Listening to India
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Listening to India

High Tea

We returned to our hotel in Mumbai late afternoon, and the neighborhood looked peaceful and quiet and dappled in golden sunlight. A group of boys played cricket in the middle of the street, and the fact that it was Sunday meant that there were very few cars around. After a brief siesta, we migrated over to the Gateway of India (not to be confused with New Delhi’s India Gate), and the confectionery of sounds available there.

The Gateway of India is an arch monument, built in the early twentieth century, on a waterfront in South Bombay, overlooking the Arabian Sea. It was originally meant to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary to the shores of Bombay — for as we must all know, the arrival of the British to any of the world’s shores was ample cause for celebration. The builders of the Gateway of India (perhaps a more apt name would have been the Gateway to India) must have wished to set that arrival in stone. These days, though, nobody seems to care what the original purpose of the Gateway was. Visitors are chatting with their friends and snapping selfies, and the beauty of the archway seems to have outlived its imperial connotations.

The Gateway of India is sometimes referred to as the Taj Mahal of Bombay, and is the city’s most popular attraction. It might be compared to the Arc de Triomphe, though in my opinion the Indo-Islamic elements of the Gateway make it much more interesting and alluring. I notice archways and lattices that I last saw in the medieval, Islamic architecture of Andalucía. East, West, East, West: the differences between the two sometimes precipitate well-proportioned existential crises for those who live in both. And yet at other times, the distinctions between the two feel arbitrary, and their similarities refreshingly obvious. Have they, or have they not, been informing each other for centuries? Whether in the context of colonialism or globalization or golden ages we are encouraged to forget, the answer to this question is a resounding yes.

The sun casts its last rays of the day onto the façade of the Gate. It is a performance that takes place every day, and as a lowly human being, I am lucky to be able to see it just once. The sun sets over the archway, seeming to cast more shadows than it does light. Eventually, darkness falls and we decide to visit elsewhere. And since we were in the area, we thought that we “miiiiiight as well” check out on of the city’s most opulent locales: The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The promise of seeing the lobby of a hotel with a name like that, can easily bring the masses of the world together. Only a tiny percentage of humanity is actually able to stay, of course, but a view of the lobby is good enough for me.

Usually, a place like the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (or simply, the Taj) is only featured in the Travel and Lifestyle sections of magazines. In 2008, however, the Taj made front page news around the world, for having been the site of a major terrorist attack — one of a series which gripped Mumbai in violence and fear for several days, and resulted in the deaths of more than 160 people. As a result, security at the Taj is now quite tight, and entering the premises involved a similar routine as entering an airport terminal. Though to be honest, I cannot say that I have ever seen a terminal as luxurious, and as downright stunning, as the lobby of the Taj.

The first thing I noticed was a woman, dressed in an elegant sari and standing tall, with a string of beaded necklaces by her side. Could these be jap malas — meditation beads? I asked myself hopefully. This seemed to me a bizarre and unlikely possibility, but I asked her anyway. “These are for the guests,” she said with a sweet smile. “For their well-being.” Not for mine, very clearly. I gave her a smile of my own, and moved on.

We were very plainly not going to receive necklaces; but as it turns out, we were able to get some tea. The Sea Lounge, which was located on the second story, offered an elite, colonial-era experience for those who were willing to brave elite, colonial-era prices.

At the Sea Lounge, I learned that the Taj was commissioned by Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata, several years prior to the building of the Gateway of India. Tata was the founder of the eponymous Tata Group, which is now one of India’s largest conglomerates, with an influence that, at least in some circles, rather resembles that of the British Empire.

As the story goes, the original Tata commissioned the Taj after he was refused entry to one of the city’s grand hotels, because he was not British. He wished to create a place of equal luxury, by and for Indians. Of course, in the process, he also grafted certain aspects of British colonial aesthetic, thereby preserving the likes of the Sea Lounge, for those of us born well after that brief moment in India’s long history.

The walls were a pale, sea green. Directly facing the entrance was a tray of pastries and other edibles in a variety of other pale colors — pink, yellow, cream. I felt as though I was inside a box of high-priced macaroons. As we were directed to a table by the window, a bit removed from the pastry trays, I noticed a man playing the piano. His style was early twentieth century jazz — the kind that may have been played in upper-class private homes, rather than at raucous Prohibition-era saloons. The pleasantness of all this cannot be underestimated.

The window by which we were seated overlooked the Sea, and also offered a view of the Gateway. Small boats, most of them without motors and many of which were painted in bright reds and blues and yellows, bobbed up and down in the calm waters and the twilight. The Lounge offered a wide array of coffees and teas from all over the world, organized with refreshing clarity by region and country, but in the end I ordered “masala milk.” Hot milk with turmeric, ginger, and hints (“notes?” why not…) of garam masala. The milk was hot, the piano nostalgic, and as I could not help but feel that here, as in the Gateway of India, perhaps colonial-era beauty can sometimes outlive the contradictory circumstances that created it. Perhaps, sometimes.

A soft quiet pervaded the common (or perhaps, “common”) spaces in the Taj. With the exception of the occasional ribbon of music emanating from places like the Sea Lounge, or the brief exchanges of words between people passing through the halls, I felt like I was on an ocean liner like the Titanic. Literally and metaphorically, many places like this sank over the course of the twentieth century, due to a combination of hubris, changing times, and heightened moral outrage at such inequalities of wealth and mobility. Liberals among us tend to celebrate the demise of such forms of luxury — and perhaps we are right. Sometimes, though, I feel that there is a point to preserving monuments such as the Gateway of India, and hotels such as the Taj. They give us a window to rare sorts of aesthetic ambition and grandeur. Though to be fair, it is important to remember as well: When push comes to shove, the people involved in upholding this grandeur truly could not care less about your well-being — or mine.

Huzzah!

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Priya Parrotta

Priya Parrotta

Author, climate activist, singer & Founder/Director of Music & the Earth International (musicandtheearth.org)