This short story mocks the famous ‘Mumbai Darshan’, and cynically subverts what it means to be a resident of Mumbai, with a postcolonial motif.
AMONG rich beggars and enthusiastic cabbies, among tourists paler than bread, in raging humidity that evaporated all the trees in the vicinity, did Adnan D’Souza wait with a silly satchel clung to his chest, standing loose-kneed in front of the Gateway of India, trying determinedly to appear distinct from his sorry company. The attempt—if standing vaguely next to yet apart from what he called the ‘urban villagers’, counted as one—found no success, as he saw a crap-coloured college looking girl confidently approaching him with a satchel of her own. “Excuse me sir I’m looking for contributors for slum children in Vikhroli sir, they wear pillowcases for clothes and eat prison-food for meals sir, it’s all fully transparent, here are the certificates with attestations would you like to…” Whether she thought her slinging satchel and Adnan’s own would make him likelier to toss monopoly notes her way, he could not say, but what he could attest to was his own unfortunate first thought: “My satchel is silk and yours is leather.”
He did not say it, of course, instead welcoming her with a passive indifference that changed her recitations from confident, to friendly, to businesslike, to an eventual nonplussed silence. She gave up, not saying goodbye (fitting, as she hadn’t begun with a hello!) but hurriedly teeing up another prospect, trailing away in the direction of a German with a “Ma’am I’m looking for…” following her. The ice between Adnan and society had now been broken, and beggars now approached in queue with mute gestures to their stomach, while cabbies—all looking as alike as the other—guessed destinations his way. “CST? Seaface? Oberoi??”
As Adnan politely (snobbishly?) declined their offers, he caught from the noon sun a glint of violet and white, and knew that Leah was finally heading his way. He pretended not to notice her, instead staring silently into the Indo-Gothic abyss as if admiring it in lost wonder. It seemed to have worked, as Leah’s “Adnan?” was tentative and respectful. Adnan, before turning toward her—a surprised “Oh!” passing his chapped lips—felt a rush of glee in his pants, and immediately chastised himself for it. They hugged. As always, she smelled of rose and lavender, while Adnan was at home with the sweat of Mumbai. She seemed not to care.
“So! This is the famous Gateway of India!” Leah declared by means of exposition, her thin eyes widely drinking in the marketed essence of the city, her long hair struggling to ripple in the static heat. Adnan’s tongue ran before his thoughts. “So history says,” he began, immediately feeling the need to support his sarcastic remark with more sarcasm. “History, of course, sponsored by the benevolent George V and Queen Mary. You know, Windsor imperialists who subjected locals to backbreaking work and drove away kolis for tourists? But don’t worry, at least Sydenham Clarke was handed the foundational stone!”
Even before he ended, even after Leah’s polite chuckle, did Adnan know he had slayed the conversation before it could start. The dig at the whites was overkill. Leah was anti-monarchist but she was still British. He, on the other hand, had left this city for Kingston University the moment he could and, due to his fair skin, Christian upbringing and the ability to drive whenever drunk, was made to feel at home by Londoners to such an intrusive degree that he became neither Indian nor English, instead content to teeter on the fence cracking jokes at both. He could not say if his slander had anything to do with diaspora or with being a douchebag, but he made an internal resolution of ensnaring his tongue with barbed wires before letting it run away from him again.
Silence was the unfortunate effect of this decision. There they stood, staring up at the massive stone semicircle, trying to deduce if their years of studying architecture had helped them appreciate, or even notice, the differences between models and ‘the real thing’… while the angry sun stared them down. Every time Adnan thought of giving up, Leah would mutter a question or two. “Basalt?” Yes; and reinforced concrete. “Indo-Saracenic?” Yes; with Muslim influences. These brief facts were the only comments Adnan allowed himself from his penance, since he dared not scare away the one girl who seemed to like him back.
Leah is tired of the heat too. “I’m hungry. Where shall we eat, then?” she asked, smiling, eyes full of faith, not knowing her question was like a knout of the whip on Adnan’s stammering mind. He had made fastidious preparations for this moment, but all confidence dried like an apricot when it was here. “Leopold?” was his weak suggestion, as if Leah would have an array of alternatives up her sleeve. He heard a beggar cough, which sounded like a laugh.
“Why not?” was her shrug of an answer.
Adnan bothered one of the lookalikes— “Leopold?” He introduced himself with confidence, taking the cabbie by surprise, before repeating himself with considerable hesitancy—and was in the backseat with Leah before he knew it. The Bihari (he presumed) gunned the engine. “Taj se right nikalu ya Henry Road se?” he said. His cheery eyes bore through the rear-view as if searching Adnan’s soul; as if his credibility as a citizen teetered on the correct answer.
A right from the Taj or from Henry Road? Adnan had no earthly clue which path led where. He felt his fingers twitching in his satchel’s direction, but the ignominy of succumbing to Google Maps in Leah’s presence was too much for his male ego. “Wherever traffic’s lighter,” he said, settling on what he thought to be the diplomatic answer, but he caught condescension in the Bihari’s eyes as they lowered.
“We’re already here?” Leah asked when the cab stopped within two minutes. Adnan busied himself in his satchel, cursing himself for forgetting that Leopold was a five-minute walk from the Gateway. Strike one.
“That will be twenty-two rupees, sir,” said the Bihari. Adnan noted his switch in tone to English. “Where are the two of you from?” he asked, the smile of a man who had had his fill of swindling people. Leah responded with all the eagerness of being interrogated by an aboriginal. “I’m from London. First time visitor!”
“Ah! Big Ben? Many buildings here look British buildings jaisa actually!” was the cabbie’s response, sowing the seeds for an organic dialogue between passenger and driver, a discourse of God-knows-what, while Adnan stood fiddling with his satchel, a red note and a couple of coins, half-feeling a cuckold. He bided his time for the inevitable pause in conversation to thrust the money through the window, hoping that signalled the end of that, but the Bihari was undeterred. “And where are you from, sir?”
“Here,” Adnan said tersely, turning his back on the cabbie. As long as IC Colony, Borivali, the arse-end of the city, officially counted.
Leopold Café. Claustrophobic chairs without booze on tables. Painted mouths that forced a nervous peek inside their open caverns. Portraits of faces he knew by image but not enough to outlast a two-minute conversation. Marlon Brando. The sea of tourists and of Indians more foreign than them. Their briefest of glances from bald pates, from double chins, long legs, scratched spectacles, mascara eyes and impeccable suits that Adnan and Leah walked past to scout for their seat—glances that wondered if they were worthy, as if the Leopold accepted only a creed of its own, as if purchasing power were secondary, as if a look was a tougher test than a ring of fire—before they bowed their noses back into boring dishes.
He sat with Leah and hunted for the price of shepherd’s pie (yaha ka famous, he had been told) licking his wounds from the looks. He liked precisely nothing of the place. Perhaps it was the food. Perhaps it was because it lived on history and image alone. Or perhaps it was because the air here felt stale by the neatness of the privileged, the velleities of sightseers and the loud sound of silence, choking further another Irani café already blackmailed into fork-and-spoon modernity.
Outside, vendors of Victorian clocks, Eiffel-tower keychains and football jerseys were littered like lice, but their voices would not enter the café. Wastelands let no life inside.
“Charming,” Leah observed amid volatile vibrancy, scratching her eyebrow, which was how Adnan could tell she found something amiss. “I suppose this is a rather mainstream establishment for the non-native then?” she enquired, kind as ever, but beneath which Adnan could sense a simmering of underwhelm. “It’s still one of those places anyone would value visiting,” Adnanretorted (defensively?), buckling and unbuckling his silk satchel, to which Leah’s smile was as polite as it was patronizing: “Oh, Adnan, I don’t doubt your choice at all!” Regardless of what she felt, he cursed himself for laying his insecurities bare as a belly button.
She ordered an afternoon beer with plain fish-and-chips. It was not what Leopold was known for but she devoured it with happiness. Adnan envied her as he ate his treacle pie. He had no particular distaste for shepherds or their pies, but knew he had ordered it only because of its fame. Leah, on the other hand, raised in the bland land of meat and potatoes, had no trouble turning Leopold into her London. Why could he not be more like her, eating on his own terms rather than succumbing to those of Leopold the Wasteland?
“Hey, what do you like about Mum-bai the most?” Adnan looked away from a painted mouth to Leah’s surprise question. Her meal was over while he had three portions left.
“Well… the people?” he said as a reflex, no particular faces in mind.
“The peopleee”, she repeated woozily. “Our driver was a friendly face. In London, once they take your money, they cease to care!” Adnan could have retorted with a series of similar incidents from the rickshaws of the suburbs, but a tightness in his throat stopped him. No strike two: the thought that throttled his words.
Leah ordered a second beer. Time passed. They spoke of the décor and of 26/11. “Must have been terribleee,” she sang, ogling at a bullet hole in the wall. “Was it 2008? Perhaps you were still in school? Was it frightening?” Her thin eyes, transfixed on the bullet hole, were stretched to its absolute widest. Still thin.
“For me? Not really. I did not have a clear idea of what a terrorist attack meant,” Adnan answered. Perhaps it was Leah’s songlike manner of interrogation, perhaps her eagerness to hunt for meaning from a hole in the wall, or perhaps his cyniclooking eye at Leopold, at the superficial sight of a bullet hole being commodified for clout, that made Adnan D’Souza, for the second time that afternoon, loosen his tongue from its leash in the search of shattering the Mum-bai illusion. “Citizens don’t care, man. If I recall well, most of the city were happy that we had two bank holidays!”
Leah’s playful wide-thin eyes sunk. “Hmm,” she said, scratching her eyebrow. Her mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. “Presumptuous, perhaps,” she murmured at the bullet hole. Silence spoke volumes.
Strike two. Whatever happened to the tightness in his throat?
Adnan focused on his shepherd’s pie. Mumbai had disagreed with him for as long as he could remember. It was nothing if not a place where everyone outsmarted everyone else. Tramps fooled citizens, bureaucrats fooled civilians, intellectuals fooled idiots, criminals fooled the police and ideology fooled everybody. He was in on the game of course, pretending to Leah how he knew Mum-bai like the back of his hand, how he had forged some absurd invisible connection with a city as multicultural as it was impersonal. People found order in chaos here, a safe dwelling in a messy metropolitan, but all Adnan saw was a spade for a spade.
At least London knew how to clean after itself. London was bliss. London was heaven. Returning to Mumbai felt like an escaped lion returning to his cage.
Yet, Adnan had no right to say what he had. Leah would be here for a day, two perhaps, till her tours of the world took her further south to Australia or God-knows-where (he thought it too intrusive to ask). She had no time for his scorn, his filthy melancholy, his edginess-for edginess-sake. His job was to twist the ribbons together to gift-wrap the clumpy skyscrapers and potholed gullies and racist taxpayers and dried-up monsoons into something resembling a commodity—which meant, unfortunately, that any attempt at being true would be punished, while any attempt at exaggeration would be duly rewarded.
“Let’s grab the check,” she said.
There could be no strike three.
Whatever strings were attached to Leah’s presumptuous-perhaps would remain forever unaddressed, for they were forgotten like the humid heat when she caught sight of buildings and beggars and desi dogs and oh-look-how-lovely-is-that-bas-relief-on-that-neoclassical fountain from their Uber.
Adnan felt a tingle in his toes and a wallop in his stomach every time he saw those wide-thin eyes dancing over buildings. It reminded him of their favourite London pastime—Leah and him, walking from Trafalgar to Buckingham and back, allowing their architectural selves to write indulgent poetry on the junctures, the palaces, even the podiums and parapets of St.James. The moment Adnan struggled to keep up with the conversation was the moment he realised he was falling hopelessly in love with her, and the moment he realised that, his anxieties began its bloody war.
Love needed to end it. This disaster of a darshan was already a blot in an otherwise sprinkle clean copybook, but there was no telling how bigger that blot could be. He would not allow the glow-in-the-dark hoardings and empty images and cheating taxi wallahs and sneering bus conductors of these seven cobbled lands to stand in the way of something true. No more silences. No more presumptuous-perhaps. There would be no strike three.
“Is that a horse?” asked Leah, as the cab waited at a signal. She was pointing at the Kala Ghoda. Adnan did not know much about it, but at this point knowledge, facts or personal opinion were the last thing that mattered. What mattered more was quality time.
He decided to test his hypothesis. “Yes. They call it Kala Ghoda. Black horse?” As Leah (“uh huh?”) kept her eager eyes on it—expecting something more—Adnan kept his cautious eyes on their driver. “The horse is a legend,” he continued, still staring at the Uber driver’s back. “Interesting story. It was carved after the horse of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.” Whether the Uber knew he was lying or he did not speak English, Adnan was thankful that he did not interrupt the conversation.
“Shiva-jee? Isn’t he that Marathi king? After whom the fancy railway station is named?” she asked. Wide-thin eyes quickly moved from the ugly horse to him, and Adnan felt his heart leap.
“You’re right!” Adnan babbled. “There’s a legend to this statue. Since its equestrian was never sculpted, it is said that the horse wakes up at nights and gallops the streets of Mumbai in search of its master. Every so often I have heard an insomniac nightwalker at Marine Drive claiming to see the horse charging past them! Every so often I have heard drunkards claiming they followed the Kala Ghoda to a cave where the marble Chhatrapati awaited, petting his horse and chugging his wine!”
Adnan was proud of his intricately woven lies, which began with a modified titbit from Midnight’s Children (if Rushdie could make up legends, so could he!) and ended even better. Amidst the pride, the one ounce of guilt he allowed himself also disappeared when Leah, in stunned silence, violet-and-white fluttering in a welcome gust of wind, murmured, “That’s so cool.”
As the Uber galloped past roadside beggars and adolescent jaywalkers and sooty women with saris and brown baskets, to Adnan the gravel-worn roads and brutalist buildings suddenly felt much more magical.
After vermillion gases gave way to a starless, moonless, all-encompassing night, after the sun had—like the tragicomedy, the masquerade, the farce—come full circle, after exaggerations turned lies and lies turned truth, after crude social workers and cunning Biharis and basalt rocks and walls made famous by bullets, did Adnan D’Souza sit nonplussed in front of the black Arabian Sea, where Leah burped happily by his shoulder.
“The wind has become a living thing!” she chirped, the romantic escaping from her, as the void brought forth a happy gust of salt and water and air. Adnan smiled in silent response. Privacy was not hard to find despite the throng of drunkards and joggers and college cliques and secret couples acting as the beads of Marine Drive, the Queen’s Necklace, when Leah was so obviously foreign and Adnan apparently so. Despite the crowd, they had greater room on the parapet sandwiched between sea and footpath than the unfortunate others.
Leah was chirping again. “Maybe we shall be blessed with the Boost fella tonight!” she said, eyes searching up-and-down the footpath. Adnan fiddled with his silk satchel before remembering that his lie could not be caught. “Maybe,” he said confidently, eyes pretending to search the sidewalk for the imaginary image of white-shirted Anil, who sold Boost, Bournvita and weed in white rolling paper. “White-sticks he calls them,” Adnan recalled lying to her when wide-thin eyes were droopy and moody amid the fish-tanks of Taraporewala.
Leah gave up the white ghost of Anil and resumed burping on his shoulder. “What a nice day,” she said. “What a nice city. London is marvellous, don’t take me wrong, but there’s something about Mum-bai…”
“Exactly,” he replied, salted air and guilt accumulating in his lungs. He knew what he was culpable of. He had built on his love with lies—he had forsaken his well-trodden path that pointed out the thorns in roses, that savoured in underbellies, in buried discourses, that dared to challenge the exaggerated, the false with the true. He abandoned what was him in favour of the path of smoke and mirrors, of recounting an evening of bumping against Amitabh Bachchan at the airport, of a night at a smutty bar and a sunrise with Kalbadevi whores. He told tales of how rare the books were at Flora, how local the booze at Gokul, how angry the fish at Taraporewala, and how haunted the Tower of Silence at Malabar was. Each statue became a story, each walk a walk through history, and when the tour guide wove webs with such intricacy, did it matter that they were deceptions?
“When’s your Uber arriving?” Adnan asked, before violet-and-white clutched him by the shoulders and planted on his cheek a firm, wet kiss. “Now, unfortunately,” she whispered in his ear. Adnan shuddered with joy and heard her giggle. He felt all the eyes of the beads of Queen’s Necklace on him, for reasons of God-knows-why, and dared not to look. “Thank you,”
he said, returning her kiss with a shy one of his own.
She sped away to Breach Candy in the sputtering clouds of the Swift, leaving Adnan alone in the company of strangers and the sea. The kiss was still in his thoughts as he waved her goodbye. It was long overdue, the product of an annum of happy chats, of walking that felt like skipping, of nearlys and maybes and will-they-won’t-theys, yet when it was finally here, it filled his heart only with guilt.
The relatively roomy space the beads of Mumbai had offered Leah and him was now closed like a cavern’s mouth. Adnan, now only part-foreign, had to walk along the pavement in search of a seat, the kiss still in his thoughts, in the process nearly bumping into a bald idiot jogging after dusk. He eventually found a cosy little spot for himself, between an off-duty policeman and a middle-class looking family. The cop was scratching his non-shampooed scalp and smoking a cigarette, but Adnan’s hand knew better than to reach for his silk satchel. Much like the mists of smoke twirling with saltwater wind, he dissolved into the whirlwind of honking horns and chattering beads and the blackness of the sea, searching for stars where there were none. Inside his unguarded ears floated the conversation by the family besides. A dark-skinned middle-aged man with a military moustache and a snout like a python’s hood was enrapturing his daughter’s attention. “See these rocks, beti!” he was saying, holding her by the armpits, towards the tetrapods that broke the waves of the sea. “See how identical they are! See how similar! Look how the waves of the Arabian Sea have carved them by crashing into them for decades—today, they look as similar as snowflakes! Look at the balance and symmetry offered by Mother Nature!”
The kid, hitherto blabbering about Papa-you-promised-Naturals-ice-cream, looked at the tetrapods as if they were miracles from heaven, as if the Grand Canyon were a facade in comparison. “The waves can do all that?” she asked finally.
“The waves can do that and much more,” beamed military-moustache dad through his teeth. Adnan stole a quick, voyeuristic glance at him, to which the man instinctively returned the favour. While the daughter stared open-gaped at millions of ugly bulwarks as if they were gifts from Goddess Mumbadevi, stranger found stranger in the midst of absurdity, at the tail-end of the city of chaos, and for reasons of God-knows-how, they smiled and shared the lie as one.
Neil (24) is from Mumbai, India. After completing M.A. in English Literature at EFL University, Hyderabad, he has strayed from the beaten path of PhD and professorship to pursue writing. He is currently editing the novel of a political hot potato, after co-directing a production at NCPA Mumbai – the rebellious product of his childhood baggage. He spends his time lamenting the death of poetry in the age of Instagram (neil_nagwekar) and criticizing his own football club on Twitter (@NeilNagwekar).