Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Bombay 1997-98

Bombay Talkies

A writer was once asked by an American friend to contrast Bombay and New Delhi and he replied: New Delhi is like Washington DC ‑ the political capital ‑ stately, sedate, wide avenues and boulevards, finely architected buildings and the requisite number of monuments and statues. Bombay, in contrast, is like a combination of New York City and Los Angeles ‑ India’s financial and commercial capital like New York and its film capital like Hollywood. In fact Bombay’s version of Hollywood is called Bollywood. India has one of the most prolific film industries in the world, churning out four hundred movies a year. Bollywood is not a specific geographic location in the city of Bombay, but it encompasses the film studios, production facilities and film stars homes in the suburbs of Bombay. At the stop lights and crossroads in the city, young boys with unwashed faces and worn clothes sell Cine‑Blitz, Stardust and other film magazines, each one with bold and brash stories about the hottest new starlet, whom is dating whom, who had the most lavish party last month and other juicy and wildly exaggerated tid-bits to feed the city’s appetite. But Bombayites appetite for the films themselves is even more ravenous and the city’s huge art‑deco theaters with names like Metro, Sterling, New Excelsior, Regal and Liberty are packed daily with people from all walks of life. One of these theaters was called Bombay Talkies ‑ the name coming from the popular new “talkie” movies that played there as opposed to the silent films that opened the history of film at the start of this century.

Bombay, fast, brash and dense like New York, image‑conscious and arrogant like Los Angeles, is a city of stark contrasts. The filthy rich in their marble floored houses with their army of servants coexisting side by side with the poor in their tin and cardboard slums, each dreaming of someday becoming a successful business magnate or the next big film star hero. Bombay ‑ this city of dreamers, this city of immigrants, this city of money and deals, this city of celluloid and stars, this city that I call my home ‑ I returned again to be greeted by the bustling crowds, the crawling traffic thick with fumes, the beautiful Victorian, art‑deco and modern buildings with peeling paint, the office workers with furrowed brows, the school children with toothy smiles and rumpled uniforms, the black and yellow topped taxis, the red single and double decker buses, the brown and yellow commuter trains and the calm Arabian Sea lapping the shore of the city. The sights, smells and sounds that I instantly recognized the moment I stepped off the plane.

Everything so familiar and at the same time, each year that I return I notice the changes. Light blue and silver topped “Cool Cabs” have joined the fleet of Bombay’s ubiquitous black and yellow taxis ‑ a 1960 model of an Italian Fiat. The Cool Cabs take you through the congested roads of the city in the comfort of air conditioning and tinted windows. Cellular phones have become a normal accessory for the businessman, the wealthy housewife being driven around town to shop and the rich kids frequenting the clubs and pubs of the city. Billboards around the city shout out deals for free air time and the latest models of Nokia, Motorolla and Ericcson cell phones. The kids playing cricket in the parks and streets now high‑five each other like pro‑basketball players and they wear caps with the name of American professional and college sports teams. Almost every home receives cable TV with channels like CNN, BBC, ESPN, NBC, MTV, Discovery, Sony, StarTV and twenty other movie, music, news and entertainment channels. In fact there are three music channels ‑ MTV, Channel V and ATN ‑ that play a combination of western pop, Asian hits and Hindi film songs.

For the first week that I was back home, I was busy with my cousin Yasmin’s wedding. She lives in Montreal where she met her Afghani husband Kamal. She came back to Bombay to get married in the house she grew up in ‑ a big, old bungalow in Byculla that my dad grew up in. It was a traditional Iranian wedding with a few Indian things thrown in for good measure. There were four functions ‑ the Mehndi ceremony, an Indian custom, where all the women get together. It is something like a shower party but without the gifts. Instead all the women get Mehndi (also called henna ‑ a brown plant dye) patterns applied to their hands. The patterns are elaborate and beautiful and the bride has patterns on her hands all the way up to mid‑arm. The second function was the Henna‑bandoon, something like an engagement party. Each person dips their finger in a bowl of henna and puts a dab on the palm of the bride and groom. Since the henna dye stays on for a week or two, this ceremony signifies the bride and groom being bound together in their engagement and their family and friends participating in bringing them together. The next ceremony was the wedding itself where a mullah (Muslim priest) administers the vows and the bride and groom sign a contract. This is called the Nikkah. A Muslim wedding is a contract and by signing it in the presence of a mullah the marriage is made binding under Islamic religion and law. The Nikkah is an intimate ceremony with only family and a few friends invited. And finally, there was the reception, where a wider group of friends and family were invited to congratulate the bride and groom and eat dinner. The Nikkah and reception were on the same day. The Mehndi and Henna‑bandoon ceremonies were on separate days before. It was the first family wedding I had been to since I was a child and the experience was rich and enjoyable. I am close to my cousin Yasmin and she chose the date of her wedding with my travel plans in mind so that I could be there. I am grateful to her for that. It was an unforgettable and beautiful wedding.

My cousin Ali, Yasmin’s brother got married too, the day after Yasmin’s wedding. Since the family was there and all the arrangements were set up in the house, he decided the day of Yasmin’s wedding that he would get married the next day. All he had to do was to get the mullah to come over. He just had the Nikkah ceremony. He did not want anything elaborate. It was just our family and his wife, Mehr’s family.

The day after his wedding, Mom, Dad, my brother Mimo and I went to Goa for a family vacation, something we had not done since we were kids. Goa is about 200 miles south of Bombay on the west coast of India. It is a small state, half the size of Connecticut. Unlike the rest of India which was under British rule until 1949, Goa, along with a couple other principalities in India, was a Portuguese colony and only got independence in the early sixties. Goa is known for its beautiful beaches, spicy curries, laid back locals, green fields, white‑washed churches and left‑over hippies and backpackers that come to visit this idyllic paradise. We were there for four days ‑ relaxing on the beach, swimming in the sea, eating delicious food and going for long walks on the beach. It was wonderful for the four of us to be together. I would like to do this the next time I visit home.

I returned to Bombay for a couple days to attend the wedding of a friend who use to be on swim team with me ‑ Otters Club. Thanks to our fantastic coach Sandeep ‑ who we all called Sir (and still do even to this day) ‑ Otters produced some of India’s best swimmers and still does. I got to see all my swimming friends at the wedding, some that I had not seen for ten or more years ever since I left home to study in the U.S. I did not recognize some of them. They were little kids when I left and now they are grown men and women.

I traveled to Beas next, a small town in the state of Punjab in north‑west India for a week retreat. I flew to Delhi and then took a bus to get to Jallandhar, seven hours away, and a taxi for the last hour to Beas. We traveled on the Grand Trunk Road to get from Delhi to Beas. The Grand Trunk Road, is India’s most famous road, rich with history and legend. It begins in Calcutta on the east coast and traverses the northern half of India, crossing the border into Pakistan and going all the way to the famous Khyber pass on the Afghan, Pakistan border. It is officially known in India as Sher Shah Suri Marg after the Afghan conqueror that ruled India in the 16th century. He established rest houses, milestones and a system for its maintenance and upkeep that formalized the road and made it a heavily used by traders and travelers. The British named it the Grand Trunk Road and that is what it is commonly known as today. It is a two lane highway on which cars, trucks, buses, auto‑rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters and the occasional bullock cart ride on.

Back to Bombay for two weeks in which I visited more friends, went shopping with my mother for clothes and things for my house and went to all my old haunts ‑ Crossword bookstore, Breach Candy swimming pool, Rhythm House (record store), Jehangir Art Gallery, Madras Udipi (a south‑Indian restaurant that is my favorite). I also went to Cafe Naaz, a restaurant on top of Malabar Hill that overlooks the city by the coast. It is a wonderful place to visit at night. The seating is outdoors and you can see the street lights of Marine Drive running along the coast. This stretch is known locally as the Queen’s necklace, a name the British left behind. Cafe Naaz is an “Irani” restaurant. It is one of the many Irani restaurants that were almost on every corner in Bombay years ago. There are not so many of them around now. Irani restaurants were the best places to get good, cheap food fast. They are run by Iranian immigrants to Bombay. My grandfather was an immigrant from Iran too. He came to Bombay as a trader and then later opened up a cloth store that my cousin Ali still runs. But back to the Irani restaurants. Salman Rushdie immortalized one in his last book, The Moor’s Last Sigh. It has a board in the entrance:
Sorry ‑ No division of beverages, No smoking, No fighting, No credit, No outside food, No sitting long, No talking loud, No spitting, No bargaining, No water to outsiders, No change, No telephone, No matches, No discussing gambling, No newspaper, No combing, No beef, No hard liquor allowed, No address inquiry.
I suppose all you can do there is eat and pay up.

I had a wonderful trip altogether. It was full and rich and I got to see all the people I wanted to see and more, and got to do all the things I wanted to do. I think a measure of a good vacation is coming back home and being happy to be back. I am happy to return to Austin. Back to my friends here, Barton Springs, Whole Foods, Book People, the UT campus and all the other things that makes Austin so dear to me. I am fortunate to have two wonderful homes ‑ one in Austin and one in Bombay.