‘Why is it just us having their photo taken this way?’ my mother asked while trying not to move her lips.
‘It’s the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, remember – that’s probably why’, I replied.
Despite our best efforts at ventriloquism, our jaws evidently resembled a cow on speed because Sunil lowered the camera and galloped towards us.
‘Is all OK, madam – all OK, sir?’ the pot-bellied, double-chinned tour guide enquired.
I was thankful for my mother’s observational skills – skills the Security Service deemed I didn’t possess in an assessment centre years earlier – since Sunil’s deep intake of breath signalled that the hotel’s targeting by Islamists on 26/11 wasn’t the chief reason behind Indians’ interest.
Given the security presence and harassing hawkers on Apollo Bunder, Mumbai, Sunil suggested enlightening us on a ferry. To reach the harbour, which stood a mere hundred-odd feet yet teeming-crowd away, elbows needed to be sharpened. Once there, though, the sound of horn-happy cycle rickshaws was substituted for water slapping against concrete steps.
Looking out at rusting fishing vessels and gleaming super-yachts bobbing on the Arabian Sea, from where nostrils are overcome with the smell of fish and fuel, our gaze was directed beyond pigeons seeking shelter from the blazing sun to the inscription atop of the Gateway of India: “Erected to commemorate the landing in India of their Imperial Majesties King George V and Queen Mary on the Second of December MCMXI”.
With my factor 50 lotion streaming uncontrollably into my eyes, I was grateful for the narration, and we greedily ingested its history of pomp and circumstance. Fast-forwarding to the postcolonial present, Sunil referred to a local lawmaker who’s seeking to decolonise the public space which he interprets as “a symbol of slavery under British rule”.
I was aware of museums (the Prince of Wales and Victoria and Albert), railway station (Victoria Terminus) and the city itself being renamed in the 1990s (though it was the Portuguese who called the place Bom Bahia, or “Good Bay”, which the English pronounced Bombay), but only when a ferry jolted and juddered towards our jetty did it dawn how flawed my thinking was around which the sun purportedly never set: the British Empire. Weighing up the pros and cons is simplistic; put simply, if something has to be rectified in the present (even if by a Hindu nationalist government that challenges the multicultural narrative, dangerously so with regard to Mughal-era name changes), then clearly it wasn’t correct in the past.
The righting of a wrong is central, Sunil recounted upon embarkation, to the construction of the Taj. ‘Its founder Jamsetji Tata was refused entry to the city’s then grandest hotel, on account of being Indian, so built his own!’ Apocryphal or not, this and the fact it hosted legends and architects of the Freedom Movement ensures the 115-year-old premises is beloved by Mumbaikars as well as Mangaloreans, with whom I fleetingly spoke on board.
Looking towards the red-tiled dome of the European-cum-Islamic styled hotel, with only squawking seagulls preventing a picture-postcard vista, I observed Indians taking photos/selfies the same way as before which arguably proffers, I now understood thanks to my mother and Sunil, a contemporary view of empire in microcosm.
No wonder the Pakistani militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba said the Taj was ‘a symbol of … progress’ when claiming responsibility.