Bombay dreaming

After a break of 10 years, Will Rhode returns to the Indian city that he brought to life in his first novel. Could it still be as magical - and would his young family see it through his eyes?

I was nervous about returning. It had been 10 years since I was last in Bombay, or Mumbai as it's now officially called, and in that time I had used the city as a backdrop for a large part of my first novel,
Paperback Raita. Had I written it right? Would I still know my way around and recognise the places I used to love? Would they even be there any more? What if the city had changed so much, I wouldn't be able to find what I was looking for?

I was nervous about returning. It had been 10 years since I was last in Bombay, or Mumbai as it's now officially called, and in that time I had used the city as a backdrop for a large part of my first novel, Paperback Raita. Had I written it right? Would I still know my way around and recognise the places I used to love? Would they even be there any more? What if the city had changed so much, I wouldn't be able to find what I was looking for?

And, anyway, what was I looking for - really?

As I arrived, peering out into the neon mists of pre-dawn, the train jerking its way down through the gears over a series of stops into the city centre - Thane, Bandra, Mahim - the thunk of wheels on the tracks, the crow-like chant of "chai, chai, corfee, corfee" in the train corridor, I realised that I wasn't worried that the city might have changed.

I was worried that I had. So much had happened since I was last here. I was married now. I was a father. My two-year-old son was writhing with excitement over me on the sleeper bed, doing his best to sit on my head. My wife was still asleep on the upper tier with my elder son.

In many ways, Bombay marked the beginning of my life. It was the first thing I ever did completely on my own. It was the first city I moved to - without friends, without foundation. I cut my teeth there as a journalist - my first career. And it was the place I wanted most to write about in my first novel.

I was scared that I had moved on. I feared that my love for the city belonged to a different time - a time when I was young and single and brave. Maybe my writing about Bombay had cathartically expelled my fascination with it from my system. My wife might find the place polluted and poverty stricken. What if there wasn't anything to do with the kids? It was a big part me of me, this city.

I needn't have worried. Bombay is like a smell. In fact, Bombay is a smell - a multicoloured confluence drawing from a million sources, marked by the sour stench of raw sewage at one end of the spectrum to the cloying aromas of night queen and frangipani at the other. It has the power to evoke memories. Within seconds of getting off the train, my mind was alive.

The station was just starting to throb with the beginnings of the working day, a familiar sight to me from my morning commute 10 years before. Outside, I was thrilled to see that the taxis were still the battered tin toys they always had been. (New arrivals be warned: these vehicles cook flip-flopped feet). And the driver was just as I remembered all the drivers to be - theatrically wounded by the misfortune of picking up the only foreigner in town rolling his head to the tune of: "Meter only Baba, Meter only".

He was sufficiently good-humoured about it. He loved the kids. In fact, during our entire stay there wasn't a single taxi driver or restaurateur or passer-by that didn't attempt to squeeze the cheeks off the children with a glint of child-like wonder and happiness in their own eyes. Even the beggars sometimes seemed more intent on drawing a smile from our blond-haired, blue-eyed terrorists than a few rupees from my pocket.

It was the kind of welcome no place could fake. There was no ceremony or amount of five-star service that could compete with this kind of warmth. I was relieved to find that Bombay could handle the changes I'd made to my life. It was good to be back. And the kids loved it too. We ate kulfi on Chowpatty Beach, swam in the spectacular salt-water swimming pool at Breach Candy and played in the playgrounds at the Hanging Gardens on Malabar Hill. We combined these games with my own trip down memory lane revisiting the places I'd used as the backdrop for Paperback Raita and which I now needed to refresh my memory on since starting work on the screenplay.

I took the family to the old Jesuit guesthouse I lived in for six months in the red-light district of Byculla. With the exception of a new flyover running from Crawford Market to Mahalaxmi Racecourse, which threw us over the heavily congested Mohammed Ali Road past the third floors of the city's dilapidated colonial tenement blocks with incredible efficiency and speed, I was delighted to find it hadn't changed one bit.

It was still the imposing tower I remembered, cleanly tiled and gated off from the fog of exhaust outside. And there was still the benevolent smile of St Ignatius in the lobby. The room rate also remained the same, 250 rupees (just over £3) for a night.

I even met Philomena Green, the stern lady behind reception whom I'd fictionalised in Paperback Raita as the disapproving Rose. In the novel, Rose threatens to throw the protagonist, Josh Green, out of the hostel for exceeding the standard stay of one month. True to my own experience, Josh side-steps this rule and extends his stay to six months by agreeing to teach English to street-kids in the evenings. Philomena reminded me that the one-month rule still applied. I wasn't surprised when she said it wasn't convenient for me to visit my old room. I think she was pretty bemused that I had even stayed at the hostel, even more so that I felt the need to revisit the place with my wife and children 10 years later.

We revisited a lot of restaurants I used to go to. As far as I was concerned a trip to Mumbai wasn't complete without a mutton biryani from Leopold's on Colaba, a crème caramel at Olympia, a fish curry from any one of the restaurants down at the docks, or a lamb kebab from the Bademiya's, the street stall behind the Taj Hotel.

The kids particularly loved Bademiya's which, rather incredibly for a street stall, seemed to have become a place to be seen for Bombay's beautiful people. I've never seen it so heaving. They loved to watch the guy spinning roomali rotis (a paper-thin type of Indian bread) in the air like pizza dough. He then threw them down to brown on to an upside-down, blazing-hot wok before picking them off with his fingers, folding them into napkin-shapes and hurling them into a basket. He usually did this without looking or with a shimmy of the shoulders like Tom Cruise serving drinks in Cocktail.

Somehow we managed to wangle our way into the legendary Bombay Gymkhana, which still has a strict Victorian code even though they let non-white members in now. My wife was made to wear a shower cap before getting into the pool - the kids nearly wet themselves. While they relaxed in the shade of palm trees and the Bombay Stock Exchange, I drank beer with my host in the members-only bar. Through the window, I watched the gleam of flannel whites on the impeccable lawns of the Gymkhana and, just beyond them, the ramshackle self-organised cricket game in the yellowed dustbowls of Churchgate.

It was the only depressing moment of the trip, just the kind of contrast in economies that I struggled with while living in Bombay and which I wrote about in Paperback Raita. In the book, Josh Green lives on a pittance while rubbing shoulders with the rich and beautiful at glamorous Bollywood parties. As a freelance journalist for Reuters I earned 12,500 rupees (£186) a month covering press events in air-conditioned five-star hotels.

Like Josh, I watched in horror on a daily basis the beggars and the hordes of people sleeping on the streets. Meanwhile I got invited to members-only clubs, like the Bombay Gym. Indeed, I pined for the relief they offered.

But I wasn't used to this combination. Seeing the poverty in Mumbai was one thing, going to a smart club was another, but placing the two directly together like this was hard to handle.

Had I really expected this to have changed? Hierarchy and privilege were as endemic to the sub-continent as British colonial rule and the caste system. There wasn't any real difference between a white person only being allowed to play cricket on the polished runways of the Gymkhana and a fair-skinned upper caste Indian with a posh English accent doing exactly the same thing. I knew all this already.

I realised how blinkered I'd been living here, though, how selective in my vision and thinking. I thought about all the times I hadn't given to beggars and all the times I'd argued with taxi drivers over the fares. I was ashamed of myself for the way that I had fiercely budgeted, competing with everyone else in the city to hold on to my hard-earned rupees. Because I was out of it now, I was earning much more and I was free. I always had been. Even though I had earned very little and lived in a basic guesthouse while here, I'd never really been poor because I'd never been trapped. I'd always had an out. I'd always had a members club, or a plane ticket, or a better job with better prospects to go to.

What a fool I'd been to pretend I'd really lived in Bombay. I knew nothing. Look at me, look at where I was. I couldn't argue with a taxi driver over the meter again. I couldn't refuse any beggar. After 10 years of being away, I finally knew what I was, what I had always been. I was a tourist.

I turned to the big-screen TV. Pakistan was busy bowling India out in the third of a series of one-day internationals. Even more incredibly, some of the locals were rooting for the old enemy.

Ten years ago I would have laughed at the thought of this. At that time, riding on a wave of sectarian violence throughout the country, the BJP Hindu nationalist party had just come to power. In Bombay itself, which had suffered the bomb blasts of 1993 and a massacre of Muslims during the Bombay riots, the even more extreme Hindu fundamentalist party, Shiv Sena, led by the fanatical Bal Thackeray, had taken control of the local government.

In those days, the media ranted on a daily basis about the threat and terror of Pakistan. Now there were whisperings of possible reunification. A new bus service between the two parts of Pakistan and India-controlled Kashmir was just starting. Pakistan's General Musharraf was on his way to the country for talks.

Outside, everything in cricket remained the same. On TV, everything in cricket was changing. Bombay was on the frontier of another change, with the latest invader to the sub-continent - capitalism. Everywhere I looked there were signs of this rogue.

Ten years ago, Ambassadors, Fiat Premiers and Tatas ruled the road. Now the streets were filled with Honda Accords and Japanese SUVs - though I had to admit, if there was one city where people might claim to genuinely need an SUV it would be Bombay.

I remembered advertising billboards all being hand-painted, often marvelling at the men dangling from bamboo scaffolding painstakingly inking the words of famous brands or the voluptuous lips of the latest Bollywood starlet.

Not any more. Now, they are all neon lit and sophisticatedly photographed. There's even a Time Out magazine. The city is in the throes of a media and advertising extravaganza.

But Bombay seems to be taking the invasion in its stride. Where else in the world would you find a McDonald's selling Mac Alu Tikki, or a Pizza Hut only serving vegetarian pizza, or a coffee shop selling cardamom lattes?

Sometimes, it was hard to tell who was getting the better of whom, the invader or the invaded.

On a ferry to the Elephanta Caves, there was an ad for the new Virgin Atlantic service and I was amused to see every member of the crew proudly sporting bright-red Virgin T-shirts.

Bombay also made me consider if India was becoming more capitalist or if capitalism was becoming Indianised? I realised for the first time how the city was single-handedly responsible for all those ads on British TV with a Bollywood theme.

If India is to become the world's next superpower alongside China as some are predicting it will be, then I can only imagine what the future might hold - and then expect India to out do it, just as it has in its relations with Pakistan.

But I was happy to see that Bombay wasn't completely spoiling itself on the massive amounts of new money being injected into the city, if anything it was using it to make some much-needed improvements.

Chowpatty Beach never looked so clean, the Gateway to India was in much better condition and the lawns at Flora Fountain were now lovingly maintained.

And even though my wife was tempted to repeatedly compare the ever-extending, land-reclaiming Bombay skyline to Hong Kong, there wasn't anything like the kind of rampant, nihilistic skyscraper construction you find in that city.

In fact, largely due to stringent city construction regulations, I only saw one or two skyscrapers being built, and most of them weren't anywhere near the coastal road of Marine Drive with its wonderful, collapsing, colonial low-rise blocks.

I asked a taxi driver in trepidation about the one exception, a grand soapstone building with large panes of mirrored glass, if it was the beginnings of a Marriott or a Sheraton.

"No", he replied, "it's going to be a new hospital." Clearly some changes aren't worth fearing.

Will Rhode's second novel, 'White Ghosts', will be published by Simon & Schuster in August

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) all fly non-stop from Heathrow to Mumbai. Regional departures are available with British Airways, connecting at Heathrow.

STAYING THERE

Taj President Hotel (00 91 22 5665 0808; www.tajhotels.com), 90 Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, India. Doubles start at 8,250 rupees (£100), including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

India Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org). British passport holders require a visa to visit India. Call the High Commission of India for further details (020-7836 8484; www.hcilondon.net).

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