March 20, 2009

The Innocence of an Evening



When I look at this picture now and reflect on the fate that befell the pigeons that used to gather across the road from The Taj Mahal Hotel before the terrorists struck Mumbai the night of November 26 last year, I try not to think of whether this particular pigeon made it through the night of carnage. I like to believe she survived the night.


Early one evening several months before the terrorist strike I found myself, camera in hand, milling in crowds gathered at the Gateway of India. Families on an evening out by the sea off the Gateway crowded along the parapet that looks out to sea while vendors hawked their wares, selling peanuts, ice-creams, lollipops, and grains to feed the pigeons.

Professional photographers, cameras slung from their necks, prompted visitors into having their pictures taken in the backdrop of the Gateway of India or the magnificent Taj Mahal Hotel for a fee. Far too often they were refused.

“With mobile cameras affordable by most we have far fewer visitors needing our services now,” one photographer told me, scanning potential customers even while he spoke with me.



No visiting relatives return from Mumbai without seeing the waterfront landmarks. The Taj Mahal hotel and the Gateway are among the two major landmarks that define the city in terms of its visibility in the media and elsewhere. Couples, families, and friends among others make their way to the waterfront in the evenings, often to do nothing more than look out to sea. Sometimes crows join in.


From the platform that runs on either side of the Gateway of India, the landing area where boats ferrying tourists to the Elephanta caves dock on their return journey is a beehive of activity, with ushers shepherding passengers onto harbour cruises for a half hour spin around the harbour or boats headed for the Elephanta caves. From here the city stretches back by a bit and one can see the ‘lesser’ landmarks in the distance. Guides with spotting scopes will point out the landmarks for a fee. Most however will have their relatives and friends point them out for them.



To my left a bubble-maker wound his way among families knowing well the children would gravitate to him as he blew soap bubbles in the air. While their parents looked on, the children thrilled in the bubbles the bubble-maker blew in the air, chasing them or trying to cup them in their little palms, smiles widening as bubbles landed in their open palms. Then they chased more soap bubbles, thrilling more in their efforts to catch the bubbles than in actually managing to do so.

And the bubble-maker blew even more bubbles in the air. In a bubble or two that caught the glancing blow of the Sun it framed the Gateway of India in its convexity, encasing a moment in history in the transience of the present.

Eventually the children would run back to their parents and tug at their trousers until they bought the bubble-making kit from the bubble-maker, and then the children blew bubbles in the air. Soon there were so many bubbles that it resembled a scene from a Bollywood film set.

But in all the time that I watched the scenes unfold among smiling children, and the childhood transience they chased in the bubbles floating in the air, not once did the bubble-maker smile, not when the children were chasing the soap bubbles, and not when he sold them the bubble making kits.

In the moment a bubble breaks, a child will look forward to the next one. But rarely so an adult.


I made my way to where pigeons had gathered on the pavement at the spot where it turns onto the Apollo Bunder road. The road runs by the Taj Hotel before passing 19th century buildings on its way to the Radio Club at the other end. The parapet that looks out on fishing-boats, yachts, and Harbour Cruises in the harbour by the Gateway of India encloses the Apollo Bunder road on one side while the Taj and other old buildings enclose it on the other.

According to one story, ‘Apollo’ is said to be a derivative of the name that sable-fish found in the waters off the Gateway are known by, Palva. Koli fisherfolk used to land sable-fish in the harbour, so the name Apollo Bunder.


Known as the Victoria earlier, horse carriages on the Apollo Bunder road awaited visitors to the Gateway looking for a joy ride around town. Every once in a while a pigeon would on a carriage before flying off to a window ledge on the Taj from where it watched over the crowd below until it was time to eat grains that visitors were only to happy to feed them.

Camera at the ready I moved around, letting the bonhomie of an evening out by the sea rub on me. It was then that I noticed this young lady patiently enticing pigeons to eat out of her hand, smiling invitingly. Her friend stood behind her while she squatted, grains in her palms, hand outstretched.

I waited.

Then one pigeon responded, coming in from behind me, low and straight to the lady. Surprised at seeing the pigeon respond to her she seemed unsure of how to react except to instinctively stretch her hand out even further, and smile more.

I released the shutter.

In her joyous moment froze the innocence of an evening by the sea, and ever since then whenever I go through the pictures I wonder who she was, from whence she came, and to where she was headed.

And now about the pigeon that came flying in from behind me.


Update: Public voting in the Best Travelogue category in the ongoing Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009 has ended, and Windy Skies has placed first in the results declared a short while ago. Thank you all for the unstinting faith, support, and encouragement the last few weeks. Public voting constitutes 50% of the overall judging. Next the Lonely Planet judging panel will evaluate the blogs to account for the other 50% and combine the two for the final score.

38 comments:

Kalyan said...

Congrats Anil on being Nominated in LP. Good work, indeed!

junuka said...

this one is very poetic.even the images.context is terror but the post is lovely,sort of wins over aggression and unrest.
:)
congrats,too.

Ekta said...

ur post got me nostalgic of the bombay of the 80s and 90s...the bombay (not mumbai) i grew up in.....

SloganMurugan said...

Beautiful!

Anil P said...

Kalyan: Thank you, KAlyan. The voting ends shortly, it's been a long haul.

Junuka: Thank you. Like you rightly said, the context is terror, and the birds, the horses, the people are metpahors for a beguiling charm that can be very transitory like what happened in November last.

Ekta: Thank you, Ekta. So often a change of name reflects the changes that've taken place.

I doubt if cities would want to reinvent themselves if it was left to them, that is city as an abstract entity. Almost always they're reinvented without them having a say. And usually it starts with a change in name.

SloganMurugan: Thank you.

bobbie said...

Your story and photos give so much pleasure. I too wonder about the girl and the pigeon.

What fun to watch the children with the bubbles. One wonders why the seller never smiled.

The boats make a marvelous picture.

shesturningblue said...

I love the posts where you talk of Bombay...and that passing thought of people is something we all have...

Lucy said...

Another fragile and beautiful moment captured, just like the soap bubbles. And what excellent photographs.

Thanks, Anil.

kiran said...

A lovely post!! One wonders so often, what makes a city? The time before when i was fascinated by this was whilst reading Italo Calvino's book 'Invisible cities'...

Cities & The Sky 3

Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwlks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask "Why is Thekla's construction taking such a long time?" the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long bruses up and down, as they answer "So that it's destruction cannot begin." And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, "Not only the city."
If, dissatisfied with the answers, someone puts his eye to a crack in a fence, he sees cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffoldings, beams that prop up other beams. "What meaning does your construction have?" he asks. "What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?"
"We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now," they answer.
Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. "There is the blueprint," they say.

Amber Star said...

Congratulations, Anil. Your blog has caused many people to either want to travel to India or brought back lovely memories for them if they already live there.

I plan to return to your blog and finish reading, but the first part caught up my imagination for the evening. I started to think how we think in pre and post times after a dreadful event occured. For Mumbai it was the terrorists at the Taj and for us it is before 911 and after. The picture of the lady with the pigeons is a lovely peaceful one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anil,

Congratulations im soooooo happy you got the most votes.

Some more amazing photos and interesting reads.

Keep on making people smile

Smiley :)

M Raghunandan said...

congratulations and all the best for the last round.

Anil P said...

Bobbie: Thank you. Many visitors to the waterfront will take a few seconds to pause by the pigeons, some will buy grains to feed them and delight in the act of pigeons feeding. I suppose the thrill at seeing birds so close makes them happy.

I wonder why he didn't smile. Is it that seeing day-in and day-out children smile and shout happily on playing with the soap bubbles kind of induces a certain detachment, or maybe the strain of making a living selling bubble-making kit, blowing soap bubbles all the time. I wouldn't know.

Shesturningb: Thank you. Passing thoughts are what eventually linger on as memory.

Lucy: Thank you, Lucy. For some of the pictures I put up on this post I had to linger around long, watching and observing all the time for opportune moments.

Kiran: Thank you, Kiran.

I was particularly struck by the response "So that it's destruction cannot begin" when asked "Why is Thekla's construction taking such a long time?". Very apt.

I suppose it is with hindsight one might say something like that, more so after seeing a city's identity as in the structures it has been identified with, being stripped away to make way for the new. A continuity with a city's identity can only be retained by retaining much of what defined a city over the decades, or even centuries.

Amber Star: Thank you very much. Nostalgia is such a powerful sentiment in that it connects the past with the present and provides a continuity between the two, making living satisfying even as it induces a longing.

Very true. An event as horiffic as the two you mention is like a curtain one parts to see the other side (Pre-event), and draws the curtain back to see the place in the context of the present (Post-event).

She was so happy when the pigeon responded. I'm lucky to get the picture, was just in time as it swooped in from behind me.

Anon: Thank you :-)

M Raghunandan: Thank you ery much for the wishes. Am keeping my fingers crossed :-)

Kamini said...

Such a beautifully evocative post. And good luck with the travel blog awards - hope you win!

Roxie said...

I sit at my home computer looking out at the early march morning with chilly rain and a few brave daffodills. And your post brings a feel of summer-evening warmth to my skin, exotic scents to my nose, a hubub of foriegn tongues to the ear . . . Your blog is so vivid, so engaging. You deserve to be number 1!

Granny J said...

A well deserved winning vote for you, Anil! Of the pictures in this post, the one which arrested my attention was of the horse carraiges on the Apollo Bunder -- I counted at least 7 pigeons caught in mid-flight, though I had not even seen them at first. But the boats, too, were evocative.

Cynthia said...

Lovely images and words, Anil. Actually, you have won the contest because the first and most important vote is in-that's your viewing/reading audience.

I wonder how photography will change now that so many people take cameras into their own hands?

I've seen many good photo blogs...and many teens here in PR are extreemly good...of course their focal point and subject is themselves! I think keeping camera in hand is becoming a life style. Your narrative so enhances the images...love your posts!

So real and connected. <3

The Things We Carried said...

Anil,

Your images of India, along with the descriptions of its startlingly beautiful people makes me long to one day visit.

The simplest of moments like a woman feeding a pigeon, a child capturing a bubble, the cynicism that came with growing up and bubbles lost...Your words are as artistic as your photos.

Thank you for your perceptive comment to me today at my blog. How true your words are.

The Things We Carried said...

PS Congrats on the Travel blog 1st place. I voted for you.

Simran said...

Congratulations!

Merisi said...

Anil,
congratulations on the well deserved first place in the first half of the competition and good luck for the other one. If the judges share my opinion, I know what the final result will be. If not, for me you will be first anyway!

I loved this new story, like so many before. Such great memories to cherish, full of joy and innocence.

Lori ann said...

I agree with Cynthia, and I also want to say congratulations on your Lonely Planet news! of course you deserve it Anil. A very wonderful post again.

karen said...

Well done for coming first in the public voting - you deserve it! I loved this post, with the pigeons, the lovely pictures and of course the enchantment of the bubbles...

Anil P said...

Kamini: Thank you.

Roxie: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you've enjoyed reading the posts. The Indian summer is in full swing now.

Granny J: Thank you. Most probably a child must have rushed the pigeons for they scattered just as I pointed the camera at the horse carriage. The children can't seem to have enough of the pigeons.

Cynthia: Thank you. The reader vote is vital and important for its import, and their faith in the journeys they read here, and very satisfying indeed.

Photography will change in many ways for sure. First up it will mean there'll be far more documentation of the times we live in assuming we do turn the camera at the world from time to time.

At some point some of the photography that'll happen will in turn trigger narratives to accompany them, like on blogs. This will extend the documentation further.

Publishing platforms will empower citizens to use cameras to their full potential, a need of the hour. Without cross-cultural currents to sensitize fellow citizens pockets of humanity will not be bridged.

Photography will allow one to linger long after the moment captured has passed away, reliving the moments in the frames. The past will have receeded but pictures will summon it to the present.

The Things We Carried: Thank you. Do visit India.

I enjoy watching people feed birds and animals. The delight they experience in this simple act bodes well and holds much hope for all, in addition to the pigeons of course.

A bubble will always remain a powerful metaphor.

Thank you for voting. It's a pleasure to have your support.

Simran: Thank you.

Merisi: Thank you very much. I appreciate your faith in me, it makes a lot of things worth the effort.

Lori Ann: Thank you, Lori Ann. Thanks for the support.

Karen: Thank you, Karen. The bubbles were all over the place.

Lakshmi said...

Congrats anil..your posts are a delight to read

Saurav said...

Anil - brilliant stuff dude !! Congrats for you well-deserved and quite an emphatic win by 3 points.

Yes, I agree with most of your readers, I loved the post. This is what I remember of, My Bombay. I can still recall me coaxing my dad to buy me that soap bubble kit whenever we went to Chowpatty beach when I was a kid. I am kinda a lost now every time I go back to Bombay and roam around the city.

I shudder to think about the terrorist attack amidst such a lively and joyous yet innocent scene that you painted on this post.

GOD BLESS !!

dreamy said...

very nice pictures :)

i like the second picture the best

Shireena said...

Congrats - very exciting! I enjoy reading your inspiring prose-like writing.

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

When I visited Mumbai two years ago, my sister took me around, and yes, the Taj and the Gateway of India were at the top of the list.

Congratulations on making it to the top nomination!

Amber Star said...

Finally a chance to drop back by and finish reading this post. It came together beautifully. The bubble seller makes me wonder if maybe he has seen too many children and bubbles in his life. There is no longer joy in them for him. How sad for him.

Life is short and fleeting and I'm so glad to have found your blog that causes me to think.

Rajesh said...

Nice writing and photos.

Especially I liked the one with reflection of Gateway of India and bird about to fly on the windshield of car.

N said...

Fantastic pictures.
I am so glad you got recognised and placed first! Well deserving!!!
:) Congrats!!

Your post made me very nostalgic. All those evenings I spent there came rushing back at me. Images of hanging out with my friends, staring up at that amazing structure, chewing on peanuts, people watching.......

Butternut Squash said...

Congratulations on first place. Your stories are brilliantly told and the photos are wonderful. Peace.

The Things We Carried said...

Anil, You have not updated in weeks. I hope this finds you well and simply busy with life.

Nila-kantha-chandra said...

I have nominated you for the Lemonade Award! Please see:

http://cuckooscall.blogspot.com/2009/04/sweet-lemonade.html

Seamus said...

Congratulations on your 1st place at LP.

BTW - I just finished watching the recordings of Wood's Story of India. Thank you for the heads up that it was being aired. :)

Merisi said...

Good evening, Anil!
I hope everything is fine in your part of the world,
with best wishes,
Merisi

Susan said...

Congrats for your nomination!