Sunday, January 07, 2018

Six (very) short stories from Bombay

Jan Joost Teunissen and Aafke Steenhuis were a week in Bombay (Mumbai) for their book on world ports. Upon their return, Jan Joost wrote six short stories. They give a clue to why he regretted  leaving Bombay after a week.

Buying a SIM card

Mahendra and Aafke
At the exit of the cruise terminal they trudged around me, the taxi drivers. "Sir, I can take you to all the places you want to visit," "Sir, do you want to go to the Gateway?", "Sir, I can bring you to the Museum, it's very cheap."  
"Thank you for offering your services but I do not need a taxi," I kept answering. "I just walk to the traffic light to buy a SIM card."
It was a wide avenue that I walked from the gate, with high, thick trees on the left. There was little traffic. A man approached me and asked modestly if I might need a taxi. "Not now," I said, "but tomorrow. My wife and I are still on the cruise ship for another night and tomorrow morning we will go to our hotel and have an appointment somewhere in the city." "I can take you anywhere for $ 15 a day," he said. I looked at him a bit better, he looked back quietly. "Okay," I said, "can you be at the gate at 8 o'clock in the morning, then my wife and I will come with our suitcases?"
The next morning he walked towards us calmly and confidently. When we said goodbye to each other a week later at the airport, both Mahendra, Aafke and I had tears in our eyes. 

At the junction with the traffic light there was an open shop on the other side, actually more like a wide, open booth, like the one where Aafke and I bought a SIM card in Shanghai, with a man who constantly received smartphones that customers gave to him for a number of hours. I could only buy a SIM card with him if I had a passport photo, because forms had to be filled in with a photograph of me stuck to it. He told me where I could have a passport photo taken in the neighbourhood. 
I came to a photo shop, with staff in the front, light section and in the back, in the dark, the boss. He was a calm, friendly and confident man, with whom I soon started talking about black and white photography, the development of negatives, the fascination of seeing emerge the image in the developer liquid, the type of paper that was our favorite - he sepia, I Record Rapid from Agfa - and the film rolls from initially 8 and later 36 photos. I still  have a few rolls in my closet and also photo paper, developer, fixer and tongs to pick up the wet, developed photo paper and first put it in a container with fixer and then rinse it in a bucket. But the conversation about those details was not until after he had taken off his pants and shirt and suddenly stood in front of me in half-length underpants and with calm and controlled movements pulled on a perfectly ironed shirt and white trousers to walk with me to a telephone store to buy a SIM card.  
He took me by the arm to cross a busy road and that's how I got my first lesson in crossing a street where cars on the wrong side run past each other and alongside you. That lesson was useful later, when I crossed busy roads with Aafke. For me it soon became routine and an adventure without danger, because I saw that the traffic chaos and the drivers of the always honking cars, scooters and motorcycles respectfully interact with each other and with the pedestrians: they never bump against each other, even though it seems that they will do that every moment.
Together with the photographer I found a suitable telephone store. On the way back he told me about the beautiful sepia wedding photo he had of his parents, about his daily yoga exercises and the skipping of the evening meal, so he stayed so fit. He was 72 and I thought he looked younger than me. Later I introduced Aafke to him when she also had a passport photo taken to get an Indian SIM card. In the end she did not buy one: one working cell phone was sufficient.

The eyes of Naresh Fernandes

He could tell wonderfully about Bombay, about the neighbourhood where he lived and where his mother had also lived as well as generations before him, about the globalization of Hawaiian music, about his grandfather who had devoted his life to protesting against the injustice that was done to him by the expropriation of his piece of land, but I was intrigued by his eyes. It was as if I were looking into my grandmother's eyes, and into my uncle's, my father's brother's eyes.  
That same day I sent Naresh Fernandes a photo of my The Hague grandmother, after he had shown me a picture of his mother that morning: a face that seemed familiar to me.

On the last day of our stay in Bombay I looked again in the eyes of my uncle and in that of my grandmother. This time it were the eyes of Mahendra Sinh, the friend of the Indian writer's friend who Aafke once had interviewed. We sat on the lawn of the Willingdon Golf Club, it started to twilight a bit. He asked if I was born in March. He thought we had the same constellation, because it was as if he had known me for a long time. 

At the airport, at check-in, Aafke said, "When you look back, at the man with his little daughter on the arm, you see those same eyes with dark circles around them."

I once thought that my The Hague grandmother had Eastern blood.

The spots on Aafke's lower legs

She had been bothered for a few days, but suddenly I thought: a doctor has to look at this. I walked to the desk of our hotel, explained what happened to Aafke. The boss looked for a piece of paper, picked up the phone, called and said that we had an appointment with a dermatologist in a clinic in the neighbourhood. He sent one of the servants to arrange a taxi. And so we sat fifteen minutes later with bare feet in the waiting room of the dermatologist. 

There was a woman who had a look at Aafke's legs and not much later the skin doctor came to us and invited Aafke in the small room to tell her story. Then we went to the treatment room. He looked carefully at her legs, diagnosed her and prescribed two types of cream, one for the morning and one for the evening. 

Two days later the spots had almost disappeared. I thanked the boss of our hotel for his resolute action and said that this would be exceptional in the Netherlands. 

What Aafke had? An allergic skin reaction.  

The dermatologist also prescribed pills. He asked if Aafke sometimes had side effects, said he did not expect the pills to cause side effects, but left it to Aafke about whether or not to take them.  

He wrote the use of both creams and pills in such a beautiful, clear and artistic handwriting that I said that I had never seen a doctor in the Netherlands with such a clear handwriting. To which he replied laughing, that they therefore did not take him seriously as a doctor.

The glass door

Before we went that evening to the beautiful old-fashioned cinema in our neighborhood to watch a Bollywood movie, we quickly went to our beloved coffee bar at the corner of Marine Drive one kilometer from our hotel. 

I stepped in there resolutely and did not see the glass door. It did not give in a millimeter, because with my forehead I collided with the side of the glass door where the hinges are. 

Aafke ordered coffee, I sat down at a table in a corner, and staff and customers asked me concerned how it went.  

Aafke noticed on the terrace a moment later that a huge bump had appeared on my head, just above my left eye, and she asked for ice cubes. Thanks to the plastic bag with press-on closure that I had received at the airport in Amsterdam when exchanging euros in rupees from the perfect Dutch speaking Russian from the GWK, I had the perfect waterproof bag for the ice cubes, which I first held against my forehead just above my left eye on the terrace of the café and, later in the hotel room, while watching a Bollywood movie on the TV. The swelling became less and the next day you hardly saw it. 

After a few days a beautiful dark blue border appeared around my eye reminding me of my The Hague grandmother.

The architect who studied in Delft for a year

Quaid invited us to come to his office in a neighborhood on the north side of Bombay (most of Bombay is north of the center of the old city where our hotel was nearby). Someone at the iron gate door opened the door for our taxi driver, and when we stopped in a courtyard, a pungent urine smell penetrated our nose; we were right in front of a pishouse.

Through an internal staircase of a former factory we arrived in the room where the architect, a boy or man in his early forties, the same age of our Dutch friend through whom we had gotten his address and with whom she had studied in Delft, has his office. There were open rooms with young staff and an older woman who later made tea for us.

We asked him about the plans for the new destination of the old port site that lies along the east side of Bombay on the bay; on the other side a new port has been built, which we have never seen because of the smog and the great distance. Our taxi driver did not want to drive to it, it was a two and a half hours drive, he said, because he did not know the situation there and because he was afraid he would have problems with the authorities.

Quaid could tell us something about the new zoning plans, but in the end we talked more about his search for how he would direct his life after the divorce of his companion and partner in business with whom he was still close friends. He especially wanted to know how we managed to stay together for 50 years.

In our favorite coffee bar on Marine Drive we continued the conversation the next day.

The 'Sister' of Percy Mistry

Percy Mistry
For ten years, Percy Mistry was the man with whom I worked most closely within FONDAD. A friend of mine who worked at the World Bank said to me at the end of the eighties: maybe he will soon leave the World Bank and if I were you I would immediately contact him. A large number of books that I have published as director and editor-in-chief of FONDAD have been written by Percy (see Fondad books by Percy Mistry).

But here I want to talk about his 'sister' or the lady he introduced to me as his sister when we saw each other again after 20 years, but who is actually his cousin: her mother is his father's sister, but the two families have lived in the same family building in Bombay and they grew up like sister and brother. Percy lives in Bombay for the winter part of the year, his permanent home is in Oxfordshire in the UK.

Percy and I saw each other back at CCI, or the Cricket Club of India. Just like at the Willingdon Sports Club we sat at a table on the lawn, a kind of outdoor terrace, and because there was a lot of noise and I was sitting next to Percy's sister, I had a conversation with her, while Aafke on the other side of the table had a conversation with Percy and his protégé who worked at the OECD. Percy has a serious illness and after half past eight in the evening is only capable of falling asleep or watching TV.

His sister told me about her mother who gambled money at horse racing, but she also told me about another cousin of hers who is committed to teaching children from slums. That cousin has already made thousands of slum (and disabled) children happy with education that was not only focused on learning but also on drawing and sports. And so for me, and later also for Aafke, the first-class lady became a lively, sweet woman with whom Aafke had a conversation about her youth at Catholic boarding schools in India and in Switzerland.

I still found a warm bond with Percy.


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