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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Window

There is no such thing as silence in Bombay. Rohan's dark balcony was our box for tonight's opera. For a while, we didn't talk. The curtains lifted slowly, as I turned off the light in the room behind me and leaned against the cold railing. Characters scaled the sultry suburban set, their stories told in soft lamp-light night.

For the time first I really looked at Rohan, to see what had changed since he'd last seen him over three years ago. The truth was that he was pretty much the same best friend I'd known in boarding school in Bangalore. He still spoke in that numb-tongued Bandra monotone and he was still as happily unsure about life as ever. We'd both graduated and yet I felt like I was the only one who'd changed. I rubbed a layer of jet-lag from his eyes. I had forgotten how much he missed looking down at Linking Road at night.

I had seen almost this exact same view from my grandparents living room window, once or twice a year, all my life. It was a 5th floor apartment bought in the 60s, that had increased a hundred fold in value as Bombay puffed out its chest. The window must have been six feet tall and 12 feet wide. It is a portrait I could stare at for hours and hours. Its meaning changed as I grew up. When I was big enough to just about peak over the ledge and see outside the window during the day, all that gripped me was the vastness of the city. Old 5 or 6 story buildings as far as the eye could see. They stretched right the way to the end of the horizon, blending in the end with the smog slurping sky. At about 6 or 7, I was a full head clear of the ledge. I could see the sprawling tree directly in front of their building, providing welcome shelter for street kids and dogs from the vicious heat of the afternoon sun. During the day, there was too much happening. Back then, one could just about make out the silhouettes of high rise offices in town. You'd be lucky to see a hundred feet in front of you now though. Mid-rise buildings on Pali Hill fight an endless fight with each other. The futile scrap to be the biggest kid on the playground at any cost. An extra floor here, an extension there; its war to reach the smoky city ceiling that no one will ever win for more than a moment.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I couldn't look at the portrait during the day anymore without getting a headache, so I started observing it at night. The yellow and black taxis that normally buzz around are fast asleep. Every now and then an auto-rickshaw would cackle past below. There was always music of some sort from the adjacent slum, which drifted up to the window with the day's fumes. I love the way the street lights and shopping malls made Linking Road glow. I remember that warm, enticing orange glow that caused the night sky to blush purple. That's another thing about Bombay: like the air is never silent, the sky is never black. The night was deceptive in its ways though - visiting our Bandra house every year as a kid, I always expected it to cool down at night yet have only recently accepted the perpetual, unwavering heat.

And like all those nights, I look down at Bandra with Rohan. I was gazing at the same picture from a different perspective though. I was wearing new lenses. I could pick out individual characters. The milk man on his lonely round, whose only give-away was the creaky sound of his antique cycle homeward bound. The snoring auto driver who's head stuck out the side of his MTV pimped-out ride. High heels make sound like a trotting horse. The clip-clop beat is Morse code that the girls who wore them rode home. The watchmen watching nothing at all, who sat below them tuning small radios; whistles at the ready, they're 'protecting' the mall.

I was shaken from his dream by Rohan's words.

"So how long you here for?" he asked, as he sat down on the tiled balcony floor.

"No idea man. Depends on where these people want me to work." I said, as I joined him.

"Oh I see... but I thought you worked for them in London?"

"Ya I worked there last summer, but I was handling stuff for their Indian office. It's easier if I'm here, isn’t it?"


There was a long pause, during which I thought he caught a glimmer of that illusive sprite they call silence. She whispered in my ear, but left in Rohan's smoke cloud as soon as I turned towards her.

"What, yaar?" I asked, turning to Rohan.

He tutted and exhaled, "Shut up, this is my last cig". We both chuckled.

After spending a good half hour savouring the rare Bombay breeze and the calm of the early hours, we went back inside Rohan's room. Bombay wealth is something else. Rohan wasn’t even 'upper class' (in the archaic sense) and yet everything in that house cost 3 times as much as everything in my gated complex apartment in Bangalore. There were obnoxious plasma TVs in every room. Italian marble flooring gleamed under the stylish low-lights. Despite Rohan’s Sindhi roots, walls were tastefully done with modern art and family pictures. The living room of this 6th floor, $3m apartment sported elegant black leather furniture that matched the minimalist black designs etched into the marble floor. There was an astonishingly well stocked bar, complete with a black marble counter-top who's opal inlay winked at passersby. It felt like something out of movie set, out of the American Gardens Building on West 81st Street.

And yet it did not surprise or overwhelm me. This was Pali Hill. This was Bombay. I had seen houses like this before. I had been desensitised by now. This was how these people lived.

I washed my hands and face in his immaculate bathroom, chuckling to myself at how inefficient the 'minimalist' rectangular sink was as I watched the soapy water settle in the corners. Style over substance; but hey, he was Sindhi.

Wesettled down on the bed and watched sleepily as the TV murmured into life. Something in Hindi. Next. “Should we fear China - an NDTV Special”. Next. Some obscure English county match from 1998. Next. A ghastly reality show with that cringe-worthy ticker-tape zooming across the bottom. Next. A bomb has gone off somewhere no one really cares about. Next. House music on Vh1. Finally, something we didn't need to think about. We were still school kids.

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