It's midnight. Ten minutes minus or plus. We, a group of about a dozen people, have just finished dinner at a rather cosy joint on Carter Road called Out Of The Blues and are waiting for our respective cars. Last-minute small talk and the last cigarettes before getting into cars with rolled-up windows.
Suddenly, she too emerged from the restaurant -- the slender beauty in the shortest of dresses -- to wait for her car. So short was her dress that even a feeble gust of wind would have answered the prayers of at least half-a-dozen pairs of eyes. But right now the night was still and warm. So warm that this pot-bellied man came out of the adjoining street clad in only a lungi and a soiled vest. He stood there, picking his teeth with a matchstick. He was barely two feet away from Ms High Hemline, totally oblivious of her presence. He must be living in a nearby shanty and must have come out for a post-dinner stroll. His eyes must have grown immune to short skirts by now.
Then it struck me. A woman whose bottom half is almost naked. A man whose top half is almost naked. One pretty, another ugly. One rich, another poor. And yet they shared the same soil standing just two feet apart, unmindful and at the same time accepting of each other. This can happen only in Bombay. This mutual acceptance is what defines Bombay and sets it apart from other big cities where the poor would not be seen within 1 km radius of an upmarket restaurant unless they were beggars. It is because of this mutual acceptance that dreams often come true in Bombay.
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my four days in Bombay. Lunch at Leopold Cafe. Long walk on Marine Drive, watching the silhouettes of lovebirds facing the setting sun. Stroll on the cobbled streets of Bandra. Sunday afternoon stroll from Flora Fountain to Colaba Causeway -- oh, the handsome, historical buildings! Pausing every now and then to stare at those buildings like an awestruck villager, much to the irritation of the wife who, unlike me, knows the city well enough, I could only see the ghosts of stiff upper-lipped Englishmen and sophisticated Parsis behind their thick, brown walls. In the silence of Sunday, it was impossible to imagine these monuments belonging to the great Indian workforce. Maybe these buildings are still intact because this is Bombay.
But it is easier to love Bombay if you don't live there. I was only a smug visitor who had the luxury of putting up in Colaba, the best part of Bombay. The Bombay that I had heard about or seen in the Hindi films was all within a radius of 4-5 km. What a pleasure it was to flag down a taxi and get into it without haggling with the driver. Sitting on the rear seat of the battered Fiat, I would light up a cigarette and feel like Dinesh Thakur of Rajnigandha, with the song Kai baar yun hi dekha hai playing in the background. And in the end, when you got down and asked the driver, "Kitna hua?", he would look at the meter and give you a ridiculously low figure, such as Rs 22 or Rs 34. In Chennai, you pay double the amount for half that distance -- that too for an autorickshaw ride!
And one evening, while visiting a friend who is a Naval officer, I even heard Asha Bhosle perform live in the Navy stadium. The friend had assumed that it would be more appropriate on his part to invite me for a drink to the club than take me to a crowded concert, so he had not bothered to pick up the passes. But I did make him stop the car and roll down the windows in order to listen to the opening song of the evening -- albeit from a distance. It was the famous Jaan-e-jaan dhoondta phir raha from Jawaani Diwani. While Sudesh Bhosle was able to mimic the energy of Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle -- well, I felt very sad listening to her. She could barely do justice to the song which only she could have sung. But then, she is over seventy now. I was suddenly glad that my friend had not picked up the passes.