My Bombay, my life

“Among the Badnaami material, sweet revival of old delight. A mass of notes, and photos of Johnny Walker, actor man, comic genius, my childhood favourite, Bombay’s raspberry at Jerry Lewis. JW’s real name was Badruddin Jamaluddin Qazi. At the start of the fifties he’d been a conductor on a B.E.S.T (BOMBAY ELECTRIC SUPPLY TRANSPORT) bus, red with yellow lettering on the side, streaked with paan spit. Number 132. Ding-ding. Ran from R.C. Church in the naval cantonment, up past Sassoon Dock, fishwives in parrot-hued saris reeking of pomfret and Bombay Duck (the sun-dried sardine Bummalo bummalo) to the Regal Cinema, Churchgate, Marine Drive, Chowpatty Beach in a fug of sweat, tobacco, jasmine and cheap hair oil, people running alongside executing balletic last-minute leaps onto the platform, the conductor pulling them aboard. He liked an audience and would cheer up his customers with jokes and silly faces, comic soliloquies, songs and scraps of ribaldry. The actor Balraj Sahni saw this performance (yes, in those innocent days film stars rode on buses with their public) and got him a screen test. The rest, as they say, itihaas.” – The Death of Mr Love


In the ghats near Igatpuri

When I was a boy returning from boarding school, we’d wake on the overnight train from the north to find ourselves rumbling through the northern reaches of the ghats, somewhere near Igatpuri. Already the air felt and smelt different. It was warmer and moister, with something of the sea. Someone would start whistling the city’s famous song “Yeh hai Bombay, Meri Jaan: This is Bombay, my life” and then we’d all be singing, pulling faces just like Mr Johnny Walker.


As our home town drew nearer, we exclaimed at familiar things we had not seen for so long: coconut palms, mangroves, fishermen in dugouts, triangular sails in the creeks. At last we would enter the suburbs of the city (in those days Bombay hardly extended beyond Santa Cruz, Borivili was somewhere out in the wilds), the stations flying past, Andheri, Ville Parle, Santa Cruz, Khar and Sion, where the marshes smelt like a giant drain. We’d glimpse black-and-yellow taxis, battered BEST buses, streets full of the usual congestion and confusion, and know that soon it would be kulfi at the Brittannia, or keema peas and naan at the Sher-e-Panjab, a film at the Metro or the Regal, or the Excelsior, or the Strand. And after the joy of being collected by one’s parents at VT (Victoria Terminus), there was the car ride through familiar streets, almost always turning into Marine Drive, and suddenly, the sea, usually grey in a dazzling haze, attended by its own peculiar scents.


Train crossing Sion Marsh


Many of these things were in the clip from “CID”, where the immortal Johnny Walker sings Bombay’s song. It was the greatest pleasure to come home to our smelly, chaotic city and no matter how many times I leave it, I am always glad to return.