<< What is it with Mumbai, I ask?  From shitting in the streets to the deteriorating international airport and the general decay of the city, I really get depressed whenever I am there. >> 

Ali, welcome back. Yours is a vivid and realistic portrayal of Bombay. I'm reminded of V.S.Naipaul's 'An Area of Darkness' which vehemently blasts and ridicules this colourful city. Bombay’s shitting and its misbehaving servants are exposed with articulation. There is no doubt that the city is bewitching and has its attractions but its filthiness is disgusting. 

As a matter of fact this state has been there all along. In the sixties I'd stayed for four years in the heart of Bombay, Marine Drive, and experienced its contrasting aspects. You come to Churchgate Station which is just a couple of minutes walk from Marine Drive and you would see urchins shitting right there on the footpath while passersby are immune and give a damn about them. You also visit the mohollas and there you would see the children squatting to defecate on the stairs and spread it all around, one can even step on it. 

Imagine the first impression of a visitor to Bombay as he is driven from the airport through a passage that stinks out the whole route! You pass across 'Dharvi' slums at Mahim and along slums at Warden Road amidst the skyscrapers and all the affluence, it's so depressing. 

I'm trying to recall my first experience of Bombay. It was the sight of those impetuous coolies in red shirts as they boarded S.S.Karanja and indulged in deals with passengers. They acted as middleman between customs officers and passengers. I was induced by a coolie to pay out a certain amount which i did not and ended up paying duty and penalty. While i found myself in a helpless state the officers smirked unpleasantly. I'd not heard of the term 'corruption' till then. 

My uncle RHK Damji’s Business Agent, Rasikbhai Doshi, had come to receive me. Before I went to stay at the hostel in Churchgate I was made to put up in Dongri at the Rassiwala Mansion (behind the Palagalli mosque) adjacent to Taki Shami’s house. Fortunately my room mate happened to be the gentle Abdulhusain Ahmed (Abulo, Mohamedhusain Khokoni’s younger brother, who was a great moral boost). There it was typical moholla environment which initially put me off but then I’d to adjust myself to face up to the realities of life. Opposite there was a restaurant which had hectic pace. We would order our tea and soda from there calling out the waiters. I would be awakened at dawn to the sound of hawkers’ yelling and beggars’ pleadingly mournful songs. At the back of the house there were huts where men made repairs and children played here and there. Ladies stooped to comb their hairs or bath the children with water that splashed on the floor and against the wall. Some cooked on the pavement while others ate and listened to the songs on their transistor radio. There were smiles and gay laughter all around. They also bred goats and cocks which could be seen there, and all that I found very unusual. 

The streets were filthy and along their entire length filled with stalls, shops and restaurants. Cars, buses, taxes and wagons made their way through heavy traffic as hundreds walked along there or stood in groups talking loudly. Hand carts halted at the restaurants to deliver bread, soft drinks and blocks of ice. There were crippled and diseased beggars on the roadway where garbage was heaped in piles and insects and rats slithered to feast off the filth. The posters and bill boards of the latest Indian films were hung all over the place to attract passersby. The music from the restaurants and stalls played so loudly that it really irked. The paan stalls selling cigarettes and paan did brisk business. The paanwala swiftly rolled the beetle leaves stuffed with pastes and nuts and handed them to his customers. They chewed the paan and then with relish spat out red juice that landed on the floor and formed a blotch. 

Char Nal was at the end of the road where I stayed and the road stretching from there to Bhindi Bazar was lined with attar (strong scented perfumes made with sandalwood) and oud shops. The crystal attar bottles of varied size and shape were arranged attractively and emanated air filled with pleasant fragrance. Around there was Memon Moholla abounding in vegetable vendors and strewn with their rubbish. Its most obvious feature was the Minara Masjid in one corner and along there a row of mithai (sweets) shops where garnished and mouth watering sweets lay in heaps. ‘Suleman Usman’ famed for his aflatun was located here.  A little further at the other end was Masjid Bunder towards Rasikbhai’s office ‘Orion Traders’ in the lane of Narsi Natha Street which gave aroma of spices. It was here that our Zanzibaris frequented and did deals in cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and other spices. 

Besides Abulo and Taki Shami, the other old timer Zanzibaris (Khoja Ithnashris) were Gullu Ali Khaku, Mohamedali Gowa, Pyarali Issa Hasham (Msito) and Husain Alarakhia (Siro) and they all stayed in the same vicinity. Also located around there were the Khoja Palagali Mosque, Mughal Masjid, Hindi Imambara, Babarali Imambara, Juma Lalji Musafirkhana, Dewji Jamaal Musafirkhana, the offices of periodicals ‘Ithnashri’ and ‘Alamdar’ and the hall Kesar Baag where Qaide Azam Mohamedali Jinnah had once conducted the Muslim League meetings. I’d read about all that and now I was right there. And the round clock at the Khoja Ismaili Jamaatkhana read ‘Donated by Molu Brothers of Zanzibar’. There was history galore. I was staring at everything in amazement. That was the beginning. More was to follow. 

Whatever criticism leveled against Bombay, it must be said that there is no other city in the subcontinent to match it and which could provide so much amenities and entertainment, and in particular for us, people of Indian origin. The last time i'd been to Bombay was in 1991. It was no more on the cheap as in the past. You westerners may not feel the pinch but for us the rupee is a costly affair. Gone were those days when East African shilling was a convertible and valuable currency, and the rupee though lesser in value than the East African shilling (unofficially) commanded high purchasing power. The thali in Satkar at Churchgate cost 60 paisa (less than a rupee) in 1960s. In 1991 the same thali cost 20 rupees. Today it is probably 50 rupees. Indeed times have changed.   




Last updated March 2008 Copyright © Abdulrazak Fazal 2007 - All Rights Reserved