Photography and text by Catherine Karnow,
with quotes from Pico Iyer.
In the fall of 1996 I traveled to Bombay to work with Pico Iyer on a story for Islands magazine. The piece would be published in 1997, the year of the Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence from Britain. Pico's family were from Bombay. The city was for him his "step-motherland." Pico went before me, and I followed to make my pictures.
Since I had grown up in the sixties in British Hong Kong, Bombay was at once familiar. As soon as I stepped out of the airport there was that same musty humid smell. It felt old, like sixties Asia: faded posters, smudged paint, life on the streets, a slow pace. At the airport curb were a line of tiny toy taxis painted yellow and black.
I was staying at the venerable Taj Hotel, where my mother's parents had married seventy years before, shortly after the hotel had been built. It was still glorious, not at all glitzy, but worn and regal. I arrived at four in the morning and threw open the windows of my turret room to inhale the damp sea air. The water was right there across the street. Painted fishing boats bobbed about and the murmur of voices mixed with the lapping of the water. Small groups of people gathered around kerosene lanterns and talked into the night, while others slept on the sidewalk.
The second night my guide, a bright and good-natured taxi driver named Akbul, took me to the red-light district where garishly made-up ladies lurked in doorways right next to dentists with open doors, or tea rooms, or shops selling pots and pans all night. After Mary Ellen Mark's famous book on the prostitutes of Bombay, photographers were always coming to shoot in that area. Of course, most were unsuccessful, trying to grab photos on the run, or from moving cars, whereas Mark had spent years getting to know her subjects.
We went later to a crematorium, open-air and open twenty-four hours. Mr. Babu showed us around, proudly pointing out his sixteen pyres, two of which were burning bodies right then. He explained that children under three do not get cremated, because the mother cannot stand to see it, so the children are buried under the magic tree in the back. The mother comes back the day after the burial to put a cup of her milk in front of the tree. Every six months the grave is re-used.
I never wanted to sleep in Bombay; the city was so invigorating and captivating, especially very early in the morning and after dark. Everywhere were a hundred, a thousand photographs and fascinating details. Pico observed: "Everything was happening everywhere, noisily, and the sheer energy and innocence ...recalled to me that more than a sage or a crone, Bombay really resembles a mischievous boy -- irritating, engaging, quick-witted, and so eager to make good. Things may be collapsing all around him, but still he cannot keep a smile from his face."
A version of this story appeared in Islands magazine, March/April 97.