I will always have Bombay

In a second look at her Bombay notebooks from the end of the 90s, Catriona Luke dwells on the deep impression that cities leave on us

I will always have Bombay
“Between Bandra and Mahim, whether on the train or in a car, you cross over the causeway at Mahim creek. To the left is Dharavi, 300,000 people live in 55,000 hutments in an area of 175 hectares surrounding the stagnant creek. Less than half a mile away is Mahim, its main thoroughfare dotted with prosperous air conditioned furniture shops and clean and painted potato and onion sellers. All cities are like this. All cities have invisible boundaries.”

I’m on the train and going back home. The room where I live is just 50 yards from the Arabian ocean in lower Bandra, just by the seafront at Bandstand. Its floor is stone-flagged and French windows open onto a balcony. Along the road there’s a deserted and tumble-down villa, chains on the gate, that Shah Rukh Khan will buy, but this is in the future. I write notes in the evening in an unlined fullscap book, sitting on the charpoy, waiting for the silence and a cool evening breeze; the books come back to London with me.

[quote]You have to be on your own or a city won't peak to you[/quote]

But this is the end of the nineties and for years I don’t look at them. When I do, I’m overwhelmed by Bombay again, its sheer physical sensuality and the detail of what I’ve recorded. It’s my younger self, as well. I had so many dreams, so much expectation. I didn’t know then that some of my quite ordinary hopes of life would not be fulfilled. Now most days I would give quite a lot to go back to Bombay, I’d give quite a lot to go anywhere in fact: my passport reflects my impecunity and tells me I haven’t flown since 2004. We think that time can’t stand still, that life can’t get stuck, but it can

Homes grow everywhere, a higgledy piggledy collection of flimsy homes
Homes grow everywhere, a higgledy piggledy collection of flimsy homes

“In Bandra”, I read, “along the black basalt shore there are small clusters of tents on the headland, made not out of rags or cloth, but of brown paper. Homes grow everywhere – on the approach to the station at Bandra, as you come in on the train, a higgeldy piggeldy collection of flimsy homes with cooking fires within suddenly turn into the platform.”

The city becomes tangible again through my hectic hand-writing.

An old friend from Lahore calls from Karachi. ‘You’re travelling by train? Incredulous. “Why aren’t you taking taxis?’

In the end the drenching humidity forces me off the trains (although I get back on them at weekends) and into cars. “Just south of Bandra, the entry point to my working day and the gateway to home in the evening, is Mahim with its views down leafy streets to the sea and the tiny and neat onion and potato stalls, the cowgirl with her mound of grass, and the painted blue and green interiors, the tailors shops where sari blouses hang singly, once there were four, on hangers on hooks, their conical breasts jutting out on invisible mannequins.

On Friday, on pavements, three ten foot by ten foot squares. Sitting, squatting, naked to the waist, in regimented rows, the poor men of Mahim gather in the evening. Behind them cooking shops, down the side street a colourful mosque. I’m in a taxi the first time it happens. The driver, a Muslim, slows just marginally as we pass these pavement gatherings. A man in a red and white checked shirt inclines through the taxi window and takes the 20 rupees extended by the driver. It takes split seconds. A week later I almost miss it again. I don’t want to distract the driver. When I get out in Bandra I cover the fare and give him a separate payment: “for Mahim”.


In the evening waiting for an autorickshaw at Bandra station, a young man, a taxi driver, squeezed and went to tickle a young woman hanging around the station. It was affectionate and flirtatious. She laughed then dismissed him and moved back to her perch between two columns, head high, back straight. He was like a bee at pollen. No-one touches in the street and I’m not used to this. Children get their hands held sometimes, but no-one touches.

One day being starved of seeing contact between people, it is almost too much. “I saw three public displays of affection yesterday. The first was relatively normal: a father, or grandfather on Dadar station, holding the hand of his six year old son. That evening, arriving at Bandra station, a woman was met by her husband or fiancée. They joined hand immediately. The station, the waiting, the reunion was very sweet. Along Hill Road in Bandra, a boy and a girl were holding hands. These things are so rare. I go weeks without seeing signs of human warmth and it’s like seeing flowers bloom in the desert.”

[quote]The contrast between her effervescent wildness and sudden business-like seriousness is familiar and Pakistani[/quote]


Quite late in my time in the city I go to an air-conditioned party on the other side of Peddar Road, it is someone’s birthday and there is wonderful food. “The men hesitate to talk to me because I am unaccompanied, except for one bemused Singaporean. He’s very smiley. He says he goes home every three months, as often as he can. The first month he says there’s a honeymoon period and then it becomes more difficult. Bombay isn’t efficient in the way that Singapore is and he misses it. Apparently 200,000 Indians go to Singapore each year. I also meet a wild and gloriously open green-eyed Sindhi woman. The contrast between her effervescent wildness and sudden business-like seriousness is familiar and Pakistani. She reminds me of someone I know and makes me laugh.


At Mahalaxmi on the high ground near the railway station hospital washing is laid out to dry – surgical masks, green robes, sheets, towels, laid out on the dusty pavements, bleached by the sun, marinaded in the humidity, sterilised by the fine dust.

This afternoon the car, instead of ploughing on over Mahalaxmi bridge turned left. There was an azure green, large wooden house, quite lovely. We must have gone down Sane Garuji Marg and then into the broad Parisienne boulevard of Dr Anandrao Nair Road which feeds into Bhadkamkar Marg. This is a prosperous and busy part of town, without the chaos of Grant Road (just around the corner), full of rather rickety, small-roomed Gujarati houses, painted in pale blues

Out of one of them in deep shadow, an old man leaned out of the first storey window. There was a wonderful stiffish breeze, nicely painted shops and a sense of space that I found rather bewildering; mills to the left as we went down Lamington Road. It felt so like Paris that I was confused. There’s an area too of Cumballa Hill that reminds me of Montmartre in its different levels and shallow steps and whitewash. Years later visiting mid-town Manhattan, one of the East streets on a summer’s day gives me a visual shock reminiscent of Bombay, with the water beyond.

The breeze, the soft colours, the space, the feeling of shop-keeperly prosperity. A man at an ancient Singer sewing machine, a sweet-seller come paan maker, the leaves, a singing green arranged in a great circle piled high  and always this macabre brown cloth that goes with them.

I know that I have thought about Bombay every week since I was there, some image on my inner eye. The feel of a city is hard-earned and precious. You have to be on your own or a city won’t speak to you, you have in a sense to be lonely and without noise or chatter or relationships around you. I was lucky that everything that was necessary came together in that one place. I was lucky that it was Bombay, that the experience was so intense and personal, and that I will always have Bombay.

You can access the first part of the series here: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20120504&page=20