June 24, 2007

Outside the Taj

I waited long for the balloon seller that day.

Behind me the stone archway of Gateway of India rose amidst the multitude milling about its base among pani puri, salted peanut, and ice-cream vendors, and looked out on the Arabian sea in the direction of Elephanta caves. Streams of visitors, some regular, others occasional, crowded the Apollo Bunder like they do every day of the week, coming from far and wide to lounge against the stone parapet and look out on colourful vessels, sea-worthy and otherwise, bobbing in the waters off Apollo Bunder.

The road runs by the Taj Palace Hotel where horse driven carriages, known as Victoria, await tourists - families and young couples - visiting the Gateway for a ride on Bombay’s old streets. The stiff breeze bends back their carefully set hair and blows it free, taking away with it inhibitions, and shrieks and excited cries swirl in the competing cacophony of revelers amid the noise of Taxis and sundry vehicles, drowning the sound of hooves cantering on the asphalt to the steady rhythm of the city – never rushed in all the rushing.

It is perfectly possible to be hearing all of this and still be deaf to it all, for such is the atmosphere in the evenings at the Gateway that it floods the senses with the joy of the outdoors, so much so that if not for an accidental glance at my watch I wouldn’t have known that it was over an hour now that I had been waiting for the balloon seller, my camera slung from my shoulder and a bhutta (corn head roasted over coals) spiced with a spit of lemon and chilli in my hand. Rains threatened overhead but hadn’t breached the bank of clouds that now rolled into the harbour. I had set out for the Gateway imagining in my mind just such a setting, only the colourful balloons were missing. All along, the monsoon breeze washed over me, invigorating me with the promise of life. It was then that I first realised that the three chauffeurs outside the hotel The Taj Mahal Palace adjoining the relatively newer Taj Towers hadn’t moved far from their cars in over twenty minutes. I had traveled a long distance by train that day hoping to capture on film the bounce of brightly coloured balloons in the stiff monsoon breeze against the grey of clouds rolling in from the west while faint light played out the evening.

I waited for a break in the traffic before crossing the road to where The Taj Mahal Palace rose from the sidewalk to tower over the skyline in a mix of Oriental, Moorish, and Florentine styles. Three chauffeurs waited by their gleaming black cars, talking. From across the road while I waited for the balloon seller, every once in a while I would pull my eyes away and look up at the majestic hotel, tracing my eyes along its contours, occasionally catching some movement in the rooms that together with the adjoining annexe number over 550. The stone shows no visible signs of aging from looking out to sea since 1903, the year Jamsetji Tata, a Parsi Industrialist, completed its construction to counter European prejudice that had kept Indians out of hotels and clubs frequented by Europeans who looked down upon them as royalty would commoners. The adjoining annexe, Taj Towers, was completed in 1972 and now stands where Green’s Hotel once did.

I find stone magical and it delights me no end to look at stone structures. In my travels across India, meandering in towns from long ago, stone houses seemingly belie the passage of time. I have grown to like the feel that such structures bring to the lanes they reside in. They imbue the locality with a permanence of an optimistic, letting time echo in the bends that curve away beneath Gulmohar or Copper Pod canopies in the middle of spring, washing sidewalks with their blooms and filtering sky light to dreamy hues that promise endless possibilities.

But there are no trees tall enough to tower over the Taj Palace, nor spacious gardens with flowering trees fronting its arches and framed windows. Instead the Taj sits in the middle of the street by Apollo Bunder like a petulant child reluctant to leave behind his candy floss blown asunder by strong monsoon winds. If I were new to Bombay, coming upon the Taj at the turn in a busy street would have startled me for I would least expect such majesty to sit so easily or so it seems among ‘commoners’.

June 21, 2007

The Smile

He stopped by the poster announcing the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, and so did his two friends while on their way past us in the Army and Navy building in Fort. They had the same uniform on. There is little to smile about when you're working as a Security Guard in Mumbai. I wonder what he saw in the poster that made him smile so.