By Salil Tripathi*

Manhattan is full of serendipitous discoveries. The earlier evening, when I had gone to see my friend from Bombay, Bharati who now works in New York, I had run into P. Sainath, the distinguished journalist who wrote a classic study about drought and development issues in India. That was the first pleasant coincidence. The next afternoon at a café in East Village, I told the story to my friend Suketu Mehta, who looked like a man who could afford to spend an afternoon at a bookshop once again, because he had at last submitted his manuscript on Bombay to his publishers. I mentioned the art exhibition of Jehangir Sabavala, the distinguished septuagenarian painter from Bombay. Suketu couldn’t make it, but he said: “You’ll enjoy it -- you will find everyone there.”

Manhattan has hundreds of art galleries, and the gallery hosting Sabavala’s show was medium-sized, in downtown Fifth Avenue. It was a sunny, Friday evening. Unsure of who I would meet, I left Suketu after a required visit to Barnes and Noble and headed for the gallery, to, well, meet everyone.

And so it was. I met Jeet, an old friend who had led a forced life of a reporter to pay the bills to write poetry, something he continued to do in New York; a bearded painter who turned out to have taught art at the school I attended in Bombay, except that he migrated for America the year I joined the kindergarten; and a woman I thought I had met before, and she said, well, I have a very Bombay face, you know. In the end, it turned out her name was Maitri, and she was at business school with my wife. And in no time, this art gallery in Manhattan, flanked by the sunlit Flatiron Building on its right and with a sylvan park in front, with its leaves shining brilliantly, basking in the unusual (for April) 34 degree heat, turned into an evening which could so easily have belonged to Nariman Point, Bombay, 1986. Except that this was not Nariman Point. The Hindu nationalists and Marathi chauvinists who dominated Bombay’s political space had already renamed my city from its cosmopolitan name Bombay to parochial-sounding, insipid Mumbai. Salman Rushdie, the Badshah of Breach Candy had also moved to Manhattan. And at that moment, in my mind, with these myriad connections linking the city (New York) that had just suffered a huge jolt last September to Bombay, which had its own share of bomb blasts in 1993 which shook it out of its stupor, it was easy to feel that I was at home again. Even if this home was not a place, but time; and the city was Manhattan, the world’s melting pot, not Bombay, India’s melting pot.

* * * * *

I grew up in Bombay, and since then I have lived and worked in five other cities for periods ranging a few months to years. In each of these cities, I have encountered the Indian Diaspora, seeking to reclaim me with its grocery stores in its Little India; its video shops and Bollywood posters; its newspapers from home and Alphonso mangoes in season; its Lijjat papads and the smell of turmeric. The stores sell nostalgia, a connection with the past, trying to help the immigrant -- or expatriate -- adjust to the new land. Yes, the landscape around you has changed; the streets are suddenly cleaner and supermarkets are well-stocked and there’s snow on the street and there are no servants but the fridge is full and you can’t call home all the time. The world is suddenly, bafflingly, different outside, but you can remain the way you were, in your own mind, and in your kitchen. And Little India helps you achieve that: Grey Street in Durban, Serangoon Road in Singapore, 26th Street in Manhattan, Jaykishan Heights -- or Jackson Heights, as the locals know it -- in Queens, Ealing or Southall in London, Mody Street in Hong Kong. It is where the Diaspora meets to indulge in nostalgia. There are posters of Bharat Natyam classes and copies of Stardust magazine; announcements of visiting gurus and swamis, and the familiar face of the store’s owner, the hardworking Gujarati, who’s a one-stop google search engine, and sometimes works faster. He connects myriad strands of people within the overseas Indian network; like the collectors and information mavens Malcolm Gladwell writes about in “The Tipping Point”, he feels he has performed his karmic duty by introducing a homesick student with the lady who’d like to earn extra income by renting a room in her house to someone reliable; by linking the man with an eligible-age daughter with the family looking for a bride for a cousin back home in India, all from a good family, of course, no scandals.

In a sense, that Little India is fossilised, its worldview set in a period during which bulk of the Indians left India for this new land. Which is why, in Mauritius, you hear traces of Bhojpuri accent that have submerged with the more Sanskritised Hindi that now dominates the Gangetic plain of India. And in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Hindus ritually pierce their bodies and carry impossibly large idols, called kavadis, during Thaipusam, a festival rarely seen in southern India these days. And in parts of Britain, parents want to compel their young daughters, bred in Britain, to unquestioningly and obediently marry the groom they’ve chosen for them, because parents know what’s best for their children. There are horrendous repercussions too, when feudal-minded, casteist parents force these daughters to marry men untutored in modernity. But there are good things that emerge out of such fossilisation, too. Hindus in Durban threw out Hindu preachers (and Muslims did likewise with Muslim preachers) in 1990s, when the preachers from the subcontinent reached South Africa, trying to spread their poison in the minds of people of Indian origin who had moved there a century ago. Saira Essa, an actress I came to know in Durban, told me: “We told them to get lost. We had a far bigger issue to worry about in the new South Africa -- the position of minorities, the fight for justice for all people of colour. Just who did these preachers think they were fooling when they tried to divide us into Hindus and Muslims? Don’t they know Gandhi started his struggle here, and he was invited by Muslim businessmen? We told them: You take your hatred back to India; break your mosques and temples there. Leave us alone.”

* * * * *

That’s the kind of India I’d have liked to belong to. That’s how Bombay was, only until 1982, when I left it first, to study in America. But it had changed when I returned in 1986; and by the time I left it again, in 1990, it had begun to move inexorably in the other direction. The island was getting contaminated by the virus of the mainland.

Which is why that evening in Manhattan was so important. It had brought together my Diaspora; the kind of people who once belonged to Bombay, but who were now in Manhattan. Bombay had been forced to become Mumbai. We, from the Diaspora of Bombay which is big enough, anyway, and India is far too complicated for any generalisation, including this one had been clinging not to a place, but a sense of time, an era. Indeed, we could all return to Bombay, and perhaps meet at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery at Nariman Point. But it wouldn’t be the same. That time which was important to us had gone; as Rushdie wrote in his essay on the film, “The Wizard of Oz”: “The truth is once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home”, but rather that there is no longer any such place as (italics) home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.”


* Salil Tripathi was born in Bombay and studied in the US. He then lived in Geneva and New York before returning to Bombay. He moved again, to Singapore and Hong Kong, and now lives in London. He is a regular contributor of Index and other publications, including the Wall Street Journal and the New Statesman. He is working on his first novel.