Heart city

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on February 07, 2020 Published on February 06, 2020

Arriving in Mumbai’s international terminal I am reminded of the city’s specialness. The art at the airport, for instance: It’s not just institutional, it’s actually interesting. Drifting along on the travelling walkway, I want to stop and look at the displays on the walls. They’re not equally attractive, or even equally good, but they have a “look at me!” quality that goes beyond the tired formulae of public art.

My favourite piece is composed of hundreds of small transparent boxes containing fluttering insects — except, of course, they’re just abstract patches of colour, not living creatures at all. I’ve noticed this particular artwork before and wished I had the time to look carefully at the piece, find out what it’s called and who made it. But my flight arrived late and I’m in a rush to reach the home of the friend with whom I’m staying. I smile at myself: When was the last time I wanted to stay longer at the airport?

I’ve budgeted only three nights in the city that was my address for 15 years. Both the homes in which I stay are full of art. In the first one, it’s not just on the walls. For dinner my friend’s cook serves us bright green peas soup in turquoise blue bowls, on matching plates. It’s almost too beautiful to eat! From her fifth-floor windows, the next morning, even though a mauve haze obscures the view of the ocean, we’re high enough to be looking down at the tops of old trees. It’s like being in a tree house, surrounded by flights of parrots and slow-gliding small Indian kites.

I spend the next two nights in my cousin’s home. The walls are filled with paintings: Their daughter, Rithika Merchant, is a highly accomplished and successful visual artist. Some of the work is from recent shows, but her earliest pieces and her student work are also displayed. It’s like seeing one young person’s life caught in the amber of her parental home, from first faltering steps to the fine confidence of her newest paintings.

We go to Sterling Cinema that night. Ghosts of my youth are thick around me: The Times of India building here and the Gymkhana there. We see Jojo Rabbit. The movie’s parodied Nazism of the past is too close to India’s terrifying present to be entertaining for me, but it supplies us with plenty of discussion fodder over our Food Court dinner.

The next evening, we go to the Willingdon, as gracious as ever, with its soaring white columns and deep armchairs. But its marbled floors now permit a small company of well-behaved canines and felines to circulate amongst the members. So sweet! My brilliant nephew Vikram Doctor, Food Whisperer of The Economic Times, joins us. He regales us with stories of mutating grasshoppers and the latest nut-milks. His gift to me? A new-fangled walnut-cracker! Pops the nut open as easily as turning a key. Ah, Bombay! What a happy, cheery, too-brief stay.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on February 06, 2020
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