Sunday, January 29, 2006

Of Drying Fish

Among the million things I did last month was to "show" the friend of a very dear friend, Bombay. Her name is Holly: a chirpy-warm person and great fun to hang out with - willing to be dragged up and down, checking stuff out! She's also a Fulbright scholar, in India for the first time and was working at the Met. I'd give an eye-teeth to do that - sigh!

We met up in Bandra and after a very leisurely and enjoyable lunch at Lemon Grass, the Carter Road promenade it was, to get drenched in the indolent, late afternoon sun. Mea culpa, I must admit. We didn't go there simply because the promenade is gorgeous. Ever since the last time I had seen the bombil, or Bombay Duck, drying at the koliwada at the northern end of Carter Road, my shutter-button-happy finger had been dying to go back.

You see, in Bombay, I've lived all my life by the sea. Well, most of all my life. Our new home is the only one I've not looked out onto endless expanse of ocean from at least one of the windows. I've grown up with the smell of bombil drying, rising up from the koliwada, offending the nostrils. Only this stench, beside the smell of burning rubber at Kalyan station at four in the morning, will get me smiling like one crazed because my city, my home, approaches.

Wondering what a koliwada is? Allow me. The original inhabitants of Bombay are the kolis, a community of deep-sea fishermen and a koliwada is their settlement along the shore. Mumbai, the official name of Bombay, originates from Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the kolis, enshrined to this day in Dongri. A number of well-known areas also owe their names to the original koli versions. For example, Kolbhat is what we know and love as Colaba. :-)

A koliwada is usually a bustling and colourful place, replete with the sounds, smells and business of the sea. Bombay used to have six "great koliwadas" of which, none survive in their erstwhile glory. The growth and spread of urbania has pushed the kolis into increasingly smaller spaces, now seen only at places like Backbay Reclamation, Mahim, Bandra, Khar, Bassien and Madh Island. If it wasn't for a number of landmark Supreme Court rulings protecting the fishermen's rights in the 1960s, they'd have nowhere to call home.

When you first approach the Bandra koliwada, rack upon rack of drying bombil assault the nose. But once you've gotten past that, you begin to see how beautiful the red-white fish look against the flush of the retreating sun. You have to appreciate the effort going into cleaning and putting the fish out to dry because that's one fish that smells up a storm. You also had to admire the efficient, disciplined way in which the racks are set up and the various dried fish sorted for sale and export.

On the Rack

Note: I am firmly of the opinion that where there are fish to be had, there you will find a feast of crows. These, I believe, were waiting to swoop in for the kill once the fisherwomen had moved away. I fully accept that this may be the hypothesis of a suspicious mind.

Feast of Crows

A little further down were the aforementioned fisherwomen, cleaning out shrimp. I moved closer to capture them going about their business with a stunning economy of movement. When they noticed me, the usual questions about which newspaper/magazine I worked for and the self-conscious smiles came but their hands didn't stop - not for a second.

So there I was, composing my shot when I caught a couple of sentences in Gujarati - and nearly dropped my camera. To my utter shock, these women were not kolis but my brethren from Gujarat. Now, it's not that Gujarat doesn't have its indigenous community of fishermen but drying fish in Bandra, these ladies are a long way from "home." I switched to my broken Gujarati and we were off!

A few families from their village had apparently moved to Bombay a couple of generations ago - between 35-40 years ago - from Kuchchh. They had come to the city of dreams to realise their own. Being outsiders in a community so far removed from their own cannot have been easy and indeed, it didn't seem to be because they were quite unwilling to talk about it. And they still spoke of Gujarat as their gaam. The word is translated as village but I do believe home would be far more accurate. And yet, Bombay is still home. Strange as it is, I understand that.

After a long conversation, they told me I could take more photos if I wished. One them even posed for me! She had the loveliest smile - tired but warm as the noonday sun. Unfortunately, the light on that one didn't do her justice thus I will not post it. However, in the photo below she's the lady in the brown saree, half-obscured by the tray of cascading shrimp.

Work with Me

This last photo? Well, Holly and I walked down from the dying yard to the rocks on the beach - I use the word loosely, I should like you to know. I turned around to see, in the center of all the drying rack, this crow perched on a pole, the king of all he surveyed. I quite liked it. I hope you do too.

Of All I Survey

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

And about the New Year

I have not been lazy. Nor have I given up blogging. I swear. Solemnly. I have been sitting here, in front of my computer, contemplating my nails. Torn between posting on the end of the year, simply carrying on with one of the few posts I've been mulling over, or finally, catching my breath a bit.

For all my quiet - oh alright, not-so-quiet, then - murmurs of disgruntlement about a lack of friends and things to do, the past five weeks (or so) have been replete with exactly these. And my cup ran over and spilled down the front of my life, I think. All of a sudden, I've had too much to do and Christ, after that first fitting, I think my tailor's given up hope of seeing me again!

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was down from wherever in world (and India) they are. As a result, I have taken more long lunches at work, skipped work by 19:00 sharp, and gone to Bandra more times in the past month than in the past two years! I must admit to being a little bewildered because despite the complaining, I have gotten used to being on my own - with fewer than a few people around.

I have gotten used to a drink, dinner or a movie being events occuring when the moon is aligned with something that I can't quite identify. My multi-tasking skills aren't what they used to be, I fear, because I am now, officially, exhausted. Not to say that I minded the rushing about but I seem unable to keep pace. Grown soft in the teeth, I was told by an insolent young pup!

These five weeks have to be the best for what seems a very, very long time. I met some very old and dear friends - put up with tantrums, threw some of my own and knew that everything was definitely okay. I finally put a face and physical personality to a friend, and one of the greatest poets I'll ever read, in an afternoon of chocolate sepia conversations. I gloried in peculiar, unexpected conversations at Crossword and leisurely lunches over photography, sunsets and nostalgia.

My camera and I saw one of my closest friends get married and are now secure in the fact that we have ammunition forever! My one profound observation: there are few things as joyous and heartwarming as watching two people, who so evidently want to be together, getting married. And oh? Get off, all those thinking "Ah yes, prime example of a sentimental fool!" :-)

I also made some friends I hope to see a lot more of. I know this is long overdue but I am not going to talk about it now because I do believe these encounters deserve their own post. And I do promise not to forget about this post, the way I have other post-promises I've made.

There is one that deserves special mention. One for whom I waited two years to come back from the US. My best friend; a man who, despite his impatience, is the most wonderful man. The past couple of years have been life-altering for the both of us and before he arrived, I wondered what being around each other again would be like.

All my speculation could not have done this justice. These threads were the same but different... steadying, mature and stronger than ever. I feel rested, certainly recharged enough to take on the next few months. It's going to be a very long two years if I do not do what I must in October.

On a completely different note, the only thing that has not taken a backseat is photography. The photograph below is of a dear friend, patient ear, and indulgent partner in photographic adventures, A, against a sunset at Marine Drive. He had just taken his shot and was coming back when I took this one. It is, indubitably, one of my absolute favourites! Ever.