Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

Every month a visit to the local saloon brings new insights and stories. Today, Monday, most hair cutting parlours are shut. It’s their weekly off. But I was lucky to find one open. The barber, MT, who hails from Lucknow, had some great stories. Like for instance how he moved to Bombay in 2015, as a 15 year old to work in a saloon in Colaba. He slept there and worked 12 hours. After work they would go down to Mezbaan Hotel for an evening chai. Back then in that saloon, he would charge 250 rupees for a haircut. That’s my total bill now for a shave and a haircut. Oh the divides of South Bombay.

Thinking about his life in the city made me remember so many things about Colaba. What a source of wonder if must have been for him to land up right in Colaba. Just like Shantaram. I read Shantaram in 2005. It was one of the biggest novels that I read. It was in a way my introduction to the city’s underbelly at least through literature. Back then, Colaba seemed so far away. Even as children, our exposure to Colaba ended at Gateway of India. Never beyond. It was only in my adulthood that I would walk the streets of Causeaway, eat at Churchill, go to the Bombay Port Trust gardens and of course visit the Afghan Church, now fully renovated. I would walk the entire length of causeway in search of Tantra Shop, that exclusive store where you got those iconic t-shirts.

Once in 2011, I remember going to drop off my friend Rosie who had taken up a long term lease at the India Hotel, the same one mentioned in Shantaram. And one of her jealous friends had told me that because I lived in Borivali, I was like a migrant visiting Colaba. Back then it infuriated both of us, but Rosie and I laughed about it later. I secretly envied her as she had chosen to live in Colaba and spend some good time in India, away from Germany.

But in 2004, I spent 7 days in Navy nagar at the TS Jawahar for a 7 day all India camp as a member of the Sea Cadet Corps. Rowing and sailing in the sea were the most magnificent parts of that camp. Also, waking up to the sea every morning and watching the grey clouds rush over was a delight. It was the month of May and the sea was not always calm, except in the evenings when a gentle wind would blow and we would practice rigging or rope walk watching the waves lap at the shore. But life was melancholic then, for you couldn’t leave the environs of the facility. You just lived within and around the concrete ship shaped building except for the forays into the sea.

The following year I read Shantaram. It was a book that I was hunting for. It was widely available but I wanted a copy within budget. Then one day my father got me a copy. He and a constable friend of his went looking for it, and they found an original but second hand copy for me. It was perhaps the last book that my father gifted me.

I was happy to have seen some of the neighborhoods that he had written about. A few years later, I met Gregory David Roberts at IIT Powai, and I asked him about some of the characters. A few years after that the attacks took place. And a few years after that, I saw him again at Leopold, sitting aramse and chit chatting with fans and waiters.

Colaba remains out of reach in many ways but it doesn’t matter. Hearing MT talk about Colaba and his time there brought back these memories of the two islands which continue to fascinate everyone, the migrant, the local and the fictional prisoner on the run called Shantaram.