Some books take your back to your childhood – Carroll, of course, Sukumar Roy, Parasuram, Bibhutibhushan, Giovanni Guareschi, and many others do that for me. My wife, my darling Vuvuzela, tells me, often, that this is an impossible task, since I never left childhood anyway. (When I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself wearing bibs, and diapers; I don’t drink my Old Monk or Lagavulin from a bottle. I have a beard, while to my knowledge, children don’t have that. So, my reasoned guess is that my dear Vuvuzela is exaggerating.)
Anyway, I recently read a book which took me back some 40 years to the time I hit the streets of Mumbai as a callow youth of twenty one. I was an untutored lad, straight from Kolkata, hair plastered down with oil, who had never left my mother city of Kolkata, and never even visited Mumbai before I came here with an appointment letter in an ad agency clasped in my clammy paws.
Fatima Ahmed’s book, “In Haleema’s words” took back to that halcyon day in early May, when I descended from the Howrah Mail at what used to be called VT, and hauled my largish suitcase to the YMCA to begin my sojourn in this strange city.
In the book, Haleema came to Mumbai to escape the claustrophobia of her family home and ethos. Her friend Parvati also left their hometown of Hyderabad for different reasons – she wanted to chase her dream and achieve freedom for herself.
Looking back, the same or similar motives prompted so many of us to land here in this completely strange city – most of my friends came, like I did, clutching appointment letters. I came here to enjoy the anonymity that a large city can provide a total stranger. Of course, one had heard that Bombay, as it was called then, was Sin City of India – it is, of course, quite unnecessary to add that this part of Bombay’s reputation did not interest me in the least, not even in the slightest, I swear to God.
Haleema and Parvati struck a chord in me while reading the book. I recalled the years of traveling in the Western railway locals; the exploration of hostelries, museums, art galleries, bookshops, Rhythm House; parties one was invited to, and those one crashed; the pairings at night, furtive and not so furtive. The book brought it all back alive.
Haleema is a chronicler, not a participant in the life of the city. Parvati is so much more lively, so much more of a risk-taker, so much more fun. They reminded me in some ways of the girls I knew in the city of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Those who lived in Bombay as a free-wheeling, fancy-free PG in those decades should read “In Haleema’s words”. Good fun, vivid, and for me at least, quite nostalgic. There may even be a sequel – at the end of the book, Haleema has taken refuge in Hampstead. But there is the feeling in my gut that she will come back to India at some point in time. And it may even be to Bombay, or Mumbai.