The Prisoner Of Bombay
Bombay was my first love.
It was painted under my eyelids in psychedelic hues.
I always saw it when my eyes closed.
I am like the demon in the folk tale
who could never be killed,
because his life was stored in the parrot.
Mine is in Bombay.
(I find this funny because I now see the
phrase ‘Bambai meri jaan; in new light).
Sitting in the sleek Singapore taxis that
smell of perfumed air-conditioned air
I longed for black & yellow Bombay taxis.
I imagined those Fiat taxis having large eyes and open mouths,
like a friendly street dog,
shaggy, warm and familiar,
tongue lolling, running to greet me.
The taxi lullabied me with a Rafi song from the 70s,
as they sped me away in my post-work drunken stupor,
the salty Arabian sea breeze roaring in through the window
whipping my hair back like a film star,
making me dream the scintillating Bombay dream;
one day I would leave my rented matchbox and land in a bungalow with high gates guarded by a Nepali gurkha; who would say ‘shalaamshaab’ frequently.
Ambling in the botanic garden in Singapore,
calm still evades me.
I longed for the temple in Mahim.
Squeezed between apartments of
various shapes and sizes
like a lazy boy’s diorama project
the temple looked like the gods had elbowed their way to make space.
It was an impossible mash-up of sights and sounds;
ancient idols, cement, prasad, plastic, pigeons, incense, stones, food, tube-lights, saffron, milk, sindoor, tumblers, marigold, rudraksha...
My thoughts bounced off these
like a cricket rubber ball attempting to find gravity;
as I surrendered myself
and my soul rolled in this spiritual dirt,
my mind lapsed into languor,
that night I slept soundly,
like in my mother’s lap.
As I chatted in a fancy lounge at a Singapore quay
my mind raced back to the grimy bars of Bombay
with grand mythological names like
Krishna-Punjab, Utsav, and Urvashi.
Am sitting in plastic moulded furniture
nibbling masala peanuts
and a waiter filled with brotherly love,
has chosen to dedicate his life to serving me.
My mouth weaves stories and anecdotes,
I am a sit-down comic,
I laugh at my own jokes that
life in Bombay supplies endlessly.
Some of these stories will last forever.
Every evening the people of Bombay
opened their mouths elliptically with joy.
Their cheeks stuffed with delight,
the juice of bliss spilling out,
eyes lit up in ecstasy
as they savoured paani-puri.
A tangy chuckle of happiness
exacting revenge against a city that exhausted them daily.
a terrace jutting out in the heart of Bombay
Here you could drink and feed
on the breast of Bombay itself
while watching the skyline through the curtain of pollution.
Once a fierce sea gale blew away everything;
the napkins, the plates, the forks, the knives,
the salt and pepper shakers
the food, the drinks,
the ice, the tables, the chairs…
Your clothes flapping,
it was asking you to be naked and dance
on this crazy nook that was magically
in the middle of the city and the middle of nowhere.
I longed to be at The Ghetto.
No fancy cocktail bar will do for me.
The Ghetto was a passage to a world
that hid in plain sight.
It was like a well-worn T-shirt.
it was like a chair that had sunken in well
to make place for your butt cheeks.
It was like a fire place.
It was like a wife who loved you despite your shortcomings.
You didn’t just visit The Ghetto, you belonged to it.
I longed for the quaint lanes near
St. John Baptist road, Bandra,
where old ladies stood in balconies,
looking out expectantly,
for glory days to return.
The smell of fried seafood
in the air like a thick curtain
you could lick it
as you waited to be served
around 7pm the crooners came on
singing at every table
frail, crooked teeth, thinning ponytails
voices textured by cigarettes and liquor
they would sing
‘I can’t help falling in love’
and I couldn’t help squirming in my seat
in their glorious youth they’d
never imagined singing to people
poised to dive into vindaloo curry
life had cheated them
this I was certain of
hiding money in the palm of my hand
I discreetly tipped them
with a casual handshake
and wished them to depart
Once I was dining with an asshole
and he held out hundred-rupee notes
like a fan of cards
and put up a grand show of
tipping them publicly
I wiggled nonstop
trying to disappear into
those leather chairs
Lost in the collective
we were attached to the rest
of our family via alu-poori
Whenever we met them
a generational pyramid we gazed up at
from our tiny stature
At the top, 2 croaking great grannies
4 complaining grannies
4 silver haired grandpas
6 flower-in-the-hair aunts
6 moustachioed uncles
Base layer, 24 cousins
Surrounded by eyes and noses that resembled ours
like we had swum out from the same gene pool
The pack heaped love on you
your hair combed; your tummy fed
Too many to remember names
we attached prefixes to identify them
like Transistor Mama, Sambalpur Kaka,
or the rare Chicago Mausi
They became objects and places rather than people
Time races, we pledge allegiance to the city we live in
we pluck out the wires connecting us
enjoy the freedom of our born again individuality
Now we are a dazed body on a sofa, watching Netflix
We writhe around the urban emptiness that bites us
We hurt when we don’t get invited to a party
Often strike conversation with the food delivery boy
We innocuously ask about Transistor Mama
the next time we call home
Sometimes, you find the perfect cafe.
It is not too filled up.
You can choose a seat of your liking.
Even try out two different spots.
The music is great and the coffee is flawless.
You write a poem or two.
“These people get me,” you say to yourself.
You make a trip again after a week to catch the zen.
The place is crowded.
Somebody chats loudly about their
holiday to Machu Pichu at the next table.
The server is formal.
Your heart is broken.
You invest in a coffee maker
and never step out again.
A Wound Likely To Hurt A Lifetime
The counterpoint to Irrfan Khan is not ‘Bollywood’, but Aamir Khan.
Irrfan shows us the difference between genuineness and inessential sanctimony.
Happy Birthday sir!
On a narcotic noon in Mahim
having skipped work
I first saw you in an episode of a TV serial
you were gaunt and totally into it
In a blood pooled cinema hall in Matunga
we met again
in an adaption of Macbeth
you bite your lips to stifle a smile
in a ruthless execution scene
no one had ever done that in a filmI was pretty certain
As Pi of the Piscine Molitor
you narrate the story
with such grave sincerity
after listening to you my accent abandoned my tongue
I felt myself settling down inside me
Watching your story arc
from my room in Mahim
to Ang Lee’s blue skies in a Singapore theatre
‘look how far he has come’
I exclaimed to myself
because no one in the aisle had been to Mahim
as in cinema
so in life Irrfan
you offer hope
to take our chances with ourselves
and above all carry ourselves authentically
(Subodh Deshpande’s love for creativity led him to a career in advertising in Mumbai and Singapore. He is currently based in Singapore, and now exploring how human sense-making can make companies and brands more compelling. Subodh is a poet, a writer, and a nature lover. He likes to believe he is a Bombay poet in exile. In his mental landscape, he still treads the by lanes of Bombay. He lives a double life; a brand consultant by day and a writer by night. He writes poetry and non-fiction essays about the India that was, the India that is and his unfolding migrant identity. He is married and a father to two daughters who refuse to join him on his bird-watching strolls.)