Khuda Hafiz, Imtiaz
May 6, 2019
His name is Imtiaz. I knew that before I saw him because that is what the Uber message told me– his name and his phone number. He is here before I can call his number. A short, stocky man, young, luxuriantly bearded. He opens the door of his taxi for me, his very stance speaks of that wonderful quality called adab—so much more than mere politeness. I settle myself into the taxi and he drives off through the drizzle and the grey crowded streets.
Bombay in July. Grey skies, pouring rain. Today, though, it is merely an incessant drizzle. And everywhere, the smell of rotting garbage. At least I think that smell is rotting garbage. This is a city I don’t know too well. I cannot fathom its sprawling length. Living as I do in Delhi, in south Delhi, I’ve grown accustomed to its wide, tree-lined radial roads. Yes, I am aware that all of Delhi is not quite so well laid out. I am aware too that wide roads notwithstanding, the traffic is crazy, the people permanently bad-tempered. And Versova, with its winding lanes, and, three days into my visit, it’s by now familiar shops, is already feeling like home. But today I have to leave the safety of the suburbs, the familiarity of Yaari Road and Chaar Bangla, and head somewhere into the old abandoned mills of Parel, that have now turned into upmarket shops and restaurants.
I am faintly ambivalent about going into Parel, going to the site of those once busy mills humming with life of a kind so different from what I will encounter today at the café at the Good Earth shop. I cannot help but recall that this was the space where a long and arduous strike by mill workers was finally broken, after which the mills themselves were abandoned. Bombay ceased to be the city of textile mills—those moved to other parts of India. In time, as I will see later, the abandoned spaces were gentrified. Parel became a totally different animal from what it was then. The space remained, morphed into something else. Where did all the people go?
Imtiaz says something. I don’t remember what. My memory is not what it used to be, and so much time has gone by—five years perhaps. Perhaps he asks the exact location of my destination, the name of the restaurant where I have to meet my hosts of the panel discussion that has brought me to Bombay. I reply, but must sound confused, because he asks if I am not from Bombay, then?
No, I tell him, and then volunteer, I live in Delhi. I’m just here for a short visit and for a bit of work.
Do you have relatives in Versova, he asks, and his voice continues adab-daar; not a hint of intrusiveness.
My daughter, I tell him. She lives here, in Versova. I took the opportunity this bit of work offered me to spend a few days with her.
Ah, he says, it is good to be with family.
Responding to his tone, and accent I ask now, And you? You are not originally from Bombay, are you?
And unsurprisingly, he says he is from Amroha.
Of course, I say. That explains your way of speaking, your accent. Bombay people speak differently.
Indeed they do. Their language, accent, and their brusque matter-of-fact attitude—all so different from the flowery speech and manners that I have grown up with.
Bombay is different. But, as I’ve come to see, what it lacks in finesse, in fineness of speech, it makes up for a hundredfold in its efficiency, business-like no-nonsense attitude, professionalism and above all, a much safer environment for women.
I ask him, when did you come to Bombay? Have you been here long?
I came here as a boy, he says. Perhaps I was 9 or 10 years old .
So it’s been several years, I say. And your family? Are they with you here?
There is a small pause.
Afterwards I think, perhaps he was deciding whether to share his story with me.
Then he speaks:
No family. I ran away from home. My mother had died, my father had married again… and what can I say, things weren’t good for me.
You came all the way to Bombay I ask? From Amroha? Alone?
Yes, he says. A long and complicated journey involving many halts, many more escapes, involving buses and trains, bullock carts and rides in lorries. He doesn’t dwell on any of that, and I don’t feel it right to ask.
In Bombay he found work at a tea stall. He served the tea, mopped the tables; in return he was paid a couple of rupees and was given a single meal every day. He slept on the pavement. He calls it, as any Bombaiya would, the ‘footpath’. After all there would perhaps have been no need for concept or word for either pavements or footpaths in the Amroha of his childhood. The concept, the word belong to his life here.
Those were bad years, he says. And we are both silent for a while, honouring his pain.
Then, that time passed, as all times pass, and I found work with a tailoring unit. I learnt to cut and sew women’s garments—kurtas and salwars, churidars and ghararas, saree blouses too. And I learnt to embellish the garments I sewed with embroidery and laces, gota, sequins and beads.
Tell me if you ever want any embroidered garments, he says. I can get you the best. Done to your design and taste.
That’s kind of you, I say politely.
But he persists—I’m serious. I know people in the garment business. I can get the best stuff for you. Just let me know.
And he goes on with his story:
I worked there for a very long time, and those were good years. I rented a room to live in. Yes, I had to share it with two other people. But it was a roof over my head. And I could eat three meals every day. In time I was put in charge of the unit. I travelled with my boss to source materials, meet customers buying garments in bulk. But after a few years I lost interest—the same work every day. It gets boring. And then, as hard as I worked, it was someone else who profited. So I left. And now I drive this taxi.
And do you like this better, I ask.
He shrugs. For now…. It is good for now. Let’s see how it goes.
I think it is at this point that I think of Ghalib’s exquisite verse:
Gham-e hasti ka Asad kis se ho juz marg ilaaj
Shama har rang me jalti hai sehar hone tak
Asad! Who can heal the pain of life and living!
The lamp’s flame burns in every hue till day dawns.
That’s very beautiful, he says.
I tell him it is perhaps my most favourite verse, that it is from Ghalib’s wonderful ghazal that begins with the words, Aah ko chahiye ik umr asar hone tak. I tell him how it speaks to me, that last verse, Ghalib’s maqta verse, of the beauty and pain of our lives as it traverses so many landscapes, showing us so many colours of that shama, that lamp that is our inevitably sadness-filled existence as humans, our gham-e-hasti. He asks if I know the whole poem. I do—and I recite it for him.
He says again, wonder in his voice, that is so beautiful. And so true….
And we journey on through the crowded grey streets in silence. But the silence is filled with flickering lamplight and a myriad colours, with the resonances of the sweetest and saddest ragas,
He slows down the taxi as we pass a large beautiful mosque.
This is where Yusuf Saheb comes for Jumme ki namaaz.
Yusuf Saheb? I don’t understand
He turns and smiles. Dilip Kumar, he explains to me, an ignorant non- Bombaiya.
Yusuf Saheb isn’t well now. He is growing old. He doesn’t come here any more. But for years, he was here every Friday.
I see that the mosque, beautiful as it is, is now imbued with a history of sorts, is the carrier of legend, and is literally drenched in starlight.
What time do you need to reach Parel, he asks, and when I tell him, he suggests: With your permission, may I take you there by a slightly longer route? The road we’d normally take, this one that we’re on—it goes through the centre of the city. The road I will take you by skirts the sea. You’ll see the beach and the sea. It’s a pleasanter drive, just a little longer.
How can I not accept this kindness to be shown his city?
What does the length of the road matter, I think to myself. And where do I have to get to anyway. After all, as Iqbal says:
Har ik maqaam se aage maqaam hai tera
Hayat zauq-e safar ke siva kuchh aur nahi….
And I share this verse; I speak it out loud, without preface.
But Imtiaz seems to understand, for he turns again and smiles and nods. He repeats: Hayat zauq-e safar ke siva kuchh aur nahi.
What is this life but a journey lived beautifully, savoured with delight!
And so, off we go, turning off the main road onto a smaller street and then on to the beach road.
I grew up in a land-locked town of rocks and precariously balanced boulders , have lived all my adult life in another city, dusty and polluted in more ways than one. But in the course of my own adventures, I have walked along the seas and oceans of so many places—the warm blue off the golden sand of Goa, the stony beaches and grey, cold waves of Brittany, the crashing waters of the Atlantic off a cliff in Wales, the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean at Montpelier, the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Galle—nothing between this tiny island and Antarctica, but great whales and spinning dolphins. These grey detritus-filled waves en route to Parel might be a disappointment. But these waters, this beach that we drive past carry a poignancy; someone I barely know has done me the kindness of going literally out of their way to show me the vastness of their sea. It is a gift; I recognise that and accept it gratefully.
And so, sharing stories of life, sharing poetry, sharing silences, we drive along the beach, through the rain and the traffic . And then we are at Parel, and at my destination.
My host is waiting for me outside the cafe. Imtiaz opens the door for me, and I alight from the taxi.
Khuda hafiz, Imtiaz, I say, God be with you.
I hesitate a moment, then say it anyway: Be well and happy. May you find peace and contentment. May all your wishes be fulfilled.
Khuda hafiz , Imtiaz says. And then again, Khuda hafiz, Ammi. Look after yourself. Have a good stay in Bombay.
He gets back into his taxi and he drives off. I wave till he is out of sight. I stand where I am for a long moment. I need that time I realize; I need that time before I let go of a small boy from Amroha, from seas and oceans, mosques and poems.
I turn to face my host.
Do you know him, my host asks.
Just from the drive here , I tell him as we walk into the cafe for lunch, and to get on with the rest of my day. As Imtiaz must surely also be doing.
My host looks at me a little baffled. I don’t explain further.
I never met Imtiaz again. But I think of him often, of his kindness, of his difficult life and of his courage. I wonder whether he has gone back to Amroha. Or whether he now has a fleet of his own taxis. I wonder if he has a family of his own—I hope he has. I hope he is well and safe in these difficult times.
Bombay is many things to many people. To me, too, it is many things. The city where I was born. The city that I briefly considered coming to live in, so I could learn music. The city where my beloved daughter now lives, and that has become her home. The city that was one of the gateways to India. The city that is–was?–home to a man called Imtiaz, who was my friend for the brief lifetime of a couple of hours as he steered me through an unfamiliar city, showing me its sights and sharing with me so many stories and histories.
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