Life as a writer can, at times, bring you unexpected opportunities of the pleasant kind. I had not imagined being invited to the magnificent Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra, one day. And that too, for a book launch.
The book in question, ‘Under the Sun: Business As Usual’, is a coffee table volume authored by Ayesha Taleyarkhan, one of Mumbai’s most accomplished photographers. I think one could describe it as a love letter to the hawkers and vendors of the city – people who sell everything from shoes, bangles and flowers to panties, sunglasses and coconuts. It takes you on a journey through a delicious mix of neighbourhoods: Saki Naka, Masjid Bunder, Crawford Market, Chor Bazaar, Linking Road, Gandhi Market, Fashion Street and more.
The montage of images in Taleyarkhan’s book is quintessentially Mumbai
I liked the way Governor Vidyasagar Rao approached the subjects in the photographs. He spoke about their creativity and enterprise, and their resilience amidst harsh conditions of work and weather. He also acknowledged that these people who come to Mumbai from various parts of India represent the diversity of the country – its democratic and secular spirit.
Such speeches can sometimes slip into boring lip service and pointless preening about how flawless Mumbai is. Therefore, it was refreshing to hear him say that Mumbai’s inclusive and plural character is under threat. It certainly is. How else do you explain actor Fawad Khan being hounded by non-state actors who have no legal standing to decide who is allowed to visit or work in India?
A special guest at the book launch was author Shobhaa De, who spoke lovingly, not only about Ayesha’s work, but also of Ayesha as her junior at school. Book launches have become so frequent and commercialised that one hardly gets to savour moments where people speak in a manner that is so authentic, personal and heartfelt.
Unfortunately, many in India are jealous of De’s fame, and choose to dismiss her as a Page Three type with zero substance. They scoff at her for being a sell-out, and doing no work of real merit. The thing is that people find it difficult to figure out how to handle the success of a woman who is confident, outspoken and intelligent. Sure, she has made some public statements that are controversial. But, well, who does not mess up?
I got to be at the launch because I wrote a short essay that features in the book. I loved working on it for it gave me a chance to see my city with fresh eyes. What I had taken for granted suddenly came alive. I asked myself if I had just been sleepwalking through the city, not being attentive to its cute little quirks.
Though the montage of images in Taleyarkhan’s book is quintessentially Mumbai, it does throws up associations with other places I have experienced – shopping for spices, bedsheets and harem pants with Mexican friends at Sarojini Market in Delhi, buying dupattas and shawls from Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore on my first visit to Pakistan, walking through Thamel in Kathmandu with an American friend searching high and low for shot glasses to be bought as souvenirs, tasting varieties of mango pickle and drinking sandalwood sherbet at Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi, and buying beautifully embroidered skull caps from vendors outside Empress Market in Karachi. Some things do not change – the killing heat, the thrill of bargaining and the aroma of South Asian seasoning that surely knows how to travel around.
Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai based writer who believes that Indians and Pakistanis can live together without killing each other. He tweets @chintan_connect