Bombay of the 1960s was a very different place to the Mumbai of today. One could still see countless relics of a past colonial age peeping out from behind peeling fading paint, now sharing suburbs with crowded cement apartments and rows of compact concrete business enterprise.
In Bombay at that time were the beginnings of a current era of downtown glass walled high rises in the business centre, while Bollywood star mansions in the suburb of Juhu Beach in their walled in protection revealed an opulent life style thousands throughout the day queued outside Maratha Mandir movie house to imagine and escape from their mundane lives for the brief duration of the movie. Huge billboards of Zeenat Aman and Hema Malini beckoned millions passing by to share some of their meagre wages just to see them perform scenes they could never experience.
Just outside our apartments at Club Road, Byculla there was a constant cat and mouse game played as millions pouring into the city from drought stricken rural communities took over streets and staked their claim to a few square feet of pavement for their families. The colonial era wrought iron fence enclosing apartments was a convenient place to anchor hastily erected tarpaulins and in some cases more permanent wood frame and sheet iron structures. It was impossible to walk on those footpaths taken over by cooking fires and sleeping bodies. Urchin waifs surrounded those foolish enough to walk on the roads, and if they did not get you, then assorted taxis, tonga and auto-rickshaws would.
The government fought a losing battle with their new Bombay citizens. Skills of survival had been honed through thousands of years of exploitation by hereditary land owners and they were true survivors. The government tolerated them until their constant chipping at the joints of huge above ground city water pipe supply from the dam produced high pressure geysers which temporarily supplied water for bathing, washing clothes and drinking water until flooding caused an uproar from middle class and wealthy communities. Then street dweller housing was dismantled under heavy police guard and street dwellers transported to distant boundaries of the city then left to fend for themselves there. The pipes would be repaired and the middle class and wealthy temporarily calmed.
Pavements were free to walk on for a few weeks but survivors returned one by one. First men who wanted to be nearer lucrative coolie territory around railways and the various businesses employing them for coolie work in downtown Bombay. You could see them plying their trade through the day pulling hand carts or bicycles through the streets of Bombay with incredible loads that defied gravity, and dragging huge blocks of ice with tongs through streets to cool limbu pani served to customers of tiny street restaurants. In the evenings street dwellers reoccupied pavements and slept in their reclaimed space. They were a lot cooler on streets than those who’d found a decaying room here or there in which families of eight or more would live. By monsoon time wood frame, iron sheet constructions would be back in place beside tarpaulins stretched from the fence and nailed to pavements. Families would return to care for their working men, and urchins spread out in the city to beg from traffic jammed vehicles, and another cycle would begin.
Bombay was a melting pot of gigantic proportions. There were representatives of every Indian language group throughout the business elite and ordinary citizens of the city and a smattering of expatriates on assignment. Most of the traditional colonial haunts had been taken over by affluent Indians retaining the same stringent rules of entry.
Because of this diversity street and slum dwellers tended to group together in language groups but there were times when in interfacing skirmishes developed. But even within the Marathi community hosting Bombay as capital within their state of Maharashtra territory there were skirmishes between those from different regions of the state. Each village has a unique culture of its own and those where the Marathi language is most highly developed look down on those from regions where the interface with other language groups has modified the purity of the language into dialects.
We were witness to this one evening as a group of Marathi street dwellers were playing ball on Club Cross Road and waving traffic on to take a detour. For some reason an argument developed and the crowd quickly lined up behind each in the cultural divide. However the crowd on each side seemed more amused with the antics of the two engaged in that verbal fight. At that point it was only an eyeball to eyeball slanging match but heat was rising encouraged by whistles, hoots and claps of the crowds lined up behind each of their champions.
At that point my two expatriate visitors who were seasoned India residents and large framed ex-logger types took a look over the second storey balcony of our apartment and then hurried down stairs to see what the problem was. Not something I would recommend.
They talked with each of the groups who were mightily entertained to have two expatriates in their midst speaking their language. Later when I transferred from Bombay to Pune I discovered why the interest when an Indian professor told me they enjoyed having expatriates on their campus. It was like having their own private zoo! He was joking, I think.
But my friends’ appearance seemed to crank up animosity between the contestants who took their fight to the next level of violence. Then my logger type friends did something highly dangerous. Taking hold of each of the contestants they pulled their boxer shorts down and picking each up removed them to a safer distance from each other. Their embarrassment stopped the fight as each recovered his shorts. There was stunned silence as the crowd took in this surprising event and processed their next move. Then in flawless Hindi well understood in Bombay my friend said,
“Brothers should not fight! Give salaam to each other instead!”
Then taking a wad of rupees from their pockets they gave one to each fighter.
“This is chai money for everyone, make friends and enjoy!”
Instead of the terrible outcome I’d anticipated for my guests there was a sudden roar of approval from the crowd on both sides and they crowded around in good humour conversing in Bombay Hindi with my friends. The contestants slunk away shamed with their loot but were chased after to retrieve the wads of rupees. Then inviting my guests to join them, an offer which was respectfully declined, the happy group headed for the nearest street restaurant where chai would be served to all. I repeat, if you have any interest in travelling the streets of what is now Mumbai, do not attempt to imitate this. The results could be very nasty indeed.
During our time in Bombay there were two flooding events I remember clearly. Bombay was originally a collection of fishing islands amalgamated through reclamations over the centuries. It was the residence of goddess Mumba, patron of fishermen. The Portuguese gave those islands the name Bombay which means of course good bay and it was ceded eventually to the British who retained that name. In recent times after India gained independence the matter was re-addressed and honour given to the goddess Mumba again.
Because of reclamations much of the city lies close to sea level so during heavy monsoons there’s considerable flooding as high seas back up through the sewer system pressure blowing steel covers protecting streets, while driving rain fills in every low lying area. With streets flooded and under several feet of water movement around places like Byculla was severely restricted. With covers off sewer systems running under streets it would be an act of extreme bravery to try and wade along those streets. We used to hold our breath whenever we saw a horse driven carriage slowly moving through flooded streets as bicycles, hat-garis and auto-rickshaws were unable to function during flooding and the horse carriage ruled.
But strange as it may seem, when time came to accept a new work challenge on the Deccan Plateau south east of Bombay away from humidity I’d miss the twenty-four hour rhythm of a city constantly in motion, the spectacle of a cyclical occupation of the streets, the noise, and positivity of a population that had existed in spirit from time immemorial. The chor and specialist bazaars, the markets in their raw state, each had a strange appeal to me. The sweep of the coast line from Kamala Nehru Gardens on the hill looking toward Colaba with its fashionable shops, and of course the majesty of British built Victoria Terminal where life on the city and beyond rail system began and terminated. Breach Candy and the Embassy road, those familiar places of recreation with a nod to Bollywood on the taxi ride from Byculla to Breach Candy. All would be missed as we left the plains for Pune.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2015 All rights reserved”