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.
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.