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.
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.