As the ship sails into the harbour, Bill Wainright becomes aware of a smell—the smell of Bombay Duck. The pungent odour immediately conjures up not just strings of drying fish, but also parties and drinking, easy seductions and nights under the city’s starry skies. He trembles with excitement, but also apprehension. After all, he is returning to Bombay to show his father in the US that he can make good. He intends to prove that he is no longer the wild scion of a rich businessman but a responsible, disciplined agent of his company, someone with what his father calls “character”.
That the protagonist of Louis Bromfield’s Night in Bombay headed to Bombay (now Mumbai) was completely logical. It was the place to be in the late 1930s. With the Great Depression over, industry and finance were once again robust, and the ports hummed with activity. To be sure, urban society remained deeply unequal, and the British were still the rulers. But capitalism had acquired a new aesthetic gloss. Fresh styles and aspirations competed with the monumental and medieval Gothic buildings that the British colonists had erected to represent their authority. The rising apartment buildings on Marine Drive, and the grand new art deco cinema theatres—Metro, Eros and Regal—lent a fashionable, exuberant air to the city’s industrial modernity. The elite milieu sparkled with the cosmopolitan glitter of jazz, swing, ballroom dancing and cabarets.
Thunder road : Marine Drive began to shine in the 1930s, the era of Bromfield’s Bombay. Dinodia Photos
With the resumption of international travel after the end of World War I, an assortment of Europeans and Americans seeking their fortune, adventure and self-hood descended on Bombay. It is these characters that drive the narrative in Night in Bombay, which was a best-seller when first published in 1940.
Bromfield, an American from Ohio, won the Pulitzer in 1927 for his novel Early Autumn. He wrote several novels, among them The Rains Came (1937), inspired by his trip to India in 1932. In 1939 it was made into a film, starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power. Night in Bombay was never adapted, though the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists it as a 2011 production, starring Emma Thomas, Tony Devan and Jeremiah Chambers.
Night in Bombay: Penguin, 366 pages, Rs 399.
Whereas The Rains Came is set in the countryside, the mise-en-scène of Night in Bombay is the city’s cosmopolitan milieu, at the centre of which is the Taj hotel. Bill is headed there, as is another passenger on the ship, a short, fat woman with hair dyed red and the “hide of a rhinoceros”. Speaking English with a thick German accent, she claims to be an “Egyptian” baroness. In fact, she is a procuress, prospecting for women of easy virtue for the boudoirs of European aristocrats. The baroness sets her sights on Carol Halma, a former beauty queen and showgirl, and Bill’s ex-wife, who is casting about for wealthy patrons. But Carol falls for Buck Merrill, an ailing missionary and Bill’s old college friend from Cornell. As love blossoms between Buck and Carol, Bill realizes that he is still in love with his former wife. Meanwhile, a drama of intrigue and roguery unfolds. There are enough unsavoury characters, both Indian and European, who play their parts in making the story thick with devilish schemes and deceptions.
In the end, Bill comes to the rescue. He cuts through the knot of conspiracies, and saves Carol from deportation. The heroic American fixes it so that his ex-wife can marry Buck, and accompany him back to the village to continue his good work. The former showgirl is redeemed. Bill is heartbroken, but only wants to see her happy. “You’re a swell guy, Bill,” Buck says to him. As he leaves Bombay aboard the Rajputana, Bill thinks to himself, “Good-time Charlie is dead.”
It is not difficult to see why this story of self-making and redemption was a best-seller in its time. Bombay exuded the exotic smell of India—“that strange smell compounded of jasmine and cow dung smoke, spices and dust”. Yet it was not the “real” India which, according to Orientalist conception, resided in its villages. The astonishing diversity and contradictions of its modern urban life presented a challenge to stereotypes. “Bombay wasn’t anything. It wasn’t India, or East or West, but an extraordinary muddle of everything on earth,” Bill concludes.
The muddle that was Bombay could only be overlooked if you did not bat an eyelid as you passed from the Taj, the yacht club, the Willingdon club and Malabar Hill to the shabby tenements and crowded streets of the mill district and beyond. “Yes, Bombay was fantastic and romantic and extraordinary things happened there, if you didn’t notice the coolies, the women and the children sleeping on sidewalks and in gutters as you drove home from a good party about sunrise.”
But to Bromfield’s credit, he notices. He tries to make sense of the muddle by adopting the frame of intrigue. It is as if a reference to the sordid brew of greed, jealousy, and deception solves the puzzle of Bombay’s divided reality.
Obviously handy here was the fantasy of the port cities of the East, such as Bombay and Shanghai, as places of corruption and trickery. It served to screen the awareness that Bombay’s divided reality was a product of the peculiar conditions of colonial capitalism, that the playgrounds of the rich were built on the backs of the poor. The blindness that the lens of intrigue and fraud produced is also evident in the novel’s striking lack of awareness of the rising crescendo of anti-colonial and nationalist mobilizations of the time.
Having understood that sham and conspiracies stood behind the puzzle of Bombay, Bromfield found the solution in romance—Carol’s love for Buck and all that he stood for, and Bill’s love for Carol and for his own self-fashioning.
Bromfield himself returned to the imagined simplicity and innocence of rural Ohio. But he carried a piece of Bombay with him, naming his experiment in sustainable agriculture “Malabar Farm”.
Gyan Prakash is Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University and the author of Mumbai Fables.
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