Bombay, 1968. A gangly young man is seated in front of a prominent film director: Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. The director has already decided to cast the aspirant — without an audition. The young man is surprised; he tells Abbas frankly that the other directors he approached told him he was too tall for their heroines. Abbas replies that there are no conventional heroines in his film, and asks for the youngster’s full name.
“Amitabh..,” the youngster pauses, and then adds, reluctantly, “Bachchan.”
“You are Harivanshrai Bachchan’s son?” Abbas asks, at once.
The youngster nods.
“Then I will have to check with your father if he has any problems with your working with me.”
Another pause. Amitabh responds, “All right. I understand. But do I really look like a runaway?”
This scene is played out in Bombay, My Bombay! (1987) by Abbas; it’s a small book, not over 250 pages, and is a memoir of his days in Bombay.
There is much in this book about Mumbai that helps one reconstruct some aspect of the city’s past. For example, there is a discussion of Abbas’s early dramatic success, Main Kaun Hoon, a play about a headless body found in the wake of post-partition riots in Bombay. The body speaks, but refuses to reveal whether it is Muslim or Hindu; and which of the two its killer is, either. It lets its interrogators —from both communities — wallow in guilt about its murder.
(And for the record, Abbas’s Saat Hindustani turned out to be Amitabh Bachchan’s first film, and won him the National Award for Best Newcomer.)
THE CITY IS THE THEME
Abbas’s book and several other memorable accounts are gathering dust waiting for you at the Bombay City Corner of the F.E. Dinshaw library at the Indian Merchant’s Chamber in the stately Resham Bhavan near Churchgate station.
The library is a cavernous source of books on all matters financial and economic. It is located at Resham Bhavan, near Churchgate station, and is used by students of economics and political science for research. Few would recommend it for a day of leisurely browsing.
But then, they don’t know about the library’s Bombay City Corner. Established in 1987, the Corner accumulates books that have anything to do with Mumbai; at last count it had about 500. The books are not specific to any field of study; there is no real theme to the books except that they have something to do with the city’s history, people and culture. It resembles a personal collection donated in full.
You can, for example, read a playful account of the city’s history through the eyes of a colonial gentleman of letters, James Douglas, whose Bombay and Western India (1893) has an assortment of essays covering subjects as diverse as the Duke of Wellington’s stay in Bombay, the caves of Elephanta, and Bombay’s indigenous folk.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
The library also has many volumes on the city’s transition from Bombay to Mumbai. One book stands out especially in this category: Bombay, The Cities Within by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi. It is an account that peers into the interiors of colonial dwellings, and sings the glories of the art-deco glamour of the Eros, Regal and Metro cinema theatres. It ends with the dry assertion that the socialistic ethic of contemporary Mumbai architects leaves the city with featureless blocks of constructions, with interstitial slum dwellings coiling between them. The irony is heightened when one steps out and sees Eros now, dilapidated, with a garish Bollywood poster staring out from its façade. Eros, the book says, was once termed ‘the centre of all the city’s attraction!’ in a fitting tribute to the Greek goddess it was named after.
Needless to say, visiting historians and scholars make good use of the Bombay City Corner’s resources. But the selection should be equally compelling for a layperson looking to get lost in a library. Every library is a labyrinth, as Jorge Luis Borges once said. This one is a labyrinth whose centre is our city.