyes seemed to say, “Look into my eyes. I am your glimpse of immortality.”

Whoa! That’s intense coming from a child that is younger than the vintage of the plonk they serve as Indian wines. I stared harder. And in them, I saw several films, only one of which I could understand.

This was the story of a guy born in Surat, grew up in Bombay and made his home in Chicago, where one cold, snowy winter his daughter (Kiara’s mother) was born. After a complimentary steak and champagne dinner in my wife’s hospital room, we brought the baby back next day to our condo in Oak Park and doted on her and continue to do so three decades later.

Hanging with Kiara on our patio in the cool of a Goa morning, I thought of every morning in Chicago, horsing around with her mother and she also smiled. Months later, the baby, at the smallest provocation, laughed like a certified lunatic and we have a cassette (remember those?) of her in hysterical gales of laughter. We hope to present that to Kiara when she is older; which is why I am saving my old school but slick Nakamichi cassette player.

When our daughters were born, we were too busy to think philosophy. We had to attend to them and love them; no time for bigger issues. As a grandparent, and mostly because I am so much older, I can look into Kiara’s eyes and see a continuity, once removed. It sounds weird but I see in her eyes an assurance that my life has not just been wasted making a living. Her look tells me: “Yo, 20th century man, you did well!”

In my mind, she is the Nobel Prize my daughter awarded me.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Conversation with My Granddaughter

Me: Yo Kiara, wassup.
Kiara: (disappointed look)
Me: You must have heard about Jack and Jill?
She: (incoherent)
Me: They were the ones that went up the hill…
She: (incoherent)
Me: Jack fell down and broke his crown…
She: (incoherent)
Me: And Jill came tumbling after
She: (incoherent)
Me: Dang, Sweetie, it’s a Cliff Richard song.
She: (incoherent)
Me: Doe a deer, a female deer…
She: (incoherent)
Me: Ray, a drop of golden sun…
She: (incoherent)
Me: Jeez kid, what does it take to get you interested?
She: (raspberry)
Me: Ok cool, I got a response; you’re all there, baby.
She: (blank stare)
Me: Ok, how about this?
 She: (blank stare)
Me: (a random boney m song)
She: (farts and poops)
Me: So yo, you like the Beatles?
She: (smiles)
Me: If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do…
Pia (her mother): Yep, Dad, a baby Ipad for her.
Me: (sigh!)