Destination Bombay

Pilani will always be my home. I have lived much less in Pilani than in any other town out of all the towns I have lived in. But I was born only in Pilani. That explains the special attachment. Same for my dad. He is a Pilaniwala at heart despite fleeing from the place in his early teens, following in his father, my grandfather’s footsteps.

Destination Bombay.

No photo description available.

The seaside city of dreams – a cornucopia of night life, bright lights, beaches, film studios, artists, film stars, clubs, restaurants, cafes, dance bars, five-star hotels, high rise, chawls and slums. A metropolis with deep pockets and abject poverty in equal measure.

My dad ‘took’ the train from Chirawa. There was no train ticket for a penniless boy. So, he leapt on the buffers between two bogies and rode sitting on it for part of the long journey. At Sawai Madhopur, where the train stopped briefly, he got off to stretch himself. A lassi seller asked him to mind his stall while he fetched some ice from a nearby shop. My dad, in that time, stirred himself a lassi glass and gulped it down before the man returned. Extreme times, extreme measures. Back on the Frontier Mail, this time hanging outside the door, persevering the exhaustion, drowsiness, hunger, soot and chill, gripping firmly on the handle bars, he forced his eyes open for he knew that to succumb was to die.

My grandfather had already made Bombay his home since the 1920s. He worked in the city but the salary could not be stretched as far as shifting the whole family there. So, he would come to Pilani during Diwali or Holi, bringing with him urban gifts and tales. My dad was crazy about Bombay and wanted to be there by hook or by crook. That’s exactly what he did. Hooked to the train, ticketless.

South Bombay, by then, was a home to several wealthy Rajasthanis from and around Pilani. Clever businessmen they were. They were mostly the baniyas, the traditionally enterprising and occupational community. Birlas being the richest in India and to remain so for the rest of the 20th century. My grandfather, being a brahmin, didn’t know the ‘b’ of business but had a penchant for reading, singing, telling jokes, folktales, fat-bottomed girls, and faking astrology. He found employment at the Birlas – the brotherhood and all, but was ‘the panditji’ on demand.

Alighting from the train at Bombay Central, my dad walked 3 or 4 km to CP Tank which was actually a water tank but the area it was in had come to be known as that too. There, he somehow found his way to Bahman Bari (home of the brahmins) where my grandfather lodged with other brahmins from Pilani and nearby towns. My dad was only allowed to remain there for a day or two before he was sent back home, this time with a ticket.

But, he attempted again. And again. Against my grandma’s wish. She is believed to have told him, ” You keep running away from Pilani, but a day will come when you will pine for it.” Which, decades later, as dad narrated the story to us, was the case.

My grandfather gave up in the end and my dad stuck around in Bombay to try his luck in films. He had the right looks but very little patience. My grandpa got him admitted to Filmistan (Studios). I somehow never thought that my dad was cut out for acting. But he did do a film or two. At the age of 16 or 17, he featured in Angan, (released 1959), with the very famous Rehman, Street Singer (1966) with Chandrashekhar, and a few more. He could not persevere for better roles, so he much later (when *I* was in my teens) got into film production. He co-produced with my mum a film titled Ek Naya Itihas (released 1984) that featured some fine actors like Hema Malini, Vinod Mehra, Reza Murad, Ranjeet, and Om Shiv Puri, and one attempted film with Rajesh Khanna, Neetu Singh (now Kapoor) and Anil Dhawan that never reached far due to lack of funds. My dad never entered films, in essence, but never left films either, frequenting Churchgate’s Gaylord and other venues where the filmi lot hung out together for the free flowing booze and the pretty pretty girls.

A photograph from my father’s film, Ek Naya Itihaas found on Vishnu Vardhan’s website
Promotional poster – Ek Naya Itihaas

Promotional poster – Ek Naya Itihaas

Opposite the Bahman Bari was also my mum’s residence. My nanaji had bought that place soon after the partition when they arrived there from Karachi. The balconies of my mum’s home and dad’s flat faced each other. It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand how they must have met. My mother was a comely, gentle, homely and industrious girl. My dad knew instantly she was the one for him.

My grandma died very young leaving the burden of one younger son and three very young daughters on mostly my dad as my grandfather was going to retire to come back home few months too late.

My dad called his brother to the city, and a year later married my mum.

The ‘hook or by crook’ attitude was now directed at making a success of the monetary kind. My mum became a mum to my aunts, his sisters, and spent some time in Pilani, a big move for a girl brought-up in Bombay of the time. That’s when I was born. We spent time shuttling between Bombay and Pilani as my dad was still trying to find his feet and could not afford a bigger apartment in Bombay until later, for the whole family, aunts and grandpa included. But they would visit from time to time. Apparently, my aunt once announced that Bombay was much hyped, and that people sitting on the toilet can be heard from the living room. The confined spaces were not to everyone’s taste, I guess.

My sister, Sheetal (fondly called Bubbles) was born in Bombay. Somewhere in between came Ahmedabad and my dad’s alliance with Sanjay Gandhi who made him join the Youth Congress. He entered politics but devoted his time in supporting certain agendas than diving into it full-time. Same as with films, he remained on the fringe of politics, but never left it either. I believed he was not shrewd enough for politics despite having friends in the field. My brother, the youngest of us three, was born in Ahmedabad. Three of us, three different cities, three different seasons – summer, monsoon and winter.

Before long, dad was re-catapulted to Bombay. He started business ventures, but he too didn’t know the ‘b’ of business since he didn’t know the ‘a’ of account-keeping. But we had a beautiful flat in Bombay by now. A flamboyantly social guy, my dad, enjoyed having people over for dinners and drinks once he was financially comfortable.

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View from Bandstand flat, Bombay

He never forgot his real home though, Pilani. He found, and sometimes created, reasons to assemble all his siblings and their families at the family home. Pujas, havans, shraads, grandfather’s wish, and then my marriage, whatever it took to call them over. He craved to return home from time to time. He forever contracted builders at Pilani home to keep the home ‘open’ as that meant returning often to check on them.

It must be where one is born that one remains strongly attached to. Pilani calls me in the same way, or maybe a little less, as it does my dad, and yet I lived there much less than in any other town out of all the towns I have lived in. Also because it is my father’s home. I miss Bombay too. Some of the best years of my life were spent there. It is my mother’s first home. She grew up there. A city where my parents met. It is where their dreams came true.

A city of dreams, still, for many aspirants who must be at this very moment clinging onto the buffers of the trains en route to Bombay, nka Mumbai.

By Sapna Dhandh Sharma