You’d expect Bombay’s tourist hub, home to all these fancy landmarks and famous eateries, to have a decent international vibe. And it does. Sort of. But once Colaba became home, it took me about a week to develop a municipal indifference to places like Café Mondegar and Leopold’s, and walking up the Causeway these days, I feel like I’m the only one who’s not a backpacker or 100 years old.
So where are my people? The itinerant creative class on the make? The artists, the musicians, the writers? Where are the troublemakers, the sybarites, the degenerates? Where are the scuzzy pubs to accommodate our imagined revolutions? (Back room at Gokul notwithstanding. Full respect there.)You may not find many creatives out to crack the big time in Colaba, but all the action used to go down here in the island city of Bombay proper, the fabled Tropical Camelot. That was before the zeitgeist packed up and moved to the suburbs. Because that’s what zeitgeists do when they get old.
If Bombay is the most cosmopolitan – the only cosmopolitan – city in India, it didn’t take me long to realize that the suburb of Bandra is the most cosmopolitan neighbourhood in Bombay.Locals here have always accepted transients and outsiders, which has led to India’s only true global melting pot culture. And with property values steamrolling north towards the exoburbs, the area, say, from the Taj Land’s End via Reclamation to Bandra Terminus and back to the Carter Road sea face via Khar, has become, geographically, the de facto city centre.
This is where you’ll find The Techie Geeks staring at computer screens in a café, cooking up whatever they think will be the next big thing in whatever it is they do. Along the same leafy bylane, you might spot That Actress Who’s Really Hot Right Now strolling back to her priapic condo tower, maybe wave hello to That Eccentric Friend Of Yours Who Lives In The Studio Apartment With Three Cats And A Typewriter and be unfazed to have seen any of these people on the same street.
In Bandra, you can guzzle Tuborgs at the Yacht dive bar with The Struggling Playwright and The Angry Underpaid Columnist, then sozzle your way a few blocks over to Indigo Deli to sip French wine with The Award-Winning British Novelist, The Actress/Activist and The Model/Ex-MTV Host.A short stroll from there, I’m sitting in the study of The Big Movie Star With The Same Last Name As A Few Other Big Movie Stars. He’s telling me the only time he’s really uncomfortable in public is waiting in airport immigration lines, where “the camera phones come out, you’re trapped and you’re looked at as an object,” but on the mean streets of Bandra, “it’s not like that at all,” he says, “look around,” an arm a bit too muscular for his age stretched towards the windows. “I’ve lived here for several years. My gym is down the road, I always walk there and back and have never had a problem.”
If it’s cool for a guy of his fame and stature to walk around Bandra – relatively – unencumbered, then it should be fine for women in ensembles as effronterous as shorts and a T-shirt. And it is. Relative to pretty much anywhere else in the country, especially, you know, Delhi. The next logical presumption would be that Bandra must be as safe for gays as it is for girls. And it is. Relative to the fact that consensual, adult, non-vaginal penetration is still illegal in the eyes of the Supreme Court.
There is something a bit Basquiat about The American Rapper Of Punjabi Origin when I meet him at a bar in Colaba, dressed in colour-blocked pajama pants and Jesus-walkers, kajal drawn thick around his eyes. He’s come from an afternoon of competition-level solo gin drinking, and over whiskies I ask him what he’s been getting up to these days leading up to his gig at Bonobo. (It’s the kind of bar/club now indigenous to Bandra, unseen anymore in Colaba: When I’d entered The Bar Near Radio Club that’d served beers to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in the early Seventies, when Colaba was still the centre of India’s psychedelic revolution, the single patron was asleep on the bar.)
The American Rapper Of Punjabi Origin pinches the fabric over his chest: “I got this shirt from this gay boy I was hanging out with up there,” he says, telling me he’s been thinking about downloading Grindr, the GPS app popularized by gay men out for quick and nearby hook-ups. “Not because I want to fuck guys,” he says, “I just want to hang out with my friends. I love those Bandra gay boys.”
One night at a Bandra house party, The Gay PR Guy I Run Into What Seems Like Everywhere I Go tells me that Grindr all but catapults his phone out of his pants when he gets close to Turner Road. “It’s just safer here,” he says.
That he feels safe here is part of what makes Bandra a cool neighbourhood, as much as a woman dressing for summer weather or everyone being fine with you going to the mosque while I go to the bar.But here’s the thing: Every cool neighbourhood in every city in the world has, by its own virtue, been stricken by the Lonely Planet paradox. As soon as people from elsewhere think your gaff is cool enough to come buy stuff, dine out, get pissed, get laid – god forbid decide to move in and shop-eat-drink-fuck there all the time – the sell-by date’s already been stamped on the top of the box.
Past the toll-booth of the Worli Sea Link and around Lilavati Hospital, my cab passes a couple of franchise coffee shops, an East-Asian take-out place, a name-brand hair salon and a wine shop with a six-foot rivulating bottle of Heineken out front. After the cloggy old drive from Colaba, the Heineken is most tempting, but I’m late for a lunch of quinoa tabouleh and gluten-free laddoos at the Yoga House.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the place would cater to ersatz yogis and weekending housewives who love wheatgrass, because the place feels like Chiang Mai or Rishikesh, any of those places harem-pant questers with stinky dreads go to commune with the Void, or void their colons, or both at once and for the same purpose. Here you have an ancient practice that’s traversed the world to the point where palefaces in Napa Valley namaste each other without irony, and now, anything but prodigally, yoga has come home to India with some baggage. But hey, who travels for that long and doesn’t? And once you get past the throbbing cliché of it all, the Yoga House turns out to be a very particular source of local enlightenment.
Plenty of land-owning Bandra families sent their children off to be educated in the West, only to have them come back with all sorts of un-Indian ideas about how to comport one’s self in Indian society. You know, travellers that come home with a few miscegenated ideas, maybe having shared some genetic information as well. Some decided to convert high-stakes family real estate into shops and restaurants more in line with the tastes of fellow returnees and tourist-visa transients who had also seen a good part of the rest of the world. We’re not talking about number-crunching dullards opening fast-food franchises. This is not a case of Bandra homogenizing into Rem Koolhaas’ Generic City. This is the good kind of globalization.
It’s evening when I meet The Multimedia Designer, a member of an art collective that more or less encapsulates the state of Bandra’s current creative class. Having studied in the UK before returning home to India a few years ago, he tells me he feels so comfortable because “it’s not pretentious. You can get away with more here than any other area in the city. You can be walking down the street in a fluorescent lime-green jumpsuit and no one cares. Not that I have one.”
The Multimedia Designer’s associate, The Indian Street Artist Returned From The States, explains that “maybe five or ten years ago, if you had the chance to go to New York, Paris or Berlin, you wouldn’t have even thought of Bombay. But the stuff we’re doing here now would have been very difficult to do in New York. There were already some big wall pieces on Chapel Road when I moved here. Bandra is just a really inspiring place right now.”
Around Chapel Road or elsewhere, Bandra’s street art is very much present, but still bobbing in the wakes of Banksy or Shepard Fairey, a few quasi-Takashi Murakamis, a couple neo-Yoshimoto Naras thrown in for kawaii sake, a smattering of monochrome Hindi film tributes, some Devanagari snubs at capitalism, or something. It feels like the sum of these globalized parts has yet to be calculated. But an art scene working itself out in public like this at least bodes well that it hasn’t ossified yet.
Somehow, my eyes are more often drawn to the dozens of bone-white Bandra Jesuses, totem-poled and repeated at near-Warholian frequency around so many corners and courtyards. This is strange, considering that the crucified Jesus is an image repeated infinitely more often and for about two millennia longer than the work I’m sort of pooh-poohing for not being wholly original.
“It’s not like it’s photocopying,” says The Multimedia Designer. “It’s taking what you see globally, getting inspiration from that and re-applying it to make it work here.”
And a big part of making it work in Bandra is that welcome bit of developing-world lawlessness. To bang out a well-executed wall piece, you need cops who’ll leave you alone while you work, or at least back off for a bribe. The Bandra Musician/Artist That Sometimes Works At GQ shrugs, “Most of the time the cops just watch.”
And you’ll have none of these dozens of Jesus statues wagging any fingers at you either. After this many visits to Bandra I’m only surprised that no one’s thrown up a life-sized winking Buddy Christ à la Kevin Smith’s Dogma and called it street satire.
“It all goes back to the open-minded Catholics,” explains The Multimedia Designer, “their laid-backness, their Western views on society. They eat pork chops and mashed potatoes. The Catholic aunties go for drinks and waltzing at the gymkhana on a Friday night and have the time of their goddamn lives.”
Hyperbole? Certainly. But the stereotype is intriguing, given that the trace religion of these welcoming “Catholic” attitudes arrived on these shores having beaten a blood trail stretching all the way back to Lisbon.
During this Age Of Discovery – descobrir, as Vasco de Gama would have said it – the verb worked to further the political goals of empires marching under the banners of spiritual supremacy, deployed with that wretched combination of arrogance and ignorance. The 1494 Treaty Of Tordesillas guaranteed that any land discovered west of a mid-Atlantic meridian near the Cape Verde Islands would belong to the Spanish, while anything east would belong to Portugal, who on a most infamous maraud would found the Atlantic slave trade, set in for an ugly, as-yet-unprecedented tangle with Ethiopia, besiege the Arab coast and, once their outposts were established in India, threaten to steal Mohammed’s coffin from Mecca and use it to ransom the Holy Land.
Turns out those outsiders considered themselves anything but transients around here. And the Jesus stuff sure caught on.
Earlier this year, when The New York-Based Indian Journalist wrote about revisiting her old Bandra haunts for Outlook – anchoring her premise to a bar seen as a kind of petri dish where the seeds of the current creative class germinated – I was surprised to find that for the Bandra Old Boys’ Club Association, the word was still somehow problematic.
“How dare she?” they crowed, when The Self-Proclaimed Local Miser posted a link to the articles on his Facebook page. The common ground seemed to be that they, they the real locals, had been here long before Little Miss Fancypants planted her flag for the Demi-Monde. The discussion then devolved over dozens of posts into something more pedantic than concern for any redressal of character assassination.
The Booker-Shortlisted Novelist Who Used To Live In Bandra was anything but ambiguous: “Old boys’ clubs are ungenerous, defensive, toxic. I say this as a charter member of the Bandra Boys’ Club. Let’s try and get over ourselves,” he wrote. “I think it would be a better city if old boys allow themselves to discover and newbies are allowed to appropriate.”
Bandra is quick to let you know that it knows it’s not like other Bombay neighbourhoods. Take the three-year-young Celebrate Bandra Festival, organized to show you just how Bandra Bandra can be.
“It is strange, now that you mention it,” ponders The Man Who Lives Across The Road From Sachin Tendulkar. “I think we’re the only part of Bombay that celebrates itself like that.”
Maybe it has something to do with the brief batting of eyelashes it took for the pork sausage at the local cold storage to be in competition with a deli full of imported back bacon. It’s got something to do with preservation.
The Self-Proclaimed Local Miser, wartime consiglieri in the battle against people parking badly, has Bandra roots going back to the folks who’d catch fish or farm fields here, not scarf sushi and get mud facials. He’s endearingly cantankerous, sitting a few stories up in his residential building on the site of a former bungalow, complaining that all these new residential buildings on the sites of former bungalows are blocking people’s light. He doesn’t see why he should spend `150 at Gloria Jean’s when he can make coffee at home. The reasons I love the Sea Link are the reasons he hates it. The biggest mistake visitors make, he says, “is thinking they were here first.”
I’m pretty sure most people know that anyplace they visit, there’s a good chance other people have already been there. Places are where people have been living since hunting and gathering fell out of fashion in favour of staying put and growing stuff. I don’t think the licence plate slogan in my home province of Ontario, “Yours To Discover”, meant I’d be seeing anything along the Trans-Canada Highway not admired by the first voyageurs.
That’s the thing about discovery. It doesn’t mean finding something first, it means finding it for yourself. A cool neighbourhood is one that will let you.
These Bandra Boys are not ignorant people. But if we were discussing similar models of residential-to-commercial development regarding, say, the more sublime and equally spited Shimokitazawa suburb of Tokyo, would the discourse be more objective by virtue of distance? Objectivity is quick to retreat when you think your doorstep’s getting shit on. It’s not hypocritical, it’s just human.
“I understand people’s need to be territorial,” says The New York Based Indian Journalist, “but appreciating Bandra in its current form does not mean I need to constantly stop and pay homage to everything it once was. That would be dreadfully dull.”
Remember that first Starbucks that went up in Bandra? That wasn’t the beginning of any end. It meant cultural mass had proven sufficiently critical for Uncle Moneybags to come looking for a slice of the geist. Which for the purists was more a signal that Bandra was already “over” in a very Portlandia kind of way. Because culture always moves faster than commerce. Then come the real estate bubbles and the subsumation of any remaining vibe-creators into a flaccid pack of job-creators.
Sixties London had been Swinging to the point of mild nausea before the rest of the world felt any motion. London’s punk scene in the late Seventies, safety pin-headed by Malcolm McLaren, had a particularly short spike from commencement to commercialization, thanks, mostly, to him.
Cities like New York and Toronto typify the bottom falling out of North America’s Age Of Manufacturing, where indigent artists and musicians swarmed into run-down industrial or semi-industrial areas to occupy empty spaces on the cheap. These lowly creative classes moving into neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village in Manhattan and Queen Street West in Toronto proved catnip for the lifestyles of the rich and tasteless. Soon enough the gentries had dropped their litters, and now it’s all middle-aged men in mom jeans talking about investment portfolios over tranches of organic goat cheese.
The infamous warrens of East Berlin, perhaps home to the biggest gathering of creatives since Belle Époque Paris, is pulling off a kind of extended youth, but the “alternative walking tours” have been loping around Kreuzberg for years now, hardening with each footfall a once-fluid spirit into aspic, for the benefit of tourists and rich people. Like Paris.
Even from my comfortable perch as an outsider, Bandra’s been feeling a bit cramped lately. It reminds me of Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, after it exploded in 2011 and became a kind of Khao San Road, without any of the real seduction or any of the actual hedonism. It’s a zoo for people who haven’t been anywhere fun, or people forced to witness Delhi defending its title of Most Unfun Capital This Side Of Riyadh.
“You know what I mean?” I ask The Delhi Refugee In Bandra.
“Of course it’s happening here now,” she smirks. “All these boys from up in Andheri come to Bandra because they think it’s cool, just to get drunk and cause shit on the weekends. Look, I’m a woman. I’m from Delhi. I pick up on this kind of stuff. Bandra is getting aggressive. It wasn’t like this before.”
Bandra is getting aggressive. It wasn’t like this before.
Who to seek out but The Guy Who Used To Co-Own the petri dish bar responsible for that flash-in-the-Bandra-pan that got everything cooking, the subject of The New York-Based Indian Journalist’s encomium gone wrong?
He’ll be able to help.
“There wasn’t much going on in Bandra back in 2000,” he recalls, hand around a whisky soda at the Bandra Gymkhana. “Just Olive, I think, and they made you wear pants and closed-toed shoes. What we were doing was totally DIY.” After the first year-and-a-half, “we actually thought ‘What the fuck have we done?’ and tried to sell it. But then something just happened.”
He takes his hand off his drink and runs his index finger across the pad of his thumb, as if snapping his fingers would be too direct a statement. “People from here, from outside the city, from abroad – they just started finding each other there. We didn’t open with the idea that we’d change anything. Whatever happened, it was by accident, not design.”
“So do you think Bandra is better off now than it was then?” I ask
“Of course it is. There are tons more bands playing, more places for gigs, there are 20 more bars and 20 more places to eat. What the fuck is wrong with that? People weren’t going to just stay at home and do nothing after The Petri Dish closed.”
I take the last swig of my beer. “What about the locals who think they’ve been overrun?”
“Listen. Everyone’s got a routine. That’s their routine and I’d expect nothing less from them. And that’s fine. But me? It’s 2014. Get with the programme. I think you just gotta get out there and live, man.”
He signals the waiter and points at me, “Let’s get another drink? Are you hungry? Do you like beef tongue? They do a really good beef tongue here.”