Archive for Bombay

A Road Map of Bombay

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Lately, my work in progress has been dragging its feet. Maybe it’s because I’m writing from my home in Baltimore, while I long to revitalize myself with a walk through Fort, the historic Bombay neighborhood I write about in the Perveen Mistry novels. Even though I’ve been there in person, I feel like I need to be led along the streets again.

If I could step into an old map, it would fix everything, wouldn’t it?

Maps inside a book are like sugar in dessert. You don’t need it, but it’s so much nicer when it’s there.

Philip Schwartzberg’s map created for Widows

My relationship with maps did not start out well. I used to be terrified of when my parents were driving, and we got lost. The driving parent would call out for someone (the spouse or eldest child in the car—yours truly) to study a large, cumbersome road map and discern the correct way back. It seemed I could never read the map fast enough nor could I orient myself in a direction other than the printed paper. Because of the way my brain processes direction, I was not a natural fit with maps—though I need them, because I have a terrible instinct for misdirection.

I began feeling less overwhelmed by maps when I lived in Japan. This was the era when I was a foreigner in Japan doing groundwork for a first novel. I wanted to write a mystery that felt real; and for me, that meant naming actual streets and train stations. The little line maps on the back of every shop or restaurant’s business card were my salvation in cities like Tokyo and Yokohama where many streets didn’t have names, just numbered buildings.

After publication of my first book, The Salaryman’s Wife, I learned how attentive readers are to details of place. If I located a known building on the wrong corner, I would hear about it. But just as quickly as people catch errors, they also delight in hearing the names for almost-forgotten places.

In India, many city and street names have changed due to political progress—and here I am, sounding like an old person, talking about “Bombay” instead of Mumbai and “Bruce Street” instead of Homi Modi Street. I search out the oldest-looking places and commit them to my camera, and my heart.

On the way to Crawford Market

Apollo Bunder, with the Taj Hotel

After independence in 1947, Indians refused to continue speaking of streets named for men who were the enforcers of its colonial past. Many city and street names on maps officially changed from English government officials to Indian heroes, although verbally, the English names are often still used in spoken directions by locals. Ironically, there is at least one area renamed after a British person: Horniman Circle. Benjamin Horniman was a progressive British journalist who was thrown out of the country in the early 1900s for writing supportively of Mahatma Gandhi. The handsome driving circle in South Mumbai framed by offices and shops had previously been named in honor of the 13th Lord Elphinstone, one of Bombay’s governors. If I hadn’t learned who Mr. Horniman was, I might have mistakenly misnamed the circle in my novel. Interestingly, there still is an Elphinstone College in Bombay (named after the second Lord Elphinstone) as well as Wilson College, named for the Scottish Presbyterian missionary educator who founded it.

Horniman Circle (once Elphinstone Circle)

For quite a few years, I have been gathering such arcane details from old guidebooks and maps. Some of my key sources are huge, vintage reference books like the Imperial Gazetteers of British India, and old city guidebooks, especially if they have maps. The best place in the United States I know to find such wonders is the Ames Library within the University of Minnesota.

Rare antique travel guides to Bombay at Ames Library

The newly translated vintage guide

Karl S. Baedeker was the famous publisher of 19th and early 20th century travel guides that originated in Germany, a country with people still passionate about travel. The Baedeker guides were meant to help Westerners see marvelous places beyond their imaginations, all the while in comfort and security. Baedeker guides were often translated into English. However, Baedeker’s only guide to India was published in 1914, and due to hostilities between Germany and Britain, never found an English language publisher. Not until 1985 was the guide translated into English by Michael Wild.  I was grateful to be able to buy the modern translation and picked up from it some interesting details about the city from an early 20th century German viewpoint.

Because old maps are very helpful, I was tempted when I discovered a 1967 Bombay folding map being auctioned on eBay by a seller in England with a starting price of 49 pounds. Once airmail delivery was included, the map would run me about $77 US dollars.

I’ve bought moisturizers that cost more, but I hesitated. My worry was this mysterious map on eBay would be focused exclusively on tourism venues. I knew it also would have plenty of Indian street names, so I would continue to need to cross-reference street names.

The seller had posted some photos of the map booklet that looked promising, so I pressed the button to bid. It was the last day of the auction, and it turned out I was the only person on earth interested in a Tej Brothers 1967 Bombay Street Map.

Two weeks later, a neat little package in a sturdy, waterproof envelope arrived from England. The map booklet had traveled safely between two pieces of cardboard inside the package. It was just the right size to put inside a handbag, yet it was utterly fresh, as if it had never been opened up and read. To say this map is in perfect condition is an understatement. Some of the booklet pages unfold into very large, easy to read maps which are rich in color and landmarks.

The booklet also has listings of popular name of restaurants and hotels, movie houses and shops. I can’t wait to show it to my stepfather, who was a young man-about-town during the map’s prime.

In the week that I’ve been studying it, the map’s provenance has intrigued me. Because there is absolutely no smell of mold or deterioration from moisture, I believe the map probably left India many years ago and was kept in a cool, dry location. I wonder: was the map’s first owner someone who meant to use it while exploring Bombay, but instead relied on the directions of a human companion? Or did the planned trip to Bombay get cancelled? Could it be the map never had a real owner, but just resided for decades in a travel agent’s file cabinet?

I’ve come to realize that a map can offer much more than geographic placement or inspiration for story; it can be a mystery unto itself.

The Taj’s Triumph

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in early October, I was in the Mumbai Harbour, taking the slow tourist boat back from the cave temples on Elephanta Island. The water journey had been almost two hours, and I had only a few drops of water left in my bottle. I was overjoyed to spot a tall rounded red tower appear over the waves. I knew that if I could see part of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, I wasn’t so far away.

The Taj is a city hotel, but it was designed with its turreted front facing the sea, which was very unusual for 1903.  The hotel’s sea-facing facade also offered its earliest guests a wonderful view from their bedroom windows. This philosophy of focusing on a guest’s views—rather than a hotel’s prestigious appearance on a cityscape—was a new way of thinking.

The Indo-Saracenic showpiece was conceived of and built at a cost of 500,000 Pounds Sterling. Not by the British, who ruled India at the time; by an Indian.

Jamshedji Tata, a brilliant Parsi entrepreneur, had the idea of building the Taj after a devastating bubonic plague epidemic in the 1890s caused many to lose faith in the city. He also created a nondiscriminatory policy of admission to all races, although some of the city’s best hotels and private clubs in the city prohibited Indian entry. He named his hotel after the spectacular historical tomb in Agra, the Taj Mahal, knowing it conjured exquisite beauty in the minds of tourists.

A bust of Jamshedji Tata oversees the hotel’s historic staircase

An early Taj menu cooked by French chefs

The rooms, restaurants, halls and Turkish bath were spectacular. The hotel was the first building in Bombay to have electricity in the rooms and electric lifts imported from Germany. The Taj Hotel became the icon of fine hospitality in a country already world-famous for its hospitality. Interestingly, the chefs were French because even though the hotel’s owner was Indian, local dishes weren’t considered sophisticated enough. He also made sure to hire butlers and desk clerks who were European.

When India became independent in 1947, a Christmas Eve menu cover showed a maharaja atop an elephant, with a groom holding the green, white and saffron flag of the new democracy. It’s a strategic image that recognizes the importance of the hotel’s past royal customers who had agreed to join with the new nation rather than keep their former princely states separate.

For people who live in Mumbai, the Taj is mainly about meeting for meals, attending weddings, and shopping in the arcades. I’ve met more than one married couple who got engaged in the hotel’s Sea Lounge. My stepfather fondly remembers delicious lunches with friends at the hotel during school holidays. My mother, who’s been traveling on vacation to Mumbai with him for thirteen years, has a friendship with a charming elderly jeweler in the Taj’s shopping arcade… it’s impossible for her to leave the Taj Hotel without something sparkling in a small velvet bag.

The Taj’s glory was almost its downfall. When ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from rural Pakistan targeted 12 sites in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, four young men raided the Taj intent on killing international guests, Indians, and staff. This mass attack also included the Trident-Oberoi Hotel, the Chhatrapati Shivaji train terminus, Cafe Leopard and Chabad House. The terror in Mumbai lasted 68 hours and resulted in 164 civilian and police deaths, with more than 300 people wounded. Nine of the terrorists were killed during the police response, and the one man caught alive was hung a few years ago in an Indian prison.

The siege of The Taj was the longest of all the battles during the 26/11 attacks. Twenty-two staff perished, as well as fourteen guests. Yet more than 300 guests were saved by the Taj staff, who stayed rather than evacuated.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The motto for the hotel is “Guest is God”; I’ve heard it when I stayed at another Taj property. Also, the Taj training for staff is reputed to be quite intense, with people taking great pride in their relationship with the hotel, many of them hoping for lifetime employment. And these employees know the huge hotel’s layout. It is a a complex labyrinth with many interior elevators and storerooms added over the years. There is even a private club, Chambers, that was not marked on tourist maps. This is where many of the guests led by staff from public spaces waited until police arrived. Other guests who had been relaxing in their rooms hid in place for days until firemen could put ladders to the windows and bring them down. This was a complicated process, because not only does the hotel have a six-story historic main structure, but there is also a modern high-rise tower.

The Taj was secured by the police on November 29, utterly devastated by gunfire, with many areas burnt from grenade explosions and fires. Yet less than a month after the attack, the hotel re-opened for business.

In January 2009, I was in Mumbai on vacation with some family members. It was six weeks after 26/11. We stayed at our usual home-away-from-home, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, just around the corner from the Taj. On the last night of this wonderful trip, we had a light dinner at the Taj’s Shamiana coffee shop, which sits near the hotel’s main entrance. Looking around, we saw the Taj’s rebuilding had been swift and was immaculate. A monument with the names of the hotel’s martyred employees was already erected in the lobby. We learned that the Tata Company, the original family business that still owns this hotel, pledged to pay college costs for all the slain employees’ children and would give their family members who’d lost breadwinners support jobs. The hotel had also paid for damages suffered by many freelance souvenir sellers in the area who lost business for months after the attack.

The goal of Lashkar-e-Taiba might have been to kill the Taj Hotel and other places that invoke the spirit of Mumbai—but that did not happen.

As the ten-year anniversary of the Taj’s triumph over terror approaches, I’ve been revisiting the Taj long distance. One way is through a suspenseful true crime book published in 2013: The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. I’m also delving into the Taj’s happier, older history in the form of a 415-page anniversary magazine, The Centenary Taj: 100 Years of Glory. This magazine, published in 2003, is the source of the charming photographs of old advertisements and Taj interiors that I’ve shared in this blogpost. Look for the whole magazine at antiquarian booksites, if you want a picture of Bombay history, art, food and culture.

My connection to the Taj Mahal Palace continues through my books. In my 1920s Bombay series, protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young woman lawyer whose grandfather was friends with Jamsetji Mistry when the two old Parsi businessmen were alive. Perveen’s family’s pre-engagement meeting with a groom’s family is at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!

I won’t tell you how that engagement turned out, but Perveen must return to the Taj again in Book 3, when dangerous riots make travel home impossible. Who knows, maybe I’ll sleep over one night, too.