Saturday, February 8, 2014

The City at Night (Mumbai)

Cambridge, February 8, 2014

Midway through "Night in Bombay"--the wonderful and quaintly risqué 1940 novel by Louis Bromfield--the story takes a brief rest, just enough to let the three main characters have a quiet dinner together. Bill, Carol and Buck are sitting "on the terrace at Green's" and the narrator takes advantage of their long after-dinner conversation to describe the views.

Green's was a less expensive hotel than the Taj Mahal next door. It was demolished in the early 70s to make room for the tower extension of the Taj. But since the story takes place in the 30s, Green's is a perfect place to escape the gossip of the foreign crowd at the Taj, where, of course, the trio of American expats are staying. Sitting at a privileged position on the Apollo Bunder, it offered exquisite views of Bombay's Harbor, with the imposing Gateway of India in the foreground. Bromfield makes it a hazy full-moon night. Elephanta Island can barely be made out to the east. The moon, "like a disk of hot copper", appears on the opposite side of the sky, towards the mill district.

"Night in Bombay" has not only an colorful cast of characters but a very precise collection of places in the city: the Taj Mahal, Green's, the Readymoney building (what is, or was, the Readymoney building?) and the Bombay Yacht Club towards the southeast of the peninsula; fancy Malabar Hill on the other side of Back Bay, the Willingdon Club and the racecourse a little north. Crawford Market near Victoria Terminus marks the north limit of the city for most of the foreigners. It is as if there were two different cities. When Bill first goes to get Buck at Colonel Moti's laboratory further north, his cab is stopped by a smallpox procession midway the mill district and he literally throws up.

(The Gateway of India in the foreground, Green's behind, the Taj Mahal to the left of the image and the Yacht Club to the right)

After the dinner at Green's, the novel picks up speed again and the three Americans enter into a not-unexpected love triangle that could certainly rival Casablanca's, except... No, I don't think I should spoil it for you, right?

(But since the movie Casablanca came up, let me tell you that Bromfield was actually good friends with Bogart. Actually, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall got married in Louis Bromfield's Ohio estate, Malabar Farm. Yes, a small world indeed.)

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