Monday, December 19, 2005


In a city by the sea

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West …

… when the sea-winds take the city in their arms,

And cool the loud streets that kept their dust noon and afternoon.

Dawn comes late in this city. After two cups of coffee and a cigarette, still propped up on a pile of pillows with a blanket over my knees, I look out of the window every two minutes. Still dark, though it must be full morning in my home on the other side of the country. A cruise steamer, lit up like a party, lies at anchor half-way to the island. Off to the right the Radio Club looks forlorn; to match the mood, the tiles should have gleamed with rain under that single harsh light. The sea is dark, peaceful after the clutter of boats that swayed upon it last night. Four boys sit on the sea-wall. They were there at 3 a.m., when I drifted awake and leaned out of the window for a while.

I love this view. I come over to the window every now and then just to revel in it, like a child reaching into his bag to stroke a new toy. I need to take it in in lungfuls, in wide-eyed deep-breathing gulps. I’ve seen it a hundred times before, but on this trip I’ve claimed it for my own. All because I have a room with three windows looking out on it. And no camera.

The light has changed. The street-lights seem to wane. Dawn washes the horizon, inverts the light. The sea turns silver; the bobbing boats re-appear, dark dancers on the morning tide.

The strand below is now crowded with morning walkers. A mother and daughter in Ts and stretch capris. An old couple, the lady laboriously swaying from one foot to the other, her husband grumpy-faced but extending a solicitous hand to help her onto the cobbled kerb. Mr. Money-bags, gold chain glinting, the legs of his loose Bermudas flapping below the overhang of his gut. A chic young thing, beautifully shaped and turned out in designer gym-wear, but ruining the effect with her ungainly walk; perhaps her shoes look good but don’t fit her.

And now, walking across my field of vision from left to right, a figure from the Satyajit Ray stories of my childhood. Bright eyes that dart all around beneath beetling brows, a wide rubbery mouth that can be creased in laughter one moment and twisted in invective the next, hair neatly oiled and parted, a half-sleeved shirt buttoned to the collar and stick-thin legs emerging from short baggy shorts. The walk, too, stirs distant memories: a shuffle with a faint lurch that yet aspires to respectability.

My memory for the day? Time to check out. I turn away from the window.


The city in the morning is different. More tranquil, or at least less frenetic. The light itself slows us down, strokes us to peace. The taxi rasps through the morning calm, slipping through the dappled light, passing under the trees that line the streets of the city’s southern end. The curlicued spiral stairs of the High Court, the self-righteous pile of the Cowasjee Public Hall, the Corporation Building opposite the beautiful station that has been re-named so imaginatively. Along the way, “Smart & Hollywood Tailors”. Indeed.

The smells of the city are more distinct in the morning air. Anda bhurji near Churchgate. Fish as we cross VT. For some reason, one stretch near Pedder Road smells like an old railway carriage, chlorine and coal smoke and a whiff of staleness. I find no smell of the sea, not on the sea-front as we start, not at Haji Ali, nowhere. The city has leached the smell from the air and substituted its own.

The fly-overs take us past windows that open into other people’s lives. A bleary face, toothbrush protruding from foaming mouth as he reaches out of a window to retrieve a pair of trousers from the clothesline. The corner of a dresser and a small table with a woman’s feet propped up on it; the angle suggests a newspaper and a cup of something hot. A neon light above a dining table, straight-backed chairs, a jug. Windows with plants, with clotheslines, with faces, blank panes, newspapers. Windows like hooded eyes and windows that wink with the morning sun.

Hoardings. Cell-phones serials cereals shares loans homes boutiques. Everywhere. Covering buildings that are certainly too graceful to be thus defaced. But bright. And on every bus-stop, a new advertising idea from Everybody’s Favourite Newspaper.

Bus-stops. Crowded, mostly with children in uniform carrying bags that seem far too large for them. Shivaji Park and clusters of young cricketers in earnest whites.

Somewhere past King’s Circle, the sordid side of the city. Poor men in rags squat by the roadside. One man in singlet and lungi fastidiously washes his feet as he loops his sacred thread over one ear. Garbage is everywhere, mostly polythene bags that flutter in the putrid air, like the fingers of corpses underwater. Metal letters down the side of a tired building spell out “Jay Markandey_”. The last “a” has been covered by the corrugated tin roofing of a shop protruding from the ground floor.

On previous visits, the city for me has been friends and evenings, strolls down Colaba ending with dessert at Churchill, haggling over a brass sextant in a lane behind the Taj, long lunches at Moshe’s, afternoons fading into evenings in a Bandra flat where the wind comes in over the rocks the lovers the sea-wall to set the wind-chimes madly ringing. This time I was alone. And the city is different, distant, on the other side of a screen. Softer, not so brassy, but behind a window-pane.

She appears somewhere near Dadar, the spirit of the city as I see it this morning. White hair neatly tied in a bun, large bindi dead-centre on her forehead, bangles a-jangle on her wrists as she imperiously slows us down with an up-flung arm. Comfortably plump and swathed in a green sari tied ghati fashion. Rolling along with a serene expression that is still somehow alert. And yes, she has flowers in her hair.

**** ****

8 o’clock as we turn towards Santa Cruz and a stadium comes into view. The cabbie – bald with a white fringe and a white moustache, worldly-wise but garrulous – laughs and shakes his head. It’s not a stadium, it’s the Centaur Hotel that the Sahara Group have taken over. They’ve been renovating it for some time now. Yes, everybody thinks it’s a stadium. Pata nahni, saab – how do we know what they have in mind? But they have a lot of money.

Airports. Not so long ago the departure area was an elongated cavern; one had to wheel one’s luggage for miles to reach the crowded security gates. In the new improved version, there are two gates to the security check. In front of one, a shapely (though undernourished by my generous standards) young lady in green and black greets three passengers on Go-Air. At the other gate, a line of 40-odd IA passengers shuffles forward wearing morose early-morning expressions. Why do I even expect these things to make sense?

We take off after a further two-hour delay. Grouse – when a flight from Calcutta is delayed, I get at least two text messages and a phone call informing me of the delay. Here, nobody bothered. I only got to know because I called the airport at a quarter past five in the morning. This city owes me two hour’s sleep. On the other hand, they did give me my favourite seat. And waking up early gave me that magic hour by the window.

The plane rises and wheels towards the east. I peer out of the porthole. Through the haze of the December sun, the line of surf gleams like a sari border. Towers stand like Lego blocks amongst the gritty indistinct sprawl of the slums. The plane’s shadow slips over silvered pools of industrial waste, out over the straggling greenery of the city’s edge, across a highway dusty from this height. I can’t see the city’s life from here, but it pulses in my memory, in my mind’s picture of this city by the sea.

As I lean back and close my eyes, the pictures run into one another. This morning has been different - the city at home, before it put on its work-day face. Still in slippers and sleepy-eyed before it gets down and hustles. The edges not so sharp, the mood softer, more intimate. Yet disclosures rather than conversation. Next time we meet, we might both let down our guard a little more. A seduction waiting to happen.

**** ****

Lovely. Especially the last line. Thank you for sharing.
That was beautiful.

If I wasn't in already love with this city, this post would have so made it happen.
This was beautiful, thanks for reminding me why I love that city by the sea so much.
a bit longish? skipped the middle but liked the beginning and loved the end v much! "the city at home, before it put on its work-day face. Still in slippers and sleepy-eyed before it gets down and hustles. The edges not so sharp, the mood softer, more intimate. Yet disclosures rather than conversation. Next time we meet, we might both let down our guard a little more. A seduction waiting to happen." was awesome ... literally! reminded me off something. not even sure what
Exquisite. As someone who's been seduced by the city and then forced to part from it, I savoured every line.

What was it Browning said: "Nay, but you who do not love her, is she not pure gold, my mistress?".
Evocative. Second Ph on the last line.

The sea turns silver; the bobbing boats re-appear, dark dancers on the morning tide.

Amazing stuff...
You don't need someone like me telling you how beautiful that was. Never been there but could almost see myself there.
everything in its place.
you write captivatingly!
Hmmmm .... wonder when I lost that sense of romance with the city ... maybe in one of those umpteen traffic snarls near Mahim ... however, brilliant sir, as usual.
"leached the smell from the air" so true, and what a perfect way tp put it...beautiful read, was this...
Lovely......I want to go back ..
Beautiful writing

Wonderful piece. It's always refreshing to see my city through other eyes, and when those eyes connect to a talented pen... ah, exquisite.

I gather that you're back on the other coast already. But p'raps next time I can tempt you with a cold brew? Or a warm collation?

Wonderful reading. And apt, the lack of sea-smell - I always found it odd, always approach marine drive waiting for the salt smell to accost my nostrils. Watching cities wake up is always fascinating, inspiring. Great post, JAP.
Vivid. I could smell the missing smell of the sea.
Thank you, kind gentles.

Falstaff, I would not venture to comment on YOUR mistress. Mine, as you know, lives by a river and not by the sea.

Griffin (the same as gryphon?), my visits are sadly few and far between, but I look forward to sluicing and stoking in your company.

enjoyed the drive with you....

does not the intimacy of the morning in that city make you wish it lingered on, at least a little, at other times in the day...
i didn't realise the city i live in is so wonderful till i read this :)
Evocative, awesome, exquisitely penned. What can I say, freezing the picture in the mind's eye in such a linguistic frame is only possible by a wordsmith like u. *Bow in reverence*
Great post. Thank you.
JAP,why didn't you get in touch? Now I've got to come to Cal and do something like this... Thanks, enjoyed it.
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