A visit to Bombay suddenly appeared on the horizon in the summer of 1955. While I was not yet 19 and had cleared BA Part I and my only sister, after getting a First Division in her MA Geography - a rarity in those days in the field of Humanities - was in a mood to relax. She was, however, approached for tutoring of the two elder daughters (princesses) of the Gwalior Maharaja, then the Rajpramukh of the now-nonexistent state of Madhya Bharat. It was a pretty cushy job for her. She would be picked up either in a Palace buggy or one of its numerous Mercedes cars and then deposited back at the house. The tutoring was for an hour or so and was well paid by standards of those days. She had collected some money and wanted to make use of it.
Around that time an uncle of ours living in Bombay working in the Port Trust wrote to my father to send his children to him during the vacations. That is how our trip was shaped up. Thankfully two daughters of a neighbour too were due to go to Bombay to their Brigadier uncle. Plans were drawn up and soon we, the foursome, boarded the crowded Punjab Mail for Bombay. A 24-hour journey took us through mostly barren summer landscape of dry fields and rivers with depleted water beyond the Vindhya and Satpura ranges until the climb commenced over the Western Ghats after Igatpuri. I remember having seen some tremendous scenic beauty of green hills with lush green forests, plunging cliffs and deeply cut river valleys. I am sure that green cover is long gone, some of it had already disappeared about 20 years later when I used to travel from Nagpur to Bombay on official business.
As soon as we alighted at the Dadar Railway Station a petite and good-looking lady approached my sister and rather uncannily called her by name. She turned out to be our aunt whom we had never met. She was in her early 30s and was quite adept in dealing with the Bombay taxi-walas. Within moments we arrived at their Hindu Colony apartment on what was then known as Vincent Road, a broad avenue, with three-lane carriageways and trams plying up and down on the central verge. Vincent Road had Hindu Colony on one side and the Parsi Colony on the other. The apartment was on the first floor - of three bed rooms and a big hall and a dining area. Each room had floors done up in bright colourful tiles. Obviously, the era of massive use of Makrana marble was still far away. The flat was airy and our aunt had organised some tropical potted plants on the balconies. Uncle had his around 80-year old father living with him. He was a law graduate of early 1890s and had a raging curiosity about everything. He had known my father since the latter was a student in Scottish Church College in Calcutta in the second decade of the last century.
Bombay, now Mumbai, was a thriving commercial and industrial city and yet it was considered only the second city of the country. Calcutta, now Kolkata, continued to be known as the first city even nearly a decade after independence. Kolkata, earlier the capital of British India, was where the action was and the Communists were still far away in the future and were yet to drive away private enterprise from Bengal. No wonder, it continued to be the hub of trade, commerce and industry. Delhi was nowhere near either Kolkata or Mumbai though it had been the capital of the country since 1931. Perhaps, it had little opportunity to progress after independence as it was subjected to the oppressive pressure of refugees soon after the partition of the country.
Mumbai in those days was of special charm for me. One of my close friends was doing his B Tech at one of the institutes there. He was highly enamoured of the place, especially of its Fort area and the city's local train services. Another close friend had just returned from there and had given me glowing descriptions of its local trains, buses, trams, its sea and beaches as well as its massive British era buildings. It was quite a build- up and with the opportunity coming my way I was eager to lap it all up. Having never been to a big city my excitement was naturally palpable.
As I settled down and started feeling comfortable in the new environment I would venture out of the house all by myself. Initially I would be cautioned to be careful while crossing roads which I had to do as I frequently would go over to the Parsi Colony on the other side of the Vincent Road. It was a quiet place with well maintained parks where one could hang around in the shade of a tree. Or else I would go cross the Dadar Railway over-bridge and walk all the way to the Shivaji Park beach and get the refreshing breeze that would cool me in the warm and humid weather.
I would also take rides with my uncle in the morning as he drove down to his Port Trust office in the Fort area. He would mostly take the central north-to-south artery via Parel, Byculla, etc and then take the Mohammed Ali Road - now virtually inaccessible to cars - right up to the Fort. Or for a change he would take the outer route of Cadell Road on the Western fringe and would pass through Hornby Vellard, Breach Candy, Chowpatty and on to the Fort via that wonderful "Queen's Necklace" - the Marine Drive. Both the routes were interesting and I would look forward to these drives.
I would be dropped somewhere near the Hornby Road and I would wander around down its arcades looking at those British era buildings and indulge in window shopping. Sometimes I would veer right into the thick of the business district where offices of big and reputed commercial and industrial houses were located in huge Victorian buildings in what is now known as the “Fort Heritage Precinct”. I was charmed by the Horniman Circle which had a massive park in the middle surrounded by solid looking buildings of uniform elevation. Occasionally I would turn west from Flora Fountain and go and sit on parapets of the Marine Drive and take in the view of (now as I know them) the Art-Deco architecture on Marine Drive and, of course, the Arabian Sea that was not quite attractive in mid-morning hours but a curiosity nonetheless for a young man from a small town in central part of the country who had never seen the sea before. Or I would go along the famous Oval and onwards towards Cooperage grounds. It was fascinating to see the Neo Gothic public buildings (Bombay University, High Court, etc.) on one side of it and those Art-Deco structures on its western side of Marine Drive and Backbay Reclamation. Now I find that these two architectural ensembles of Mumbai constitute the largest such conglomeration of these two genres of architecture in the world.
The Fort area appeared to me more like the London that we had seen in photographs in various magazines with its old and heritage buildings, wood and glass red telephone booths planted in the middle of broad pavements, its red and yellow double-decker buses and trams, the fire hydrants, road signage and the zebra crossings. There were no malls then but big departmental stores one of which was Akbaraly's off the Hornby Road. One could get virtually every conceivable item in it. After loitering around for a couple of hours I would catch a tram near Colaba Causeway and return to Dadar Tram Terminus sitting on the upper deck taking in the aerial view of the busy but largely uncluttered streets paying just, incredible as it may sound now, an Anna (one sixteenth part of a rupee) as fare. Now, one can neither see the trams nor the wood-and-glass telephone booths, overtaken by technology as both have since been.
We also had outings to Vihar Lake or to Juhu Beach or to the Aray Milk Colony. My uncle was fond of visiting the Santa Cruz Airport. He loved to see the big international flights arriving and disgorging passengers. In those days one could go right up to the glass front of the Arrival Lounge with no questions asked - a seemingly impossible activity today because of the terrorists' threat. I keep wondering how in around fifty years the country has changed and simple pleasures of life for ordinary people have been snatched away.
My sister and I not only saw “The Country Girl” (with Grace, Kelly, William Holden and Bing Crosby) at the New Empire theatre we also happened to go to an evening of Bengali music at the prestigious Shammukhanand Hall where Late Hemanta Kumar, the famous exponent of Rabindra Sangit (Tagore Songs), led the programme of Barsha Mangal – a thread of songs invoking rain written by Rabindranath Tagore. A great occasion for me, as I, luckily, had the chance to hear live the favourite singer of my adolescent years.
We didn’t realize how swiftly time raced away and soon it was time to undertake that rigorous 24-hour journey to get back to Gwalior. We, my sister and I, spent a very enjoyable summer in the company of uncle and aunt. They were extremely good couple and were very nice to us. Clearly, we were enriched by the trip - the exposure to a metropolitan town enabled us to acquire invaluable experience and knowledge. We got back to Gwalior richer in every way.
Thirty years later, as luck would have it, I was posted at Bombay and served a full tenure of four years. By then Uncle had retired and was not doing very well. The Great City, too, had deteriorated and degraded a lot, overtaken by hundreds of slums, inspiring many books on it, both, complimentary and non-complimentary. Politicians sold numerous dreams of the city’s development and upgrade but it kept sinking to greater and greater depths. For common men it is excruciatingly painful to survive in it whereas for the rich it is a great playground where billions are made and, perhaps, lost everyday. Be that as it may, I look back on my Bombay of fifty-odd years ago with nostalgia and wistfulness.