“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” ― Ursula K LeGuin
My first film boss had a four-year-old son. When they moved between their two homes across two continents, he whooped with joy at rediscovering his treasured toys, with what I imagine was a thrilling combination of familiarity of beloved favourites and novelty of experiencing them afresh.
I get this with books and films. I’ve watched Audrey and Bogie countless times in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, but I’m comforted and energised every time by its perfect characterisation and charming tone. Likewise, I can read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn again and again, yet feel like it’s a new novel because I am different each time I read it.
I often grumble that I go between the same few places – London, Boston, Dhaka, Bombay – instead of seeing more of the world. So I decided to actively visit new countries. Last year, I went to South Africa. This year, I’m going to Spain and Turkey. But first, I am staying in Bombay.
I love Bombay. Everyone gasped with disbelief when I said I was moving here to write. Who moves to Bombay to write? Go to Goa! Go somewhere where there’s peace and quiet.
On the writing front, there is such a thing as too much quiet. Tranquil pastoral landscapes are gorgeous, but only for a weekend. I love cities. I like hearing its muffled sleepless sounds below and around me. I like knowing that when my head’s too fried from staring at a computer screen, I can step out and join the crowds and forget about myself for a while. I can watch a movie, get lost in a good bookshop or sit in a café and watch people go by. My idea of hell is living in a small place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, or suburbia without reliable/affordable/frequent public transport.
India has always been a special place for me. Like Bangladesh, it has a warm, hospitable culture, where people are willing to help complete strangers and share whatever they have. But like Britain or the US, I am independent, free to roam without disapproval or relying on anyone, especially in Bombay. The combination is a heady one.
Bombay is a city made easy for its busy inhabitants. I can call a pharmacy for a strip of painkillers and it will be at my door in five minutes. It’s the same for vegan meals, fresh green coconut water, wine, toilet paper, even a toaster. It’s a city that’s used to outsiders (from around the country as well as the world) streaming in, often to work in the Hindi film and business capital of India. It has a vibrant café and restaurant culture, where – unlike many other places in the region – I can sit alone and not be pestered or even stared at. The cabs and autos don’t try to pull a fast one, and always go by the meter. It’s safe to walk alone at night. Yes, the rents are some of the highest in the world, but day to day living can be had for delightfully reasonable amounts.
But what really makes Bombay special is that this where many members of my tribe lives. The friend who can finish 14 hours of heavy lifting on a film set then come over for an enlivening chat. The accomplice who never judges when I blurt out my inner thoughts, but also divulges the things we often don’t dare to say. The comrades I worked with daily for two years with whom I share endless inside jokes and references. There are countless more.
In the circular chain of cities-most-frequently-visited, Bombay is the newest one. I had brief glimpses of it while stopping here for a day or a week at a time over many years. Two years of living here while working at Disney made it my home. It’s where I had trusted doctors perform the biggest surgery I’ve had. Where, when I had a fall that broke my teeth, there was a wonderful dentist who put me back together. It’s where, after many attempts in numerous countries, I conquered my lifelong fear of the water and finally learnt to swim, thanks to an amazing coach.
(For those curious why some still call it Bombay instead of Mumbai, it’s because of who pushed for the renaming of the city. Official documents and addresses will always use Mumbai, but most peeps I know say Bombay in discussion.)
Towards the end of my tenure, I became restless, more with the job than the city. It wasn’t an option to stay on without the job – visa restrictions being what they are – and so I moved back to London.
Here and now
Following a delightful week in Delhi spent with more close friends, being in Bombay for a delicious few months ahead of me feels joyous. Thanks to the immense generosity of a dear friend who handed me her apartment (don’t I have the best friends?), I am living in my favourite bit of Bombay too. It’s my old stomping ground. Yet my familiarity is tempered with the dynamism of a city that’s always changing. Old haunts have disappeared. New places have sprouted. It feels exciting in its unknowingness, and I’m eager to become acquainted with it all over again.
When we get used to a place, we stop seeing it with new eyes. We become immune to its little delights and treasures. When a place feels too same-old, same-old, I block it out by plugging music into my ears (or moving). Being back in Bombay, I have no desire to distract myself away from it. I feel like my boss’s four-year-old son reuniting with something that is both old yet new.
I often think of places like people. There are some that I want to like but just don’t mesh with. And some that feel instantly familiar and welcoming, no matter their obvious faults. Disagreements are never begrudged, disappointments are overlooked in light of the bigger picture, and petty grievances long forgotten. When you share battle scars, belly laughs and deep secrets, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been apart. Being together again feels natural and effortless.
Sometimes I think places are like men, and perhaps I’ll never find one that I really and truly click with, or one that I’ll never want to leave. Bombay isn’t my one true love, but for what it’s worth, I’m enjoying every moment of it.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Lady, make note of this –
One of you is lying.
― Dorothy Parker
No longer on a corporate salary, I’m foregoing eye-wateringly expensive treats such as having a cocktail at sunset at AER Bar on the rooftop of Four Seasons hotel in Worli with its 360-degree views of the city, or facials by the magic hands of Tina at Shizuka, or massages and pedicures every weekend at numerous spas (gosh, what a princess I was). Now in my pared down minimalist mode, I wear sandals, put my hair up in a ponytail and wouldn’t dream of wasting money on a designer handbag. While still relatively costly (but at least not eye-wateringly so), here are my reliable go-tos, all in and around my beloved Bandra West:
Not being blessed with good teeth to begin with, smashing them and requiring months of intensive repair work would have been hellish torture, were it not for Dr Rohit Sharma. There are very few professionals I trust so completely. I have forwarded many friends to him who have all come away impressed by his exacting skills, vast knowledge of all things dentistry and friendly presence. We are all loyal to Dr Sharma. So much so, I time my Bombay visits to coincide with six-monthly check-ups. He shares his practice with his wife, Dr Preeti Sharma, who is equally wonderful. Dental Innovations, 102 Leo, 24th Road (St Theresa); appointments 2605-4131.
Indian fabrics are justly renowned for their brilliant colours and patterns, but nothing does it as beautifully for me as Anokhi. I flirt with various shops that specialise in Rajasthani block prints but, inevitably during a periodic wardrobe declutter, everything but the Anokhi stash is given away. Using vegetable dyes often on organic cotton, the patterns are uniquely well made (and patented) and exquisitely aligned (see a shoddy block print and you’ll know what I mean). The clothes are thoughtfully cut to flatter the body, and they never fade or rip despite years of frequent washing. It’s my favourite source for all eastern wear; but also for kaftans, dressing gowns, nightwear and sarongs; not to mention bedcovers, cushion covers, napkins, notebooks, and much more. I know the Bandra branch staff so well, I get a hug when I visit. Anokhi, 210 Waterfield Road; tel 2640-8261.
I mourn the demise of Yellow Tree on Ambedkar Road where I could sit for hours during the day with my laptop over a hot chocolate and get given plates of free bread and hummus by the friendly management, or shoot the breeze with my best buddy over capiroskas after dark. I’m still hunting for a suitable replacement, but in the mean time, it’s fun to revisit Pali Village Café (Ambedkar Road; tel 2605-0401) for pasta and sangria; Olive Bar and Kitchen (14 Union Park; tel 4340-8229) for margaritas; and good old Lemon Leaf (4 Carlton Court, Turner Pali Road, corner of Ambedkar and Turner; tel 2651-1217) for Thai soups and scrumptious spinach and burnt garlic dim sum. I have the fondest memories of many a Sunday brunch with friends at the Andheri West branch of Indigo Deli (where I used to order their excellent burger but will now need to find a veggie alternative), and look forward to trying their Bandra branch at 8 Fatima Villa, 29th Road, Pali Naka; tel 2642-8100.