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Breathless in Bombay
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Breathless in Bombay

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by Murzban F. Shroff
 

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Shortlisted for the 2009 Commomwealth Writers' Prize

Shroff's vibrant narratives in this concept collection of 14 stories set in contemporary Bombay feature a range of beautifully drawn characters in fascinating situations: from the laundrywallas' water shortage problems, to the doomed love affair of a schizophrenic painter and his Bollywood girlfriend, to

Overview

Shortlisted for the 2009 Commomwealth Writers' Prize

Shroff's vibrant narratives in this concept collection of 14 stories set in contemporary Bombay feature a range of beautifully drawn characters in fascinating situations: from the laundrywallas' water shortage problems, to the doomed love affair of a schizophrenic painter and his Bollywood girlfriend, to the wandering thoughts of a massagewalla at Chowpatty Beach, to the heart-warming relationship of a carriage driver and his beloved horse. Each of these stories is richly crafted and arranged against the grand chaotic backdrop of life that is Bombay. Shroff's love for his hometown shines through, but so does his deep understanding of its challenges and problems. The reader is afforded an insider's view of this pulsating city, and through an unforgettable emotional and cultural journey comes to care for the characters presented in these stories.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“. Breathless in Bombay pulses with desire and dreams and wrong and sorrow, with chaos singular and general, and ultimately, with hope. A marvelous first collection by a writer to be watched.” —Janet Peery, author of What the Thunder Said, The River Beyond the World, and Alligator Dance

“Murzban Shroff's literary exploration of Bombay takes one to parts of the city one seldom sees. His compassion for his characters and their everyday trials comes through vividly in each story.” —Thrity Umrigar, author of The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet and Bombay Time

“It's a rare thing to see human troubles described with such energetic good humor--Murzban Shroff leads you through the chaos of Mumbai with an avuncular arm around your shoulder and a spring in his step. Not since V. S. Naipaul's A House For Mister Biswas has the discomfort of people in their society been so engagingly chronicled--Shroff has written a stellar debut. We could use four or five of him.” —J. Robert Lennon, author of Mailman and Pieces for the Left Hand

“In this excellent debut short-story collection, Murzban Shroff distills the delirious reality of Bombay into a vivid, multi-layered collage that's nothing short of stunning. It's all here -- the beauty, the suffering, the grinding wheel of modernization, the desperate machinations for love and money, plus a cast of characters that in its richness and scope rivals anything we find in Dickens, Balzac, or Tom Wolfe. Shroff writes with an energy and intensity equal to his subject, and has given us an extraordinary book that satisfies on every level.” —Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

“Like James Joyce's Dubliners, Breathless in Bombay is a story collection that has the range and fullness of a novel. Shroff's empathy for his characters is filled with wisdom and great-heartedness, and his people and their city linger in the reader's mind long after the last page is turned.” —Ron Rash, author of The World Made Straight, One Foot in Eden, and Chemistry and Other Stories

“With a sharp eye and a social conscience, Shroff illuminates the complexities of life at all levels of Mumbai's stratified society. A rich, insightful collection that is part travel-writing and part fiction, reading these stories is like visiting this great and chaotic city on the Arabian Sea.” —Rishi Reddi, author of Karma and Other Stories

Publishers Weekly

Bombay-born Shroff opens a window on that city's commercial bustle, "as lived in the heads of its people" (as his introduction puts it) one profession at a time. The opening "Dhobi Ghat," follows Mataprasad Mahadev, 53, delivering laundry, and establishes a pattern followed by later stories: a man (it's most often a man) is shown at work; his backstory then explains how he got there and leads to an ambiguous, open-ended conclusion. Whether wealthy tycoon, taxi driver or writer, modernization and globalization are eroding livelihoods, making previously unimpeachable choices untenable, and causing massive nostalgia. There are flashes of excellence here, as in the portrait of an elderly, neurotic army widow in "The Great Divide," but heavy symbolism weighs down some of the otherwise carefully nuanced portraits. Shroff proves adept at unraveling Bombay's rituals, rumors and rhythms from the inside out. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This rich and lively debut collection demonstrates Shroff's storytelling skill, which has garnered him two Pushcart Prize nominations. All 14 tales focus on the inhabitants of his hometown of Bombay, or, Mumbai, as it was officially renamed in 1996. From a cross section of Indian society, the characters are all somehow beset with the familiar challenges of contemporary city life-terminal poverty, diseases like AIDS, and values and tradition lost to economic development. Shroff does not employ gritty realism to portray his characters' struggles, but he also refrains from romanticizing them. Instead, he achieves a welcome balance of apprehension and optimism. Most of his narrators are men who more often than not convey considerable compassion for the women in their lives. For instance, the carriage driver in "The Queen Guards Her Own" dreams of saving a young prostitute and her daughter. Like other short story collections set in Bombay (e.g., Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombayand Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag), Shroff's makes for enjoyable reading. Recommended for large fiction collections.
—Faye A. Chadwell

Kirkus Reviews
A collection that chronicles the deep chasms in contemporary Bombay. The author credits Bombay's (officially dormant) social caste system as a source of inspiration for the book. In the title story, the low-class appearance and background of her manservant convince the aging wife of a prominent soldier that he plans to rob and kill her. In "Meter Down," the taxi driver waiting in front of a hotel eschews students and other natives in favor of foreign businessmen; they're the kind of customers he can swindle for the best fares and tips. Bombay's sordid underbelly is also revealed. "The Maalishwalla," for example, follows the thoughts of a masseur on Chowpatty Beach who is so desperate to make money (so he can return to his bride in his home village) that he feels unable to do anything about the man he sees aggressively pestering an unwilling prostitute. "The Queen Guards Her Own" explores the loving relationship between a retired horseman and a prostitute's child, whom he vows to keep from the same fate as her mother. The contrast between tradition and modernity within the city is another subject. In "Dhobi Ghat," a long-standing community of launderers (dhobis) meets to discuss their financial woes after many of their customers have switched to electric washing machines. "Traffic" finds a privileged Bollywood producer contemplating a bygone love affair, painfully aware that her society considers it a shame that she is still alone on her 27th birthday. Shroff's narration is consistently clear-voiced; his focused setting and carefully chosen themes give the collection a strong structure. Stories as engaging and complicated as the city to which they pay homage.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312372705
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
02/05/2008
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
1,217,182
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Meter Down, a short story from Breathless in Bombay

     Through sleepy, sun-soaked eyes Mohitram Doiphade looked at the slim, smartly dressed woman who sashayed down the carpeted exit of the Hotel Taj Intercontinental and tictocked, in high metallic stilettos, toward his cab. Shutting firm his eyes, Mohitram Doiphade began playing the about-to-be-enacted scene in his mind. He had been through it so often that he could visualize the confidence with which she would open the door, the marked disappointment when he refused her fare, the beseeching note in her voice while she pleaded her case, and the pout that came on when he adamantly refused her business. So often had he been through this pantomime that he chose to stay recumbent while she approached, his parched black feet, bare and swollen with corns, sticking out through the window.

     “Bhai sahib,” she purred, in a dainty sort of a way. “Famous studio, bhai sahib.”

     Without opening his eyes, Mohitram shook his head curtly, and flicked his hand in a gesture of annoyance. He could well have been shooing a beggar.

     “Please bhai sahib,” she pleaded.

     “Told you, no, I don’t want to go,” he replied in gruff Hindi, opening his eyes slightly to show sleep and surliness.

     “Take pity, brother. I have to get to a shoot.”

     “Go! Bother me not,” he snapped. “If you are a model, you should get yourself a car.”

     “But I don’t know how to drive,” she confessed charmingly, spontaneously.

     “Good! Women shouldn’t drive anyway,” he replied, feeling satisfied for having aired a long repressed bias.

     “Dukkar! Pig!” she spat, and slammed the door vengefully, shaking him out of his stupor.

     He sat up and glowered. “Your father’s car or what?” he asked.

     “If it were so, why would I have to ask a pig like you?” she retorted, and marched off heatedly.

      Mohitram’s eyes followed her tight buns swinging rhythmically. Temper in a woman was certainly desirable, he thought, awake now and reaching for the water bottle between his seat and the door. Uncorking the bottle, he let the water flow down his gullet. The water was warm from the heat of the flooring. Yet, he drank greedily, splashing, in his hurry, some of it on his chest. He dropped the bottle to the side. It fell on the rubber mat, in between his chappals.

     He shuffled in his seat to adjust his weight. The Rexene of the seat squeaked plaintively. Flipping a greasy napkin over the open window, he leaned against the edge of the door and slept.

     Soon he was snoring. It was a light slumber, as inert as one could hope to be on the streets of Bombay. A nice part of Bombay, this was: breezy, lazy, touristy, nonetheless humid and scorching for those who worked outdoors.

     It was twelve years since Mohitram Doiphade had arrived in Bombay. He remembered the rush of excitement he’d felt when the big brown engine with the dust of India stormed into the Victoria Terminus and settled with a hot hefty sigh against its girders. Everyone had rushed to the door, to catch the first impressions of the big city, where dreams could take shape, where fortunes could be built, if one persevered long enough. First, the city put you through the grinder, the chakkhi, as his uncle would call it. It pummeled you and pushed you, strained you and stretched you, and broke you in, bit by bit. Then, it would immunize you to its hardships. Once you were seasoned, it would reward you for your penance – lavishly, in a way no other city could.

     It was Nathuram Doiphade, the younger, more serious brother of his father, Jagatram, who had given Mohitram this happy talk, sitting in a dark, cheerless hovel in a South Bombay slum. Nathuram had boasted about the city, while black soapy water gathered and foamed outside, and toxic fumes from frantically primed kerosene stoves rose and made Mohitram’s senses swim.

     “Bombay is a city with a great history,” Nathuram said. “It has seen many changes, many rulers: the Arabs, the Marathas, the Portuguese, and the British. It has also seen many tragedies, faced many hardships. It has survived a fire, a riot, three bomb blasts, and a flood. It is not a city for slackers, but for the strong. You will have to work hard, sweat, if you wish to succeed.”

      Twelve years hence, Mohitram Doiphade had come to some understanding with the city. He had worked as a canteen-boy, a houseboy, a coolie, a handcart-pusher, and had run a cab for a timber merchant who paid him a meager thirty percent of the profit. By holding two jobs and rationing his money - he sent some of it home and kept some for a little release in the livelier neighborhoods - he had saved up enough to buy his own black-and-yellow: MMU 4977. With that he was accountable to no one – except of course to the traffic police, who threw their weight around because of the uniform they wore. He smirked inwardly to see how the traffic constables caved to his bribes; how ten rupee notes slipped along with his license could help skirt over troubles like a broken signal, a wrong turn, and forays down one-way streets.      

     A thin voice disturbed him again. “KC. College, Churchgate. Will you come?” The voice sounded urgent, like all Bombayites.

     He looked up. The intruder was a boy in his teens, bespectacled, studious, with a soft face and mild, querying eyes.

    “No,” Mohitram snapped. “Meter down. Can’t you see?” He closed his eyes in a show of resolution.

     “Please … I’ve got my exams,” the teenager pleaded.

     “Said no, didn’t I?” snarled Mohitram. These boys of today: how foolish they were.

     The boy looked distressed. “Please, I am very late. I will miss my paper.”

     Mohitram gave him a long hard look. Raising a leg over the dashboard, he waved his foot at the meter. “Meter down, meter down,” he mocked, grinning at the boy with paan-shot teeth.

     The boy backed away in panic. He was convinced that Mohitram was an ill omen. Extended commerce with him would damage his prospects at the exams.

     In a sense, the boy was right. Mohitram was a misanthrope. Specifically, he was a hater of all those who made him sweat and toil, who commanded him to fly them to their destination, who made him slave for his survival, driving him through narrow lanes and crowded spaces – while they worked in plush air-conditioned offices and drew fancy salaries, and went home at a reliable hour, knowing that their savings were gaining interest in the bank.

     He hated them all: harried executives who told him how to drive; fat, slovenly housewives who clawed into their blouses for loose change; teenage couples who nuzzled and fumbled in the backseat like hypnotized calves; old men and women who took forever getting in and forever getting out – he was always worried they would fall, and then he would have to rush them to hospital and answer to a barrage of questions. More than he hated his customers, Mohitram hated the prospect of losing money. And right now, strange as his behavior was, he didn’t mind losing out on some fares, the ones over short distances, which didn’t amount to much. That’s because today was an important day. He had to make decent money. And that kind of money didn’t come from hoity-toity models, or from breathless, panicky students. It came from, well, the man who came bounding across the entrance of the Hotel Taj Mahal. The man who was young, fair, athletic in his stride, and rich, as could be deduced from his clothes and from his demeanor. Mohitram straightened up and wore his pleasant, most inviting smile. “Where to, sir?” he asked, his voice coated with subservience.

     “Airport,” replied the man. He opened the back door and threw his tan-colored bag on the seat. Mohitram’s heart soared. The airport was at the other end of Bombay. With the fiddle on the meter which he had done that morning, Mohitram could hope to pocket nothing less than rupees four hundred. More, if he went into bottlenecks and jams. The trick was to keep the conversation going, while the digits flew and the meter reading rose steadily.

     Mohitram wondered for a moment if he should demand a special fare from his passenger: rupees six hundred flat. He could say he’d get no business on the return trip, he’d have to drive back empty. He had done this recently with an Arab on Marine Drive, who appeared in a hurry to get back to his hotel, and - fool that he was! – the Arab had paid up.

     But here it might not work. These foreigners were no fools. He started the cab. The ignition whined. The engine roared to life. Passersby recoiled to avoid the black fumes.

     Mohitram studied his passenger’s face in the rearview mirror. He looked pleasant and relenting, not the kind to grudge some extra baksheesh. These goras usually carried five hundred rupee notes on them. So, if he could arrange for the fare to touch around four hundred and twenty, he might just get to keep the balance.

     The taxi hit the wind-swept stretch of Nariman Point, the beginning of Bombay’s pride-ride: the Queen’s Necklace. The breeze made Mohitram happy. He could feel its moisture against his face. The city stretched out lazily, in a wide-arched smile. Mohitram thought it was the right time to start a conversation.

     “You have seen our Mumbai, sir? What you think? You like it? You come back?”

     “Oh, I love it. It’s got so much life, so much warmth,” replied the foreigner graciously.

     Seeing Mohitram stare blankly, he amplified in simple English: “Very good, yes. I like it very much. Thank you.”

     Mohitram struggled, and began again. “Taj very good hotel, sir. But very expensive, no?”

     “Yes, but very efficient and convenient.” Again, seeing the look on Mohitram’ face, he spoke simply: “Location good! Everything near-near! Service also very good. I like it very much.” The passenger might have found the broken English offensive to his own ears, but then what to do – this way at least he was getting through.

     Mohitram smiled and nodded. He liked this fellow. It was a shame he would have to rip him off, but then these goras were so wealthy that even the poorest in their country made two thousand dollars, which was around hundred thousand rupees. What was an extra hundred rupees, then? Mohitram would take it as a fee for putting up with a conversation in English.

     “Our politicians very bad. All robbers, sir,” Mohitram said, anxious to incur the foreigner’s confidence.

     “Oh, yes, I read about Bofors. Amazing, how the crooks still haven’t been brought to light.”

     “Bofors?” Mohitram looked puzzled. He was hoping to complain about the harassment to Bombay’s taxiwallas: the threat of introducing harsh pollution norms, the expense in changing to CNG cylinders, the sharp increase in road taxes, and the ban on bar dancers, which had led to good night-time business being wiped away. This Bofors was beyond his understanding. Besides, it had not threatened his pocket in any way. So it couldn’t be anything serious.

     “Bofors!” said the foreigner impatiently. He was getting fed up with this parenthetical conversation. “You know the arms scandal?”

     “No, sir, not in Mumbai,” Mohitram said with a frown. Breaking into a smile, he continued, “Mumbai most important city, sir. No city like it. That is why all big robbery happens here. Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, that Telgi-walla ustaad - all big chors work here.”

     “Wouldn’t know about that, pal,” replied the foreigner cheerfully. “I guess it’s the same everywhere. Look what happened to Enron and Arthur Anderson.”

     Seeing defeat on Mohitram’s face, the foreigner expanded, “O’ robbery is everywhere. We have to live with it.” He opened a newspaper, hoping Mohitram would get the message.

     Mohitram grinned. Robbery everywhere, huh? Well, by his own admission, the foreigner had asked for it.

     They were at Peddar Road now, slowing for a jam. Mohitram switched off the engine and let his mind roll to the issue of the flyover, the overpass. The government wanted to construct an overpass over the main road, between the residential buildings, to diffuse jams and keep the traffic flowing. It made sense, for so much time was wasted on this stretch, especially during the peak hours. The overpass would have been built, had it not been for the bulbuls of Bollywood, India’s nightingale sisters who joined hands with the residents and led a protest march. They threatened to stop singing; threatened to move out of Bombay, to leave the country.

     The bulbuls were unassailable, a national treasure. Their songs were classics: they had made people fall in love, fall out of love, families rejoice, lovers reunite, prime ministers weep, and soldiers rise in nationalist fury. The matter of the overpass was suspended – for a while at least. And Mohitram waited in his taxi, sweating, swearing, whilst around him people in luxury sedans cooled under the throb of powerful air-conditioners and tapped away to soft, pounding music.

     His passenger was buried in the newspaper. Through the mirror Mohitram studied him. His beige-pink suit was rich and expensive-looking. His dark red tie stood well against the white of his shirt. The tie had a long, carved silver pin going across it. Mohitram decided to remember this detail. Not for any occasion, but for when he would dress for the wedding of his sister, Meena, Meenoo to him, nine years his junior, yet so close to his heart that it hurt just to think of her. Meena was the nucleus of his life. She was the reason he didn’t want to take on smaller fares today. She was the reason he wanted to earn well, so that he could lavish her with gifts when she arrived later, at eight-thirty P.M., on the 104 Mumbai Express. Oh, he couldn’t wait to see her. He couldn’t wait to hold her, hug her, his own flesh and blood. His foot tapped impatiently on the pedal and he drummed with his fingers on the steering wheel.

     The traffic started again. This time it moved smoothly. Mohitram picked up speed and kept pace. He didn’t want to slacken, lest he get late for Meena. He wanted to shave, bathe, buy flowers. He hoped that that rogue Ghasitram had used fresh flowers for the garland he’d ordered, not flowers from the graveyard. If Ghasitram did anything as inauspicious as that, Mohitram would wring his neck. He worried about some people in his chawl. Would they mention to Meena about his drinking? Or about his liking for matka, for street-corner gambling, which had become a habit? He didn’t want Meena to know any of this. He was also worried about those loafer boys, Kalloo Katela and Amol Lukha, who only planned how they could patao girls all day. Well, if they as much as approached Meena … Mohitram checked himself. He realized he was driving too fast. He had cut lanes twice. The foreigner was looking at him.

     He dropped speed and settled into position behind a speeding Hyundai and a sprightly Zen. The speedometer said sixty. The meter said twelve, which meant about one hundred and sixty rupees notched up already. They were at Prabhadevi now, Siddhivinayak, the temple of Lord Ganesha, benevolent lord of all good luck and favors. No new venture started without his blessings, without intoning his name or invoking his support. Mohitram ran a hand over his head, deferentially.

     The traffic lights blinked green. Mohitram sailed through. Soon he hit Mahim where groups of beggars sat outside dhabas, waiting for a rich man to stop and feed them. It was said, he who made the beggars eat would never go without his wishes being fulfilled. But such charity was not for Mohitram. All his money was saved up for Meena.

     He planned to take her to places she had never seen. Or, which he had never been to himself. He would take time off and they’d ferry across the harbor, to Elephanta caves, where he’d buy her bangles and beads. He would take her to Manish Market and Grant Road – the shopping arcades, where she could buy pretty dresses, ribbons, perfumes. He would take her to Marine Drive and let her ride in a victoria, so she’d feel like a princess. They’d stop at Chowpatty and tuck into bhel, sev puri, ragda pattice, and malai kulfi – yes, all the flavors of Mumbai. He’d feed her so well that when she returned to the village people would say: “Arrey, Meena, what has become of you? You are round like a vessel.” And she would smile shyly and reply: “You know my brother. I am overfed on his love and generosity.”

     Over the last few days, Mohitram had planned everything to perfection. He would start early morning, run his cab until lunchtime, then he would hurry home and take Meena out for lunch and sight seeing. He would take her to nice restaurants like the thali place at Girgaum, the pav bhaji place at Tardeo, the fish places at Kotachi Wadi and Koliwada, and the kebab places at Mohammed Ali Road, where they could also slurp on the malpuvas and phirni. He would take her to Victoria Garden and show her the zoo, and watch her feed the monkeys and the bears. He would drive her to Borivali National Park and show her deer and watch her pat and fondle them. And just when she thought she had seen it all, he would take her to Film City and show her some film shooting. Now that she would never forget. What luck he knew one of the light-boys on that new Aamir Khan movie who would fix them a pass. Oh, yes, he’d take her to a movie every day, too, if he could help it. And he’d drive her all around Mumbai, its nicer parts. And if any customer flagged him down, he would simply point to his meter and say in his deepest, gruffest voice: “Can’t you see? Meter down!”

     They were passing the Mahim Creek now. “Yuck, this smell is terrible,” said the foreigner, looking at the black marsh, a slime of subterranean neglect, and wrinkling his nose in disgust.

     “This is actually a river, sir. The Mithi River. It runs through half of Mumbai and drains into this creek, but people here treat it like a gutter, throwing things in it, so it changed color. But don’t worry, sir. We will soon leave it behind,” said Mohitram, stepping on the gas. The cab shot past the crowded lanes, the jumbo billboards with discounts painted in eye-socking fonts.

     It came to an overpass, which it climbed without a whimper. From here it was a straight run to the airport, along the highway, and Mohitram felt elated, as if his taxi had sprouted wings.

     The bulbuls should be banned from using this flyover, he thought to himself. Then I’d like to see how they go overseas for their concerts? He giggled inwardly and made it a point to share this with Meena. From now on there’d be nothing he’d keep to himself. He’d be having family here. Not cynical, city-spoilt family like Nathuram, but the honest, rapturous love of a sister. He shot a look at the meter. It said fifteen, which meant around two hundred rupees earned already. Pity though the foreigner had no heavy suitcases. He could have charged extra for that.

     “You travel light, sir?” Mohitram said, echoing what was in his mind.

     “Oh, what?” replied the foreigner startled. He had finished the newspaper; his attention was engaged elsewhere.

     “Only one bag? And so small?” Mohitram asked. He hoped the foreigner wouldn’t take offense at his asking. He didn’t want to spoil things now.

     “Oh, yes! Only one,” the foreigner said. “You see, I am not going anywhere. Just giving this to a friend who is flying out. It’s for another friend, actually.”    

     “You are not going, sir. Then you will be coming back? To the city? You will need taxi for that?” Mohitram hoped he didn’t sound too hopeful.

     “Of course, I will want taxi – your taxi to come back,” said the foreigner.

     Mohitram soared. “Better, sir, better that I bring you back. These airport taxis: they are all chors, all cheats, sir.”

     The foreigner smiled warmly. “Oh, I don’t mind if you want to bring me back. You are my friend, right? Why should I take another taxi, then?”

     “Thank you, sir. You are most kind,” Mohitram replied softly. What a nice fellow this was. He almost made Mohitram feel bad for overcharging him. But what to do? He needed the money for Meena. He wanted to fuss and spoil her. 

     The taxi flew past buses, rickshaws, scooters, and a row of factories that looked abandoned. Cars heaped with luggage honked sharply and whizzed past. Trucks came in close, then moved away, as if they had no intention of hurting this fly of a cab. On both sides of the highway were slums, where bare-bodied children played, running, squealing, stopping occasionally to scratch their black little bums, and where women with tired faces scrubbed and cooked, while their men sat listless, jobless, smoking beedis and playing cards. Mohitram stuck to his lane, his bare foot squeezing on the pedal. He had never felt a better grip on life. He felt the highway belonged to him. He almost felt like singing.

     A few meters away from the ice factory, where he had to turn for the airport, Mohitram heard a familiar sound. First low, then sharp, but insistent and grating. It sounded like an ambulance, he thought, but as it came up he saw it was a police van in a hurry. He could see it in the mirror, darting, dodging, overtaking cars which were ready to give way. It came and slipped into the lane behind Mohitram - four cars behind him, then three, then just behind him, to his left, waiting to overtake.

     Mohitram moved to the right to give way. But the van held on. It stuck to his tail, the beeping maniacal in his ears.  Mohitram slowed and peered into the mirror. There were cops standing on the footboard; they were beckoning to him furiously, and one of them waved a pistol.

     “Some mistake looks like,” Mohitram murmured and glanced at his passenger. There was no curiosity or surprise on his face. Just caged fury – like an animal trapped. He clutched his bag, the white on his knuckles resembling the pallor on his face. With a sigh, Mohitram began pulling over. The cop van followed like a dark, obstinate hound.

     When the cops came rushing forth, pointing a gun through every window of the taxi, Mohitram said nothing. He maintained a look of studied helplessness, of solemn disapproval. What could he say? They grabbed at his passenger, manhandled that nice suit of his, slapped him, dragged him, cuffed and kicked him, all at the same time. There, in the open, along the side of the highway, they had him kneeling, a gun at his head, his mouth foaming with blood. He tried to say something about his rights, but they slapped him, challenging him to repeat that.

     Later, at the police station, Mohitram caught a glimpse of him. Gone was the suit and tie; gone was the cool demeanor. His shirt was torn; his lips were swollen; his face – one side of it – was a nasty shade of blue. He looked sullen and defeated, yet he smiled at Mohitram and said weakly, “Sorry, friend. No return journey.”

     The cops heard this and misunderstood. They suspected Mohitram to be in league with the foreigner. His taxi might be a courier for the drugs. Three kilos of cocaine were found in the bag, in a cleverly concealed false bottom. At rupees three thousand a gram this was a sizeable haul. The cops couldn’t let anything that hinted of a network or smelt like a clue pass. There’d be questions from the top. The press would get wind of it. Narcotics would move in and try to get mileage. Times like this, the cops weren’t ready to listen about visiting sisters, kid sisters arriving in the city, full of hope. Before ruling you out, they wanted to know everything about you: about your life, your friends, your income, and your habits. Again and again they’d drill you, until they were convinced you were above board, until everything was down in black and white, and they had your thumb impression as proof. 

     It was eleven P.M. by the time Mohitram was allowed to leave the police station. He left without his taxi, which would be stripped down to the chassis to complete the search. A panic tore at his heart. He fretted about Meena. She would have arrived three hours ago.

     He took the nearest cab he could find. Along the way, he shouted at the driver: “Bloody bastard, even I drive a taxi. You are trying to waste time, huh, so you make more on the meter.”

     “No, son, I haven’t done that in fifty years. Why would I do it now?” replied the driver.

     Mohitram saw he was a frail man of seventy. His jaws were toothless hollows; his hands were thin and bony, like bird claws; and he wore thick foggy glasses, the kind that shield a patient after cataract surgery. Mohitram glared at him. What bad luck to be stuck with this old tortoise!

     The taxi rolled into the Victoria Terminus. Without waiting to check the fare, Mohitram thrust a bunch of notes at the driver and rushed out. He tore through the hordes of passengers crowding the entrance: families shuffling with their luggage, kids in tow; coolies with muscular stacks on their heads, buckling at the knees. Skillfully, he navigated his way past the upcountry travelers sleeping all over the foyer, their heads resting on pieces of luggage, whilst stray dogs came sniffing at their food baskets.

     God, platform four – where was it? Mohitram thought. And where was the train? All he could see was tracks of cold steel with moonlight bouncing off them, tracks leading outward, into oblivion.

     He grabbed a Ticket Collector, a thin, forlorn man in a black coat, and asked, “104 Mumbai Express. Was it on time?”

     The collector looked at him indifferently and said that the train had arrived three hours before. Then slyly he added: “You will find it in the yard, if you are greatly interested.”

     “One girl: seen her?” Mohitram asked. There was a cold panic rising in his stomach, a sick feeling in his throat and chest. He could picture Meena arriving, all eager and excited, craning from her window to catch a glimpse of him. (She hadn’t seen him since what, three years now!) He could see her getting off, nervous and mystified. What would she do? Where would she look? Whom would she turn to for help? And who would respond? Yes, who?

     He had heard about unescorted girls finding men eager to help. He had heard about their reception on the first night itself. No - that couldn’t happen to her. He must control himself. He must be patient. He would find her. Come what may, he would.

     He clutched the Ticket Collector by his coat. “Speak up! Tell me!” he said in a choking voice. “Have you seen her, a young girl, afraid, and ever so pretty?”

     The Ticket Collector looked at him as though he were mad. Through his eight hours of duty, he would have seen many girls, a hundred at least, maybe more. How to know who this madman was talking about? How to know who he thought was pretty? Best to humor him, get him off his back. “Ask the Railway police,” the Ticket Collector said, pointing to a room at the side. Outside the room stood a railway cop in uniform. He wore a navy blue cap pulled unevenly over his head, and he carried a lathi under his sweat-stained armpit. Mohitram saw he was grinding tobacco in his palm, back and forth, back and forth, increasing pressure each time.

     He ran up to the railway cop and started spilling his story. He described Meena, described her like the child she was, sweet flower of youth. He described her newness to the city, her tenderness of age, her excitement, her sprightliness, and her helplessness when she wouldn’t find him there. Meanwhile, the cop placed the tobacco strategically in his mouth, on the right side, pulling his cheek aside and squeezing it alongside the gums. Mohitram got a full view of his teeth, charred and chewed away by habit.

     With hands folded, tears streaming down his face, Mohitram blabbered on: “Please, sahib, please do something. Find her anyhow. She is only seventeen, a child you see … my only sister. Please find her. I will be your slave for life.”

     A train hooted its departure. The announcer’s voice broke overhead. It came rough and raspy over a cracking PA system. The cop signaled to Mohitram to be patient. The announcer went on about how some trains would be delayed. They would leave toward morning. A bridge had collapsed somewhere. Nothing serious, nothing lost, except the taxpayers’ money.

     Mohitram waited. He wore a pathetic expression. His heart threatened to leave his body; a frightful monster tore at his gut. If they couldn’t care for a river, he thought, a sparkling, flowing river, what hope for a girl indeed, a lone trusting girl like Meena? The cop continued to fix himself a second dose of tobacco. He began playing with the powder, lifting it, crushing it, letting it fall, a sprinkling almost in his palm. Mohitram watched with a growing feeling that he was part of the fix.

     The announcer went over the announcements slowly. All the trains delayed that night had to be rescheduled; the new timings were announced. The cop struck at the tobacco in his palm. To Mohitram’s mind, it was like a gong going through his head.

     A chaiwalla came by with his cart, making a rolling, clattering sound. The noise of the cart drowned the announcer’s voice. Seeing them, the chaiwalla slowed, but the cop shooed him on.

     Cupping his palm, the cop squeezed the second pinch of tobacco into his mouth. His face contorted, as he shuffled to find the tobacco its rightful place, the perfect chewing position.

     The announcements stopped. Mohitram began speaking again. This time he used a more subservient tone. “Oh, sahib, where do think she is? Please help me look. What will I tell my parents? How will I face them? Oh, help me please, sir. I will be your debtor for life.”

     The cop wasn’t listening. His attention was elsewhere - on a beggar-girl who had walked past, a huge sack thrown over her shoulder, its bottom scraping the ground.

     The girl couldn’t have been more than eighteen. Her hair was long, brown, and caked with dirt. Her blouse was loose: it hung low at the back. Her shoulders were lean, dark, and smooth. Good bones, basically.

     Mohitram looked, too. As if aware of them, the beggar-girl turned. Her face was shapely, her eyes sharp with survival. She was searching for articles with resale value, anything she could find to sell: old chappals, old bottles, old magazines.

     The cop fixed his eyes on her, staring suspiciously at first, then insolently. He chewed away, making smacking sounds with his mouth. The girl looked at him, as if reading his thoughts, and a strange vocabulary rose between them, a language of tacit understanding.

     But for Mohitram there was no such understanding. “Sahib,” he whispered to the cop, who now wore a peculiar expression. Not that of a captor, but of a captive. Not that of a law-keeper, but that of one about to contemplate mischief himself.

     The girl walked on, a faint smile on her lips. The sack trailed behind, making a dull scraping sound, leaving a track in the dust of the platform. The cop turned and followed her. He had pulled himself up smartly; the lathi swung in his hand. 

     “Sahib, please,” Mohitram pleaded, knowing full well that he was losing ground.

     The cop turned and stared at Mohitram. He stared at him with flat, glassy eyes and said in a tone that Mohitram knew only too well. “Duty khatam, samjah? My duty is over. You understand?”

Meet the Author

Murzban F. Shroff is a Bombay-born writer. His stories have been published in over 25 literary journals in the U.S., including the Gettysburg Review, the Louisville Review, the Minnesota Review, and the Southwest Review. He has received two Pushcart nominations and is currently at work on his first novel.

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Breathless in Bombay 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
BREATHLESS IN BOMBAY by Murzban Shroff is a stunning collection of stories, linked by a love of the city and a truly unusual and diverse portrait of its inhabitants. Each story tantalizes, captivates, lingers because of the unresolvable conflicts that haunt the characters¿ lives, conflicts as much part of culture as character. The richness and depth of the collection left me feeling as though I'd journeyed through a novel, rather than a story collection, which in my experience are usually uneven. Part of this was the unity created by the city ¿ oh, the city! -- and the motif of clash between the rich and the poor, but most was the empathy of Shroff¿s narrative voice, the love he instilled for his characters in whatever emotional or moral dilemma they floundered. The dhobi Mataprasad struggles to keep the collective life of his laundry trade afloat the Bollywood producer¿s assistant, Vicki, contends with her love for an artist who disdains all she does the masseur Bheem Singh finds his talent greater than that of his wealthy clients on Chowpatty Beach the victoria driver, Chacha, risks everything to rescue the daughter of his friend from the neighborhood brothel. What made BREATHLESS IN BOMBAY novelistic, not to mention a page-turner, was how much I cared for the characters and their fates, along with the beauty of the language. Shroff made me yearn to stroll through Bombay, like I might stroll through Paris, as no other Indian writer has been able to do.