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Among the bespoke tailors in stitched-together Mumbai

By Michael Snyder,

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, in white kurta pyjama, the long shirt and loose-fitting pants worn by men across the subcontinent, with a tape measure slung around his neck like a doctor’s stethoscope, 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 past 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. That’s since well before his family emigrated here from up north during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, a geopolitical catastrophe that resulted in one of the greatest human migrations in history and the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Details: Mumbai

Though ready-to-wear and designer clothing have become increasingly popular in India in the past 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 has liberalized, the population has become increasingly brand conscious; designer wear represents luxury and modernity. Before ready-made 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 above them, running directly beneath the open third-story 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 that 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 the trampling feet of more than 20 million people, 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 but 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 although tailors like 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, the best-known tailors tend to cluster around such old-money bastions as 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, the fourth showroom in his family’s 50 years of tailoring.

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 fitting 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 his frequent easy smiles. I ask him whether he can guess my measurements. He looks me in the face for a moment, glances at my shoulders, chest, waist and then rattles off a series of numbers. He checks his numbers against the measure — they’re all exactly right. “I can tell a person’s measurements just from his face,” he says.

“In the ’80s, when ready-made came and was booming, 2,000 tailors were closed down — 2,000,” Ansari says. “So then new people came with a new concept of tailoring.” Faisal explains that tailoring has gravitated toward two poles — the modest neighborhood tailors who survive on alterations and simple work in low-income areas, and luxury tailors like his father and uncle.

“The craftsmen will survive. We are craftsmen,” Hammad says with the utmost seriousness — and a smile.

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 to take over for a few days as a favor. 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 breathe rather than pose for photographs.

Gupta’s father had opened Burlington’s six years before, in 1949. He and his family, like the Shaikhs and so many others in Mumbai, had arrived during the partition, in Gupta’s case fleeing Pakistan at the last moment. “Overnight we became paupers,” Muni Gupta says. They arrived in Bombay after a brief stay 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), Muni Gupta still runs her shop with the authority of a monarch. As we walk through the bright, impeccable showroom, she orders fine linens and woolen 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 such as 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 center of Mumbai. Including both the city proper and a few suburban districts, the city covers just over 230 square miles and is home to about 13 million people, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. (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’s no consensus on the exact number — and some 2 million cars choke the ill-paved roads. The remaining textile mills are now mostly overgrown ruins.

The mill city

At the peak of the textile industry in the 1930s, Bombay had 136 mills employing about 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 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 the two old mill districts of Parel and Lalbaug. From my fourth-floor window, I could see chawls, smokestacks and the sloping gray roofline of the abandoned 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 India United Mill’s smokestack, 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 blue. 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 saris 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 woolen 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 cobblestones 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 kurta, a modern, semi-Westernized adaptation of the traditional knee-length shirt. A typically Bombay combination — traditions stitched one inside the other, consolidated but not quite 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 following the monsoon). An older gentleman laughs as he edges past me to follow his wife. “If you wait,” he says, “you’ll never get by.”

Snyder is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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