Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

A Bombay of parti-coloured turbans red and yellow

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The Bombay I saw, as a boy, a shadow of, for there was still a dusty if tattered drapery of the great city’s history to be found, if one peered closely enough and had an ear for lore.

This lambent passage is from the chapter on Bombay in ‘Cities of India’, by G W Forrest (ex-Director of Records, Government of India), Westminster, Archibald Constable and Co Ltd, 2 Whitehall Gardens, 1903.

Bombay_native_bazaar

quotes-greenBut we must not loiter long at Byculla, for we have to dine in the Fort. We leave London club life, and plunge into the native city, a paradise of luxury and splendour, stench and squalor. The richness and variety of the out-lines of the narrow and curving, but not crooked streets, take hold of the imagination. The many-tinted houses, the colours white, yellow, and red, the luxurious or wild carving lavished on the pillars of wood, the balconies, rosettes of the windows, and the architraves of the roofs, give an air of refinement, of subtle grace which defies description or criticism. The Hindu temple with its gaudy-coloured mythological subjects, and the Mussulmans’ simple white mosque, are vividly contrasted. It is a world of wonder.

Here all races have met: Persians in huge shaggy hats, and British sailors in white; the strong, lithe, coal-black Afreedee seaman, tall martial Rajpoots, peaceful Parsees in cherry-coloured silk trousers, Chinamen with the traditional pig-tail, swaggering Mussulmans in turbans of green, sleek Marwarees with high-fitting parti-coloured turbans of red and yellow. This tide of human life rolls down the centre of the street, unruffled by the vehicles from all quarters of the earth ploughing their way through it. There is the tramcar from New York drawn by walers from Australia, with pith helmets to protect them from the rays of the sun; the phaeton from Long Acre drawn by high-stepping Arabs; the rude vehicle of the land, innocent of springs, with a single square seat, drawn by handsome sleek bullocks. With much trouble and much shouting the driver works his way through the enchanted street, and we see the immortal eunuch, the porter, and the veiled lady standing near a shop filled with gold and silver stuff. Each trade has its own locale.

Cities_of_India_1903There are rows of bakers’ shops, with large ovens, and vast round loaves of unleavened bread. There are long lines of confectioners’, in which the sweetmeats are piled up in all sorts of fantastic shapes, and behind his pile sits the fat, greasy, half-naked confectioner. Then come the shops of the bunias, which are crowded with baskets filled with pulse and grain; and the Oriental grocer kindly chatters to three or four women as he weighs their flour in a pair of primitive scales, and after much bargaining they purchase for a farthing a lump of salt and two green chillies, which are their sole luxuries in life. Long and sharp is the ting-ting that proceeds from the shops where Javan, Tubal, and Meshech trade “their vessels of brass in thy market.” They are filled from floor to roof with large pots and small pots; for as the Hindu eats and drinks only from vessels made of brass, the brazier’s art is an important one in the land.

There are the shops of the money-changers, who are seated square-legged on their carpet, with heaps of rupees and shells before them. In a small hovel is a lean old man who, with a blowpipe and small hammer and a pair of pincers, is manufacturing “the chains and the bracelets, the ear-rings, the rings and the nose jewels.” Sable eve spreads swiftly, and the great brass lamps hanging from the roof are lighted, and the earthenware cressets before the dark shrines are illuminated.

Written by makanaka

March 31, 2013 at 12:03

2 Responses

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  1. Hi Rahul,

    I think you could write also on your memories of Bombay, the city you grew up in and what Ridge Road, Little Gibbs Road and Malabar hill were like when you were growing up. On a lighter note, there used to be a ladies tailor in Colaba who had a sign saying, ‘”LADIES CAN HAVE FITS UPSTAIRS”. That is the Bombay I remember, before it became Mumbai and before 1993 tore the city into communal fragments. How much the Bandra I knew has also changed. I remember as a child passing through Bombay enroute to Panchgani and watching elderly men in red bow ties on their way to church on squeaky black Atlas cycles. Tell your story! We would love to read!

    Heta Pandit

    March 31, 2013 at 15:59

    • There are lovely Bombay stories of the 70s, and especially the wondrously eccentric film-makers, artists, Peace Corps veterans, kindly merchants, runaways, air hostesses (Air-India, but naturally) and dandies of every pink description who made Malabar Hill their haunt. Not too far away from the ‘ladies fits’ sign in Colaba were the chambers of the J J Rodriguez Dance School, with its sheaves of outsized card-paper diagrams for your feet – foxtrot, rhumba, cha-cha-cha. Stiffles and Salvation Army, Café Naaz and Touché and Bombellis, what a Bombay it was!

      makanaka

      April 2, 2013 at 15:11


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