Reza's Travel Blog

Travels to Bombay and beyond...

January 30, 2005

Bombay, Beas, London 2000-01

Bombay, Beas, London: Weaving the Past into the Present

Once again, it is time for a travelogue of my annual trip – this time including Bombay, Beas and London. Each year it seems like I have some kind of travel adventure and this year was no exception – except that my adventures began in the US and not in India as it normally does. I was to leave on a Friday afternoon from Austin to Chicago on American Airlines, catch a connecting British Air flight to London and another BA flight to Bombay. Well, this was the week Chicago was in the icy grip of blizzards and heavy winter storms. Friday, there are no storms but overcast weather and I am optimistic. We get on the plane in Austin, pull away from the gate and proceed to sit on the runaway for the next two hours. My optimism fizzles and goes flat like the glass of sparkling water that sits untouched on the tray table in front of me. There goes the chance to catch the connecting flight in Chicago, and my adventures begin.
I deplane in Chicago, to join the countless other travelers scrambling to make connections, reroute missed flights and trying to get to where they are going. After much confusion, two hours in line, and two hours with the American ticket agent, he finally finds a flight on Sabena (Belgian’s national airline) through Brussels to Madras. There is nothing available to Bombay and I would have to go all the way to the south east city of Madras and backtrack two hours to get to Bombay, which is on the west coast. So Austin – Dallas – Brusells – Madras – Bombay, but departure was two days later. So I am off to a hotel for the night and back to Austin the next morning to cool my heels for a couple days. I think to myself, well, better to have the adventures at the start of the trip and have them over with. Wishful thinking.
The trip to Madras is uneventful but long – almost thirty hours. I get to Madras at 2 in the morning and have an Indian Airlines flight at 7am to Bombay. I go to the check in counter at 5.30 and promptly am told that my ticket was not ‘okayed’ – as in – you have not reconfirmed your ticket for this flight. And the flight is full, so I had little chance of getting on. In India when you purchase a ticket it is only a request – RQ on the ticket – until you call back or go to the airline and OK it. How was I or the American Airlines agent to know this. So I describe my predicament – rerouting, long flight, trying to get home etc. etc. – but it fell on unsympathetic ears. I wheedle and cajole and fume, but to no avail. How about executive class – sorry, that is full too. How about endorse my ticket to another airlines flight – sorry, this is an American Airlines ticket and we cannot endorse it. I go from pillar to post but have no luck. The flight leaves without me and the next Indian Airlines flight is at 3 in the afternoon. I do not want to be waiting around for another eight hours, so I go to the Jet Airways counter, which has a flight at 9am. Nothing available in economy – only executive class. By this time I am just too tired and pay up for the last leg home. Almost three days late and after thirty six hours of travel, I make it to Bombay.

Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now known, is an island nestled against the west coast of India facing the Arabian Sea. It was originally seven islands that have been reclaimed over the years. After a succession of Hindu and Muslim rulers, the Sultan of Gujrat ceded it to Portugal in the 16th Century. The Portuguese did not do much to develop the islands and almost 100 years later it was included in the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married England’s Charles II. The English developed Bombay’s natural harbor and it soon became the trading hub of the west coast of India attracting immigrants from other western states. This laid the foundation for Bombay’s multicultural and cosmopolitan society and it attracted immigrant groups from all over the country and world, including my grandfather who moved from the city of Shiraz in Iran at the turn of the last century and set up shop in Bombay to take advantage of its vibrant business climate.
The story of my family’s immigration continues: I am now an immigrant in the U.S., a century after my grandfather came to India, building a home here and beginning a new chapter in my family’s history. Fortunately, over the last thirteen plus years here, I have been going to Bombay often to visit my family and reconnect with the people and the places that filled the first seventeen years of my life.

I have described before how going home is like slipping into a pair of your favorite jeans – comfortable, familiar and reassuring. My parents live in the same flat that I grew up in – on the second floor of a nine storey building called Palacimo that is off the main road in a lane called Silver Oaks Estates. Going home to Palacimo – to the room I shared with my brother, to the balcony window which looks out over a fir tree that has grown slowly every year to where the top now is almost past the third floor, to the living room with two big persian carpets on which I played with toy cars, creating roads and cities within their intricate designs, to the kitchen with the humming refrigerator and the cool stone tile checkered floor, to my parents bedroom with the big bed on which I lay and read newspapers and magazines – is a soothing pleasure. Going home, I relax deeply and feel a unique sense of contentment and happiness.
If two people from the same city are asked to draw a map of the city based on what they knew of it and what was important to them, each one of them will draw a different map – a landscape of memory and experience. My map of Bombay includes these familiar places: I begin with Warden Road (or B. Desai Road as it is now called). Breach Candy swimming pool where I spend much of my childhood playing, learning how to swim and nowadays going for morning walks with my dad and for an occasional swim. Breach Candy hospital, where my brother is born and where we go to see Dr. Mehrani when sick, sitting in the waiting room that has french doors that open to a lawn, a sea wall and the ocean crashing against it. Dayaram Santadas petrol pump, where we stop to fill gas in our Ambassador car on the way to school; I tip the attendant one or two rupees before we pull out. Precious Hairdressers, where Mimo and I go with dad to get a haircut for ten rupees. Right next door is Variety stores where I buy school supplies – Hero fountain pens and Camel poster colors, chocolates: Five Star and Double Decker, biscuits: Glucos-D, Nice, Marie, and various other necessities and treats. Unfortunately, Variety stores is no more, replaced with shoes stores and clothing boutiques. Twenty minutes away is Campion School where I go from first to tenth grade. Two four storey buildings painted white with blue and red trim – each colour representing a different “house”– white for Loyola, red for Britto and blue for Xavier. I am in the Xavier house and lest anyone else tell you different, we are the best house. In front of Campion is Cooperage Maidan – a soccer stadium with wooden stands (bleachers). Behind Campion is a large backgarden, which we share with two neighboring all girl schools – Fort Convent and St. Annes – a nice distraction for our all boy school. We play cricket, hand cricket, football (soccer), field hockey and basketball there. The best fun is playing football during the monsoon season, slipping on the slick mud (keechad) and running through puddles. Not far from school is my dad’s office at Kala Ghoda (black horse). There use to be a statue of an Englishman on a black horse in the square there many years ago, and the name has stuck. Cole Paints, my dad’s company, is right above Rhythm House, a music store that I go to buy records and tapes. In the next building is Madras Café, a south Indian restaurant where my dad eats lunch every day and where I always go for a couple meals when I am home. A couple kilometers away is Bombay Gymkhana – a sports club where I learn tennis and squash. I played two games of tennis with my dad this time. He beat me both games and as usual my excuse is that he plays a few times a week and I play a few times a year. Nonetheless, he is a wily player, placing the ball where I have a hard time getting it. I played two games of squash with my brother and beat him both times. He has only recently begun playing squash, whereas I have been playing on and off since I was a teenager – so that is his excuse. No visit home is complete without some Chinese food at Bombay Gym (or any other place for that matter). Chinese food in Bombay is unique – call it Indese or Chindian – it’s scrumptious. Not far from Bombay Gym is St. Xavier’s where I went for eleventh and twelfth grade. Xavier’s is in an old Victorian building with a large quadrangle where students hang out, and it has a canteen where the tea is always sweet and often comes in a chipped cup – delicious to the last drop though. And then finally there is Otters Club in the suburb of Bandra where I go twice a day, six days a week to train with some of the best swimmers in the nation. Otters is right by the sea like Breach Candy and on winter mornings (which in Bombay is a mild 20C-70F) we shiver in the locker room, hoping that Sir (our coach) will not show up or that we can skip just this one day. After the workout, we stand under the hot showers until the locker room attendant shouts at us to get out and not use up all the hot water.
Add to these places from my childhood, the shops that I go to with my mom when I visit. Chimanlals: which has handmade paper products like stationary, gift bags and wrapping paper. Cottage Industries: which has crafts from around India. Contemporary Arts and Crafts (CAC): which has housewares and crafts with distinctive modern designs. Vama: a mini-mall including Benneton, Levis, Lacoste and other shops. Anokhi: which has all kinds of products made with natural dyed, block printed cloth. I go back to Bombay with two bags – one with my things for the trip and the larger bag with all the things for my brother, and to a lesser extent, my mom and dad. When I return to Austin, that bag fills up with gifts, clothes, dried fruits and other tactile reminders of home.

I went to Beas for a five day retreat and I was again hoping that my travel adventures were behind me. Well, the gods and goddesses of adventure had me in their eyes again. I was flying from Bombay to Delhi on Air India at 12.30 in the afternoon and then catching the Shatabdi Express in Delhi at 4:30. Just as we are pulling out of the gate, the captain informs us that there is a technical problem, which the engineers will fix in half an hour. Forty minutes later, still on the runaway, they begin serving us lunch. There is no way we are leaving anytime soon. Finally, after an hour and a half, we leave. We land at 3:30. I get to the taxi at 3:45. I tell the driver that my train is at 4:30. He looks at me and says – koshish karenge saab – I will really try. It is Sunday. The traffic is thin. He drives like he would love to drive all the time – like a Formula One driver intent on getting the checkered flag – eyes focussed on the road, taking corners with screeching tires, passing everyone left and right, and of course, since this is India, honking his horn incessantly. Five hundred meters from the train station we come to a dead stop – traffic snarl. It is 4:25. He turns, looks at me and says – bhago – run the rest of the way. I put a big tip in his hand, thank him, throw my bag over my shoulder, jump out and begin the Delhi Station Steeplechase. I jump over broken pavement, gaping potholes and grimy puddles. I dodge past knots of people standing by the entrance, past the coolies in red shirts carrying two or three heavy bags on their heads and the hawkers peddling their wares. I find my train, locate my coach and finally drop into my seat with a huge sigh. Seconds later, the train begins to pull away. The specter of the 36-hour Bombay to Beas, Planes, Trains and Autorickshaws ordeal two years ago, dissolves. That year, Rohan and I spent 36-hours trying to get from Bombay to Beas, taking a taxi, a plane, a cycle rickshaw, a bus and an autorickshaw. This year, I was done with my 36-hour ordeal, this one from Austin to Bombay. Who knows what the next 36 hour adventure will be?

My last stop on this trip was four days in London to visit a number of friends that live there. I have been to London a number of times, including when I was a child, visiting family there with my mom and brother. So I have many memories of London too. When you ride the tube, you still hear the familiar – “Mind the gap” – but it is now a female voice. Chris and I walk down Oxford Street and step into many shops that I have been in when I was young – Marks & Spencers, Selfridges, C&A, Harrods and others. We ride on a ubiquitous double decker bus to the British Museum, which is the oldest museum in the world. As soon as we step past the gates we feel we are in a grand place. The building is grand, the art and artifacts in it are grand. Not pieces and parts of Egyptian or Assyrian or Greek antiquities like in many other museums, but large statues, full walls lifted from monuments and complete collections of certain works. A bit of cynicism is apropos here: the Brits stole most of these antiquities from the countries the colonized in the days of the British Empire. And the museum only exhibits a small fraction of what they have. Nonetheless, it is all displayed in wonderful large rooms where we get a small sense of what the monument or statue seemed like in its original setting. The Rosetta Stone is housed in this museum and it was a thrill to finally see what I had only read and studied about – the stone that helped scholars in the early nineteenth century translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. The best part of the museum is the inner courtyard – the Great Court – a two acre square covered by a spectacular glass roof designed by Sir Norman Foster. The shape of the roof is diaphanous, linking you to the gifts of the sky above as well protecting you from the elements. It is a wonderful public space – expanding the individual into the world through architecture.
Here are two links that have images of the British Museum roof. It is one of the nicest architectural spaces I have ever been in.

Life is a tapestry of memory and experience that we weave each day. With travel I find I repeat a familiar pattern of the past, interweaving it with something in the present, transforming my feelings of mere nostalgia into a poignant present.