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Bombay Timeby Thrity Umrigar
Bombay is awake. All over the city, alarm clocks ring. Their ringing awakens the sun, so that it rolls out of bed and begins its slow, reluctant climb across the sky. Along the way, it leaves behind a drool of red, like the scarlet streaks of paan spit that color the city's walls and buildings. The men doing their daily exercises at Worli Sea Face barely notice the lightening sky and the sun's ascendancy. They grunt; they sweat; their muscled bodies gleam like dark branches in the morning light. Soon, they will be hurtled from the dark bosom of the predawn and its anonymous, elusive peace. But for this brief moment, they own the city, these shadowy men, an army of grunting, sweating silhouettes, as they do their sit-ups, practice their wrestling moves, perform their yoga exercises, breathe in the sweet morning air. For a short, precious moment, no boom box blares Hindi film music; no taxis speak in the harsh language of beeps. Just the sounds of their own breathing and of the sighing ocean as it tosses and turns in its sleep. So that it is easy for these men to believe that they own this dark city-its warm air, its palm trees, its hollow moon, its foaming waters.
But now, the city owns them. Bombay is awake to another day.
Across town, Wadia Baug on Bomanji Road is stirring with life. Whispers of, "Come on, it's late. Ootho, get up," compete with the clanging of alarm clocks. An occasional "Please, Mummy. Five more minutes to sleep" merges with threats of buckets of cold water Deing emptied on old sleepyhead if he doesn't get out of bed, fatta-faat, this very moment. The damp smell of yawns gives way to the sharp scent of toothpaste. Then comes the thudding noise of fists on the bathroom door: "Hurry up. You're not the only one living here. Minoo has to do potty urgently." In the first- and second-floor apartments, water flows freely out of the kitchen taps. But on the third and fourth floors, the tap chokes and gurgles like an old asthmatic woman and the women beat it with their open palms, trying to coax a trickle of water. "Greedy pigs," they mutter about their fortunate neighbors. "Using water as if Niagara Falls is flowing in their house." Still cursing, the women dip a plastic cup into the bucket of water they had filled up the night before. With this, they brush their teeth.
Soon, the first doorbell rings. Bhajan, the butcher, is delivering meat. The women stand at their doors in their duster coats, some with scarves on their heads. At every apartment where Bhajan drops off a slab of goat meat wrapped in butter paper, a woman opens the packet, inspects the contents, and asks for a meatier cut. "All haadis," she says. "Who you saving the good parts for? We're paying for meat, not bones. And this piece looks gray, like it's ten days old." Each time, Bhajan protests, singing the praises of the meat he sells, swearing he shows no partiality among his customers. Then he gives them each a different package, containing another bony cut. Each woman takes the second packet and shuts the door with satisfaction. That badmash Bhajan. You have to watch him every time.
Wadia Baug is now ringing and lighting up like a telephone switchboard. First, it's the pauwala, dropping off fresh rolls of bread. Next, the doodhwala rings the bell. Another fellow you have to watch carefully. Just to keep him on his toes, the women accuse him daily of mixing water in the milk. Some mornings, the women on the same floor all gang up on him, accusing him of the same foul deed. Together, their chorus of complaints drown out his feeble protests. They laugh at him and grumble to one another about how expensive food has become in Bombay, about the latest sugar shortage or the absurd cost of butter and cheese, about how all the best and biggest prawns and pomfrets are being exported to the Gulf. Same with fruits and vegetables. The older ones remember vaguely the good old days of British rule. And now that the women have said good morning to one another, they hurry inside their apartments, feeling better.
While their wives are cooking breakfast, the men prepare for their bath. After a quick bath, they emerge smelling of Lifebuoy or Lux or Hamam soap. Those with relatives abroad smell of Camay or Dove or Yardley. The women suddenly feel selfconscious of their sour, sweaty bodies.
Now it's time for breakfast. The women serve the largest portion of the scrambled eggs to their men. Next, they serve their elderly relatives and their children. They keep the least amount for themselves. Usually, they eat directly from the frying pan, using the bread to wipe it clean of grease. One less plate to wash.
The men read the Times of India or Indian Express while they eat. The children fight over the comics page. There they are, their daily friends: Archie and Jughead. Ritchie Rich. Mandrake the Magician. Phantom, the Ghost Who Walks. Tarzan, King of the Apes. Lost in the comics, they barely hear their mothers' endless droning: "Drink your milk." "Do you have all your homework? Look at your shoes. Didn't 1 tell you to polish them last night? Your teacher will think I'm raising a beggar boy." "Here's money for batatawadas during snack break. Don't spend the money on film-star photos, okay? If you bring home one more photo of Sanjay Dutt, I'll tear it into little-little pieces, I swear to God."
Here come the school buses. Abandoning half-drunk glasses of milk and mothers in the middle of lectures, the few young children left in Wadia Baug race down the stairs. Despite their small numbers, they sound like a herd of cattle as they stampede down the wooden stairs. Their mothers race to the windows in time to see them turn and wave a hasty good-bye that the children hope their friends will not notice. Then they are gone, swallowed up by the old, sighing school bus. Swallowed up by a world of best friends and window seats and spitting contests and Chiclets and Mad magazines.
The men leave for work around the same time. The ones with no cars, who rely on the unreliable BEST bus system, leave first. The ones with the expense accounts that pay for cabs leave next. Finally, the ones with the cars are ready, too. Usually, their cars have been washed that morning by one of the homeless men who have adopted Bomanji Road. These men awake early each morning from the pavement, where they sleep in long rows of shivering bodies-men, women, children, and infants-and stretch the cold and soreness out of their limbs. Then they hurry up to the apartment buildings to pick up the washcloths and buckets of soapy water from the car owners. The smarter ones use the water to perform their toiletries secretly, out of the view of the car owners.
The older residents of Wadia Baug sit at their windows, watching the last of their neighbors leave for work. Some of the more feeble ones go back to sleep or turn on the television, flipping channels until Bill Clinton and Sanjay Dutt and Mel Gibson and Atul Bihari Vajpayee become one blurry image. Clintonduttgibsonvajpayee. Others make their beds, preparing for the usual trickle of visitors who come bearing news and gossip.
At some point today, all of Wadia Baug's residents will interrupt their routine for one additional task-preparing the envelope. According to their means, they will stuff a white envelope with crisp rupee notes of different denominations. Regardless of the total amount, they will add a one-rupee coin to the envelope before licking it shut. For good luck. With hands made steady by good health and youth or trembling with frailty and old age, they will each write on the envelope with a red pen. "All the best, Mehernosh," they will print. "Good wishes for a long and happy married life." Before the day is over, Mehernosh Kanga, a boy who grew up on their knees, will be a married man. This is a day of joy, an auspicious day.
Now the sun is wide awake, baring its teeth, making the sweat run down people's back. Before it will make its way across the sky and into the waiting arms of the Arabian Sea, so much will have happened: migrations into the city, births, marriages, dowry deaths, illicit love affairs, pay raises, first kisses, bankruptcy filings, traffic accidents, business deals, money changing hands, plant shutdowns, gallery openings, poetry readings, political discussions, evictions. Every event in human history will repeat itself today. Everything that ever happened will happen again today. All of life lived in a day.
A day, a day. A silver urn of promise and hope. Another chance. At reinvention, at resurrection, at reincarnation. A day. The least and most of all of our lives.
Copyright © 2001 by Thrity Umrigar
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