City of Seams

December 2, 2012 – The Washington Post

Cotton Mills Estate

The workshop is so small I can’t even step inside. Bolts of somber suit woolens and bright white shirting cottons line the walls. Rafiq Shaikh cuts a neat figure in what little space remains. Dressed in traditional white kurta pyjama (the long shirt and loose fitting pants worn by men across the subcontinent), tape measure like a doctor’s stethoscope around his neck, he stands over a length of charcoal wool hieroglyphically marked with chalk in two shades of blue – the abstraction of a suit jacket.

Shaikh has worked out of this tiny shop in South Mumbai for the last 20 years (he maintains a larger showroom not too far from here), and his family has been tailoring for generations. “We are into this business right from – I don’t know – my grandfather’s grandfather’s time,” he says, since well before his family emigrated here from northern India during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, a geopolitical catastrophe that resulted in one of the greatest human migrations in history and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Though readymade and designer clothing have become increasingly popular in Mumbai and other Indian metros in the last 15 to 20 years, bespoke tailors like Shaikh are still scattered all over town, in large showrooms, modest workshops, and tiny open stalls in narrow lanes and bazaars. As India’s economy has liberalized, the population has become increasingly brand conscious; designer-ware represents luxury and modernity. Before readymade became commonplace, practically everyone had his or her clothing stitched to measure. Bespoke tailoring is not a luxury here so much as a tradition, an old way of doing things.

And Mumbai has a tendency to shun the old; despite being home to Bollywood, this city has little time for sentimentality. When roads carry too much traffic, elevated ones ­– whimsically (and optimistically) known as flyovers – are built on top, running directly beneath the open third-storey windows of old houses. Entering the city proper from the north I see gray towers and half-built skyscrapers appear over the low-rise apartments, old fortresses, dinghies and fishing villages that ring Mahim Bay. It is futuristic, almost dystopian – vivid, audacious, impossible.

Some people – local and otherwise – will tell you the city has no history, that it’s just a colonial invention. But despite those hazy giants on the horizon, there remain under the swinging cranes and precarious bamboo scaffolds, behind the dangling prop roots of Banyans and the layers of grime kicked up by constant construction and millions upon millions of trampling feet, glimmers of the elegant old city that was Bombay.

Ever since the British dredged it out of the Arabian Sea in the 18th century, the City of Dreams has played witness to and recorder of India’s tumultuous modern era. It is India’s only truly cosmopolitan city, shaped by the heterodoxy of commerce and industry. Every event to transpire here – hopeful and tragic alike – has been woven into the city’s tough, pliable urban fabric. Girls in miniskirts or full hijab passing each other on Marine Drive and Carter Road speak to the city’s desire for inclusivity, even as a long history of communal tension has widened the distance between that desire and the city’s lived reality. And while tailors like Mr. Shaikh are certainly not unique to Mumbai, they are especially emblematic of this bespoke city, constantly coming unstitched only to remake itself.

Alterations at will

Despite the ubiquity of tailoring throughout the city (everyone has his or her preferred person), the best known tailors tend to cluster around old-money bastions like Breach Candy, Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade in South Mumbai – known simply as ‘Town.’ Shaikh’s workshop is a short walk from the shore of Back Bay in a quiet corner of Cuffe Parade. Up the road, across from the Taj President Hotel, Hammad Ansari has opened a new showroom and workshop called Yaseen’s with his nephew, Faisal, only the fourth showroom in his family’s 50 years of tailoring in Mumbai. Like Shaikh’s family, the Ansaris emigrated from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, bringing with them a venerable family tradition. “My father used to stitch for the Britishers and learned cutting from a British man,” Ansari tells me as we sip chai in the comfortable, mirrored trial room at the back of the shop. But the family tradition goes back even further: most Ansaris, he says, are families of weavers.

If ever anyone had tailoring in his blood, it’s Hammad Ansari. His hands are dexterous and steady, his face deceptively stern until it breaks into one of its frequent, easy smiles. I ask him if he can guess my measurements. He looks me in the face for a moment, glances at my shoulders, chest, waist then rattles off a series of numbers. He checks them against the measure – all exactly right. “I can tell a person’s measurements just from his face,” he tells me.

“In the 80s, when readymade came and was booming, 2000 tailors were closed down – 2000. So then new people came with a new concept of tailoring,” Ansari says. Faisal explains that tailoring has gravitated toward two poles – the modest neighborhood tailors who survive on alterations and simple work during the festive season in low-income areas, and luxury tailors like his father and uncle.

“The craftsmen will survive – we are craftsmen,” Hammad tells me with the utmost seriousness – and a smile.

The city’s ‘first working woman’

Muni Gupta is not a tailor herself.  But she has run Burlington’s of Bombay (the bespoke tailoring shop at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel) since 1955, when her brother asked her as a favor to take over for a few days. She did well – exceptionally well. “He wouldn’t take back the keys,” she recalls. “My father was furious. I may have been the first working woman in Bombay.” As in any great city, Mumbai’s history tends to live and breath rather than pose for photographs.

Gupta’s father had opened Burlington’s six years before in 1949. He and his family, like Shaikh’s and so many others in Mumbai, had arrived during Partition, in Gupta’s case fleeing the newborn state of Pakistan at the last moment. “Overnight we became paupers,” she says. They arrived in Bombay after two years in Delhi and, with some help from connected friends, managed to secure the space at the Taj, previously occupied by Ali the Palmist, a Muslim who had made the opposite migration north.

Despite her age and height (she stands no more than an inch or two over 5 feet), Gupta still runs her shop with the authority of a monarch. As we walk through the bright, impeccable showroom, she orders fine linens and woollen suiting off the shelves. She points out block-printed Jaipuri cottons and south Indian silks. She unrolls an elaborate Benares brocade, woven with real gold, over a glass-topped table; lifting the edge, I can feel its cool metallic weight in my palm. On top of this she unrolls a pale pink silk crepe embroidered with a washed cotton thread – kantha embroidery, she tells me, an endangered skill too time-consuming and expensive to survive in the poor rural communities where it originated.

When she first arrived here, Gupta tells me, Bombay extended fewer than eight miles from north to south, had a population of about 2 million and barely 2,500 vehicles plying its roads. Neighborhoods like Lalbaug and Parel, just north of where the city proper ended, were dominated by hundreds of textile mills and workers’ tenements, known as chawls. “I learnt to drive in Worli,” Gupta recalls. “There was one house there.” Mumbai, in its disorienting extremity, tends to inspire this sort of hyperbole; it is a fabulist’s city.

Today, Worli lies near the geographic heart of Mumbai. Including both the city proper and a few suburban districts, Mumbai covers just over 230 square miles and contains some 13 million people. (For a point of reference, New York’s five boroughs hold 8 million people in about 470 square miles.) Contiguous satellite cities to the north and west add as many as 7 million more – there is no consensus on the exact number – and some 2 million cars choke the ill-paved roads. The textile mills, those that haven’t been demolished and redeveloped, are now mostly overgrown ruins.

The mill city

At the peak of the textile industry between the 1930s and 1960s, Bombay had 136 mills employing around a quarter of a million people. Since the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, which effectively sounded the death knell of the city’s textile industry, most of the mills have been either destroyed and built over, or left to crumble on land worth as much as a small country.

When I first arrived in Mumbai, I stayed on the border of two old mill districts, Parel and Lalbaug. From my fourth floor window I could see chawls, smokestacks and the sloping gray roofline of the Finlay Mills to the south. To the west, silhouetted against the violent orange of a setting sun (air pollution makes for gorgeous sunsets), I could see the office towers of Lower Parel alongside the smokestack of the India United Mill, the vaunting ambition of the past juxtaposed against its contemporary counterpart. Smokestacks were Bombay’s first high rises.

In Bandra, my current home, the streets are wide and tree-lined (though still traffic-clogged), and something like fresh air blows off the Arabian Sea and over the Carter Road promenade. Not so in Parel. While living there, I would sometimes go for walks around the abandoned mills for a bit of quiet and space.

The only living remnants from the city’s days as the ‘Manchester of the East’ are its textile markets – particularly the 108-year-old Mangaldas Market in the South Mumbai bazaar district of Kalbadevi. The lanes and roads running from the whimsical tower of Crawford Market north through Mohammed Ali Road, Masjid Bunder, Zaveri Bazaar and Chor Bazaar (the evocatively named Thieves Market) are a cramped and frenetic showroom of Old Bombay. It’s all overhead: the curved, communal balconies of the chawls, terra cotta roofs, cantilevered wrought-iron balustrades hung with laundry, the occasional well-maintained wooden cottage, painted in vermillion or ochre or periwinkle. Branches burst through cracks in the brickwork and gray-black grime – the product of pollution and humidity and torrential monsoon rain – sweats down the façades like so much running mascara. There is romance in the decrepitude. Mumbai has turned its back on this Bombay with its own peculiar brand of nostalgia: for places assumed lost before they’ve even finished decaying.

Though most good tailors stock their own fabrics, which certainly saves some time and hassle, I still come to Mangaldas to buy mine. On a Saturday afternoon, I’m greeted by shrill, urgent offers of sarees and pashminas. There are hand-woven ikats from the east, patterned cottons from Gujarat and Bihar, block prints from Rajasthan, prismatic silks from Mysore and Bangalore, brocades from Benares, tackily printed synthetics and woollen suiting from factories just outside Mumbai itself, all stacked chest-high, parabolically unfurled at the flick of a finger.

Here are Bombay’s many patterns and origins, its colors and textures stacked vertically, pressed against each other under the high dark roof, which disappears behind a mess of wires and hand-painted signs that tilt down toward century-old cobbles and cracked, uneven concrete. Hordes of women press fearlessly up to the edges of stalls, sweat-soaked husbands timidly in tow. I force my way through to purchase blue linen for a blazer, a fine cotton printed with a florid Mughal pattern for lining, a white and blue ikat to stitch a short kurta, a modern, semi-Westernized adaptation of the traditionally knee-length shirt. It is a typically Bombay combination – traditions fused together, stitched one inside the other, consolidated but not assimilated.

I’m attempting to leave the market, standing at the corner of a lane with my bounty, beginning to sweat profusely (it’s October and the heat is still intense after monsoon). An older gentleman laughs as he edges by me to follow his wife. “If you wait,” he says, “you’ll never get by.”

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