Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bombay, Meri Jaan

Sometimes nostalgia bubbles up at the most unexpected and inexplicable moments. For instance, this week, as a stretch of fairly glorious spring weather (blue skies, warm days) has descended on New York City, I have felt drawn to the memories of some of my days in Bombay earlier this year, and particularly to the smog-choked, very-crowded lanes of the Fort Area, where I spent much of my time.

With vendors from Sikkim and other remote parts of India clogging the sidewalks, the friendly Nepalese man who would sell me a Diet Coke on hot days, the busy restaurants and sweets shops churning out mouth-watering vindaloo, channa masala and nan (with the Parsi café where I often had breakfast opting for simpler fare of eggs, bread and excellent chai) and the Great Britian-on-ayahuasca architecture of Victoria Terminus and the General Post Office rising in the background, Fort was my first taste of Bombay, and it remained a seductive blend. With the exception of the slum of Dharavi (population 1 million), I don’t know if I have ever seen a part of the city more thoroughly representative of the vast polyglot of modern India, with the tongues of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil (and many others) all represented in its lanes.

And then there were the bookstores. It seems to be a well-kept secret, but Bombay is about the greatest place to buy English-language books that I’ve ever found, with dozens of open-air stalls and an equal number of fine bookshops selling new books for as little as 100-200 rupees (about US$3-$6).

Though some favored the more politically-minded Bookzone, I myself was quite taken with the Strand Book Stall, first pointed out to me by my friend Ashim Ahluwalia. Almost hidden among a warren of alleys the Strand is still a favorite of the Bombay literary cognoscenti . Founded in 1948, and much like the eponymous-though-unrelated Strand here in New York City, the Strand in Bombay has become something of a ritual for bibliophiles in the city and, unlike the New York version’s increasingly rapacious pricing (which make it not much less expensive than an ordinary bookshop and significantly more expensive than online buying options), Bombay's Strang has kept its prices modest enough that strapped-for-cash readers can enter knowing that they will be able to leave with something eminently worthwhile. It was in the lanes of Bombay that I discovered the work of Mohsin Hamid, Humra Quraishi and Kalpana Sharma, all significant contributors to my yet-ongoing Indian education.

1 comment:

Cari said...

You saw Ashim while you were there?! I miss that man.